The Marais

Start: Hôtel de Ville (Métro: Hôtel de Ville).

Finish: Métro Saint Paul.

Time: 2 1/2 hours (not including stops). The walk is about 4km (2 1/2 miles).

Best Time: Every day, during the day. Sunday is a very popular day to visit the Marais.

Worst Time: Toward dusk, when shops and museums are closed and it's too dark to admire the architectural details. Also, Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath so the area around Rue des Rosiers can be quite quiet.

By the late 16th century, the marshy area east of the Louvre was the only part of central Paris that remained undeveloped. It wasn't until the 17th century that the Marais (meaning marsh) became one of Paris's chicest neighborhoods. This was largely thanks to Henri IV, who commissioned the building of Place des Vosges in 1605. The success of the square made the Marais a fashionable area for the aristocracy and led to the construction of many hôtels particuliers (mansions) in the surrounding neighborhood. However, the popularity of the Marais began to wane towards the end of the 17th century when Louis XIV moved his court to Versailles, and after the Revolution, the once-elegant hôtels deteriorated into working-class tenements. In 1969, the Marais was the first district of Paris to be declared a historic district by Culture Minister André Malraux. This led to the restoration of its hôtels, which today are museums, archives, and libraries.

Today, the Marais (which covers the 3rd and 4th arrondissements) is trendy again, and loved by visitors and residents alike. It's a great area for window-shopping at trendy boutiques, up-and-coming galleries, and eclectic stores, and it's one of the few neighborhoods where shops are open on Sundays. It's long been a center for Paris's Jewish community and you'll find Jewish shops and businesses around Rues des Rosiers, Pavée, and des Écouffes. More recently, it has become Paris's center of gay and lesbian life, particularly on Rues St-Croix-de-la-Bretonnerie, des Archives, and Vieille-du-Temple.

1. Hôtel de Ville

In 1532, François I commissioned an Italian architect to build a prestigious town hall in the Renaissance style. However, due to the Wars of Religion the building wasn't finished until 1628. During the Paris Commune the Hôtel de Ville was set on fire and it burned for 8 days, destroying all the art works, state registers, and archives inside. However, almost as soon as it was destroyed, the new government -- the Third Republic -- decided to construct a newer, grander building with a reproduction of the Renaissance façade. The building you can see today was inaugurated on July 13, 1882, but it looks much the same as it would have in 1628. The facade is decorated with 378 works by 230 sculptors, including Rodin. During the summer there are often screenings of big sporting events in front of the Hôtel de Ville, and in the winter the square is home to Paris's most popular ice rink.

With your back to Hôtel de Ville, walk left. Turn left at the quai and walk along the river and then turn left again onto Rue Lobau. On your right you'll come to Place Saint Gervais:

2. Eglise St-Gervais-St-Protais

Named after the twins Gervais and Protais who were martyred in Milan under the rule of Emperor Nero, this is one of the oldest parishes on the Right Bank. The church was built in 1494 and typifies the late Gothic style. The facade, however, was added much later -- in 1616 -- and is an example of early French classicism. On March 29, 1918, the church was hit by a German shell and 88 people were killed when the roof collapsed. This was the worst single incident involving a loss of civilian lives during the German bombardment of Paris in 1918.

To better admire the gothic parts of the St-Gervais, turn right down Rue de Brosse and then left onto Rue de l'Hôtel de Ville. When you reach Rue des Barres turn left and you'll find yourself at the back of the church. Continue up the street until you reach Rue François Miron. Turn right and walk along this street.

3. Rue François Miron

At no. 11 and no. 13 are two half-timbered houses that were built in the 14th century. You'll see a plaque on the front of each one; no. 11 was known as the Maison à l'enseigne du Faucheur (the house with the sign of the reaper) and no. 13 was the Maison à l'enseigne du Mouton (the house with the sign of the sheep). These names refer to hand-painted signs, which date from the 13th century, and were used to locate buildings before street signs and house numbers existed. Both buildings are perfect examples of gabled houses with their narrow facades, ground floors built from stone, and half-timbered upper stories, and they give us an insight into what Parisian houses would have looked like during the Middle Ages.

If you cross over to the other side of the street and continue until no. 68, you'll see the facade of the:

4. Hôtel de Beauvais

In the 13th century the Cistercian Abbey of Chaalis (Oise) used this building as a town house when the monks traveled to Paris. In 1654, Pierre de Beauvais and his wife Catherine-Henriette Bellier moved here, having commissioned an architect to build them a sumptuous hôtel. The hôtel was inaugurated on August 26, 1660, when Louis XIV and his new wife, Marie-Thérèse, entered Paris. Anne of Austria (Louis's mother), Cardinal Mazarin, and the queen of England all stood on the balcony here to watch the procession as it came down Rue François Miron. If the doors are open, go in and admire the courtyard.

From here you need to backtrack along the Rue François Miron until you come to Rue de Jouy. Turn left down this street and continue until you come to a junction. Cross over the street onto Rue Charlemagne and turn right almost immediately onto Rue du Figuier. At no.1 is:

5. Hôtel de Sens

Now home to a public library, this building is one of only two civil buildings from the Middle Ages still standing in Paris (the other is the Hôtel de Cluny). Until 1622, Paris was a diocese that was dependent on the archdiocese of Sens in Burgundy, and when the archbishops of Sens came to Paris, they stayed in this hôtel, built between 1498 and 1507. One of the hôtel's most famous residents was Marguerite de Valois, whose life inspired Alexandre Dumas's 1845 novel La Reine Margot. Daughter of Henri II and Catherine de Medicis, she married Henri de Navarre (who became Henri IV) in 1572. Their marriage was later annulled by the Pope and Henri IV married Marie de Medicis in 1600. After a long exile, Marguerite de Valois returned to Paris in 1605 and lived in the Hôtel de Sens for a year. Known for her great beauty, she scandalized society by having numerous affairs with younger men. The gates of the Bibliothèque Forney (tel. 01-42-78-14-60) are open Tuesday to Saturday 1 to 7pm.

At the junction of Rue Figuier and Rue du Fauconnier, cross Rue du Fauconnier and go down Rue de L'ave Maria. Turn left onto Rue des Jardins St-Paul. Behind the basketball courts is the:

6. Philippe Auguste Wall

An extraordinary piece of the Philippe Auguste Wall, which includes a small tower, has been conserved in the Marais. Before departing for the crusades in 1190, King Philippe Auguste wanted to assure that Paris was properly defended, so he ordered the construction of a wall around the city. Over the centuries the wall gradually expanded as Paris flourished. The old walls were torn down and new ones were constructed, the last of which were the Thiers Fortifications (built 1841-44); this wall ran around the edge of Paris's 20 arrondissements. In the 1960s, after the Thiers Fortifications had been torn down, the vacant land was used to build the ring road that runs around Paris, known as the périph. Thus, there has been a physical boundary separating Paris and its suburbs since the 12th century. The Philippe Auguste wall was constructed with limestone dating from the Lutetian era (43-49 million years ago). At that time Paris had a tropical climate with palm trees, crocodiles, and exotic fish, and fossils of crustaceans and mollusks have been found in the stone.

Turn right into the courtyard at the green sign advertising the Village St-Paul:

7. Village St-Paul

Based around several adjoining courtyards, the Village St-Paul is a collection of small art galleries, quirky shops, and trendy cafes and restaurants. In the 1360s Charles V built himself a royal residence here, the Hôtel Saint-Pol. Charles believed that the hôtel's proximity to both the Bastille prison and the Philippe Auguste Wall would guarantee its security. This residence remained popular with the monarchy until the reign of François I, who couldn't bear its proximity to the nearby sewers. The hôtel was abandoned in 1543. Today, this is one of the most peaceful corners of the Marais and a great place to wander around if you're looking for an unusual gift.

After you've explored, leave through the archway opposite to the one by which you entered. You'll come out onto Rue St-Paul. Turn left up this street, admiring the variety of shops on your way. Look out for the English-language bookshop The Red Wheelbarrow at no. 22. Turn right onto Rue Saint-Antoine. If you cross the road, at no.62 you'll see:

8. Hôtel de Sully

Designed by Jean Androuet de Cerceau in 1624, the Hôtel de Sully is typical of the late French Renaissance style. The Duc de Sully, Henri IV's minister of finance, bought the building in 1634. After a straight-laced life as the "accountant of France," Sully broke loose in his declining years, adorning himself with garish jewelry and a young bride who had a fondness for very young men. The hôtel was bought by the state in 1944 and is now home to the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, which preserves historic monuments across France. Open daily from 9am to 7pm.

The Hôtel de Sully has two courtyards. At the far-right corner of the second courtyard there is an arch (opening hours are the same as Hôtel de Sully) that leads to:

9. Place des Vosges

The square was commissioned by Henri IV in 1605 but when he died in 1610 it was not yet finished. It was inaugurated in 1612 for the double wedding of Louis XIII to Anne of Austria and Elisabeth of France (the king's sister) to the future Philippe IV of Spain -- that's why there's a statue of Louis XIII hidden among the trees in the center of the square's formal garden. Place des Vosges was the first public square in Paris. Henri IV told his courtiers that they could come and build their houses around the square, but that they had to respect certain rules, such as using brick (which was, and still is, quite unusual in Paris). But the aristocrats wanted to cut corners and you'll notice that some of the arcaded pavilions are not made from brick but painted plaster. The square was named Place Royale until the Revolution, when it became Place d'Indivisibilité. In 1799 it was renamed Place des Vosges after the départment of Vosges that raised the most taxes for the revolutionary wars.

10. Maison de Victor Hugo

The square's most famous resident was undoubtedly Victor Hugo. Hugo lived at no. 6 from 1832 to 1848, when he went into voluntary exile on the Channel Islands after the rise of Napoleon III. It was here that he began his masterpiece Les Misérables. Hugo's former home is now a museum (tel. 01-42-72-10-16; and literary shrine.

If you leave the Place des Vosges by its northwest corner, you'll find yourself on:

11. Rue des Francs-Bourgeois

One of the key arteries running through the Marais, the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois marks the border between the 3rd and 4th arrondissements. Jack Kerouac suggested that the name meant "street of the outspoken middle-classes" but it actually refers to the francs bourgeois -- poor members of the bourgeoisie who were exempt from paying taxes. You won't find many poor people here today though, as the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois is one of the chicest streets in the Marais, full of elegant boutiques and designer brands. Some of the shops have retained their original façades; check out the pretty "boulangerie" at no. 23.

At the junction with Rue de Sévigné, turn right. On your left you'll see the:

12. Musée Carnavalet

This 16th-century mansion is the most important and well-known of all the Renaissance hôtels in the Marais. It is now a museum (tel. 01-44-59-58-58; dedicated to the history of Paris and the French Revolution. The entrance is on Rue de Sévigné.

Turn right up Rue Payenne and then left onto Rue du Parc Royal. You'll come to Place de Thorigny. If you turn right up Rue Thorigny on your left you'll see:

13. Musée Picasso

The museum occupies the Hôtel Salé (salé means salty) and the name comes from the hôtel's first owner Pierre Aubert de Fontenay, who was responsible for collecting the salt tax. The museum is closed until spring 2012 for renovations so check on its status at the time of your visit (tel. 01-42-71-25-21;

Backtrack along Rue Thorigny, and turn right onto Rue de la Perle. Turn left on Rue Vieille du Temple. Cross the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, passing a covered market called the Marché des Blancs Manteaux on your left. Turn left into:

14. Rue des Rosiers

This street, which was named after the rosebushes planted in neighboring gardens, is one of the most colorful and popular streets of the Marais. It has been the historic heart of Jewish Paris since the 12th century, and you'll find an intriguing blend of Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions. Here you'll see everything from Eastern European bakeries to North African falafel restaurants. Sephardic Jews from North Africa have sought refuge here since the end of WWII and the collapse of the French colonial empire. To a certain degree, they replenished Paris's Jewish population, a significant proportion of whom were rounded up by the Nazis and the French police and deported to concentration camps during WWII. Like many streets in the Marais, the Rue des Rosiers has become quite a trendy place to shop in recent years and you'll find a number of nice boutiques here.

15. Falafel Break

The Rue des Rosiers is famous for its delicious falafel. If it's summer, you can get falafel to go and continue your exploration of the Marais, pita bread in hand. But if you'd like to sit down, try Chez Hanna (54 Rue des Rosiers; tel. 01-42-74-74-99). The menu is full of Jewish specialties, there's a friendly atmosphere, and the food is very reasonably priced. 

At the end of Rue des Rosiers, turn right onto Rue Pavée.

16. Rue Pavée

This street dates from the Middle Ages. It got its current name in 1450 when it became one of the first streets to be paved over. At no. 10 is the Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue, built by Art Nouveau architect Hector Guimard (who was also responsible for designing the Paris Métro) in 1913. The building of this synagogue really tested Guimard's skills as an architect because he had to work with a piece of land measuring only 5m by 23m (16*75 ft.). To give the impression of a more ample facade, he built continuous pilasters (slightly projecting columns) and narrow windows.

Continue down the Rue Pavée and you'll come to Métro St-Paul.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.