Constance M, A Well-Read Wanderer
Off-the-beaten-path Paris: free literary sites to escape the crowds
Everyone knows to visit the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but what about non touristy things to do in Paris? For fans of literary travel, I’m here with 6 unusual things to do in Paris, and best of all, they’re all free!
I’ve been traveling all around Europe for the last year and scoping out the best literary destinations along the way. I’ve already written about the best bookstores to check out in Paris, so now it’s time to talk about Paris’s rich literary history.
Paris was the muse and the location that nurtured many famous writers throughout the years. Most famously, during the 1920s, American writers flocked to Paris to escape Prohibition. In Paris, they found the freedom to drink, yes, but they also found like-minded individuals who encouraged, challenged, and nurtured them. Authors like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote some of their most famous books while living in Paris.
But that’s not to overlook the incredible literary history connected to Paris and French writers. In this post, we will walk in the footsteps of such French writers as Victor Hugo, Simone de Beauvoir, and Marcel Proust.
Using this post as your guide, you can easily build your own Paris literary tour chock full of free, mostly off-the-beaten-path Paris sites.
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As always, this post may contain affiliate links, which means at no additional cost to you, shopping from them may generate small commissions to support the operations of this blog. I’ll never show up just to peddle a product!
Whenever possible, I recommend buying books at local bookshops or through Bookshop.org, because shopping there puts the profits right into the hands of indie bookstores all over the country.
Victor Hugo Museum
If you’re a fan of French literature, then the Victor Hugo museum in Paris is a must-visit literary destination.
You’ll find the Victor Hugo house on one corner of the trendy Place des Vosges, a beautiful Paris square that’s well preserved from the 17th century. When Hugo moved in in 1832, it was not an apartment but the second floor of a hotel.
Victor Hugo lived in this Paris apartment for 16 years, the longest he stayed at any residence during a relatively nomadic life. The Victor Hugo house has been restored to resemble how it likely did at the time of Hugo’s residence, according to eye witness accounts, letters, and memoirs.
Hugo had a very pronounced interior decorating style, and it was anything but understated. He sought out ornate, antique furniture and highly patterned wallpapers and carpets. The effect is somewhat dizzying at times. Readers who have loved his works such as Les Misérables will enjoy seeing where one of France’s most famous writers lived and worked, and learning more about his personal history.
The Victor Hugo house is a great free museum in Paris and a must-visit for those interested in literary travel. Plus, visiting will definitely help you escape the heavy tourist crowds at more popular Paris sites.
Musée Carnavalet for fans of Marcel Proust and Gertrude Stein
The Musée Carnavalet is a cool and free non-touristy thing to do in Paris. It’s actually the oldest City of Paris museum, open since 1880, and housed inside the Carnavalet Mansion. True to Paris style, the architecture alone is worth seeing, but it’s especially worth a visit for those interested in literary travel.
This free Paris museum is dedicated to telling the history of the City of Paris. You’ll find all kinds of exhibits in this labyrinthine museum and learn a ton about Paris history while you do. For fans of literature, there are two main literary attractions in this Paris museum:
Gertrude Stein’s desk
Gertrude Stein was one of the most famous and influential literary figures in Paris during the 1920s. She ran a series of salons, in which she guided and encouraged such writers as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, in addition to writing herself. She also encouraged artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Gertrude Stein was a powerful influence in Paris’s artistic scene, and it’s quite impressive to see the large, wooden desk on which she did her important and enduring work.
Marcel Proust’s bed
One of the highlights of the Musée Carnavalet, and a well-kept Paris secret, is Marcel Proust’s bed, from which he wrote In Search of Lost Time. You’ll find it in a recreation of Prousts’s bedroom with his original furniture and his own handwriting projected onto a screen above the room.
Proust suffered from several chronic illnesses and famously preferred to write in bed. In fact, he lived most of his life in bed. Along with Prousts’s bedroom, you’ll see his famous fur-trimmed coat and other small items he owned on display.
James Baldwin’s Paris stomping grounds
Among the many American writers who flocked to Paris in the roaring 20s was African-American author James Baldwin. At the age of 24, he famously arrived in Paris with only $40 in his pocket, wanting to escape the rampant racism he faced in America. In Paris, he found the freedom to write, as well as to explore his sexuality as a gay man.
“It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France — it was a matter of getting out of America.”
James Baldwin’s Paris years consisted of a series of stays in various cheap hotels, mostly located in St.-Germain on the left bank. During his time in Paris, Baldwin wrote many books, including Go Tell It On a Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, and Another Country.
While living in Paris, James Baldwin rented an apartment in the artsy St. Germain neighborhood. To get a feel for James Baldwin’s Paris, walk the Rue de Verneuil, a street where Baldwin stayed frequently.
Paris literary cafes
Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore have been rival cafes on Paris’s left bank for more than 100 years. Both were founded in the 1890s and can boast impressive lists of literary patrons. If you're looking for a free activity to do in Paris that's steeped in Paris history, you can walk by and check out these cafes, or you can swallow the high price tags and stay for a meal.
Because of their notoriety, both of these cafes are both popular and expensive; visitors should expect to wait in line for a table and to pay close to double the normal Paris cafe price for food. Still, Paris cafe culture is such an important part of any real Parisian experience, so why not pass a couple of hours here, where some of Paris’s literary greats have sat and worked?
Les Deux Magots
Les Deux Magots can boast of such literary patrons as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. I had the privilege of eating lunch here on a sunny August afternoon, and while the prices are undeniably higher than less famous places, I will say the food was delicious.
Café de Flore
Café de Flore is hard to miss, located prominently on the corner of the Blvd St.-Germain and the Rue St.-Benoît.
Rival of Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore has also attracted its fair share of writers over the years. James Baldwin wrote his first novel, Go Tell it On the Mountain, on the second floor of Café de Flore. Other famous patrons include Pablo Picasso, André Breton, and Simone de Beauvoir.
Shakespeare & Company, Paris bookstore
Paris’s Shakespeare and Company bookstore is without question the most famous bookstore in Paris, and it likely ranks among the most famous bookstores in the world. Admittedly, this site is not quite "off the beaten track in Paris;" this bookstore sees swarms of visitors every day, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an opportunity to visit that doesn’t require you to wait in a lengthy line of people.
While the crowds hardly make for ideal book browsing conditions, Shakespeare and Company bookstore does have some significant literary history that still makes it a worthwhile literary site in Paris.
The original Shakespeare and Company was opened by Sylvia Beach (at a different location) and became a literary meetingplace for writers like Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Its history, rather than the experience of shopping there, is what earns it a place on this list of free Paris literary sites and on my list of the best Paris bookstores.
Paris bookstores & bouquinistes
If you’re looking for non touristy Paris things to do, browsing for books in the many English language Paris bookshops is a great respite from the crowds. Shakespeare and Company is an undeniably touristy option, but there are so many more Paris bookshops worth checking out where you won’t be waiting in line or fighting crowds to get in.
Plus, the Paris bouquinistes have a long and storied history in Paris. You can read more about it on my post dedicated to Paris bookstores.
Finding Accommodations in Paris
As you look for somewhere to stay in Paris, I recommend checking for lodging on Hotels.com. I almost always book my accommodations through Hotels.com, because you can earn rewards for every night you stay without having to choose only one hotel chain to be loyal to. You can even book locally owned aparthotels and bed and breakfasts.
Paris has no shortage of literary sites. Although I've been many times, I know there's always more to explore. What other literary sites should I put on my list for my next visit? Drop them in the comments!
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