Eight hundred years ago, the Marais was marsh. It was settled by the Knights Templar in the 12th century, and two centuries later, Charles V built the first of many royal residences here. The district reached its full flower in the 17th century, when the aristocracy began moving in to rub shoulders with royalty. Louis XIV’s ascendancy in 1643 marked the beginning of the Marais’ slow decline, and by the 19th century, it had become an area of light industry and small businesses. It gradually deteriorated until 1962, when Minister of Culture André Malraux passed a sweeping architectural preservation law. Today, the Marais a vibrant area of architectural treasures given new life as shops, galleries, cafés and museums; it is truly one of the most engaging parts of Paris.
Begin at the Métro stop Saint-Paul and cross the Rue de Rivoli to the Rue Pavée (one of the first Parisian streets to be paved), and follow it one block to the Rue des Rosiers. This colorful street is the heart of the city’s Jewish quarter, which dates to the 13th century. Rue des Rosiers is lined with shops, bakeries and restaurants catering to the local population; among the most appealing is Sacha Finkelszatajn, a bakery and pâtisserie set in a distinctive yellow shop.
Continue along Rue des Rosiers until you come to Rue Vieille du Temple, where you turn right and then left onto Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, the Soubise Palace, part of the larger quadrangle of buildings that houses the National Archives. The palace dates to 1705, with a classic exterior, elegant courtyard and interiors that rank among the most sumptuous rococo examples of the Louis XV style anywhere in Paris.
Among the other highlights of the archives are the original Gothic gateway of the former Hôtel de Clisson (58 rue des Archives), which was incorporated into the Soubise; the Museum of French History, with treasures such as the Edict of Nantes, the 1802 Concordat between Napoleon and the Holy See, and the jailer’s keys from the Bastille; and the Hôtel de Rohan, with Aubusson tapestries, the rich Gold Salon and the small Monkey Room with amusing depictions of simians by artist Christophe Huet. On exiting the Hôtel de Rohan, cross the Rue Vieille du Temple to Rue de la Perle. At Rue de Thorigny, turn left. Here, you will find the world-class Musée Picasso. Housed in the 17th-century Hôtel Salé, the former home of a salt-tax collector, this museum has one of the world’s most extensive collections of Picasso’s works, donated to the nation in lieu of death duties.
After feasting on the Picassos, turn right on Rue de Thorigny, which, in a little dogleg to the left, melds into Rue de Elzevir. Go two blocks to the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois. Turn left and proceed to the Musée Carnavalet. Housed in two adjoining mansions, the museum’s superb collections bring to life the history of Paris. (Note: The museum is closed for renovation until late 2019.)
From the Musée Carnavalet, turn left on the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois and walk two blocks to the centerpiece of the Marais, the stunning Place des Vosges. One of the most beautiful squares in the world, it is a masterpiece of architectural symmetry and understatement. This is thanks to Henri IV, who issued a decree in 1605 specifying in great detail the guidelines for the square: 36 buildings, nine on each side, all to be done in the same style with arcaded ground floors, two-story façades of alternating brick and stone, and steeply pitched blue slate roofs punctuated with dormers. The two exceptions are the taller King’s Pavilion on the south side and the facing Queen’s Pavilion on the north side. Today, the square is a vibrant spot whose arcades are filled with stylish shops. For an excellent view, visit the Maison de Victor Hugo, dedicated to the novelist who lived there from 1832 to 1848.
From the Place des Vosges, head south on Rue de Birague, then turn right onto Rue Saint-Antoine, which will take you back to the Saint-Paul Métro stop.