A man with a flowing beard, wearing a black fedora, with strings (tziztit) running down the side of his pants carries a black siddur (prayer book) in his hand as he leaves shul (synagogue). A bar with a rainbow flag and male patrons is starting happy hour. Young women wearing the newest fashion and six-inch Christian Louboutin shoes, with their trademarked red-soles clip along on rue des Rosiers by the hip Zadig & Voltaire. The smell of fresh falafel wafts in the air, as lines of people form to buy one of the best falafel sandwiches in the world at L’As du Falafel. Fresh baked challah, cinnamon chocolate babka, rugelach, cheesecake, and other Ashkenazi pastries are displayed in front of Sacha Finkelstein’s Jewish bakery. To add more color, adult “toy stores,” catering to a male clientele, are not the least bit shy in displaying their wares in large glass window cases.
This is Le Marais, the trendy quartier of Paris known for its concentrated presence of gays, Jews, and chic fashion designers. Its epicenter is at the Pletzl, which is Yiddish for “little place.” It mixes the old with the new, hip with tradition, fashion with food to make Paris’ most lively, lovely and beautiful area of the city. Rain or shine, this is the perfect spot to go for a walk, marvel at the very narrow streets in one of the oldest and best preserved areas of the city, and sit at a café or window shop at young designer’s fashion boutiques. The area is so rich in detail with museums, parks, restaurants, and a diversity of people, you could spend an entire day here, from breakfast until after the last bar closes at 4:00 a.m., and still only scratch the surface.
Le Marais is one of the few places in Paris where boutiques, fashion stores, restaurants and antique shops are open on Sunday. Saturdays tend to be more quiet as many stores and restaurants are closed for the Jewish Sabbath, as is the case during major Jewish holidays (Passover and during the High Holidays in the fall). Easily accessible from the Saint-Paul metro off of rue de Rivoli, Le Marais is one of my favorite Sunday destinations with the family, including our yellow lab, Cosmo, who is welcome in boutique stores and restaurants (sometimes more so than our two, young boys).
Steeped in history, French royalty lived and died here. The Duke of Orléans was assassinated here by his brother, King Charles VI (Charles the Mad), for sleeping with his brother’s wife. Cardinal Richelieu, Victor Hugo, and a fleet of women who slept with French kings resided in these narrow quarters. (Women were as empowered, if not more so, than men, when it came to using sex as a weapon for power and wealth.)
Jews settled in Le Marais over 600 hundred years ago after being expelled from the city boundaries of Paris, resulting in the Jewish community having one of the oldest constant living populations in Paris, except for the period under Vichy when the French imprisoned Jews and then deported them to the death camps at Auschwitz. Plaques affixed to schools and other historic places remind the French of this ugly past. Such a plaque can be found at 8 rue des Hospitalières Saint-Gervais, which is just off of rue des Rosiers in the center of the Pletzl. Here was a kosher slaughter house, turned into a Jewish day school, where Jewish children were rounded up and sent to death camps. The great-grandchildren of those few who survived go to this school today.
You have not truly seen Paris until you come visit and experience Le Marais, and you can never get tired coming here, for each time you visit it is an adventure. Walking tours of Le Marais are offered very inexpensively at 12€ per adult. The tours are fun and informative and are the best way to learn and see Le Marais first-hand.
Some of our favorite places in Le Marais include:
Rue Pavée. From the Metro Saint-Paul on rue de Rivoli, entry to Le Marais begins with rue Pavée and a famous synagogue designed by French architect Hector Guimard. Located at 10 rue Pavée, this Art Deco style synagogue is distinctive with the look of an opened torah scroll. The synagogue was re-built after the war because its structure was dynamited by the Nazis and Vichy on Yom Kippur in 1941, along with six other synagogues in Paris, killing Jewish worshippers during the holiest Jewish holiday. Further on rue Pavée, is the entry way to rue des Rosiers.
Rue des Rosiers. The heart of Le Marais and the Pletzl is rue des Rosiers (street of rose bushes), which is a cobblestoned street that stretches between rue Pavée and rue Vieille du Temple. Although no rose bushes are to be found, Jewish bakeries, bookstores, and several falafel restaurants line this block, including the world famous L’As du Falafel. There are Jewish bakery stores, including 3rd generation owned and operated, Sacha Finkelstein’s, other quality falafel restaurants, Jewish bookstores, and Jewish butchers. A number of high-end boutiques also line the street, including Zadig & Voltaire, L’Eclaireur, and other men’s clothing and shoe stores. This video gives you a flavor of this street.
Rue Ferdinand Duval. The old Goldenberg’s deli, which was bombed in the 1980s, is now turned into a fashion store, on the corner of rue Ferdinand Duval and rue des Rosiers. Also on this block are boutiques with young, up-and-coming designer’s fashions, as well as high-end shops, such as the haute home design, Galerie Van Der Straeten.
Rue des Écouffes. Another well-established deli, Florence Finkelstzajn, is on the corner of rue des Rosiers and rue des Écouffes. Further down is Schwartz’s New York Deli, which gives the look and feel of a New York City traditional, eastside deli. Also tucked away on this block are a tiny shul and a kosher butcher.
Rue Vieille du Temple. At the end of rue des Rosiers, is rue Vieille du Temple, which has a number of boutiques, cafés, interesting historic buildings, and gay bars. Just to the right off of rue des Rosiers is Olivier & Co., where you can buy top quality olive oil and was a favorite of Julia Child. Next to the store is an old mansion dating from the 1700s, with large wooden doors with a carved face of a medusa. Back towards rue de Rivoli, one can buy all natural gelato made with organic ingredients at Amorino. This leads you to rue Saint Croix de la Bretonnerie, where Le Point Virgule, a cabaret and theatre for live shows, including for children, is located. IEM, which claims to be the best gay sex shop in Europe, is just across the street and leads to rue du Bourg-Tibourg, a quiet street that has a beautiful Mariage Frères, salon de thé and boutique.
Hôtel de Soubise. This expansive city mansion, with a grand courtyard and beautiful rows of columns with manicured lawns, is open to the public, and serves as the Musée de l’Histoire de France. It houses remarkable historical documents and paintings, including the farewell letter written by Marie Antoinette, the only known sketch of Jean d’Arc, and documents by Danton, Robespierre, and Napoleon, as well as jailers’ keys from the Bastille. The museum even rents space for parties, as my seven year old son was lucky enough to go to a birthday party where children wore 18th century costumes and learned ballroom dancing. Madame Anne de Rohan-Chabot, the mistress of King Louis XIV, took residence here with her husband, François de Rohan, Prince de Soubise, and it is rumored her affair with King Louis XIV helped finance the purchase of this magnificent structure. The museum is located on 60 rue des Francs-Bourgeois, which is also a popular street for high-end fashion stores, including Antoine & Lili (No. 48), Chattawalk (No. 45), Gerard Darel (No. 41), the sexy lingerie store Aubade (No. 33), which leads to Hôtel Carnavalet, on the corner of rue de Sévigné. Rue des Francs-Bourgeois takes you straight all the way to Place des Vosges, one of the most beautiful parks and residential areas in Paris.
Hôtel Carnavalet. Le musée Carnavalet was once the home of Madame de Sévigné, a prolific letter writer of the French aristocracy in the 17th century that was known to be the most beautiful woman in Paris. In its courtyard stands a statue of Louis XIV, and its exterior has carvings of masks on the upper facade, as Madame de Sévigné hosted carnival parties for her friends and the French aristocracy in Paris affiliated with the King’s court. Entrance to the museum is free. It houses over 2,600 pieces of art, including collections from Madame de Sévigné. The museum has other important historical objects, including toiletries of Napoleon, and personal effects belonging to Marie Antoinette. The paintings and objects are interesting in depicting life and historical events before and after the French Revolution. Around the corner is a nice little restaurant, Le Sevigné .
Place des Vosges. Originally called Place Royale, this courtyard is the oldest “Place” in Paris, built by King Henri IV in 1605-1612. It served as a court for the royals, until Catherine de Medici moved to the Louvre after her husband, King Henri II, was killed in a jousting match in the main square of Place Royale, near the spot where a statue of King Louis XIII resides in the center square today. Places des Vosges served as the residence for Victor Hugo (No. 6), Madame de Sévigné (her birthplace) (No. 1 bis), Cardinal Richelieu (No. 8 ) and poet Théophile Gautier (No. 21). Several cafés and restaurants are also located in the square, as well as art galleries.
Rue Saint-Paul. Located just off the Metro Saint-Paul and rue de Rivoli, rue Saint-Paul is a great shopping street with a hidden square perfect for finding antiques, including oil paintings, fine china, silver, and goblets of Baccarat. Most shops are open on Sunday, so before or after perusing the Pletzl this area is fun for treasure hunting. With narrow side streets such as Charlemagne and Charles V, it is fun just to walk and marvel at the old buildings and hidden passage ways. At No. 11 is the Musée de la Magie, a museum about magic and a fun venue for children with magic acts. At No. 23-25 lies a passage for an inner courtyard where you can find Cassiopée, one of the best antique stores for silver in all of Paris. There is also an American store, Thanksgiving, where you can buy Pop-Tarts, Butterfinger, brown sugar, marshmallow cream, and other American delicacies (but at Paris prices).