Art & Cafes in the Marais…& a Late Night?

Among many fine walks in Paris, a nice stroll around the Marais is a great way to spend a day…and a late night. Enjoying everything below at a leisurely pace and discovering some new places along the way should take you a full morning and well into the afternoon. Or, just stay all night for when the neighborhood’s bars and cafes really get going. Walk to the Marais along the river, or take the yellow Metro line (Ligne 1) to St-Paul.

The neighborhood’s name means, “Marsh,” as the area was a wetland in the 12th century. There are many fine examples of stately architecture in the Marais, as the neighborhood became a royal one in the 14th century, when Charles V moved the court here. From the end of the 16th century to the 17th, the Marais experienced its glory days as the center of Parisian intellectual life. Those glory days ended when Louis XIV changed the focus of power by moving the royal court’s home in Paris to Tuileries.  

Decline continued until a few decades ago, culminating in the Marais’ being a pretty run-down neighborhood. Like a lot of places with architectural potential that have been forgotten, artists poured in, taking advantage of the then cheap real estate, fixing up a lot of the cool old buildings. If you peek in courtyards and windows, you can see a lot of lovely old architecture– cobbled alleys, wood-beamed ceilings, a cozy Parisian style. The Marais now houses Paris’ gay and Jewish neighborhoods.

The best way to start a day in the Marais is to go see the Musee Picasso, 5 rue de Thorigny, just a short walk from the St. Paul Metro stop. Go in the morning, during the week, as it’s usually less crowded. Weekends during tourist season are almost not worth going, as the crowds detract from the beautiful space and the art itself. Call or check online before you go, as it might be closed on certain days or for an event (http://www.musee-picasso.fr/)

The museum’s building itself, the Hotel Salé, is amazing, dating from the 17th century. Among many roles over its long life, the building was once, most notably, the Embassy of the Republic of Venice, long before the country of Italy came into being.

The art collection more than suits its impressive, monumental home. The collection is a well-edited review of Picasso’s life work, comprising every period of his epic, prolific career. This museum is also one of the only times you may be grateful for the taxman. Picasso’s heirs had to pay back taxes to the French government, a debt they settled by giving up this amazing cache of artwork from one of the most original artists the world has ever known.

After you visit the museum, eat lunch, hang out at cafes, and check out the cool galleries and stores that make the Marais one of Paris’ best neighborhoods. Stay for a late night too, as the Marais is also at its best into the evening hours. 

Rue de Rosiers is worth checking out. It has a lot of really great Jewish restaurants with wonderful Middle Eastern food for a quick lunch or supper.  

On or directly off rue Vieille du Temple, one of the main streets in the Marais, you can take in the galleries, the funky shops, and the café life:  

  • Café Tresor is on a really sweet alley, (5 rue du Tresor), right off Vielle du Temple. Awesome café food for a light lunch. A lot of artists/models hang out here at night, but there’s always good people watching here.
  • Café Amnesia (42 rue Vieille du Temple), is one of the most popular gay hangouts in the Marais, and also fantastic people watching. 

Not too far from rue Vielle du Temple:

  • Open Cafe, (17 rue des Archives), is one of the most popular gay spots in Paris, particularly in the evenings. Gay or straight, it can be awesomely fun here on a warm summer night.  
  • Lizard Lounge, (18 rue Bourg-Tibourg), draws a large straight, Anglo-American expat crowd, and can really get going in the late evenings.
  • DOM, a groovy housewares store, is like a French Urban Outfitters without all the clothes. This is a good place for funky souvenirs and gifts. (21 rue Sainte-Croix-de-la-Bretonnerie.)

The Best Market in Paris – Motte-Piquet/Grenelle

An array of cheese at the Motte-Piquet market
I gave my heart to Cheesus.

You have to, have to go to the giant market at Motte-Piquet, just steps away from the Eiffel Tower. It’s the best, largest market in Paris.

The Motte-Piquet/Grenelle Market is located in the residential 15th arrondissement that abuts the Champ de Mars and the Eiffel Tower. Because the market is located in a largely residential area, the prices are really reasonable and the variety of items offered is amazing. Fruits. Vegetables. Sausages. French house slippers. Pate. Mushrooms. Mops. Cheeses. Honey. The Works.

The market happens only on Sunday and Wednesday mornings.  A lot of the choicest stuff is gone before noon, but some merchants will hang around a bit later than noon to finish selling their wares if you had a late night in Paris before market days.

Pick up items for a picnic outdoors at the nearby Champ de Mars, and/or buy some authentic, handmade gifts for people back home.

Regardless of what you purchase at the market, you will definitely come away with some real local color and a tangible understanding of the artisanal nature of French food. (Many of the producers come from Normandy and other regions surrounding Paris, so it’s also a good way to sample other areas’ delicacies.)

If you don’t speak French, just launch your most sincere “bonjours” and “mercis,” and be prepared to play some charades to help the merchant ascertain your desires. Communicating, “I’d like a much smaller melon” solely with your hands to a kindly French merchant is all part of the fun.

When dealing with produce at this market or even in some shops, the merchants will often ask you, “Pour aujourd’hui?” which means, “For today?” If you want to consume what you’re buying right away so that it’s at its peak of freshness, answer, “Oui.” You’ll get produce that’s ripe for the eating now. If you’re planning on eating the fruits/veggies later, answer, “Non” and they will give you produce that will attain perfect ripeness in a day or two.

You have to love a culture with that kind of attention to detail. Visiting this 15th arrondissement market is a great way to see a normal Parisian neighborhood where real people live, shop, and eat.

Metro: Motte-Picquet Grenelle (Lines 6, 8, and 10) (The metro goes above ground over here, and the market is under the elevated metro tracks.)

Cafe Mabillon – Good at All Hours

When I first started going to Cafe Mabillon, I thought it was actually called “Jour et Nuit” (tr: “Day and Night”) as this was stenciled prominently on the window. This actually meant, “pretty much open round-the-clock” for coffee, pre-dinner drinks, and the occasional Beaujolais Nouveau tasting at 4 a.m. (Note to interested parties: Beaujolais Nouveau tasting in the wee small hours = bad idea after a night already spent enjoying wines, cocktails, and beer all over Paris.)

Mabillon’s a great location for the sport of people watching, perfect for observing a great assortment of folks stroll by: students from the universities in the area, a variety of international tourists, supermodels heading over to the Lipp, merchants from the neighborhood, and Parisians who find themselves looking for a post-movie refreshment after taking in a film at one of the nearby cinemas.

Of course, doing this over a kir always improves people watching. Just remember what I said about the Beaujolais Nouveau.

Located at 164 Blvd. St-Germain in the 6th arrondissement.

Legendary Paris Cafes – La Flore & Deux Magots

Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir
Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir

When you think of Paris, you can’t help but think of all the writers and intellectuals who dreamed in, dreamed of, and dreamed up the idea we all have of Paris. If you’re familiar with writers and intellectuals and find yourself in Paris, you also can’t help but think of Sartre and Beauvoir, that iconic, unconventional couple whose life-long personal and intellectual relationship defined multiple eras of Paris, existentialism, and the role of women in modern Western societies– just to name a few of their light contributions to history and modern thought. The fact that they did much of this thinking and writing in cafes just makes them that much more endearing.

Even if you’re not into pursuits of the philosophical variety, you will greatly enjoy two of the most historic cafes in Paris, conveniently located just a block or so away from one another, on the same side of the street.  

The first is Café la Flore. It’s a bit packed and slightly pricey because it’s a legend and absolutely worth it. Have an espresso on the terasse or inside. Of course, anytime’s a good time for a kir. They will pour the wine into the cassis right in front of you at your table, where you can also enjoy a hard-boiled egg, per that rather curious offering at many traditional cafes.  Sit back, and people watch. Write great thoughts in your journal or on some postcards. If it’s a good enough place for Sartre, Beauvoir, Hemingway, and so many more– it might just work to inspire you.

After you’ve finished your coffee or kir, stroll over for another libation at the Deux Magots, a cafe equally as historic, and linked with the Flore through the activities of both cafes’ celebrated patrons. During one of the most epic periods for these two cafes in the period between World War I and World War II, if you were with your wife or hubby at the Flore, you’d have your mistress/mister be next door at the Deux Magots, ducking in and out of both to keep your appointments. Now that’s efficiency! (I’m not suggesting you try that today, but if you feel so inclined, there’s a historic precedent for pulling that off here.) Sometimes, there’s music in front. And, for a very long time, the cafe has awarded the Deux Magots Literary Prize. (If you drink at a cafe with its own literary prize, kind of makes drinking wine in the morning seem a bit less shifty, right?)

Honor your own inner intellectual over a few drinks at  Café la Flore, 172 boulevard St.-Germain, and the Deux Magots, 6 place St.-Germain.  Both in the 6th arrondissement. Online, the Deux Magots has a great Web site that you can peruse before you visit: http://www.lesdeuxmagots.fr/index.php

Pont Neuf – Sunset & Evening Boat Cruise

Pont Neuf and Ile de la Cite
A Great Place to Catch a Boat & Enjoy Wine

Some spots on the world are well-visited because they’re magic. Pont Neuf and the Seine by night are two such places. (If you’re visiting Paris for the first time, the following is a great way to start your trip the first evening you arrive.)

First, buy your tickets for a night-time boat cruise on Vedettes Pont-Neuf. You can do this online (and often get a discount) or you can show up in person. (If it’s a tourist time of year like summer, be sure to get your tickets extra early, as the night-time cruises sell out fast.)

Head down to Pont Neuf before sunset, with a bottle of wine or champagne in hand. Because King Henri IV commissioned Pont Neuf, his statue sits atop the bridge, in front of the stairs that take you down to the boats and park below. Henri IV’s nickname was “Vert Galant,” (Green Gallant)– an allusion to his sexual powers and overall vigor. He was a “notorious romantic,” euphemistically speaking. (Allow that to inspire you for your evening as you see fit.)

Pont Neuf, in spite of its name meaning “new bridge”, is actually the oldest bridge in Paris. The beautifully carved faces seem alive, showcasing an exquisite range of expression. When commissioned over four centuries ago, the bridge’s architect/designer was asked to showcase government ministers and those popular with the court. In a fit of artistic pique that can still induce chuckles across the ages, a few condemned people and murderers were thrown into the gallery of faces. As is common, it’s hard to sort out the criminals from the statesmen.   

After studying a few of the bridge’s faces, stroll down with your vino to the tip of the Ile de la Cite, the island that really started the whole Paris thing way back before Romans, Franks, and the rest.  Sit back and relax while watching Paris go by, and you may learn one of the reasons why that song’s called “La Vie en Rose.” (The sky can turn an amazing pink, and this vantage point is perfect for getting a great vista of a Parisian sunset.)

Once the sun slips below the horizon, head over to Vedettes Pont-Neuf and board your boat. The French are masters at illuminating their public buildings and bridges. Paris, a city so beautiful by day, is 1000x more beautiful by night from the water that is its heart.

For boat tickets, cruise over to http://www.vedettesdupontneuf.com/