I am faithful to my French lover.
For years, I’ve mailed my metaphorical billet-doux or love letters to the Marais—one of the oldest neighborhoods in Paris—and I loyally return here time and again to submit myself to its pleasures.
The Marais is probably the most visually marvelous historical part of central Paris. Known since Roman days as Le Marais, or the marsh, it was drained and filled in the 12th and 13th century as the city expanded. Still resplendent with mansions dating as early as the 17th and 18th century, if you peek behind finely wrought iron gates or a courtyard door that momentarily swings open, you can marvel at postcard-perfect gardens of renaissance precision, bushels of white hydrangeas and perfumed red roses.
It’s an intimate neighborhood, with fewer tourists walking the winding tree-lined streets than in other parts of the city. Remnants of splendor still remain in the Marais, including the emphasis on excellence in the arts of daily living. With ornamental facades restored, a number of mansions, called hôtel particuliers, have become museums or municipal buildings. The house of one of France’s most famous 17th century letter writers, the marquise de Sévigné, is now the Musée Carnavalet. The former Soubise mansion is home to the French National Archives. Aristocrats started fleeing the Marais during the French Revolution, and over time it deteriorated into a slum, rescued from destruction when the area became a protected heritage site in 1964.
Shakespeare observed that the wheel of fortune turns, and no better than the Marais to illustrate his point. Located in the 3rd and 4th arrondissement or district, the neighborhood has come full circle and is fashionable again — with real estate prices to match. There’s plenty to see and do. Boutiques and jewelry shops abound, as well as arts and crafts galleries. Or one can simply marvel at buildings and street signs—like the one named for Olympe de Gouges—the political activist who wrote a declaration of the rights of women during the French revolution and inspired Mary Wollstonecraft’s similarly named Vindication of the Rights of Women, published about a year later in 1792… sorry, I digress.
In the Marais, one can spend all day happily food-hopping from classic bistros to raw-food eateries. For sartorial inspiration: observe women who favor the Charlotte Gainsbourg slouchy t-shirt and jeans look. Men’s fashion runs the gamut from tailored-to-perfection chic (surely, these people live at the tailor shop) to I-can’t-be-bothered chic (surely, these people never owned an iron). The cobblestone streets are made for walking. Shoes are sensible whether they’re the latest sneakers, off-brand French boots, or thick-soled Clergerie type lace-ups.
Of enduring importance is the area’s siren call to history — its allure for history aficionados (like myself) who are besotted with the age of its stones, the tangible enchantment of centuries past that here feels not so long ago, and a ghostly aura that resonates in the air if one dials to this frequency. Ornately historic, the Marais healthily carries on, and the neighborhood embraces the Chinese, Jewish, and LGBT communities.
Here in the Marais, among rusticated buildings with cut limestone facades, inner gem courtyards, mysterious streets, and carved mascaron faces that gaze down at passers by, one finds the real Paris of long ago. This is a gift for the traveler — this very real and very vibrant place where the pulse quickens, the step lightens, and the heart remembers to beat eternally young.
Pavillion de la Reine is tucked behind a flowering courtyard on the Place des Vosges. It’s posh, but not stuffy. The rooms are serene and have a soundproofed plushy carpet ambience. A celebrity in-the-know hotel with discreet security guards milling around, you’ll feel like you’re in a country chateau.
Historical note: Place des Vosges—called Place Royal before the French Revolution—is the first arcaded square in France, built during the years 1605-1612 by Henry IV. The square is surrounded by 17th century luxurious townhouses and upscale shops, galleries, and places to eat. Walk in the square’s park where you can admire the statue of Louis XIII, picnic and sunbathe like the Parisians, or sit under a shady bosque of lime or chestnut trees.
The Sinner opened in summer 2019 and is the spot for your outer or inner Goth. The décor ranges from cozy shades of grey to black, with black toilet paper in bathrooms. For ambience, there’s a smoke machine blowing disco vibe smoke into the lounge, and frankincense is the hotel’s signature scent. You can pick up a Sinner frankincense candle encased in votive-red glass for 40 euros — whether you sin or repent — or none of the above.
Hotel de la Vieux Saulle. Rooms range from basic to large and are newly renovated. The small hotel is in a great location for exploring the neighborhood, and it’s across the street from the Marché des Enfants Rouges. The entire staff is attentive to the weary traveler’s needs, particularly Jamel Kaouach, a former philosophy major at the Sorbonne.
Café Pinson. Freshly squeezed juices of the day, vegan cookies, delicious veggie plates, salads and other standard vegetarian fare. The décor is casual and food is prepared with that je ne sais quoi touch that gets everything right.
Maison Aleph. This is a pastry shop inspired by the Levant. Sweets are infused with ingredients like damask rose, orange flower, halva, Morello sour cherry, and Iranian pistachio, just to name a few. You can buy a sampler box of pastry “nests” or try an ice cream exotically flavored with milk flower, orange blossom and mastic.
Farmer’s market co-op restaurant
Le Troisieme Café is a tiny restaurant where some of the Marché des Enfants Rouges unsold food is donated every night. For an annual 5 euros, you too can become a card-carrying member and meet the friendliest staff and lunch-goers in the Marais. Members (that means you) can pitch in and cook the day’s meal, though with a professional chef to assist. It’s the best-priced lunch in the area at 10 euros, which includes a main course and coffee.
Marché des Enfants Rouges is the oldest food market in Paris. It started as a children’s orphanage in 1628 and the orphans wore red uniforms, hence the name. You can shop for local and organic groceries, grab a sandwich or have a sit-down meal. Over 20 stalls to choose from and the food is top notch super fresh.
Ma Bourgogne is a classic for an outdoor drink or lunch. It’s located in the Place des Vosges arcade — if you want to dine in arcaded midday shade. Here you’ll rub shoulders with neighborhood regulars who are easy to spot as they’re likely wearing an elegant shade of cornflower blue and Cartier accessories.
Tout Autour du Pain. There used to be more bakeries in the Marais, but it’s getting harder to find the real thing as they’re being squeezed out by high rents — not to mention the French are eating less white bread. But the best baguette is still to be found at this prize-winning bakery. Ask for the “traditional” and come early to score one.
Gluten free pastries
Maison Plume. Traditional looking yummy pastries baked with nutritional ingredients. They’re sweetened with stevia and are gluten-free while managing to look and taste sumptuously decadent.
Best buffet breakfast
Hotel Jobo. Dine on coffee served in traditional large bowls and perfect croissants while sitting under a portrait of Josephine Bonaparte, the hotel’s namesake, in this beautifully decorated lounge of leopard print carpet and ormolu gilding. After breakfast, take a short stroll through nearby Place des Vosges park and have breakfast part two at the famed Carette in the arcade.
Café for a rendezvous
La Perle is still an excellent choice for a rendezvous, in spite of a certain fashion designer who temporarily tarnished its reputation with some racist remarks. Have a glass of wine, lunch or a snack. And good luck finding a place to sit on the crowded terrace.
Under the radar café
Le Cactus Bar is a small café frequented in the evening by actors, script writers, theatre folk and other regulars who live in the neighborhood. If you like relaxed, non-touristy, and inexpensive— this is your spot.
Robert et Louise. This restaurant is recommended for the best steak dinners by carnivore friend Natan Hercberg, a Marais-dweller and former owner of a famous restaurant. He often chooses the T-bone, from a traditional menu that offers an impressive variety of meat and fowl.
Trendy boho café
Café Charlot. A people-watching scene and trendy neighborhood café with many English speaking customers. I once ate here alone at peak dinnertime and was pleasantly surprised to be seated at a highly coveted table on the outdoor terrace. The French have always known that women rule the world—and seat them accordingly at restaurants.
LA21. In a neighborhood of abundant little jewelry boutiques, LA21 stands out for originality and moderate prices. In addition to on-trend pieces found elsewhere, the shop’s owner creates travel jewelry (i.e. costume jewelry) that looks like the real thing.
Specialty clothing shop
Coton Doux carries the perfect button down shirt for men, women, and children. The fine cotton fabrics are from Portugal, and there are at least a hundred computer-generated prints to choose from. It’s hard to buy just one. Le Pantalon. Because your new shirt from Coton Doux needs a pair of new pants to go with it. No relation to Coton Doux, by the way. There’s often a line to get in.
Pharmacie de la Mairie. The wonders of French pharmacies! Stock up on excellent products you won’t find in the U.S. like La Roche-Posay Shaka 50+ sunscreen, Pranarōm bio nasal spray, or Maxilase (sore) throat remedy. Pharmacists are extra nice to tourists because they know we buy in multiples!
Marais website: parismarais.com Everything you ever wanted to know about the Marais, categorized and lovingly updated for years by the unofficial ambassador of the Marais, Pascal Fonquernie. Great info on LGBT events too, and general goings on in the area.
House museum on a park
Maison de Victor Hugo, on Place des Vosges. You can visit the large apartment where Victor Hugo wrote most of Les Miserables. See how one of France’s most famous writers lived, and the room where he died.
Centre de Danse du Marais, perhaps the world’s most beautiful dance school with exposed-beam decorated ceilings and ballet barres that roll away on wheels (unlike their American counterpart). Twice a week you can take a baroque dance class and imagine you’re back in the ancien régime or a ball at Versailles. There’s also excellent instruction in other disciplines like yoga and contemporary dance.
Musée Carnavalet. One of the best museums in the city and it’s free. Under renovation currently, it’s set to re-open in 2020. Here you’ll find decorative arts, paintings, and even one of Marie Antoinette’s shoes. After Marcel Proust’s apartment was dismantled, his famous cork-lined bedroom furnishings were saved and his bedroom recreated here. This mansion was once the marquise de Sévigné’s dwelling.
Marquise de Sévigné’s letters. The marquise, known by her married name as Mme de Sévigné, corresponded with her daughter for about fifty years. (BTW the daughter rarely heeded mom’s advice.) The letters provide an invaluable document on the 17th century. With her casual voice and witty observations, it’s almost as though we’re reading a current blog today.
Square du Temple is a peaceful park that’s a stone’s throw away from the Marché des Enfants Rouges. Conveniently, you can grab a sandwich at the market, pick a bottle of wine from the nearby wine shop (uncorked for you there), and head to the park. It’s named after the prison that was once held Louis XVI and his young son during the French Revolution. Now it’s a reminder of more recent history, and a plaque in the park holds the names of children from the Marais who were deported to Auschwitz.
Those new to Paris will be pleased with the excellent public transportation system. And there’s a discount if you buy a carnet, a packet of 10 tickets. City buses always double as inexpensive above ground tours, and one example is the #20 bus near the Garnier Opera and Galeries Lafayette department store, that takes you straight to the Marais. Get off at the Square du Temple stop.
There are a few ways to get from the airport to the Marais. The Roissy airport bus (the French still call Charles de Gaulle airport by its former name of Roissy) is 12 euro and takes you to the Garnier Opera stop, from which buses also regularly return to the airport. It’s not hard to flag a taxi from the Opera stop to your destination, though if you’re beset with luggage, it’s worth springing for a taxi or car service from the airport, as they have flat rates to the city. If you’re carrying valuables or feeling extra jet-lagged, skip the RER train from the airport to the city as there have been occasional petty thefts reported on this line.
In addition, there’s the Bolt app—with good fares like a recent 44 euro charge from the Marais to Charles de Gaulle airport. Orly, the other major Paris airport, is significantly smaller than Charles de Gaulle. It’s closer to the city and transportation to and from is a bit less expensive too. For a limo or darkened-window SUV, the best choice is Ambassador Car Service. Request Annie Cerda, who is a preferred driver both in Paris and at the Cannes Film Festival.