By Sophie Dodd
Nov 16, 2022
THERE ARE FEW THINGS more magical than waking up on Christmas morning and exchanging gifts with loved ones under a tinsel-strewn tree, but rousing to a view of the Eiffel Tower and a basket of fresh croissants in Paris might do the trick. The City of Light dazzles more brilliantly than ever over the holidays, when cobbled streets and department stores sparkle with Christmas lights and there’s festive fun to be found in every arrondissement.
While you may need to put dreams of a white Christmas on the back burner — Paris rarely gets much more than a dusting of snow — there’s no shortage of romantic ways to spend winter days there, whether on a moonlit cruise along the Seine or under the toasty glow of a heated terrace with a glass of wine in hand.
From the most majestic backdrops for Christmas concerts to the best places to shop, stay, and be merry, here’s everything to know to fully indulge in the most wonderful time of the year in Paris.
Sip mulled wine at the Christmas markets.
Christmas markets in Paris are more like winter villages, with dozens — and in some cases, hundreds — of Swiss-style wooden chalets doling out vin chaud (hot mulled wine), raclette sandwiches oozing cheese, and made-in-France souvenirs to bring home for everyone enviously eyeing your Instagram feed.
Markets begin popping up around the city in late November and run through the new year, ranging in size from a handful of stalls to upwards of 300. For more quaint, picturesque experiences, head to the markets at Notre Dame or across the river at the Hôtel de Ville, where you can expect a smattering of sapins de Noël (Christmas trees), a hot chocolate vendor, an evening light show, and gaggles of children gunning for the carousel. For larger-scale productions, you’ll want to make your way to La Magie de Noël (The Magic of Christmas) at the Tuileries Garden, a sprawling Christmas-market-turned-carnival. Further out, at the end of the metro line 1, is the most sprawling market in all of Paris: La Défense. This 350-stall market is set in the heart of the business district at the base of the Grande Arche, a modern monument that offers a bird’s-eye view of the whole spectacle.
Window shop at the decked-out department stores.
A beloved Parisian pastime is the art of lèche-vitrine, or window shopping — although it translates literally as window licking, which is likely what you’ll be tempted to do when faced with the delicious displays at Paris’s grands magasins.
There are four major department stores, each boasting their own over-the-top winter wonderlands that you can ogle from the windows or while warming up inside. Galeries Lafayette and Printemps Haussmann, located a stone’s throw from one another, both famously feature lavish Christmas trees that are decked out beneath their art nouveau domes. Le BHV Marais and Le Bon Marché also go all out with their décor, with the latter’s iconic crisscrossing escalator dripping with white lights and snowflakes.
Beyond the big four, La Samaritaine is another must-see department store, celebrating its second Christmas after reopening last year following a 16-year closure and a major LVMH-backed renovation. The beautiful Belle Époque building is worth a look at any time of year, but like most of Paris, it gleams with extra charm around the holidays.
Stroll under the twinkling lights on the Champs-Élysées.
Lined with luxury boutiques, Paris’s famed avenue is hardly in need of a glow up, but that’s exactly what it gets each winter, thanks to 400-odd trees strung up in vibrant red lights. The shimmering show — called La Flamboyance — runs from the Arc de Triomphe down to the Ferris wheel at the Place de la Concorde, where you can go for a spin before exploring the Tuileries Christmas market.
If you’re eager to see more of how the City of Light lives up to its name over the holidays, consider an open-top Christmas lights bus tour, where you can snuggle up beneath a blanket and cruise around the city to see the sparkling sights from new heights.
Take in a classical Christmas concert at one of the city’s famed churches.
Drinking Champagne in church may not be the holiest way to celebrate Christmas, but it’s certainly one of the more memorable. Paris’s churches are worth a visit for their magnificent architecture alone, and in addition to religious services, some of the most picturesque options around the city offer concerts in their hallowed halls, such as at Sainte-Chapelle. Located on the Île de la Cité — the island where Paris was first founded — this striking Gothic church is the former home of the kings of France and hosts classical concerts beneath the stunning stained-glass windows up through New Year’s. (For an added fee, they offer a Champagne and tapas pairing.) Christmas Eve and Christmas Day have already sold out, so buy your tickets quickly if you’re hoping to experience it for yourself.
Cruise along the Seine on Christmas Eve.
While Paris is a city best seen on foot, it’s a treat to witness from a new vantage point — and there’s no better way to do so than from a cruise along the Seine. Tours run daily throughout the year, but a handful of vendors tout special Christmas offerings that include five-course meals, Champagne, and more on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Just be sure to book sooner rather than later, as they’re likely to sell out.
Dress up for the ballet at Palais Garnier.
Throw on your Frenchest finery and head out for an elegant evening at Palais Garnier, an opera house built at Emperor Napoleon III’s request in the mid-19th century. The building itself is an architectural marvel and available to tour every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the exception of when afternoon performances are scheduled. Several performances are on this winter, but don’t miss famed German choreographer Pina Bausch’s “Kontakthof,” her third work to be performed by the Paris Opera Ballet. (Book ASAP, as tickets are going quickly.) Take in the show under the technicolor ceiling that is Marc Chagall’s masterpiece, which honors famed composers and artists.
Ice skate against iconic backdrops.
When visiting the Tuileries Christmas Market, you may want to take it easy on the mulled wine for a chance to lace up your skates and glide along the charming ice rink, encircled by wooden chalets and the smell of Nutella crepes. A number of ice rinks have come and gone in Paris over the years, with the pandemic impacting closures as well. While those reopening this year remain to be seen, highlights from the past that we hope to see return include a rink on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower, another beneath the glass dome of the Grand Palais, and one smack in the center of the Marais, in the plaza of Hôtel de Ville.
Eat, drink and be merry.
Plenty of places close for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, so if you’ve been bookmarking restaurants on Instagram for months, you’ll want to confirm that they’re open on their website (or their Instagram page, as that’s often more up to date). If so, be sure to book well in advance to nab a table. Note that many restaurants will offer prix fixe menus.
Treat yourself to a stay at Paris’s most luxurious hotels.
Can you imagine a better Christmas present to yourself than waking up in Paris in a luxurious hotel bed to a view of the Eiffel Tower? Perhaps a stress-melting massage at a chic spa? Luckily, both are on offer if you’re looking to splurge on swanky accommodations during your trip. In the historic heart of the city is Le Meurice, where you can peek out over the arcades along Rue de Rivoli while your skin is gently nudged toward perfection during a glow-inducing facial at La Maison Valmont pour Le Meurice Spa. You can then head down to the lobby to cozy up with a martini for nightly jazz at Bar 228, the intimate Philippe Starck-designed wood–paneled bar with heavenly frescoed ceilings.
When it comes to living like royalty, it’s difficult to top the timeless elegance of the Ritz Paris, which recently revamped its astrology-themed Ritz Bar and will deck its halls in festive holiday fashion. Other sumptuous digs include Cour des Vosges, a unique pied-à-terre at once modern and classic, where you can get ready for the day while overlooking Place des Vosges, the oldest square in Paris.