Fifty years ago, some of the aristocratic mansions (hôtels particuliers) in the Marais were being used as warehouses. Now this area is the showpiece of Paris's historic preservation effort, a buzzing neighborhood with plenty of bars, boutiques, and galleries, center to both the city's Jewish and gay communities.
Start at the (1) Bastille. The famous fortress was the first victim of the Revolution in 1789, but if you arrive on the No. 5 metro you can still see some of its foundation from the platform. Replacing it on Place de la Bastille is the bulbous, gray (2) Opéra Bastille (www.operadeparis.fr), one of the most unloved buildings in Paris.
From here, head into the heart of the Marais down lively Rue Saint-Antoine; where locals fill their baskets at shops such as charcuterie (3) Au Sanglier at no. 49, and pause for a coffee at (4) Au Bouquet Saint Paul, at the corner of Rue Saint-Paul. Head briefly up the latter for the (5) Village Saint-Paul, where five courtyards now house more than a hundred art and antique dealers.
Afterward, backtrack along Rue Saint-Antoine two blocks to Rue de Birague and turn left for the (6) Place des Vosges, a gorgeous square laid out by King Henri IV and lined with terraces of elegant town houses, where Cardinal Richelieu and Victor Hugo once lived; the latter's home is now a (7) museum (www.paris.fr/portail/Culture/Portal.lut?page_id=5852). The leafy central garden, a favorite for picnics, was once Paris's dueling grounds.
Walk to the top of the Place des Vosges and take Rue des Francs Bourgeois westward (left). Even by Paris standards, the Marais has a load of museums, and you'll have your pick of several on the surrounding streets, nearly all housed in lavish hôtels particuliers: the (8) Musée Carnavalet, dedicated to the history of Paris (www.carnavalet.paris.fr), the (9) Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (all about hunting) (www.chassenature.org/site_musee/musee-home.html), or the (10) Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme (on Jewish life and culture in France; www.mahj.org).
For the most popular of them all, however, head north (right) on Rue Payenne and turn left on Rue Parc Royal for the (11) Musée National Picasso (www.musee-picasso.fr) in the Hôtel Salé, with much of the artist's personal collection—almost 4,000 works from all periods—that his heirs gave to France in place of the inheritance tax.
A block south of the Musée National Picasso, continue west (left) on Rue de la Perle; this quiet part of the Marais is filled with sumptuous hôtels particuliers: from the age of Louis XIV and later. Turn left at Rue Vieille du Temple to see the courtyard of one of the best, the (12) Hôtel de Rohan (now part of the National Archives) and its wonderful theatrical rococo relief called the "Horses of Apollo." Carry on straight and the change will be dramatic, from the aristocratic 18th century to the convivial world of Rue des Rosiers. This has been the heart of Jewish Paris since the 13th century, and delis selling bagels and pastrami will make any New Yorker feel right at home.
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