I grew up in Southern California, where the sun is so so doggedly bright most of the year that winter feels more like an abstraction– or like a subtle, vaguely aggravating shift from a hot cup of coffee to a tepid one– than a genuine season. I admit that this has made me embrace European winters with a gusto that might seem silly and overly romantic from a local perspective. While Parisian natives complained of dark, unforgiving days and pointed out with disgust how slushy water gathering in the gutters trapped bits of trash and mucked up shoes and pantcuffs, I’d be noting how the pearly, subdued November light (on a sunny day, that is) cast striking shadows from trees and buildings. I’d revel in the strange new ritual of wrapping up in wool coats and coiling, itchy scarves, and ambling anonymously in my mini-fortress down the boulevard. Pensiveness is permissible, or even encouraged, during the winter in Paris.
Sure, there’s hardly ever much snow: when it’s wet, you mostly end up putting up with days of icy, miserable rain (in French, you might call such precipitation “une petite pluie de merde” (literally, “a little shit[ty] rain”.) It also sometimes means foregoing going out on a Sunday, excepting dramatic dashes to the nearest foggy-windowed brasserie or endearingly shabby old cinema. But that’s precisely part of what makes winter here enjoyable (at least to me).
Read related: When to Visit Paris? (Hint: There’s No Universal Answer)
Without further ado, here are a few of my preferred places to stroll, think, dream, or just hole up on a wintery day in the capital.
1. The Buttes-Chaumont
This hilly Romantic-style park in the somewhat far-flung 19th arrondissement of Paris resembles an anthill come spring and summer, when families throng here to let the kids run around, and groups of young people equipped with blankets, cheap rosé and baguettes sprawl out for picnics and naps in the sun. But this remarkable 19th-century park only really captured my attention when I took a first winter stroll here, not long after moving to the city. The crowds are much thinner, the air is sharp and cold, and the park’s thousands of deciduous trees frame the sky in ways that allow for automatically gorgeous photos.
Built atop a defunct limestone quarry, the park is remarkable for its winding, steep pathways and a gazebo affording some of the best views of the city on a clear day. It’s also an endearingly weird example of a 19th-century “theme park”: the artificial grottoes, giant man-made lake and “bark”-lined pathways, waterfalls and other pseudo-naturalistic details frequently make me think that Disneyland and its ilk may have drawn a bit of early inspiration by parks like these.
If it’s not raining, the “Buttes” is well worth a detour. Try hot chocolate or coffee and cake at the Rosa Bonheur cafe-restaurant after your stroll (located near the Botzaris metro entrance to the park).
Getting There: Metro Buttes-Chaumont or Botzaris (Line 7 bis)
Opening Hours: Dawn to dusk (in winter, generally 7am to around 7:30 pm.
2. The Champo Cinema (or any arthouse theatre you can duck into, really)
Astoundingly, Paris runs something in the range of 400 films in any given week– and that’s the conservative estimate. Digest that figure for a second. If, like this writer, you’re a movie junkie who equates hiding in the velvety darkness of a good cinema with the joys of a hot bath, then by all means, schedule in some time haunting one on a wet, miserable day during your visit. Particularly if you enjoy thematic or director-centric retrospectives, you’ll be on cloud nine: they’re a near-constant here.
The Champo (pictured above) is one of my favorites, but there are plenty of others to explore around the city. I also adore the Reflet Medicis (right across the street on Rue des Ecoles, near the Sorbonne), and the Pagode (sadly, this gorgeous old venue closed its doors in late 2015 due to a rental dispute with the owners– but there’s talk of a new cinema potentially opening in the same place, under fresh ownership. My fingers are firmly crossed.)
For a more complete list of cinemas I recommend, you can take a look at this piece I wrote elsewhere on “Paris Celluloid”.
The Champollion Cinema
Location: 51 rue des Ecoles, 5th arrondissement
Metro: Cluny La Sorbonne (Line 5)
3. The Musée Cluny and its mesmerizing medieval tapestries
If you’ve just drunk in a film at the Champo or another cinema somewhere in the Latin Quarter, and it’s still rainy/mucky/otherwise unpleasant, then I wholly recommend heading just around the corner to the Musée Cluny/National Medieval Museum.
It’s an ideal refuge from the rain and cold: among other things, its collections include objects of daily life from the medieval period, manuscripts and books, impressive stained glass, and an old Roman tepidarium/stone bath level. The Hotel de Cluny was in fact built atop ancient Roman thermal baths, and the foundations remain exposed, showing some fascinating archaeological layering.
But the top level of the museum harbors the real treasure: a series of six enigmatic Flemish tapestries woven around 1500, whose collective title is “La Dame à la licorne” (The Lady and the Unicorn). Ostensibly meant to represent the human senses and their ability to either draw us closer to, or drive us further away from, spiritual insight, the piece is (rightfully) considered one of the great masterpieces of late medieval art. For some reason, when I’ve been stressed, bored, or weary from too many long winter days and nights, coming here to quietly contemplate the oddly allegorical, mesmerising tapestries in the dimly lit room has never failed to re-inject me with something like inspiration.
Musée Cluny/National Medieval Museum
Location: 6 Place Paul Painlevé, 5th arrondissement
Metro: Cluny-La Sorbonne
Visit the official website
4. Montmartre Cemetery
Don’t call me a goth: I listen to far too much Bossa Nova and Ethiopian jazz to qualify, even if Nick Cave still prominently features in my playlists. But there’s something about how winter light falls on the moss-covered tombs and graceful tree-lined paths at Montmartre Cemetery that never fails to stir my imagination; and it simply makes for a sublime walk when it’s cold and sunny out. Precede or follow your visit with an aimless saunter around the quieter, gently snaking back-streets of Montmartre, around metro Lamarck.
My dear friend Manning Krull over at Cool Stuff in Paris has a lovely visual guide to some of his favorite places and tombs in the cemetery (and unlike me, he’s something of a ‘true’ goth). Père-Lachaise Cemetery and Montparnasse Cemetery are equally poetic choices for a balade hivernale (wintery stroll).
Getting There: 20 Avenue Rachel, 18th arrondissement
Metro: Lamarck-Caulaincourt, La Fourche, or Blanche (Line 12, 2)
5. A Good Cafe or Tearoom
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention cafes and tearooms in this piece, even if it’s an entirely run-of-the-mill suggestion. Part of why I’m including it is because cafes in the capital aren’t generally run-of-the-mill themselves– as they sadly often are in places like London, where chains like Starbucks and Caffe Nero occupy most available real estate. Not so in Paris: locals have largely rejected that model of corporate sameness and “reliability”, instead supporting both old-fashioned corner brasserie-cafes and more avant-garde new roasters.
Some of my favorite classic spots for a cafe crème nursed while reading a paper and observing the blustery conditions outside include the Cafe La Fourmi at metro Pigalle, any of the nice terraced cafes that line pedestrian-only thoroughfares such as Rue Montorgeuil (metro: Etienne Marcel) or Rue Daguerre (Metro: Denfert Rochereau), Au Chat Noir (76 rue Jean-Pierre Rimbaud; Metro Parmentier), Cannibale Cafe (pictured above; 93 Rue JP Rimbaud; Metro Couronnes), and Cafe Brebant, a sumptuous old brasserie in the bustling Grands Boulevards area (Metro:Richelieu-Drouot). I also list a few others in a piece I wrote on literary haunts in Paris, here.
If you’re a coffee snob– I mean aficionado, ehem– Time Out has a good list of some of the better new places in the capital for superb brews, from espresso to pour-overs. They’re not necessarily the most “ambient” places, but you’re less likely to be confronted with a burned, sludgy espresso that bites you back at one of these.
For those who prefer tea and all its fanfare, try the Mariage Frères tearoom in the Marais for tradition and pomp (30 Rue du Bourg Tibourg, Metro Hotel de Ville); for something a bit cozier and more relaxed, I like Sesame near the Canal St-Martin (51 quai de Valmy; Metro Republique): its cheery red exteriors and North-American style lack of formality are a nice change of speed.
6. A Stroll Up the Canal St Martin to the Parc de la Villette
Whenever I’m in Paris during the winter, I have a few habitual strolls, as you’ve no doubt gathered by now. One of these stretches from the banks of the Canal St-Martin, with its cafes, boutiques and restaurants, graceful metallic green bridges and funny old lock systems, all the way up to the Parc and Cité de la Villette. The latter is an ultra-modern, massive complex with odd thematic gardens (good for kids) and a giant geodesic dome, museum dedicated to science and industry and another to the history of music; a bookstore, cafes and restaurants, etc.
I generally start the walk at Métro Republique, where the canal-side area begins a couple blocks eastward. This was formerly a working-class area that accommodated the industrial shippers that used the canal system as a thoroughfare. It’s absurdly photogenic, which is why painters such as Alfred Sisley loved it as a subject. You may want to stop for a coffee, lunch or glass of wine somewhere along the way as you head north. The Hotel du Nord, which was the subject of an eponymous film from Marcel Carné, is a local favorite (and one of mine, too).
Eventually, you’ll have to cross a major thoroughfare at the Stalingrad or Jaures metro stations, at which point you’ll find yourself at the Bassin de la Villette. This is a continuation of the canal system, but the waterway widens here. If, until fairly recently, the area was all but abandoned and infamous as a preferred place of business for drug dealers, all that changed a few years ago with the opening of two major new cinemas, MK2 Quai de Loire and Mk2 Quai de Seine, built on opposite sides of the water, facing each other. You can take one of the cinema’s tiny white boats across the water if you buy a movie ticket from either. These are two more of my favorite cinemas in the city, on a side note.
A view of the Bassin de la Villette and its two cinemas. Copyright © 2007 David Monniaux/Some rights reserved under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.
Heading further northeastward up the Quai de Loire or the Quai de Seine, you’ll eventually cross Rue Crimée (contrary to what the name seems to suggest, it’s perfectly safe during the day) and reach the Quai de L’Oise. Continue walking straight alongside the banks, and eventually you’ll reach the Parc de la Villette, where you can continue your afternoon by doing a variety of things: wandering through the many thematic gardens if it’s nice out; visiting the new Paris Philharmonic or the Cité de la Musique; browsing the large arts-oriented bookshop, or having a coffee or drink at one of the park’s numerous bars and cafes. It’s entirely possible to make a whole afternoon and early evening of it, and take the metro from the Parc de la Villette stop back to wherever you’re staying.
Another possibility is to walk back down to the Canal St Martin, but take the opposing quay from the one you strolled on the way up, to get some different perspectives.
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