When To Visit Paris? (Hint: There’s No Universal or Canned Answer)

In all the years I’ve covered Paris, the question I’ve been asked more predictably than pretty much any other is an anxious “When do you recommend I go?” Again and again, I’ve disappointed those hoping for me to neatly solve their dilemma, thus sparing them from the agony of choice and the possibility that they’ll regret making it. I invariably tell them that I have no universal answer, no oracular eye that can predict the “perfect time”, nor miraculously foresee the conditions that will make their trip somehow live up to the particular mythology of Paris they’re carrying around in their head. One that might look something like this:

Spring in Paris at the Jardin des Tuileries

Spring flowers at the Jardin des Tuileries– who could resist? Still, if you’re hoping I’ll confirm spring is the *best* time of year to see Paris– sorry, I can’t. Image: S Sedro/Some rights reserved under the Creative Commons 2.0 license

The truth is, I think that sort of mythology has a sneaky and perverse way of keeping you from fully immersing. It keeps you behind a screen of cliches and preconceptions, and inhibits the sort of open, receptive state that makes travel a transformative experience. How can you possibly enjoy Paris, or allow it to surprise you, if you’re hauling around a set of rigid expectations about what the city should be or look like, based primarily on shiny technicolor (or post-technicolor) Hollywood fantasies? (Digression: If I had to choose between Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”, “An American in Paris”, Pixar’s “Ratatouille”and the oh-so-cringeworthy “French Kiss”, I’d say that the animated film featuring a chef rat offers the most realistic depictions of the city).

Returning to to my main point: There’s nothing wrong with carefully exploring your options and taking in some generalist information about seasonal events, what clothes to pack, etc. (I’ll leave it to the weather channel to help you with that last point). But at the end of the day– at least in my humble perspective–the process of deciding to go will be far more enjoyable if you remain at least somewhat open to the possibility that any time of year could turn out to be marvellous. Just not in the exact ways you might expect. Since budgetary matters will comes into play in any decision you end up making– high season is much pricier than low season, after all–  I especially want to encourage those who can’t make it in the spring or summer not to fret. When  you’re game to appreciate the particular beauty and advantages of whatever season you can manage, and refrain from lamenting a “Paris in the spring” whose reality is probably underwhelming when compared to the fantasy, something changes. A door opens to experiencing the city in an unfettered way. Magic becomes possible, but it’s a daily sort of magic, not a Disney version.

Nevertheless, in the interest of sating your immediate need to get an overview of what each season might have in store, I present you with some thoughts on what makes each season uniquely charming (and, frequently, aggravating).

Winter

As I detail at length in this piece on my 6 favorite wintery haunts in Paris, I have no trouble enjoying the capital in its end-of-year mode. Some will complain of the frequent wet and a cast-iron sky so stubborn it almost seems as if someone’s holding a metal pan over the air to cruelly obstruct the light– but there is occasional sun, and these days, even some warmth (erm, hooray for climate change??) It’s admittedly best to avoid if your idea of a winter getaway is a solid reprieve from the cold, or swirling paper umbrellas in a sticky rum cocktail while sprawled on a chaise longue. But then, you knew that already.

Paris in the winter: it doesn't actually snow very often.

Ok, it admittedly doesn’t snow very often in Paris. But look– purdy! Image: Flavio Ensiki/Some rights reserved under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

 

So what makes a winter trip worthwhile, and keeps it out of the realm of the miserable? For me, it’s the relative quiet. Maybe this is an all-too-predictable trait among us writers, but there’s something about being able to roam the streets without having to fight your way through large crowds, contend with full, BO-reeking metro cars, or fight for tables at restaurants or tickets at shows. It makes me look forward to the winter. When you’re curious to see what the city’s like when it’s not trying so hard to convince tourists that it lives up to their fantasies, winter offers a glimpse of that. Of course, there’s plenty of (fun) hoopla around Christmas and the New Year, and it’s worth taking part in if you enjoy it. Like most people do, I, too have a certain weakness for Galeries Lafayette all decked out for the holidays, and the warm glow of lights filling the bare trees around Place Vendome.

But otherwise, to rip off Depeche Mode, enjoy the silence.

Book skip-the-line tickets and tours for popular Paris attractions (via Tiqets.com)

A Few Things I Enjoy & Recommend in the Winter:

In addition to the things I mention at length in the aforementioned piece, I recommend organizing much of your trip around indoor events and attractions. It can admittedly be mucky, icy and unpleasant out starting in mid-November, and while you’ll hopefully seize on a clear day or two to explore the city, there’s plenty to do indoors. Duck into a cinema or any cafe that strikes your eye, and looks like a cozy refuge from the cold where you might collect your thoughts, read for a couple of hours, or chat away with your travel companion.

Exhibits, Shows and Museums: Time Out Paris and Paris Art Selection (the latter edited by my lovely friend Laura) are both good sources for finding shows and exhibits currently on around town. Permanent collections at the city’s many free museums are a budget-appeasing way to keep busy.

Cathedrals and Churches: Bring a coat and scarf in case it’s cold, but visiting these centuries-old places of worship, pilgrimage and archaeological treasures is well worth your time. From  Notre-Dame Cathedral, to the Sainte-Chapelle (a place that never fails to leave me with mouth hanging open), to the St-Denis Basilica just north of Paris– home to 40 recumbent effigies of kings and queens– these places transport you back into medieval Paris. It’s the only sort of time travel currently available, as far as I know .

Recumbent effigies at Saint-Denis Basilica, outside Paris.

Recumbent effigies at Saint-Denis Basilica outside Paris: well worth a visit. Image: ECMD/used with permission

 Spring

Hailing from California, I never appreciated the full drama of spring until transplanting to Europe after college. While I suffer from a mild pollen allergy (sigh), there’s still something of the cathartic and joyful about that first spring walk of the year: exploding rows of tulips and chrysanthemums, gentle breezes, and the season’s inaugural picnic among friends easily come to mind.

Would you like some Louvre with those flowers? Image: João Ernani Oliveira/Some rights reserved under the Creative Commons license

However, don’t expect everything to feel idyllic: as alluded to earlier, once high season hits in April, the city is swarmed by tourists and can feel terribly claustrophobic. Hotels up their rates. Taxis are hard to find. Locals are sometimes more impatient or irritable as they attempt to navigate their commutes amid armies of visitors blocking their paths and stealing their metro seats.

Don’t get me wrong. Springtime in Paris can be as fresh and inspiring as daisies gently waving in the sun, and in select moments it (almost) lives up to some of the cinematic fantasies. Not to belabor my point, but I’d still advise that you try to keep your expectations in check.

A Few Things I Enjoy & Recommend  in the Spring:

Spending some time frolicking or picnicking in a park or garden is one obvious spring pastime, but one that can’t be overlooked: some of my favorites include the Jardin des Plantes, the Parc de la Villette and its odd, educational thematic gardens, the Place des Vosges and the Jardin du Luxembourg. As I’ve had to warn friends and family many times, the lawns at many parks and formal gardens in the city are off-limits: look for signs saying “pelouse en repos” (rather preposterously, “the lawn is resting”.) Look for crowds of fellow picnic-goers to find out where you can sit.

Day trips: Because the city gets so overcrowded as it moves into peak tourist season, getting out of the city can feel essential. A short train ride gets you to the Chateau de Versailles, the even more gorgeous but lesser-known Chateau Vaux-le-Vicompte, and to places like Provins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with preserved medieval fortifications, a dramatic tower complete with dungeons, and a cute town center. During the spring, nerdy but delightful medieval festivals take over the town with re-enactments and silly jousting acts; while local rose growers come to peddle a variety of rose-related products, from soap to rose-infused honey and jam.

Book tickets and tours for popular Paris attractions & day trips here (via Tiqets.com)

Provins, France

Provins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site town, is only about an hour outside of Paris. Image: Le Relais de Libreval

Jazz Festivals: Spring also marks the beginning of jazz festival season, which carries on through much of the summer. Two festivals of note for true aficionados: the Banlieue Bleues Festival , which assembles dozens of artists and groups, from the acclaimed to the up-and-coming, in Paris’ northern suburbs for what are routinely hailed as some of the best jazz performances of the season. That festival usually begins sometime in March and extends into early summer. Meanwhile, in central Paris, the St-Germain-des-Prés Jazz Festival generally has some pretty solid acts lined up, and usually kicks off in May.

Summer

The thing that strikes most visitors about summer in the French capital? It’s how…un-Parisian it feels. This isn’t an unfounded observation: those locals lucky enough to afford it flee the urban grind en masse for summer vacations elsewhere, leaving massive space for the tourist industry to take over, and the tourists themselves, of course. The upside is that those locals who do remain tend to work in the tourism industry, and they often go out of their way to make your experience a good one. The downside? If you want to have a sense of what local life is like, summer doesn’t provide a particularly realistic picture of that.

Riverside picnics and long nights: some of the charms of summer in the French capital. Image: Nicolas Vigier/Some rights reserved under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

From a budgetary standpoint, summer offers a decidedly mixed bag, not unlike delicious bags of candy with the random bitter liquorice drops that only your grandparents enjoy. Airfares and hotel prices peak, which obviously puts a strain on affordability. On the other hand, there are simply tons of free and/or cheap things to do in the summer, from music festivals such as jazz at the Parc Floral and open-air cinema in the park (read below for details). Not to mention that you can spend more time outside, eating street food while you walk or indulging in picnics on the Seine (beer and wine are de-facto permitted, as long as you refrain from obnoxious displays of public drunkenness).

A Few Things I Enjoy & Recommend  in the Summer:

Take advantage of the long days in summer, and wander around the city aimlessly, using the extended daylight to get to know the city better and discover corners you can call your own. In addition to picnics, I recommend indulging in some good street food (falafel is my obvious but inarguable favorite) and gelato.

Day trips remain an excellent choice. You might even get away with a day-long excursion to the dramatic medieval abbey at Mont St-Michel  or one or two of the Loire Valley castles, but I generally recommend at least an overnight stay.

Book tickets and tours for popular Paris attractions here (via Tiqets.com)

Open-air cinema is a local staple, and one of my favorite things to do in the summer. The Parc de la Villette way, way up at the city’s northeastern tip, screens dozens of free movies in the open air every year; the program balances fun blockbusters with arthouse classics. Bring a blanket, some grapes and cheese, and a bit of wine, et profitez bien (and enjoy).

 Autumn

I’m a sucker for the autumn. Even though Halloween is only tepidly celebrated in France (something I lament year in and out), this is the season that always feels like the *real* new year in Paris. People pour back into town following the summer lag, bakeries re-open (thank god), galleries curate the first exhibits of the new season, and a fresh jolt of energy and creative drive seems to hang on the air. October is especially nice; November can sometimes prove a bit grim. Still, once low season kicks in, prices can be very affordable, making autumn a very attractive option for lower budgets.

An autumnal sunset sweeps over the city. Image: Dirk Haun/Some rights reserved under the Creative Commons license.

A Few Things I Enjoy & Recommend  in the Autumn:

In case you haven’t yet gathered, walking around Paris is my version of the good life (even though I hardly invented that idea ). Autumnal strolls never fail to get at my melancholy bone and tickle it in all the right ways. Some of my favorite places: the Jardin du Luxembourg and its long lanes of deciduous trees; the Village St. Blaise, a district in the northeast that’s woefully neglected and still resembles a separate little town; and the Bois de Vincennes, the vast park to the east of Paris.

Related: 5 Places in Paris That Aren’t Associated With African-American History (But Should Be)

Wine season: Here’s one reason to enjoy autumn in Paris: wine season. Bars around town serve Beaujolais nouveau, a young, hit-and-miss wine, from oak barrels; part of the fun is finding out of this year’s vintage passes muster or not. Meanwhile, the Vendanges de Montmartre  is an annual bacchanalia held in and around Paris’ only remaining vineyard, on the ruins of what was once a medieval abbey where the monks cultivated vines.

A rather odd procession, complete with creepy dolls, in the Clos Montmartre (Paris’ only remaining vineyard) during the Vendanges de Montmartre. Image: Wine Talk.cn

Finally, shows and exhibits are at full hilt during the fall. Get a sense of what’s on around town here and here, and book skip-the-line tickets for in-demand museums and shows (via Tiqets.com).

Booking Your Trip: Ready to Make a Move?

T.S. Eliot famously captured the dangers (or simple discomfort) of indecision in his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “In a minute there is time. For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse”.  It’s best to avoid this sort of dithering and just make a choice, any choice. However, there are a few things I heartily recommend you do before you click “book”.

First, do a respectable amount of research. In addition to reading this article from yours truly, surf around and find sites with reviews from travelers you suspect might share some of your priorities, tastes and/or interests, and see what they have to say about their Parisian sojourn in a season or month you’re considering. What did they see as the downsides and the memorable points? What events do they recommend? TripAdvisor can be a good bet: this forum discussion thread might be a start. Also make sure to mine the collective hive mind on Facebook or Twitter and ask any friends and family who’ve been to give you their take, offering specifics about what they enjoyed, or hated, about Paris in a particular season. Let their advice guide you, but not dictate your final decision (some of my most enjoyable trips have come from following a whim or doing something simply because it pulled me). Finally, the vibe is by nature purely promotional and unlikely to offer any downsides, but this page from the Paris Tourist Office offers a good overview of major events in every season, and some helpful suggestions for what to see and do. I also like The Culture Trip these days.

Next, spend some time getting a sense of price fluctuations year-round on flights and hotels. I recommend Skyscanner: you can do complex searches with multiple dates and flight routes, and sign up for handy price alerts. And remember, as I detail above, there’s really no perfect time of year to visit. If all you can afford is November or February because it’s low season, I wouldn’t rule out your trip just because you can’t manage to go at the so-called “ideal” time. It’s Paris. The things you remember the most from your trip are likely to be the things that surprise you around corners and make you catch your breath out of awe, but completely unexpectedly. Over-planning and too-detailed expectations are the killer of joy, when it comes to travel. At least in my book.

Get a good guidebook or app– but don’t take it too literally or follow it to the letter. The better apps and guidebooks out there are navigational and prospective: they help you orient yourself and give you a sense of just how wide your choices are, but don’t over-prescribe or get too caught up in “must-do” listicles. You’re nearly guaranteed to have a boring trip if you cleave too literally to canned top-10 lists. Even when I write them, they’re meant to inspire, not to prescribe in stone.

Finally, if you’re able to travel by train and don’t mind taking a bit more time to get there, you can book tickets and a whole gaggle of discount rail passes here (via Rail Europe). In any season, taking in the changing landscapes– not to mention the romantic appeal of being dropped off directly in Paris’ dingy old Gare du Nord rather than the (far more hellish) airport– is a good option, at least in my book. What? You say Gare du Nord is awful? Hey, Monet saw plenty of beauty in it! Case in point as I sign off, leaving you with a little-known work from the impressionist master that strikes at the odd beauty of industrialization:

Claude Monet, "Le Gare du Nord". Public domain.

Claude Monet, “Le Gare du Nord”. Public domain.

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Courtney Traub
Founder at Paris Unlocked
Courtney Traub is a longtime Paris resident who now divides her time (as well as she can manage) between the French capital and somewhere around London. She's the editor of the About Paris Travel website, and co-author of the 2012 Michelin Green Guide to Northern France & the Paris Region. She has written and reported for media outlets including Radio France Internationale, Reed Business Information, WWD, and The Associated Press, and is a scholar of literature and cultural history whose essays and reviews have appeared in various forums. She has a rather obsessive curiosity and passion for environmental history and ethics, the way we navigate and build stories around cities, and food. Probably the latter most of all, in truth.

3 Comments

  1. This is brilliant, and some of my best visits to Paris have been off-season — January was a particularly enjoyable time to get to know the ‘real’ Paris, as the relatively low numbers of tourists meant more opportunity to try out my rusty French in shops (I could have sworn that the reception I got was more welcoming having made the effort to come off season, but that could be the Paris MagicTM talking.) Love these recommendations though — I’m now tempted to try out every season! Decisions, decisions…

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