FROM the mime in white makeup to the Chanel-clad grande dame walking her poodle, Paris practically sags under the tonnage of its stereotypes. The Marais is the welcome exception. Far from central casting, Paris’s most swinging district brims with a vivid mix of characters. Stroll its medieval lanes and you’ll rub shoulders with muscle-shirted gays and feather-boa transvestites; long-bearded rabbis and scruffy rock musicians; West African restaurateurs and Eastern European bakers. And if you turn down the tiny rue de Montmorency, you’ll even be treading in the footsteps of the famous alchemist Nicolas Flamel. His former residence at No. 51 is said to be the oldest house in the Marais — and all of Paris.
1) HIP-HOP GALLERIES
You can hardly swing a baguette in the Marais these days without smashing a hot-shot art dealer or upstart gallery owner. To discover the neighborhood’s sizzling creative culture, first seek out the eponymous gallery of 40-year-old Emmanuel Perrotin (76, rue de Turenne; 33-1-42-16-79-79; www.galerieperrotin.com). This 17th-century mansion turned expo space is showing, until Jan. 10, the first-ever exhibition by the hip-hop impresario and furniture designer Pharrell Williams. Nearby rue St.-Claude is rapidly filling with contemporary art spaces, notably Galerie Frank Elbaz (7, rue St.-Claude; 33-1-48-87-50-04; www.galeriefrankelbaz.com) and Galerie LHK (6, rue St.-Claude; 33-1-42-74-13-55; www.galerielh.com).
2) CLASSICAL FRENCH
Founded in 1780, Chez Julien (1, rue Pont-Louis-Philippe; 33-01-42-78-31-64) couldn’t feel more French if the servers sang “Frère Jacques” while serving crème brûlée. But this is no dainty tourist trap. Bought and renovated last year by one of the Costes family, best known for the luxurious Hôtel Costes, the restaurant has exquisite retro-chic décor like plush banquettes and tall mirrors. A stylish crowd of all ages dines on French classics — foie gras, frogs’ legs, rack of lamb and a massive Chateaubriand steak with good crispy fries — but the view is the marquee attraction. From the tree-fringed outdoor seats you can see the Seine, Notre Dame and, just footsteps away, the old St.-Gervais-St.-Protais Church. A three-course meal for two people, without wine, runs about 100 euros ($139 at $1.39 to the euro).
3) A LOT TO DIGEST
For a digestif, join the assorted intellectuals crowding the classic zinc bar at La Belle Hortense (31, rue Vieille-du-Temple; 33-1-48-04-71-60; www.cafeine.com), a cozy Old World-style wine bar. Straight and gay, leather-bound and tweed-wrapped, the crowd swirls wines by the glass and chats animatedly about highfalutin topics. Even if you don’t know your Derrida from your derrière, no worries: The place is also a bookstore, stacked high with centuries of French and international literature. The back lounge, which has rotating art exhibitions, is the perfect spot to sip some hearty red Guigal Côte du Rhone (4.50 euros) and bone up on everything from Anouilh to Zola.
4) ROYAL TUTELAGE
How do you teach your adolescent son about the birds and the bees? If you’re Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV, you hire a one-eyed 40-ish noblewoman named Catherine de Beauvais to initiate him into, ahem, adulthood. Her tale is just one of the colorful anecdotes you’ll hear during the Marais tour offered by Paris Walks (33-1-48-09-21-40; www.paris-walks.com). The two-hour excursion (10 euros) includes architecturally splendid old town houses, the memorial to the Shoah and the 17th-century St.-Paul-St.-Louis Church.
5) A LUNCHTIME ODYSSEY
The oldest covered market in Paris, the Marché des Enfants Rouges (enter on rue Charlot) was established in the early 1600s and remains a center of Marais life. A new structure has replaced the original, but it still houses cheesemongers, vintners and grocers. Better, there’s a bounty of small restaurants that resembles a Benetton ad: Italian, Japanese, French, Afro-Caribbean, Middle Eastern. Traiteur Marocain (33-01-42-77-55-05) ladles out Moroccan fare like fresh grilled sardines (7.50 euros) and lamb-prune-sesame tajine (8.85 euros).
6) POST-STARCK DESIGNS
The nearby streets are home to Paris’s most inventive young creators. Inside the futuristic funhouse called Lieu Commun (5, rue des Filles du Calvaire; 33-1-44-54-08-30; www.lieucommun.fr), you’ll find housewares from Matali Crasset, a protégée of Philippe Starck, as well as electronic music CDs and street wear. At the homey shop OneNineSixOne (135, rue Vieille-du-Temple; 33-1-42-72-50-84; www.oneninesixone.com), Gaëtane Raguet transposes vintage photos of Paris and America onto canvas wall hangings and lampshades. When Christophe Lemaire is not embroidering alligators as artistic director of Lacoste, he sells 1950s-style V-neck sweaters and 1970s-inspired suede jackets at Lemaire (28, rue de Poitou; 33-1-44-78-00-09; www.christophelemaire.com), his personal Marais boutique.
7) F-STOP PIT STOP
Has any city lit up under more flashbulbs than Paris? November brings Le Mois de la Photo à Paris — Paris Photo Month — with scores of exhibitions citywide led by the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (5-7, rue de Fourcy; 33-1-44-78-75-00; www.mep-fr.org). Notable shows include “An Experience of Amusing Chemistry” by the contemporary photographers David McDermott and Peter McGough, which recalls the American Gilded Age using 19th-century techniques. Also being held is a retrospective of the fearless Turkish photojournalist Goksin Sipahioglu, founder of the international photo agency SIPA, who captured landmark events and personalities of the 20th century from the Suez-Sinai War to the 1968 Paris riots. Shows run Nov. 5 to Jan. 25; 6 euros.
8) SUSHI OR TARTARE?
The wild wall mural at Usagi (58, rue de Saintonge; 33-1-48-87-28-85; www.usagi.fr), with its mix of Japanese manga-inspired figures and French Baroque motifs, is an apt metaphor for the cooking. The brainchild of the artist and fashion designer Shinsuke Kawahara, this new minimalist-cool restaurant has generated a cult following for its clever French-Japanese hybrid cuisine. A tender filet of Salers beef is paired with a sweet miso broth and crispy lotus-root chips. Oven-roasted cubes of chicken are served with a chutney-like mix of sake, ginger and scallions. Desserts are equally inventive. Dinner for two without drinks, about 90 euros.
9) FAIRE LA FêTE
That’s the French term for partying, and you have ample opportunity to use it in the Marais. The newest hot spot for gay par-ee is NYX (30, rue du Roi-de-Sicile; www.nyxclub.fr). Hidden behind a bakery façade, the small but lively club draws gays and lesbians alike for draft beer (3.80 euros) and D.J.-spun electro, rock and disco. The hot spot for straight revelers is Andy Wahloo (69, rue des Gravilliers; 33-1-42-71-20-38), a vaulted orange-lit room decorated with kitschy Arabic film posters, soda bottles and detergent boxes. It draws a well-dressed crowd who order the house cocktail (rum, banana liqueur, lime, ginger, cinnamon; 9 euros) and dance on North African-style banquettes.
10) TURN THE MEAT AROUND
As you enter the narrow, cobblestone rue des Rosiers, the smell of fresh-baked challah drifts from bakeries, and school kids in yarmulkes pop out of doorways adorned with the Star of David. This is the heart of Jewish Paris. Many Parisians say that the nation’s best shwarma and falafel are served at L’As du Fallafel. Alas, every tourist from every continent seems to be in on the news, resulting in lines more common to Madonna concerts. Instead, cross the street to Mi-Va-Mi (23, rue des Rosiers; 33-1-42-71-53-72), where the lines are shorter, the service is friendlier, and the falafel (5 euros) and spit-grilled shwarma (7 euros) are almost equally good. Ask for some zesty red salade Turque on top and finish with excellent fig strudel (3.20 euros) at nearby Florence Finkelstein (24, rue des Ecouffes; 33-1-48-87-92-85).
11) VILLAGE PEOPLE
Need some Art Deco lamps, Baroque picture frames, vintage dresses or other French collectibles to bring back to your pied-à-terre? The Village St.-Paul (south of rue de Rivoli on rue St.-Paul; www.village-saint-paul.com) holds scores of boutiques that burst with retro finds. For those hard-to-find antique dolls of apes sporting fezes, try Lima Select (15-17, rue St.-Paul, 33-1-42-77-98-02), an emporium of unusual dolls and figurines. If dressing like a 1910 chorus girl is your thing, snap up some old lace, garters and frilly dresses at Francine (2, rue Ave Maria; 33-1-42-72-44-50). Amid all the colorful personalities of the Marais, you should fit right in.
Numerous airlines, includingAir France, Continental and Delta, fly direct between New York and Paris. According to a recent online search, flights for travel next month start at about $700.
Celluloid titans live eternally at the Hôtel du 7eme Art (20, rue St.-Paul; 33-1-44-54-85-00; www.paris-hotel-7art.com), which is packed with movie memorabilia, some for sale. It’s a tad worn, but the location and price are prime. Doubles from 90 euros.
You half expect to see mad monks at the Hôtel Saint Merry (78, rue de la Verrerie; 33-1-42-78-14-15; www.hotel-saintmerry.com). Housed in a 17th-century building by a church, it has 12 rooms done in medieval décor: dark wood, exposed beams, raw stone, even the occasional flying buttress. From 160 euros.
For chic, in-the-know elegance, try the three-apartment complex at 5, rue de Moussy, known by its street address (33-1-44-78-92-00; ask for Patrice). Created by the fashion mogul Azzedine Alaïa, the large, airy apartments contain furniture from iconic designers like Mark Newsom and Jean Prouvé. The rate for two is 450 euros per night.