‘Swan Island’: The beautiful Paris walk you’ve never heard of before

You’ve heard of Île de la Cité, the famous island with Notre Dame. And you know about Île Saint-Louis, the neighbouring island with the legendary ice cream.

But have you heard of Swan Island? (Or, as it’s called in French: the Île aux Cygnes.)

So, what is the Île aux Cygnes?

The Île aux Cygnes is a man-made island bang in the middle of the river Seine, out in the 15th arrondissement, and just a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower.

The Île aux Cygnes, built in 1827, served as a point of reinforcement for the three bridges that cross it. It gets its name from a now extinct island, the Île des Cygnes (note: des instead of aux), which was swallowed by the quai of the left bank and built upon.

This picture below shows you where the Île des Cygnes used to be (it’s titled on the map “Isle Maquerelle ou des Cignes). So that bit is now land. Forget that bit. But now you know where the name came from.

Since 1827 the Île aux Cygnes went through various incarnations. Initially it was a breakwater, then for a short stint it was going to be a landing strip, and in 1937 it was the “Centre of the Colonies” for the Universal Exposition.

Pictured below is the island during that exposition, you can see the pavilions of craftsmen from Morocco, Algeria and India dotted along it. They’re all gone now.

Nowadays the island is celebrated by locals as calm and pleasant spot for a stroll. It’s decorated with an eclectic range of trees and it has no houses or shops, making it the perfect place to embrace that inner flaneur and go for a wander. And that’s exactly what we did this week as part of our exploration of the 15th arrondissement.

Now, while the island itself is largely unknown to tourists, and even to many Parisians, you may know one part of it: the Statue of Liberty replica on the western tip!  

Why is there a Statue of Liberty on the Île aux Cygnes?

First: a lightning quick guide for those who don’t know: The Statue of Liberty was designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and constructed by Gustave Eiffel (yes, the man who made the Eiffel Tower). Liberty was gifted the to US by the French in the late 1880s.

While Liberty in New York was a gift from the French, this statue on “Swan Island” was a gift from the Americans. At the centenary of the French revolution, in 1889, the Parisian expat community in the US gifted back their own replica of liberty. Insider’s scoop: This Paris Liberty faces west in the direction of its sister statue in New York.

This statue, however, isn’t the only replica of Liberty in Paris. Interested in finding out where the other seven statues are in Paris? Check out our article all about them here.

When to visit ‘Swan Island’

There’s no wrong time to visit, of course, but as we mentioned on the podcast, it really changes a lot with the seasons. In all our pictures above you can see that spring is only just arriving, the trees are mostly bare, and a few cherry blossoms are showing their faces. But below are some of my pictures from summer – it’s a leafy garden! So much so that it can be hard to spot the Eiffel Tower!

The best way to visit the Île aux Cygnes

Now, as far as we are concerned, the best way to enjoy the walk is as follows: Start at the Bir-Hakeim bridge and head for the steps to the island. Watch out for lunatic cyclists and motorists under the bridge and on the road. Dodge any amorous wedding couples or podcasters getting their photos taken! And yes, this is the bridge from Inception and Last Tango in Paris.

Then from the steps, walk all the way to the other side of the island, but swerve away from the ramp up on the other side and take a side trip down the stairs to meet the Statue of Liberty. There’s a bustling outdoor gym under the bridge, with rock climbing options too.

Then, go up the ramp, cross the bridge back to the 15th, head down to the shoreline of the river, and keep walking along the moored boats. Enjoy an incredible Eiffel Tower view the whole way.

If you’re struggling to imagine all this on one island, in 2020 we did a live YouTube video exploring it. The embedded video below begins at the 25-minute mark, when we spotted some swimming swans by the island. From there, we walk its length. To see the island from the left bank, scroll back and watch the whole video. It begins by the Eiffel Tower.

How to reach the Île aux Cygnes

The Île aux Cygnes is positioned in the middle of the 15th and 16th arrondissements on the River Seine. If you have the time, ideally you’d get to it by foot after strolling along the quais of the river. But if you don’t have time, these are your best bets:

Metro: Line 6: Bir-Hakeim
Bus: 30, 72

If you’re taking a cab be sure to aim for the Bir-Hakeim bridge so you can get the full experience of the island.

The Earful Tower podcast episode

And that’s it! But we gushed over the island in this week’s podcast episode, too, which also features us discussing our findings after spending 24 hours in the 15th arrondissement for our Paris countdown. In the episode we also give our final ranking on the district out of 100.

Video guide to the 15th arrondissement

Here’s our visit, in video format, from our YouTube channel (embedded below). We’ll be making one of these travel vlogs every week, so be sure to subscribe (you can do it in one click via this link). You can see more of the island in this video.

And that’s it! A big thanks to Charlotte Pleasants for the additional reporting, Emily Jackson for the photographs above and to the Patreon members who make all this possible and get bonus content. Join them here.

As for us, you can find all our tips for the 15th district’s best restaurants, cafes, and attractions here. Otherwise see you next week for our trip to the 14th arrondissement.

And you can also support our work by buying one of our children’s books, or our PDF guide to Paris, below. Merci!

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