The world of fashion has descended upon the City of Light. All sorts of hungry-looking people with severe haircuts are scurrying about the Right Bank. They are here on a mission, and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t fun to partake in this curated voyeurism. Where and when else can you get away with such bon mots as, "unmistakable style" or "enviable hemline"? I’ve taken to using the words "fabulous" or "hideous" in an effort to go native, which feels apt in lieu of taking up cigarettes. Before we go further, an observation: Writing about Paris is more dangerous than eating carbs; everyone has "their" Paree and despite my best efforts to eat my body weight in foie gras, I feel it obvious to say that in a city this size we’re going to have to focus.
One of the most indulgent Parisian experiences I can recommend is picking a neighborhood and saturating it. GWS does this in the bourgeois capital of the city in Le Marais, which spans across the 3rd and 4th arrondissements. Think downtown, urban, oh-so-chic without anyone actually trying to be chic. Here they’ve perfected the art of looking messy in an alluring way. Je l’aime. Long known as a popular haunt for bohemians and artists, Le Marais offers magnificent shops, quiet museums, and the best cafes and people-watching in town. The best times to go are in the spring for April and May, or of course in the autumn (called "La Rentree") after everyone returns to work from their summer holidays. Don’t pack much; I bet you’ll buy at least one or two signature pieces while here.
Finding a place to stay in the Marais can be tricky. It is a neighborhood devoid of skyscrapers or extra large buildings. Most are 17th-century and people were littler then. My favorite gem is Hotel du Petit Moulin. This Christian Lacroix-designed boutique is set on the site of a former bakery. It has kept relics dating back to 1900 and is a registered historic monument. Staying here allows you to be perfectly situated for walking everywhere. There are 17 rooms, from €190 to €350 per night. The biggest challenge is getting one; book early.
Another cheerful option in the Marais is Hotel Bourg Tibourg. This beautifully turned out collaboration between Jacques Garcia and the Costes family offers 30 rooms each authentically appointed with lush colors and emblematic four-leaf clovers. You’ll find deep rouge and black, blues and gold, and signature pieces of furniture throughout. Rooms from €180, and suites at €360 max.
I struggle to narrow down the eating choices in the Marais. I flip between street crepes (straight Nutella is really all GWS needs) to Michelin-starred extravagance. Chez Janou is a boisterous bistro that lures the locals. Don’t expect to see English menus and you’ll have to elbow your way in like everyone else. House specialities are the scallops and risotto, goat’s cheese salad, and their bottomless chocolate mousse. Prices are reasonable; noise levels are not. Pick your dinner partners appropriately.
Chez L’Ami Louis is where I first truly experienced chicken. It is huge, succulent, and expensive. This restaurant is a destination for many and on my recent stop Mark Wahlberg was partaking, too. Here’s the deal with Louis: You have to book six weeks in advance and you have to speak French. Dinner is near-impossible to schedule, but the secret is that lunch is just as good and more often available. You must order the foie gras (€55), the chicken (€58), and I’ve never lasted for dessert. Skip the snails, the beef, and if they offer you a special, you must ask the price. You can get stung for special mushrooms at €120. That said, it’s an institution and everyone should go once.
Cafes in the Marais are a dime a dozen; skip Les Philosophes and instead try La Perle for divine croque madames (78, r. Vieille-du-Temple), Café Breizh for their buckwheat galettes, free-range eggs, or their heavenly Valrona chocolate ( Breizh Café, 109 rue Vieille du Temple), Café Charlot for the scene (38 rue de Bretagne) or stumble into something on Rue Vielle du Temple. GWS adores Creperie Suzette (4 rue des Francs Bourgeois) for sweet or savory.
Whatever you do, save room for a gelato. I swear it’s better here than in Italy. My favorite is Amorino, with outposts scattered around town, but the one in the Marais is at 31 rue Vieille du Temple
Ladies, pack comfy boots, and gents, pack the same because you need comfort and style for all the walking and gawking. The best part about the 3rd and 4th arrondissements is exploring. Drop the guidebook, get a discreet map, and just have at it. Vintage and couture are side-by-side, and you can find everything from frilly lamps to undiscovered galleries. Many places don’t take American Express, so be sure to have a Visa/MasterCard option on hand.
When you’re shopped out and had your fill of croque madames, consider renting a bicycle. Yes, really. A friend convinced me to do this and let’s be clear: I wasn’t interested in the slightest, despite it being incredibly Parisian. I hereby stand corrected. It was fabulous. Look around for the racks of bikes everywhere throughout the city. There must be a dozen places in the Marais alone. The service is called Velib, and you can procure a rental in five minutes and return it anywhere. Locals get refillable cards so they just come by and swipe, but you’ll have to answer a few questions first.
Once you have your bike, head to Pere Lachaise cemetery. It’s a schlep by cab or train, but by bike it is magical. This is a GWS must-do. Pere Lachaise is the most visited cemetery in the world and you’ll quickly see why. This burial ground practically needs a velvet rope: Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Balzac, Chopin, Maria Callas, and perhaps its most famous resident, American rock star Jim Morrison—all have chosen to share part of this 118-acre plot. Rumor has it that early in the 19th century, after Napolean established the cemetery, people found it too far for burials. As a bit of a marketing stunt, they moved the remains of La Fontaine and Moliere here, and then in a wild move a dozen years later they transferred the purported remains of remains of infamous lovers Abélard and Héloïse.
Le Marais (literally meaning, “the swamp”) is home to some of the cities most discreet museums. To get a true feel for the history, visit Musée Carnavalet on rue de Sévigné. Home to some 2,600 drawings, 2,000 sculptures, 20,000 paintings, and endless photographs and engravings, this stunning museum occupies two former mansions, the Hôtel Carnavalet and the former Hôtel Le Peletier de Saint Fargeau. The central garden welcomes you upon arrival and allows for a literal walk through the ages. Closed Mondays and holidays.
Lastly, be sure to visit—by foot or by bike—Place de Vosges, aka Victor Hugo Square. Here you can almost feel like the Hunchback of Notre Dame among the 17th-century royal pavilion and surrounding square. It’s the perfect place for an extended café crème or to finally get in a little reading.
Le Marais is a rare place—you can do just about anything here and it is bound to be enjoyable… except a visit to the Picasso National Museum. GWS found this to be the most claustrophobic place on earth. Despite my affections for the strange personal collection of the artist, the space is endless white caves and rooms with peculiar angles. Never have I had such a violent reaction to a museum. Non merci!
Jolie Hunt travels on her own dime for more than 50% of the year. Her recommendations are aimed at business travelers who are short on time but not on taste. She is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters, appointed April 2008. She lives between New York and London.