Paris History

Paris is a place that seems to lend itself perfectly to intellectual pursuits: long meanderings through museums; leafing through classic tomes while lazing in leafy, classic parks; pondering deep and meaningful thoughts as you wander the streets; penning your first novel in a Moleskine notebook (or at least scribbling an existentially anguished diary) over multiple cups of coffee on a café terrace …

Paris, of course, is a city that has produced, and moulded, many of the world’s most brilliant thinkers, so perhaps that’s why it inspires our minds as much as our eyes — it’s more than just a pretty face, there’s substance to this beautiful city, too. In Paris, more than arguably anywhere on earth, you can find high-minded inspiration at almost every turn. You walk in the footsteps of intellectual giants. Following are five must-add addresses for your next philosophical tour of Paris …

Café de Flore

The power-couple of philosophy, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, started frequenting this much-loved Left Bank café in the late 1920s, when they were students. During the war years, as full-time writers and thinkers, it was on these red moleskin banquettes that they would beaver away, by a pot-belly stove keeping them warm. And it was here that Sartre, with Beavoir’s help, incubated his theory of Existentialism, writing his seminal essay Being and Nothingness, in which he famously proclaimed ‘existence precedes essence.’ Beauvoir later showed how women could apply Existentialism — with its tenets of freedom and authenticity — to their own lives, with her seminal proto-Feminist thesis, The Second Sex, much of which was penned at the Flore in the post-war years.

172 Boulevard Saint-Germain, 75006

Musée des Automates

In the seventeenth century, automata — think old-school clockwork robots — were all the rage in Paris. When scholar and budding philosopher René Descartes (he of ‘I think, therefore I am’ fame) lived in the city, he found himself intrigued by these self-operating machines — it’s said that they inspired him to investigate the connection between mind and body, a pursuit that manifested in his signature theory of mind-body dualism. Find a charming selection of olde-worlde automata on display in this quirky museum, located within the Musée de la Magie.

11 Rue Saint-Paul, 75004

Le Procope

It might serve up traditionally French food these days, but this restaurant has a rebellious history. After opening in 1686 as a café — specialising in the newly popular brew of coffee, which it served up with daily newspapers, another craze of these knowledge-mad times — Le Procope attracted minds in need of stimulation. As royal and aristocratic types, now decamped to Versailles, grew ever more distant from the Parisian populace, Le Procope became no less than an incubator of revolutionary thought. The free thinkers of the Enlightenment all wined and dined here, it was the birthplace of France’s first Encyclopedia, and it’s said that the motto ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ was coined within these walls. Those walls, and all within, have been redecorated in all their olde-worlde glory, complete with Voltaire’s marble-topped desk, bookcases of leather-bound tomes, crystal-laden candelabra and gilt-framed portraits of Le Procope’s most famous customers.

13 Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, 75006

Musée des Arts & Métiers

Many of the great French thinkers have worked double-duty as mathematicians. Blaise Pascal was a theologian with a mind particularly adept at numbers: he invented the first mechanical calculator. It’s on show at this gem of a museum dedicated to technological innovation. Here you can admire all sorts of historic gadgets, along with Foucault’s Pendulum and some of the earliest planes, some of which spectacularly hang from the vaulted ceilings of a medieval church.

60 Rue Réamur, 75003

Restaurant Le Voltaire

Voltaire is arguably France’s most beloved philosopher — although he wasn’t a philosopher in the textbook sense, in that he pioneered a breakthrough theory of thinking. He was a thinker, yes, but also a poet and playwright, not to mention a party guy, too — the charmer everyone wanted at their salon, who could talk about anything and everything with wit and panache. A sweet statuary tribute to him can be found just up the road in the flowering Square Honoré Champion, and his ashes lie in rest at the Panthéon, but much of Voltaire’s spirit surely lives on in the corner building in which this popular restaurant resides; Voltaire rented rooms in in this former townhouse in 1723 when he was a dashing man about town on the cusp of fame and fortune, and in a curious twist of fate, he died here 55 years later, an international celebrity.

27 Quai Voltaire, 75007

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