Everyone knows Paris is called the City of Lights. But what sort of lights? In French, the word for light, lumière, also refers to understanding, knowledge, wisdom, and insight. The “lights” in the City of Lights aren’t lamps, but intellectuals, scientists, great thinkers, writers, artists, and revolutionaries. Since the 13th century, these have been the “lights” Paris is famous for, and their brightness continues to attract like-minded people from all over the world.
With centuries’ worth of literary history to draw from, it would be impossible to even scratch the surface of a bibliophile’s Paris in a single post—this the kind of topic people have written entire books on. So instead, I’m going to narrow the focus of this post to the 19th century, the Paris of revolution and renovation, when the new started to outstrip the old.
It’s not hard to stumble across literary destinations in Paris, especially if you want to walk the sites of your favorite 19th century novels. Many of the typical strolls tourists take through the city are already famously captured in literature: Notre Dame Cathedral from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Jardin du Luxembourg from Les Miserables, the site of the former Palais des Tuileries from A Tale of Two Cities (now a lovely park), and the Champs-Élysées, Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre—all which are featured in the novels of Honoré de Balzac—just to name a few. But what if you want to dig deeper and hit a few places a bit off the beaten path? The following museums, locations, and restaurants will make you feel like you’re walking in the footsteps of Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Balzac, George Sand, and the characters they wrote about (cuz, you know—you are).
In the 19th century this former palace was an apartment building that was home to Baudelaire and Theophile Gautier, among other writers. Baudelaire started his famous book of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal, while living in the top floor apartment (the one with the wrought iron balcony). The same apartment also hosted meetings of the Club des Haschichins (aka, Club of the Hashish Eaters). This is a legit avant-garde landmark, a must-visit for every flâneur.
I love historic homes, and Paris has a lot of them, especially when it comes to 19th century writers. The Maison de Victor Hugo is a museum dedicated to the writer that’s set up in an apartment he rented from 1832 to 1848. It’s laid out so as to take you through his life and works, and the decor is amazing. The museum also houses Hugo’s Salon Chinois, his collection of Asian art that’s displayed as he originally set it up.
I like cheesy tourist spots as much as the next person, but if you’re going to hit the Moulin Rouge, why not also visit an actual avant-garde cabaret while you’re at it? The Auberge Etchegorry was once a scandalous cabaret owned by “Lady Gregory” and frequented by poets and writers like Hugo and Pierre-Jean de Béranger. Now it’s an absolutely charming café with rustic charm that specializes in the cuisine of southwest France.
This historic house at the foot of Montmartre is dedicated to the romantic movement—specifically, to one of the most important writers of the 19th century, George Sand. The permanent exhibition is filled with artifacts from Sand’s life, including a mold made of her hand by one of her lovers, Frederic Chopin. The house is surrounded by gorgeous gardens that will make you feel like you’re in the countryside when you’re still in the heart of Paris.
The Comédie-Française was one of the most important theaters in Paris and a center of literature, society, and politics in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Here you could—and still can—see works written by or based on books by Molière, Jean-Baptiste Racine, Stendhal, Balzac and Émile Zola. In addition to the theater’s rich history, they house a library and host literary events.
This Michelin-starred restaurant first opened in 1784, and in the 19th century was a favorite hangout of the literary elite. Hugo frequently dined here with his buddies, ordering the same dish every time: vermicelli noodles, mutton and white beans. You won’t be able to order that if you dine here now, but you can sit at the “Hugo table,” which has a view of the courtyard.
If the entire chapter Hugo devoted to the Paris sewers in Les Mis just wasn’t enough for you, you can get a more up close and personal sense of what Jean Valjean experienced when escaped into the pre-Haussmann Parisian sewers at this museum. Or, just visit the museum and skip the chapter in the book entirely!
Balzac rented the top floor of this house under an assumed name to escape his creditors, and wrote some his most famous works here. As you might expect considering he was skint, the building is modest in size, as is the museum’s collection. The main attraction is the museum library on the ground floor, which has numerous first editions of Balzac’s work, his manuscripts, plus various ephemera like newspapers, paintings, and engravings.