With its monuments, Gothic churches and bookshops, the old university district of Paris is a tourist trap. Delve deeper, and find a place where Parisians actually live. Here’s how to enjoy it in a day
Discovering the Latin Quarter is like a game of reading between the lines: there is the public face of its monuments (the massive domed Panthéon, burial place for the nation’s great men; the elite lycées and Sorbonne university; the mythic Paris of Hemingway, Joyce and Orwell, of carousing students and May ’68) but there are also the insider addresses of a district that is intensely lived-in, with its street markets and families who have lived here for generations. Sometimes the two even coincide: the ancient Roman arena is where local kids play football and tag after school. As with anywhere else in the city, take the opportunity to poke your nose through open doorways or wander into small squares to discover hidden gardens, former monasteries and chunks of medieval city wall. Here is how to spend your day.
10am: Start with a trip to the market, a good way to observe the quartier’s inhabitants. If it is Wednesday, Friday or Sunday morning, head to place Monge, where at many food stalls you buy direct from local producers, several of them organic. You will also find specialists in olives, Alpine hams and cheeses, and foie gras. On other days (except Mondays), wander down rue Mouffetard, where the stalls are more conventional but the street has lots of interesting old shop fronts.
12.30pm: Lunch with the locals at Le Salon du Panthéon (+33 1 56 24 88 80, www.cinemadupantheon.fr; average €30 a head), created in 2007 above the Cinéma du Panthéon at 13 rue Victor-Cousin. It’s a select spot for film buffs, PR people and ladies who lunch, where you sit on old sofas and poufs found at flea markets by Catherine Deneuve. Or try Le Pré Verre (+33 1 43 54 59 47, www.lepreverre.com), near the illustrious Collège de France, where the welcome can be offhand but chef Philippe Delacourcelle’s creative use of spices and bargain €13.50 lunch formule draw an interesting cross-section of the population. Reservation for both advised.
3pm: Culture fix. Laid out over a Gothic mansion, the Musée National du Moyen-Age (+33 1 53 73 78 00, www.musee-moyenage.fr), at 6 place Paul Painlevé, is perhaps Paris’s most overlooked major museum, yet its building alone captures the history of the Latin Quarter – one half medieval townhouse of the Abbots of Cluny, the other half the impressive remains of a Roman baths complex. Inside is a treasure trove of Limoges enamels, Nottingham alabasters, original sculptures from Notre-Dame and the captivating Lady and the Unicorn tapestry cycle. The Collège des Bernardins (www.collegedesbernardins.fr), at 20 rue de Poissy, was founded in 1245 to train Cistercian monks before becoming first a prison, later a fire station after the French Revolution. Now beautifully restored, its 70m-long refectory is a forest of spindly Gothic vaulting, home to a café and interesting contemporary art exhibitions.
6.30pm: Aperitif time. Join the quarter’s students for a happy hour cocktail (5.30-7.30pm) at Le Petit Café (+33 1 44 07 35 69; 6 rue Descartes). Cross the square for a glass of wine at Les Pipos (+33 1 43 54 11 40, www.les-pipos.com; 2 rue de l’Ecole-Polytechnique). Most wines are vins naturels, without sulphates or additives.
8pm: Dinner. Head for Les Papilles (+33 1 43 25 20 79) at 30 rue Gay-Lussac, where the daily menu includes a long-simmered main course – veal shanks or chicken with peppers, say – which you serve yourself from an iron casserole. Menu €31. Or try Itinéraires (+33 1 46 33 60 11) at 5 rue de Pontoise, where Sylvain Senda – a hotly tipped young chef – reinvents regional dishes: unusual varieties of radish, a deconstructed lemon meringue tart. Menus €18 (lunch), €29, €34.
10pm: By day, Square Tino Rossi, on the riverside, is a landscaped promenade and sculpture park. On summer nights (mid-June to September) it becomes an unlikely nightspot, scene of an outdoor milonga or tango ball (www.tangomaniaque.fr). Dancing starts at about 8.30pm and goes on until midnight; on Sunday afternoons, there are demonstrations of electro-tinged Tango Nuevo and classes for beginners.
Hôtel Design de la Sorbonne
This longstanding Latin Quarter address had a designer makeover in 2008 in witty neo-Baroque mood, with acid-coloured stripes and damasks, and iMacs in every room. Doubles from €100.
Hôtel du Levant
This comfortable, good-value, family-run hotel is an agreeable find in the heart of the Latin Quarter tourist scrum. Some rooms have tacky murals, others have been cheerfully redone in clashing pinks and reds. Doubles €100-€160.
Hôtel des Grandes Ecoles
A provincial gem, down a private drive with spacious rooms around a garden where you can breakfast in summer. Doubles €115-€140.
Hôtel des Grands Hommes
A sophisticated hotel with elegant neo-classical decor overlooking the great men buried in the Panthéon. Doubles from €100.