Considering that Le Marais, (literal translation: the swamp), began life as a swampy mass of land not far from Île de la Cité, it can be hard to envisage how it ever became the trendiest neighbourhood in Paris. However, all of these misconceptions fall away as soon as you step foot in the district. Because stepping into Le Marais is like stepping back in history… As le Marais has pretty much become the go-to area in the city of love, here’s a guide to le Marais’.
A very brief history of Le Marais
Spared from the extensive renovations undertaken by Haussmann in the 1800s that saw much of the previous Parisian architecture bulldozed (this is why a lot of Paris looks the same), the maze of narrow cobbled streets that form Le Marais have managed to maintain their medieval vibe (thankfully without the medieval plumbing).
Spanning much of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, on the rive droite (right bank) of the Seine, Le Marais was originally dried out and cultivated in order to grow produce by the abbeys in the surrounding area.
In the 14th century, Charles V left his original palace and took up residence in various newly built Hôtels (mansions) in Le Marais, thus rendering the district a royal one. Nevertheless, this only lasted until the 16th century, whereupon the accidental death of Henri II in a jousting accident, the Royal Family moved back to the Louvre.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the super wealthy moved into the up and coming Marais, desperate to escape from the hustle, bustle, noise and filth of the inner city. More and more Hôtels were built, each more extravagant than the last and were closer to resembling palaces than family homes. Today, Le Marais is the place to find chic eats and treats, boutique hotels, vintage clothing and all manner of antiques.
Place des Vosges, 75004 Paris, France
Originally known as Place Royale, no visit to Le Marais would be complete without a visit to Place des Vosges. Built in the early 1600s, the earliest planned square in the city is enclosed by red brick houses and arcades of shops, bars and restaurants. Many a famous French people have lived here; including Cardinal Richelieu and Victor Hugo.
Hôtel de Sully, 62 Rue Saint-Antoine, 75004 Paris, France
Complete with gardens and an orangery, the Hôtel was built between 1625 and 1630, having been commissioned by wealthy financier Mesme Gallet. Constructed with the view to giving access on to Place des Vosges, today it is used as the headquarters for the management and preservation of historic buildings and monuments in France. There is a small souvenir shop on the ground floor and it is possible to meander through the gardens.
Explore the little Streets, throughout Le Marais
The roads are littered with tiny independent boutiques, cute cafés, bars and shops selling a mass of luxury goods ranging from Roman glass to limited edition prints to gelato. It’s possible to spend an entire day meandering through the little side streets, walkways and arcades that form Le Marais.
Maison de Victor Hugo, 6 Place des Vosges, 75004 Paris, France
Author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo lived at #6 from 1832-1849 before his exile to Jersey and Guernsey in 1851 (due to his staunch support for Napoleon I). Hugo’s ashes are now interred in the Paris Pantheon. Although temporary exhibitions are charged, the house museum itself is free and well worth a look inside! After all, it’s easily one of the best small museums in Paris.
Hôtel de Ville de Paris, 5 Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, 75004 Paris, France
Although the interior of this building cannot be visited, the neo-renaissance exterior is impressive to see nonetheless. Located within a stone’s throw of the Seine, in the winter an ice rink is placed in the square lying adjacent to the building, whilst in the summer open air concerts take place here. The Hôtel de Ville is also home to one of the prettiest carousels in Paris.
Eglise Saint Paul Saint Louis, 99 Rue Saint-Antoine, 75004 Paris, France
Having been commissioned by Louis XIII himself, the church of Saint Paul and Saint Louis was built in 1641. He even went so far as to lay the first stone for the Jesuit church. Apart from its stunning architecture, throughout the years, it has undergone major changes in function.
From its roots as a religious place of worship throughout the 17th Century, during the French revolution, it was utilised by the Cult of Reason, an atheist organisation. When the organisation was banned in 1803, the church was returned to Catholicism.
Le Village Saint-Paul, Rue Saint-Paul, 75004 Paris, France
Located just behind the charming church of Eglise Saint Paul Saint Louis, you’ll find it. A little maze of cobbled roads and back passages that form an intricate set of antique houses and vintage stores. Village Saint-Paul is easily one of the hidden gems of Le Marais, and well worth a look if you’re interested in antique goods, or are looking to pick up a unique souvenir from your time in Paris.
Le BHV, 52 Rue de Rivoli, 75004 Paris, France
Often hailed as one of the only stores in the centre of Paris to sell everything from pillow covers to light fittings to vintage clothing, the BHV (Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville) department store has been open since 1856. On the 5th floor, there is a sushi bar, Starbuck’s café and cafeteria.
The story goes that the founder, Xavier Ruel, had just enough money to set up a small shop named ‘Bazar Parisian’ when he moved to Paris in 1852. One day, Napoleon III’s wife, Eugenie was passing in front of his store when her horses were suddenly spooked (we don’t know what by). Ruel saved her life and was rewarded with an undisclosed sum of money (pretty convenient that all these details are unclear).
She gave him so much money that he was able to set up the larger store that has grown on to become BHV. Whatever the actual origins of the store were, it is clear that Ruel was a great entrepreneur. He invested in unheard of advertisements and offered promotional deals and fixed rates to undercut his competitors.