Although a soaring 11th-century tower makes Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés a familiar landmark in Paris's chic 6th arrondissement, you may feel tempted to walk by this relatively modest parish church without looking inside. That would be a mistake.
Built in 990 and 1010, Saint-Germain-des-Prés is the oldest church in Paris. Despite its rich historical treasures, it continues to offer masses and other religious services. It is also the site of several popular events: year-round classical concerts, a summer fair, and an upscale Christmas Market. You can even join a tour to view its most historical treasures.
Walk around the church's exterior, and you'll notice Romanesque details as well as some of the earliest 12th-century Gothic features still in existence in Paris: massive flying buttresses, a vaulted choir area at the back, and a pointed medieval roof over the tower's belfry.
But you have to go inside for a truly jaw-dropping experience. Thanks to a recent deep cleaning to remove layers and layers of grime, the church's interior almost vibrates with color. Look around, and you'll see spectacular 19th-century murals, elaborately decorated columns, and overhead, a deep-blue vaulted ceiling covered with 3,000 golden stars.
That's just the beginning of the vast quantity of art, ornamentation, and decorative details spanning a millennium. Look for thousand-year-old stained glass windows, 11th and 12th-century frescoes, stone carvings, and numerous paintings. A small chapel dates back to the 6th century, while an unadorned modern altar pays homage to the present.
This article describes a variety of ways for you to experience the Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church, including classical concerts, free guided tours (in French), and what to look for if you visit on your own. Guided tours of the Latin Quarter give you a fun way to see the church and other top attractions. The Saint-Germain Christmas Market and Summer Fair along the side of the church provide an entertaining mix of food and shopping.
And finally, we include a short history timeline for Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the rich and powerful Benedictine Abbey founded in 542 to which it belonged, and the church's role in one of the Reign of Terror's bloodiest massacres.
Top photo: Newly restored colors in Saint-Germain-des-Prés's Lady Chapel
What to See & Do at Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés
Classical Concerts at Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church: Schedules & Tickets
Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés offers wonderful ticketed and free classical, secular, and religious music concerts popular with Paris visitors and Parisians. Vivaldi's Four Seasons and other chamber music from the Baroque period are perennial favorites. For a special treat, get tickets to the Christmas concerts.
Ticketed concerts by professional musicians usually take place 2-3 times each week, sometimes more, depending on the season. You can find the complete Église Saint-Germain des Prés Concert schedule and get your tickets here. Tickets are offered through ClassicTic, Saint-Germain-des-Prés' official ticket partner.
To maintain the intimate feel of these concerts, most seat only 200 - so don't wait to get your tickets as availability is often limited, especially during the busy summer months and the holiday season around Christmas and New Year's Eve.
Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés also offers a free pipe organ concert on the last Sunday of each month at around 3 pm - but check the schedule on the Saint Germain des Prés website to confirm the time.
Guided Tours in French
Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church parishioners conduct free guided tours in French on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2 pm-5:30 pm and on the third Sunday of most months at 3 pm. Tours do not take place during July and August. Confirm availability on the church's website before you go.
What if you don't understand French very well? Should you still consider taking one of these tours?
If you're interested in seeing the lovely Chapelle Saint-Symphorien, located on your right after you enter the church but used only for prayers and therefore normally closed to visitors, then the answer is "yes." Begun in the 6th century and once the burial site for Childebert I and other early kings, the chapel is famous for an arch with a soffit containing bits of 11th and 12th-century frescoes.
Other Interesting Tours (in English!) to Consider
To get a different type of experience in English, join a tour which includes the Saint Germain neighborhood, such as the Charming Nooks & Crannies Bike Tour or the Iconic Neighborhoods Guided Walking Tour (choose the Saint Germain des Prés tour). In addition to other attractions, you'll see the church exterior and learn more about this fascinating and historical part of Paris's Left Bank.
Visit Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church On Your Own: What to See
You can also explore Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés on your own to experience the beauty of the architecture and get close-up views of the paintings, frescoes, and statues.
Enter the church through the door under the tower and as you walk across the early 16th-century entrance porch, look up. Over the door, you'll see a 12th-century lintel depicting the Last Supper.
Once inside, pause for a moment and soak up the richly vibrant colors brought back to life by the recent restoration. What you are seeing is the original paint and gilding, dazzling again after being cleaned. Check out the elaborate wall paintings, murals, and the 3,000 golden stars painted across the vaulted ceilings in the 1840s by Hippolyte Flandrin, a student of Ingres.
Stop by the Chapelle Sainte-Marguerite in the south transept to see the beautiful early-18th century marble sculpture of the martyred Sainte Margaret of Antioch (shown in the above photo) created by Brother Jacques Bourlet, a priest at the Saint-Germain-des-Prés Abbey.
The Christmas Market at Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés
Around mid-November, 40 or so rustic Swiss-style chalets pop on the plaza in front of the church and wrap around the corner to continue along a stretch of Boulevard St-Germain.
Many Parisians consider this festive Christmas Market to be one of the best for buying luxury gifts such as French gastronomy products, handcrafted toys, leather bags and gloves, and lovely jewelry. Look for fine wines and liquors from Burgundy and Southern France, gourmet chocolates, and blown-glass tree ornaments.
And be sure to treat yourself to hot mulled wine and roasted chestnuts!
The Saint-Germain Summer Craft Fair
During the summer months, chalets return along Boul' Saint-Germain for a Summer Craft Fair.
Vendors vary a bit each year and even each month. But usually, you'll find an emphasis on colorful summer clothing (sometimes imported from Italy), jewelry, leather bags, food products such as jams from Provence and specialty candies, wine, and decorative items such as hand-dipped candles made from beeswax. Browsing is always worthwhile!
Foire Saint-Germain: A Medieval Fair
Starting in the Middle Ages and continuing until the French Revolution in 1789, a large fair known as Foire Saint-Germain took place for a few weeks every year on this same site, with as many as 500+ stalls set up by vendors from all over Europe. The Saint-Germain Fair was much larger and, like many medieval fairs, sometimes quite rowdy, with games and gambling, drunken debauchery, and occasional student-led riots.
So in a sense, the present-day Saint-Germain Summer Fairs continue the tradition - although in a much more upscale, law-abiding way. To experience another fair begun in the Middle Ages that's been happening in Paris almost continuously since 857 when a 15-year-old king decided to start a his own "fun fair," check out the annual Foire du Trone in Bois de Vincennes.
Attending Mass at Saint-Germain-des-Prés
Saint-Germain-des-Prés holds two daily masses and three, including one in Spanish, on Sundays. An early Sunday mass is also held on Saturday afternoon. Please consult the church's website to confirm times.
Special masses and confessions also occur on other occasions such as Holy Week, Easter, Christmas, Epiphany, and other Roman Catholic religious days.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church Hours, Location, & Map
Open: Daily, but may vary during school holidays.
Monday and Sunday: 9:30am - 8pm
Tuesday - Saturday: 8:30am - 8pm
Other times, as necessary, for ticketed concerts
Location: 3 Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, 6th arrondissement
Map of Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés Location
Fun Facts about Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés
- Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés gave its name to the once bohemian, now ritzy Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood.
- Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés's original name, Abbaye Sainte-Croix-Saint-Vincent, lasted only a couple of hundred years before becoming Saint Germanus by around the year 750. The "Prés" part at the end refers to the meadows surrounding the abbey at that time.
- Why was the Abbey built? While conducting war against Spain in 542, Childebert I stopped his siege of Zaragoza after discovering that the townspeople had placed themselves under the protection of Saint Vincent. In gratitude, the Bishop of Zaragoza gave the saint's tunic to Childbert. After returning to Paris, Childebert built the church to house the relic but then happened to die on the day in 558 when it was dedicated by Bishop Germain d'Autun, who was sainted after his death.
- All of the Merovingian kings covering three centuries of rule from about 456 to 751 were buried at Saint-Germain-des-Prés Abbey, although the remains at least five were exhumed and reinterred at a new "royal necropolis" at the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis to the north of Paris.
- The famous French painter Eugène Delacroix, who lived nearby, was also buried in one of the church's chapels.
- When Philippe-Auguste (King Philip II) built a wall around Paris in 1200-1215 to protect the city while he was away fighting in the Third Crusade, he did not include the abbey within it - which meant the abbey's residents had to fend for themselves.
- The Abbey built an onsite prison during the Middle Ages and despite its widely recognized inhumane conditions, it continued to be used until finally being destroyed in 1854 to make way for the creation of Boulevard Saint-Germain.
- As the idealistic first few years of the French Revolution mutated into the Reign of Terror, radicals closed Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church and turned the building into a place to manufacture saltpeter, then used as an ingredient in gunpowder. Not surprisingly, a huge explosion occurred and destroyed most of the outbuildings, with only the church remaining. It finally resumed its religious role in 1803 but extensive damage from the explosion caused it to be condemned and designated for demolition. That's when novelist Victor Hugo, famous for The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Miserables, stepped it and successfully lobbied for the church to be saved and restored. Restoration efforts continued throughout much of the 1800s.
Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés History Timeline
543 - Childebert I, son of the first King of the Franks (roughly the area later known as France) established a royal Benedictine abbey on a large swath of the Left Bank of the Seine River and ordered the construction of a wooden basilica to house a stole and a few other holy relics of Saint Vincent of Sargossa that he acquired while waging war in Spain.
558 - Église Saint-Vincent, as the church was first named, was consecrated by Bishop Germain of Paris (who later became a saint) on December 23. On that same day, Childebert died.
850 - Invaders from Viking settlements in Normandy burned down the wooden church, by now renamed Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés. During the next 100 or so years, at least two replacements met the same fate.
990-1014 - A new church was rebuilt in the exact footprint of the original church, with the stone tower you see today completed in the year 1000, and the nave and transept completed in 1014.
1600s - The Abbey was regarded as a major intellectual center of France, with a library containing thousands of rare manuscripts hand-copied by monks. The Abbey, one of the richest in France, owned most of the land on the Left Bank west of today's Boulevard Saint-Michel and had autonomous control over it, which greatly annoyed the French kings.
1789 - The French Revolution began.
1790 - The Abbey's monks were expelled.
1793 - A cache of saltpetre stored by radicals on the Abbey's grounds exploded, destroying the Abbey and its cloisters. Four years later, the famed library burned to the ground, and most of its books were destroyed.
September, 1792 - During the Reign of Terror, extremists instigated the murders of about half the prison population in Paris, a 4-day period now called the September Massacres. The killings started at the Prison de l'Abbaye, built in 1522 in a corner of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des Prés grounds; over 1,000 prisoners were killed here within the first 20 hours. The prison, known for its horrific condition, was finally destroyed in 1854.
Today - Thanks to Victor Hugo's 19th century restoration and later renovations including the recent much-needed cleaning, the Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés continues to be one of the most beautiful churches in Paris and, thanks in part to the concerts, Christmas Market, and Summer Fair, an appealing attraction for tourists and locals.
Where to Stay near Saint-Germain-des-Prés
Staying near Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés puts you in the heart of the posh Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, with its bohemian past and today a favorite of Paris visitors due to its luxury boutiques, historic attractions, Luxembourg Garden, and its many excellent bistros and restaurants.
Here are half a dozen wonderful hotels within the church's immediate vicinity:
- Hotel Artus (34 Rue de Buci) - Located on the lively Rue de Buci market street, this 4-star hotel features 25 guestrooms and two suites, art-inspired mid-century modern decor, and bright cheery colors - Book Now
- Hotel de Buci (22 Rue de Buci) - This charming small 4-star, 24-room boutique hotel on the Rue Buci market street features furnishings with a romantic Louis XV 18th century très-Parisian vibe - Book Now
- Hotel Bel Ami - This 5-star boutique hotel offers gorgeous decor, a spa and fitness center, and a cute onsite café, with church views from some guest rooms.
- Au Manoir Saint-Germain - This lovely 4-star hotel across from the church overlooks the Deux Magots cafe and offers soundproofed accommodations. Some guestrooms have view of the church or Deux Magots.
- Millésime Hotel - Enjoy luxury Pierre Frey linens, a courtyard garden, and views of the church from some of the guestrooms at this newly-renovated 4-star hotel housed in a 17th century building
Want more ideas? Check out:
Map Showing More Paris Hotels near Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés
Use this Paris hotel map to find more hotels near Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés:
Where to Eat near Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church
Here are some suggestions to get you started, starting with a cluster of three famous Jazz Age cafes just a few steps from Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés:
Les Deux Magots (6 Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés) - Walk across the plaza from the church to visit Les Deux Magots, the famous 6th arrondissement cafe where writers and intellectuals such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre hung out in the 1940s-1950s. Enjoy a coffee or glass of wine and order one of the cheese platters or perhaps a light meal.
Cafe des Flore (172 Boulevard Saint-Germain) - Soak up the 1940s vibe in the red Art Deco interior, unchanged from when Sartre, Beauvoir, and friends gathered here to work socialize, eat, and drink. Order onion soup with a slice of quiche and glass of wine.
Brasserie Lipp (151 Boulevard Saint-Germain) - When this brasserie across the street from Cafe des Flore and Les Deux Magots opened in 1880, Alsatian sausage dishes paired with the finest beers at cheap prices drew appreciative crowds and charcouterie continues to be the focus, along with other choices such as beef tenderloin and duck leg comfit. For a special treat, go on Thursdays when cassoulet is the plat du jour. Also check out the tile wall murals and painted ceilings dating back to the 1920s when American novelist Hemingway stopped by for potato salad and beer one day when he had more money than usual. A few decades later, he featured Brasserie Lipp in his memoir A Moveable Feast.
Le Relais de l'Entrecôte (20 Rue Saint-Benoît) - Steak-frites famous for their secret sauce and a walnut-topped green salad are the only main-course choices at this popular restaurant just one short block from the church - but they're also the reason long lines form here for lunch and dinner.
Mariage Frères Tea Emporium & Tea Room (13 Rue des Grands Augustins) - Located just a block to the east of the Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés church grounds, you can choose from over 1,000 teas to try at home or sip in their tea room with tea-infused pastries. On weekends, go for the brunch or substantial "Afternoon Tea." Visitor Tip: Their distinctive black and gold tea tins make nice gifts, especially if you get them filled with Paris Breakfast Tea or French Breakfast Tea.
Rue de Buci Market Street - Food stalls, market stands, and cafe terraces mingle on this traditional mostly pedestrian-only market street where restaurants stay open until late at night. Find yourself a table and enjoy excellent people-watching with your meal - just two very short blocks behind the church grounds.
Cour de Commerce Saint-André - A few blocks from Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church, you'll find this historic hidden passage containing Paris's oldest restaurant, Le Procope, and several other places to enjoy a meal a few blocks beyond Rue Buci. More information