The Marais is an enticing mélange of old and traditional plus contemporary and slightly quirky. It is one of the most compelling areas in Paris. You can go to temple or to church and on the way home, pick up a hip new ensemble for visiting the gallery of modern art. You may pause to take tea at Mariage Frères on the rue du Bourg-Tibourg. They’ve been pouring from the pot for more than 150 years…
If you look on a map of the city – the Marais is east of the Louvre on the Right Bank, spilling from the third arrondissement into the fourth. It is known by many, simply as “the 4th.”
Short history of Le Marais
In the 12th century, the area was marshland, (marais in French). The Knights Templar, who had run out of Crusades to fight, cleared the land. Four hundred years on, the aristocracy began building their mansions here to be close to the Louvre, the preferred palace of royalty. But in 1682 Louis XIV packed up his entourage and headed for Versailles and the district fell out of favour. It survived the major city renovations by Haussmann during the 1860s, retaining much of the early architecture and personality.
The Marais is where the Hôtel de Ville (town hall of Paris) proudly sits, just a few meters from the Seine. This site has been the place of power for the city since 1357, but it has also had a wretched history with public executions held in the forecourt, at that time known as Place de Grève. Now the outdoor space hosts special displays and regular markets. The current Renaissance inspired, stone building was commissioned in 1533 by François the 1st, but it wasn’t finished until six kings later.
The Hôtel de Ville survived and featured in many events of the French Revolution. But, almost a century later it was burned down by the Communards, destroying public records of the Revolution. One of the exquisite front windows made the ideal frame for Charles de Gaulle to deliver his liberation of Paris speech in 1944. And, Jacques Chirac was in opulent residence during his mayoral reign of the city from 1977 to 1995.
Place des Vosges
Towards the eastern end of the Marais is Place des Vosges – this city’s oldest square. It is tiny compared to the Jardin du Luxembourg on the left bank or Jardin des Tuileries alongside the Louvre. It’s a garden bed from one of these great beauties but Place des Vosges has proportions that please. It started in 1604 with a royal pavilion built by Henri IV. He loved it so much he requested another 35 townhouses to surround the square. The result is a triumph and it is one of the most used green spaces in the city.
After you walk the length of all four stone arcades, today occupied by restaurants, galleries and designer boutiques, settle back on a black bench and take yourself back to another time. The rows of square clipped Linden trees knew Victor Hugo. Between 1832 and 1848 when he was writing “Les Misérables”, he lived on the second floor of townhouse six. On a still evening, with a window thrown open, he may have even heard the bells of Notre Dame, home of his hunchback hero. It’s so easy to be transported back into the past in Paris. It is all around…
Top things to do in Le Marais, Paris
Walk – seriously, wear your comfiest walking shoes and just stroll. You’ll discover great architecture, street art, terrific bars and restaurants and quirky boutiques. On Sundays the streets are closed to cars. (Metro Hotel de Ville, Line 1).
Visit the former home of Victor Hugo. In these rooms the great writer created some of his most famous masterpieces. Entrance is free and it’s well worth the time. 6 place des Vosges 75004
Musée Picasso – a treasure trove of the artists paintings, sculptures, photos and personal items. (Great shop too!)
Pompidou Centre. So many people miss this off their list but the incredible venue houses an astonishing collection of modern art. It also has a great restaurant with fabulous views over Paris.
Musee Carnavalet. After closing for renovation in 2016, this museum is due to re-open spring 2020. The history of Paris is revealed in a stunning 16th century Renaissance style mansion house.
There are several museums in the district including the Musée de la Magie – all about the history of Magic show, in a 16th century cellar in a house once lived in by the Marquis de Sade. There’s also the off the beaten track Musée Cognacq-Jay in a stunning mansion house. It displays the arworks collected by Théodore-Ernest Cognacq and his wife Marie-Louise Jay, founders of the famous La Samaritaine store in Paris.
Shop at the Marché des Enfants Rouges, the oldest covered market in Paris at a shade under 400 years old.