Paris is such a beautiful city, and it only gets more magical at Christmastime. Should you find yourself in the City of Light during the holiday season, here are my suggestions to build into an itinerary.
Christmas Displays at the Department Stores:
Growing up near New York City, I've always loved getting to see the elaborate displays of Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue. The department stores of Paris have allowed me to keep this tradition without disappointment. As I mentioned in my Wednesday post, the window displays at Printemps and Galaries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann are lovely to see. Go at night and join the fun.
I preferred the windows of Printemps, but as far as the interior of the stores go, Galaries Lafayette wins hands-down. In the center of the floor is a 20-meter (65 feet) tall Christmas tree. The tree was brought to the store in partnership with Swatch, who is celebrating its 30-year anniversary. On the hour the tree comes to life as characters dance around the village at the base of the tree.
You should definitely pop into Galaries Lafayette to see the tree. But you should go into Printemps for this view:
I love seeing Paris from above, and the terrace at Printemps is perfect for just that. Enter the store through the beauté section and make your way up to the top (ninth) floor. Though chilly outside, you can walk around the roof-top for views of the Palais Garnier, the Madeleine church, Eiffel Tower, Grand Palais, and Sacré-Cœur. There is also a self-service café on the ninth floor called Déli-Cieux that has surprisingly reasonable prices despite being in such an expensive store.
I always recommend making at least one trip to my favorite shop for macarons, Pierre Hermé, on a trip to Paris. So I strongly recommend a stop there especially now that the Christmas flavors are out. After enjoying the Christmas displays, I made my way to the bottom floor of Galaries Lafayette to seek out the Pierre Hermé counter (for more locations, see their website here). I started with the sweet infiniment marron glacé, which is chestnut-flavored and delicious. I then moved on to what became my favorite, the PX. It is an absolutely fantastic macaron filled with raisins soaked in Pedro Ximenez sherry. My husband was a little more adventurous and tried one of the two macarons with foie gras incorporated in the filling and a white truffle macaron. Even if none of these seasonal flavors appeal to you, the staple flavors such as infiniment caramel (salted butter caramel) are still available. David Lebovitz gives a great review of the new flavors on his blog.
I've never been very coordinated, and putting on a pair of ice skates never helped the matter. But for those of you who skate (or for those who are like me and enjoy watching others skate) head over to the ice rink at Trocadéro or in front of Hôtel de Ville. The rink at Jardins du Trocadéro is only open until January 5th but the one at Hôtel de Ville will remain open until March 2nd. Take a look at Paris Info's website for more information on how to partake in this wintry activity.
Outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame it is starting to look like Christmas. A big Christmas tree is decorated in front of the church, and soon a small Christmas market focused on the arts and gastronomy will be open from December 15th-23rd from 10am-8pm (see sortiraparis.com for more info in French).
Last year I had the privilege to attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. It was a touching experience to come together with people from all over the world to attend the service together to worship God as a unified body. I can only imagine a service at Notre Dame to be a similar experience. Take a look at the website for the rundown of services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Last year I had the pleasure of experiencing European Christmas markets for the first time. (Take at look at the highlights in my post here.) So far I am convinced that Germany puts on the best Christmas markets, even compared to the king of French Christmas markets, Strasbourg. With that said, here is my take on the markets in Paris.
Last year I visited the markets along Champs-Élysées. I was disappointed with the quality of the stands because so many of them were overly touristy. If you are looking for a collection of any type of Eiffel Tower trinkets, you are sure to find plenty among the 180 stands. But if you go into it like me looking for handmade crafts and artistry, you will find this is not the venue. However, I would still recommend taking a walk down this famous avenue to see it all lit up and warm up with a cup of vin chaud. The market will go on until Sunday, January 5, 2014.
The Christmas Village at Montmartre is another option I recommend for the scenic aspect. You can go up to the church of Sacré Cœur, enjoy a view of Paris, and walk through the village that starts right in front of the church (also open until January 5th). It is much smaller that of Champs-Élysées as it features about 60 stands.
To see the biggest Christmas market that Paris has to offer, take the metro line 1 all the way west (last stop) and get off at La Defense. Here at the Grande Arche over 300 stands are set up in an area spanning 10,000 square meters, making it the largest Christmas market in all of the Ile-de-France region.
La Defense is off the main track for tourists so when I paid a visit to this market on a Sunday, I found more locals there, or at least more French speakers. It was decisively less tourist driven than the market along Champs-Élysées. There were more homemade crafts present but also interspersed were an odd mix of "as-seen-on-TV" stands selling gadgets. Also featured were plenty of vendors to remind you that this market is distinctly French. There was plenty of cheese, wine, foie gras, and sausage stands present.
La Defense has a much different feel from Paris proper. The skyscrapers of La Defense are home to many businesses and the area has a Wall-Street feel to it. The atmosphere around the market is odd as it is quite industrial, so other markets may be better for a more romantic mood. But head to this market if you are looking to get rid of your fellow tourists and enjoy a big market scene. There are many stands offering French food from all over the country so go hungry! The market at La Defense ends on December 28.
Where to Eat:
Like the rest of Europe, Christmas Eve and Day are important occasions for families to spend together. Finding a restaurant on either day might prove to be challenging, and reservations are a must. Paris by Mouth put out a list of some options to consult of open restaurants.
From the information I have seen, I have two picks for a memorable Christmas Eve dinner. First is Ciel de Paris. Coming in at €165 per person, it is a splurge. But I know the food is good here and nothing reminds you that you are dining in Paris like a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower. I ate here in August of this year and took in this view:
The sun sets before 5:30pm these days, much too early for a French dinner. But a view of the City of Light illuminated at night would befit a special occasion like Christmas Eve.
My other pick for Christmas Eve is Le Train Bleu, located within the train station at Gare de Lyon. Their menu rings in at €110 per person. The food is good and the setting looks like it is ready to welcome French royalty. It opened in 1901 and embodies that Belle Époque glitz that would make a holiday dinner special. If it's good enough for Coco Chanel, it's good enough for me.
Neither of these last two activities are distinctly holiday-themed, but I think they add to any trip to Paris this time of year.
One thing not to miss is the Brassaï exhibition at Hôtel de Ville called "Pour l'amour de Paris." This time of year tends to stretch the wallet so rest assured that this free expo won't do any further damage. This collection of Brassaï's photographs captures Paris and the characters who made up the city during the 1930's-1950's. It is a must see! But be warned, it has been a popular event and there has been a line to get in so dress warm!
Another product of living close to NYC is the association of Broadway shows with the holidays. It is not an annual tradition of mine, but often going to a Broadway play has made a good gift to give or receive and enjoy with loved ones. That is why getting tickets to La Belle et La Bête (Beauty and the Beast) comes to mind for me. Sure, it is performed in French, but what better place to see the show than in Belle's native country of France? The musical came to Paris at the end of October 2013 and I am hoping to make it to a performance myself!
What are you additions to my list?