Audrey Hepburn knew what she was talking about when she said ‘Paris is always a good idea’. There isn’t really a bad time of year for an escape to the French capital. You can ice skate halfway up the Eiffel Tower and warm up with a vin chaud at a Christmas market in winter. Take a walk through fresh blooms in the Botanic Gardens and eat pastel-hued macaroons in spring. Or soak up the summer sunshine on a beach by the Seine at the Paris Plages. But my favourite season for a Parisian weekend has to be autumn.
Parks dripping in shades of red and gold, crunchy leaves underfoot, steaming cups of hot chocolate, new exhibitions to see and all the gooey cheeses to eat. What could be better? A few years back I spent six autumnal weeks house-sitting in Paris and fell in love with this time of year. Autumn is the season when Parisians come back to the city after spending their summers on the coast. It’s known as the réntree – the re-entry – when businesses reopen and Parisians claim the city back from the tourists. It’s Paris’ second new year when it wakes up from a summer slumber and gets back to its day-to-day business.
Autumn adds another dimension to an already beautiful city. The Seine is extra atmospheric at dawn or dusk when a fine mist hangs over the water on cool, crisp days. Along the river bank street stalls with roasting chestnuts sit next to the Bouquiniste book sellers. But for the best Parisian autumn colours you need to head to one of the city’s parks. Grab a takeaway crêpe, wrap up with a coat and scarf and take a walk. The Jardin des Tuileries and the Places des Vosges both have some fabulous foliage, but my favourite autumnal haunt is the Luxembourg Gardens. It’s Paris’ largest public park with over 22 hectares so you should have no trouble finding a pile of leaves to kick your way through. Paris heads outside when the sun’s out, with old men playing boules, children in the playgrounds and couples snuggling up to stay warm.
A cemetery isn’t somewhere I’d normally choose to spend my time – anywhere other than in Paris. In autumn their ornate tombs, sculptures and stained-glass windows are draped with colourful leaves. Père-Lachaise is the grande-dame of Parisian cemeteries and the resting place of famous names like Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. But it’s just one of several cemeteries from the 1800s built in a circle around the old edge of the city. The others in Montparnasse and Montmartre are just as beautiful and you can often have them almost all to yourself. Except on 1 November, a national holiday when France celebrates La Toussaint (All Saint’s Day) and families come from across Paris to lay flowers on their ancestors’ graves.
The réntree is the start of a new cultural season in Paris, when a whole swathe of new plays, performances and exhibitions launch. There’s an annual Autumn Festival which takes place from October until the end of the year. It’s been running since 1972 and has a mixture of different theatre, dance, music, film and visual art events and performances at 40 different venues across the city. Autumn’s a good time to check out some of the city’s museums as well. They often have new temporary exhibitions, but they also start to quieten down after being packed in summer. The Louvre never gets exactly quiet, but you can minimise queuing time by visiting in the evenings on Wednesdays and Fridays when the museum is open late until 9.45pm, or you can bypass the queues with a skip the line pass from ParisCityVision.
Paris has plenty of other museums to explore too – from classics like the Musee d’Orsay with its Impressionist paintings and the Rodin Museum with its sculpture garden, to quirkier spots like the Musée Cognacq Jay art museum set in a beautiful mansion in the Marais. Or you can embrace the city’s spooky side in time for Halloween with a trip to the Catacombs. In the 1780s Paris had grown so quickly that its cemeteries were overflowing and there was no room for them to grow. So six million bodies were moved underground into some of the 175 miles of former mining tunnels underneath the city. You can take a tour down into the depths where bones are piled up along the dark, damp passageways.
Autumn is also prime hot chocolate season, and Paris does some of the best in the world. One of the most well-known spots for a good chocolat chaud is the Angelina tea room, where people queue out of the door for a cup of their speciality thick ‘African’ chocolate blend. But my favourite hot chocolate comes from the Café de Flore in Saint-Germain-des-Prés – a haunt of 1920s painters, writers and philosophers like Picasso and Sartre. The notoriously grumpy waiters serve you a jug of melted chocolate and another of hot milk and you can mix them yourself to make it as rich and chocolatey as you can handle.
France’s other famous dishes come into their own in autumn too. Summer is for baguettes, ham, cheese and rosé picnics by the Seine or under the Eiffel Tower. But autumn’s the time to tuck into warm buttery croissants, steaming bowls of French onion soup, Boeuf Bourguignon and Cassoulet (I think of it as stocking up for winter!). Parisians stretch out terrace season for as long as possible, and many pavement cafés have patio heaters and blankets so you can sit out in the autumn sunshine and watch the world go by. The cooler evenings are a good excuse to hole up in a cosy bar with a good glass of red wine. If you want to learn about what you’re drinking, Ô Château runs daily wine tastings sessions and Champagne Seine cruises.
The city also hosts a couple of wine-related festivals each autumn. First there’s the Fête des Vendanges, a kind-of harvest festival in Montmartre which takes place over five days at the start of October. It celebrates the harvest from Montmartre’s only remaining vineyard. And although the wine’s apparently not up to much, there are lots of tasty food and drink stalls in the streets around Sacré-Coeur, as well as parades and firework displays. Then there’s Beaujolais Nouveau Day on 20 November when you can taste the latest vintage of this love-it-or-hate-it wine in bars around the city. Then for the perfect end to an autumnal weekend, finish off the night in an underground jazz bar. Montmartre is home to some of Paris’ old-school venues, like Autor de Midi et Minuit for the classics and Blue Note for Brazilian jazz.
Which is your favourite season in Paris?
This post is brought to you in association with Pariscityvision who offer a range of tours in Paris.