Paris is a city with a rich literary history. The City of Lights has been the stomping grounds of literary greats like Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas as well as countless other (French and non-French) writers. The so-called “Lost Generation,” a term coined by Gertrude Stein and used by Ernest Hemingway to describe his fellow American expat writers who landed up in Paris after World War I, made the city a literary icon for Americans, too. The Lost writers penned their future masterpieces in the city’s hotels, drank copious amounts of coffee in its cafes and heatedly debated in its bars. Below are eight literary destinations to visit the next time you’re in Paris.
Located on the quai d’Anjou on the Ile Saint-Louis, Hôtel de Lauzun has quite the interesting past. It was owned by members of the aristocracy until the French Revolution, at which point it was divided up into apartments. In 1843, bibliophile Jerome Pichon rented out some upstairs apartments in the hotel to the writer Charles Baudelaire, who wrote the poems of Les Fleurs du Mal here. Baudelaire also founded his legendary “Club of the Hashish Eaters,” which included Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, in the Lazun.
Since opening in the late-19th century, various writers have imbibed libations at Les Deux Magots. Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright and James Joyce all patronized this cafe, and it has such a strong literary association that it gives out the Deux Magots literary prize every year. Located in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres neighborhood, you can enjoy a glass of wine of the terrace and toast to the literary greats who once drank here.
You’ll find Shakespeare and Company in the Fifth Arrondissement. It may seem like just another bookstore, but the shop has a compelling literary history. The original Shakespeare and Company was built in the ‘20s and served as a gathering place for Hemingway, Fitzgerald and their friends. When literary publishers proved too squeamish to put out James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, Shakespeare and Co. owner and founder Sylvia Beach had a special edition printed and bound. It closed during World War II, and when it reopened in the ‘50s, it was frequented by members of the Beat Generation such as Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Today, it’s filled with new and antique books as well as a free reading library open to the public.
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You’ll find the Comédie-Française, the oldest active theater in the world, in the Palais Royal at 2 rue de Richelieu. Some of France’s most revered dramatic works were performed here, including the works of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière. In fact, the theater is so closely associated with his work that Comédie-Française called the “House of Molière.” Other playwrights’ work that was performed here include Jean Racine, Honoré de Balzac and Emile Zola.
Founded in the late 1600s, Le Procope is the oldest cafe in Paris. It has also served as the gathering place of French novelists from Voltaire to Paul Verlaine—not to mention Americans like Benjamin Franklin, who legend has it wrote part of the U.S. Constitution here while serving as Ambassador to France. Since it was first established across the street from the Comédie-Française theater, it became known as the theatrical cafe. Located in the Sixth Arrondissement, you can take in the gilded surroundings of the same cafe that literary luminaries frequented as you enjoy seafood platters with a French flare as well as go-to classics like calf’s head.
On the boulevard du Montparnasse, you’ll find La Closerie des Lilas—a triple threat cafe, restaurant and brasserie. Poets Paul Fort, Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire gathered here to read their work. At night, it was the meeting place of American writers such as Henry Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Plus, you can do some excellent people-watching on the terrace, where Fitzgerald allegedly showed the manuscript of The Great Gatsby to Ernest Hemingway.
Located on the cross between the Boulevard des Capucines and Place de l’Opéra, Café de la Paix originally opened in 1862 in service to the Grand-Hôtel de la Paix. Its literary connections grew as writers began to patronize the cafe—Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Jules Massenet…the list goes on. The Canadian poet Robert Service even used the cafe as the setting for his poem ”The Absinthe Drinkers”.
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For a taste of Paris’ modern literary scene, head over to Maison de la Poésie, located in the Theater Molière. Officially called the Maison de la Poésie – Literary Scene since the end of 2012, the works of such contemporary writers as Don DeLillo, Luis Sepulveda and Marie Ndiaye have all been performed here. Performances take place in settings ranging from intimate gathering spaces of 40 seats to an Italian style hall with 166 seats.
Dylan Hill is a freelance writer currently based in Los Angeles.