To stay at this old-timey, three-story courtyard hotel in the Latin Quarter is to be surrounded by intellectual giants: the ghosts of figures such as René Descartes or James Joyce, who each lived nearby, and by present-day students and teachers at the most elite universities and high schools of Paris. The youngsters’ extracurriculars—café lounging, bar hopping, and vintage record, book, and clothes shopping—give the quarter a unique mix of history and life.
Hotel des Grandes Ecoles occupies three 19th-century houses along a private cobbled passageway leading to a courtyard garden; one of the charms of the place is that the compound feels like an escape to a French granny’s country cottage. Small by American standards, rooms have wallpaper printed with flowers or antique bucolic scenes; French cotton lace drapes the beds and sitting tables. Bathrooms are immaculate but simple, with either shower or bathtub and toilet.
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The hotel sits on a steep hill whose apex of Place de la Contrescarpe, surrounded by cafés and bars, leads to the Rue Mouffetard, the market street immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. Just out the hotel’s front gate are a book store, an elegant stationery store, and Seventy Seven (77 Rue Cardinal Lemoine), a 1970s vintage men's and women’s clothing specialist with a staff artist who customizes students’ motorcycle helmets and leather jackets with designs inspired by Russian Mafia tattoos. On Sundays, the outdoor market in the Place Monge is the place to buy a picnic and see locals interacting with itinerant beekeepers, fishmongers, and cheese makers.
Need to Know
Rooms: 51 rooms. From $165. Check-in: 2 p.m.; check-out: noon. Dining options: Continental breakfast only, but each room has a small table for snacking on purchases from the lively Rue Mouffetard market a few blocks away. The cozy and aptly named Café Le Descartes (1 Rue Thouin) is just out the hotel gate, along with small Spanish tapas and Vietnamese eateries, and Sugarplum Cake Shop, a trendy Internet tearoom. Spa and gym details: There is no gym or spa, but the hotel is within jogging distance of the Seine and Jardin des Plantes, as well as the open-to-the-public hammam of the Grande Mosquée de Paris.
Who’s it for: Literature and history loving couples who don’t mind walking up and down hilly streets. Our favorite rooms: The most desirable rooms face the garden. In the reception building, first-floor rooms have the tallest windows and get the most light. Ground-floor rooms (29, 30, 31, and 32) in the Jardin wing have French doors opening directly onto the courtyard. For book lovers: Ask the hotel to arrange a private literary walking tour of the quarter. The place is extremely popular with guidebook-toting American and British travelers, so book well in advance around holidays and in summer.