There’s something particularly special about Paris over the holidays. Of course there’s the sparkling street lights, the enticing window displays, the abundance of heavenly holiday treats, but it’s also something more than that. Spirits ride on this wave of joie and les parisiens can’t help but have a little extra joie de vivre. Here are three itineraries that will take you away from (most of) the crowds and allow you to take in that same joy, guilty pleasures, and offbeat sites that will make the holiday season in Paris truly shine.
Hip Shopping, Food and Culture in the Marais
Skip the mayhem of les grands magasins and do your holiday shopping as you take this creative meander through the Marais. Embark on your foray at the trendy concept store Merci, where you can pick up some of their carefully selected holiday ideas and perfect stocking stuffers like a candle version of their trademark red fiat bearing a roof-load of presents or a Christmas tree, thin garland thread, offbeat snow globes and an vast array of other cool gift ideas.
Merci Concept Store; Lily Heise
You’ll find a bounty of holiday gourmet dedicance as you weave your wave through the narrow streets towards rue de Bretagne. Stop in for some divine chocolates or fruit paté at Jacques Genin or fill up a full basket of superb food products at historic Thiercelin, which supplies to city’s best chefs and culinary connoisseurs since 1809. Reaching rue de Bretagne pop in for eccentric yuletide logs and other cocoa delights at Jean-Paul Hevin or get some further holiday cheer wandering through the Marché des Enfants Rouge.
Warm up over some art or culture at one of the neighborhood’s museums; the Picasso Museum where you can view the Picasso-Giacometti exhibit through February 5th, or the peculiar Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, an appropriate choice at this time of year.
You’ll find other shopping opportunities along rue Vieille du Temple then veer over to rue Bourg Tibourg where you can stock up on exquisite tea at the district’s branch of 160+ year old Mariage Frères. They even have a special holiday line (Christmas pudding tea anyone?), which you can also sample in their elegant tea salon.
From here you’re just around the corner from La Fine Equipe’s pop up store La Fabrique du Père Noël, being held just next to the BHV department store at 6 rue des Archives. Until January, this alternative Christmas market spread over 300 m2 will be featuring a fine selection of up-and-coming designers, just the right thing for any hip giftees on your list (including yourself!).
If your stroll finishes in the evening wrap it up with a drink at the Perchoir du Marais. This rooftop bar atop the BHV has once again been enclosed for winter and transformed into a cool Christmas wonderland with alpine decorations, cozy nooks and furry throws (note: it only opens at 9:15 pm).
Christmas-y Convent Crawl
The Left Bank used to be crawling with religious colleges, monasteries and convents, what better time to go and suss them out (or what remains of them), than Noël? Start down by the Seine in the 5th arrondissement at the mouth of rue de Poissy, here you’ll also have a great view of the back of the Queen of Paris churches, Notre Dame (there’s also a Christmas market taking place there if you want to browse its stands first). Descending the street you’ll come to the Collège des Bernadins. Restored in 2008, this mid-13th century Gothic building was the residence of Cistercian student monks. Except between December 23rd and January 1st, you can visit its impressive nave for free (Open Mon-Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 2-6pm), there’s even a pretty nativity scene, encircled by Christmas trees.
Carry on up the street, turn right on rue des Ecoles and then left on rue Valette, where you’ll come to the intriguing Eglise Saint Ephrem. Currently a Syrian Catholic Church, a chapel in one form or another has existed since the 1330’s. Today it hosts classical concerts and many are taking place over Christmas, so you may want to plan your stroll around these (agenda and tickets here), you can also pop in from 5-7pm Mon-Sat and 11am on Sundays for mass.
Salon du Thé, Passage Jouffroy; Lily Heise
Around the corner take rue de l’Ecole Polytechnique to Place Laure, one of the prettiest squares in the area. Continuing up rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, you’ll reach Saint-Etienne-du-Mont (its side stairs making their film début in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris). In this church you could pay homage to Saint Geneviève herself, you’ll find her tomb inside. She’s one of two patron saints of Paris and the beautiful medieval building next to this church was once a convent named after her. The Pantheon was also supposed to carry on her namesake, then the Revolution happened… At least the large library next to the vast domed building is still bears her name.
Walking straight alongside it, take rue Cujas to rue de la Sorbonne. Heading right you’ll pass the famous institute of higher education, let your mind drift back to pre-Revolution times when these streets used to be packed with serious religious students scurrying around speaking Latin. At the bottom of the street and back on the other side of rue des Ecoles, give a nod to the spirits of the Abbeys of Cluny at the National Medieval Museum and perhaps pop inside to heat up your toes if you’re interested in a cultural break in the form of religious art.
Rue du Sommerard will take you to Boulevard Saint Michel, where those earlier pious students morphed into rebellious street fighters during the 1968 student revolts which overtook the Boulevard Saint Michel. Crossing over it and a little to the left, take rue de l’Ecole de Médecine where you’ll come to Pâtisserie Viennoise. Opened since 1928, this Austrian bakery serves up some serious Viennese hot chocolate and strudel, which you can take to go. Just up the street you can peer in through the gates at the Refectoire des Cordeliers. Currently undergoing a massive archeological dig and renovations, it was built in the early 1500’s as part of a convert complex which stood here and held a key role during the Revolution as the base for the Club des Cordeliers.
Ambling further up the street you’ll hit Boulevard Saint Germain, you may be tempted into Georges Larnicol by his chocolate Christmas sculptures, or carry on to the Eglise Saint Germain, virtually all that’s left of a vast monastery which once occupied most of the land of the area. Instead, the monks have been replaced by Santas and happy vendors milling about its bustling Christmas market, the perfect place to end your stroll with some vin chaud and some shopping. The Church also holds some Christmas concerts, so be sure to check their schedule here, and you may be in luck!
The Passageways to Gastronomic Heaven
Another tactic to bypass les grands magasins and the commotion around the Opera district is to dissect the area via its covered passages ways, all the while enjoying some festive holiday spirit and unique shopping opportunities as well. Start your stroll in the late afternoon, if possible Tuesday through Saturday at 4/4:30 pm, by fueling up at Le Stube, a German restaurant and delicatessen on rue Richelieu. Some takeaway authentic hot wine and traditional Weihnachtsplätzchen holiday cookies which will keep you toasty as you walk north.
Passage des Panoramas; Lily Heise
At the next intersection, turn right onto rue des Petits Champs and just after the National Library, you’ll come to Galerie Vivienne, the first of the covered passageways on our route. One of the loveliest of the city’s historic passages, it’s currently bedazzled in tiny gold lights, adding to its picturesque charm. You might find some Christmas gifts at one of the shops towards the end of the first section or some English books to read snug as a bug back at home on these long winter nights.
Following the passage to the left you’ll come out on rue Colbert, take it right, past the former Stock Exchange and a little further on the left you’ll find the Right Bank outpost of Debauve et Gallais. Once the purveyors of “medicinal” chocolate of Marie Antoinette, they’ve officially been in business as chocolatiers since 1800. If you’re not lured inside by their holiday delights, you’ll at least be captivated by their lovely seasonal window display.
Seek out some more intriguing shop fronts in the nearby Passage des Panoramas by crossing back over the street and up a little to rue Feydeau which hits the entrance of this passageway. Somewhat rundown, the passage evokes the spirits of the past. You might catch a fox with wings in one window, some gluten free pastries at Noglu or the checkered table clothes of the quintessential French bistro, Bar des Variétés.
On the other side of les Grands Boulevards, you’ll reach the passageway paradise of Le Passage Jouffroy then the Passage Verdeau. Featuring some of the nicest lights and holiday decorations, these passages are home to a wide range of quirky shops. From Latin America nativity scenes to jolly artisanal Santas, and from needle point tableaux to vintage prints, there’s virtually something for everyone on your gift list. If you need a pitstop, take a break at Le Valentin, a tea salon, pastry and chocolate shop in Passage Jouffroy serving up delicious specialties from the East of France, very fitting for the season.
Exiting the Passage Verdeau and turning left up rue de Montmartre, you’ll soon reach La Mère et Famille, technically the oldest chocolate shop in Paris, in operation since 1761 at this very location. It’ll be hard to resist the overwhelming treats at the sweetshop.
À La Mère de Famille; Lily Heise
If you thought you’d reach paradise with all the shops so far, the stairway to heaven keeps going up as you climb the road to rue des Martyrs and work your way up this gourmet lane. Here, almost every other shop will marvel you from the award-winning chocolates of Yves Thuriès or Henri Le Roux to the refined jams of the Chambre aux Confitures and from the sophisticated pastries of Sebastien Gaudard to the rich jamon pata negra of Les Grands Espagne… not to mention all the other great shops selling homewares, original children’s toys and hip designer clothing. As you ascend the hill, you can also admire some of the nicest street holiday lights, which zigzag across the street. You’ll definitely deserve a treat once you make it to the top—perhaps a real Belgian waffle and un chocolat chaud to go at Le Comptoir Belge?
What is your favorite place in Paris during the holidays? Tell us in the comments and you could win a copy of Lily’s new book Je T’Aime… Maybe? The second in a series of Lily’s lively true stories of the trials and tribulations of seeking out romance in Paris. We’ll be drawing a winner on December 28th! More information on the book here.
- Elaine Sciolino, a contributing writer and former Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, delves deeply into rue des Martyrs in her book The Only Street in Paris, Life on the Rue des Martyrs.
- Christmas is now only a few days away. Still rushing to get your gifts finalized? Our Parisian Christmas gift guide might help.
- More cool places to stop in around rue des Martyrs are featured in our article on the hip SoPi district.
Written by Lily Heise for HiP Paris. Looking for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, London, Provence, or Tuscany? Check out Haven In.