Thinking Space, Drinking Space: Café Culture in Paris

Coffee being sold at the St-Germain fair, 17th century

Now seen as quintessentially French, the café was slow to catch on in Paris. But once it did, it was an irreplaceable feature of life in the capital. Some of the earliest Parisian café patrons were traders at the great St-Germain fairs, and foreigners and working-class people who frequented the Turkish-style coffeehouses around the St-Michel bridge. With the opening of the Procope near the Comédie-Française in 1689, the café became fashionable—a place to see and be seen. Paris, said historian Jules Michelet, was “one vast café.”

Cafés were also places to debate and exchange ideas. Michelet and many modern scholars see coffee drinking and the rise of the café as fueling (at least in part) the Enlightenment, the French revolution, and the spread of scientific, artistic and philosophical ideas in France and Europe. From Voltaire at the Procope to Robespierre at the Régence, Simone de Beauvoir at the Deux Magots and James Baldwin at the Select, writers and artists have gathered at cafés. These more or less egalitarian “third spaces” were no less important to those unknown to history, or to us today. Cafés have been escapes from cold and poverty, de facto offices, places to meet friends and lovers, or refuges where one can simply sit and observe. When we go to them, for whatever reason, we are taking part in the comédie humaine.

Our trip will feature walking tours led by novelist and storyteller Lisa Pasold, museum visits, a cooking class, and plenty of time to enjoy Paris’s many distinctive cafés. We’ll study these thinking/drinking spaces primarily through the works of the prolific writers Honoré de Balzac and Emile Zola—the first a consumer of prodigious quantities of coffee, the second obsessed with food and the way it is bought, sold and eaten. We’ll also look at selected poetry and short fiction from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Modern-day flâneur and cartoonist L. John Harris will share with us his writings and drawings on café life.

Join other bons vivants for a relaxed yet stimulating exploration of Paris’s fascinating café culture and history.

Prepare for your trip with virtual walks with Lisa Pasold on her Improbable Walks podcast series and Melanie’s blog post on reading Zola: Blood, Sex and Money, Second Empire–Style.

The name of our trip is indebted to the book The Thinking Space: The Café as a Cultural Institution in Paris, Italy and Vienna, edited by Leona Rittner, W. Scott Haine, and Jeffrey H. Jackson


Léon Lhermitte, Les Halles, 1895


Get a detailed itinerary

Paris, France

September 2024


Hôtel Le Littré

12 to 16 participants


Melanie Blake is the executive director of Classical Pursuits. She studied French language and literature at Fordham University and the Université de Montpellier. She was a francophone guide in San Francisco and has led previous Classical Pursuits trips in France, Belgium, Italy, Colombia and Mexico.

Lisa Pasold will lead our custom walks. A writer originally from Montreal, she is the host and co-writer of Discovery World’s TV travel show “Paris Next Stop.” Lisa is the creator of “Improbable Walks”, story-telling walks focusing on legends and place memory. She has created these art walks to critical acclaim for festivals and gallery residencies in cities such as New Orleans, Toronto and Paris.
L. John Harris is a food writer, filmmaker, cartoonist and cookbook publisher. He played a founding role in the food revolution that started in Berkeley, California, in the late ’60s and spread across North America. Harris is the author of The Book of Garlic, Foodoodles and Café French, winner in the 2020 Paris Book Festival. From his earliest visits to Paris in 1963, he has been drawn to the “third space” of the café as a place to work, daydream, observe and seek inspiration.

L'Assommoir by Emile Zola, along with selections from The Belly of Paris (part of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series)
Selected poetry

Cost includes guides, readings, accommodation in double occupancy, two meals a day, discussions, ground transportation, walking tours, talks, excursions, admissions, and taxes and gratuities.

Back to Travel Pursuits Main Page

Ask a Question

2023 Tours
Travel Pursuits 2023