With a now-ironic name reflecting its original origins, "The Swamp" isn't a terribly appealing moniker - however, Le Marais has grown to become one of Paris' most appealing neighborhoods and you'll definitely want to spend at least half a day exploring its medieval streets on your next trip to the City of Lights.
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*Post updated, July, 2019
How to get to Le Marais
One of its many attributes is that Le Marais is centrally located and incredibly accessible, no matter where you'll be coming from in Paris. That said, unfortunately, it doesn't have a huge number of hotels to make it your home base in Paris, which, probably is part of its charm. Depending on when you're booking, many of the smaller, boutique hotels may be full. If you're able to get a reservation, two excellent options are: Le Pavillon de la Reine (higher-end option) and Hotel Caron de Beaumarchais (budget option).
For us, it was convenient to start our trip by taking the Metro all the way to the Eastern end of Le Marais and walking our way back toward the center of the city. We were staying at Maison Astor, the newest Hilton Curio Collection, in the 8th. If you want to follow in our footsteps, start your journey at Place de Vosges (Bastille or Chemin Vert metro stations) and walk back toward central Paris at your own pace, as you explore. The "end" of Le Marais, coming from that direction, would be the Hotel de Ville.
History of Le Marais
For centuries, Le Marais was the aristocratic quarter of Paris - which will be immediately evident to you, from the stunning quality of the construction of the buildings, the minute you set foot in the neighborhood. After the French Revolution, and the demise of much of the traditional aristocracy and movement of those who remained to the Left Bank, the district fell into disrepair.
However, Le Marais derives much of its charm and unique stature in Parisian life from the fact that it was not razed, as was so much of Paris, by Baron Haussmann in the late 19th century to construct the famous boulevards we know and love. Le Marais is comprised of a gorgeous web of narrow, winding streets, that will certainly give you a window in the charm of medieval Paris - but spruced up and pristine!
Paris's most beautiful square: Place des Vosges
I'd suggest starting your tour by taking the metro/bus/walking to Place des Vosges - the ultimate Paris park and an absolute gem. The highlight of a Le Marais tour for many, I wouldn't be surprised if you end up stopping by a second time during your time in Paris!
The oldest planned square in Paris, with construction beginning in 1605 under Henry IV, Place des Vosges was the height of fashion until the Revolution, during which time it was still called Place Royale - think Dangerous Liasons. The name has alternated between Place Royale and Place des Vosges over the years - the latter given as a reward to the Vosges region for being the first to pay taxes under the new Revolutionary order.
If you have time on your hands, or an appetite!, consider spending some time just walking/sitting or eating in one of the cafes around the square (for more on that - scroll down to the Eating section for our cafe recommendation).
If you're in the mood for a quick - and free - historical site, Victor Hugo's home is located in Place des Vosges. The author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables lived in these ritzy quarters from 1832-1848 and the apartment has pieces showcasing his life and work. It's a quick stop, but it's nice and has a free bathroom -not a bad way to start the day! You're free to walk at your own pace, without a guided tour. It isn't generally crowded.
Shopping in Le Marais
Personally, I'd argue that Le Marais has the best shopping in Paris. During our last trip, we actually visited twice!
Quaint boutiques and small branches of large chains, such as COS, Ted Baker, IKKS make for an easy afternoon popping in and out (and don't forget to say "Bonjour Madame/Monsieur!" when you enter the stores - for more tips about how to charm the French, check out my full post). Without the intense crowds and security concerns of the Champs, Rue des Rosiers, Rue Rivoli, Rue des Frances Bougeois all have make excellent shopping streets to walk across, toward central Paris, and it's easy enough to hop around from one to the next, since they're quite close together. If you actually plan to buy anything, I'd strongly recommend doing it here, rather than on the Champs! You'll likely have a better, and more personalized experience.
Where to eat in Le Marais
It's hard to really recommend anywhere to eat in this area, if only because you'll be spoilt for choice! If you're looking for something casual, there are branches of all the usual favorites - Paul (French Pret), etc. But, if you're looking for a sit-down option, we personally loved Cafe Hugo, right on Place des Vosges. Surprisingly not touristy, it's a quaint little cafe where you can sit in the shade and watch the activity in the park!
Toward the western end of Le Marais (closer to central Paris), particularly around Rue des Rosiers, is known as a Jewish Quarter - home to phenomenal bakeries and felafel shops. Check out this detailed post on tracing the Jewish history of the neighborhood on your visit!
Visiting the Musee National Picasso, Le Marais
If you veer North from the shopping streets to get a bit of culture in, you'll come across the charming Musee National Picasso - which, at least when we visited, was surprisingly under-crowded. The museum show cases Picasso's work throughout his career - starting with his surprisingly traditional, classical works on the first few rooms in the lower floors.
The building itself is an architectural marvel. Built in the mid-17th century for a former farmer turned salt tax collector, it is reminiscent of the Rodin Museum on the Left Bank and the arrangement of the works within the museum is art in and of itself.
Depending on your interest in Picasso, you could spend several hours here. If you're looking for a quicker stop, you could do this museum justice in an hour and a half and continue your journey when you've wrapped up!
After you've completed your wanderings around this historical neighborhood, if you walk back toward the south, you could easily combine your time in Le Marais with a visit to Ile Saint Louis or Ile de la Cite, including a trip to Sainte-Chapelle.
Bon Voyage! xx
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