START: Village St-Paul (23–27 rue St-Paul, Métro: St-Paul).
FINISH: Place des Vosges.
TIME: 1 1/2 hours, not including time spent in shops, restaurants, or museums.
BEST TIME: During the week, when the streets are full of life, and Sundays, when unlike other parts of the city, many shops and restaurants are open.
WORST TIME: Saturdays, when shoppers flood most of the neighborhood and the Jewish quarter completely shuts down.
The Marais is one of the few areas that Baron Haussmann largely ignored when he was tearing up the rest of the city; for that reason, it still retains a medieval feel. Though very few buildings actually date from the Middle Ages, this warren of narrow streets and picturesque squares is layered with a rich history, which is apparent in the pleasing hodgepodge of architectural styles. The neighborhood’s glory days date from the 16th and 17th centuries, when anyone who was anyone simply had to build a mansion or a palace here. Though the area fell from grace in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of the grand hôtels particuliers (private mansions) survived the slings and arrows of time and were reborn as museums and public archives when the neighborhood was restored in the latter half of the 20th century. Today, the Marais is a fascinating mix of hip gentrification and the remnants of a working-class neighborhood. It is at once the center of the city’s gay life, as well as the historic Jewish quarter, even if a much larger community lives in the 19th arrondissement. Some of the city’s best museums and boutiques are in the Marais, so you could easily spend an entire day here.
1. Village St-Paul
Many centuries ago, a small hamlet sat on this spot when the area was still mostly marshland (marais means “swamp”). While the neighborhood has transformed many times since, a small reminder of this village lives on, hidden behind an ordinary row of buildings on rue St-Paul. Pass through the entryway and you’ll come into a kind of large interior courtyard that dates from the 14th century, when it was part of the gardens of Charles V’s royal residence. At one point the houses and buildings built over and around the gardens were slated for demolition; a neighborhood committee saved them, and in the 1970s the village was restored and turned into a sort of antiques center, with stores and art galleries (see www.levillagesaintpaul.com and “Shopping”). The village hosts seasonal déballages, or outdoor arts and antiques fairs. Today the commercial emphasis has shifted from antiquities to design.
Exit the village on rue des Jardins St-Paul. On one side of this street is a playground that runs along a huge stone wall, the:
2. Rampart of Philippe Auguste
Before you is the best-preserved stretch of the city walls built by Philippe Auguste. Before leaving town on a crusade in 1190, Philippe decided the time had come to beef up security. The result was a mighty rampart that defined what was then the city limits. The wall in front of you once ran in a semicircle from the Seine, up to around rue Etienne Marcel, and curved over to protect the Louvre and back down to the Seine (a similar semicircle was built 20 years later on the Left Bank). Aside from this stretch, only small fragments can be found here and there on both banks so you’ll have to imagine the rest; you’ll also have to imagine the towers and the six massive portals that once were the only land access into the city.
Turn left down rue des Jardins St-Paul and right on rue de l’Avé Maria. Just where it branches off to the right on rue du Figuier is:
3. Hôtel de Sens
Built between 1475 and 1519, this splendid fortress/mansion is a rare example of medieval urban architecture. When Paris came under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Sens back in the 15th century, he promptly built himself a suitably fabulous home in the city. Later, Henri IV briefly used it to house his strong-minded wife, Queen Margot, whose many love affairs were causing him no end of headaches. The bishops stopped coming to the Hôtel de Sens altogether in 1622, preferring to rent it out. After the Revolution it served as a laundry operation, a jam factory, and a glass warehouse. By the time the city bought it in 1911, it was in a pitiful state; the building’s restoration—which started in 1929—wouldn’t be completed until 1961. The Hôtel now houses the Bibliothèque Forney, a library dedicated to the decorative arts. Take a minute to admire the turrets and towers in the courtyard (visible from the street).
Follow the side of the building down rue du Figuier and turn left onto the path that leads around to the back of the Hôtel, where there are pretty French gardens. The path leads to rue des Nonnains d’Hyères, where you’ll turn right, then walk left on rue de Jouy to where it intersects with:
4. Rue François Miron
Walk left down rue François Miron to the corner of rue Cloche Perce. You will notice two multistoried half-timbered houses: the Maison à l’Enseigne du Faucheur (no. 11) and the Maison à l’Enseigne du Mouton (no. 13). Pre-Haussmann, houses like these were once all over the city; now they are extremely rare. These two date from the 14th century, though after 1607 the crisscrossed wood facades of all such houses were covered with a layer of plaster in accordance with a law that aimed to reduce the risk of fire. When these houses were restored in the 1960s, the plaster was removed and the wood was once again revealed.
Double back and continue down rue François Miron until it ends at the St-Paul Métro station. Cross the rue de Rivoli and continue left up rue Pavée to:
5. The Pletzl
You are now entering the city’s oldest Jewish quarter, once called the Pletzl (“little place” in Yiddish), where there has been a Jewish presence since the 13th century. This community swelled and shrank over the centuries, in line with various edicts and expulsions, but the largest influx was in the 1880s, when tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews, fleeing poverty and persecution back home, settled in France. The Pletzl was hit hard during the infamous roundups of 1942, when police came and emptied apartment buildings and even schools of their Jewish occupants and sent them off to Nazi concentration camps. Though the neighborhood is slowly being eaten up by the area’s advancing gentrification, and chic shops pop up next to kosher butchers, a small and fairly traditional community still lives here. At no. 10 is the unusual Synagogue de la rue Pavée, designed by Hector Guimard, the Art Nouveau master who created the famous Métro entrances. This is the only existing religious edifice by Guimard, whose wife was Jewish (they fled to the U.S. during World War II). In 1940, on Yom Kippur, the Germans dynamited the synagogue; it was eventually restored and is now a national monument (open for religious services only).
Continue up rue Pavée to where it crosses:
6. Rue des Rosiers
Rumor has it that this street got its name from the rose bushes that once lined its edges, back in the days when it ran along the exterior of the city walls. Up until recently, it was the main artery of the Jewish quarter; today, all that’s left are a few kosher restaurants and a bookstore or two. Great falafel can still be found here (L’As du Fallafel); if you happen to be in the area around lunchtime, you might get handed a free sample from one of the competing restaurants.
Turn left on rue des Rosiers and continue to the end, where you’ll turn right on rue Vieille du Temple. You are now in the thick of the trendier (and gay) part of the neighborhood, which is filled with fun restaurants and boutiques. Take the first left at rue des Blancs Manteaux and follow this pretty street all the way to where it ends at:
7. Rue du Temple
By the time you hit this street you’ll notice that the neighborhood has changed from trendy to workaday; rue du Temple is lined with jewelry and clothing wholesalers. But this street—which back in medieval times led to the stalwart fortress of the Knights Templar—also harbors some lovely examples of 17th-century hôtels particuliers (private mansions). Turn right and walk to no. 71, the Hôtel de St-Aignan, otherwise known as the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme. This exercise in 17th-century grandeur includes a sneaky architectural lie: One of the three facades facing the courtyard, which seems to be the front of an enormous building, is really just a facade. Despite the presence of carefully curtained windows, on the other side of the wall is merely another wall, yet another chunk of Philippe Auguste’s ramparts.
Continue up to rue de Braque and turn right. Walk to the end where the street intersects with rue des Archives. Across the street is the:
8. Hôtel de Clisson
The vaulted archway is what is left of the Hôtel de Clisson, a magnificent mansion that was built in 1380 and for centuries housed some of the grandest of the grand, including dukes of Guise, who hung out there for 135 years. Well, it may have been good enough for them, but by 1700, when François de Rohan, the Prince of Soubise got his hands on it, he decided the time had come for a change (see below).
Turn right and walk down rue des Archives to rue des Francs Bourgeois and turn left. First thing you’ll see on your left is the sumptuous gateway to the:
9. Hôtel de Soubise
The enormous cour d’honneur, a huge horseshoe-shaped courtyard, is edged with open galleries holding 56 pairs of double columns. These lead to a largely 17th-century palace, which now holds the National Archives. This jaw-dropping sight was the creation of architect Pierre Alexis Delamair, who was hired by the Prince of Soubise to build on to the courtyard and overhaul the building. Later the prince’s son, the future Cardinal de Rohan, asked Delamair to build him his own palace next door, the adjoining Hôtel de Rohan-Strasbourg (more archives are stashed here, not open to the public). A part of the Hôtel de Soubise houses the Musée des Archives Nationale (60 rue des Francs-Bourgeois, 3rd arrond.; www.archives-nationales.culture.gouv.fr; 01-40-27-60-96; admission to permanent collection 5€ adults, free for visitors 25 and under; Mon and Wed–Fri 10am–5:30pm, Sat–Sun 2–5:30pm), which displays tantalizing items from the vast National Archives, as well as temporary expositions. For example, you can see the Serment de Jeu de Paume, a document that signaled the birth of the French Republic, and Marie Antoinette’s last letter. You can also visit the apartments of the Prince and Princess of Soubise. Though just a few rooms, they retain the sumptuous decor of the period and give a sense of how the other half lived in the 18th century. You will most likely have the rooms to yourself, giving the odd impression that you have somehow stumbled into a private chateau.
Continue down rue des Francs Bourgeois and window-shop (or just plain shop) in the stylish boutiques that line this street. Turn left onto rue Elzevir, and head to the:
This sumptuous 16th-century mansion houses the Musée Cognacq-Jay, a small but fabulous museum dedicated to 18th-century art. It’s free, so even if you don’t have time for a leisurely museum visit, you can wander into its courtyard (a good place for admiring its beautiful exterior) or zip quickly through its lavish rooms, filled with paintings and knickknacks, without guilt. Originally built in 1575, the hôtel got its name from its first owner, Médéric de Donon, Controller General of the Royal Estates. From 1640 onwards, however, it passed into the hands of other wealthy families who made their own improvements and extensions—not all of them good: By the early 20th century, the building had (like many other Marais mansions) become commercial premises, with one area containing a grubby garage. Fortunately, it was acquired by the City of Paris in 1974, and restored to its former glory, so today you can easily imagine how it would have looked in old Médéric’s day. Architecturally, the building is typical of other 16th-century Marais hôtels—symmetrical design, with wings set around a rectangular courtyard—but it stands out for its stonework, which is much less ornate than that of other grand mansions in the Marais. Not that that detracts from its beauty: Stand in the courtyard and you’ll find its straight, simple lines simply breathtaking.
Go back and turn left back onto rue des Francs Bourgeois, then left again to the intersection with rue Payenne for a short detour to the right, about half a block down:
Take a Break
The Hôtel de Marle is the home of the Institut Suédois, Swedish Institute (11 rue Payenne, 3rd arrond.; https://paris.si.se; 01-44-78-80-11; Tues–Sun noon–6pm), which has a lovely cafe with tables in the courtyard in the summer. Nibble a vanilla-scented kanelbulle while you take in the exterior of this 16th-century mansion, which at one point was the home of Yolande de Polastron, a close friend of Marie Antoinette. If you still need a rest, sprawl out on a bench in the Square Georges Cain, a small leafy park just across the street.
Walk back down rue Payenne, cross rue des Francs Bourgeois, and walk another half-block down rue Pavée (the extension of rue Payenne) to:
11. Hôtel de Lamoignon
Built in 1584 for Diane de France, the legitimized daughter of one of Henri II’s extramarital encounters, this massive mansion was acquired by a famous family of magistrates (the Lamoignons) in the 17th century. You’ll have no problem getting into the courtyard here (the building now houses the Library of the History of the City of Paris), where you can get a good look at the facade. The dog’s heads, arrows, quivers, and other hunting imagery carved into the stonework are references to the first owner’s namesake, Diana, goddess of the hunt. A later Lamoignon, Guillaume, who was the first president of the Parisian Parliament, turned his home into a meeting place for the leading lights of the epoch—Madame de Sévigné, Racine, and Bourdaloue were regulars at his parties. The building became a library in the 1960s.
Go back up to rue des Francs Bourgeois and turn right. Turn right again on rue de Sévigné and left on rue de Jarente to:
12. Place du Marché Ste-Catherine
The name speaks to the open-air market that once stood here; today, this shaded plaza remains a lovely oasis of green and quiet in this busy neighborhood. Thankfully, no cars are allowed on the square, and the cafes on its edges all have outdoor seating in nice weather.
Continue to rue St-Antoine and turn left without crossing the street to no. 62:
13. Hôtel de Sully
The most splendiferous of the many splendiferous mansions in the Marais, the Hôtel de Sully was built by a rich 17th-century businessman, a certain Mesme-Gallet. While his version was quite sumptuous, the mansion really came to life when it was bought by the Duc de Sully, who hired architect François Le Vau to give it a makeover. After his death, the palacelike edifice was sold, divided, and built upon—like so many mansions in the Marais. In 1827 it was a boardinghouse for young girls, and up until the end of World War II shops and outbuildings still disfigured its grace. Using the original plans and contemporary drawings and etchings, the building was completely restored in the 1970s to Le Vau’s version; you can now stroll through the courtyard and admire the sculpted exterior in its virtually pristine state. Though the building is closed to the public, you can traipse through the front courtyard to a second one with a peaceful garden filled with sparrows.
Go through the archway in the back of the garden to the:
14. Place des Vosges
Officially inaugurated in 1612, this exquisite Renaissance square, bordered by 36 virtually identical stone and brick town houses, was the idea of King Henri IV, who unfortunately didn’t live to see it finished. After a stroll under the arcades, which run below the town houses, take a seat on a bench in the square and admire the tall trees and elegant symmetry of the landscaping, as well as the huge statue in the middle of Louis XIII astride his horse. This statue is a 19th-century replacement for the original, which was melted down during the Revolution. The square has seen a number of illustrious tenants over the centuries: Madame de Sévigné was born at no. 1 bis, the 19th-century actress Rachel lived at no. 9, and poet Théophile Gautier and novelist Alphonse Daudet both lived at no. 10. The most famous inhabitant, no doubt, was Victor Hugo, who lived at no. 6 from 1832 to 1848; his house is now the free-to-visit Maison de Victor Hugo.