Did you know that rue Saint-Jacques is the oldest street in Paris? Let’s learn more about this 2,000-year-old thoroughfare that crosses the Latin Quarter (5th arrondissement). Created in the 1st Century BC, the street was one of the main thoroughfares of Lutetia, the Via Superior, which crossed the town from North to South.
How come Rue Saint-Jacques is Paris’ oldest street?
During the Roman era, some 2,000 years ago, Lutetia (ancient Paris) covered the Ile de la Cité. It also extended to a slight stretch of the Right Bank.
But the central part of the city occupied the Left Bank of the Seine.
The cardo maximus
First, Roman Paris was organised according to the cardo maximus.
This was the name the Romans gave to a city planning model applied in towns in Italy. In turn, the Romans borrowed it from the Greeks.
The cardo maximus referred to a town layout based on a primary north-south axis.
That street was crossed in the middle by a less-important east-west axis called Decumanus Maximus which served as a secondary main street.
The grid plan adapted to the local topography in Lutetia, so the cardo maximus climbed the Sainte-Geneviève hill where the Panthéon now stands.
The fact that the hill rose 23 metres above the river meant that flooding could not reach the buildings.
Two roads meeting on the Ile de la Cité represented the north-south axis.
The south road coming from Spain via Orléans is today’s rue Saint-Jacques.
Another road from Rome via Lyon and Melun followed today’s rue Mouffetard and rue Galande.
Beyond the Left Bank
On the Right Bank, the cardo maximus is continued by today’s rue Saint-Martin.
Two wooden bridges spanned the river to reach the Ile de la Cité: Petit-Pont on the Left Bank and Grand-Pont (Pont Notre-Dame) on the Right Bank.
Several less important east-west axes crossed the cardo maximus on the Left Bank. The Decumani followed today’s rue Cujas, rue des Ecoles and rue des Fossés Saint-Jacques.
Rue Cujas was probably the Decumanus Maximus, the central east-west axis.
Why? Because at the intersection of the Cardo and Decumanus maxima was the Forum, the city’s principal landmark.
Rue Saint-Jacques: a safe place!
The central part of the city was on the left bank of the Seine, which was higher and less prone to flood.
The centre point where the Cardo and Decumanus met is at number 172-174 rue Saint-Jacques. From there, the grid pattern of Lutetia was drawn, forming a network of orthogonal roads which divided Lutetia into insulae (blocks of houses and public buildings). Yes, blocks like in New York City!
These blocks measure 300 Roman feet, a square close to 89 by 89 metres.
So to reply to the question – which is Paris’ oldest street -I would say that Rue Saint-Jacques is the oldest urbanised street.
The street after the Roman era
However, its width has varied over time, and most of the houses along it were built between the 18th and 20th centuries.
And the roadway is higher than the ancient Cardo.
During the Middle Ages, pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela frequented the street, hence its name (rue Saint-Jacques = St. James street).
Its name comes from an old chapel in a medieval Dominican convent (1218). The chapel was dedicated to St. James (Saint Jacques), and its name was given to the thoroughfare.
Besides, in the past, the street took the name of Grand’rue du Petit-Pont or Grand’rue Saint-Jacques-des-Prêcheurs. Parisians gave it its current name in 1806.
Therefore, the street lost its importance in the 19th century when Prefect Haussmann created a much wider street parallel to it: boulevard Saint-Michel.
Monuments and landmarks along rue Saint-Jacques
Several interesting monuments and landmarks border Rue Saint-Jacques:
Arguably one of the most beautiful Gothic churches in Paris!
Saint-Séverin church is a Flamboyant Gothic sanctuary built in the mid-13th century and finished in the 15th century.
The façade (on rue des Prêtres Saint-Séverin) dates from the 13th century. It includes a portal that once belonged to a Ile de la Cité church that was demolished in 1837.
Inside, don’t miss the Flamboyant pillar in the centre of the double ambulatory. It takes the form of the trunk of a palm tree.
The Sorbonne university
The east side of the world-famous Sorbonne University borders rue Saint-Jacques.
It is an old College of Theology founded by a royal chaplain, Robert de Sorbon, in the mid-13th century and became the seat of the University of Paris.
The present-day buildings date back to 1885.
Gaston of Orléans, brother of King Louis XIII, laid the foundation stone of the catholic church in 1630. The neo-Classical sanctuary was completed in 1684. Its façade shows a decoration with four columns supporting an entablature and a triangular pediment. A square tower flanks its south part.
Val de Grâce hospital
The church of Val de Grâce has one of Paris’ most impressive domes. The Gesù Church in Rome inspired the Baroque church.
Architect Lemercier built the Val de Grâce between 1645 and 1665.
Its façades show a double series of superimposed columns and two triangular pediments.
In addition, the magnificent dome is one of the highest in Paris.
Finally, the Val de Grâce gives onto a lovely square with Haussmannian buildings: Place Alphonse Laveran.
A curious sundial made by Salvador Dali himself!
At number 27, rue Saint-Jacques is one of the most interesting sundials in Paris.
Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) designed it as a present to his friends who owned a boutique at this address.
A tragic explosion in June 2023
On the 21st of June 2023, an explosion at no. 277, Rue Saint-Jacques made headlines around the world.
The explosion, which injured around fifty people and one dead, is suspected to have been caused by a gas leak. The explosion caused the collapse of the 17th-century pavilion closing off the courtyard of the Notre-Dame du Val-de-Grâce church to the northwest, a stone’s throw from the historic military hospital of the same name.
The destroyed building, listed as a historic monument, housed a public school, the Paris American Academy and will have to be rebuilt identically.
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More about Paris’ oldest street and its neighbourhood
- Our page on the 5th arrondissement (and Latin Quarter)
- The hidden remains of the Roman forum of Lutetia
- The sundial of Salvador Dali (rue Saint-Jacques)
- Get your tickets to the monuments and museums of Paris (and Skip-the-Line!)