The Quartier Latin is the heart of student Paris—and has been for more than 800 years. France's oldest university, La Sorbonne, was founded here in 1257, and the neighborhood takes its name from the fact that Latin was the common language of the students, who came from all over Europe. Today the area is full of cheap and cheerful cafés, bars, and shops.
The main drag, Boulevard St-Michel, is a busy street where bookshops have given way to chain clothing stores and fast-food joints—but don't let that stop you! There are (almost) as many French people wandering the streets here as there are tourists. At Place St-Michel, the symbolic gateway to the quartier, notice the 19th-century fountain depicting Saint Michael slaying the "great dragon," Satan—a symbolic warning to rebellious locals from Napoléon III. Today the fountain serves as a meeting spot and makes a rather fine metaphor for the boulevard it anchors: a bit grimy but extremely popular.
When you've had enough of the crowds, turn off the boulevard and explore the side streets, where you can find quirky boutiques and intimate bistros. Or stop for a demi (a half pint of draft beer) at one of the cafés on Place de la Sorbonne, ground zero for students (and their many noisy demonstrations). Around the winding streets behind the Panthéon, where French luminaries are laid to rest, you can still find plenty of academics arguing philosophy while sipping espresso, but today the 5e arrondissement is also one of Paris's most charming and sought-after (read: expensive) places to live.
Shop along Rue Mouffetard as Parisians do—all the while complaining about the high prices—for one of the best selections of runny cheeses, fresh breads, and charcuterie. Grab a seat in a bustling café,or follow the locals’ lead and stand at the bar, where drinks are always cheaper. Film buffs won't have to look far to find one of the small cinema revival houses showing old American films in English (look for v.o., for version originale). Not far from le Mouffe is the gorgeous white Grande Mosquée de Paris with its impressive minaret. Just beyond the mosque is the Jardin des Plantes—a large, if somewhat bland, botanical garden that is home to three natural-history museums, most notably the Grande Galerie de l'Évolution. Inside, kids can marvel at enormous whale skeletons, along with all sorts of taxidermy. Some of Paris's most intriguing sites are in this neighborhood, including the Musée de Cluny and the innovative Institut du Monde Arabe. See ancient history mingle with modern life at the Arènes de Lutèce, a Roman amphitheater and favorite soccer pitch for neighborhood kids.