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.)