For anyone who hasn’t yet visited Paris in the spring months, it’s a season that gets attached to all manner of cliches and dreamed-up scenarios. Many imagine a technicolor city whose oversaturated colors and surreal ambience are straight out of “An American in Paris”, in which Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly notably dance alongside the Seine at night. Naturally (or unnaturally, as it were), these scenes were all filmed on a set.
But here’s the thing about the imagined “Paris au printemps” that gets lodged in most of our brains, even unwittingly: while it’s a nice idea, it’s not reality. It’s what academic nerds like me call “hyperreality”: to simplify, a sort of virtual screen that obscures what’s real, and that effectively seals us off from engaging with anything in a meaningful way.
That’s why I encourage you to let go of the Hollywood fantasies you may be carrying around (as nice as they may be), and get ready to encounter this iconic & much-fussed over season in the French capital with your reality spectacles firmly on. Because, guess what? The living, breathing city is actually far better than the movie-set version you may have been picturing.
Read on for some (hopefully inspiring) tips on what to do in the spring months, including pastimes treasured by Parisians themselves. Believe me- they see the city for what it is (or don’t appreciate the beauty of it all enough, much of the time). And I assure you, especially if your sojourn is later in the season, you’ll still get plenty of this sort of thing:
The Pros & The Cons
Before I delve into some concrete suggestions for what to do, I’ll attend to the pros and cons of visiting at this time of year– and believe me, every season has them.
On the upside, from late April onward the entire city seems to burst, as if out of nowhere, into a merry, joyfully chaotic palette of color and activity. After the hibernating period of winter in the French capital, locals have no use for their little apartments: they flock to cafe terraces and parks to reconnect with friends. The mood is everywhere lifted, aside from among the stubbornly grouchy. There’s no lack of events around the city, from new exhibits to festivals and foires (huge trade shows centered around food, design, wine, art, books and more). In short, the city re-emergees from its cocoon, and the buzz is delightfully contagious. Getting out into the fresh open air for walks and excursions is back in order, too– read on for specific ideas in that arena.
On the downside, high season gets back into full swing sometime in April, and that means the crowds are back. You may have to fight for breathing room, whether in the metro or in lines for shows and exhibits. Shops and cafe terraces in popular areas such as the Quartier Latin and the Marais tend to become insufferably full, especially on warmer days. Prices are also higher for hotel stays and certain attractions, and it may be harder to book your preferred lodgings. In short, expect to have the two-year old within who just wants to scream “mine! I want it ALL!” to be challenged: you’re just going to have to learn to share. And prepare to spend a bit more than you would during low season.
What’s the Weather Like in Spring?
Depending on when you visit, Spring can be anywhere from quite chilly to balmy. In late March and early April, for example, temperatures can remain on the low side, with minimums of about 7 degrees C/44 degrees F. The local wisdom warns of it, too: “En avril, ne te decouvre pas d’un fil” (A cute rhyme which translates to “In April, don’t remove a thread”. ) Packing scarves and spring coats as well as warm socks is still a good idea until at least late May. Then, temperatures start getting much warmer. By June, lows are 14 degrees C and highs are 23 (around 57 and 73 degrees F, respectively).
What to Do?
As promised earlier, there’s certainly no dearth of things to keep you busy and out on the town, especially from early April onward. Here are just a few jaunts I recommend:
Hit the streets, squares, gardens and parks.
There’s no excuse to stay huddled inside museums and cafes anymore, even if a slight chill still lingers on the air at the opening of the season: it’s time to get out and explore. First, spend a few hours ambling and even enjoying a lazy picnic in one of the city’s lovely parks and gardens. In May, make sure to see the dizzying variety of botanical plants and flowers in full bloom at the Jardin des Plantes, a centuries-old scientific garden that’s as gorgeous as it is educational. If you have children traveling with you, they’ll be thrilled to stop at the onsite Menagerie (zoo), and to see awe-aspiring prehistoric animal skeletons and other old-world curiosities at the charming Museum of Natural History.
Parks that are especially lovely for long strolls and picnics include the Jardin des Tuileries and the Jardin du Luxembourg, both legacies of Franco-Italian Queen Marie da’Medici, and both infused with her taste for harmonious landscaping and elegant statuary. In late spring especially, a long walk, picnic and boat ride on the ponds of the enormous Bois de Boulogne at Paris’ western edge is also in order. There’s good reason why this “forest”– along with the equally lovely Bois de Vincennes to the far eastern border of the city– have long been referred to as “the lungs of Paris”.
I preach tirelessly about the benefits of just walking around aimlessly as a way of discovering the city, thereby making its landscapes and stories a part of your own personal narrative– and I mean it. Get whatever maps you need loaded on your phone (or eschew them altogether) and head out to explore areas both well-known (Montmartre, The Latin Quarter, the Marais) and little-known (the Butte aux Cailles neighborhood with its art-deco houses and swimming pool, or Rue Montorgueil with its odd, endearing mix of village and busy urban ambiance). To get a balanced sense of both “classic” Paris and some of the city’s lesser-known areas on a first trip and figure out how to potentially balance your time, see my guide to Paris in 72 hours (over at TripSavvy). You may also want to take a look at my piece on the best off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods in the city.
Take a day trip.
During the winter months, day trips don’t hold much appeal– but once spring rolls around, getting out of the city becomes a welcome prospect, especially in order to take in some much-needed fresh air and catch a glimpse of what the greater Parisian region has to offer.
There’s the Chateau de Versailles, which kicks off its enchanting Musical Fountains Show and Musical Gardens program in late March. Less crowded in March or early April than later in the season and during the summer, take advantage of the season to see the lavish and extensive gardens in full, teeming bloom.
Meanwhile, the little-known but equally sumptuous Chateau de Fontainebleau (pictured) and its adjoining forest complete with extensive hiking trails offer a more unusual trek outside the city, as does a trip to the lovely medieval town of Provins.
In short, there’s so much to see and do around the region known as “Ile de France”. Even better, many of these destinations are only a short, inexpensive train ride away: read my longer article on easy and affordable day trips from Paris for more details and tips on getting around the region by rail.
Hit the cafe terraces.
Assuming you can find a spot– arriving early in the evening is best if you want a better chance– on one of the city’s lovely terrace cafes, you’ll feel fully in bloom, alongside newly “de-wintered” locals who can’t get enough gossip, beers spiked with lemon syrup and conversation now that warmer temperatures have returned. As with everything, I tend to recommend just stumbling on one during your explorations, but if you’re after a list of some of the best cafe terraces, this list is good, as is this one on the city’s excellent new crop of rooftop bars.
Take advantage of springtime festivals and fairs.
Finally, take advantage of the many interesting festivals and fairs that are seasonal staples in the city– from this enormous international art show to a recently launched artisanal beer festival in early May and the Foire du Trone, a yearly carnival complete with rides that the kids will love. Of course, in late May, the annual Roland-Garros tennis tournament takes Paris by storm, with tickets increasingly hard to snag, not to mention expensive. Luckily, Paris city hall often broadcasts tournaments on the square outside.
Ready to book your trip?
If so, and especially if you’re traveling from North America or further afield, it’s crucial to plan several months ahead and compare prices on packages. You can look for deals on flights and hotels over at Skycanner. If you’re traveling from within Europe, taking the train is almost invariably more relaxing and interesting: book rail and Eurostar tickets here (via RailEurope).