When I originally started thinking about visiting Paris, I had spring in mind. Seeing the sights with mild temperatures, beautiful blooming gardens, and before the crowds of summer vacation sounded perfect. When I started looking at my vacation days from work however, the two weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s Day jumped out as the most ideal time.
I’m a bit of an obsessive researcher (I like to be prepared!), so I immediately started searching for tips on visiting Paris in December–what to wear, what the weather is like, what’s open or closed, what’s unique about this time of year, etc.–but I didn’t have a lot of luck finding in-depth information. Now that I’ve experienced Paris in winter (December/January specifically), I’m going to share what I’ve learned to hopefully make your planning easier and put your mind at ease. If you have questions about something I didn’t cover, or want even more information than I’ve provided, feel free to ask in the comments!
First, let’s talk weather and wardrobe.
The temperatures in late December/early January range from low 30s to mid 40s. I experienced several misty, rainy days in Paris during my stay, though there were occasionally clear skies or clouds with no rain. I never had a moment where I was standing out in the sun and actually got too hot for my coat though. The wind was a contributing factor, so when I say dress in layers, I mean it! It gets dark fairly early in the winter, but then the Christmas lights come on it makes for a pretty magical effect. You do want to make sure you are dressed warmly enough for the night time temperatures if you’re not planning to go back to your hotel before 5pm.
Most days I wore thermals (top and bottom), fleece lined leggings, thick boot socks, a sweater dress, a mid-thigh length down coat with a hood, a thick scarf, tall leather boots, and insulated gloves. I wore a knit or fleece hat most days as well. The days I didn’t wear a dress, I wore a sweater and (black or blue) skinny jeans instead. I usually still wore the leggings just for that extra layer on my legs. It did rain on us, so we bought umbrellas from the stand outside our hotel for a few euros. You can bring your own, but really it wasn’t worth the packing space for me. Umbrellas come in handy if it happens to snow as well. We didn’t get any snow in Paris during our trip, as Paris usually doesn’t get snow until later on in the winter, but on our side trip to Strasbourg, it snowed on us the entire three days.
For guys I’d recommend thermals under nice jeans (I’m talking no holes, darker in color, no visible wear) paired with a sweater and longer heavy coat. Guys in France wear scarves, so don’t be afraid to be warm! My husband wore button down shirts under his sweaters for dinner or anytime we dressed up more. You’ll definitely want some kind of hat as well.
To recap, here’s a good idea of what you might wear each day:
- thermal underwear or extra layers underneath
- sweater or sweater dress
- nice jeans or lined leggings
- scarf, hat, gloves
- warm coat with hood (water resistant is a plus)
- thick socks (maybe two layers)
I feel like shoes need their own paragraph. If you’ve done any reading at all, you probably know by now that Parisians don’t wear sneakers or gym shoes unless they’re running or going to the gym. If your aim is not to stick out like a sore thumb, avoid sneakers. Ladies can wear boots of pretty much any style. I would recommend leather because it’s more durable and you won’t be worried about rain or puddles or mud. A lower heel or flat boot is ideal because you are going to be walking on uneven pavement, grass, and dirt/gravel paths. I initially brought tall boots (just below the knee) to wear, but after just one day of walking 5+ miles, I had blisters on all sides of my feet and had to stop and buy another pair to alternate for the rest of the trip. For this fact alone, I would sacrifice some of that precious suitcase space for a second pair of boots. We walked over 12 miles some days and never less than 5, so believe me when I say you want to select your footwear carefully. Think about inserts and blister pads and WEAR YOUR SHOES IN extensively before your trip.
For the guys you can wear boots too, if you’re comfortable in them. Parisian men wear very stylish low cut boots, so you won’t stand out. My husband and dad wore dressy casual leather slip-on shoes most of the time.
If you’re visiting later in the winter when snow is likely, you may want to bring or buy something to clean your boots with each night, as the salt on sidewalks will leave a nasty residue on your shoes. Being from the South, I had no idea this was an issue!
You may have read that many things will be closed in the winter around Christmas or New Year’s Day. I can say from my experience, this wasn’t an issue at all. We didn’t have a great big plan for places to eat in Paris, but if there’s somewhere you’re just dying to eat I would say check their website for information about holiday closings. We mostly just asked our concierge or tour guides for recommendations, or used Yelp to find something good nearby, and we never ran into any places that were closed.
Christmas dinner is one GIANT exception. You will be able to find restaurants open on Christmas Day for breakfast or lunch. I read online ahead of our trip that we would need reservations for Christmas dinner. I was able to book via email at Chez Jenny, which is an Alsatian restaurant in the 3rd. I didn’t know to do the same for Christmas Eve, so we ended up eating crepes from a street vendor that night. The reservations only policy seems to be true for dinner on New Year’s Eve also, but we decided instead on a highly recommended restaurant that famously does not take reservations (Le Cafe Constant). This might not be the best strategy for you, so plan ahead for these three nights. These two lists were helpful for me when planning where to eat on Christmas: http://parisbymouth.com/celebrating-christmas-in-paris-restaurants/ and http://goparis.about.com/od/foodanddining/a/Paris-Restaurants-Open-For-Christmas.htm
As for museums most if not all are closed on Christmas Day, but many are open on New Year’s Day. A few museums such as the Musee d’Orsay and L’Orangerie are free on New Year’s Day, so plan to go early or spend a while waiting in line. Almost all museums in Paris are closed either Monday OR Tuesday (not both) all year long. Here is a list I used last year (note the 2014 dates) for Christmas and New Year’s openings: http://www.still-in-paris.com/todoin/specialevents/open-christmas-new-year-day-paris/ and here’s a pretty thorough guide to museums with their days and hours listed: http://www.paris-paris-paris.com/paris_landmarks/museums. Most museums have shorter hours in the winter, but many stay open late at least one night per week. For instance we visited the Louvre on a Friday night when it was open until 9:45pm.
Paris seemed pretty similar to the US on Christmas to me. It was quiet in the morning, with very little street traffic near our hotel. Around lunch time it picked up and lots of people were out and about. We ventured out to the church across the street to see the inside, then we ended up taking a Seine River cruise, as the tour boats were up and running. There are definitely things to do, so don’t worry about being holed up in your hotel all day!
In the spring and summer, the recommendation is to walk as much as possible to enjoy the beauty of Paris in bloom. In the winter you still want to make a point to walk through the gardens and walk around some, but if you’re like me, you’re going to spend a lot of time on the metro. I still joke that I saw more of Paris below ground than above, but when it’s cold or raining, it’s the only way to go. On my next visit I may try out some city buses instead of solely relying on the metro. In December 2014 there was a LOT of construction going on in the metro stations. I’m hoping by the time I go back in December 2015, most of that will be done. Many hallways were dimly lit with only construction lights hanging from the ceiling, and some walkways or entrances were closed completely due to renovation. About half of the escalators were out of service as well. Don’t let this deter you from using the metro though! It was a God-send after all the walking we were doing. Like I said earlier, I still managed to log between 5 and 12 miles walking each day! I always felt safe, as there was a pretty good police presence (especially later at night). You need to use common sense and be aware of your surroundings just like in any other big city, but you won’t be hassled much (if at all) by anyone on the metro.
If you’re coming into town with more than a carry-on or smaller rolling suitcase, I’d recommend taking a taxi to and from the airport. The metro is super easy to navigate, but lugging your 50 pound bag up and down stairs is not the best way to get acquainted with the city. Do make sure you buy a metro pass and take advantage of the city’s amazing public transportation network. I did a lot of research and found out that the best value is found with the NaviGO decouverte pass. You will see another pass called the Visite pass advertised, but it is not a great value like the NaviGO. I really can’t stress enough how great this pass is. It costs about 35 Euros for a whole week (Monday to Sunday), is reloadable, and works for every type of public transportation in the city (RER trains, metro, buses, and even the funicular at Montmartre). It includes all lines and all metro zones, plus you can keep it in your pocket because it has an RFID chip that only needs to be close to the sensor as you go through the turnstile. All the details can be found here: http://parisbytrain.com/paris-train-metro-week-pass-navigo-decouverte/ . You can use this pass to get to Versailles and the airport, which are both about a 40 minute trip and would be expensive via any other means.
If you’re not deterred by the weather or blisters on your feet, Paris is extremely walk-able. You really can get almost anywhere you want to go on foot. My favorite walking areas were Saint Severin in the 5th, along the Seine from Notre Dame to Musee d’Orsay, the Tuileries (obviously), and the 7th across the Champ de Mars with that lovely view of the Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter is also a good one to walk through. My least favorite place to walk, but where you have no other choice, was Montmartre. The streets are all cobblestone and at steep inclines, so while worth seeing it wasn’t my favorite place for a leisurely stroll.
If you have a little extra time on your hands, get out of the city and see other parts of France! We took the most amazing three night trip to Strasbourg. It was the highlight of our entire 12 days in Europe. I love Paris, of course, but Strasbourg at Christmas is just magical. Click back to my blog posts about it if you haven’t read them yet, because I could (and did) just go on and on about it. The big thing to see in December is the Christmas Markets. They’re not exclusive to Paris (though they had some pretty good ones spread all over town, especially at the bottom of the Champs Elysees). This website has all the info for the markets across France: www.christmasmarkets.com/France.html.
Things Unique to Paris in December
The Eiffel Tower and several other areas will have free ice skating rinks set up in the winter. You have to rent ice skates if you don’t bring your own (who would lug them to Paris?), but skating is free. Don’t forget about a trip to Galeries Lafayette in Paris. They go all out with decorations. The sidewalks, window displays, and inside the stores are all decked out for the holidays! Pretty much everywhere you go will be decorated for Christmas. It makes for a pretty scene at night!
That’s all I can think of right now, but I’ll be back soon with some packing tips. As I start to think about my upcoming trip in December, I know I’ll have lots of good info to share! Again, if I didn’t cover something or you have questions, leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you!