With cobblestone streets winding through alleys, green parks that beckon to you to sit and relax, and historic buildings to explore, the Marais district shows off the charm of old Paris. World-class museums and quaint boutiques are here, too, and there are sidewalk cafes aplenty to welcome you.
The Marais, which includes the 3rd and 4th arrondissements of the city, developed in the 1100s. Marais means “marsh,” which is what the land originally was, spreading out from the banks of the Seine. Today, the Marais is a bustling, colorful area enjoyed by both locals and visitors. Amble along the streets, brush shoulders with others out for a day on the town, and take in the iconic buildings. The area’s delicious food ranges from amazing falafel in the Jewish Quarter to seafood and fries at outdoor restaurants.
Here are just a few of the highlights of the Marais. Keep these in mind as you plan your time so that you can fill your day with what interests you most. So much is packed into the Marais that you’ll likely want to return and sample more of this delightful part of Paris.
Stroll Through The Place Des Vosges
The Place des Vosges, a lovely park lined by stately red brick buildings, tops the list of must-visit sights. The oldest planned square in Paris, the Place des Vosges features not only lawns but also elegant stone fountains and a path through a grove of trees. Commissioned by King Henry IV in the early 17th century, the park is known for its symmetrical design. The Place des Vosges once hosted nobility and also duels. Today, families hang out here, locals come to exercise or study, and tourists marvel at the peacefulness of this outdoor oasis.
You can walk under the graceful arches around the park, stop at the shops, and order a coffee at a sidewalk cafe and watch Parisian life from your cozy spot.
See Where Les Mis Was Born
Victor Hugo once lived in a brick building at the edge of the Place des Vosges, and today you can tour his home. The French writer lived on the second floor of this mansion from 1832 to 1858 and wrote a large part of Les Miserables here. Illustrations of his works are on display, and you will see some of Hugo’s furniture and other belongings as you follow a chronological presentation of his life.
Visit The Quirky Centre Pompidou
This museum of modern art features works by the likes of Matisse, Picasso, and Warhol. The building itself, however, is perhaps the most interesting of all. Escalators and large colored tubing decorate the exterior of the Centre Pompidou. Admire the facade, and then enter the museum for a chronological tour of art. Make your way to the top floor for a sweeping view of Paris. If you find yourself in the museum at lunchtime, eat at Le Georges Cafe and then continue on your way.
Get Your Culture Fix At The Musee Picasso Paris
The extensive collection of the Musee Picasso Paris includes more than 5,000 items. Marvel at the paintings, sculptures, engravings, and drawings of Spain’s Picasso; trace the artist’s career path; and learn about his creative process.
The building dates to the mid-1600s. The first occupant was a tax collector, and Picasso and his wife later lived there. Eventually, in 1964, the building was purchased for the museum.
Learn About Paris History At The Musee Carnavalet
The Musee Carnavalet provides a look at the history of Paris from A.D. 52 to the present. The two buildings of the museum date to the 16th and 17th centuries. Collections include medieval and Gallo-Roman archeology, items from the French Revolution, sculptures, furniture, and paintings. The display rooms feature items from private residences of earlier times. One room has been organized to resemble the bedroom of writer Marcel Proust, complete with a little desk covered in notebooks and pens. Be sure to see the lovely art deco ballroom!
Leave time to wander through the gardens and notice the Renaissance-era doorway.
Tour The Seat Of Government At The Hotel De Ville
A town hall serving as the seat of the Paris City Council has occupied this site since 1357. The building you see today is neo-Renaissance in style, built after a fire in 1871 destroyed the previous hotel. You can arrange for a guided tour of the Hotel de Ville before you arrive in the Marias if you are interested in seeing the city hall offices. One room is a replica of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
Linger At A French Cafe
Whether you want a morning coffee, a hearty lunch, or a late-afternoon glass of wine, you’ll have no problem finding the perfect cafe in the Marais. The hard part will be choosing which one.
One well-known cafe is Cafe Livres. It boasts shelves holding 13,000 books and works on a take-one, leave-one basis. This cafe is popular for its Sunday brunch complete with book discussions.
Another fun choice is the Boot Cafe on the border of the Marais district and the Bastille. The cafe occupies what was once an old cobbler’s shop. It’s tiny but offers a selection of coffees and fresh-baked treats.
Pay Your Respects At The Jewish Quarter
The Marais has been home to a community of Jews since the 13th century. The history of this area is rich but troubled. The Jewish Quarter has been the site of terrorist attacks and of deportations. Memorials name some of the children deported during World War II. And the Goldenberg Restaurant suffered a 1982 terrorist attack that left six people dead and 21 injured. Notice the plaques and monuments to those lost. This community does not forget those who called this quarter home.
The Shoah Memorial in the Jewish Quarter was founded by President Jacques Chirac in 2005. A permanent exhibition focuses on the history of France’s Jews during World War II. Here you’ll find documents, photos, and video recordings.
Marvel At The Architecture Of The Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis Church
The Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis Church is an excellent example of baroque architecture. Built between 1627 and 1641 by the Jesuits, it was the first church to move away from the Gothic tradition. Listed as a historical monument, the church was renovated to its original splendor in 2012.
If you are a fan of historic architecture, take time to go inside the church. The dome was one of the first built in Paris and was used as a model for the gold dome of the Invalides, which lies on the other side of the Seine. The church contains sculptures and paintings, and the organ, the altar, and the pulpit are works of art.
Shop For All The Things
Paris is known for its focus on fashion. And the Marais is one of the best places in the city to go shopping.
Located in the heart of the trendiest area of the district, the large department store BHV Marais provides a wonderful shopping experience. Built in 1865, the BHV boasts not only clothing but also merchandise for the home.
The streets around the BHV Marais house a variety of stores, including name brands and small shops. Vintage clothing shops abound, and specialty stores such as Bring France Home prove ideal for souvenirs.
Come back to the BHV Marais at night for a drink at the rooftop cafe. The sparkling lights of Paris will enchant you.
Sample The Heavenly Food On The Rue Des Rosiers
The food served up in the Jewish Quarter is a tourist attraction in and of itself. Head to the Rue des Rosiers for the most delectable offerings. Try the famous falafel, yummy chickpea patties with fresh veggies and homemade tahini sauce. L’As du Fallafel is a good place to sample this iconic Marais food.
Also try to fit in a visit to one of the Yiddish bakeries on Rue des Rosiers for sweets such as linzer torte, strudel, and baklava.
If it’s a light snack you’re looking for, you’ll find street food stalls selling tasty crepes, noodles, and bagels.
I visited the Marais district on a Sunday. Locals filled the streets, shopping and eating and laughing. The Place des Vosges was alive with children playing, adults exercising, and people of all ages lounging on the lawns. I would recommend a Sunday as an ideal day to visit and enjoy being immersed in Parisian life.
But whenever you visit the Marais, you’ll find something fascinating to see, plenty of shopping of all kinds, parks, art, historic architecture, and delicious food. It would be easy to fill a day with a variety of experiences and tastes -- and you’ll hope to return soon!