Sightseeing > Neighborhoods > St Paul & Le Marais




3rd & 4th Arrondissements
M° Rambuteau, Hôtel-de-Ville, St-Paul, Bastille, or Chemin Vert.

The Marias is one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods, with an established Jewish population, trendy designer boutiques, and a lively gay scene. The maze of narrow streets hides a mix of medieval architecture and 17th-century hôtels particuliers (private mansions), many converted into museums and government buildings. The Marais is one of the few Parisian neighborhoods where shops and cafés are open on Sunday.

Some History
Marais was once just a soggy marshland (marais means marsh). When Charles V built the new ramparts in the 14th century, he brought this neighborhood within the city walls and drained the marshlands. After several security incidents at the royal palace on Ile de la Cité, Charles V moved to the Hôtel St-Paul in the Marais. The aristocrats followed, building illustrious private mansions. The Place Royale (today known as Place des Vosges) was built during the neighborhood’s heyday in the 17th century. Gradually, the nobility moved west to the new quarters of the Faubourg St-Honoré and Faubourg St-Germain. After revolutionaries destroyed the Bastille, the quarter was virtually abandoned. By the 1960s, its rat-infested, derelict buildings were destined for the bulldozers. It was Charles De Gaulles’ cultural minister, the writer André Malraux, who finally convinced the city to rehabilitate the old buildings instead.

Begin at Rue Rambuteau, a colorful market street, turning left onto Rue du Temple. On the left is the monumental gateway of the 17th-century Hôtel de St-Aignan, now home to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme. Formerly located in Montmartre, this museum features a detailed history of Jewish culture, as well as artworks by Chagall, Modigliani, and Soutine.

Follow the Rue des Haudriettes to the Rue des Archives. Note the contemporary wall murals and 17th-century fountain. A short detour to the left will take you to the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature located in the Hôtel de Guénégaud, one of the best restored hotels particuliers in the Marias. The museum displays decorative arts, paintings by Rembrandt and Monet, and various hunting trophies and accessories. Back on the Rue des Archives, note the ancient gateway and turret across from the intersection of Rue Braque. Built in 1372, they are the only remaining vestiges of the Hôtel de Clisson, where the ultra-Catholic Guise family lived during the French religious wars. It was incorporated into the 16th-century Hôtel de Soubise, today’s National Archives, whose entrance is around the corner on the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois.

Made up of the Hôtel de Soubise and the Hôtel de Rohan, the Archives Nationales was opened by Napoléon in 1808, and houses the French archives from the Merovingians to 1958. Napoléon III later opened the Musée de l’Histoire de France in the same building to present some of the Archives’ more prestigious documents to the general public. It’s worth a visit to see the formal French gardens and interior architectural details throughout the building. Some rooms are closed during renovations (which seem to be waaaaay behind schedule).

Continue along Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, where many traces of the past can be found. In the corridor at #57bis (inside the property of the Crédit Municipal), it’s possible to see the top of a 12th-century tower from the Philippe Auguste wall (which can be seen in the St-Paul quarter). Overlooking the intersection at Rue Vielle-du-Temple is the elegant turret of the Hôtel Hérouet, built around 1500. Opposite the Rue des Hospitalières Saint-Gervais is the creepy Impasse Arbalétriers, where crazy Charles VI’s brother, Louis d’Orléans, was assassinated in 1407 under the orders of the Duke of Burgundy (Jean-sans-Peur), sparking off the civil war between the Bourguignons and the Armagnacs that would eventually bring the English occupiers to France (until Jeanne d’Arc stirred up her countrymen to kick them out).

Bob and weave through the dense streets between Rue des Hospitalières Saint-Gervais, and Rue St-Croix de la Bretonnerie (Gay Boy Central!), arriving back onto the Rue des Archives. The Cloître des Carmes-Billettes (24 Rue Archives) dates back to 1427, and is the only intact cloister in Paris. The entrance seems quite plain, but inside is a courtyard of four galleries and 14 flamboyant gothic arcades, open to the public for regular arts expositions.

From the Rue de la Verrerie, turn left onto the Rue Vieille du Temple, home to some of the Marais’ most popular cafés and bars. This leads to the Rue des Rosiers, heart of the Paris Jewish community, lined with kosher delis and falafel stands and, more recently, designer clothing boutiques. At #7 is the Jo Goldenberg Restaurant, where a plaque on the facade is a sad reminder of the unsolved terrorist attack which killed six and seriously injured 22 people on August 9, 1982 (as of July 2006 the establishment was still closed because of health code violations…no word whether it will reopen). There are a number of orthodox synagogues on the side streets of Rue des Rosiers. One of the most famous is the Agudath Hakehilot at 10 Rue Pavée, designed by the Art Nouveau architect Hector Guimard, and completely restored after it was dynamited by the Germans in 1940. None of the synagogues in Paris can be visited, for security reasons, without advance permission.

The Jewish Community: The Marais has been a Jewish quarter off and on since the 12th century. Jews were given full citizenship after the French Revolution, attracting a new wave of immigration from Eastern Europe. After the horrors of deportation during the Nazi occupation of WWII, the Jewish community was re-established by Sephardic Jews from North Africa and the Middle East.

Head back up Rue Pavée past some excellent book shops (at #17bis and #24) to the Rue Payenne. On the left is the entrance to the Centre Culturel Suédois (Swedish Culture Center), in the 16th-century Hôtel de Marle. Stop by their café for a snack or relax in the secluded gardens (enter through the back of the exhibition rooms; closed August). Across the street is a small public garden, the Square Georges Caïn, where kids can be let loose on the playground while adults lounge on the grass lawn.

Turn left on the Rue du Parc Royal for a double museum detour to the Picasso Museum is located in the dramatic Hôtel Salé. It’s the largest collection of Picasso’s works, and includes the artist’s personal collection of paintings by Matisse, Renoir and Cézanne, all presented in a minimalist setting. When entering the courtyard, the ticket office is to the right, and the entrance is straight ahead. Don’t miss the sculpture garden on the ground floor. Around the corner the lesser-known Musée Cognacq-Jay (8 Rue Elzévir features a small collection of 18th-century European paintings and objets d’art bequeathed to the city by the founder of the Samaritaine department store in 1928. Located in the Hôtel Donan, it’s one of the more intimate Marais museums.

Back onto the Rue du Parc Royal, stop by the Square Leopold-Achille for picture-pretty views of the Musée Carnavalet, a municipal museum dedicated to the history of Paris housed within two former hôtels particuliers. On the left is the orangerie that was once used to over winter citrus trees. A huge fig tree, almost 100 years old, is at the northwestern corner. The center of the garden features Ile-de-France roses (a pale peach color) and a Maillol sculpture. Around the right side of the gardens are salvaged sections of the old Tuileries Palace and the original Hôtel-de-Ville façade,both destroyed during the Paris Commune of 1871. The museum entrance is around the corner at 23 Rue de Sévigné. Since the entry to the vast permanent collection is free, splurge on an English guidebook in the museum book shop. The museum uses artworks, scale models and everyday objects to illustrate the city’s fascinating and often tragic history from the Gallo-Roman period to the 20th century, with a particular focus on the French Revolution. Allow at least two hours for a full visit.

Continue down the Rue de Sévigné to the Rue St-Antoine, taking a left at Rue de Jarente for a scenic detour through the Place du Marché Ste-Catherine, once the home to an abbey and then an open market. Now it’s a pleasant pedestrian square lined with cafés. At the southwest corner is a boutique, Vert d’Absinthe specializing in Absinthe, the aniseed aperitif once banned for supposedly making people crazy. Back on Rue St-Antoine, duck into the 17th-century Hôtel de Sully (62 Rue St-Antoine), a Renaissance-style mansion once owned by the Duc de Sully, Henri IV’s minister of finance. Completely restored, today it houses the offices of the Center of National Monuments and the temporary exhibitions of the Jeu de Paume. The bookstore specializes in historic and sightseeing guides to Paris and the rest of France (don’t miss the original Louis XIII ceiling in here, recently restored). The public has free access to the striking garden courtyard, where a small doorway to the right of the orangerie building (where the citrus trees were wintered over in the olden days) leads directly into the Place des Vosges.

Henri IV commissioned the Place des Vosges in the early 17th century as the crowning glory of the fashionable Marais district. Called Place Royale up until the French Revolution, it was briefly dubbed the Place de l’Indivisibilité before receiving its current name by Napoléon I in honor of the first French department to pay its taxes. Relax in the grassy square for a moment to admire the symmetrical brick pavilions and arcades which have hardly changed over the centuries. It’s possible to visit the Maison de Victor Hugo (6 Place des Vosges), home of the exiled playwright and novelist from 1832-1848. Ask for the brochure in English at the entrance. Even those unfamiliar with his works such as Les Misérables will appreciate the period décor and scenic views over the Place des Vosges.

Historic note: There used to be another royal palace around the corner, the Palais des Tournelles. Catherine de Médicis had it torn down in 1559 after her husband, King Henri II, was accidentally killed during a friendly jousting match (stabbed through the eye, ouchie!) held just outside on the Rue St-Antoine.


St. Paul

This neighborhood is often grouped in with the Marais, but with the Seine at its south end and the busy Rue de Rivoli/Rue St-Antoine to the north, it has a particular feel of its own. It gets its name from the parish of St-Paul.

Start at M° Sully-Morland, the edge of the St-Paul district, just outside the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, an information and exposition center for city planning and architecture in Paris. This modern, converted loft space gives visitors a chance to see the current and future urban planning projects for Paris, with a giant floor model of the city (1/2000th of its actual size), drawings and photographs. On the upper floors you’ll find temporary exhibits and proposals for the latest city projects.

As you leave the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, head west and cut through the Square Henri-Galli . Most people miss the small stack of masonry stones amidst the flowers in this unassuming garden. A small plaque reveals them as one of the only surviving sections of the Bastille’s foundations, unearthed during the construction of the Metro Line 1 in 1899. Head away from the Seine on Rue St-Paul to the maze of whitewashed courtyards of the Village Saint-Paul, a former city orphanage now populated with charming antique and second-hand shops. If you leave by the other side, at the Rue Jardins St. Paul, you can see a section of the 13th century city fortifications built by Philippe Auguste, now serving as the wall of a high school sports field. This was hidden for centuries behind an abbey and then successive residential buildings, finally discovered when the housing was demolished in the 1960s.

Through the Passage Charlemagne around the corner is the only remaining Jesuit church in Paris, Eglise Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis. Built as a deliberate snub to the Reformation, this 17th century church was impressive, with a three-storey theatrical facade and rich baroque interior artworks that were plundered during the Revolution (and now on display in the Louvre). Once just called Eglise St. Louis (after the church’s benefactor, Louis XIII), it got its mouthful of a name after the Revolution, when the church absorbed the parish of the destroyed Eglise St. Paul.

Just outside the Village Saint-Paul is the Museum of Curiosities and Magic ( 11 Rue St -Paul ) , housed in the 16th century cellars that once belonged to the Marquis de Sade. Leave your bah-humbug skepticism outside and enjoy the optical illusions, automated antique statues, and the mysterious history of conjuring for an unforgettable visit.

Cut back down the side street Rue du Prevôt and along Rue du Figuier. You can’t miss the fairytale-like Hôtel de Sens, one of the rare examples (along with the Musée Cluny) of civil architecture from the Middle Ages. Built in 1475 for the archbishop of Sens, the mansion then passed to Henry IV’s scandalous ex-wife Queen Margot. She had the immense fig tree (which the street was named for) cut down so her carriage could pass. The city bought and restored the building in 1916, and today it houses the Bibliothèque Fourney, a library dedicated to the decorative arts.

As you head towards the Rue François Miron, make a detour to the modern world at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (5-7 Rue de Fourcy ) . Behind the façade of the typical 18th century hôtel particulier is a collection of over 15,000 contemporary photos from the 1950s to the present day, from photographers such as Irving Penn, Robert Franck and Raymond Depardon. It’s quite a lively place, with a library, exposition center, videothèque and a small café under the old stone vaulted ceilings.

On another side street you’ll find the moving Mémorial de la Shoah (17 rue Geoffroy-l’Asnier). Opened in 2005 on the site of Mémorial du Martyr Juif Inconnu, this memorial centre on the Holocaust houses permanent and temporary exhibitions dealing with both past and contemporary events in the Jewish diaspora, a documentation library where you can search for the names of deportees, and the “Mur des Noms” with the names of the 76,000 Jews deported from France. Newly added in 2006 is th „Mur des Justes“, dedicated to the people who helped French Jews to hide or escape during the Nazi occupation.

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