Things to do in le Marais
“The last time I saw Paris her heart was young and gay, no matter how they change her, I’ll remember her that way…”
Eartha Kitt’s song certainly triggers my fondest memories of the city and reminds one again that many successful visits are the result of a mixture between planning and accident. Too often the quality of a visit to Paris is measured in monuments, museums or places of interest; the been there done that, but there is, however, other yardsticks which offer different but equally memorable experiences.
One of the most convenient and dynamic districts of central Paris must be Le Marais, and if you also believe that people watching or shopping should qualify as an Olympic sport, it provides a perfect mixture of local and foreign; packed with both touristic and lesser known attractions makes it the ideal choice for romantics and fanatics alike. First home to the aristocracy from the middle ages, more recently the gay sets of the eighties, Jewish and Chinese communities, Le Marais strikes a chord as an example of tolerant urbanity within the sprawling metropolis of Paris.
Where to stay in Le Marais
The recent history of the Marais is about gentrification, ‘bobo’ popularity and rocketing real estate, so finding a room larger than a litter box is tricky, to say the least. There is, however, one designer who has managed to transform interiors in a way that one barely notices the size of the space, notably by covering every inch of it so your eye has nowhere to focus, almost like being on the inside of an embroidered couture dress; Jacques Garcia.
In the quiet side street of Rue de Bourg Tibourg not too far off the main drag, lies the eponymous little hotel; Bourg Tibourg. The unsuspecting facade and small entrance door belie the attention to detail which awaits. It’s a contemporary twist on the traditional chateau decor but on a much smaller scale. Intimate drama would be a good description since it’s equally suited to a scandalous love affair as to a mid-century spy thriller. Service is the game changer here, as is the discretion and satisfaction. Bourg Tibourg becomes the HQ for the exploration of Le Marais, close enough to be convenient, but out of the way enough not to be conspicuous.
Nearly opposite the hotel are the famous tea merchants Mariage Frères, who have a fabulous tea tasting ritual and a delicate tearoom in which you might forget which century you are in.
Fashion is clearly a part of the history of the Marais, like the ironic twist of John Galliano recently opening his boutique at a falafel’s throw from the café where his infamous faux pas took place
Things to do in Le Marais
These days the Marais sadly only offers a shrinking glimpse of its colourful, seedy past with its warren of small streets now the it-place to bag big brands (granted there are also a fair number of artisanal stores); Rue des Archives, since transformed to BHV high street, used to be the mainstay of the gay ghetto. Rue de Sévigné, now joining the area between Rue de Thorigny and Rue de Turenne as the go-to for galleries, was previously lined with fashion upstarts and the fashion fringe. All of it still existing here albeit in a different guise. Couturier Azzedine Alaïa, for instance, has had a long time presence in the Marais on Rue de Moussy, he renovated a 19th century warehouse to create a super discreet gallery as an outlet for his passion for fashion and art, open all year and to the public it remains one of those interesting ‘round the corner’ finds when exploring these old streets. As is the case of discovering where Helmut Newton stayed and in 1975 took his iconic shot of ‘Le Smoking’ for Vogue in Rue Aubriot. Fashion is clearly a part of the history of the Marais, like the ironic twist of John Galliano recently opening his boutique at a falafel’s throw from the café where his infamous faux pas took place.
Speaking of falafel, although everyone is aiming for that ultimate bistro lunch, it’s often quite convenient to grab-and-go in one of Rue de Rosiers’ Jewish Bakeries or at Pitzman in Rue Pavée next to the Synagogue where the queues are shorter, afterwards make sure you pop in at L’éclair de Génie further along for exactly that. The Synagogue and all its decorative fittings were the work of the architect Hector Guimard, Art Nouveau champion and yes, he of the famous Parisian metro station entrances. Architecturally speaking, closer to the river bank also lies the only remaining examples of medieval Parisian architecture, two 15th-century half-timber houses on Rue François Miron, close to Rue des Barres, which escaped Baron Haussmann’s grand 19th-century urban work.
The nearby mouth-watering market on Saturday mornings at Place Baudoyer is well worth it for a picnic lunch especially if you are lucky enough to visit during spring; the hidden parks scattered between Rue Vielle du Temple and Rue de Turenne are some of the most popular and best kept secrets in Paris. Hard to miss are all the aristocratic 17th-century hôtel particuliers, which now house the most interesting museums: besides the obvious Museé Picasso or Carnavalet, is the Museé de la Chasse et Nature higher up in Rue des Archives and just a block further is the perfumery of État Libre d’Orange, who has created scents for icons such as Rossi de Palma, Tilda Swinton and Tom of Finland.
If you’re at all the fragrance-queen type, you can’t miss out on Frédérique Malle’s new store in Rue des Francs-Bourgeois to stock up on his 100% biodegradable rubber incense, the welcome nostalgia of it when opening your suitcase back home will certainly get you planning your next trip back. If that doesn’t work the Cire Trudon candle from Rue Sainte Croix de la Bretonnerie definitely should. The point being that between window shopping, which the French call ‘lèche vitrine’ literally; licking the window, and cafés, bistros and restaurants, you’d hardly need the use of any mode of transport between Rue Beaubourg and Boulevard de Beaumarchais, no wonder they turn the heart of the Marais into a pedestrian zone every Sunday.
Where to eat and drink in Le Marais
A recent favourite early dinner destination discovery, the result of a mild misunderstanding, can be found off the Rue de Bretagne close to the popular Les Enfants Rouges Market, strangely also called Les Enfants Rouges, hence the misunderstanding, but a totally rewarding one at that. As far as restaurants in Paris are concerned the general rule is: expensive, mediocre but with a view, or cheaper, worthwhile, and without a view. Les Enfants is of the latter and bridges traditional French bistro fare with the Japanese heritage of the chef, ‘libère la bistronomie’ as one journalist noted. Au Petit Fer à Cheval near the corner of Rue Vielle du Temple and Rue Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie may be the only exception to the restaurant rule. Its menu is traditional, good, cheap and the view is perfect for man-spotting before heading off to one of the regular LBGT guest book signings at Les Mots à la Bouche across the road or, if you were lucky enough to receive an invitation, a viewing at the Marian Goodman Gallery in Rue du Temple.
For the staunch bourgeoisie, a post-dinner walk before turning in should be eventful enough, but those in search of something more should saunter over to Les Souffleurs in Rue de la Verrierie. Close to being its own contradiction it is a refuge for local artists, models, designers, DJ’s and poets, go figure. Downstairs from the narrow bar is a cramped vaulted dance floor where guest events and
DJ’s introduce you to both the established and the new. Openness is the keyword here, so if you’d rather not, then don’t. It’s equally likely that you could be dragged into some discussion about speculative capitalism’s influence on the theatre or invited to someone’s home.
L’Elephant du Nil; mostly frequented by down-and-out locals it boasts limited service and an equally limited menu
The Marais might have regrown its aristocratic aspirations and the haunting sadness of an old milliner moving out to make space for a new Zadig and Voltaire store might seem lamentable, but there are still a small relief in visiting the lesser known village of St Paul, especially the arcade behind the church between Rue Charlemange and Rue de L’Ave Maria. Here in an extended courtyard is a collection of proud specialist antique dealers; one in art deco, another in school materials from the 1900’s to the 70’s, even a boutique des inventions who well, lives up to its name. There are a specialist gem and jewellery store and one specialising in old English porcelain, which together with another second-hand furniture store share this leafy enclave with a delightful little café serving a host of homemade treats.
Even though it seems as if there wouldn’t be a moment’s rest to be had in this little beehive, I usually make a point to. At the Metro entrance to the St Paul line, with an open view across Rue Saint-Antoine to the busy Rue de Rivoli, is the small terrace of L’Elephant du Nil; mostly frequented by down-and-out locals it boasts limited service and an equally limited menu, so why then recommend it? Because when it comes down to the soul of Paris it is its people, and there are few places where one can enjoy a crisp Chablis, and from behind your Balenciaga’s play an incognito witness to the sunset spectacle of a totally inspiring part of Paris go about its day like you were never there.
Exclusive Mr Hudson offers
Hotel Bourg Tibourg
Mariage Frères | Photo: Jean-Bastien Lagrange
Gallery Alaïa | Photo: Jean-Bastien Lagrange
Hotel Bourg Tibourg
Cire Trudon | Photo: Jean-Bastien Lagrange
Mariage Frères | Photo: Jean-Bastien Lagrange
Photo: Jean-Bastien Lagrange
Photo: Jean-Bastien Lagrange