Seeing Paris in a Brand New Light at Christmas
Whether you know the capital like the back of your hand or are planning your very first holiday in Paris, Christmas is undeniably one of the most magical times of the year to take to the streets and meander on foot around the aptly-named city of light, especially if you leave the more mainstream areas behind and choose to break away and step off the beaten track. It’s undeniable that it’s well worth catching a glimpse of the gigantic Christmas tree and window dressings at the Galeries Lafayette department store, as well as checking out the glowing illuminations that deck the halls all along the Champs-Elysées every evening, but consider branching out and exploring two alternative itineraries during your stay.
ITINERARY 1 : GIVING THE CHAMPS-ELYSÉES A RUN FOR ITS MONEY
Picture a crisp December day, plan to wrap up warm and don a sturdy pair of walking shoes for a spot of high end window shopping in Paris’s Golden Triangle. The one and only place to get things off to a cracking start is at Angélina’s down on the rue de Rivoli. Go prepared to form an orderly queue and stand in line to sup some seriously heavenly hot chocolate: it’s worth the almost compulsory wait and will set you up for your peregrinations. You can then cut through the Tuileries gardens opposite for a bracing stroll and come out at the Concorde entrance for a stunning view on the bridge that takes in the Eiffel Tower in one direction and the whole sweep of the city down to Notre Dame on the other.
Heading back to the start of the Champs-Elysées, walk up towards the picture-postcard-sized Arc de Triomphe in the distance, for the best vantage point of the most famous avenue in the city. Rather than getting caught up in the crowds part way up, however, take a detour left at Place Clémenceau and walk past the majestic Grand Palais as far as the Seine, where you can get a gorgeous view of the golden globe of the Invalides. Take a pause – and some photos – on the equally golden Pont Alexandre III bridge, where Adele famously sang “Someone Like You” and Owen Wilson even more memorably got his girl in Midnight in Paris.
“I HEARD, THAT YOUR DREAMS CAME TRUE…”
If the effects of the hot chocolate have worn off, take a pit stop for coffee or cocktails (or just a nosy at the glorious décor) in the glamorous Mini Palais restaurant on the corner towards the river – or for an unexpected treat, discover the café and the little known inner courtyard and garden inside the Musée du Petit Palais just next door. The museum is free of charge and offers a little quiet respite from the busy streets just moments away, and the unexpected oasis at its centre is guaranteed to quite take your breath away. Don’t miss the wrought iron curved staircases indoors too, designed by Charles Girault: whether for a spot of culture or just a cup of coffee, this secret place is definitely one of Paris’s hidden treasures.
Take a brisk walk along the avenue Franklin Roosevelt behind the Grand Palais to rejoin the Champs-Elysées, but bear left straight away onto the avenue Montaigne and step into the lap of luxury. This is the home of Chanel, Chloé, Jimmy Choo, Prada and the brands that put the haute into haute couture. Stop for an indulgent glass of champagne at the heated terrace of the trendy L’Avenue restaurant and be bowled over by the enormous and over-the-top but totally show-stopping giant bauble just opposite chez Dior.
Alternatively, carry on to the end of the avenue and take a seat on the terrace of Chez Francis at the corner. If night has fallen, you will have a truly incomparable view of the Eiffel Tower when its lights sparkle on the hour every hour – and everything will be all right with the world if you time it just right.
Zigzag your way back to those crowds by first ambling up avenue George V: take a peek at the entrances to the world-famous Crazy Horse and the luxurious George V hotel with its Art Deco overtones. Check out the Christmas programme at the welcoming American Cathedral. Catch the inevitable queues in front of the Louis Vuitton flagship store, and hopefully spot a film star entering the celebrated Fouquet’s restaurant – et voilà, you are now right back in the heart of the hustle and bustle of the Champs-Elysées.
ITINERARY 2 : EXPLORE THE COVERED PASSAGES
There’s no more fitting start to a wintry promenade than strolling through the gardens of the Palais Royal tucked away behind the Louvre, with its picturesque fountain at the centre and the rows of photogenic trees lining the mini park. Take a peek through the windows at the incredible frescoed walls and ceiling inside the hallowed Michelin-starred Le Grand Véfour before spotting the poster at the door of the nearby Le Grand Colbert restaurant, which is almost as famous for its Jack Nicholson/Diane Keaton scene from the film “Something’s Gotta Give” as for its illustrious Art Nouveau décor.
Proceed into the Galerie Vivienne with its striking architecture and extravagant statues, home to what is possibly the very best wine shop in Paris, Les Caves Legrand. Across the way is the perfect spot for a well-earned pause to partake of afternoon tea or a weekend brunch at the very charming and usually very busy A Priori Thé. Further along the arcade, more tempting Mediterranean morsels can be had at the Italian restaurant Daroco, another great place for a festive pause, although you don’t need to be in too much of a rush – you are on holiday, after all…
Daroco at 6 rue Vivienne, open every day 12:00 – 15:00, 19:00 – midnight, advance reservation recommended
Stroll up rue Vivienne past the former stock market Bourse, taking in two more excellent brasseries on your way (Vaudeville is highly recommended for its seafood platters, while the historic Le Gallopin is one of the best choices if you have gluten-friendly needs). Keep an eye out for the entrance into the oldest covered arcade of them all, the maze-like Passage des Panoramas, which can be accessed via rue Saint-Marc. Whether your tastes run to perusing a philatelist paradise or to quaffing a glass of wine at the excellent Coinstot Vino bar, this is a perfect treasure trove full of hidden surprises.
Spot the Théâtre des Variétés, once the hunting ground for the fictional character Nana from Zola’s novels, and marvel at the façade of the famous workshop of the historical engraver Stern, now transformed into a café-restaurant with salons designed by French darling Philippe Starck. Succumb to the Italian culinary charms of the Caffè Stern here, or remain resolutely patriotic with the delicious bistro-style French cuisine at the cosy Racines restaurant just close by.
KEEPING IT UNDERCOVER
Finally, a trip to the passages couverts would not be complete without a festive wander down the busy Passages Verdeau and Jouffroy by the entrance to the Musée Grévin wax museum, complete with a shop specialising in walking sticks and another stocked to the ceiling with miniature dolls’ houses and everything you would need to fill one. La Maison du Roy is jam-packed with Christmas decorations and ideas for stocking fillers, while festive chocolate cakes beckon at the glorious salon de thé at Le Valentin.
It’s an unashamedly eclectic mix of the atypical (tiny stores selling stamps, coins and other old-fashioned items), the overtly crafty (there’s even a cross-stitch shop named after Zola’s “Au Bonheur des Dames” novel which introduced the first department stores in the 19th century) and the seriously up-and-coming: Daniel Rose’s fabulous La Bourse et La Vie restaurant opened just a couple of years ago to deservedly rave reviews.
A BOOK LOVERS’ PARADISE
My absolute all-time favourite haunt has to be the Librairie du Passage second hand and antique bookshop in the Passage Jouffroy. Apart from the sheer beauty of the location, it’s a wonderful place to browse for well-thumbed paperbacks or old copies of French classics that you can just tell have been lovingly read by the previous owners. Close your eyes, and you could well be back in the 1800s …
It’s hardly surprising that Parisians and visitors from near and far throng to these arcades all year round, but you can’t really beat a trip down memory lane during the chillier months of the year : there’s also nowhere else in Paris where can you cover so many kilometres with a cosy roof over your head, bar the occasional dash across the grand boulevards. As the old saying goes, Paris is always Paris whatever the weather, but if there’s a chill in the air or grey skies overhead, the passages couverts are absolutely the place to be for a very mini Christmas break.
RESERVE YOUR CHRISTMAS WALKING TOUR
You can also explore the Christmas Windows and the backstreets in the company of an experienced guide with the specially festive Covered Passage guided walk. To learn more about the history and fascinating anecdotes of the “passages couverts”, email us for more information and to reserve your tour.
Please note that some parts of this article were first published in December 2015 for Paris Perfect, with thanks. All photos by Nicola Collarile.