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 last year I finally put this right with a quick pre-Christmas weekend in the city. And the City of Lights puts on a great show at Christmas – 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 Montparnasse station (Metro: Montparnasse), in Montmartre (Metro: Abbesses and Anvers) and in Square René Viviani near Notre Dame Cathedral (Metro: Saint-Michel or Cité). Make sure to double check dates and details though – last year 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’s a big ice rink outside the Hôtel de Ville – entry is free but it’s €6 to hire skates and there can be big queues. There are also rinks at the Champs-Elysées (€10 adults/€8 under 12s) and Jardins du Trocadero (€6), and a rink with a view on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower (skate hire included with your Tower ticket). For another great view, take a ride in the Place de La Concorde’s Grande Roue – or Big Wheel. It s open every day until midnight from 13 November 2015 to 29 February 2016 and costs €10 (€5 under 10s). From 60 metres up you get a bird’s-eye-view of the Christmas lights along the Champs-Elysées.
Or how about a trip to the funfair? Normally a private collection owned by an antique dealer, the Musee Des Arts Foraings is full of vintage fairground rides and stalls dating back to 1850 and is open to the public from 26 December 2015 to 3 January 2016, 10am–6pm. It’s also free for children to ride on many of the city’s carousels between 19 December 2015 and 4 January 2016.