Le Marais: Don’t Miss This Often-Overlooked District in Paris

A sidewalk cafe in Marais, Paris. Photo by Victor Block
A sidewalk cafe in Marais, Paris. Photo by Victor Block

Strolling along the twisted streets of Marais, I passed aged buildings in a jumble of architectural styles. My first thought was that the setting would be a city planner’s nightmare. Then my mind wandered to the rich history that has unfolded in this often-overlooked neighborhood in one of the most-visited cities in the world.

Le Marais is an often-overlooked historic district in Paris, France, which spreads across the 3rd and 4th arrondissements in Paris. Throughout Marais, crumbling mansions that cling to memories of past glory days are neighbors to trendy shops and galleries. Bustling restaurants abut small, offbeat museums.

A compact section of the enclave has been a Jewish quarter since the 13th century. Not far away is what many people consider to be the most beautiful square in the city, and perhaps in all of Europe.

This eclectic neighborhood in the heart of Paris has been called the Marais (“marsh”) since Roman times. The name described the swamp that was created by a fork of the Seine River. The marsh was drained in the 12th century to provide more living space as Paris grew, but the name – like the oozing mud that once covered the area – stuck.

Despite its colorful history and present-day attractions, I was surprised to learn that much of what the Marais has to offer is overlooked by many visitors to Paris. While some seek out the magnificent square named Place des Vosges, they often pass up the colorful side streets that surround it like a maze.

Place des Vosges in Marais. Photo by Victor Block
Place des Vosges in Marais. Photo by Victor Block

After being opened to habitation, the Marais evolved quietly until 1612, when King Henry IV took up residence overlooking the Places des Vosges. His presence sparked a transformation of the neighborhood into a fashionable quarter which attracted aristocrats, people of wealth and intellectuals.

Then came the French Revolution. Many of the prestigious residents of the Marais district were imprisoned, or worse. The area surrounding the Bastille, whose storming sparked the uprising that changed France forever, fell into a state of decline.

The Revival of Marais

In recent years, this trend has been reversed. What had deteriorated into a backwater neighborhood once again became fashionable. I noted example after example of how renovation has brought about upgrading without upheaval. Most of the gracious 17th-century mansions, or “hotels” as they were called in the past, have been spared. Some have been converted into offices, shops and museums.

This preservation and transformation provides an opportunity to delve into the past while keeping one foot planted firmly in the present. Like most visitors who find their way to the enclave, the focus of my sojourn into the Marais was the Place des Vosges.  It was laid out in keeping with the design imposed by Henry IV, who envisioned the neighborhood as a splendid urban quarter fit, in fact, for a king.

The setting is one of perfect symmetry. Identical mansions surround an elegant grass square. Blue slate roofs top rose-colored brick walls. Restaurants and upscale art and antique shops fill the covered arcades that connect the buildings.

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