In winter Paris transforms from City of Lights to City of Fairylights. Even the Champs-Elysées comes into its own with Christmas illuminations in the trees, fir trees at the Rond-Point and a Christmas market in wooden chalets along its lower reaches. Stay warm with hot chestnuts sold in the street and prepare to feast on oysters, foie gras and bûches de Noël (yule logs).
The ice rink at the Champs-Elysées is open until January 3, early nights are lit up by Christmas illuminations all around town, while the boulevard Haussmann department stores Printemps and Galeries Lafayette are as much a draw for their festive window displays as they are for shopping.
Paris doesn’t close down at Christmas. On Christmas Day, public transport works and many restaurants stay open and you can still go to cafés, the cinema and even some museums.
Although the weather can be chilly, it often rains less than in spring and snow is rare.
My favourite winter hotel-“Maison Suquet”
From the Moorish ceramic salon, conservatory breakfast room and miniature cellar pool to the lavishly romantic bedrooms, this former maison close, sumptuously decorated by Jacques Garcia, is just the place for a warming winter break, with each of the 20 rooms named after a courtesan (suites for the most famous).
On rue Saint-Honoré, one of the city’s most prestigious shopping streets, the Mandarin Oriental Paris, 251 rue Saint-Honoré (0080 0 28 28 38 38; mandarinoriental.com/paris) is a haven of elegance and understated luxury. A verdant courtyard garden provides a soothing sight on arrival in the marble-clad lobby. The look throughout the hotel is cool and contemporary, served up with a slice of the Orient in the form of cherrywood panelling and fine silks. Whimsical touches include the butterfly motif that appears on carpets and artwork and the delightful oversized bird cage for see-and-be-seen dining in the garden.
Close to St-Germain’s legendary cafés, art galleries and great shopping, Hôtel d’Aubusson, 33 rue dauphin (0033 1 43 29 43 43; hoteldaubusson.com) has a grand carriageway entrance and lofty flagstoned lobby which set the style at this hotel and has guarded its 17th-century aura. A log fire crackles in the massive stone fireplace in a salon hung with Aubusson tapestries, and there’s a calm patio courtyard and an animated bar.
Hôtel Fabric, 31 rue de la Folie Méricourt (14 35 72 700; hotelfabric.com), set in a converted textile factory, is an interesting reminder of Paris’s industrial past. Relaxed and stylish, the Fabric, which opened in 2013, makes a refreshing change from tasteful minimalism or revisited historicism. The large open-plan lobby lounge sets the style, with a post-industrial vibe of large metal windows, exposed ducts and brick walls and an eclectic mix of design and flea market finds. You can sit on Eames chairs around an oak table, read the papers on a worn chesterfield sofa or serve yourself coffee at an old haberdashery counter.
Paris in winter: what to see and doA stall at one of the city’s Christmas
Time to rediscover society portrait painter Vigée Le Brun, one of the handful of successful historic women artists, though notably more interesting portraying women than men. As official portraitist of Marie-Antoinette, she fled France after the Revolution to depict the aristocracy of Italy, Russia and Britain, from maternal love to mythological temptresses.
From making his name with Richard Rogers’ with the Centre Pompidou to the London Shard, the monastery adjoining Corbusier’s church at Ronchamp and Paris’s future law courts, the retrospective of Renzo Piano investigates the experimental approach to construction and the city at his Paris- and Genoa-based Building Workshop.
The rebirth of the museum of man after six years of work has been one of the great surprises of the year. An incredibly variety of objects and inspiring display asks about the development of man and society, from wax anatomical models, mammoth tusk sculptures and Stone Age tools to beehives, ritual costumes and the question of climate change.
Musée de l’Homme, Palais de Chaillot, 16th; www.museedelhomme.fr
Paris in winter: what to see and doNotre-Dame Photo: AP/FOTOLIA
Other unmissable attractions
Musée Jacquemart-André, 158 boulevard Haussmann (musee-jacquemart-andre.com) is testimony to the taste of a pair of 19th-century connoisseurs, banking heir Edouard André and his artist wife, Nélie Jacquemart, who scoured the continent for artistic treasures and housed them in their extravagant mansion built for the purpose. A series of salons and the galleried music room contain paintings by Boucher, Fragonard, Nattier and Canaletto, while the library has a lovely small Rembrandt, and the smoking room is hung with English portraits. Upstairs in the “Italian museum” are a Botticelli Virgin and Child, and a tiny Uccello. Finish with lunch or tea in the elegant café, under a Tiepolo ceiling.
The true star of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is the cathedral. Notre-Dame was begun in 1163 and completed 170 years later. It’s a prime example of Gothic style, with its carved portals, ornate rose windows and massive flying buttresses. Inside is comparatively gloomy, with the long nave lined by side chapels. If you’ve got the stamina, climb the towers (422 steps in all) past carved chimeras and the giant Bourdon bell for an incredible view over Paris, though my favourite view of the cathedral itself is from the rear. There is a charge for adults to climb the towers.
Paris in winter: what to see and doAlthough the weather can be chilly, it often rains less than in spring and snow is rare Photo: GETTY
The lovely, intimate medieval Musée National du Moyen-Age (often known simply as Cluny) is appropriately housed in the Gothic town house of the abbots of Cluny, which was built over the substantial remains of a Roman baths complex. The star turn here is the adorable “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestry cycle, a convoluted allegory of the senses. Other treasures include carved capitals, alabasters and altarpieces, the heads of the kings of Judah from Notre-Dame cathedral, Limoges enamel caskets, and secular items such as combs and a fragile leather shoe. Behind the museum is a garden and playground inspired by plants found in medieval treatises (entrance boulevard St-Germain).
Where to eat and drink
The extraordinary setting of Le Jules Verne (lejulesverne-paris.com), 400ft up the Eiffel Tower and reached by the restaurant’s own lift, at the south pillar, takes the stuffiness out of grand-occasion dining with a suave decor by Patrick Jouin and nonchalant waiters. Since being taken into the Ducasse empire, Le Jules Verne has improved its food to match the views, with a modern take on grand classics by Pascal Féraud, right down to a chocolate bolt dessert in homage to the 2.5 million bolts that hold the tower together. Note that the dress code is smart.
La Coupole, 102 boulevard du Montparnasse (lacoupole-paris.com) is legendary. With its Art Deco interior, tables stretching into the distance, apron-clad waiters and busyness, this Montparnasse establishment is the place to experience brasserie as theatre. The people-watching – there’s an intriguingly eclectic clientele – and the sheer atmosphere make dining here a fun experience. Feast on fabulous oysters and shellfish, classic steaks, sole meunière, or the unlikely speciality of lamb curry, a fixture since La Coupole opened in 1927.
Traditional varnish has been replaced by the unfinished look of raw plywood at Caillebotte, 8 rue Hippolyte-Lebas (facebook.com/pages/Le-Pantruche-Bistrot-Gourmand), indicative of the casual, modern approach of this much-talked-about addition to Parisian bistronomie. It is just around the corner from the foodie shops of rue des Martyrs, too. The downside is that it’s full of bloggers snapping food pics, but for all that it feels relaxed, the staff are friendly and the food is just what you want: light, modern, seasonal and artistically presented.
Warm up with a hearty platter of choucroute garnie, steaming sauerkraut laden with ham and sausages, a perfect winter dish, at Brasserie Bofinger, one of Paris’s classic Alsatian brasseries.
Celebrate over a cocktail or a glass of Bordeaux around a real log fire – outdoors – that crackles in the fireplace in the courtyard of the Hôtel Jules et Jim.