Clare Thomson gives her guide to the French capital's most unspoiled historic district.
Victor Hugo's home in Paris
Why the Marais?
The most unspoilt historic area of Paris, the Marais, which spreads across parts of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, is one of the few places where you can see narrow medieval streets and the grand, classical mansions of Renaissance Paris. Today, its streets are crammed with trendy bars, fashion houses, chic boutiques and historic monuments. It's a particularly good base for a weekend break, because unlike most of Paris, the shops in the Marais are open all day on Sundays.
It's also the place where Victor Hugo wrote most of Les Misérables. His home in the Place des Vosges is now the Victor Hugo Museum. This year, Nôtre-Dame Cathedral celebrates its 850th anniversary with special events and nine new bells that will be rung for the first time on Palm Sunday (March 23).
A comfortable bed
For style and luxury you can't beat Le Pavillon de la Reine, 28 Place des Vosges (www.pavillon-de-la-reine.com; 00331 40 29 19 19). It has a spa, great rooms and outstanding service, but the biggest draws are the drawing room and library, which are filled with log fires and sofas where guests can relax with a drink from the honesty bar. Double rooms from €380 (Dh1,865) for b&b.
Fashionistas flock to stay at the Hôtel du Petit Moulin, 29/31 rue du Poitou (www.hoteldupetitmoulin.com; 0033 1 4274 1010) where 17 rooms were designed by Christian Lacroix. He has transformed a 17th-century bakery with exposed timbers and winding staircases into a chic retreat with extravagant colours, wacky wallpaper, roll-top baths and Hermès toiletries. Double rooms start at €195 (Dh957).
Step into Paris of the past at Hôtel Caron de Beaumarchais, 12 rue Vieille-du-Temple (www.carondebeaumarchais.com; 0033 1 4272 3412), which has all the charm of an 18-century Marais town house. The rooms have antiques, chandeliers and beautiful wallpapers copied from patterns of the period. Double rooms cost from €165 (Dh810).
Find your feet
The narrow streets of the Marais are best explored on foot. Start at the Place des Vosges, built in the late 16th century and still considered the most beautiful square in Paris. In one corner, you'll find the Maison de Victor Hugo (www.musee-hugo.paris.fr) and in another, the Hôtel de Sully, one of the grand, 17th-century town houses, home to the French aristocracy. Walk through its ornamental gardens and follow rue Saint-Paul to the River Seine. On the corner of pont Saint-Louis, stop for a Berthillon ice cream at Le Flore en L'Ile.
The gothic cathedral of Nôtre-Dame (www.notredamedeparis.fr) is well worth exploring. You can climb the tower immortalised in Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame for panoramic views over Paris. Head back across the river to the Hôtel de Ville for some ice-skating, but only until March 17.
Walk up rue Vieille du Temple and turn right onto rue des Rosiers. This is the heart of the Jewish quarter and the best place for a falafel. Make your way north to the Musée Picasso (www.musee-picasso.fr) which reopens this summer after extensive renovation. Finally, head west to rue de Sévigné. The stunning, 16th-century mansion houses the Musée Carnavalet (www.carnavalet.paris.fr). Its 200 galleries trace the history of Paris from prehistoric times to today.
Meet the locals
The cafes and bars on rue Vieille du Temple are some of the hippest in Paris. At La Belle Hortense, a literary wine bar and book shop, you'll find locals discussing literature and philosophy over a glass of wine. Opposite, Le Petit Fer à Cheval takes its name from its tiny bar in the shape of a horseshoe. The bar and its pavement tables are crowded every evening. Further up the road you'll find Le Progrès in trendy Haut Marais. This buzzing bar tabac is where Paris' most beautiful come to see and be seen - the food is great, too.
Book a table
Good wine is as important as good food for any self-respecting Parisian and Glou (101, rue Vieille du Temple, 0033 1 4274 4432), "glug", is an apt name for a restaurant which excels at both. The wine list is divided into wines for friends, adventure and meditation. The food is modern French (black pudding Parmentier, magret de canard, ravioli with scallops) and the atmosphere lively. Main courses start at €18 (Dh88).
For a good neighbourhood bistro, you can't beat Le Petit Marché (9, rue de Béarn, 00331 42 72 06 67). It serves delicious French food with an Asian twist: seared tuna in sesame seeds, duck breast with banana, Chinese chicken salad. Main courses cost about €22 (Dh108).
Derrière (69, rue des Gravilliers, 0033 1 44 619 195) is where cool Parisians come for a huge Sunday brunch (€35 [Dh172]). The eccentric restaurant is laid out like a home so you eat on low sofas in the sitting room, in the retro-style lounge - complete with a ping-pong table - or perched on the mattress in the bedroom.
Rue des Francs-Bourgeois is lined with stylish boutiques and crowded with shoppers on the weekend. Go to Repetto for a pair of its iconic ballet flats. It's worth taking a look at L'Habilleur on rue de Poitou, where you can find top labels marked down 40 to 60 per cent. Mariage Frères on rue du Bourg-Tibourg is France's oldest tea house. It sells 600 varieties and serves tea and cakes in its cafe.
What to avoid
Mondays. Most of the shops and museums are closed.
Centre Pompidou (www.centrepompidou.fr; 00331 44 78 12 33) is not only one of the world's most famous pieces of modern architecture, it also boasts Europe's biggest collection of modern and contemporary art. There are spectacular views over Paris from the top floor. There is an exhibition of works by Salvador Dali until March 25. Go early in the morning or in the evening (it's open until 9pm) to avoid the long queues to see Dali.
Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Paris from Dh3,960 return including taxes. The flight takes six and a half hours.
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