Whether you’ve been to Paris, are planning to go, or are just an armchair traveler, you know the Seine.
It’s the river that cuts through Paris, giving us the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) and Rive Droite (Right Bank) as designations for the two main divisions of the city. For centuries, the river itself, as well as its cobblestoned banks and the 37 (mostly) picturesque bridges that span it have been depicted in books and poetry, music, movies, TV shows, visual art – even video games.
If that’s not enough proof of this impressive stretch of water, stone, and bridges’ beauty, here’s something else: It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991.
Despite its fame, like all rivers, the Seine has its secrets. Here’s a big one: Though it may surprise us Paris lovers, the Seine is an important part of life in many other French cities and towns, as well. It’s hard for me to imagine that much goes on along its banks once it flows out of the City of Light (this means that I am a true Parisian), but at 777 kilometers (483 miles) long, the Seine flowsthrough numerous locales and landscapes, from its source near the charming city of Dijon, all the way out to the English Channel (La Manche), where it leaves the land by making another important division: that of the port cities of Honfleur and Le Havre.
Let’s look at this winding river and the role it plays in the lives of 30% of the people who live in France, not to mention the whole world’s heart and imagination.
Where does the Seine start and end?
The Seine starts at a series of small springs (sources) in the appropriately named village of Source-Seine, near Dijon, in the Burgundy region. There used to be a Gallo-Roman temple here in honor of the springs, whose water is still fresh and drinkable. The City of Paris purchased the land the springs are located on in 1864 and built a small statue of the goddess Sequana (more on her below) at the source of the main spring, but as you can see from this photo, aside from that, the area is still a green, grassy field – as it should be.
From Source-Seine, the Seine wends and flows in a roughly diagonal direction southeast to northwest, crossing 14 départements(a rough equivalent of states in the US) before it reaches the English Channel.
The Seine can be categorized into five imaginary divisions. These are a helpful way to picture some of the terrain the river flows through:
1. La Petite Seine (Small Seine) from the sources to Montereau-Fault-Yonne
2. La Haute Seine (Upper Seine) from Montereau-Fault-Yonne to Paris
3. La Traversée de Paris (the Paris waterway)
4. La Basse Seine (Lower Seine) from Paris to Rouen
5. La Seine maritime (the Maritime Seine) from Rouen to the English Channel
An even more helpful way to picture the Seine’s course is to watch this segment from iconic French history and culture show Des racines et des ailes, which spotlights many of the most famous and important spots along the river’s route, from the springs at its source to where it meets the English Channel. Unfortunately for beginners, there are no English subtitles, and the YouTube-generated French subtitles have a lot of errors in them. But even if you can’t understand everything, I’d recommend giving it a watch to see what the Seine looks like outside of Paris. Much of it is downright bucolic.
Where does the Seine get its name?
The story of the Seine’s name shows that speech can be as twisting as a river. According to most sources (not to be confused with sources…sorry), it’s named in honor of Sequana, the river’s Gallo-Roman goddess. Over time, certain sounds were dropped or skipped over, to give us “Seine”.
This backstory can help you with your vocabulary. Keeping in mind that it’s named after a goddess should make it easy to remember that La Seine is feminine.
Be careful not to confuse La Seine with a similarly spelled word, le sein, which means “breast” and, frustratingly, is masculine.
Why is the Seine important?
You might be thinking, There are lots of rivers in France — why devote an entire article to this one?
There are two reasons. First and foremost, if you’re studying the French language, you’ll most likely be exposed to textbooks, art, literature, and more that mention or even feature the Seine, since it’s such an important part of Paris and Parisian life (more on that a little later).
For another, the Seine has played an important role in the history of France and, in a way, the world. Since it provides a route from the English Channel into the heart of the country, and was navigable by sea vessels, then barges, for a long period of time, it was a path for invaders, like the Vikings, who took over Normandy in the 800’s AD. Today, that region still has a very distinct identity and personality.
Its Viking heritage also had a massive influence on Anglophone culture and language. In 1066, the Norman William the Conqueror took up his Viking ancestors’ tradition of conquest and invaded England. French became the language of the royal court, and after a time, many of these words were picked up by everyone. Nearly 15,000 modern English words come from French. You can find the most common ones in this article.
The Vikings also made it much further down the Seine, all the way to Paris, in fact, sacking the city twice during the 9th century AD! Not much good came of those events, though….
The Seine’s importance as a shipping route made many great French cities grow up around it, from the beautiful medieval jewel that is Troyes, to Rouen, to Paris itself. As the segment from Des racines et des ailes that I linked to touchingly points out, while some of these cities diverted the river for their use, Paris grew up around her, as if out of respect. Poetic notions aside, I think it might also have been that people have lived on the banks of the Seine in the Paris area since prehistoric times and probably just decided to go with the flow.
The coat of arms and motto of the City of Paris very clearly show its ties to the river: A ship in full sail boldly sits above the water, below it the motto: Fluctuat Nec Mergitur (Though tossed by the waves, she does not sink). This motto became internationally known after the November 2015 terrorist attacks. You’ll see the ship from Paris’s coat of arms in various places around the city. There’s even a modern-style version in the logo of the city’s official website.
Although the Seine was a commercial route and a source of drinking water, fish, and water for washing clothes for many centuries, it has a darker side, too. The famous flood of 1910 (La crue de 1910) still haunts Parisians today. At that time, the water rose so high that it flooded countless streets and Metro stations. Old photographs and souvenir postcards show people navigating the streets in rowboats.
Throughout Paris today, you can find markers that show the water level in a particular street during the flood (sometimes these are just a meter stick marked with the year 1910).
On the Seine itself, in addition to meter markers, Le Zouave, a statue of a North African soldier located at the base of the Pont de l’Alma, is a popular reference point. When the Seine’s water level rises, Parisians look at where it reaches on Le Zouave. You can see several photos of Le Zouave in recent and older floods here.
The threat of another major flood is taken seriously by all Parisians, especially since, in recent years, we’ve experienced significantly high water levels more and more frequently. Although the water level in June 2016 and July 2018 didn’t reach that of the 1910 floods, several Metro and suburban train stations were closed for a few days, artwork and other important objects stored underground near the Seine had to be removed for safety (including at the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay), and restaurants and businesses on the berges (banks) suffered massive damage.
The Seine has played a dark role in other cities’ history, as well. For example, when Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431, it’s generally believed that her ashes were scattered into the Seine.
But let’s talk about happier times for a minute. Going back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, those jolly, pleasant Impressionist paintings showing guinguettes (simple riverfront restaurants and dancehalls) often depict bygone pleasure places located on the Seine, which wends around many of Paris’s suburbs.
Okay, let’s take a dip back into the sadder stuff. In a more general way, the Seine has always possessed the dark side that most bodies of water do: suicides, drownings, and, in more recent times, pollution. Luckily, ecology initiatives in the past decades have made the water that passes through Paris much cleaner, but a current issue is pesticide runoff. Still, people do fish in the Seine (where it’s permitted) and apparently it’s safe to eat what you catch.
What can you do on the Seine?
If fishing’s not your thing, there’s still a lot to do on the Seine and along its banks. Check where you’re headed to see if things like boat tours, kayaking, and other activities are on – or simply seek out a café or park nearby and take in the lovely view.
Some tour operators offer Seine river cruises, which is a pretty neat idea, since they allow passengers to discover so many different towns, cities, and landscapes.
Paris and the Seine
Now you know that the Seine is more than just a river that runs through Paris. But let’s be honest: its Parisian stretch is still what it’s most famous for. Every year, more than 30 million people visit Paris. Most of them will see the Seine, either while on the way to a museum or monument, or closer up, when having a picnic on its banks or taking a bateau mouche or dinner cruise on its waters.
As for those of us who live here, the Seine is a comforting constant. I can’t imagine that most Parisians (native-born or transplants) don’t stop and stare out over the bridge they’re crossing now and then, hypnotized by the brownish-green river’s gentle waves, or captivated by the contrast of its movement and the stillness of the gray stones around it.
In fact, the oldest bridge in the city, the Pont Neuf, was revolutionary when it was built in the 17th century for just that reason; unlike the other bridges in the city at this time, it wasn’t lined with houses and shops – passersby could simply look out at the water and the city on its banks, and they loved it.
We still do today. No matter what part of the city you’re from, if you live in Paris, you’ve probably strolled along the banks of the Seine at least once. It’s likely you’ve had at least one picnic on its banks, listening to a guitarist who always seems to be there, and sharing a cheap bottle of wine and some cheese with friends. You’ve probably stared into the ripples of the water, or been surprised by the seagulls flying overhead this far inland. You’ve probably waved to tourists on the bateaux mouches. You’ve probably watched the streetlights and lights on the bridges shimmer on the water’s black, shivering surface at night. Maybe you’ve shared a kiss here, or a confession, a laugh, a song, a moment of sorrow or happy solitude. I feel like the Seine is the collective heart of Paris, and I’m definitely not alone. It’s inspired people from every walk of life, in many different ways.
One of the most obvious is how easy it is to spot the Seine in so many different works or art in all media. “Midnight in Paris,” “The Bourne Identity”, “The Lovers on the Bridge” are just a few of countless films with scenes filmed along the Seine. Victor Hugo and Guy de Maupassant are just two of the numerous authors who’ve written about it. Monet, Seurat, and hundreds, maybe even thousands of recognized and amateur painters have depicted it in their works.
The Seine was even home to at least one artist: In the late 1800’s, Proto-Dadaist writer Alfred Jarry (the hilarious and strange play Ubu Roi is his most famous work), used to live under one of its bridges and eat the fish he caught from it.
Moment of brutal truth — today, the areas under the bridges stink so much of urine from people who needed some relief during a picnic or drunken revel, that I can’t imagine staying under one of them for too long.
But none of that really matters to Parisians and those who visit Paris and fall in love with it. The Seine is still beautiful, and you’ll most likely want to linger on its banks (just not under the bridges). Luckily, there are lots of ways to do this, and most of them are free!
What do to by the Seine in Paris
In Paris, the Seine sits below the rest of the city. Its banks are cobbled and a great place to stroll, picnic, and more. These are called les berges.
Higher up, at street level, a low stone wall runs the length of the river on either side. Luckily, it’s easy for most adults to look over and enjoy a river view, and the bustle of the city and the flow of the river seem united in a unique, charming energy. This area overlooking the water is known as les quais.
Some of the quais are famous in their own right; for example, you might see or hear the Quai des Orfèvres mentioned on the news or in crime novels, movies, or series that take place in Paris. That’s because this quai is where Paris’s main police station is located.
Now that you know how to talk about the areas around the Seine in Paris, here are some ways to have fun when you’re there!
Have a picnic
This is a favorite pastime of native and foreign-born Parisians alike, especially young people. Grab some baguette, cheese, chips, finger foods – anything, really, and head with friends or your significant other (or both) to the banks of the Seine. The ambiance is convivial, with lots of different groups of people happy to be out there, especially in nice weather.
Take a walk
A walk along the Seine’s berges and quais can be inspiring and is always beautiful. You’ll see gorgeous bridges and monuments and get little glimpses of city life, and the Seine’s soothing waves will be your companion along the way.
Enjoy the new art, sport, and relaxation installations along the berges de la Seine.
In recent years, the banks of the Seine have been made even more appealing to pedestrians and passersby. Art installations, playgrounds, and other activities now dot the banks of the river. Every summer, Paris Plages (Paris Beaches) means beach chairs, water mist sprayers, snack and drink vendors, and even sand imported from actual beaches, take over many areas. It’s free for everyone to come and lounge – although getting a seat might not be so easy.
Learn to dance
One of the most fun and often romantic things you can do along the Seine is to dance (or learn how) in the Jardin Tino Rossi, on the edge of the 5th arrondissement. You’ll often see couples or singles waiting to meet that special someone dancing in the evening hours in the summer and early fall. It’s free to participate and definitely a memorable experience.
Browse the bouquinistes’ boxes
An iconic part of Paris, the bouquinistes are secondhand book and poster sellers who have special, licensed green boxes perched on the railings of the quais. You can find some real treasures among their antique and used books and prints. Even just strolling along and catching glimpses of vintage artwork against the trees and water behind them is a lovely experience.
Have a swim in the Seine (sort of)
Due to safety precautions (the river still has a lot of boat traffic), and hygiene/hypothermia issues, you can’t swim in the stretch of the Seine that passes through Paris. But there is a pretty cool compromise. The Piscine Josephine Baker is a floating swimming pool anchored on the Quai François Mauriac. Like any of Paris’s public pools, for a small fee you’ll have unlimited access to the main pool as well as a solarium and sun deck (if you’re with kids, there’s a children’s pool as well). The water is actual water from the Seine, purified with Ozone and chlorine.
Take a bateau mouche ride
This is THE thing I tell everyone to do if they come to Paris. The Bateaux Mouches get their name from an area in Lyon where they were first manufactured , and are actually only one of the excursion boat companies that operates in Paris, but the name has become synonymous with any of these kinds of boats, which offer cruises of an hour or so along Paris’s stretch of the Seine. For me, a bateau mouche ride is like something right out of Disney. You get to see lots of famous, beautiful monuments (including Notre-Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Musée d’Orsay, the Pont Neuf, and so many more) from a different perspective, and no matter when you do it, you’ll always get stunning views. Regular bateau mouche rides are pretty affordable – about 5 euros for kids and 10-15 euros for adults. If you don’t mind spending a lot more, you can also opt for a dinner cruise on the Seine. You can find the perfect option for you by doing an internet search for “Seine river cruise Paris”.
The Seine in song and poetry
Although it’s hard to hear the Seine when you’re in the busy heart of Paris, it’s still a very musical river. The movement of its current and the rhythm of the life around it make their own sort of song. So, it’s no wonder that many poets, songwriters, and composers have been inspired indirectly by the Seine – and others have paid the river distinct homage.
The most famous Seine-related poem is probably Guillaume Apollinaire’s Le Pont Mirabeau. In it, the poet compares the Seine’s flowing waters to fleeting love.
It’s brilliant, but for me, a poem that shows how the Seine is truly a part of Paris and Parisian life – a bit like a companion for those who live and visit here – is Jaques Prevert’s La Seine a rencontré Paris. You can find both of these poems, as well as others inspired by Paris, on this cool webpage.
The Seine is also the subject of a number of songs. My fellow American expat Josephine Baker’s “La Seine” is a charming bilingual chanson that makes you feel like you’re flowing along the river. Your journey ends at the conclusion that the Seine’s true love is Paris.
This song (not to mention Baker’s passion for Paris) may have gotten a pool on the river named for her, but my favorite song – not just about the Seine, but out of all French songs EVER — is another one called “La Seine”. It was written by the brilliant Matthieu Chedid (M.) and performed by him and Vanessa Paradis for the 2011 animated movie Un Monstre à Paris (which features the 1910 flood as one of its major plot points).
Not only is the tune catchy and fun; the song’s rhymes and wordplay are absolutely delightful, starting with the basic concept – Lucille, an actress and singer, talks about how she loves la Seine, which sounds like la scène (the stage). It’s absolutely worth a listen, and a read of its lyrics, too.
In fact, can’t think of a better way to end an article about this winding river with so much emotion and experience tied to it, than that!
What are your thoughts about the Seine River? Do you have any strong memories or experiences associated with it?