I’ve sweltered on the beach at the Paris Plages in the middle of summer, walked through parks full of flowers in springtime and watched the leaves change colour in autumn, but until now I’ve never seen Paris in winter. So this year I finally put this right with a quick pre-Christmas weekend in the city. And the City of Lights does Christmas well – with plenty of festive markets, light displays, ice rinks and funfair rides to keep you busy. Here are some of my picks on what to see in Paris at Christmas time.
From the start of December, Paris decks herself out for the festive season. Trees are draped with twinkling lights, decorations are strung across the streets and shop windows are piled high with gifts. Most areas have some sort of Christmas decorations, but some of the most impressive are at Place Vendome and in Montmartre – as well as the over-the-top sparkles along the Champs Elysées, where the trees are covered with lights that change colour every half hour. You’ll also find a huge Christmas tree outside Notre Dame Cathedral, and inside is a beautiful wooden carved nativity scene.
Paris’ big department stores go all out for Christmas with some impressively festive store window displays. They start planning them as soon as the previous year’s are taken down and even have a big celebrity opening night when they’re unveiled each year. You find some of the best at Galeries Lafayette and Printemps (both Boulevard Haussmann, Metro: Chaussée d’Antin), Le Bon Marché (24 Rue de Sèvres, Metro: Sèvres-Babylone) and BHV (52 Rue de Rivoli, Metro: Hôtel de Ville).
The Christmas markets
Originally starting in Germany, Christmas markets have spread across Europe to become a festive tradition, and you find them in most cities, Paris included. Grab a cup of vin chaud while you wander around the market stalls housed in little wooden chalets, selling everything from handmade tree decorations and wooden gifts to cheeses from across France and Eiffel Tower shaped biscuits.
There are markets – aka ‘Marchés de Noël’ – held across the city. The biggest are in La Défense, with over 300 stalls (Metro: La Défense), and along the Champs Elysées (Metro: Concorde or Champs Elysées-Clemenceau). There are also smaller neighbourhood markets like in Saint-Germain-des-Prés (Metro: Saint-Germain-des-Prés), at Saint-Lazare station (Metro: Saint-Lazare) and in Montmartre (Metro: Abbesses and Anvers). Make sure to double check dates and details though – we read in several places online about there being a big market at Saint-Sulpice but turned up to find a deserted, empty square!
There are two big ice rinks set up outside the Hôtel de Ville and in front of the Montparnasse train station – entry is free at both but you will have to brave big queues at Hôtel de Ville and pay €5 to hire skates. There are also paid rinks on the Champs-Elysées and at the Jardins du Trocadero. For a great view across Paris, you can take a ride in the Grande Roue – or Big Wheel – in Place de La Concorde. It costs €10 and is open every day until midnight from 15 November 2013 to 16 February 2014. You’re right at the end of the Champs-Elysées so from 60 metres up you get a bird’s-eye-view of the Christmas lights.
Or if it’s too cold you can retreat inside to the Jours de fêtes au Grand Palais – a two-week-long festival where the Grand Palace is taken over by an indoor funfair with dodgems and candyfloss. For more funfairs, the Musee Des Arts Foraings opens to the public over the Christmas period. Normally a private collection owned by an antique dealer, it is full of old fairground rides and stalls which date back to 1850.