Representing the glorious apex of springtime in the French capital, Paris in May is a wildly popular time to visit. Millions of people throng on the city during this month alone, hoping to take advantage of its “Goldilocks” weather conditions and full calendar of events (scroll down for some I especially recommend).
Trees and flowers are in full, lush bloom. Parks are full of cheerful locals and tourists enjoying elaborate picnics, sipping rosé wine and playing games of “petanque” or boules (a quaint pastime that involves striking steel balls against eachother on plots of sand) . Museum exhibition programs, open artists’ studios and various festivals are at full hilt. It’s generally a pleasant and exciting time to be in town.
Yet for some, May has its drawbacks. It falls in the middle of high season, meaning that you’ll have to contend with higher prices on hotel rooms, transportation and more. And for anyone who’s crowd-shy, a visit in quieter months such as October or even March would be preferable. Whatever delights are offered by this winsome month, you’ll have to share them with hordes of other people. For some, this may negate much of the charm altogether.
Still, I encourage most of you to give May in Paris a try. It marks a nice transition point before the summer, when most Parisians get out of town and the entire city feels as if it’s been taken over by the tourist industry.
Whether you decide to go this year or next, here are my most useful tips for taking full advantage of all May has to offer.
The Matter of the Mercury: Weather in May & Packing Tips
In May, daytime temperatures in Paris are generally in the aforementioned “Goldilocks” zone: not too hot, and not too cold. Mornings remain on the cool side, while in the afternoon, especially in sunny weather, you can expect the mercury to climb close to a pleasant 70 degrees F. In recent years, averages have often been even warmer.
On the downside, this is a rainy month: it’s not uncommon to see showers for about half of the days in May. Sometimes, these downpours can be sudden and very strong, disrupting outdoor idylls. Despite the popular maxim that suggests otherwise, May is generally even rainier than April is in the capital. As a consequence, make sure you’re prepared by bringing along proper rain gear (see more in my notes on packing below).
Minimum Temperature: 11 degrees C/51.8 degrees F
Maximum Temperature: 19 degrees C/66 degrees F (in recent years, even warmer max temps have been noted)
Average temp: 15 degrees C/59 degrees F
Average monthly precipitation: 62 mm/2.4 inches
How to pack that suitcase? Since the mornings can still be quite cool, I’d recommend that you line yours with a few long-sleeved shirts, trousers, a sweater and even a good spring jacket. Waterproof shoes and a jacket are also de rigeur: remember what I said about all that rain.
Finally, be sure to bring along shorts, skirts, t-shirts and other lighter clothes to wear on warmer days, which in recent years have sometime been positively balmy. And don’t forgot the sunscreen: by May, the sun is starting to be stronger and more potentially damaging if you fail to slather on the stuff. Parasols have even come back into fashion a bit, in recent years…
Best Things to See and Do in May?
Here are just a few of my suggestions- think of it more as a smattering of inspiration rather than a set-in-stone program– for enjoying your trip to the fullest this month.
1. Have a decadent picnic– by the river, canals or in a park.
While some would argue that temperatures in the high 60s or early 70’s aren’t warm enough to warrant a celebratory picnic, I disagree. Even if you have to don long sleeves and keep your scarf on hand, little is more idyllic than laying out a carefully prepared, elaborate picnic to celebrate the peak of spring.
Paris, of course, is famous for its lush and elegant parks, Seine riverside quays, and other spots ideal for dining al fresco. And while it’s “technically” not allowed to drink after 4pm in public places, as long as you’re eating and not overdoing it (read: refrain from rowdy, obnoxious displays of public drunkenness), it’s absolutely fine to enjoy a glass or two of crisp white wine or champagne to make the affair a festive one.
I’ve never heard of an instance of anyone– whether locals or tourists– receiving fines as long as they remained discreet and didn’t go overboard. Of course, if you’d prefer to follow the rules to the letter, reserve the alcohol for lunchtime picnics. Whenever you stage yours, of course, make sure to entirely clean up any litter.
Beeline to some of the city’s better bakeries, markets and cheese shops to stock up on delicious, crusty bread, perfectly sweet, ripe summer berries (like the ones seen above, photographed at the Aligre market) pastries and other delicacies. Find a cheap blanket, if you can. Then, sprawl out wherever you can find a spot– and let the hours drift by.
If you’re hankering for a picnic outside the city limits, my piece on the best day trips from Paris offers even more inspiration. Sites including the gardens at Versailles and the Fontainebleau forest make idyllic backdrops for a late spring picnic.
2. Take a self-guided architecture tour
Since the weather’s now clement enough to spend several hours roaming outdoors, this is also a great time to embark on a self-guided walking tour that shows you some of the city’s architectural highlights and history.
Consider starting in the Marais (Metro: St Paul or Hotel de Ville), where sumptuous medieval residences such as the one shown above, the remnant of the fortified wall that once surrounded Paris and the Louvre, and stately hotels particuliers from the Renaissance stand alongside quirky newer buildings (the Centre Georges Pompidou being a chief example). See my self-guided Marais walking tour (at TripSavvy) for full details.
Next, head over to the Opera Garnier and Grands Boulevards area (Metro: Opera or Bourse), where you can witness the full grandeur of the Baron Haussmann’s dramatic transformation of Paris in the 19th century, and visit gorgeous passages (covered passageways) boasting their own lavish design elements. This guide to the Opera/Grands Boulevards area is especially useful.
Finally, consider heading over to the leafy, posh 16th arrondissement to ogle at a few art-deco mansions and elaborate buildings– including this one, known as the Castel Beranger, located at 14 rue Jean de la fontaine (Metro: Ranelagh or Jasmin). Designed for an architecture competition by the well-known Belle Epoque architect Hector Guimard, the apartment building was built in around 1895.
For more complete self-guided walking tours that cover in-depth history and architectural details, see the very useful History Walks Paris.
3. Meet Parisian artists, admire their work and see their studios
Between May 25th-28th, 2018, more than 200 artists based in the creative hotbed of Belleville will be opening their studios to the general public, showing their work and offering a unique glimpse inside countless Parisian buildings and workspaces.
Known as the “Portes Ouvertes d’Ateliers d’Artistes de Belleville” (Open Doors at Belleville Artists’ Studios), the annual event is now the largest of its kind in France. Since launching in 1990, it’s become an increasingly coveted May tradition, giving anyone interested in contemporary art a chance to see where the center of creative drive lies in present-day Paris. It’s also a great way to practice your French (if you wish to) an gawk at some surprisingly beautiful inner courtyards and other architectural elements, see some of city’s most interesting street art on streets such as Rue Denoyez, and even enjoy a drink or dinner among the arty local crowd. Studios and dedicated exhibition spaces/galleries are open daily between 2pm and 8pm in 2018.
Interested? See this page at the official website for a list of open studios and times to visit this year.
4. Art & culture: Exhibits & shows to beeline to in May 2018
As I mention above, the spring exhibition season is at full tilt at this time of year. Here are just a couple of shows I genuinely recommend.
Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: Russian Avant-Garde Painting of the Early 20th Century
This much-anticipated exhibit at Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou casts a fascinating spotlight on the life, work, and work of three key artists from the Russian avant-garde movement of the 20th century. Marc Chagall (who would eventually become a French citizen), El Lissitzky and Kasimir Malevich shared mutual influences and inspirations. For many art critics, their work lies at the heart of the “Vitebsk school” that thrived as an artistic movement between the two World Wars of the 20th century.
The show, which has been regularly selling out, features some 250 works of art from these emblematic artists, as well as from others working during the period. The exhibit moves visitors through several different themes and shows what makes the Vitebsk school so distinctive. The show runs through July 16th; reserving tickets in advance is strongly recommended.
Corot: The Painter And His Models
I’ve also been highly recommending Corot, The Painter and His Models, an exhibit at the Musee Marmottan-Monet on through July 8th. While Corot has in the past mostly been noted as a master of landscape painting, this show iluminates his lesser-known talent as a portraitist. The show boasts some 60 portraits, drawn from major world museums. Come admire the artist’s singular work– frequently noted for its blend of neoclassical and impressionist elements.
Other Shows & Events
You may also wish to check out the retrospective feting the legacy of fashion designer Martin Margiela at the Palais Galleria (until July 15th). Meanwhile, through July 30th at the Grand Palais, a show dedicated to the life and work of abstract painter Frantisek Kupka also looks wholly worthwhile.
For a fuller program of exhibits, shows, and special events around town in May, see this page.
Book Your Trip:
Ready to hit the book button? You may want to slow down just a tad. If you’re flying, look for deals on flights well ahead (via Skyscanner). Prefer to take the train? You can book tickets and find discounts on passes at Rail Europe.
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