1. It is bursting at the seams with history.
French monarchs built their mansions here between the 13th and 17th century and a number of the houses can still be seen today, disguised as ‘hotels’ (Hotel de Sully, Sens, Beauvais). If it was good enough for the monarchs it’s certainly good enough for us.
2. It is home to Paris’ Jewish Community.
Admittedly, I’m generalising, not all French Jews live here but it is hugely populated by Jews and their culture literally seeps through the walls. Walking along the cobbled streets of the Marais, the most famous being Rue des Rosiers, you get a glimpse into both Jewish history and modern day life. Rue des Rosiers is lined with Jewish shops, bakeries, restaurants and of course, numerous places to buy take away Falafel. Their cakes in the bakery are delicious, even if they are very sweet and I’d personally recommend Baklava (a honey and nut pastry) if you are going to try one. Where modern day and Jewish history collide is above the doors of a number of apartments in this area. If you take the time to look up you will see a number of plaques above the tall, old fashioned doors that explain where families lived and were deported by the Nazis during the Second World War. Men, women, children and even the neighbours that tried to protect them, all taken to concentration camps and never seen again. Nowadays the Jews prosper here and it has become one of the richest areas in Paris but these plaques serve as a reminder that life was not always so kind to them.
3. They sell Falafel. Really good falafel.
The Marais as I mentioned is home to many falafel restaurants. It is a big part of why non-Jews like myself go there on a regular basis, to eat this delicious, calorific dish. There are so many places to choose from but it’s not difficult to make a choice. After strolling along Rue des Rosiers for a few minutes you will come to a sort of miniature crossroads with two falafel restaurants opposite each other. It’s clear they are at war for customers, either stopping people in the road or shouting at the top of their lungs “QUI VOULEZ DU FALAFEL? YOU WANT TO ORDER FALAFEL?” The English is to target the huge number of tourists lurking in these cobbled streets, most of whom are wondering what on earth this falafel thing is. L’As du Fallafel, the restaurant on the right if you walk from metro Saint Paul is the one you should choose, if you can’t find it, it’s the one with the enormous queue outside. Never fear, it moves quickly and is totally worth it. It’s a world-renowned falafel restaurant and take away, even being featured in the New York Times. It’s about 8 euros for a falafel and you can choose vegetarian or schwarma which is kosher meat. Just make sure you are hungry because these kind of pitta kebabs are huge!
4. The shops are très chic
Karl Lagerfeld, UGG, COS, Suit.34, All Saints and The Kooples are just a few of the fashion stores that have, over time, crept their way into the old streets of the Marais. The clothes are beautiful and if, like most women, you adore beautiful things you will find yourself staring into stores, eyes gaping and mouths open-wide, wishing you had enough money to buy everything in these shops. We call it window-shopping when you browse but don’t buy, the French more appropriately call it window ‘licking’ which can definitely be applied to the shops in the Marais. On the other hand this area retains its old style feel with vintage shops on every corner offering a variety of clothes, bags, shoes and fur scarves which are affordable for the everyday girl living in Paris and not earning millions of euros. Beware the occasional vintage shops full of Chanel, remember those places are for the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, both of whom you are not.
5. The Bars
Le Perle, Au Petit Fer a Cheval, Le Sherry Butt, Le Piment Cafe and La Fusee are Time Out’s top five bars in Le Marais. Le Perle is a quirky bar with lots of open space. I went there with a musician friend who I would say fits nicely into the hipster category that often frequent this bar, as well as a lot of gay people, fashionistas and tourists. The bar has good wine and offers ‘miam miam’ hot or cold snacks for one euro, which are things like cheese, salmon, potatoes and ham, perfect for our second stomach that magically appears after a few too many beverages. The bar itself has huge windows and an outside terrace and the décor inside is deliberately mismatched.
Au Petit Fer a Cheval is a gorgeous little bistrot with a terrace right on the Rue Vielle du Temple smack-bang in the middle of the Marais. It’s always busy and the décor inside and out is like a trip back in time. The wooden chairs and tables, 1950s telephones and glass bottles decorating the walls all contribute to this feeling of ‘the good old days’ and give any tourist or regular a glimpse into 1950s Paris. The food and drink is good and reasonably priced, I’d recommend a plate of cheeses or charcuterie and a glass of wine to wash it down.
I have actually only visited Le Perle and Le Petit Fer a Cheval but after living in Paris for four years and regularly using Time Out as a guide to the city I trust the recommendations and wouldn’t hesitate to try any of them on my next venture into the 4th arrondissement.
6. The Eclairs
An eclectic mix, the 4th gives you a number of possibilities for dessert or just an afternoon snack whilst walking through Paris. All that walking could make even a size zero Parisian model fancy an éclair, especially from L’éclair de Génie. This éclair shop didn’t open until quite recently and when I first saw it, with a huge queue of people outside, I practically had to tiptoe to see what was so special about it. When I finally got a glimpse I felt my eyes widen and my mouth water, I had never seen an éclair as beautiful as these. They are a little on the expensive side but if you want to die happy, pay between 4.5 and 6 euros, eat one and go to food heaven for at least the next few hours of your existence. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
7. The Penis Bakery
Yes you heard me correctly. The Marais, as well as being the Jewish quarter is also home to the gay population of Paris. As you make your way through these winding, stone streets you start to notice a shift in your surroundings. It is oh so subtle at first, the bars look the same and the restaurants don’t change. There are still vintage shops but you begin to realise that most of the shops are suddenly all about interior design, shop after shop filled with beautiful and quirky things for your house and garden. Then you take a closer look at the bars and notice only men sitting there, table after table of men. Then you notice the dogs, no big or aggressive looking dogs, only small and dainty dogs, some wearing t-shirts or diamond collars, being walked by their owner(s); two impeccably dressed men. The highlight of the area for me is the bakery. People stare, some laugh, some smile and take pictures but everyone stops outside LeGay Choc Boulangerie. The name is just another reason to love this place. As you can guess they sell an assortment of bread, biscuits, chocolates and chocolate bread, all in the shape of a penis. The chocolate bread is honestly TO DIE FOR and if you are not too prude, I’d highly recommend buying one and parading around with it in the Marais. You will get some looks, especially if you force your mother to take joke action shots with it, but the fun is worth a bit of unavoidable blushing.
8. The Penis Burger
Oh yes, I’m not quite done with the penises yet. Just recently a restaurant opened opposite LeGay Choc called Tata Burger. Tata burger is a gay hamburger restaurant. You can have a hamburger in the shape of a penis as well as other delights such as the DSK burger and the ‘braguette de Francois’ (Francois’ zip) a quip aimed at France’s current president. The burgers are not expensive (from 11 euros), they do brunch for 15 euros and the drinks are the right price. On the tables are pictures of half-naked men covered in oil, a delight for any gay man or straight woman having dinner there. As a heterosexual girl I would recommend going there with girlfriends and not your boyfriend, unless he is 100% at ease with his sexuality, so much so that he can eat a penis burger and see the funny side.
9. The Pompidou
The Pompidou Centre or Beaubourg as it is more commonly known to Parisians is an architectural landmark. When I first saw it I thought “What the heck is that ugly building??” The building was created inside out, so inside it is almost as if you are in an empty box and outside all the pipes and tubes can be seen. It is a museum of modern art and as well as having a huge collection of Dali paintings (which fits with the unusual building style) it consistently displays different eccentric exhibitions. The fountain just beside it is my favourite thing, with a mix of very funky sculptures, my favourite being the huge red lips that spit water at passers-by.
10. The Dogs
I’ve already broached the subject of the dogs in the Marais, how tiny and dainty they are and how they are often decked out in more diamonds than Kate Middleton but that isn’t why I adore them. The reason I love the Marais and its many dogs is that the majority are French Bulldogs. If you didn’t already know that I am just slightly obsessed with these dogs then honestly, you don’t know me at all. I have a t-shirt with this dog on (which my other half conveniently detests), my Ted Baker purse has these dogs on, I have two Ted Baker bags with these dogs on, my background on my computer at work is this dog and I regularly send pictures of these dogs to my other half to try and convince him of their cuteness. I most recently sent a picture of two French Bulldogs wearing star wars costume hoping that his love for the saga might extend to the dogs too. Safe to safe it totally failed. I also regularly post youtube videos of boyfriend’s buying their girlfriend’s these puppies to drop the hint as much as possible. For the moment it isn’t working but I won’t give up until I have my own little grunting Napoleon.
So go and visit this unique quarter and discover some of the joys of the Marais, home to the Jews and the Gays.
Le Marais 75004 Paris
Metro: Saint Paul