Photo by Sarika Bansal
Photo by kuzmin/Shutterstock
Paris, the City of Light, on a cloudy day.
Even when it’s cold and rainy, Paris is still Paris—here’s how to make the most out of an off-season visit.
In the movies, Paris always seems to be sunny and warm, a true pedestrians’ delight. Locals in impossibly chic outfits stroll along the Seine or sit for hours sipping at street cafés as Edith Piaf's “La Vie en Rose” plays in the background. It feels like you could walk the city for hours and never get bored.
My dreams of sauntering around Paris, croissant in one hand and old book in another, started to slip away when I realized that 1) I’d be traveling there in November, one of the coldest, wettest months of the year; and 2) I would have my 1.5-year-old daughter (and her stroller) in tow. We arrived in the City of Light to ominous clouds that, in about an hour, had us running to buy an overpriced umbrella from a street vendor. The coming days, the chill seemed to permeate my thick scarf and coat, and that stunning Haussmann architecture and historic cobblestones feel less charming when you’re pushing a heavy stroller. A COVID wave was also hitting the city, and we were unable to see most of our friends and colleagues while there. (On the upside, I stayed extra COVID safe, wearing my mask outdoors just to keep warm.)
But Paris is Paris, and I have fond memories of my 10 days there. Since the trip, I’ve thought about the things I did to make the gray days more enjoyable. I also asked a few Paris-based travel experts for their favorite cold-weather activities, so that whenever you make it to Paris, you can have the best trip possible.
The Paris metro, while lauded for its efficiency, isn’t the most accessible. I learned this the hard way, when I carried 40 pounds of stroller, toddler, and diaper bag up and down what felt like a million stairs en route to the Musée d’Orsay. The museum (and the fifth-floor café with its enormous clock windows) were worth it, of course; it’s hard to compete with its impressionism collection and informative audio guide. But I spent most of my time after that looking for attractions within walking distance of our Airbnb.
Paris is structured around “arrondissements,” which loosely translate to neighborhoods. They gently spiral from the center of the city outwards, meaning that an arrondissement with a lower number is closer to the city center than one with a higher number. We stayed in the third—the historic Marais district, known for its architecture, falafels, and nightlife—which was walking distance from many of the museums, restaurants, and bookstores where I spent time over the coming days.
Due to the pandemic, I hadn’t visited an art museum in nearly two years before my trip to Paris. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional reaction I would have to entering a space dedicated to the public appreciation of beauty. Over the next 10 days, museums quickly became my favorite place to spend time: In addition to offering ample inspiration, they are temperature-controlled, well-ventilated spaces where visitors are required to keep their masks on.
There are the obvious art museums in Paris, like the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, where you can spend a full day soaking in classical beauty. The Rodin Sculpture Garden, while not ideal for a rainy day, features iconic statues like The Thinker and an exhaustive collection of his earlier work.
The modern Pinault Collection at the Bourse de Commerce–one of the most anticipated openings of 2021–stands out with its in situ art displays, its collection of African American artist David Hammons’s work, and Urs Fischer’s dripping wax statues in the large center rotunda. (The statues are literally lit candles of human forms and chairs from around the world.)
For travelers with kids in tow, the Centre Pompidou has a large-scale interactive “Galerie des Enfants” on the first floor, along with its considerable modern art collection. L’Atelier des Lumières offers an immersive digital experience of well-known artists like Paul Cézanne and Salvador Dalí inside a former foundry, while the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature features taxidermied animals alongside contemporary art.
Lindsey Tramuta, a Paris-based writer, adds, “I’ve always loved the Carnavalet Museum, dedicated to the history of Paris, which reopened after extensive refurbishment last summer. I’d [also] spend some time at the Hôtel de la Marine, an extraordinary museum (with a very engaging visit) occupying the former Garde Meuble and naval ministry, open to the public for the first time since the 18th century, on the Place de la Concorde.”
Most Paris museums and galleries only accept visitors with timed tickets, to limit crowds during the pandemic. The upside of this is that you probably won’t have to elbow as many people to get your selfie with the Mona Lisa. Book your visit as far in advance as possible to avoid any disappointment (a hard-earned lesson). Paris also offers a museum pass, which is perfect if you plan to spend your visit museum hopping.
It’s cold outside, it’s COVID-y inside. . . . How do you enjoy Paris’s many restaurants and cafés? Luckily, in part due to the pandemic, many eateries have embraced heat lamps, terraces, and other innovations that make it possible to eat outdoors in the winter.
Marion Durand, a photo editor who lives in Paris with her family, recommends Café Charlot in the Marais district, which she says has great bistro food, friendly waiters, and fantastic people-watching opportunities, especially during Fashion Week. She also loves Café de la Poste for its burgers, and the Japanese restaurant Sōma for its lovely setting and spinach in sesame cream. Damon Dominique, a travel YouTuber, recommends any of the Bouillon locations, a chain of classic French brasseries, for their attractive decor and tasty food.
Some of my favorite finds include Le MaZenay, a family restaurant with a masterful mille-feuille for dessert, Les Résistants for a multicourse brunch largely sourced from local farms, and Urfa Durum for fresh Kurdish sandwiches. And I still find myself thinking about the cinnamon roll at Mamiche. If you're looking for a more upscale experience, Shabour combines French and Israeli flavors in an inventive way, if at times overly complex. The decor and dishware are stunning, and the service warm.
Even if the sun is shining, Paris’s many bookstores are worth a visit. I could spend hours leafing through pages at the famous Shakespeare and Company or Librairie Galignani; both have an extensive selection of English-language texts, including large art books. Durand also recommends Smith&Son, particularly for magazines, and Comme un Roman for French literature.
Paris boasts some of the prettiest department stores I’ve ever seen, including BHV Marais, Le Bon Marché, and Galeries Lafayette. I was able to find some beautiful children’s shoes, jackets, and toys at BHV, along with a pair of Jonak boots from Galeries Lafayette that I wear almost every day. Tramuta also recommends the Samaritaine department store, which “reopened with fanfare after a 16-year closure with original ironwork that’s worth a close look.”
Paris’s shopping arcades, most of which were built in the 19th century, are a dream on a rainy day. Most feature tall ceilings, glass roofs, and a variety of shops and food stalls. Durand’s favorites include Passage Vivienne for its architecture and vintage bookstore and Passage du Grand-Cerf for its skylight roof and niche boutiques, such as for natural beauty products. The latter, she says, “gets you right behind quartier Montorgueil, where you can snack and watch chic locals grocery shop.” I enjoyed shopping for clementines and tomatoes at Le Marché des Enfants Rouge, Paris’s oldest covered market, built in 1615.
Finally, no trip to Paris is complete without ducking into a cheese shop. We had far too much fun at the fromagerie Taka&Vermo, where we treated ourselves to aged Comté cheese, fresh curd de citron, and orange marmalade.
“You’re in luck!” says Dominique. “Paris is more beautiful in the rain. My first recommendation is to walk in the rain, but I know some aren’t too keen on getting their phone or camera wet—which leads me to my next recommendation: Don’t take your phone or camera. Paris is meant to be experienced like that . . . even if it is so damn picturesque.”
So grab a hot chocolate at Angelina, pop open your umbrella, and stroll along the Seine in your impossibly chic winter coat. You’re in Paris, after all.
>> Next: 7 Great New Hotels in Paris in 2021
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