Are you considering visiting Paris in December? Most think of the end-of-year holiday festivities and displays as the primary draw card– and they’re certainly not wrong. But there’s much more to see and do beyond the usual fare.
This video showing snow gently dusting bikes, buildings, trees, cars and dogs in Montmartre has no dialogue. Yet it wordlessly captures the particular beauty and poetry of winter in the French capital: one that too many travelers never see, preferring the city in its more predictable, postcard-friendly spring or summer months.
But as I point out in my guide to when to go, there’s really no “perfect time of year” to visit. So if you’re disinclined to follow the crowd, a trip to Paris at year-end can be idyllic– and perhaps more importantly, relaxing and enjoyable, even if you have kids in tow.
It’s not all about Christmas markets, holiday window scenes and noisy New Year’s celebrations, either (although these are certainly not activities you should overlook, as I detail further on). Beyond these rather frenetic festivities lies the possibility of peace and contemplation.
Other enticing prospects: escaping the crowds to enjoy the whistling of wind through bare-leaved trees at Parc Monceau and the Tuileries (pictured above), or of spending a few hours taking in paintings, sculpture or photography at a small, under-appreciated Parisian museum or gallery— minus the summertime crowds, hopefully.
The French have an expression for the sort of quiet luxury and indulgence I associate with the city in its wintery guise: “luxe, calme, et volupté.” Translating roughly to “luxury, calm and delight”, the phrase shows up both in Charles Baudelaire’s poem “L’invitation au Voyage” and as the title of a 1904 painting by Henri Matisse.
Read related: 6 Cozy, Irresistible Winter Haunts in Paris
If you’re looking for a little of that ineffable but decidedly French trifecta, read on for a little inspiration, followed by a few more direct suggestions on what’s worth seeing and doing at year-end.
Do keep in mind, however, that these are subjective notes and not meant as comprehensive advice on everything going on at this time of year. See the Paris Tourist Office page for that sort of general overview.
THE LATEST: Can You Travel to Paris in December 2020?
The ongoing global public health crisis has made traveling to France next to impossible for the residents and citizens of many countries, including visitors from the US. Currently, France is only open to tourists from the European Union/Schengen area and a selection of 16 countries outside of it.
The Matter of the Mercury: December Weather in Paris & Packing Tips
In December, it’s generally pretty brisk and cold, although in recent years there have been unusual warm spells or many more days than usual where temperatures reach seasonal maximums. I generally advise travelers to pack plenty of warm sweaters, a waterproof coat, hat and shoes, gloves, scarves and warm socks. In case of an especially warm day, layering is always a good idea.
Minimum Temperature: 3 degrees C/37.4 degrees F
Maximum Temperature: 8 degrees C/46.4 degrees F
Average temp: 5 degrees C/41 degrees F
Average monthly precipitation: 1.9 inches
Also take note that snow sticking to the ground longer than a few minutes is rather rare in Paris: when precipitation does come, you’re more likely to be regaled with icy rain or sleet.
The idyllic images of a snow-blanketed Paris end up being a pretty rare experience, unfortunately, so don’t expect a white December during your stay. Luckily, there are plenty of other ways to get your fix when you’re after traditional seasonal cheer, as I detail a bit further below.
The Best Things to See & Do in December
As I alluded to earlier, one of the things about year-end in Paris that I find so appealing is the sense of peaceful contemplation and deep quiet that seems to hover over the city. Part of the reason for this is that, especially outside of touristy areas, the streets can be remarkably empty.
Parisians are known to be wimps about the slightest icy wind, which means they tend to huddle inside at home or in the city’s innumerable cafes, cinemas and galleries.
In fact, a common French superstition is that any cold “courant d’air” (draft) may lead you to catch your death, or at the very least a terrible bout of rhinopharangite (the common cold– doesn’t it sound eons more dramatic in French?) or angine (a vague throat infection or even a simple sore throat).
If you thought Parisians mummified their neck area in thick scarves to look chic (which they often do, inexplicably), their enthusiasm for wrapping up is more likely driven by rampant cultural hypochondria; by the local conviction that protecting one’s neck area from the cold will stave off most illnesses.
It’s a belief I have a hard time shaking off myself: cold air touching a bare spot on my neck now instinctively prompts me to “protect it” from the mysterious and malign forces of chilled wind.
But I digress. My long prelude was meant to underline two things: one, there’s something quietly enchanting about exploring the city when an aura of rest and dormancy has fallen over it; and two, there are plenty of cozy ways to enjoy being indoors (but don’t expect much solitude there). Here are few of my favorite ways to do both:
1. Warm up over gourmet tea or hot chocolate.
If you’ve made the rounds of Parisian cafes and are looking for something a bit different, an old-world tearoom can be a wonderful way to duck in somewhere to warm up, read or just relax.
I especially recommend the Mariages Frères tearoom in the Marais district : choose from hundreds of variety of gourmet French teas, from black to white and green. Their afternoon savoury and sweet tea menus, pastries and cakes are also delicious (30 rue du Bourg-Tibourg, 4th arrondissement; metro: St-Paul.)
Read related: My 5 Favorite Spots for Afternoon Tea in Paris
The Viennese-style tearoom Angelina is a favorite for rich, thick hot chocolate, meanwhile (226 rue de Rivoli, 1st arrondissement; Metro: Louvre-Rivoli).
My own preferred spot for hot chocolate in the capital, Jean-Paul Hévin, is (sadly) not currently open: the master chocolatier closed his upstairs tearoom when real estate prices became unaffordable on the swank Rue St-Honoré.
But according to a staff member I spoke to recently at the new shop at the same location, there are plans in the works for a new tearoom to open sometime in the future– meaning Hévin’s divine chocolat chaud, infused with ginger, raspberries, chili and other inventive flavors, may soon be calling my name again. Here’s to hoping…
2. Go soak up some art.
I’m not promising that museums and galleries will be empty, but they’re still likely to be less crowded at this time of year than during peak season. Take a few hours to contemplate artistic masterpieces at one of the city’s superb permanent collections.
My favorites include the astounding, and constantly refreshed, permanent collection at the Centre Georges Pompidou’s Museum of Modern Art: with masterpieces from the likes of Matisse, Derain, Kandinsky, Warhol, Man Ray, Niki de Sainte Phalle and countless others, getting bored here is out of the question.
I also recommend the entirely free collection at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the sumptuous medieval tapestries at the Musee Cluny, and the Orangerie, where Monet’s magnifient Nympheas series (water lilies) plunges you into the artist’s astounding mastery of color and light, never failing to offer a moment of peace and contemplation. The Monet room at the Oragerie is also free for all.
For ideas on small and independent galleries to duck into from the cold, see my feature on small museums in the French capital, and this piece on some of the best free collections in Paris.
3. Take a wintery walk.
As long as it doesn’t get too cold, I’m a big fan of wintery strolls. I enjoy bundling up and feeling the slight, invigorating sting of wintery wind on my face (but never the neck! Beware the dreaded courant d’air!) and strolling through lanes of bare trees, or watching the ducks and geese as they float around aimlessly on the steely grey ponds.
I especially recommend the massive parks known as “Paris’ lungs” just east and west of the city limits (The Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes): both easily accessible by metro, these enormous green spaces offer miles of walking trails, large ponds for admiring the waterfowl, and dozens of varieties of trees.
The Palais Royal has a traditional coziness about it, with its elegant arcades, boutiques, cafes and restaurants. This is the height of Parisian wintery elegance– plus, it’s a great place to search for holiday gifts from France that are neither cliche nor tacky.
I also love the Romantic-style Parc du Buttes-Chaumont (pictured above), with its artificial grottoes, panoramic viewpoints and impressive variety of beautiful trees, as well as abundant birds. Recently I and a friend witnessed a colony of green parrots inhabiting some of the trees there: a strange sighting, to say the least!
For more on the city’s loveliest parks and gardens, see this page.
Annual Events Worth Seeing, & Noteworthy Exhibits in 2020
For many, the biggest draw cards of a December getaway to Paris are the holiday festivities, markets and decorations– and I certainly can’t deny their appeal! You can see all our suggestions for feting the season in our complete guide to Christmas and winter holidays in Paris.
Christmas markets in Paris generally open in late November and run through Christmas Day or, rarely, through early January. Sadly, in 2020, due to the ongoing global health crisis, many have been cancelled this year– though a few remain open (see more here).
While some may find them a touch kitschy– and can’t that be fun, anyway?– the warm Alsatian-style lodges in wood are something I look forward to every year.
Walking through the stalls, you may or may not be tempted to stock up on decorations, toys and other items of admittedly varying quality, but a good glug of spiced mulled wine down the gullet and a crepe warming your hand isn’t likely to make your mood any worse.
Among my favorites include the annual market at St-Germain-des-Prés (generally a bit quieter than some of the others) and the Alsace-themed market at Gare de L’est (the Franco-German region where the traditional marché de noel has its origins.
Meanwhile, holiday lights and shop window displays attract tourists in significant numbers every year. Streets I find especially beautiful when illuminated for the season include Place Vendome, Rue St Honoré, and Rue Montorgueil.
Naturally, many will want to flock to the grands magasins (traditional department stores) to see their always festive and colorful holiday windows and lights. Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, both at Metro Havre Caumartin, are seasonal favorites, and perfect for a family excursion.
At Galeries Lafayette and the adjoining Printemps store on Boulevard Haussmann, the window displays in 2020-2021 run through early January. The festive holiday window scenes are once again complemented by an enormous and opulent Christmas tree jutting up through the old glass cupola in the main hall. It was unveiled on November 28th.
As much as I try to resist it, I can’t help but find it beautiful, especially set against the fine details of the hall’s Belle-Epoque architecture. Parisians know how to do a grandiose holiday season better than anyone, it would seem.
Finally, ice skating rinks are also a fun way to spend the day, particularly with kids; see a list of rinks open this year here.
New Year’s Eve in the French capital can be a rowdy and remarkably overcrowded affair, especially in areas around the Champs-Elysées and the Sacre Coeur.
Of course, especially if you’re a first-time visitor to Paris and want to see some of its most iconic attractions in their holiday guise, you may decide the crowded conditions are worth it.
My favorite, and far more relaxed, way to spend the occasion in Paris is to pick up a bottle of champagne or the less expensive but equally excellent Crémant de Loire or Crémant de Bourgogne and find a suitable place to celebrate: even a quick toast by the banks of the Seine can be very pleasant, albeit chilly!
Alternatively, enjoy casual drinks at a bar or wine bar: many do stay open on the 31st, as owners know the night is a popular one for eating and drinking into the wee hours.
Exhibits & Shows Worth Seeing in December 2020
December is a busy time in the Parisian arts and culture scene. Here are just a few picks for this month– and to see a more complete list of exhibits and shows in 2020, see this page.
Monet, Renoir, Chagall- Mediterreanean Voyages (at The Atelier des Lumières)
The third blockbuster exhibit from the Atelier des Lumières, one of the capital’s most exciting new contemporary art spaces, this multimedia show blends images and music to bring mesmerizing new life and menaing to the work of Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, and Marc Chagall.
If you’re in Paris and can manage to reserve tickets ( a feat these days due to social distancing rules and crowd control measures currently in place), consider yourself lucky.
When: Through January 2021. Note that reservations are required. The Atelier des Lumieres closed in late October as part of a national lockdown and is scheduled to re-open on December 15th, 2020.
Henri Matisse at the Centre Pompidou: 150th anniversary retrospective
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of French painter Henri Matisse’s birth, the Centre Georges Pompidou has put together a fascinating and sweeping exhibit that highlights a selection of masterpieces, emphasing in particular how Matisse’s use of bold color, texts, and compositional principles come together to distinctive effects.
The exhibit brings together paintings, drawings, illustrations, sculptures, and other works from the visionary artist.
When: October 21, 2020 through February 22, 2021. Note that reservations are required.