The Most Wonderful Things to Do in the Marais
Follow in the footsteps of Victor Hugo and explore Paris' historic Marais district
Known primarily as Paris' colourful gay district, the Marais is also the oldest part of the city and, as such, is a treasure trove of history and culture. Spread across the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, the Marais is a must for any visitor to the city. The 3rd arrondissement is home to the Haut-Marais (or the upper Marais). It's where King Charles V held court in the 14th century and where, on Rue de Sévigné, the French nobility built their extravagant mansions. With a more contemporary edge, the 4th arrondissement hosts the lower Marais (or Bas-Marais), taking in gallery-upon-gallery and portions of Île de la Cité including Notre Dame. Now let's take a look at the best things to do in the Marais across both charming parts of the neighbourhood with this Plum Guide-approved list.
Get a taste of history in Le Haut-Marais
The Haut-Marais has grown immensely in recent years. Celebrities flock there faster than they do the Vanity Fair Oscar Party. It isn't rare to leave your apartment for a groggy morning grocery shop and run into one of French cinema's best talents. Unsurprisingly, because of its attraction, real estate prices have begun to soar. However many new people move to the area, and however much it evolves, the Upper Marais remains a neighbourhood marked by its history.
Place des Vosges
The Places des Vosges is one of the highlights of the quartier, and the oldest planned square in the city. A true Parisian great, Victor Hugo lived in one of the red brick buildings that border the square. Once a hotel, the building is now a museum dedicated to his memory. Paying a visit to this square is a must during any Paris weekend itinerary.
Maison Européenne de la Photographie
While there are several fasicinating museums dotted around both sections of the Marais, we recommend making a beeling for the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP). The MEP is the beating heart of the city's contemporary photography scene and its mission is to make the art of photography available to all. Previous exhibitions have included the works of Annie Leibovitz, David Hockney, and Irving Penn.
Other cultural spots in the Marais that are worth checking out include Musée Picasso (5 Rue de Thorigny), La Gaîté Lyrique (3bis Rue Papin), Musée Carnavalet (16 Rue des Francs Bourgeois), Musée Cognacq-Jay (8 Rue Elzevir), Maison de Victor Hugo (6 Place des Vosges)
Get artsy in Le Bas-Marais
Also known as the south Marais, the 3rd district is a little grittier and more artistic. Think of it as the Parisian Soho to the 4th's Notting Hill. This part of the Marais has wider avenues lined with 'happening' bistros as well as smaller lanes full of galleries, hidden fountains, vintage shops, and even fetish shops. This Marais is where the artists live – a calm realm perfect for creatives, so if this sounds like you then be sure to choose a stylish home just like this in the area. One of the best things to do in the lower part of the Marais is to simply be: find yourself a spot at a backstreet café and people watch while you watch the sky change over the rooftops. Get yourself a glass of wine while you do it…or, if you're feeling really Parisian, go for the carafe. All in the name of culture, truly.
The Centre Pompidou
This intriguing post-modern building surrounded by sculptures is known locally as Beaubourg. Designed as a multi-cultural complex to bring all kinds of art into one space, this awe-inspiring (and somewhat controversial, aesthetically speaking) building is home to le Musée National d'Art Moderne, the biggest museum of modern art in Europe. In addition to exhibitions, the centre also hosts debates, concerts, and screenings, so be sure to check the events calendar. Even if you're not feeling particularly in the mood for art, pop inside just to check out the view - some of the best vistas across Paris can be seen from the top floors.
Place Igor Stravinsky
The area around the Stravinsky Fountain is one of our favourite places to people watch. There are plenty of small establishments to choose from that do a set menu and great wine that are open 'til late – the perfect vantage point. You won't be able to miss the square as it's just around the corner from Centre Pompidou. Enter from rue Renard and you'll see three pieces of art history merge. Beside a church (Église Saint-Merry), a huge stencil piece by street art pioneer Jef Aérosol covers the side of one of the buildings. In front of both is the surrealist fountain itself, which is either a masterpiece or an eyesore and is the subject of fierce local debate. Seriously, take a seat outside of one of the restaurants while you’re getting lunch and people - it's fascinating. Stay nearby in one of our amazing homes like Rue Castex.
Explore Île de la Cité
One thing you may not realise before you go to the Marais is how close it is to some of the most iconic of Paris sights. These include Notre Dame, which is technically part of the Marais. In addition to the usual sightseeing tours, Notre Dame puts on regular classical concerts that are always worth a look (and listen). For incredible value for money, you can hear trained sopranos tackle Handel and Bach or hear music from the era of Louis VIII, all within the confines of this iconic building.
Find the best places to eat in Le Marais
The Marais is full choice when it comes to food and drink – it'll be harder to settle on where you're going than to find a quality spot. Happy hours in the Marais seemingly last forever and it sure makes up for some of the late openings. Here are some of our personal (vetted) favourites:
Breakfast at Le Sarah Bernhardt
You'll find this quaint, glass-fronted brasserie between the Pont au Change and the Square of Saint-Jacques Tower. Breakfast here is incredible value, particularly considering that if you sit outside, on a fine day, you can look over and see Notre Dame. If you're visiting later in the day, the escargots are worth ordering.
Lunch at Le Renard
Le Renard may do delectable cocktails (it's five o'clock somewhere?), but it's also a great place to pop by for a spot of lunch. A three-egg omelette with lashings of mustard and plenty of frites? Proper French onion soup? Don't mind if we do! This place is atmospheric and informal and gives a truly Parisian feel.
Dinner at Le Restaurant des Poètes
We won't lie to you, what landed us here was its location in Molière's passage, but we'd never been more thankful to follow our instincts. Sitting outside of this restaurant, surrounded by locals having a good time, will make for a cherished Paris memory. The wine's good too, so that helps.
Head to the best gay bars in Le Marais
As the city's primary gay district, the Marais is flooded with great LGBTQ+ establishments. Take your pick from Le Curieux (12 Rue du Plâtre), Le Petit Prince de Paris (12 Rue de Lanneau), 4 Pat (4 Rue Saint-Merri), Pain Vin Fromage (3 Rue Geoffroy l'Angevin).
Shop 'til you drop
Your credit card might not like it, but shopping undoubtedly numbers among the best things to do in the Marais. The area is, put simply, vintage shopping heaven. There are many high street staples around the Les Halles area, but it’s in its vintage stores and boutiques that the area really shines. Here are a few of our highlights:
Etat Libre d'Orange
Serge Lutens eat your heart out (or not), Etat Libre d’Orange is the happening Marais fragrance store. Claiming to pioneer a perfume revolution along Rue des Archives, this innovative store boasts a range of scents that will provide the perfect Marais souvenir.
If you’ve ever wondered how Parisian women dress so well, look no further than Sandro along Rue Vieille du Temple. (There are several others dotted around but this is our favourite to visit.) This is high-end fashion for the everyday Parisian girl (or aspiring Parisian) and is worth a browse.
Name an item and we guarantee you’ll be able to find a version of what you’re looking for at Merci. Primarily a home decor store along Boulevard Beaumarchais (you'll also find another Sandro here too), there’s also a fashion offering and two cafés.
Once you've worked your way through this selection of things to do in the Marais, you'll need a place to lay your head. If you're looking for the perfect Paris base, let Plum Guide's experts aid you in the quest for the perfect pied à terre: from luxury Paris apartments to the city's best Airbnbs for families.