This is my second love letter to the Marais. It’s the oldest historical area in the center of Paris that entices me back year after year. At long last, after all these Covid-lived months of travel deprivation, I returned to Paris this summer.
Happily, the touchstones of my love are intact. I ran into the waiting embrace of Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris. My favorite park with its rows of lime and chestnut trees, neatly placed fountain paper weighting each of its corners, sweet gravel paths, and the statue of Louis VIII is unchanged. The perfectly square grounds where my husband likes to sketch are enclosed by a perfectly square arcade and buildings where luminaries like Victor Hugo, Cardinal de Richelieu, and Madame de Sévigné once lived. Called Place Royale before the revolution, Napoleon renamed it in 1800. By any name, the park is one of the most elegant squares in France, still popular today for amusements that include picnics, daydreaming on a bench, or jogging around the gravel perimeter.
Place des Vosges is also the perfect home base for a week in Paris. My husband and I opted to stay at a hotel on the square. Not just any hotel, but Le Pavillon de la Reine (the queen’s pavilion) and my idea of heaven on earth. Tucked away behind a garden courtyard where drinks and meals are also served, the hotel is part of the vast ancient queen’s building which faces the equally vast king’s building on the other side of the park, reminding one of chess pieces set out on a board.
We started the week off with a visit to the exquisite Carnavalet Museum. Brilliantly renovated over the past four years, it just reopened this July. Where else could you find Proust’s recreated bedroom — rather sad looking prior to the renovation but now spruced up, and yes, even Marie Antoinette’s single beribboned shoe lost in the Tuileries garden, encased with other relics of a once glorious ancien régime dedicated to luxury and pleasure. New is the courtyard café Olympe, and the museum shop is fully restocked with books, upscale souvenirs — so what if you want to buy an Eiffel Tower emblazoned shopping bag?, traditional French soaps and creams depuis a hundred years or more ago, Gien porcelain plates and other enticements.
Sunny afternoons flew by and smiling Parisians were happy to chat and didn’t even immediately switch to English when I addressed them in my hobbled French. Ah, sunshine on cobblestones, the scent of flowers and French perfumes in the air, and pastel colored ice cream cones in the hand. Sounds like a romcom, doesn’t it? Love actually.
A Place des Vosges guide with listings in no particular order, all within a 30-minute walk from the square:
Le Pavillon de la Reine Hotel & Spa (The Queen’s Pavilion Hotel)
If you can stay here, look no further. Right on the square, this hotel is luxurious and understated in a velvety posh, toile de jouy kind of way. There’s a massage and beauty treatment room, gym, and spacious hamman (why call it a steam room?). At the bustling breakfast buffet one morning, I overheard Los Angeles film people, a French actress, Italian fashion team, and a couple of families with polite children in tow, lending the scene a current and non-stuffy ambience. Tim Goddard, the most gracious of managers, and front desk wizardess Anne-Catherine Guichard run the hotel to standards of ensured customer bliss.
The name says it all. Transform yourself with a Parisian makeover at this in-the-know salon frequented by fashion designers like Jean-Paul Gautier, singers and dancers from the Paris Opera, as well as other celebs and neighborhood clients. Try to score an appointment with the owner Dominique.
Chez Janou Bistrot
Boasting 80 flavors of pastis, this restaurant provençal feels like an excursion to, you guessed it, Provence. Sitting outdoors under towering magnolia trees one can feast on delights like baked garlic and potatoes (with searing mustard), sirloin steak bien sur, and chocolate mousse served out of a humongous tureen. It’s a casual yet happening scene that stays lively into the night. Say hi to owner Jeff who spends evenings circumnavigating his four successful restaurants in the area.
Jacques & Selima Optique
Sometimes Paris feels like the eyeglass capital of the world. So many frames to choose from and so little time. A block away from the square is Jacques & Selima where you’ll find an outstanding selection of frames, handmade lamé eyeglass cases, and as an added bonus the owner is on site. With over 30 years as an optician, he successfully adjusted my vintage Italian sunglasses on the first try.
This is a kind of French Target where it’s easy to stock up on clothes and household odds and ends including souvenirs and gifts. It’s a good place (from personal experience) to buy a small room fan during a heatwave. Monoprix also has a superior selection of European cosmetics we don’t get in the U.S., and Swiss brand Mavala nail polish that comes in a rainbow assortment of mini bottles, reminiscent of a childhood jumbo box of Crayolas.
Still my favorite haunt. Charlot has the best chèvre chaud goat cheese salad and house rosé wine, irresistible French fries, and a menu to please everyone from vegan to carnivore alike. The host Sylvain and staff are warmly welcoming and even remember your dinner specs (like a tray of olive oil and vinegar) on your next visit. After dinner, take a walk down rue des Archives and admire the magical roofscape, glimpse the penetralia of flowery courtyards, and head back to Place des Vosges where you can take a post prandial turn around the cozy 460 ft. square and gaze at the Paris night sky replete with stars.
A two-story branch of the stylishly understated wearable clothing store for all genders on rue Beaumarchais is a 5-minute walk from the square. Here you’ll find the latest version of the brand’s classic floral button-down shirts or snap button cardigans or the coveted snap button leather cardigan, all of which in different iterations have been rotating in my closet since I first lived in Paris for a couple of semesters as an undergrad. The latest version of the snap cardigan now boasts the addition of a handy portable or cell phone pocket on the front.
Newly reopened in July 2020 after an extensive renovation, the museum is about a five-minute walk from Place des Vosges. The website sums it up: “The Carnavalet – History of Paris museum is the oldest museum in the City of Paris.” The museum covers Paris from the deep past of pre-historic times to the present with equal parts painting, decorative arts, and a range of vast historical troves like original maquettes of pre-Haussmann Paris. Free admission is yet another reason to frequent this astonishingly bountiful museum. The renowned lady of letters, Madame de Sévigné moved to a section of the building in 1677, and now one of the rooms she lived in houses some of her furnishings, belongings, and famous portrait by Claude Lefèbvre.
Le Comptoir des Mers Restaurant
Located at 1 Rue Turenne, this is a seafood lover’s delight, famous for its array of the freshest seafood and all-you-can-eat oyster specials. There’s takeout and delivery service and the menu ranges from conventional fish and chips to stunning pyramids of assorted raw seafood. A great variety of seafood, most all from the day’s catch.
House of Guerlain — Perfume
Founded in 1828, this is one of the finest perfume houses in Paris, and the home of cult fragrances like Shalimar, L’Heure Bleau, and Jicky formulated in 1889 and considered the first unisex fragrance. For patchouli lovers, there’s a new fragrance (launched in 2020) worth checking out: Patchouli Ardent. True to its name, it’s subtly layered with top notes like rose that lend it smooth complexity and staying power.
Diptyque and Cire Trudon — Candles
These two renowned candle stores are located down the street from one another. I toggle between the brands and on this trip tried a new one, Cire Trudon’s “Josephine.” A little gift with purchase was a heretofore unknown object: a beautifully carved scented wax cameo meant to be dispersed on a fragrance diffuser named La Promeneuse. I found the cameo also works very well tucked in a drawer. As far as gift giving — for yourself or others — unless you have an aversion to roses, Diptyque’s “Rose” candle is a first choice. Ditto for “Oud” and “Patchouli “which my husband prefers.
Tout Autour du Pain Pâtisserie
Parisians are more loyal to their bakeries than their lovers. Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration. This upper Marais bakery is often a recipient of awards for best buttery croissants and baguettes in Paris. Stop for a pastry to refuel as you head back to the main drag rue Bretagne. On rue Bretagne there’s a lot to see and do: a large bio grocery store, pharmacies, wine shops, and popular cafes along the same street where you’ll find Marché des Enfants Rouge, the oldest covered market in Paris, created in 1615. Incidentally, you can’t go wrong ordering an inexpensive meal from any of the food stalls in the market.
Wild & the Moon
This casual bio organic venue feels like a hipster café in Los Angeles or New York.
Available are cold pressed juices, smoothies, and assorted dishes ordered from the cashier-assistant-staff-person. There are self-serve tables indoors or one can grab take-out from the fridge. There’s a fresh array of salads, sandwiches, yummy legume and grain dishes that were once called vegetarian but have mysteriously morphed into the current appellation “plant-based.” You can pick up the immune boosting Bam Shot, a mini-bottle that includes ginger, turmeric, and black pepper to blast away any impending travel cold.
Carette Salon de Thé
A neighborhood fixture, this café is located under the Place des Vosges arcade. The popular café is always hopping. Celebrated particularly for sandwiches and pastries, you’ll find locals who breakfast here, ladies who lunch and/or have tea, and Parisians and tourists alike who appreciate the excellent lunches and renowned baked goods.
This mini Courrèges boutique mushroomed up on rue Vieille du Temple since my last pre-pandemic visit to Paris. Courrèges is known for a form fitting fetishy-vinyl French take on the British 60s look: cropped vinyl jackets, a classic high collar ribbed top underneath, and matching vinyl miniskirt. It’s sartorial fab if you can pull off the skintight fit — no more assorted pastries at the breakfast buffet for this writer! There’s always the option of a nifty Courrèges handbag or coin purse in cheerfully mod colors.
The Marais is a jewelry lover’s haven, though its offerings sometimes tip a little too far on the trendster side. One shop that gets a gold star for originality is Beautiful Accident. A wee place with an artisanal vibe and workshop in the back, it produces the heavenly “Stardust” pieces that resemble a galaxy of teeny twinkling stars swirled into a jewel. The other exceptional offering is a custom-made ring or bracelet with Mobius loop phrase to wrap around the finger or wrist. There’s the option of selecting your own special words, a poetic phrase, entwining your name with your beloved’s or simply commemorating a trip to Paris with one of Edith Piaf’s famous song titles “La vie en rose.”