PARIS — The art of people watching was perfected in this city, and nowhere do you have a better view than from a cafe in the Marais district. You’ll find one on just about every block here, ideal places to observe a scene that ranges from funky to haute. Spend a day here sampling great food, shopping at the small, quirky boutiques and outdoor food markets, or just relaxing and taking in an atmosphere populated by bikers, hipsters, and well-heeled Parisians.
Situated on the Right Bank, the Marais lies roughly between the Bastille and the Georges Pompidou Center, cutting across the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, the 20 municipal districts that snail around the Seine. It’s a pleasant walk across the river from the 5th arrondissement. From wherever you are, hop on the Metro and get off at Saint-Paul, heading to the Rue de Rivoli. If you want a true Parisian experience, you can rent a bike (helmets are not de rigueur, but then, everybody in Paris smokes a lot too). Otherwise, walk north on one of the small streets toward the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois and you will find yourself in the heart of a village of winding streets, enticing stone passages, and hidden gardens, saved from ruin and demolition in the 1960s by the preservation efforts of Andre Malraux, a writer and France’s first minister of culture.
From the 13th to the 17th centuries, the Marais was home to the nobility, who built large hotels particuliers (mansions), of which the Hotel Carnavalet on the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois is a stunning example, now a museum dedicated to the history of Paris. The nearby Musee Picasso and the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme (Museum of Jewish Art and History) are also housed in one of the old grand residences. When the rich moved across the river to the Faubourg Saint-Germain at the end of the 17th century, the Marais attracted, over the years, a large Jewish community, gay couples, and artists. The square around the Rue des Rosiers is still a center of Jewish life (and good Jewish food.)
Place des Vosges on the edge of the Marais is one of the most beautiful, and the oldest, planned squares in the city. Elegant brick and stone homes with steeply pitched slate roofs (Victor Hugo lived here) surround a large peaceful park with plenty of room to picnic or relax on a bench surrounded by trees. Take a break here or browse in the art galleries under the arcades.
If you’re on a short visit, you won’t be able to bring home fresh ingredients, but you’ll want to. Paris’ markets are windows into the life here. You can have a snack and discover inexpensive souvenirs to tuck into your suitcase like espadrilles, kitchen towels, and the wildly popular little knives made by Opinel.
Marche Bastille, a five-minute walk from Place des Vosges, is on Boulevard Richard Lenoirnear the Colonne de Juillet in the Place de la Bastille. Open Thursdays 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Sundays 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Marche Popincourt is a 10-minute walk from Place des Vosges on Boulevard Richard Lenoir near the Oberkampf stop on the Metro. Open Tuesdays and Fridays 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
CAFES AND RESTAURANTS
Long, fast-moving lines at L’As du Fallafel, a kosher Middle Eastern restaurant, are worth it. Opt for the falafel, ask for a paper plate and plenty of napkins, and walk around the corner to Charles-Victoire Langlois Park on the Rue des Blancs-Manteaux. L’As du Fallafel, 34 Rue des Rosiers, Paris 4.
The cafe L’Etoile Manquante serves excellent salads, sandwiches, pates, cheeses, organic produce, sulfur-free wines, and entrees. 34 Rue Vieille du Temple, Paris 4.
La Droguerie du Marais is essentially a takeout window with a few stools inside. This tiny creperie is street food at its best. Try the buckwheat crepe with ham, egg, and crispy cheese at the edges. 56 Rue des Rosiers, Paris 4.
If you want to sit and relax with your crepe, head to Breizh Cafe, a deservedly famous spot in a casual setting. Reservations recommended. 109 Rue de Vieille du Temple, Paris 3.
Near the Place des Vosges, the Provencal bistro Chez Janou has a sparkling interior bar and interesting Provencal herbal liqueurs. Best for the atmosphere and a glass of wine or liqueur. 2 Rue Roger Verlomme, Paris 3.
Fulvio offers Sardinian food and its extensive menu is written on a huge chalkboard, explained enthusiastically in several languages by the bearded Fulvio, who looks like he hopped off a Harley-Davidson some time in the ’60s. Fulvio’s exuberance is matched by his passion for fresh seasonal ingredients and authentic Italian dishes. You are expected to share the entrees, our equivalent of appetizers, but not the plats, which are not large enough to divide. Desserts are huge. Spaghetti might be tossed with chicken livers and mushrooms, or prepared simply with olive oil. 4 Rue Poitou, Paris 3.
A single day in the Marais will whet your appetite. You will want to come back every time you’re in the city.
Sally Pasley Vargas can be reached at email@example.com.