Situated on the right bank, the Marais is one of the most historic and beautifully preserved areas of Paris. Marais is French for marsh or swamp and the area was first drained and settled by the Knights of the Templar in the 1300s. Today, the Marais is home to aristocratic mansions from the 1600s, one of Europe’s most beloved squares, and a baguette “tradition” that has taken top honors in the city.
Start your walking tour at Place de Vosges, a beautiful square in the eastern part of the Marais. In the middle you’ll find a large Louis XIII statue, to commemorate his marriage to Anne of Austria at this very spot, but the history of Place de Vosges starts well before that. In 1559 the French King Henry II died from injuries sustained during a jousting match here. In the 1600s King Henry IV created a civic plan centering around this square that included the red-brick apartments and arcade that you see today. Over the years, there have been a number of famous residents including Victor Hugo who wrote Les Miserables and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. You can visit his apartment at the southeast corner of the square for free.
Walk under the covered arcade to the southwest corner, step through a doorway, and you are now in the gorgeous gardens of the Hotel de Sully. Keep-in-mind, this does not mean it’s a place for travelers to spend the night. Hotel gets its name using the root “ho” which is latin for “to take care of,” much like hospital, hostel, and hotel. Hotel de Sully was one of many Hotel Particulier… to take care of an individual (what we now call a mansion) that can be found in the Marais. Be amazed by the architectural splendor of the greenhouse which occupies the north wall of the garden. Meander around the gardens, and walk through the entrance to Rue Saint-Antoine.
THE SECRET ENTRANCE OF CATHEDRAL ST. PAUL
From the entrance of Hotel de Sully, cross Rue Saint-Antoine slightly to the left– toward Rue Hotel Saint-Paul. Walk one block and turn right on Rue Neuve Saint-Pierre and come to a stop at the next corner. Look across the street (and slightly to the right) for a small passageway called Passage St. Paul. Walk through the passageway and into the Cathedral of St. Paul. You have found the back entrance of the church… a bit of a hidden route. Take note of the Post Reformation architecture (smooth arches and light stained glass windows) and compare them to Cathedral St. Gervais later in this tour. Before exiting through the front door and spilling onto the open promenade of St. Paul, find the two clamshell holy water holders that Victor Hugo donated in 1843 because his daughter was secretly married here. Once out of the church, look up and find the giant sun clock. This is because Louis XIV “the sun king” was on the throne during the first years after completion.
HOTEL DE BEAUVAIS
If facing away from the church, turn left (west) and walk along Francois Miron. At 68 rue Francois Miron, you have arrived at Hotel de Beauvais. This 17th century masterpiece now houses the Administraitve Court of Appeals, but once hosted Mozart from 1763-1764 and was originally built for a servant. Yep, a servant. How did a servant get a mansion built for her? Catherine Beauvais was the chambermaid for Queen of France Anne of Austria. Because the queen and king didn’t have Louis XIV until 30 years post marriage (because of this some speculate Louis XIII was gay), Louis XIV was a child when the king died. With plots to overthrow the young king, the queen regent used her chambermaid to sleep with the others in the french court and collect “pillow talk” secrets to report back. The queen was forever grateful for this. It’s even said the queen arranged for the cunning Catherine to make Louis XIV a man, if you know what I mean…
When you’re standing at the front of the building take note of the wooden relief above the door This most likely had a nobility mark that was destroyed during the french revolution. Show you’re ID to the guard so you can step in side and marvel at the Hotel Particulier’s unique oval courtyard and ornate detailing including a face carving on Catherine Beauvais herself.
AU PETIT VERSAILLES DU MARAIS BOULANGERIE
Now you deserve a snack. Grab one of the best baguettes in Paris at Au Petit Versailles du Marais at 27 rue Francois Miron. The boulangerie won second prize in Paris’ best baguette competition. Make sure to order the baguette “tradition.” These are the strictly regulated french baguettes that use only the best ingredients and are made by hand. Ask for yours pas trop cuit (not too cooked) or bien cuit (well done) to truly feel like a local.
TWO OF THE OLDEST HOUSES IN PARIS
Continue west until you reach 11-13 rue Francois Miron. Built in the 14th century, these are some of the last remaining medieval houses in Paris. Today, they operate as a swingers club late at night… don’t believe me, look at the sign and opening hours posted on the door.
CATHEDRAL ST. GERVAIS
Stay the course until you reach Cathedral St. Gervais. Walk up the steps and into this ancient church. There has been a church at this site since the 4th century, although the original building is no longer there, the current cathedral building was built from 1490-1620.
Take a moment to compare the Post Reformation architecture from St. Paul to the gothic interior of St. Gervais. Notice the difference in the stained glass windows which are much darker at St Gervais. At St. Paul the arches are smooth and rounded while at St. Gervais they are more pointed.
Find the interior columns with chunks missing. This is from one of the biggest civilian atrocities of WWI. On “Good Friday” in 1918 a German shell was fired on the church killing 88 and wounding 68 others. The explosion caused the roof collapse.
ALLEE DES JUSTES
Exit through the rear, take a left at the street, and your first right on Grenier sur L’eau. Cross Rue du Pont Louis-Philippe and you have now entered the memorial for those brave souls who helped the Jewish community during WWII.
Notice the street name has changed from Grenier sur L’eau to Allee des Justes.
Take a left on Rue Geoffroy L’Asiner then your first right on Rue du Jouy . Walk until the intersection of Rue de Jouy and Rue de Fourcy.
A MEDIEVAL SHOP SIGN DEPICTING A KNIFE SHARPENER
Look up and find the ornate engraving on the building. It’s actually an ancient shop sign, a far cry from the neon signs of today.
Continue on Rue de Jouy, which has now become Rue Charlemagne, until Rue de Jardin Saint Paul.
THE GREAT PROTECTIVE WALL OF PHILIPPE-AUGUSTE FROM THE YEAR 1200
Just before arriving at the intersection of Rue Charlemagne and Rue de Jardin Saint Paul, you will come to the greatest example Philippe-Auguste’s wall from 1200. Built to protect the city (which was all contained to within the walls) before he set off for one of his crusades. He built the wall primarily because he didn’t trust the English.
As you walk along the wall, notice the wide open area used for playing sports. This was once the city’s mandated defensible space so that the archers from the wall could see the attackers coming. As the city grew outside the walls, the citizens complained that the mandated “clear zone” was no longer needed, and should be used for a thoroughfare for hauling commercial goods. This is where the word “boulevard” comes from.
Coming to an end of the wall, turn right on Rue de L’ave Maria and follow the road for one block to Hotel de Sens.
HOTEL DE SENS
One of only 3 medieval private residences remaining in Paris, Hotel de Sens was built from 1475 to 1507 and is now a library. As you approach, look up and notice there is still a cannonball from the revolution of 1830 stuck in the exterior. This was not “the” French Revolution, but a different revolution.
This mansion also housed the ex-wife of King Henry IV in the 1600s and was the site of a public execution of one of her lovers.
The walking tour ends here, but to see more of the Marais head to Rue des Rosiers for falafel or pop in to our favorite local restaurant Miznon for a boeuf bourguignon pita. If you’d rather see the seine go south to Ile St. Louis. Walk across Pont Marie and search out Berthillon, the best ice cream in Paris or grab a table at Café St. Régis for a glass of chablis and a burger. From there, Notre Dame is just 300 meters.
For more on where to eat, drink and shop in Paris go here.