The Marais district of Paris enjoys worldwide fame. Hugely popular with Bourgeois Bohemian Parisians and the gay community, it is also the city’s most prominent Jewish quarter, a magnet for tourists, and a district that is steeped in history. Situated on the Right Bank of the Seine, it lies between the Rue Beaubourg to the west, the Place de la Bastille to the east, the Place de la République in the north, and its southern border is defined by the Seine. Here you can find the Pompidou Centre, the charming Place des Vosges, quirky little restaurants, high end fashion boutiques, and a wealth of history and culture. The various faces of Le Marais make it a fascinating and exciting district for everyone.
From marsh to upmarket district
Marais is French for marsh, and this low lying area north of the Seine was once just that. Outside the city walls and prone to regular flooding, it was considered unsuitable for building until the 12th century, when the Knights Templar established a fortified church there. Other religious orders followed and it became known as the Temple Quarter. Wealthy citizens preferred the Saint-Honoré and Saint-Germain districts but when the Place Royale (now the Place des Vosges) was built in the early 17th century, the Marais became extremely fashionable amongst the Paris elite. Then, when the aristocracy had moved on, the 19th century saw the establishment of a Jewish community based around the Rue des Rosiers.
Today, a major factor in the area’s appeal arises from the fact that it escaped Baron Haussmann’s 19th century reconfiguration of Paris and so remains the district most evocative of old Paris, with pretty, crooked, medieval streets and pre-revolutionary architecture.
Nonetheless, the 20th century left its mark on the Marais, and the Pompidou Centre lends a contemporary touch. This modern art museum and its striking and colourful high-tech building is well worth visiting, if only for the stunning view of Paris from the sixth floor. The adjacent square is noted for street performers, including caricaturists, buskers, mimes and jugglers who gather to entertain the crowds. Nearby, the Stravinsky Fountain, a charming and whimsical monument with moving sculptures, offers a refreshing mist of spray on warm days.
The diverse Marais
With its vibrant gay community, delightful restaurants, welcoming bars, trendy shops and bookstores, the Marais neighbourhood boasts a unique ambience that is at once joyous and elegant. The Rue des Rosiers is a wonderful example of the neighbourhood’s diversity. This street is at the heart of the long-established Jewish quarter, and that fascinating culture permeates all aspects of the place. Kosher food shops, falafel snacks, synagogues, Ashkenazi bookshops, and enticing window displays of pastries abound in this lively part of the Marais, which has retained its essential character despite the various high-fashion boutiques that have sprung up in recent years.
The Place des Vosges, however, remains the essential must-see in the Marais. The red bricks and blue slate roofs of the 36 houses of the square combine in exquisite architectural harmony. Number 6 was the home of Victor Hugo from 1832 until 1848 and is open to visitors.