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Geographically, historically and politically the heart of Paris, the two islands on the Seine River, Île de la Cité and Île Saint-Louis, offer a fascinating introduction to the long and complex history of the city. The larger of the two islands, the Île de la Cité, is dominated by the magnificent Notre-Dame Cathedral, while residential Île Saint-Louis is a charming slice of hidden Paris.

This private guided tour brings the islands to life, revealing much about their history and significance, introducing some of Paris's finest ecclesiastical architecture and its quieter corners often missed by passing tourists intent on ticking off the sights.

Your private guide for this half-day tour first takes you to the Île de la Cité in the heart of the Seine. It was here that the history of Paris began when the Celtic Parisii settled on the island in the 3rd century BC. Defeated by the Romans, the settlement grew into the largest city in Europe in the Middle Ages.

Medieval Paris's most important buildings were all located here, including the residence of the king, the prison and the spectacular city cathedral, which between them bore witness to some of Paris’s most significant historical events.

The construction of the Notre-Dame Cathedral began in the 12th century, but it was 200 years before it was completed. Today, the masterpiece of French Gothic architecture is one of Paris's most-visited sights.

It was restored in the 19th century following Victor Hugo’s famous novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and is renowned for its characteristically Gothic gargoyles, ornate façade, graceful flying buttresses and underlying Romanesque structure that harks back to its medieval origins.

Nearby is the Palais de Justice, the primary residence of the French kings during the Middle Ages. Within its walls sits the exquisite Sainte-Chapelle, a glittering chapel considered the epitome of Gothic design.

Its harmonious proportions, brilliant stained glass and soaring vaulted ceiling leave visitors feeling quite humbled. The Conciergerie prison next door is quite a contrast, its fortress-like walls incarcerating many famous historical figures during the French Revolution. Among them was Marie-Antoinette before she was sent to the guillotine on the Place de la Concorde alongside her husband, Louis XVI.

After, touring the sights of the Île de la Cité, you walk over to the smaller and quieter Île Saint-Louis, leaving the crowds around the cathedral behind to explore a warren of cobbled streets and romantic squares. Although this island is mostly residential and doesn’t have any major monuments, it’s nevertheless a delight to explore on foot and a great way to end your tour.

Once you've spent time exploring the quiet streets, you can return to your hotel with the help of your guide or continue to look around Paris. Depending on the crowds at Notre-Dame, your guide may decide to vary the order of your tour to ensure the best possible experience.

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Audley Travel Country Specialist Elizabeth

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Photos of Paris’s islands on the Seine tour: Notre-Dame Cathedral & Sainte-Chapelle