Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Odéon and the Latin Quarter
Free thinkers and fashionistas on the south side of the Seine
To many first-time visitors – especially those from the States – the Latin Quarter can be a big disappointment. Countless books have led them to believe that the area is somehow the quintessence of Paris, and they come with their heads stuffed with expat writers – Orwell, Hemingway, Henry Miller – only to find a touristy jam of bad restaurants and uninspiring shops. Granted, many of the narrow, crooked streets (like the Marais, the Latin Quarter was another part of Paris largely untouched by Haussman) are charming, and there are some real architectural glories, especially ecclesiastical ones; but the crowds can make the experience of seeing them dispiriting.
Like the Latin Quarter, St-Germian-des-Prés is another area that no longer quite lives up to its legend: these days, it's more sartorial than Sartrian. In the middle third of the 20th century the area was prime arts and intello territory, a place known as much for its high jinks as its lofty thinking: the haunt of Picasso, Giacometti, Camus, Prévert and, bien sûr, the Bonnie and Clyde of French philosophy, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; the hotspot of the Paris jazz boom after World War II; and the heart of the Paris book trade. This is where the cliché of café terrace intellectualising was coined, but nowadays most of the local patrons of the Flore and the Deux Magots are in the fashion business, and couturiers have largely replaced publishers. Never mind: it's a smart and attractive part of the city to wander around in, and also has some very good restaurants.