Head to Saint-Denis, a district in the suburbs of Paris for its incredible Basilica, last resting place of dozens of Kings and Queens of France.
Saint-Denis is a suburb of Paris located 10km north of the city centre. The district took its name from a Christian Martyr buried there after being beheaded on nearby Montmartre (circa 250 AD). It was said that he carried his head to the site of the current Basilica of Saint-Denis indicating where he wanted to be buried. His tomb became a place of worship on which a chapel was built and he became the patron Saint of France.
Saint-Denis is the last resting place of many kings and queens of France, buried in the enormous Cathedral Basilica of Saint-Denis.
The Royal Basilica of Saint-Denis was the world’s first monumental masterpiece of Gothic art. Work began on the main building in 1122 thouth there was a church there before. The royal necropolis houses the tombs of 75 French kings and queens, and 63 princes and princesses through the centuries.
It contains some incredible funerary sculptures, many of them depicting the royal likenesses, dating from the 12th to 16th centuries. Inside the church is bathed in the light of 12th and 19th century stained glass windows. Hire an audio guide to learn the incredible history of this enormous church. It was normal practice from the beginning of the 14th century to divide dead French kings into three parts. It seems utterly bizarre to us and rather gruesome, but the thinking was that each part could rest in a different part of the country, three places to encourage people to pay homage and respect to the dead royal and protection against desecration in troubled times. This is just what happened at Saint Denis – during the French Revolution, coffins were destroyed and remains were scattered, including those of the Sun King, Louis XIV.
The Museum of Art and History, housed in an old Carmelite convent, has rich collections reflecting the city’s history. It also has lovely gardens that are just perfect for resting on a hot Paris day. Details: musee-saint-denis.com
The Inside Track
The biggest, most famous and best flea markets in France. The Marchés aux Puces de Saint-Ouen have been going for almost 150 years and are one of the largest markets for antiques and flea markets in the world. Set in 7 hectares, with more than 2000 exhibitors and 14 different markets. Hunt for a bargain or a one-off item from antiques to classic luxury goods, restored furniture, paintings, bronzes, tapestries, mirrors, lamps and dishes and much more. It’s also a great place for bars, restaurants and cafés in a unique atmosphere. Metro: Garibaldi, line 13.
A walk in the park: From the station of Saint-Denis you can walk along the canal (5.5km) to Parc Villette, the largest urban cultural park in Paris. There are lots of cafés to sit and while away a few hours whilst the sun plays on the surface of the water.
Locals love: The Abbesses district just a few kilometres away. It has a villagey feel despite being at the foot of Montmartre. There are charming little squares, lots of bars and a relaxed atmosphere.
Montmartre is very close to Saint-Denis and is a must-see on any Paris visit. Yes there are throngs of tourists but there’s a reason for that. Escape the crowds at the lovely Musée de Montmartre, (rue de Cortot) once home to Auguste Renoir. An outstanding exhibition of artwork by local artists including Toulouse-Lautrec and Modigliani. From the charming gardens you can peek into the secret vineyards of Paris next door.
Where to eat in Saint-Denis
In this suburban district there are plenty of restaurants and traditional French brasseries but it’s an easy metro journey into the centre of Paris for many more options.
Locals love: Les Mets du Roy, a traditional brasserie opposite the Basilica (4 rue de la Boulangerie).
Have a snack: La La Bigoudène Café serves pancakes and great coffee plus snacks (11 Allée des 6 Chapelles).
Close by at Saint-Ouen (see Inside Track) there are a plethora of quirky and charming restaurants such as Le Bistrot Paul Bert (18 rue Paul Bert) which serves exceptionally good food. The market streets are lined with dozens of authentic and enchanting little cafés like The Very Little Dining Room, (Allee 3 Marche Serpette 110 rue des Rosiers).
Best Bars in Saint-Denis
There are plenty of bars, and with a young population, this district has an energetic air. Not far away is the historic area of Montmartre where you’ll find even more choice – though it is a tourist magnet night and day. The area of Abesses is where the locals head to for an evening of Paris ambience.
Popular with the locals: L’Escargot for its friendly ambience (6 Rue Gabriel Péri) and also Le Khedive (3 Place Victor Hugo) by the Basilica Saint-Denis.
Great atmosphere: Brasserie 3ème Mi-temps, which means 3rd half time! (33 rue Jules Rimet, right by the Stade de France).
Traditional: Le Basilica (2 rue de la Boulangerie) opposite the Basilica of Saint-Denis, there’s a large terrace, perfect to sip in the sun, often with music over lunch.
Buy a Paris Transport Travel Card for unlimited travel on the metro, RER (rail), bus and tram networks in Paris and the suburbs. A 1, 2, 3 or 5 day pass covering zones 1-5 (including Versailles) is great value and saves you from queuing for tickets. Buy a pass at stations and tourist offices. St Denis is serviced by Metro line 13 and goes directly to the Champs-Elysées and Les Invalides from where you can pick up the RER Line C to the Eiffel Tower.
How to Get to Saint Denis
From Gare du Nord by RER Line B.