Most Parisians define themselves as Left Bank or Right Bank – but what about the islands in-between? Steeped in history, the Ile de la Cité and Ile St-Louis are great places to explore, eat and stay
There is something fascinatingly other-worldly about the Ile de la Cité and Ile St-Louis in Paris. Because they are in the very heart of the city, I cross over them frequently by bus or on foot, sometimes stopping only long enough to watch the tourist boats and the barges laden with sand or old iron chugging past. On other occasions, though, I can't resist pausing to savour their unique atmosphere.
Ile de la Cité
Settled by ancient tribes, ransacked by Vikings and home to the first medieval palace, the Ile de la Cité exudes Parisian history. For all its famous tourist sights, though, it is still very much a working part of the capital, being the hub of France's legal system with its main police station and Paris's oldest hospital. On boulevard de la Cité, where the former palace complex sits behind ornate iron railings, you will find a double queue: one to watch court cases at the Palais de Justice, the other for the Gothic Sainte-Chapelle (http://sainte-chapelle.monuments-nationaux.fr). Despite the crowds, this double-decker chapel is a magical place with its star-painted vaulting below and jewel-like 13th-century stained glass above.
A few doors up, the Conciergerie (http://conciergerie.monuments-nationaux.fr) is less well-known but equally worth a visit, both for its vast vaulted Gothic halls and the fact that, for me at least, it really brings the French Revolution alive. Used as a prison during the Terror, its inmates included Marie-Antoinette, whose cell is now a chapel. Other cells have been reconstructed: communal cells for the poor, individual furnished ones for the more privileged. Then take a detour past the medieval Tour de l'Horloge clocktower and along the river to the western end of the island, where an equestrian statue of Henri IV stands in the middle of Pont-Neuf. Steps lead down to a small tranquil garden, popular for picnics in summer or for taking boat trips with Vedettes de Pont-Neuf.
This should bolster you for the throngs admiring the Gothic facade and sculpted doorways of Notre Dame Cathedral, at last free from scaffolding after decades of restoration. The interior is rather gloomy but impressive with its long nave, rose windows and numerous side chapels. For more surprising Gothic encounters, however, I recommend climbing the towers (http://notre-dame-de-paris.monuments-nationaux.fr). After a steep climb up the north tower (be prepared to queue), you walk across the front of the cathedral itself past winged chimaeras – fantastical beasts, for the most part 19th-century reconstructions by Viollet-le-Duc – and up the south tower to the rooftop, past the massive Bourdon bell. This very Quasimodo experience is much more Charles Laughton than Disney and is rewarded by vertiginous views over the city.
Before leaving the island, walk through the park beside the cathedral to the eastern tip where, in a small garden, a staircase descends into the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. The architecture of geometrical roughened white concrete and iron bars by Georges-Henri Pingusson provides a powerful setting for this memorial to the thousands of Jews, communists, homosexuals, gypsies and resistants deported from France during World War Two.
Ile St-Louis is right next to the Ile de la Cité (and you can cross from one to the other by the Pont St-Louis footbridge, providing a great view of Notre Dame's spindly flying buttresses) but its atmosphere and history are totally different. This island is more like a timewarp slice of the 17th century, with its elegant stone façades and wrought-iron balconies, adorning what is now some of the most expensive property in Paris.
Running like a thread through the island, rue St-Louis-en-l'Ile is busy with restaurants and small shops, many of them excellent gift territory. Buy colourful gadgets at Pylones, chocolates at Cacao et Chocolat, olive oil from Oliviers et Cie, Provençal soaps and beauty products from Occitane and Durance en Provence. At No 31, Berthillon is considered Paris's best ice-cream maker. I'm not sure I quite understand the Berthillon obsession, but you can sample its natural-flavoured ice creams and sorbets for yourself (beware it has the peculiar habit of closing during the school holidays, but you can find its ice cream at several other cafés on the island).
Where to eat
If booking from the UK, prefix the phone numbers below with 00 33 and omit the first zero.
Mon Vieil Ami (01 40 46 01 35, mon-vieil-ami.com; closed Mon and Tue) at 69 rue St-Louis-en-l'Ile is one of my favourite places to eat in Paris. What's more, it is open on Sundays when many of the city's best bistros are not. Opened by renowned Strasbourg chef Antoine Westermann, it serves very good modernised regional cooking (three courses for €41) in a rather chic black-and-white interior, with tightly packed tables down one side and a high communal table at the other.
I also have a soft spot for the Brasserie de l'Isle St-Louis (01 43 54 02 59; closed Wed) at 55 quai de Bourbon on account of its rustic Alsatian style, amusing waiters and eclectic mix of tourists and Parisians. Come here for tankards of beer and choucroute garnie (sauerkraut topped with ham hock and sausages).
On Ile de la Cité, recent arrival Quai Quai (01 46 33 69 75) at 74 quai des Orfèvres attracts a young, trendy crowd into a dining room curiously panelled with old doors. It's quite pricey at night, but good value at lunchtime for its menu inspired by the daily market nearby.
Where to stay
For a taste of the rarefied Ile-St-Louis lifestyle, the Hôtel de Lutèce at 65 rue St-Louis-en-l'Ile has kept a sense of Louis XIII period style in the beautiful panelled salon with beams, old tiles and stone fireplace, while updating bedrooms with lloyd loom chairs and modern bathrooms. Double rooms €195. The same owners also run the Hôtel des Deux-Iles at No 59. Hidden behind a massive doorway at No 54, Hôtel du Jeu de Paume is an unusual, romantic place to stay, with bedrooms opening off a spectacular half-timbered former jeu de paume or real tennis court.