How could you not feel inspired to crack open a book or notebook in Paris? After all, so many authors wrote some of their best work while living in the City of Light; you can feel their creative energy pulsing out of every corner of the city. We asked French authors, authors who’ve written about France’s luminaries, and well-traveled authors to share their favorite places to read and write in Paris (and beyond). Some answers put these authors in the shoes of their forebears, browsing the stacks at Shakespeare and Company for a sign of James Joyce’s workspace, or raising a martini to Ernest Hemingway at the Paris Ritz. But others find more unusual inspiration spots, from gardens to churches to cemeteries. Keep these reading and writing nooks in mind for your next trip!
Shakespeare and Company
Shakespeare and Company, nestled on the Seine, should be on every bibliophile’s bucket list. Fittingly enough, it’s on the hallowed grounds of a monastery, and founder George Whitman saw his role as nothing short of spiritual when it came to fostering a love of words. In his efforts to carry on the pre-War literary community that was nurtured by Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare the store has counted Allen Ginsberg, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin among its patrons. Today, it still boasts an impressive calendar of events, floor-to-ceiling shelves, ladders and nooks, and pre-worn titles that are stocked with care—and a helpful staff that also lets customers get lost. —Mary Pilon, author of The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game
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Église de Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption
My favorite place to read in Paris is on the steps of a church like the Église de Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption on Rue St. Honore, near the Place Vendome. There are many quiet places like this in Paris—wide limestone steps where you can stop and watch the city pass you by, or picnic in the shade, or read a book. —Luke Barr, author of Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste
Le Pavillon des Canaux
My favorite place to read or write in Paris, without hesitation, is my own bed. But since I am a bit reluctant to share it, even with readers, I only can recommend here an original and charming coffee shop called Le Pavillon des Canaux, at the edge of the Bassin de la Villette. It looks and feels like a private house where you can choose to sit at the kitchen table with your computer or slouch in a sofa in the living-room or lie down in one of the lovely bedrooms upstairs or even… yes, have a drink in the antique bathtub—provided you take off your shoes! —Nelly Alard, author of Couple Mechanics
When I am in Paris I like to explore, follow my eye or nose, get lost, and find my way home again. I take a backpack that contains something I don’t usually read (a French newspaper, say, or a graphic novel), a notebook, pens and colored pencils, my cell phone, water, and a bit of chocolate. I will walk up the hill to Sacré-Cœur to look over the city, wander around the tombstones in Père Lachaise cemetery, or stroll the lesser-known bridges that span the Seine. After several hours my feet will start to complain, and I will search out a cafe (I prefer the out-of-the-way, the unusual-looking, the unfancy), or sit on a cool shady bench in the Palais Royal Park (which Julia and Paul Child used to frequent). There, I will read, sketch, people-watch, and daydream. Rested, I’ll start walking again. That’s my idea of a perfect day in Paris. —Alex Prud’homme, co-author of Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, and the forthcoming The French Chef in America
Père Lachaise Cemetery
I’ve long had a weird thing for cemeteries, including as peaceful, outdoor writing spots, and Père Lachaise Cemetery never disappoints. If possible, go before the tourists arrive and have some quiet to pay respects to Marcel Proust, Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. Goes well with poetry and, if possible, a sweet or croissant tucked into your bag. —Mary Pilon
My favorite place to read books in Paris is also one of my favorite places to buy them: Merci, a coffee shop-slash-concept store in the fashionable 11th arrondissement. In the same place, you can buy designer sunglasses, have a coffee and croissant, pick up a used book, and gawk over gorgeous, outrageously expensive housewares. The best section? The perfectly named “Cocooning,” where you can pick up sweatshirts, scented candles, and other accessories perfect for a night at home, curled up with a book. —Lilit Marcus, author of Save the Assistants
Île de la Cité
My favorite place to read in Paris—and one of my favorite places generally for walking—is on the Île de la Cité. Most tourists gravitate towards Notre-Dame and spend their time in or near the cathedral. I prefer to head to the Place Dauphine, a small green space on the western end of the island that André Breton once dubbed “le sexe de Paris” because of its triangular shape. Notwithstanding naughty surrealist references, the Place Dauphine is surrounded by houses originally built in the early 1600s, and has benches that are perfect for reading or just whiling away the afternoon beneath leafy green branches. And if you get bored with the view there, you can head out to the Pont Neuf and down to the Square du Vert-Galant, where you can sit and watch the Seine go by. —Kathe Lison, author of The Whole Fromage
Pilon Room (The Louvre)
Because the Pilon branch of my family tree has been in the U.S. for many generations, my knowledge of my French last name is long remained a mystery to me. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find amid the masterpieces and visitor chaos in the Louvre, a room containing the work of Germain Pilon (c. 1525-1590). I have no idea what, if any, connection exists, but I love to curl up near his work with reading or writing in a lower-peak visiting time, especially if it’s raining outside. What are museums if not collections of work from hands of the past, reaching out to grab us now? —Mary Pilon
Hôtel Ritz Paris
Truman Capote once said that “Life is very dark and very bleak. That’s why we all need to drink champagne and stay at the Ritz.” It’s a show of uncharacteristic humility that Capote didn’t say you should read his works while you were at the Paris Ritz, but I’ll say it for him. You can do so in the Ritz bar, where Scott and Zelda used to hang out, while drinking champagne from a cellar that was liberated from the Nazis by Ernest Hemingway. There’s no better place to read than a place where the spirits of writers are all practically hovering over you. To read in this hotel is to feel inserted into their works. And if your reading inspires you to pick up a pen, then, personally, I find the martini at the Bar Hemingway pretty inspiring. —Jennifer Wright, author of It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History and Get Well Soon: Horrible Plagues and the Heroes That Fought Them
If you venture outside of Paris, French author Michèle Halberstadt has a suggestion of a little-known place to find writing inspiration:
My favorite place to write is my house on an island called Yeu, which is across Nantes, in the West of France.
You can go there by boat, or, if you’re in a hurry, by helicopter.
It’s a very small island, where most people go about riding their bicycles.
I write in my study, sitting at my desk, facing a window overlooking my garden.
My desk is a small one, it nearly looks like a school desk. It’s small, old, and painted in a sort of dark, grayish blue.
It has just the right space for me to put my computer.
I love to write at night, when the house is sleeping.
But honestly, I can write anywhere, as long as I have my headphones, so I can hear my music.
This allows me to be by myself anywhere, even if I’m surrounded with people. Music is my way to get into myself, and forget what’s around.
So just give me a chair, a table, my computer, and my favorite music. Then all I need is a good espresso… And to be inspired. —Michèle Halberstadt, author of Mon Amie Américaine
Illustrations by France Belleville-Van Stone
France Belleville Van-Stone is a self-taught French artist who loved cars and drawing as a child. As an adult, she studied English instead of going to art school, and became a public school teacher. She has been living and teaching full-time in the U.S. since late 2004. She is the author of Sketch!: The Non-Artist’s Guide to Inspiration, Technique, and Drawing Daily Life.