There’s an extra dose of magic to a trip to Paris in winter, when the City of Lights is lit even brighter by thousands of twinkling bulbs. Each of Paris’ districts has something festive going on, from window shopping at grand magasins and browsing Christmas markets with a glass of vin chaud, to a spin on an outdoor ice rink and riding a vintage funfair. So dig out your scarf and gloves and join me for nine of the best things to do in Paris at Christmas.
Local restrictions mean events and opening hours are subject to change – please check attraction websites for most up-to-date information.
What’s Paris’ winter weather like?
The weather in Paris in the winter is usually fairly mild – average temperatures range from a high of 8°C (46°F) to a low of 3°C (37°F). It can get frosty at night though and there are a few rain or sleet showers, so pack a waterproof or umbrella. But the city has plenty of cosy cafés, museums and things to do indoors so you can always find a warm spot to thaw out.
Things to do in Paris in winter
1. Admire the Christmas lights
From mid-November, Paris is decked out in her Christmas finery. Trees are draped with twinkling lights and colourful decorations are strung across the streets. Most areas of Paris get an extra dose of sparkle for the festive season, but for the most over-the-top display head to the bustling Champs Elysées. This year’s display runs from 22 November 2020 to 6 January 2021 and includes over a million red and blue bulbs draped across 400 trees.
You’ll also find plenty of sparkling lights lining Boulevard Hausmann (from 14 November 2020 to 3 January 2021), and other streets which go all out with the lights include Rue Faubourg-St-Honoré with its sophisticated blue and white colour scheme, Place Vendôme with its forest of sparkling pine trees, Avenue Montaigne and Bercy Village. If you want to see the best of the illuminations, there’s a city sightseeing bus tour* of the highlights.
2. Go window shopping
Paris’ big department stores dress for Christmas with some impressively festive store window displays. Each year’s decorations have a different theme – from Hollywood glamour to Beauty and the Beast. And they feature lights, animations, music, and plenty of snow and sparkle. The planning for next year starts as soon as the previous year’s decorations get taken down, and there are big opening nights each year when the new displays are unveiled.
You find some of the best festive window displays at Galeries Lafayette – where there’s also a giant tree underneath the building’s central dome – and Le Printemps (both Boulevard Haussmann, nearest Metro: Chaussée d’Antin), Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche (24 Rue de Sèvres, Metro: Sèvres-Babylone) and BHV Marais (52 Rue de Rivoli, Metro: Hôtel de Ville).
3. Visit the Christmas markets
Since they started in Germany, Christmas markets have spread across Europe and beyond to become an annual festive tradition, and you find them in most cities – Paris included. Fill up on festive treats from wooden chalets, selling everything from handmade tree decorations and wooden gifts to cheeses from across France and Eiffel Tower-shaped biscuits.
‘Marchés de Noël’ are normally held across the city during December. However the 2020 pandemic means this year’s markets are being held on a smaller scale than usual or swapping to online shopping events. But you can still get your festive fix at Notre Dame cathedral from 11–27 December 2020 and the Saint Germain des Prés Christmas market from 5 December 2020–3 January 2021. Check details online for opening times and locations.
4. Go ice skating
Many of Paris’ outdoor ice rinks are closed for winter 2020, but you can usually gets your skates on beneath the Eiffel Tower at the Champs de Mars Christmas market as well as in the Jardin des Tuileries. There is also France’s biggest ice rink under the domed glass roof of the beautiful Grand Palais, and rooftop rinks on the roof of the Galeries Lafayette department store and on top of the Grande Arche at La Défense at 110 metres high.
5. Take a trip to the fair
Go back in time with a vintage fairground at the Musee Des Arts Forains. This private collection of fairground rides and stalls dating back to 1850 is normally only open to visitors on guided tours. But at the end of the year it hosts the Festival du Merveilleux, with storytellers, magicians, musicians, dancers and puppeteers (2020’s opening to be confirmed). It’s also free for children to ride on many of the city’s carousels over Christmas.
6. Listen to a Christmas concert
Some of Paris’ most atmospheric buildings hold festive concerts around Christmas. There are classical concerts in the churches at Saint-Germain des Prés, Saint‐Eustache and La Madeleine. But most spectacular of all is Sainte-Chapelle. This Gothic chapel’s walls are made up of 16 huge stained glass windows covering over 600 square metres. When musicians are playing and the light hits the windows and makes them glow, it’s magical.
7. Join in a Christmas church service
If you’re spending Christmas in Paris, services are held in churches across the city. At Sacre-Couer Basilica there’s an organ concert, sung vigil and midnight mass on Christmas Eve as well as several masses on Christmas Day. There are also Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services at the churches of Saint Sulpice, Madeleine and Saint Eustache. They do get busy though so arrive early as numbers may be limited. There are also English-language services held at the American Cathedral in Paris, the Scots Kirk and St Michael’s Church.
8. Warm up with a vin chaud
A steaming cup of vin chaud is a French festive staple. Dry red wine is mixed with sugar, orange and fragrant spices like cinnamon, star anise, cardamon and cloves to make a real winter warmer (sometimes with an extra nip of cognac). You can find it on sale in bars and cafés across Paris as well as in the Christmas markets – it often comes in a commemorative mug which you pay a few euros deposit for and can take home as a souvenir.
9. An Enchanted Christmas at Disneyland Paris
Unfortunately due to current restrictions Disneyland Paris is closed until February 2021. Normally the park hosts an ‘Enchanted Christmas’ event with shows and parades, markets, light displays and streets dripping in decorations. A day ticket costs £47 on weekdays or £70 at weekends. You can catch the Disneyland Paris Express from Gare du Nord which to reach the park for 10am and return to the city at 9pm for a full day of festivities.
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