The Marais is a neighborhood in Paris that stretches across parts of both the 3rd and the 4th districts (arrondissements).This former riverside swamp (marais) was settled in the 13th century, when things started to get a bit too crowded on Île de la Cité and Île Saint-Louis. When Henri IV (King of France) built the beautiful Place des Vosges, things really started to take off. Following the king, came the aristocrats and mansions started to spring up all around the Marais. After a period of decline, the Marais is now one of the trendiest places in Paris. Gay friendly in the north with lots of Jewish heritage in the south – super trendy, hip & chic throughout, while wrapped in aristocratic history and beautiful architecture. It’s no wonder that strolling the streets of the Marais is one of the top things to do in Paris.
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Why should you visit the Marais?
The Marais is one of the few designated zones in Paris where shops can stay open on Sunday. Aside from that, the Marais retains a unique mixture of history, openness, and artsy chic. Its narrow lanes are home to boutiques, gourmet shops, galleries, and museums, while its main arteries are dotted with markets, bakeries, restaurants and cafes- where a spot in the terrasse (a sunny table facing the street) is premium real estate. Speaking of real estate, the Marais is an extremely sought after neighborhood to live in. When you’ll visit, you’ll immediately understand why. There’s a village vibe in the Marais, yet you’re in the middle of central Paris!
If this hasn’t convinced you already, the Marais is bordered by the Quartier St-Paul, a tiny sliver of medieval lanes and courtyards that are a true oasis and a world away from the madness of downtown Paris.
What To Take With You
Even though writing about the places I visit is something I do very seriously (as you can hopefully see ) – I never leave home without a travel guide book. My personal preference is for Rough Guides and in the case of Paris, it’s The Rough Guide To Paris. Together with this Marais neighborhood guide, it’ll be your best friend in The City of Lights, and a pretty good read while killing some time in a classic Parisian cafe.
With the power of information now in your hands, I recommend to be prepared for a picnic or at the very least – a break in the Place de Vosges. This means having a small bag to carry fresh groceries (see market tips later on), cutlery, wine bottle opener, cups and of course – something to sit on!
How to get to the Marais?
The best way to start your exploration of the Marais is to take the Paris Metro to the Arts et Métiers station and begin walking east, eventually heading south towards the Seine.
When to go to the Marais?
The Marais is great on any given day, though keep in mind that many shops and museums tend to close on Mondays. You can come here for an evening drink and for some people watching, or visit on the weekend when things reach a climax. Many Parisians visit the Marais on a Sunday. It’s a prime spot for brunch so things will reach a peak around noon. It’s also the best time to visit, with a wonderful weekend vibe yet a small town feel. The Marais is one of the few neighborhoods in Paris where businesses are allowed to open their doors on Sundays, further increasing the area’s Sunday appeal.
How long should you spend in the Marais?
You could easily spend a full day exploring the Marais. If you plan on visiting a few museums, a full day might not even be enough. You can combine a visit to the Marais with a visit to the Quartier St-Paul (more on that later).
What to do in the Marais?
Wow, there is so much to see and do in the Marais. What I’ll share with you here is how I spent a Sunday in the Marais, that combines a bit of sightseeing, plenty of walking and a whole lot just wandering around. Planning is not essential as the Marais doesn’t have any monumental landmarks where queueing can be a problem. If you simply enjoy strolling around, you’ll have a great time in this part of Paris. There are just a few highlights that are kind of a must but other than that, just enjoy the vibe. It really reminded me of the Jordaan district in Amsterdam, with its cafes, boutiques and laid-back atmosphere. The Marais however, has that French chic to it and that’s what makes it so special!
Here’s a map to help you out, just click on the image to open in Google Maps
A good place to start is the vibrant Rue de Bretagne, just as you exit the Metro at Arts et Métiers. The buildings are charming and cafes are starting to fill up as Parisians begin to head for brunch.
The first stop is at Square du Temple. The Knights Templar used to have their stronghold over here but that’s long gone. Today, the Square du Temple is a beautiful little park. We visited during April when flowers were blooming, the trees were waking up and the baby ducks were heading out for their first dip in the pond.
Continuing on Rue de Bretagne, you quickly reach the lovely Marché des Enfants-Rouges. It’s the oldest covered market in Paris, dating back to the 1600’s and named for red uniforms worn by the children of a nearby orphanage that used to be here. The market itself is not big at all but super cool to explore. Inside, you’ll find the usual selection market goodies, like fresh fruits & vegetables, cheese, bread, fish and well, a lot more. The cool thing about Marché des Enfants-Rouges is that it also has cafes inside the market and stalls selling takeaway food. If you like picnics and it’s a sunny day, it’s a great idea to stock up on some of your favorites and take your lunch break under the sun at Place des Vosges (more on that soon).
Just across from Marché des Enfants-Rouges is one the trendiest cafes in the Marais, Café Charlot. If you can find a spot in one of the outside tables on a Sunday (la terrasse), consider yourself lucky and grab it right away. If you’re not planning a picnic, this could be a good spot for brunch but you can also just enjoy some strong coffee or a fresh glass of Rosé wine.
You can now take a slight detour and head down Rue Charlot. It’s one of the oldest streets in Paris and lined with boutiques. You can take any side street if you want to see more, heading back west, and loop back to Rue de Bretagne where we pretty much started.
If you’re not up for a detour and feel like a having an early drink, head over to Candelaria. As you step inside, it looks nothing more than a plain taqueria but keep heading towards the back door. This plain inconspicuous door will not lead you to the bathroom but rather into a secret cocktail bar! Grab a seat if you’re lucky and freshen up with one of the dozens of choices on the menu! This secret cocktail bar is one of the coolest in town and if you’re not up for an early drink, keep it in mind for later.
Next up is simply finding your way down to Place du Marche Ste Catherine, a tiny little square that is often overlooked by visitors who just rush to nearby Place des Vosges. If you haven’t had your brunch or coffee, this is an excellent place – though good luck getting a table outside.
Our next stop is one of the highlights of the Marais and in fact, a must see for any visitor in Paris. Place des Vosges is one the favorite spots for residents of the Marais, tourists, and all Parisians – and there’s a good reason why. The square was planned by Henri IV and was inaugurated at the wedding of Louis XIII, whose statue commands the center of the square.
Place des Vosges is surrounded by mansions on all four sides. It was a royal palace until things moved to Versailles but there’s still a royal feel to it. If you’ve prepared a picnic, find a spot on the grass and enjoy one of the best picnic spots in all of Paris. Visiting Place des Vosges is definitely one of the things to do in Paris. Be sure to explore the surrounding buildings, they are filled with art galleries and musicians.
There are quite a few museums around Place des Vosges, a lot of which are free. These include the Maison de Victor Hugo, Musée Carnavalet (which walks you through the history of Paris) and the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris (which is home to a fine collection of books about the history of Paris). When I visited the Marais, it was such a sunny day, that I decided to skip the museums and enjoy the great spring weather. If it’s a rainy day in Paris, those two are good options for waiting out the rain.
There is another spot which you should not miss if you’re already here and that’s the Hôtel de Sully. This former chateau holds photo exhibitions but the real highlight for visitors is the tranquil gardens, just as you enter the chateau (take the shortcut from the southwest corner of Place des Vosges). With birds singing and the fresh scent of flowers, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the middle of central Paris, and the busy Rue Saint Antoine just a few meters away!
If you like old European churches, head over to St-Paul-St-Louis just as you exit Hôtel de Sully on the busy Rue Saint Antoine side. There are nicer churches in Paris and in fact, we’ll visit a super cool one shortly but if you’re already here, you might as well take a peek inside. There’s also a really good pastry shop just a few meters away called Miss Manon – you’ll recognize it by the queue of people stretching all the way to the street.
Now things get a tiny bit tricky and there’s definitely more than one good way of doing it. You pretty much want to check out two parallel streets: Rue de Rosiers and Rue des Francs Bourgeois. So, from the St-Paul-St-Louis church, we walked through Place du Marche Ste Catherine once again and started walking along Rue des Francs Bourgeois.
This is the trendy street in the Marais and also one of the nicest ones architecturally speaking. It houses many of the old mansions that are now mega expensive apartments. You’ll also find here some of the free museums I’ve mentioned before and above all, loads of cafes, boutiques, and people walking around enjoying their Sunday afternoon.
At any point you wish, just cut south to Rue des Rosiers. This is the original Jewish quarter of Paris and today, you’ll find here excellent kosher bakeries (try the apple strudel or the challah bread), restaurants and Judaica stores. However, the number one attraction in Rue des Rosiers is the ‘falafel war’. This tiny street is home to at least 3-4 really good and popular falafel spots. Parisians and visitors queue up to taste this popular Middle Eastern dish and the battle for customers is intense. Who’s got the best falafel? Well, you’ll have to find out for yourself!
If falafel is not your thing, head over to Miznon, just off ‘falafel central’. This spinoff to a successful Tel Aviv joint revolves around local French dishes and Middle Eastern delights served in a pita! The atmosphere is vibrant, the place is always full and you’ll get up close and personal with the kitchen staff. Try the beef bourguignon (in a pita of course) and a side of baked cauliflower – I guarantee you’ll be coming back for more (at least that’s what happened to me the following week)!
Once you’ve had enough of the falafel wars, head over to Rue du Tresor – a quiet little alley that has lots of secluded cafes and restaurants. The noisiest one but with the best people watching spot is Les Philosophes.
If you haven’t figured out already that the Marais has some cool shops, then head over to Mariage Frères, just a few meters away. Tea from literally around the world has been sold here for over a hundred years and this place still retains much of the old-world charm that is reminiscent of a time when tea was a real commodity of luxury.
We’ll now head south and into the Quartier St-Paul and the St-Gervais-St-Protais church, via the picturesque rue des Barres. We’ll get to the church in just a minute, however, this is one of the shortest and most charming lanes in Paris and I am sure it appears on many postcards. A definite good spot for food, drinks and some sun, is at L’ Ebouillante.
And now to the St-Gervais-St-Protais church. Aside from the fact that it’s one of the oldest in Paris, this church has exceptionally beautiful stained glass windows and is relatively low key compared to its neighbors Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dam. It’s strangely eerie yet beautiful inside. I’m a sucker for old European churches!
Our last stop in the Marais will be at nearby Village Saint Paul. This tiny part of the Marais is a network of medieval alleys with a secluded courtyard, that on weekends, plays host to an antiques market. It’s a nice spot to freshen up before ending your visit of the Marais. If you just happen to see an intense game of basketball in the nearby playground, pay close attention to the back wall – it’s actually part of the original Paris city wall that stood here centuries ago!
Visiting the Marais on a Sunday is definitely one of the top things to do in Paris. Though things can get a bit crowded, this neighborhood has an unforgettable vibe to it that keeps you wanting more. The combination of a rich royal history, beautiful architecture, chic art and an endless choice of cafes & restaurants, makes spending a full day here a no brainer. It’s no wonder why the Marais is pretty much on every Parisian’s top list of favorite spots in Paris.
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