Le Marais is one of the most iconic districts in Paris. It is the main hub is Paris’ gay community and also its Jewish community. Parisian Jewish life has mostly been centred around Le Marais since the Middle Ages. The gay scene only emerged in the 1980s.
Prior to the French Revolution, much of the French aristocracy lived in Le Marais. After the Revolution, they moved onto Saint Germain des Pres. In their wake, Le Marais became more of a commercial district. Today it is a hub of art galleries, boutique shops and chic restaurants.
On your way into Le Marais, you’ll see rainbows painted along the streets. During the day, however, you won’t see many gay bars and you may wonder if Paris’ vaunted gay district is a myth. Unlike London’s Soho, the gay bars in Le Marais don’t usually open until the early evening.
An Afternoon In Le Marais
Le Marais gives you a rare glimpse of old Paris. So much of the city was destroyed and rebuilt in the mid-19th century by Georges-Eugène Haussmann. He demolished the winding streets of the medieval neighbourhoods and built the vast boulevards we stroll down today. Curiously, the boulevards were designed to suppress dissent should Paris erupt into revolution again. The long, straight boulevards would make things easier for the authorities to put down a revolt.
In Le Marais you’ll see more pre-Revolution buildings than in any other part of the city. The streets are full of achingly trendy boutiques. It’s a must if you love clothes and you’re not averse to spending large amounts of money. Then again, the French flaneurs practically invented window shopping.
You’ll find the iconic gay bookshop Les Mots A La Bouche on Rue Sainte-Croix. Don’t worry if you can’t speak French, they also stock English language books. You’ll also find some rather eye-catching postcards and magazines – supposing you’d like to send a naughty present back home. French postcards are an iconic Parisian export.
The Picasso Museum is located in Hôtel Salé on rue de Thorigny. Here you’ll find over 5000 of Picasso’s artworks – it’s the largest permanent Picasso collection in the world. The pictures are displayed in a stunning setting in a somewhat haphazard fashion. They aren’t set out chronologically or thematically. None the less, this museum is a must. You’ll feel very cultured and sophisticated when you leave.
Where To Eat In Le Marais
The falafel is legendary in Le Marais. On the Rue des Rosiers you’ll see long queues outside the various falafel joints, such as L’As du Fallafel and King Falafel Palace. You can eat inside if you find a table. Alternatively, you can hover on a street corner and eat as you watch the world go by. You’ll notice a lot of people opting for the latter option.
On the same street, you could also try Sacha Finkelsztajn and gorge on hearty Jewish cuisine. The cheesecake and gefilte fish are a must.
If you fancy some old world eleganza extravaganza, then head to Benoit. It’s right by Hôtel de Ville on the border of Le Marais. The decor is divine – we’re talking about trompe l’oeil ceilings and red velvet chairs. Benoit is one of the oldest bistros in Paris and it has a Michelin Star. Here you can indulge in classic French cuisine and live out the Midnight In Paris fantasy.
A Night Out In Le Marais
When the late night bars open after 5 pm the gays come out to play. Head to Rue des Archives. Here you’ll find Le Cox (no sniggering at the back). It’s a lively gay bar you can’t miss – there’s always a big crowd spilling onto the street.
The bar next door is called Freedj. Happy hour goes on till 10 pm. As well as cheap drinks you’ll see some of the finest specimens of the Parisian night.
If loud bars aren’t your scene then head to Rue Vieille du Temple and have a drink at La Belle Hortense, a super chic bookshop that also has a bar! Here you can avoid the disco dollies and drink with literary folk till 2 am.
Whatever time you find yourself exploring Le Marais, the big appeal is people watching. It does help that they are all so impeccably well dressed.