The Les Halles (The Halls) quarter — named for what was once the city's wholesale produce market but now is a largely underground modern shopping mall integrated with the massive Gare de Châtelet – Les Halles Metro-RER (station) — is a good place to start a pleasant walk in Paris that combines the modern and the medieval. The quarters of Les Halles and Le Marais (The Marsh) — as well as the tiny area of Beaubourg sandwiched between them — straddle portions of the 1st, 3rd, and 4th arrondissements along the Rive Droite (Right Bank), and are among the oldest districts in the city.
Although there are other smaller tourist attractions in the area — which travelgasm.com will enumerate on our preferred walk — the largest attraction is the Centre Pompidou.
Inaugurated in 1977, and named after Georges Pompidou, the former French president who commissioned the project; the Centre Pompidou houses the National Museum of Modern Art along with research and library facilities. This museum showcases artwork from 1905 to the present and essentially is a chronological continuation of the collection at the d'Orsay Museum. Artists featured at the National Museum of Modern Art include Picasso, Duchamp, Matisse, and Warhol, among many others.
Designed by architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, the Centre Pompidou is considered to be exemplary of the "Structural Expressionism" or "High-Tech Modernism" style of architecture that displays its "structural elements visibly inside and out." Although you may or may not find it attractive to see the building's colorful plumbing — early criticism of the building often was that it looked like an "oil refinery," and we can't say that we disagree. Nevertheless, the building is a definite improvement compared to the run down car park that had previously occupied the space for decades.
A common architectural criticism of the building is that it doesn't respect the integrity of the district, and there is some truth to this complaint; but for all practical purposes, the district had been disrespected long before Centre Pompidou existed. Besides, it's a modern art museum, and the building definitely looks like modern art. The building provides great views over Paris from its own upscale Georges restaurant and the observation deck on the 6th floor, too.
To visit Centre Pompidou, note that it opens at 11 AM, which is late compared to other museums in Paris, and it is closed on Tuesday. It is free on the first Sunday of every month for everyone. Be sure to review the official opening hours info and events calendar for your specific days in Paris to avoid potential disappointment as well as to learn about temporary exhibits, films, and performances that might be of interest.
Based on our experience from several visits to the museum, the queues are shorter on the courtyard side of the building than the Rue Beaubourg side, but the interior ticket queue often is just as long as the exterior security queues. It is quicker to enter Centre Pompidou without pre-booking tickets than it is for the Louvre or d'Orsay Museums, but in the summer, in particular, it would be wise to book tickets in advance for Pompidou, also.
If you would like to visit a number of museums in Paris — including Pompidou — as well as the Louvre, d'Orsay, and l'Orangerie museums, you also might want to consider buying the Paris Museum Pass in advance. The Paris Museum Pass provides "skip the line" access to all of these museums as well as dozens of others and a variety of other attractions like the Notre Dame towers and crypt and the Panthéon. Two, four, and six-day options are available.
Les Halles and Le Marais are solid areas for a meal or a drink because they're popular with locals as well as tourists for lunch or a night out. Some affordable options from Les Petites Tables — which specializes in places that a couple of Parisian foodies think offer a quality meal for €10 or less — include Arsène for omelettes; Rice and Fish for Japanese food; and Hank for vegan burgers. Michelin recommendations in the area from their considered to be budget €40 "Bib Gourmand" options include Atelier Vivanda for steak and RAW for upscale raw food. Don't be afraid to make your own choices, though, as there are literally hundreds of restaurants in all price brackets in this area.
For dessert or a snack, perhaps there is no more Parisian confection than a macaron, the deceptively simple, yet difficult to perfect cookie made from egg whites, sugar, and almond flour. One of the most famous producers of macarons in Paris is Pierre Hermé, who has a convenient location in Le Marais.
Other smaller points of potential interest in Les Halles and Le Marais include:
- The Saint-Eustache church immediately outside Châtelet – Les Halles station (Exit Rue Rambuteau) which has a free, lovely pipe organ concert every Sunday evening at 5:30 PM preceding the 6 PM mass.
- Rue Montorgueil, a people-only walking street lined with green grocers, cheese mongers, brasseries, cafés, and bars. Much of Le Marais is entirely people-only on Sunday, so it is perhaps the best day to visit this area if it works with your schedule. However, the number of visitors to Centre Pompidou will be much higher than during the week, as well.
- The Passage du Grand-Cerf — built in 1825 and one of the more fashionable of the remaining covered arcades in Paris — with independent shops selling antiques, jewelry, housewares, and clothing alongside a café and wine bar or two. Pre-Haussmann, Paris had hundreds of these covered walking streets and this is one of the remaining ones that was both recently restored and conveniently located in Le Marais. If you would like to buy a souvenir or two that is not the typical tourist tat, the Passage du Grand-Cerf would be a good place to go shopping.
- Rue des Francs Bourgeois, long considered a hotbed of independent, fashionable Parisian clothing shops. The clothes tend not to be cheap, but they're uniquely Paris.
- The Hôtel de Ville, built in 1873 in a Renaissance style, and housing the Mayor and the Paris City government.
We've mapped out these points of interest together below — Forum des Halles, Saint-Eustache, Centre Pompidou, Rue Montorgueil, Passage du Grand-Cerf, Rue des Francs Bourgeois, and Hôtel de Ville — in a logical path between the Les Halles and Hôtel de Ville metro stations.
How to Get Here: There are many metro stations near Centre Pompidou and in the Les Halles-Beaubourg-Le Marais quarters. If Centre Pompidou is your primary interest, Rambuteau station on Line 11 is closest, but it is more likely that Hôtel de Ville on Line 1 and Line 11 will be more convenient from where you are likely to be coming from because it will take less time to walk from Hôtel de Ville than transfer to Rambuteau. From Hôtel de Ville, take Exit 2 (Rue du Renard) and walk on the left-hand side of the street (the right side has an unpleasant loading dock to contend with before you reach Centre Pompidou). Centre Pompidou also is close to Gare de Châtelet – Les Halles on Metro Line 4 and RER A, RER B, and RER D. If you follow our suggested walk, it starts at Gare de Châtelet – Les Halles and ends at Hôtel de Ville (Exit 5).
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