Quite literally translated to ‘the Swamp’ in English, a reference to its former state prior to the Middle Ages, Le Marais is one district of the city you’ll want to venture to if you wish to discover medieval Paris, historic mansions, and more than a handful of carefully curated museums. After all, the area was largely untouched by the Haussmannian renovations of the 19th-century and so retains the kind of historical vibe that is seldom seen in the rest of the city.
Furthermore, scratch beneath the touristic surface (as well as the number of boutique chain stores cropping up left, right, and centre) and it will soon become apparent that there’s more to the 3rd and 4th arrondissement than at first meets the eye. Here’s your ultimate guide to the best of hidden gems and secret spots in Le Marais that you should know about (and visit on your next trip to the City of Light).
One of the most beautiful small museums in Paris is that of Musée Cognacq-Jay, a house museum set against the backdrop of Hôtel Donon. Featuring collections largely compiled during the first few decades of the 20th-century, the impressive selection of arts and furniture within the abode boast several Canaletto paintings, as well as one of Rembrandt’s earliest works.
Perhaps best of all, the museum’s permanent collections are absolutely free to visit, making Musée Cognacq-Jay one of the best free things to do in Paris. The museum is open every day of the week with the exception of Monday and a few public holidays. All in all, there are around 1200 objects within the collections, including everything from Italian paintings to English snuffboxes. Discover the full opening times here.
Rue du Prévôt
If you truly want to get a feel for what medieval Paris would have been like during the Middle Ages (albeit with modern essentials such as drains and night lights), then be sure to head to rue du Prévôt in the Quartier Saint Paul area of the 4th arrondissement.
Narrow and cobbled, the road was known as rue Percée during the early 14th-century, though this was later changed to rue du Prévôt, which was likely to avoid confusion with a similarly named street elsewhere in Paris. Today, the little lane is one of the narrowest streets in Paris.
Village Saint Paul
One of the best places to scout out unique gems and vintage finds within Le Marais area of the city is that of Village Saint Paul, which is to be found somewhere between the Saint-Paul metro station and the Seine. The little enclave of shops and bars comprises of some 80 artisans and is a true delight to discover during the summer months when many vendors display their wares en plein air. Please note that, as of the past few months, Village Saint-Paul has been undergoing maintenance works and so doesn’t appear its usual chic self!
One of my favourite hidden gems of Le Marais is that of Hôtel de Sens. Situated steps away from the banks of the River Seine, the medieval mansion dates back many centuries and was once home to the Archbishops of Sens (a delightful town which is to be found around 120 km away from Paris and is where Thomas à Becket once sought refuge).
Today, the building serves as a Paris public library, Bibliothèque Forney, which is focused on the decorative arts. Entrance is free, though you’ll have to get a library card (for which a passport-style photo is required). Look closely at the wall closest to the left-hand turret and you’ll soon spy a cannonball leftover from the French Revolution.
Jardin de l’Hôtel de Sens
Directly behind the medieval mansion turned library, there’s a small park area which is characterised by its perfectly manicured box bushes and floral displays during the summer months. Lying in the shadow of Harry Potter-esque turrets, the Jardin de l’Hôtel de Sens is the perfect peaceful spot to escape the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city, if only for a few hours. Home to a selection of benches, the garden is the perfect place to read a book, or indeed enjoy a light picnic lunch during the warmer months!
Librairie le Piéton de Paris
Hands down one of the best niche bookstores in Paris is that of Librairie le Piéton de Paris, i.e. a little bookshop quite literally dedicated to the French capital itself! Keen bibliophiles may also notice that the name of the shop “Le piéton de Paris” is actually derived from the name of a book by Léon-Paul Fargue, a great lover of the City of Love. From delightful coffee table books to small volumes offering a guide on where to ‘pipi’ in Paris, there’s every kind of book imaginable.
Cloître des Billettes
While Paris has no shortage of churches and ecclesiastical buildings, there’s one church-related architecture that’s so unique that it more than deserves its place on a round up of secret spots in Le Marais. Cloître des Billettes is situated on the ancient Rue des Archives at number 24 and date all the way back to the 15th-century.
Once part of the order of Billettes (later renamed Carmelites), today the last remaining medieval cloisters in Paris are used as an art gallery and exhibition space. Completely free to visit, various exhibitions take place throughout the year, thus ensuring that the cloisters are often open (and thus open to wander around) on a regular basis.
Couvent de la Merci à Paris Sundial
When walking along rue des Archives in the heart of Le Marais, there are many stunning architectural features to be discovered. Perhaps most notably of all, the Convent of Mercy is set against the backdrop of a hôtel Particulier which once functioned as a monastery.
You see, the order was founded in the 13th-century, though the building you see today was constructed between 1727 and 1731. During the French Revolution, the monastery was closed and the space used to house prisoners set to be guillotined. Today, the building is closed to the public, though those with keen eyes will soon spy a sundial peeking out from above the grand entryway.
Defender of Time Clock
One of the most unusual public clocks in Paris is that of the Defender of Time, or ‘le Défenseur du Temps’ as it is so-called in French. Situated in the shadow of the Centre Georges Pompidou, a modern architectural building featuring a myriad of modern artworks, including some by Picasso and Georges Bracques, the clock was created in the late 1970s.
Featuring a man fighting a crab, dragon, and bird, to represent the sea, earth, and sky respectively, the clock has been out of commission since the early 2000s. Nevertheless, it’s still a feat to behold and is easily one of the better kept secrets of the 3rd arrondissement of the city.
Auberge Nicolas Flamel
Auberge Nicolas Flamel is a small higgeldy piggeldy building, covered in carvings, and pretty insignificant in appearance. However, this is actually a former inn belonging to the acclaimed philanthropist and alleged alchemist Nicolas Flamel (you know, that guy from Harry Potter). Said to be the oldest stone building in Paris, the abode was completed as far back as 1407!
Passage de l’Ancre
Throughout the city, there are a series of covered passageways. These arcades were largely built at the beginning of the 1800s and were a precursor to the modern day shopping malls we know today. Though not technically a covered passageway of Paris, Passage de l’Ancre (Anchor Passage) can be found in Le Marais.
Often thought to be the oldest passage in the city, wandering through this tangle of overgrown plants and cobblestones feels akin to stepping back in time. Since the 1960s, Pep’s Umbrella Repair shop has existed to fix all manner of ‘parapluies’. Allegedly, some ten thousand people per year visit the store, all in the hope of getting their umbrellas fixed! Of all the secret spots in Le Marais, Passage de l’Ancre is easily one of my favourites…