In the Marais, you can visit a side of Paris that calls back to its past while also looking forward into the future.
Along these streets, the old Paris of centuries past still feels alive in the many mansions and parks. Yet, the thriving culture of the area today makes it feel as relevant and exciting as ever.
That is the magic of the Marais. I might be a little biased — I live here, and everyday I am reminded why. From trendy shopping to artwork to fun nightlife, this district has it all.
I love to take people on tours of this area. Many people from abroad haven’t heard of the Marais, and they are always surprised to see just how important this district is. Still others have always wanted to go, but without a local to guide them, it can be difficult to see everything it has to offer.
Both hip and historic, it delivers plenty of great eating and sightseeing, all brought together with that special Paris feeling.
Let’s dive into the history of the Marais and what makes it such a wonderful part of the city.
And if you feel so inspired, contact me about your next trip to Paris. I offer walking and biking tours of Paris, including the Marais.
The History of the Marais
Le Marais means “the swamp” or “the marsh” — a reference to the area’s condition before it was built up into one of the great cultural centers of the world.
In the 13th century, the Marais lay just outside the Paris walls, but in 1240, a temple was built there by none other than the storied Knights Templar.
They began to improve the area, attracting more religious buildings to crop up. You can visit some of these to this day, including the temple that started it all.
By 1361, the area was so developed and impressive that King Charles V built a mansion for himself, called the Hôtel Saint-Paul.
In the following centuries, the Marais became the place that every aristocrat wanted to be. Through the 17th century, many stunning mansions were built, including the Hôtel de Sully, the Hôtel de Sens and the Hôtel Carnavalet.
These mansions are called hôtel particuliers. Rather than a townhouse where each home shares walls with others — very common in a dense urban setting like Paris — these buildings were built to stand apart, with beautiful gardens and courts that placed them far from the street.
In short, the hôtel particulier promised privacy and luxury, and the Marais promised close proximity to all that Paris had to offer.
When you visit the Marais today, you can still visit these hôtel particuliers.
For the most part, they are built around the Place des Vosges, the first ever planned park in Paris and the second oldest example of city planning by European royalty. Led by King Henri IV, the park was under construction from 1605 to 1612.
It became a fashionable meeting place for royals and nobles, whether to talk about serious matters or simply relax in the sun.
But all fashions change, and by the 18th century, the Marais was no longer the coveted place to build your mansion. While nobles would still meet at the Place des Vosges, the district slowly became less and less elite.
Then came the French Revolution — and with it the nobles left the Marais entirely.
Through the 19th century, some renovations were made under the direction of Baron Haussmann — the man who led the single greatest push to modernize Paris. One of the city projects in the Marais was to purchase of the Hôtel Carnavalet to be turned into a public building, which it still is today
The area continued to be used as a popular district, especially for commerce (it’s still a shopping hotspot), and it became home to a thriving Jewish community. And in the early 20th century, a large Chinese community grew there as well.
It gradually became a working class neighborhood, being the site of many gatherings calling for strikes, improved working conditions and even socialist revolution.
After World War II, Paris was looking to renovate itself. At the time, the Marais was in poor condition, with many of the great mansions needing renovations. To address this, Culture Minister André Malraux created the first neighborhood conservation program in Paris, turning the Marais into a secteur sauvegardé.
As years went on, more and more of the mansions were brought back into their full glory and converted into museums. Because of this, the district is now home to a huge number of important museums, and galleries have popped up nearby, creating a lively art scene.
Today, it is known as one of the most inclusive parts of the city. It has a Jewish community who lives with many others communities in Paris, and so, it continues to be an ethnically diverse area.
The Marsais combines an enormous selection of cultural experiences with architecture that reaches back to the Middle Ages and moves up to marvels of the present day.
Every era can be seen in this one district: its beginning as a home for religious institutions, its time as a swanky locale for the nobility, its period as a hotbed of worker revolt, and its present as a diverse center of the arts.
What is the Marais in Paris known for?
The Marais is very well known for its large number of landmarks.
At the Hôtel Salé, you can find the Picasso Museum. Within its walls are over 5,000 works of art by the artist, as well as a huge number of archival documents, collected correspondence, manuscripts and photographs.
But as I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of other mansions turned into museums, including:
These can all be wonderful stops on walking or biking tours of the Marais with me. But there are so many other sites to see.
The Pompidou Centre
Paris is home to some of the greatest art museums in the world. So when a new one is built here, it is an enormous undertaking.
And that’s what happened in the 1960s when France created its national modern art museum. Where else to place it but the Marais? But this project was far too big to simply renovate an existing hôtel particulier.
It all began with the same man who led the charge to renovate the Marais in the first place, André Malraux. He conceived of a huge complex that would unite a wide variety of the arts and make it available to the public. At the same time, the government was looking to create a free public library, and the ideas were merged.
The building, what would come to be called the Pompidou Centre, was designed by Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini. And they went bold. It’s been described as a building turned inside-out, with the exterior exposing all the mechanical, structural and ventilation systems.
The postmodern approach was not popular to begin with, but it is now recognized as one of the great architectural achievements of the 20th century. That makes it an appropriate new addition to the Marais.
The Place des Vosges
Would you like to walk the same paths of the French nobility in the Renaissance? Who wouldn’t?
The park that helped launch the Marais as the most fashionable area for an aristocrat to build their mansion is still a wonderful place to visit.
Around the park are uniformly designed red-brick townhouses, where the likes of Madame de Sévigné and Victor Hugo once lived.
Today, it is still the perfect spot to meet for coffee or begin a romance.
The Oldest House in Paris
Believe it or not, the oldest house in Paris is in the Marais on the rue de Montmorency.
It completed construction in 1407. It was first owned by Nicolas Flamel who used it to give lodging to the homeless.
Flamel was an incredibly wealthy businessman who built many such houses, but this is the only to survive. The first of its four storeys houses a restaurant, with the rest used as a private residence.
Too Many to Count
The Marais is filled with so many great experiences.
You can do plenty of shopping, eat at delicious restaurants, view artwork and take part in cultural events on just about any day of the year.
Is the Marais worth visiting?
If you are taking a trip to Paris, you should definitely visit the Marais!
That’s why I offer walking and biking tours throughout the district. There is so much to explore, and with a guide, you can uncover all the fascinating history behind the sites.
So what are you waiting for?
Reach out to me and let’s start planning your ultimate tour of Paris and the Marais!