Paris in Winter
By Steve Smith
The City of Light sparkles year-round, but Paris has a special appeal in winter. You'll find inexpensive airfares, fewer crowds, and soft prices for hotel rooms and apartments (rent one for a week or more). Sure, the weather can be cold and rainy (average high in December is 44°F), but if you dress in layers, you'll keep warm and easily deal with temperature changes as you go from cold streets to heated museums and cafés.
Paris in winter offers so much to do indoors. Museums, restaurants, and stores stay open as usual; the concert and arts season is in full bloom; and Paris belongs to the Parisians. So go local, save money, and skip the museum lines that confront peak-season travelers. There are worse ways to spend a wintry day than enjoying world-class art, architecture, and shopping during the day and lingering over a fine (smoke-free) dinner at a cozy corner bistro in the evening. As Cole Porter put it: "I love Paris in the winter, when it drizzles."
Slow down and savor your favorite museums and monuments — spending one-on-one time with Mona and Venus is worth the extra clothes you had to pack. Attend a cooking demonstration, take a short course in art or architecture, or dabble in a wine-tasting class. Duck into cafés for a break from sightseeing or shopping, and to warm up. Get on a first-name basis with the waiter at your corner café — just because you can now.
Easter marks the start of the tourist season, when locals find they need to make reservations for their favorite restaurants and can't find seats on the Métro.
This article reviews off-season highlights in Paris, but remember — your reward for traveling in winter is the joy of feeling part of a city, like you almost belong here. That's what you'll find on a trip to Paris from November to March.
From late October well into November, leaves tumble from Paris's trees, revealing magnificent building facades and turning parks into austere yet romantic places with paths and vistas. Winter also brings early sunsets and long evenings, ideal for neighborhood walks, boat rides, and taxi tours that allow you to view the city of light at a reasonable hour.
Beginning one minute after midnight on the third Thursday of November and running through mid-December, Paris welcomes the arrival of the Beaujolais Nouveau with uncharacteristic enthusiasm for such a controlled people. The fresh, fruity wine is rushed from vineyards a bit north of Lyon direct to Paris, where wine bars and most cafés serve it happily and buzz with news of the latest vintage. The first 24 hours is the most fun and raucous, and it's easy to join the party if you don't mind elbowing your way to the comptoir for un verre. Cafés and bistros continue the celebration for weeks, many offering dishes with a glass of the Beaujolais Nouveau.
And speaking of wine, the annual Salon des Vignerons Independents (independent wine-makers' show) is held the last weekend of November at the Porte de Versailles exhibition center (Mo: Porte de Versailles, line 12). Here, anyone can sample fine wines from more than 1,000 different stands for about a €6 entry fee.
One of Europe's greatest treats is strolling down the glowing Champs-Elysées in winter. From late November through early January, holiday lights adorn city streets, buildings, and monuments, and the Champs-Elysées beams with a dazzling display of lighted trees that line the long boulevard. The city springs for 1,000 fresh-cut fir trees to decorate and put up around town, 300 of which ring the Rond-Point roundabout at the lower end of the Champs-Elysées. You'll also find cheerful lighting displays on many traffic-free streets, including rues Cler, Montorgueil, and Daguerre.
Parisians live to window-shop (faire du lèche vitrines — "window-licking"). Do some licking of your own along boulevard Haussmann and view the storefront lights and wild window displays at the grand department stores such as Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. Here, you can have your picture taken with Père Noël — France's slimmer version of Santa Claus, dressed in red trimmed with white fur. The seasonal displays in neighborhood boutiques around Sèvres-Babylone and in the Marais (among other areas) are more intimate and offer a good contrast to the shows of glitz around the department stores.
Several ice-skating rinks open up in festive locations: in front of the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall, look also for a small sled run), at the base of the Montparnasse skyscraper, and in some winters, most spectacular of all — 200 feet in the air on the first level of the Eiffel Tower. The rinks are free to use (around €5 to rent skates, open December-March from noon into the evening), though for the Eiffel Tower rink, you have to pay the tower admission, of course.
For the kids, there are Christmas carousels (Manèges de Noël) that whirl at various locations, including the biggies at Hôtel de Ville and the Eiffel Tower. Once school lets out, the parks are alive with pony rides, puppet shows, and other activities.
The Christmas Season
With the arrival of St. Nicholas on December 6, the Christmas season kicks into gear. (Bear in mind, that Paris celebrates Christmas with only about 10 percent of the holiday cheer that you'll find in the States.) In mid-December Christmas markets pop up, particularly on the Left Bank (St. Sulpice and St. Germain-des-Prés) and along the Champs-Elysées. At Notre-Dame, a big Christmas tree goes up, and they may have a living crêche in front. The Pompidou Center has an avant-garde tradition — an exhibit of contemporary artists' take on the Christmas tree. Parisians pick up modest Christmas trees for their homes at flower shops - if you rent an apartment, you could do the same. Be sure to check the Pariscope magazine for the popular and often free or inexpensive Christmas concerts.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
The big event is the Christmas Eve dinner, called La Réveillon — "the awakening" — when Parisians stay awake late to celebrate the arrival of Jesus. Traditionally, they attend evening Mass (at Notre-Dame among others), then meet with family and friends for a big feast. The meal begins with escargots, smoked salmon or oysters, and then foie gras. The main dish, similar to American Thanksgiving, is turkey, served with a sort of cranberry sauce, and potatoes (gratin dauphinois). This evening is normally celebrated at home and with family, though some Paris restaurants (and other businesses) stay open late to accommodate parties indulging in raw oysters, cheese, and the Yule Log (Bûche de Noël) — a log-shaped sponge cake iced with chocolate "bark." After dinner, the kiddies leave their slippers next to the fireplace for Père Noël to fill with treats.
On Christmas Day, Paris is very sleepy — make arrangements ahead of time if you've got a plane to catch, and don't plan on visiting the Louvre (which is closed, along with most museums and businesses). Visitors looking for religious services in English will find no shortage of churches to attend — choose between the interdenominational American Church, American Cathedral, Unitarian Church, and St. George's Anglican Church. Many of these churches — especially the American Church — also offer Christmas concerts.
Start the New Year off with a bang at the over-the-top fireworks display at the Eiffel Tower, when thousands of Parisians congregate on the Champ de Mars before midnight. All of Paris parties on New Year's Eve, and a table at a restaurant is next to impossible to land (book early or dine at a café). The holidays aren't over yet — Paris celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings on Epiphany (January 6) with as much fanfare as Christmas itself. The after-Christmas sales (soldes) are an even bigger post-holiday tradition, as locals jam the boutiques and department stores looking for bargains up to 50 percent off. These sales, which last until early February, force stores to keep longer hours.
Parisians also celebrate the Chinese New Year in a big way (usually falls near the end of January) with parades, decorations, and fanfare. Ask your hotelier or a TI for parade locations.
February and March
These are the quiet months, when Paris is most alone with itself. And though holiday decorations disappear, the City of Light is as beautiful and seductive as ever. Visit Paris in winter and — for a few days — become a Parisian.