Manicured gardens, Victor Hugo and fashion: Discover the Marais district of Paris


Our writer falls for one of the oldest and most beautiful districts in the French capital

There was already a queue at Café Hugo, snaking out into the warm spring sunshine, as we approached. It was tempting to head elsewhere, but on a bustling Saturday afternoon on the Place des Vosges – one of Paris’s most historic and beautiful Georgian squares – just about every restaurant and coffee shop was full to bursting. 

Ten minutes later, seated at an outdoor table overlooking the square’s manicured gardens and rows of lofty 17th-century redbrick houses, we kicked back with cappuccinos and listened to the hypnotic sounds of an opera singer busking a few yards away. It had definitely been worth the wait. 

My husband and I were in the Marais district of Paris – not far from the Centre Pompidou and Place de la Bastille – the city’s oldest neighbourhood, which grew up on former marshland (marais) in the 16th and 17th centuries. 

The square, which was built by Henry IV of France, was known as a place of high society gatherings and was also the home of writer Victor Hugo. He lived in an apartment at Number Six from 1832 to 1848 and wrote part of his masterpiece novel Les Misérables there. (It’s now the Victor Hugo Museum and is well worth a visit.)

Today, “Old Paris” – as the Marais is sometimes referred – retains its reputation as the city’s fashionable heart, and it’s easy to feel a million miles away as you wander its warren of medieval streets and courtyards lined with hip boutiques, designer hotels and art galleries. 

In reality, we had only set off from London at 10.30am that morning and were enjoying our coffees in the sunshine by early afternoon, such is the ease of travelling to and from France’s capital.

We had caught the Eurostar from 

St Pancras International, upgrading to Standard Premier class to begin our city break in style. Continental breakfast was served at our seat, while we also enjoyed extra legroom and baggage allowance.

Just over two hours later, we arrived at Gare du Nord, feeling refreshed, and caught a cab to our hotel Pavillon de la Reine, located right on the Place des Vosges. In its earliest incarnation, the hotel was a stunning arcade, which King Henry built in homage to his wife Margaret. Now, it’s a four-star luxurious retreat with 54 individually decorated guest rooms (half of which are suites).

Accessed via original solid wooden gates off the square, Pavillon de la Reine sits on a quiet courtyard and has a spectacular chateau-style façade, clad in ivy.

Off the low-lit reception area is a cosy library-cum-restaurant (La Bilbliothèque) and an equally inviting bar (Le Salon), which has a beautiful original marble fireplace.There’s also a spa in the basement, with a range of massages and treatments, a jacuzzi, steam room and small gym.

Moulin Rouge

The windmill on the roof of the Moulin Rouge

The interiors are a blend of contemporary and period, with dark wood furnishings, lavish patterned wallpapers and luxurious fabric covered walls in the hallways. Our third-floor suite felt more like an apartment with its large bedroom, living room and bathroom, and the soft furnishings were all in sumptuous gold and beige. 

But while these are all reasons to stay here alone, it’s the hotel’s location that ultimately sells it. As well as the gorgeous square and charms of the Marais district, it’s within walking distance of Notre Dame Cathedral and is close to the Picasso Museum, which reopened a couple of years ago after a €52 million expansion. 

The Louvre is only 10 minutes away on the Metro and we stopped for the obligatory glimpse (between the hordes) of the Mona Lisa. The world’s largest private Rembrandt collection is on view, too, as part of the Louvre’s 2017 exhibition season celebrating the Dutch Golden Age.

Due to the sheer amount of sights we planned to cram in that weekend, we decided to save money and time by investing in a Paris Pass, which includes entrance to more than 60 tourist attractions, along with free public transport. 

One of our highlights was visiting the beautiful Palace of Versailles, having been inspired by the BBC2 drama series (which returns this week) – its jaw-droppingly opulent Hall of Mirrors is a must-see.

Before we caught the Eurostar home, we fit in a trip to the Moulin Rouge, too. The world’s most famous cabaret show is just as wildly over-the-top as you would imagine. 

It was a fitting tribute to this colourful and vibrant city, leaving our whirlwind break on a high.

Way to go

Stays at Pavillon de la Reine ( 140 29 19 19) start from €330 per room, per night, based on two sharing on a B&B basis. Eurostar ( 186186) operates up to 19 daily services from London St Pancras International to Paris Gare du Nord, with journey times from 2 hours 15 minutes. One-way fares start from £29 and from £84.50 for Standard Premier class, where you can enjoy quiet, spacious surroundings and a light meal. A two-day Paris Pass costs from £111pp and tickets to the Moulin Rouge start from £99pp, including champagne. Book both via  


The Place des Vosges

Ten things you must do in Paris

1 Enjoy a cappuccino and a slice of Parisian history in the Place des Vosges. 

2 Take the elevator to the viewing deck on top of the Montparnasse tower for wonderful views…

3 …or head to the top of the Eiffel Tower for an equally spectacular outlook. 

4 For great French fare, dine at cute French bistro Gaspard de la Nuit, in the Marais district. 

5 Get lost in the Louvre. The new Rembrant exhibition, in the Sully Rooms (until May 22), is well worth a visit.

6 Take in the opulent wonders at the Royal Palace of Versailles, just outside of the city. 

7 Board a boat and take a river cruise of the Seine in the spring sunshine. 

8 Soothe your weary feet in the hot tub at Pavillon de la Reine’s intimate spa. 

9 Visit Sainte-Chapelle, a 13th-century, Gothic-style royal chapel with stunning stained glass windows. 

10 Indulge in some retail therapy at Printemps and Galeries Lafayette Haussmann.

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