Many of my French friends loathe Paris in January. According to their dramatic telling, it becomes a miserable, soul-devouring and depressing place that might easily have been featured as one of Dante’s seven circles of hell. Not to mention that it allegedly reinforces stereotypes of the city as a capital of grey gloominess and existential angst.
I’ve never shared those sentiments, needless to say. Perhaps my years of wishing for a “real” winter as a child in Southern California (coupled with my preference for cold over extreme heat) have made me tolerant of conditions deemed ghastly by others. Stinging wind on my face can be enjoyable, especially when wrapped to the nose in scarves and heading for a warm cafe to meet a friend. There’s something cozy and even poetic about it.
Read related: 6 Of my Favorite Winter Haunts in Paris
Maybe where my friends see monotone blight and a depressing lack of action, I see stillness and peace. The holidays have passed and there’s again space for contemplation, quiet and food that won’t tax your liver. Tourists are thin on the ground, and I can visit an exhibit without getting subtly (or not so subtly) pushed along when I’m trying to fully appreciate the brush strokes on a particular painting. Tables are available at my favorite cafes. Human traffic isn’t clogging the sidewalks, and riding the metro doesn’t set off waves of claustrophobic panic or a desire to claw at fellow passengers.
In short, it’s ideal if, like me, you dislike crowded conditions and enjoy a quieter, more low-key pace when traveling.
Enjoying the sounds of silence don’t mean you’ll be condemned to boredom, of course. Keep reading for my suggestions on how to enjoy January in the capital to the fullest, including a few shows and exhibits that I especially recommend. For further ideas, you can consult the Paris Tourist Office page and their handy event calendars.
The Matter of the Mercury: January Weather & Packing Tips
January generally brings solid cold spells, with temperatures commonly near or sometimes even below zero. Make sure to line your bags with at least a couple of warm sweaters and winter coat, perhaps a waterproof jacket to go underneath in case of inclement weather. Also pack warm, fuzzy socks, good gloves, scarf and a hat. Wind chill can be especially bracing at this time of year, and since the days are still running short, catching a chill is very likely if you don’t bundle up. But don’t exclusively bring winter wear along: warmer days can suddenly send you wanting to peel off the sweater and coat, so layering is generally advisable.
Minimum Temperature: 2 degrees C/35.6 degrees F
Maximum Temperature: 8 degrees C/46.4 degrees F
Average temp: 5 degrees C/41 degrees F
Average monthly precipitation: 2 inches
While it occasionally snows in January, it’s very unlikely to stick to the ground: but it might create minor hazards as it melts and forms into an icy sludge on the sidewalks and streets. This is one reason (aside from comfort and warmth) that I discourage you from wearing heels while walking around the city at this time of the year. Who wants a sprained ankle to put a spanner in an otherwise wonderful trip? Unless it’s bright and clear out and the streets are free of ice or slick rain, pack your heels in a bag if you’ve planned to wear them for a special occasion later in the day.
What to Do in January?
It’s certainly not the busiest time of the year, and you admittedly may have to get a bit creative if you don’t wish to stay stuck indoors. But there’s still plenty to see and do– and, as mentioned, you’ll have the benefit of more relaxed conditions and relatively thin crowds on your side.
1. Indulge in some cafe-hopping.
The art of the cafe-hop is one that is built into the DNA of Parisian culture. You can build a blustery day around stops at two or three cafes or brasseries, exploring various neighbourhoods on your way to the next warm refuge and “damn fine cup of coffee“. January is also the perfect time to curl up somewhere warm with that tome you’ve been planning on getting through but haven’t had time to. (Side note: If you make it through James Joyce’s Ulysses, let me know: I never got past Book One…)
Wondering where to start? Over at TripSavvy, I have a feature on Parisian cafes, bookshops and gardens that also happen to be literary haunts, frequented by writers from Richard Wright to Ernest Hemingway and Simone de Beauvoir. There’s also a more general, handy list of iconic cafe-brasseries in the capital and another on the coolest new places in the city for gourmet coffee (from Kaitlin d’Avella). These are all good places to start. I also recommend perusing this list for particularly cozy, relaxed cafes in the capital, new and old. This one from food writer Clotilde Dusoulier is also helpful.
2. Spend an afternoon at the cinema.
As I’ve said many times before and will probably repeat going forward, there’s no city better suited to cinephilic fever than Paris. It screens over 300 films per week and has more “salles” (theatres) per capita than a film lover could possibly dream of. January generally has a good share of mucky, icky, sloshy and otherwise unpleasant days: ones that make spending most of your time indoors seem like the most attractive prospect. A single or even double screening will whisk you off the streets and do just the trick, but I’d avoid escapist blockbusters: instead, take refuge in an old arthouse theatre that will still give you a local, cozy experience worth writing home about.
3. Explore the sublime old “arcades” of Paris (covered passageways).
Another of my preferred ways to get out of the cold (but not necessarily forgo sunlight on mercifully clear days) is to wander through the elaborate, elegant network of covered passageways that grace certain districts in Paris. The most well-known of these include the Galerie Vivienne (pictured), Galerie Colbert, Passage des Panoramas and the Passage Jouffroy. Built mostly during the 18th and 19th centuries and also referred to as galeries or arcades, they were made famous by philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s astute, contemplative study in The Arcades Project .
Harboring boutiques, restaurants and tearooms, bookshops, old-world toy stores, poster shops, etc., many of the passageways have been restored to their original glory. It’s not difficult to admire the elaborate mosaic floors, glass rooftops, faux marble pillars decorated with paintings, and airy beauty that seems firmly anchored in a previous era. Whether you stroll, shop, or stop for lunch or coffee, wandering through the loosely interconnected galeries on the right bank offer both a good way to understand how certain districts connect, and take refuge from the cold and rain.
For more on shopping in the capital, see this guide at TimeOut . You can also check out this guide to navigating the annual winter and summer sales in Paris, with tips on how to avoid stress and disappointment as you hit the stores.
Exhibits and Shows Worth Your While This Month
No matter the time of year, there are generally at least a few excellent exhibits and shows on in the capital, and well worth a few hours of your morning or afternoon.
One is The Art of Pastel From Degas to Redon, currently running at the Petit Palais. While the pastel is often taken less seriously than oils and acrylics, this show proves how central pastels are to the story of modern European art from the mid-19th century onward: some 150 works from artists including Berthe Morisot, Auguste Renoir, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas and Odion Redilon are displayed at the show. Showcasing how working with pastels lies at the boundary between drawing and painting, the exhibit also discusses the difficulties inherent in curating a show based around pastels: extremely sensitive to light, these oeuvres cannot be permanently displayed without risking significant damage. This is part of what makes their beauty so fleeting and ethereal, of course.
I may have already recommended this show in my December guide, but it’s a big one– so worth repeating. “Being Modern: MOMA in Paris” exhibit at the Fondation Louis Vuitton (through March 5th, 2018) is a remarkable retrospective on the New York City museum’s collection of modern art. Some 200 paintings, drawings, photos and sculptures are carefully presented on three floors at the Vuitton, which is a work of art in its own right, designed by American architect Frank Gehry. The exhibit offers an excellent overview of some of the 20th century’s most important movements and trends in fine art, and boasts masterpieces from the likes of Magritte, Hopper, Warhol, Cezanne and many others.
Another show that’s send to end shortly (on January 22nd) is Gaugin, the Alchemist at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. If you’re a fan of the expressionist period in European art history and wish to bask in the sumptuous colors and textures of Gaugin’s work, I strongly suggest you make it for the last days of the retrospective. Featuring sculptures, paintings, drawings and even little-known ceramics, it’s a fantastic opportunity to better appreciate the artist’s remarkable oeuvre. From sculptures to drawings, paintings and ceramics, the artist’s intense process is made visible by the show. Through January 22nd, 2018.
If you’re in search of a more complete list of exhibits and shows on this month, try this one.