"Paris that eternal monstrous marvel ... the city of a hundred-thousand novels ... a living creature ..." French novelist Honore de Balzac
Paris cafe decorated for Christmas
Here's my guide to the best cultural things to do in Paris in the winter. At that time of year, Paris reminds me, ever so slightly, of my home base of Pittsburgh -- gray, overcast, and possibly wet or snowy. Don't expect sunshine in Paris, and dress accordingly. Bring a cashmere scarf, umbrella, and lots of layers.
But unlike Pittsburgh, Paris offers up a a huge array of indoor cultural offerings and cozy things to do, from twinkling Christmas lights and decorations to the world's best collection of art museums.
In Paris, December is festive, with decorations, fireworks, and almost 30 Christmas markets. January is freezing, as you might expect. You'll need the odd vin chaud or chocolate chaud at a brazier-heated cafe. February is gloomy. But not so gloomy that you couldn't spend a happy Valentines's Day there. I have, and I adored it, even while traveling solo.
Here's my list of the 15 best cultural things to do in Paris in the winter months. Here are the tourist traps in Paris that you can skip. I'm a rabid fangirl for Paris. But in winter, it's really special. Revel in the cheery atmosphere and indulge in all the wine, chocolate, cheese, and yule logs that you can find!
Galeries Lafayette Christmas tree in 2017, with inflatable ornaments
1. Visit the Galeries Lafayette For Christmas Cheer and Ice Skating
Located on Boulevard Haussmann, near the Paris Opera house, is the Galeries Lafayette. Inaugurated in 1893, Galeries Lafayette is basically a luxury bazaar for upscale fashion and goods. It's presented in an exceedingly gorgeous Art Nouveau setting, with a stunning stained glass dome.
Every year, beginning at the end of October, it's decked out in Christmas decor. A dazzling thematic tree is erected in the store's central court under the dome. Forget shopping, the tree itself is a sight to behold. And the Christmas windows.
Christmas dome at galleries Lafayette
top of the regular dome at Galeries Lafeyette
Plus, the Galeries Lafayette boast a splendid rooftop terrace on the 7th floor. It's free to visit, weather permitting. It offers one of the best panoramic views of Paris. Even more fun, in winter you'll find free skating on the terrace.
You can glide along to views of iconic French landmarks. If you skate after dark, the Eiffel Tower will sparkle every hour, for five minutes. The rink is open from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm and there will be queues, especially on the weekends.
You can also skate on the ice rink in front of the beautiful Paris City Hall or inside the Grand Palais.
the beautiful Passage des Panoramas
2. Take Refuge in the Covered Passages of the 9th Arrondissement
Paris was once filled with more than 200 covered walkways. They were ornate passages that housed living spaces upstairs and eateries and tony shops on the ground floor. The 19th century marked the golden age for the "Passages Couverts."
Now, there are only 28 remaining covered passages in Paris. But they retain their air of magic, and will be fetchingly decked out for the holidays in winter. You can take a walking tour of them from Galerie Colbert to Passage Verdeau. The fanciest one is Galerie Vivienne, just a few blocks from the Louvre.
Built in the 1840s, Passage Jouffroy is my personal favorite. It's beautiful with tile flooring, wrought iron detailing, and an open glass ceiling. It houses a hotel (Hotel Chopin), a museum (Musée Grévin wax museum), and a nightclub. Passage Jouffroy even has its own Christmas themed shop, La Maison du Roy.
interior of Passage Jouffroy
entrance to the Musée Grévin in the Passage Jouffroy
Directly opposite from Passage Jouffroy is the popular Passage des Panoramas, where you continue to seek shelter and stay warm. The Passage des Panormas is meant for flaneurs. Filled with boutiques, it's the perfect place to spend a rainy day in Paris.
It's the oldest covered passage in Paris, dating from 1799. In 1861, the passage became Paris' first illuminated passage when gas lamps were installed. Having survived the Haussmann transformation, pin 1974, it was listed as a historic building.
Look for the gluten free Noglu restaurant, the Théâtre des Variétés, Chocolatier Marquis, vintagey Prins Patrick, the Phillipe Starck decorated Caffè Stern, and Coinstat Vino wine bar.
the Louvre museum and the iconic I.M. Pei Pyramid
3. Embark On A Louvre Marathon
If you love art (or even if you're indifferent), the Louvre is likely on your Paris bucket list. The Louvre is the largest, busiest, and most visited museum in the world. It has 35,000 works of art and is a palace itself. It's intimidating.
But in the winter, it's less so. If you want to explore the entire palace, winter is the time to indulge in this otherwise fantastical and ill-advised approach. You might even get a one on one with the Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo.
The Louvre is split into three sections: the Denon, Richelieu, and Sully wings. Here'smy guide to the Louvre's underrated masterpieces, with tips and tricks for visiting the Louvre. I also have another article with quirky facts about the Louvre's history. And my own opinion on which painting is the best one in the Louvre.
Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris
4. Escape the Chill in Paris' Charming Bookstores
Facing the Seine, Shakesapeare and Company is the most famous English language bookstore in Paris and is always a fun spot to visit. But in the winter, it's even more enjoyable.
You can browse for books without the intense crowds. Upstairs is a reading room and library with comfy nooks to curl up with a good book. There's a cafe right next door, owned by the bookstore, should you need a coffee or pastry.
entrance to the Abbey Bookstore in Paris' Latin Quarter
books piled floor to ceiling in the Abbey Bookstore, the perfect spot for a winter afternoon
Located in the Hotel Dubuisson, the Abbey Bookstore is another charming anglophone bookstore. It sells new, vintage, and rare books, lovingly offered up in massive floor to ceiling piles.
The bookstore also serves up coffee and the delicious smell wafts among the books. You'll find the Abbey Bookstore at 29 Rue de la Parcheminerie, a tiny lane dating back to the 13th century.
Other English language bookstores include San Francisco Book Company, Berkely Books of Paris, Liberia Galignani, and the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore.
Fragonard Perfume Museum in Paris, one of Paris' unique small museums
5. Test Your Olfactory Senses at the Fragonard Perfume Museum
Housed in an ornate 19th century Napoleon III townhouse, you won't find a touch of modernity. It's meant to be an old world sensory voyage.
The townhouse was built in 1860 by Joseph Lesoufaché, a student of Garnier. The decor is sensuous and alluring with painted ceilings, stucco decoration, old fireplaces, and crystal chandeliers -- everything you'd expect from a luxury brand in a luxury setting.
intricate cut glass perfume bottles at the Fragonard Museum
The tiny museum is unique and rather magical. The collection of precious objects traces the history of perfume from antiquity to the present day.
Visitors will find cabinets of curiosities, including ancient artifacts, perfume "organs," scent boxes, test tubes, blown glass bottles that look like precious jewels, and potpourri used at the court of the Louis XIV.
At the end of your tour, you can put your nose to the test in the "sensory experience" room. It's an olfactory guessing game. You can smell the scent, sprayed on a piece of paper, and try it guess the identity. I was decidedly miserable at this endeavor. You'll be shuttled through the store. But there's no pressure to buy anything.
6. Hide Out in a Paris Cafe
Coffee sipping and people watching are both venerable Parisian traditions. And there’s no cozier time to indulge than winter in Paris. Grab a vin chaud (hot red wine infused with spices) and sit outside at a heated bistro table. Most cafes fire up the braziers so it's toasty outside.
Or, pop into an adorable cafe for a steaming cup of hot chocolate or cafe creme. In winter, try Telescope Cafe, Fragments, La Caféoteque, or Passenger Cafe. If you'd rather have tea, try Le Valentin. Angelina's, of course, is the most famous institution for dispensing thick drinking hot chocolate.
wall of skulls in the Catacombs of Paris
7. Tour the Creepy Catacombs
Normally, I wouldn't go out of my way to visit the Catacombs, unless you're a history buff or collect spooky sites. The line is just too dreadfully long. In general, I think the Catacombs are one of Paris' tourist traps to avoid.
But, in winter, it's a somewhat different story (though still a wait). The Catacombs provide an eerie atmosphere. More elementally, you'll have shelter.
The Catacombs is Paris' "Empire of Death,” a 200 mile honeycomb of tunnels. The system is so enormous that no one knows exactly how many tunnels or chambers exist. The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables' Jean Valjean both haunted these tunnels. During WWII, the French Resistance used the tunnels.
With cemeteries in Paris overflowing, a portion of the tunnels were turned into an ossuary for human remains. At first, bones were haphazardly deposited. Eventually, they were organized and systematically displayed.
The Catacombs were revivified as a tourist site in 1809 and were immediately popular. The Catacombs are now attached to the Carnavalet Museum, which is a wonderful museum about the history of Paris. It's been renovated and will re-open in 2020.
the Conciergerie on the Île de la Cité in Paris
8. Relive the French Revolution at La Conciergerie
Perched on the Île de la Cité, the Conciergerie has had myriad incarnations. It's morphed from a medieval palace to a torture prison to a notorious guillotine way station to a public museum. Its magnificent Hall of Soldiers, with incredible ribbed vaulting, is a UNESCO-listed site.
The dark and dank Conciergerie was built in the 6th century. It was the residence of Clovis, the first King of France. The kings and queens of France abandoned the gloomy palace in the 14th century and decamped for brighter digs. When King Charles V, the last royal resident there, moved out for good, he appointed the first "Concierge" and renamed the building La Conciergerie.
the Salon des gens d’armes in the Conciergerie, a UNESCO-listed site
In 1792, revolutionary forces captured and arrested King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette as they attempted to flee the country. Monarchy was abolished. The royals were charged with treason and thrown into the Conciergerie.
Then came the Reign of Terror. The Conciergerie became the "antechamber of the guillotine" -- the last stop before people were marched to the guillotine at the Place de la Concorde and beheaded. Now, you can tour the rooms with an audio guide. You'll also find a rather kitschy memorial to Marie Antoinette.
wedding cake facade of the Opera Garnier, designed by Charles Garnier
9. Visit the Phantom's Lair
Visiting Paris' Opera Garnier is a dual-purpose immersive experience. You can enjoy the incredibly sumptuous palace, designed by Charles Garnier. And you can re-live the Gothic potboiler, The Phantom of the Opera. The Opera Garnier is really a must see site in Paris' 9th arrondissement.
If you don't want to trek to Versailles in winter, come here instead. The Opera Garnier is just as lavish, maybe more so. It's a great alternative to Versailles.
the beautiful Marc Chagall ceiling in the Opera Garnier
The opera house is designed in what Garnier dubbed the "Napoleon Style," with eclectic Neo-Baroque elements. Between the facade's grand columns are niched busts of accomplished composers. The facade is crowned by two gilded figures, Harmony and Poetry, and topped by Apollo proudly brandishing a golden lyre.
The interior was designed in four segments: the entrance, the auditorium, the stage, and the administrative offices. It’s almost a crescendo effect. Each room exceeds the next in grandeur. The highlights are the Grand Staircase, the Grand Foyer, and the luminous 1964 Chagall ceiling mural.
Napoleon's Madeleine Church in the 9th Arrondissement
10. Visit Paris' Elegant Churches
Notre Dame may be closed for the foreseeable future, but Paris is overflowing with both magnificent and quaint religious buildings. If it's cold or raining, just pop into one and explore.
If you're in the opera district, take in the Madeline Church, which has seen many incarnations. The church you see today dates from 1806. That year, Napoleon took charge. He sought to build a "Temple to the Glory of the Great Army." As a result, Madeleine has a military feel and is different than other churches you'll see in Paris.
Saint Sulpice, with its mismatched towers
the beautiful Saint-Séverin Church, an unmissable site in Paris' Latin Quarter
If you're in the chic Saint-Germain-des-Pres area, take in the 17th century Saint Sulpice, with its mismatched towers. It's a vast church, second in size only to Notre Dame. Part of the movie The Da Vinci Code was set in Saint Sulpice, though filming was prohibited inside the church. Inside, you'll find gorgeous restored murals by famed Romantic painter, Eugene Delacroix.
One of my favorite Paris churches is Saint-Séverin in the Latin Quarter. Saint-Séverin is an ancient church, dating back to the 13th century, named after a devout hermit. It was badly damaged by fire during the 100 Years War, but was restored. It's got glowering gargoyles and impressive stained glass. While you're there, stop into the adjacent Eglise Julien Le Pauvre, another truly ancient edifice.
stained glass windows in Saint Chapelle
the azure blue ceiling studded with fleur de lis of Saint Chapelle
Then, of course, there's the magnificent Saint Chapelle, the best example of medieval architecture in Paris. Originally built in the 13th century to house the Crown of Thorns, Saint Chapelle boasts some of the world's most gorgeous stained glass. Golden fleurs-de-lis shimmer down from azure vaults.
You can buy a combination ticket to Saint Chapelle and the Conciergerie. During the Christmas season, there are also classical music concerts held at Saint Chapelle.
If you miss Notre Dame badly, and want to see another such edifice, here's my guide to 5 other Notre Dame Cathedrals that are easy day trips from Paris. They're just as nice as the original, perhaps even better.
the Cluny Museum with a glorious collection of art from the middle ages
11. Spy Unicorns at the Cluny Museum
Are you a history buff who wants to be transported back to the Middle Ages? Or are you, like everyone else it seems, just crazy for mythical horned creatures? If so, the Musée Cluny is a must see site in the Latin Quarter of Paris.
It's truly one of my favorite museums in the City of Light. The museum's housed in the Hotel de Cluny, built in the 14th century and adjacent to an extant Roman bath.
This museum is dedicated to all things from the Middle Ages. The chief highlight is the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, considered the Mona Lisa of tapestries and one of the greatest surviving medieval relics. They were discovered in 1844 by writer George Sand. (If you're interested in Sand's life, be sure to visit the Museum of the Romantic Life.)
one of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Cluny Museum
stone heads originally on the facade of Notre Dame
Other highlights include the stained glass gallery, the corridor of tombstones, the Roman baths, the Gothic rooms, and the Notre Dame gallery. In the latter gallery, you'll find 21 stone heads of the kings of Judea and Israel. The full length statues were originally on Notre Dame's western facade. But, in 1793, an angry mob beheaded them, wrongly assuming they depicted the kings of France.
The Cluny is located in the heart of the Latin Quarter. While you're there, you can also easily explore the Pantheon, the bookstores discussed above, and the Eglises Saint Sulpice and Saint-Séverin.
Christmas lights on the Champs-Elysées
me enjoying the spectacularly lit up Eiffel Tower on a not-so-cold wintery night in February
12. See Sparkly Illuminations
Paris is gorgeous at Christmas time. The Champs-Elysées is spectacularly illuminated. The trees are draped with twinkling lights and colorful decorations are strung across the street. Winter is possibly the only time I would take a stroll down the otherwise touristy street. Boulevard Haussmann also has some high-tech lights.
On New Years Eve, there's a spectacular light show projected on to the famed Arc de Triomphe, with fireworks to boot. There are no fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, however, even though some people seem to expect them. Just the usual 5 minute twinkles on the hour. But there is a classical music concert inside the Eiffel Tower on Christmas Eve.
the Gustav Klimt show at Paris' Atelier des Lumière
13. Inside Illuminations: Paris' Atelier des Lumière
If you’re looking for a twinkly indoor activity that's visually amazing, you'll love the Atelier des Lumière, or Workshop of Light. It's housed in an old factory in the 11th arrondissement. The workshop is a sort of contemporary digital art museum.
It's became a new cultural hotspot in Paris. It provides an immersive art experience, revivifying the masterpieces of seminal artists -- with moving projections on the walls, classical music, and a dazzling light show. You don't see the paintings as the artist intended, in quiet reflection. But you may feel like you're truly inhabiting the art, swathed in it from all angles and sides.
If you go before January, you’ll be able to catch the Van Gogh and Japon Rêvé show. I loved a previous Gustav Klimt show.
entrance to Sainte-Chapelle
14. Christmas Concert at Sainte-Chapelle
During Christmastime, there are classical music concerts in Paris' most beautiful chapel: Sainte-Chapelle. For tickets, check here. You honestly couldn't have a more beautiful venue.
This 13th century Gothic stunner is an extraordinary example of medieval architecture and an absolute must see site in Paris. It's embedded in a cluster of government buildings. And it's a glistening jewel box inside.
the original 13th century stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle
azure ceiling studded with gold fleur-des-lis
The upper chapel is a kingdom of light, and one of the world's most dazzling Gothic interiors. Saint Chapelle boasts 15 panels of vibrant stained glass. The windows are densely decorated, depicting scenes from the old testament, the new testament, and the aquisition of the relic. The walls are essentially just window holder-mullions, for the showy stained glass display.
Versailles, detail of the facade
15. Or, Leave Paris
If all else fails, exit Paris stage right. Paris weather is notoriously dreary. If you want to stay inside, head to Versailles or a chateau in the Loire Valley. If it's snowing, Versailles can look magical, though the gardens may be too chilly for a promenade. (You may want to take the tram.) But, as an upside, Versailles will be vastly less crowded. There are plenty of other amazing day trips from Paris as well.
Voila! Now, you have all my best tips for visiting and enjoying Paris in the winter.
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