This video showing snow gently dusting bikes, buildings, trees, cars and dogs in Montmartre has no dialogue. Yet it wordlessly captures many of the reasons why winter in the French capital offers a particular and poetic beauty: one that too many travelers never see, preferring the city in its more predictable, postcard-friendly spring or summer months.
Winter at the Jardin des Tuileries/Image credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbera. Some rights reserved under the Creative Commons license.
But as I point out at length here, there’s no “perfect time of year” to visit. So if you’re disinclined to follow the crowd, a trip to Paris in December can be idyllic– and perhaps more importantly, relaxing and enjoyable, even if you have kids in tow. It’s not all about Christmas markets, holiday window scenes and noisy New Year’s celebrations, either (although these are certainly not activities you should overlook, as I detail further on): beyond these rather frenetic festivities lies the possibility of peace and contemplation. Of escaping the crowds to enjoy the whistling of wind through bare-leaved trees at Parc Monceau and the Tuileries (pictured above), or spending a couple of hours taking in paintings, sculpture or photography at a gallery– minus the summertime crowds, hopefully. The French have an expression for the sort of quiet luxury and indulgence I associate with the city in its wintery guise: “luxe, calme, et volupté.” Translating roughly to “luxury, calm and delight”, the phrase shows up both in Charles Baudelaire’s poem “L’nvitation au Voyage” and as the title of a 1904 painting by Henri Matisse.
Read related: 6 Of my Favorite Winter Haunts in Paris
If you’re looking for a little of that ineffable but decidedly French trifecta, read on for a little inspiration, followed by a few more direct suggestions on what’s worth seeing and doing at year-end. Do keep in mind, however, that these are subjective notes and not meant as comprehensive advice on everything going on at this time of year. See the Paris Tourist Office page for that sort of general overview.
The Matter of the Mercury: December Weather & Packing Tips
In December, it’s generally pretty brisk and cold, although in recent years there have been unusual warm spells or many more days than usual where temperatures reach seasonal maximums. I generally advise travelers to pack plenty of warm sweaters, a waterproof coat, hat and shoes, gloves, scarves and warm socks. In case of an especially warm day, layering is always a good idea.
Minimum Temperature: 3 degrees C/37.4 degrees F
Maximum Temperature: 8 degrees C/46.4 degrees F
Average temp: 5 degrees C/41 degrees F
Average monthly precipitation: 1.9 inches
Also take note that snow sticking to the ground longer than a few minutes is rather rare in Paris: when precipitation does come, you’re more likely to be regaled with icy rain or sleet. The idyllic images of a snow-blanketed Paris end up being a pretty rare experience, unfortunately, so don’t expect a white December during your stay. Luckily, there are plenty of other ways to get your fix when you’re after traditional seasonal cheer, as I detail a bit further below.
Things I Especially Love & Recommend Doing:
As I alluded to earlier, one of the things about year-end in Paris that I find so appealing is the sense of peaceful contemplation and deep quiet that seems to hover over the city. Part of the reason for this is that, especially outside of touristy areas, the streets can be remarkably empty. Parisians are known to be wimps about the slightest icy wind, which means they tend to huddle inside at home or in the city’s innumerable cafes, cinemas and galleries.
In fact, a common French superstition is that any cold “courant d’air” (draft) may lead you to catch your death, or at the very least a terrible bout of rhinopharangite (the common cold– doesn’t it sound eons more dramatic in French?) or angine (a vague throat infection or even a simple sore throat). If you thought Parisians mummified their neck area in thick scarves to look chic (which they often do, inexplicably), their enthusiasm for wrapping up is more likely driven by rampant cultural hypochondria; by the local conviction that protecting one’s neck area from the cold will stave off most illnesses. It’s a belief I have a hard time shaking off myself: cold air touching a bare spot on my neck now instinctively prompts me to “protect it” from the mysterious and malign forces of chilled wind.
But I digress. My long prelude was meant to underline two things: one, there’s something quietly enchanting about exploring the city when an aura of rest and dormancy has fallen over it; and two, there are plenty of cozy ways to enjoy being indoors (but don’t expect much solitude there). Here are few of my favorite ways to do both:
1. Warm up over gourmet tea or hot chocolate.
If you’ve made the rounds of Parisian cafes and are looking for something a bit different, an old-world tearoom can be a wonderful way to duck in somewhere to warm up, read or just relax. I especially recommend the Mariages Frères tearoom in the Marais district : choose from dozens of variety of gourmet French teas, from black to white and green; their afternoon savoury and sweet tea menus, pastries and cakes are also delicious (30 rue du Bourg-Tibourg, 4th arrondissement; metro: St-Paul.) The Viennese-style tearoom Angelina is a reigning favorite for rich, thick hot chocolate, meanwhile (226 rue de Rivoli, 1st arrondissement; Metro: Louvre-Rivoli). My reigning favorite for hot chocolate in the capital, Jean-Paul Hévin, is sadly not currently available: the master chocolatier closed his upstairs tearoom when real estate prices became unaffordable on swank Rue St-Honoré. But according to a staff member I spoke to recently at the new shop at the same location, there are plans in the works for a new tearoom to open sometime in the future– meaning Hévin’s divine chocolat chaud, infused with ginger, raspberries, chili and other inventive flavors, may soon be calling my name again. Here’s to hoping…
Looking for more picturesque warm-up spots? Over at TripSavvy, I regularly update a full guide to the best places in the city for afternoon tea, as well as a longer list of places for good hot chocolate, here.
2. Go soak up some art.
I’m not promising that museums and galleries will be empty, but they’re still likely to be less crowded at this time of year than during peak season. Take a few hours to contemplate artistic masterpieces at one of the city’s superb permanent collections. My favorites include the astounding, and constantly refreshed, permanent collection at the Centre Georges Pompidou’s Museum of Modern Art: with masterpieces from the likes of Matisse, Derain, Kandinsky, Warhol, Man Ray, Niki de Sainte Phalle and countless others, getting bored here is out of the question. I also recommend the entirely free collection at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the sumptuous medieval tapestries at the Musee Cluny, and the Orangerie, where Monet’s magnifient Nympheas series (water lilies) plunges you into the artist’s astounding mastery of color and light, never failing to offer a moment of peace and contemplation. The Monet room at the Oragerie is also free for all.
For ideas on small and independent galleries to duck into from the cold, see this page over at Culture Trip.
3. Take a wintery walk.
As long as it doesn’t get too cold, I’m a big fan of wintery strolls. I enjoy bundling up and feeling the slight, invigorating sting of wintery wind on my face (but never the neck! Beware the dreaded courant d’air!) and strolling through lanes of bare trees, or watching the ducks and geese as they float around aimlessly on the steely grey ponds. I especially recommend the massive parks known as “Paris’ lungs” just east and west of the city limits (The Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes): both easily accessible by metro, these enormous green spaces offer miles of walking trails, large ponds for admiring the waterfowl, and dozens of varieties of trees. I also love the Romantic-style Parc du Buttes-Chaumont (pictured above), with its artificial grottoes, panoramic viewpoints and impressive variety of beautiful trees, as well as abundant birds. Recently I and a friend witnessed a colony of green parrots inhabiting some of the trees there: a strange sighting, to say the least!
For more on the city’s loveliest parks and gardens, see this page.
Annual Events Worth Seeing, & Noteworthy Exhibits in 2017
For many, the biggest draw cards of a December getaway to Paris are the holiday festivities, markets and decorations– and I certainly can’t deny their appeal!
Christmas markets in Paris generally open in late November and run through Christmas Day or, rarely, through early January. While some may find them a touch kitschy– and can’t that be fun, anyway?– the warm Alsatian-style lodges in wood are something I look forward to every year. Walking through the stalls, you may or may not be tempted to stock up on decorations, toys and other items of admittedly varying quality, but a good glug of spiced mulled wine down the gullet and a crepe warming your hand isn’t likely to make your mood any worse. Among my favorites include the annual market at St-Germain-des-Prés (generally a bit quieter than some of the others) and the Alsace-themed market at Gare de L’est (the Franco-German region where the traditional marché de noel has its origins.
To figure out where to head this year, see my full guide to Christmas markets open in 2017 over at TripSavvy.
Meanwhile, holiday lights and shop window displays attract tourists in significant numbers every year; see this page for a list of where to enjoy the festivities this year. Streets I find especially beautiful when illuminated for the season include Place Vendome, Rue St Honoré, and Rue Montorgueil. Naturally, many will want to flock to the grands magasins (traditional department stores) to see their always festive and colorful holiday windows and lights. Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, both at Metro Havre Caumartin, are seasonal favorites, and perfect for a family excursion. Ice skating rinks are also a fun way to spend the day, particularly with kids; see a list of rinks open this year here.
New Year’s Eve in the French capital can be a rowdy and remarkably overcrowded affair, especially in areas around the Champs-Elysées and the Sacre Coeur. My favorite, and far more relaxed, way to spend the occasion in Paris is to pick up a bottle of champagne or the less expensive but equally excellent Crémant de Loire or Crémant de Bourgogne and find a suitable place to celebrate: even a quick toast by the banks of the Seine can be very pleasant, albeit chilly! Alternatively, enjoy casual drinks at a bar or wine bar: many do stay open on the 31st, as owners know the night is a popular one for eating and drinking out.
Exhibits Worth Seeing This Month?
There are several shows I recommend this month. One is “Being Modern: MOMA in Paris” exhibit at the Fondation Louis Vuitton (through March 5th, 2018): featuring 200 works spread across three floors at the new centre created by architect Frank Gehry, the show offers a remarkable overview of modern art movements throughout the 20th century. Masterpieces and lesser-known paintings, sketches and sculptures from the likes of
Magritte, Hopper, Cezanne, and Matisse are highlights. Make sure to reserve tickets well in advance for this one!
Another show that’s piquing much interest right now is Gaugin, the Alchemist at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. Anyone who’s a fan of the man who reportedly cut Vincent Van Gogh’s ear off should beeline to see the retrospective, one of the most important to date on the French expressionist painter, and that shows his incredibly mercurial talent. From sculptures to drawings, paintings and ceramics, the artist’s intense process is made visible by the show. Through January 22nd, 2018.
For a more complete list of shows on this December, this page has a good one.