The Marais is one of Paris’ oldest and most visually stunning quarters. First developed in the 12th century, the neighborhood, whose name means "swamp" in French and once was one, went from being a royal favorite under Henri IV and Louis XIII, to falling into ruin after the French Revolution of 1789. Since its revival in the 1960s, it has shone as a center of Parisian artistic and cultural life. It has also significantly gentrified, evolving from a mostly working-class and immigrant neighborhood to one of the most affluent and prestigious areas in the city. This, of course, is not to the liking of all, but whatever your stance, it's undoubtedly made it a stunning place to walk around, eat, drink, and lounge.
Tips and Background Information
The Marais is one of the only areas that preserves the narrow streets and architectural styles of Medieval and Renaissance-era Paris. Most of Paris was overhauled in the mid-19th century under the direction of Napoleon III and architect Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann.
The wide, sweeping boulevards and grey, classical-inspired apartments that characterize places like the Champs-Elysées and Montparnasse are the work of Haussmann, who also modernized Paris by installing sewer and water systems. The Marais has a much different flavor. Its dramatic residences or hôtels particuliers, artisan’s boutiques, galleries, lavish squares, and fascinating history are worth reserving at least a half-day of exploration for.
Tips for This Self-Guided Walking Tour
- The tour should take around two to three hours at a moderate pace.
- You can also pick and choose the sights that most interest you and see them in any order. Use our suggestions for eats and drinks to take any needed breaks.
- Make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes and to bring a backpack and reliable city map.
- Rainy days are not ideal for this tour.
The Hôtel de Sens: Medieval Royal Residence
First up on this self-guided tour is a look at a little-known, but gorgeous, old medieval residence known as the Hotel de Sens.
Get off at Metro Pont-Marie (line 7), or by exiting at Metro Hôtel de Ville (lines 1 or 11) and walking East up Quai de Hôtel de Ville until you reach Metro Pont-Marie. Turn left on Rue des Nonnains des Hyères. Immediately to your right, you should see the majestic Hôtel de Sens.
Stop here for a moment to admire this medieval residence's elegant formal gardens and dramatic design. On a sunny day, sitting on one of the garden benches to contemplate is a real treat.
- Built between 1475 and 1519, the medieval residence originally housed the archbishops of Sens, the order of bishops that Paris belonged to during the middle ages.
- The mixed architectural styles visible in the Hôtel de Sens show the transition that occurred between medieval and Renaissance styles over the course of the hôtel's construction.
- Henri IV's ex-wife, Queen Margot, took up residence in 1605. Known for her eccentricity and lavish tastes, Queen Margot pursued many love affairs here. She is even rumored to have collected the hair of her lovers to fashion wigs from them.
Walk through the garden area and turn right around the building to see the main facade of the residence.
- The main facade shows medieval-style turrets and windows and a keep characteristic of fortresses. The arched entryway leads into a courtyard.
- Today, the residence houses an art library.
Remnants of a Medieval Paris Fortress
From the Hôtel de Sens, walk down Rue des Figuiers until it turns into Rue de l'Avé Maria. Turn left onto Rue des Jardins Saint-Paul.
To your left, above the basketball courts, you can see the remnants of the medieval fortress built by King Philippe-Auguste in the 12th century, and whose foundations can be seen at the Louvre. You're now facing the largest remaining section of the enormous wall that once surrounded Paris. It's pretty unassuming, right? It's very easy to overlook this important architectural detail entirely, given how little the city highlights it to passersby.
- The fortress was built by Philippe-August to keep invaders out. It also defined the borders of 12th century Paris. Certain parts of the Marais were excluded from the protection of the king, who banned certain populations, including Jews, from the city.
- Just behind the wall is the famed Lycée Charlemagne. Historical figures such as romantic poet Gerard de Nerval were schooled here.
- If you look down to the far right side of the wall, you can see the remains of two towers, also part of the medieval city.
On the right side of Rue des Jardins Saint-Paul, there are several covered passageways. Go ahead and walk through one of them.
The Saint-Paul Village: Antique Shopping and History
The covered passageways will bring you into a series of quiet, interconnected courtyards known as the Saint-Paul Village.
Art galleries, fine antiques, food shops, and artisan boutiques selling unique home decorations can be found here. Weekend yard sales are frequent. Take some time to explore.
- A women's monastery built in 630 was once located here.
- In 1360, King Charles V built an official residence, the Hôtel de Saint Pol, here. The site would serve the Parish of the Kings of France for nearly two centuries.
- In 1970, much of the village was still without running water, and serious hygiene problems led to major renovations.
- Today, antique dealers and collectors count the Village Saint-Paul as one of the best spots in Paris for finding treasures of historical importance.
After exploring the village, take one of the right-side exits through the passageways. You should find yourself on a busy street, Rue Saint-Paul. Turn left.
Rue Saint-Paul counts plenty of charming traditional bars, bistros, and sandwich shops. Take a break here if you'd like.
To continue the tour, walk down Rue Saint-Paul until you reach Rue Saint-Antoine.
In 1559, Henri II died here during a tournament when his guard, Montgomery, pierced his eye with a lance.
Turn left and stay on the left side of the street. Walk about a block. You should soon reach the St.Paul-St.-Louis Church, which is located at 99, Rue Saint-Antoine.
- Commissioned by Louis XIII and completed by 1641, the Church is one of the oldest examples of Jesuit architecture in Paris. The Jesuit style features classical elements such as Corinthian pillars and heavy ornamentation.
- The church was inspired by the baroque-style Gesu Church in Rome.
- The current Lycée Charlemagne was once the church convent. In 1763, the Jesuits (a Catholic order prominent during the Renaissance) were expelled from France, and the convent became a school.
- The church features a 195-foot dome. It is best appreciated from the interior because the columns of the three-tiered church facade hide the dome.
- The Cardinal Richelieu gave the church's first mass in 1641.
- The church was pillaged and damaged during the 1789 French Revolution. St.-Paul-Saint-Louis briefly served as a "Temple of Reason" under the Revolutionary government, which banned traditional religion.
- Though many artifacts were stolen from the church during the Revolution, some important works were spared. The most impressive is Delacroix' Christ in the Garden of Olives (1827), which can be seen near the entrance.
Place du Marché Sainte-Catherine
Exit the church and cross Rue Saint-Antoine. Continue walking straight, down Rue de Sévigne. Make a direct right onto Rue d'Ormesson. You should find yourself on a quaint square, la Place du Marché Sainte-Catherine. Yes, there are a lot of saints on this tour.
The Place du Marché Sainte-Catherine is an example of how quaint and village-like the Marais can be, though, during weekends and high tourist season, this is not always the case.
Enjoy the cheerful atmosphere of the square. You may see neighborhood kids bounding about since this is a favorite spot for play.
- Built in the 13th century, in honor of Saint Catherine.
- The buildings surrounding the square are recent, in Parisian terms anyway: they date to the 18th century.
- The square was made pedestrian-only last century. Since then, it has become a favorite spot for laid-back, greenery-enhanced sipping and nibbling. Take an opportunity to do so here, if you'd like.
Hôtel de Sully: Residence Dating to the Renaissance
Go back to Rue Ormesson and walk in the opposite direction from where you first came. Turn right onto Rue de Turenne, then left back on to Rue Saint-Antoine. Walk to #62. You should find yourself at another historical residence, the Hôtel de Sully.
The Hôtel de Sully
Entering the Hôtel de Sully, walk through a reception area to the main courtyard. Here you can observe the neoclassical style characteristic of the residence. Greek-inspired statuary and reliefs abound. Twin sphinxes face each other at the foot of the staircase leading out of the courtyard.
- A former minister of Henri IV, Sully, once resided here.
- The cobblestone-paved front courtyard features a celebrated series of sculptures representing the four elements and the two seasons. Make sure to walk around the courtyard to get a feel for these.
- The Orangerie, or second courtyard, features a classical formal garden and an ornate stone lattice, which you can see on the right side when entering the garden.
Place des Vosges
Walk straight across the Orangerie and head to the right. A passageway should lead you out of the garden and into a covered gallery - part of the magnificent Place des Vosges.
An Unparalleled Square
Place des Vosges is quite arguably Paris' most beautiful square. Walking under the covered galleries leading out from the Hôtel de Sully, notice that they are part of an assembly of 36 red brick and stone pavilions surrounding the majestic, tree-shaded square. The Place des Vosges served as royal stomping grounds for centuries. Today it is a wonderful place to unwind, stroll, and dine.
- The square originally housed the royally-owned Hôtel de Tournelles. Charles VII and Louis XIII both lived at Tournelles.
- In the early 17th century, Henri IV's demands for an opulent residence within the city lead to the construction of the Place des Vosges, then called the Place Royale.
- Celebrated author Victor Hugo lived at #6. The Maison Victor Hugo museum dedicated to the writer of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables is located there today.
- Today, the galleries are occupied by fine art galleries, restaurants that tend toward the pricey, and classical musicians who set up shop and attract large crowds.
- The small park in the center of the square is one of the few places in Paris where you can sit on the grass, but watch out for signs reading pelouse en repos (the lawn is resting!)-- this means you're temporarily not allowed to sprawl out on the grass.
The Rue des Francs-Bourgeois: Popular for Sunday Shopping
Leave the Place des Vosges by walking in the opposite direction from Rue Saint-Antoine and the Hôtel de Sully. Turn left onto Rue des Francs-Bourgeois.
Once a street where artisan weavers worked, Rue des Francs-Bourgeois is still a major center of fashion and design. It is one of the Marais area's most popular shopping districts, and most of the shops are open on Sundays, including some of Paris's top perfume shops such as Diptyque. It also houses some impressive but often overlooked, Renaissance-era buildings. Take some time to browse some of the unique fashion and jewelry boutiques here and to admire the historic residences.
- It was named after the destitute occupants of the "almshouses" that were built here and who were freed from having to pay taxes.
- At the corner of Rue de Sévigné and Rue des Francs Bourgeois is the Hôtel Carnavalet, built in 1548. Today it houses the Museum of the History of Paris, also known as the Musée Carnavalet. This is one of Paris's many free museums, and the permanent collection is memorable. On the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois side, you can peer through the decorated iron gates into the Carnavalet's lavish formal gardens.
- Just across from the Hôtel Carnavalet on Francs-Bourgeois is the Hôtel Lamoignon, built in the late 16th century by Diane of France, daughter of Henri II. Today it houses the Historical Library of the City of Paris. You can visit the courtyard by turning left on Rue Pavée.
- At #29 bis and #31 is the Hôtel d'Albret. It was built in the 16th century and renovated in the 17th century. Today it houses administrative offices for the Cultural Affairs department of Paris.
Continue down Rue des Francs-Bourgeois. You will see other Renaissance-style residences lining the street. Keep on the left side and turn left on Rue Vieille du Temple.
This is the artery of nightlife in the area. Lots of charming, quirky bars and restaurants can be found here.
Rue des Rosiers: Culture and Street Food in the Old Jewish Quarter
Has this tour whetted your appetite? If so, you're in luck: the last stop allows you to taste some delicious traditional treats like falafel and pastries in the old Jewish quarter around the Rue des Rosiers.
From Rue Vieille du Temple, make a left on a narrow street called Rue des Rosiers.
Historic Jewish Quarter
Rue des Rosiers is the main thoroughfare of the Marais' historic Jewish quarter. Walking down this street and seeing the facades scrawled in Hebrew and French, many of them dating to the early 20th century, you can sense the rich history here.
- The area is also known as the Pletzl, which means square in Yiddish.
- Large Jewish communities have lived here on and off for centuries, starting in the 13th century, when the area was known as "The Old Jewry." At the constant mercy of kings who periodically expelled them from France, Jews only acquired a measure of stability in the early 19th century, under Napoléon I.
- During WWII, the neighborhood was especially targeted by the Nazi occupation and the collaborationist French police. Many schools in the area attest to that, including one that can be found off of Rue de Rosiers, at 6, Rue des Hospitalières-St.-Gervais. A commemorative plaque stands at the boy's school here. 165 students from this school were deported to concentration camps.
- Today, the street and the surrounding neighborhood is well-known for its delicious Middle Eastern and Yiddish/Eastern European specialties. Now is the time to take a break!