Arènes de Lutèce, a 1st century AD Roman amphitheater hidden from street view in the Latin Quarter, is one of the city’s two visible remaining structures from when Rome ruled this swath of Europe and Paris was just a small settlement called Lutetia, or Lutèce.
The arena is the oldest historic monument built in Paris, and is the third largest Roman coliseum in France.
Once, Roman gladiators entertained crowds by fighting wild animals in the amphitheater's center, with as many as 17,000 spectators filling the tiered seating areas rising up along the sloped hillsides.
A 135-foot long stage across one end accommodated theatrical productions and orators.
A circus also took place here - look closely at the rooms at the base of the bleachers, and you’ll see several ground-level spaces where the Romans kept caged animals.
Today, soccer rules.
You’ll almost always see a dozen or so teens keeping a soccer ball in constant motion on the smooth white granite gravel surface.
Older men sometimes play boules (pétanque) over to the side.
The coliseum now lies at the center of a small public park, with grassy slopes, flowering plants, and lots of specimum trees (look closely, and you'll find botanical labels on many).
Parisians gather here for picnics, a stroll among the gardens, or just quiet conversation. They bring their young children to play in the grass.
Few tourists find this hidden treasure, and most Parisians have never been here. You can't see it from nearby streets, and you're not likely to accidentally discover it.
But it's worth the search.
Aside from giving you an amazing glimpse of Roman life in Paris, the Arènes is one of the best places in the city to relax, soak up some sun, and experience life like a real Parisian.
Location: How to Find Arènes de Lutèce
The Roman arena is tucked away in the Latin Quarter, behind the buildings along Rue Monge.
Because Arènes de Lutèce is hidden from view even if you walk right past it, you are unlikely to stumble upon it by accident. However, once you know where to spot the entrances, it is easy to access.
You can enter at three points:
1. 47 Rue Monge - Closest Métro: Cardinal Lemoine
Street-side, look for an unobtrusive arched entrance with Arènes de Lutèce and a Roman helmet carved in the stone over the door. To spot it easily, look for the more visible Hôtel des Arènes sign next door.
You’ll pass through a short passageway between buildings, and then walk up a flight of fairly steep stairs while figuratively stepping back in time.
At the top, the Roman arena stretches out before you with the amphitheater rising around it.
2. Rue de Navarre - Closest Métro: Place Monge
This entrance leads you straight down to the arena, offering a rather dramatic vista.
On Rue de Navarre, look for the open gate in the green wrought-iron fence along the street.
Go straight down a tree-shaded path to go directly into the arena, or follow one of the smaller winding paths to reach the top of the amphitheater in order to look down at the entire expanse.
3. Rue Linné - Closest Métro: Jussieu
Turn off Rue Linné onto Rue des Arènes and almost immediately look on your left for a gate through the green fence leading to a children's playground and a discovery theme garden named L'illusion- this is Square Capitan.
The flights of stone steps that you'll see just beyond the garden lead you up to the grass lawn edging the amphitheater, where you can then look down on the arena.
Surrounded by a small but lovely woodland park filled with flowering plants and trees, Arènes gives you a rare opportunity to see an actual Roman amphitheater outside of Italy and Southern France. Measuring about 433ft x328 ft (132m x 100m), it is an unusual oblong shape and historians believe it may be the largest of its kind built by the Romans.
Much of what you see is not actually original. The Gallo-Roman inhabitants of Lutetia carted off a number of larger stones to fortify Île de la Cité in the 3rd century after Germanic tribes (the "barbarians" mentioned on signs posted around the park) invaded.
During the 1200s, King Phillip II (Philip Augustus) ordered a wall to be built around the city to fortify it against possible English invaders while he fought in the Third Crusade, and as a result, the arena was filled in. (A few remnants of Philip Augustus's medieval wall still remain - you can stroll over to 12 Rue Clovis to see the section closest to the arena.)
Although Parisians continued to call the neighborhood les Arènes, eventually no one remembered the arena’s location until archaeologist Theodore Lacquer discovered its northern end in 1869 during construction of Rue Monge as part of Baron Haussmann’s grand redevelopment scheme for the city,
Over the next half-century, excavations revealed the area you can see today, although buildings along Rue Monge displaced one whole side of the Arènes and other parts were destroyed and then later restored as this part of the city modernized.
The best vantage points for viewing the arena are along the top of the amphitheater, which you can easily reach by any of the meandering paths, or by simply walking around the arena itself.
If you are visiting with teens, encourage them to join the soccer players or just go for a run around the arena.
Younger children? Stake out a spot on the grass for games and a picnic.
Or copy the Parisians - buy a sandwich and drink at a nearby boulangerie, and find a quiet spot to enjoy your lunch and a book. Spend a moment trying to imagine the early Parisians who gathered here for recreation almost 2,000 years ago. Carpe diem!
If your children are a bit older, head to the enclosed playground in Square Capitan located directly behind the Arènes where they can run around and try the slides while you sit on a bench.
An enclosed grassy area gives them the perfect place to run.
Even better, attend the popular Bal des Pompiers (Firemen's Ball) held at Arènes to celebrate Bastille Day.
Paris Discovery Tip:
More to See & Do near Arènes de Lutèce
Jardin des Plantes: Visit the Paris Zoo and Museum of Natural History. Explore the Botanical Garden and the maze. About 1 block away on Rue Linné.
Arab World Institute: Admire the superb art collection housed in Joan Nouvel's striking building. Sip mint tea and nibble on Lebanese pastries on the 9th floor restaurant terrace overlooking Paris rooftops and the Notre Dame (3pm-6pm). 1 Rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard.
Place de la Contrescarpe: Channel the spirit of Ernest Hemingway and other 20th century writers in this picturesque Latin Quarter plaza. Hemingway and fellow American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald hung out here; George Orwell lived nearby on Rue de Pot du Fer when he wrote Down and Out in Paris and London. Intersection of Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, Rue Mouffetard, Rue Blainville, Rue Lacépède.
Bus: 47, 67, 89
Hotels near Arènes de Lutèce - Where to Stay
Two attractive 3-star Paris boutique hotels close to the Arena's Rue Monge entrance offer moderate rates, personalized service, air conditioning, and excellent value in this lovely, quiet corner of the 5th arrondissement.
Their Latin Quarter location close to the Arènes, Paris Zoo, other nearby attractions, and 2 Métro stops also puts them only a 10-minute walk from Notre Dame, the Pantheon, and Luxembourg Garden. Both hotels serve breakfast.
Hôtel des Arènes (51, Rue Monge), located next to the arena entrance, has 52 comfortably furnished guestrooms. For a special experience, reserve a room at the back overlooking the area - some even feature small balconies.
Hôtel des Nations Saint-Germain (54, Rue Monge) offers 36 rooms (including a few hard-to-find quadruples and triples) recently renovated in a chic, contemporary style. An honesty bar is offered from 2pm on.
Find more Paris hotels and apartments in the Latin Quarter:
Where to Eat near Arènes de Lutèce
Rue Monge and other streets surrounding the arena are full of appealing cafés, boulangeries, markets, and bistros attracting mainly Parisians. You can buy sandwiches, fruit, and wine for a picnic, or enjoy an inexpensive meal.
Just a couple of blocks farther, however, you'll find Place de la Contrescarpe made famous by Hemingway, James Joyce, George Orwell, and other 20th century writers. Here, you'll find plenty of tourists clustered around numerous cafes and bistros, as well as clothing boutiques and souvenir shops.