The Marais

Le Marais, ParisTourists on their way to Paris often say, we want to stay near the center so where should we stay? The answer is always another series of questions: What can you afford? Do you want small and quaint? Broad and regal? Near the River? Near the crooked lanes of Montmartre? It is entirely a personal choice. One thing is certain, you can't go to Paris and skip the Marais. It's very similar in feel to the West Village in Manhattan, with a different architecture of course, but the small crooked medieval lanes are alive with bars, restaurants, hotels, high and low fashion boutiques, trendy shops, hip designers, old fashioned bread shops, jewelry, wine shops, fashionable art galleries and museums all crammed into one small area.

Le Marais, ParisLe Marais is the closest you will get to the feel of medieval Paris and has more pre-revolutionary buildings and streets left intact than any other area in Paris. A glance at some of the beautiful buildings and houses indicates the wealthy status of the former residents. After the revolution, much of the area was abandoned by the rich, and poor bohemian types moved in. (almost the opposite of Soho in NY) The area was considered so squalid at this point it was nearly destroyed by city officials who wanted to modernize Paris. (A huge avenue cutting through the center of the Marais was only avoided by the start of WWI.) You should keep in mind that before Napoleon showed up the Marais is what most of Paris looked like--- a labyrinth of cobblestone alleys. The rest of Paris was razed by Napoleon and Haussman who wanted to build huge avenues and gigantic squares such as the Place Concorde. These are now the glory of Paris, but they were originally conceived so that armies and artillery could be moved around the city to keep the poor in check and defeat invaders. On a more metaphysical level, the purpose of such broad space is to make the citizen feel small and powerless when faced with the giant civic machine of government, or an obedient army. In the Marais we are privy to the small and approachable Paris of the past, the place to wander in maddening circles and never find your way, the place to hole up and read Sartre or Camus in a café window or stare at that Parisian beauty with her slim cigarette and wild scarf. The Marais is also the most famous Jewish quarter in Paris and in much of Europe, still maintaining strong traditions.

Place de bastille, ParisTo begin exploring the area the best place to start is to take the metro to Bastille unless you walk from Notre Dame and the Hotel de Ville. The Bastille is the site of the great fortress that saw the beginning of the French Revolution on July 14, 1789. Nothing is left of the original historic building but a little brickwork in the ground. The giant column in the center actually commemorates two later revolutions (they got the hang of it) in the mid-1800's. The most obvious building today is the glass Opera house built by Mitterand, which looks a little like my glass brick shower stallu0085 It was a controversial project supposed to bring Opera to the masses but that remains to be seen. As cheap as opera tickets can be, you are unlikely to see unemployed street sweepers and truck drivers at La Boheme. Notice the canal that seems to end right at the Place de la Bastille and then go take a closer look and see that it continues underground. This is the Port de Plaisance and those who take the cruise to the Canal St Martin may be surprised to find that perhaps a kilometer or so is spent under the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir before you finally emerge into the light of day.

Place des Voges, Paris The Place des Vosges is considered by many to be the most beautifully built square in Paris. It was built by Henry IV and soon became one of the most exclusive areas to live. Napoleon himself considered it the jewel of Paris. Notice the small variations in the building's heights lining the square, the delicate brickwork, the special color tone of the stone, the exquisite park with its sculpture and tended gardens and children playing--- the scene is almost unreal at times. Victor Hugo lived at # 6 while he wrote Les Miserables but during the 19th century much of the aristocracy had abandoned the neighborhood and the area was taken over by shopkeepers and immigrants, vagrants, artisans and artists and Jews. If you are interested in what the area was like at the height of its grandeur, the Carnavalet Museum (23 rue de Sevigne) is filled with the history of Paris and is worth seeing even if it's a little confusing and nothing is in Englishu0085. but it's FREE. (closed Mondays) Nearby, at # 5 Rue Thorigny , you will find the Picasso Museum which is also worth visiting if you have any interest in art. If you have no interest in art, you have an even better reason to go--- it's time to learn a few useless facts the same way I was forced to study Boolean systems in college. The museum is closed Tuesday.

If you are interested in the Jewish quarter just stroll up the rue des Rosiers. This was once the largest Jewish community in Europe but 75% of the population died tragically in concentration camps. Today the street is packed with delis, bakeries, old hamams, and East European Jewish restaurants. I'd recommend strolling around here on any day but Saturday when things are a little too quiet.

The rue St. Antoine in the center is also marvelous. You can walk along and drool at pastry shops or anything else imaginable. The little square of St. Catherine is one of my favorite places--- go at night and you will be amazed at the atmosphere in this small square ringed by old apartments and giant trees with soft yellow light filtering down through the leaves and glow of street lamps. There are some nice little bars and restaurants strung around the perimeter of the square where you can sit at night and eat outside or just have a glass of wine. There are also a few decently priced hotels in the very near vicinity. The 2-star Hotel Agora is situated in a pedestrianised street a few steps from the Pompidou Centre. Conveniently located between Les Halles and Place de la Bastille, the 2-star Hotel Pratic offers cosy and classic Parisian accommodation at economical rates. The 3-star Hôtel Turenne Le Marais benefits from a central location, near Place des Vosges as does the Hotel Caron.

The Marais is also known for its numerous art galleries and design shops. A bit like Soho in Manhattan, the high end art tends to lean toward the more conceptual schools influenced by post-modernism and the success of Brit-Pop--- in some cases it is an enormous waste of beautiful space, in others, interesting work appears form time to time. For those with a greater interest in the early 20th century artists, the rue de Seine in St. Germain is a better spot to look.

For those few who have come to Paris looking for beer visit La cave à bulles, at 45 rue Quincampoix with its huge selection of artisinal beers, many of which will be unknown to even the most knowledgeable beer aficionados.

Tours

Go on a great 2-hour orientation tour of the Marais at night - a diverse area of contemporary gay life, historic mansions, and the Jewish quarter. Discover life in this elegant and historic quarter of Paris, know what to avoid and how to get around. See the best bars, saunas, restaurants, gay boutiques, and clubs in the area. See Show Me Gay Marais + Dinner

For those who want to visit the Marais by day see the Marais Day Tour and the Marais, a Village in the Heart of Paris Walking Tour

Help Support Matt's Paris Guide 
Do you enjoy using my site? Have you found it entertaining as well as useful? If so please show your appreciation by booking hotels through the links found on my
Hotels Page. The small comission I make on the bookings enable me to keep working and in most cases you won't find them any cheaper by searching elsewhere. You can also book at Booking.com's Paris Page and they give me a small percentage on each booking.

Return to A Paris Guide Index

privacy policy