In the 13th century, Le Marais was marshland, but by the 17th century, it had become a haunt for French aristocrats. Now it has developed into Paris’ most happening quartier, says Alex Gorton
1 - Centre Pompidou
Straddling the chic Marais district and the less sophisticated area of Les Halles is the elegant Beaubourg. Home to trendy café, boutiques and galleries, it is best known as the location for the high-tech Centre Pompidou. Designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano in 1977, the centre was heralded as a unique piece of avant-garde architecture, although it had as many detractors as it did fans. These days, its exposed framework is still a talking point, as are the soaring views from the rooftop restaurant Georges. Housing the Musée d’Art Moderne, the centre is home to an incredible collection of modern art – arguably the best in Europe, with almost 5,000 artists and 55,000 pieces in the permanent collection, although space constraints allow only a fraction on display at any one time. Place Georges Pompidou, open 11am-9pm daily except Tues. Tel +33 1 44 78 12 33; centrepompidou.fr. Entrance €10.
2 - Les Bains du Marais
Head next to Les Bains du Marais. A well-kept secret, this luxurious chill-out spa is not far from the Centre Pompidou. The key attraction is a stunning Moroccan hammam (or steam room), one of the finest in Paris. There’s also a hair salon, a beautician, and a café serving healthy cuisine. Traditional therapies – such as massages and facials – as well as hammam treatments are all on offer. 31-33 rue des Blancs Manteaux. Mon-Wed, women only; Thurs-Fri, men only; mixed at weekends. Tel +33 1 44 61 02 02, lesbainsdumarais.com.
3 - Rue Charlot and Rue de Poitou
From the heat of the baths, head north for some cutting-edge cool. These two streets offer a glimpse of everything that’s new and happening in Paris. In the last few years, this once-derelict area has become a fashionista’s enclave, with disused warehouses converted into artists’ workspaces, galleries and funky boutiques, such as Moon Young Hee on rue Charlot and Karine Dupont on rue de Poitou. Great for individual boutiques such as L’Habilleur and Calesta on Poitou, there’s also the organic restaurant R’aliment (tel +33 1 48 04 88 28) on rue Charlot, where the stylish interiors are as much an attraction as the menu. Directly opposite, you’ll find Food (tel +33 1 42 72 68 97), a bookshop for gastronomes, with high-end cookbooks and photographic exhibitions dedicated to the art of eating.
4 - Picasso Museum
Hidden in one of the quartier’s most beautiful mansions, this small museum has the life and works of the legendary Spanish artist on display. A work of art itself, the lovingly restored 17th-century HÃ´tel Salé is home to the world’s biggest Picasso collection: 203 paintings, 158 sculptures, 16 collages, 19 bas-reliefs, 88 ceramics, more than 1,500 sketches and 1,600 engravings, spanning 75 years of the artist’s life. Highlights include an early self-portrait from 1901 and studies for the famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Paolo as Harlequin. There are also paintings of his favourite muses Marie-ThérÃ¨se and Dora Maar. Some private notebooks are on display, as are pieces that Picasso himself collected, including African tribal art and works by Cézanne, Rousseau and Braque. Musée National Picasso, HÃ´tel Salé, 5 rue de Thorigny. Open 9.30am-5.30pm daily except Tues. Tel +33 1 42 71 25 21, musee-picasso.fr. Entrance €6.50.
5 - Musee CaRnavalet
For such a small district, the Marais has a lot of museums. This museum is dedicated to the history of Paris, with 140 rooms charting the city’s progress from pre-Roman times to the present day. This 16th-century Renaissance palace was converted into a museum in 1866. Several rooms cover the French Revolution, with exhibits including the chessmen that Louis XVI used to play chess while he was waiting to be guillotined, and the bed belonging to his sister. Elsewhere, you’ll find archaeological finds dating back to 4400BC, art from the Renaissance period, items belonging to Napoleon and a room dedicated to the early 20th-century Art Nouveau movement. 23 rue de Sévigné. Open 10am-6pm Tues-Sun. Tel +33 1 42 72 21 13, paris.org/musees/carnavalet/info.html. Entrance free.
6 - Rue des Francs Bourgeois
The Marais is one of the few areas in Paris that has shops open on Sundays, so the area is constantly bustling. Cutting through the heart of the quartier, rue des Francs Bourgeois is the consumer centre of the district. A narrow street lined with chic boutiques and small café, it’s great for local labels and stylish French designers that won’t break the bank. Boutiques such as Et Vous (no 6) can be found alongside boho places such as Abou d’Abi Bazar (no 10) and the style emporium Zadig & Voltaire (no 42). With international brands such as MAC and Muji alongside the homegrown stores, the street is a must for shopaholics.
7 - Place des Vosges
End your trip at this small, exquisitely designed square just off rue des Francs Bourgeois. Place des Vosges is the oldest and once most fashionable square in Paris. Originally known as the Place Royale, it was built by Henri IV from 1605-1612. The perfectly symmetrical square was renamed in 1799 after the département of Vosges, the first region to pay taxes to Napoleon. Lined with chestnut trees, chic restaurants and designer shops, the red-brick square has, over the years, been home to Descartes, Cardinal Richelieu and Madame de Sévigné. Its most famous resident was the writer Victor Hugo, who lived at no 6 between 1832-1848. His home is now a museum, where you can see first editions of his work, drawings and some of his home-made furniture. The square is also a good place to stop for a drink or meal. Try Ma Bourgogne (tel +33 1 42 78 44 64) at no 19, where even in winter, patrons sit people-watching outside under the elegant arches. For a memorable meal, make a reservation at L’Ambroisie (tel +33 1 42 78 51 45), a three-Michelin-starred restaurant at no 9.