The Marais is one of the most seductive districts of Paris. Having largely escaped the heavy-handed attentions of Baron Haussmann, and unspoiled by modern development, the quartier is full of handsome Renaissance hôtels particuliers, narrow lanes and inviting cafés and restaurants.
There’s a significant, if dwindling, Jewish community here, established in the twelfth century and centred on rue des Rosiers, and with its long-lasting reputation for tolerance of minorities, the area is popular with gay Parisians. Prime streets for wandering are rue des Francs-Bourgeois, lined with fashion and interior design boutiques, rue Vieille-du-Temple and rue des Archives, with their buzzy bars and cafés, and rue Charlot and rue de Poitou in the so-called Haut Marais, home to sleek art galleries and chic young fashion outlets. The Marais’ animated streets and atmospheric old buildings would be reason enough to visit, but the quartier also boasts a high concentration of excellent museums, not least among them the recently revamped Musée Picasso, the Carnavalet history museum, the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, and the Musée de l’Histoire de France, all set in fine mansions.
A fine place to start exploring the Marais is the eighteenth-century magnificence of the Palais Soubise, which houses the Archives Nationales de France and the Musée de l’Histoire de France. The palace’s fabulous Rococo interiors are the setting for changing exhibitions drawn from the archives, as well as a permanent collection of documents including Joan of Arc’s trial proceedings, with a doodled impression of her in the margin, and a Revolutionary calendar where “J” stands for Jean-Jacques Rousseau and “L” for Labourer. The palace’s interior gardens make for a pleasant stroll.
Set in the magnificent seventeenth-century Hôtel Salé, the Musée Picasso emerged in 2014 from a major five-year renovation and now has three times as much exhibition space available to display its five thousand paintings, drawings, ceramics, sculptures and photographs, representing almost all the major periods of the artist’s life from 1905 onwards. Many of the works were owned by Picasso and on his death in 1973 were seized by the state in lieu of taxes owed. The result is an unedited body of work, which, although not including the most recognizable of Picasso’s masterpieces, does provide a sense of the artist’s development and an insight into the person behind the myth. In addition, the collection includes paintings Picasso bought or was given by contemporaries such as Matisse and Cézanne, his African masks and sculptures and photographs of him in his studio taken by Brassaï.
A grand square of symmetrical pink brick and stone mansions built over arcades, the place des Vosges, at the eastern end of rue des Francs-Bourgeois, is a masterpiece of aristocratic elegance and the first example of planned development in the history of Paris. It was built by Henri IV and inaugurated in 1612 for the wedding of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria; Louis’s statue – or, rather, a replica of it – stands hidden by chestnut trees in the middle of the grass and gravel gardens at the square’s centre. The gardens are popular with families on weekends – children can run around on the grass (unusually for Paris the “pelouse” is not “interdite”) and mess about in sandpits. Buskers often play under the arcades, serenading diners at the outside tables of restaurants and cafés, while well-heeled shoppers browse in the upmarket art, antique and fashion boutiques.