Visiting Paris in January: What to See & Do?

Paris in its January guise, outside the Centre Pompidou.

Many of my French friends loathe Paris in January. According to their dramatic telling, the city becomes a miserable, soul-devouring and depressing place that might easily have featured as one of Dante’s nine circles of hell. Not to mention that it allegedly reinforces stereotypes of Parisians being masters of gloom and existential angst.

I’ve never shared those sentiments, needless to say. Perhaps my years of wishing for a “real” winter as a child in Southern California (coupled with my preference for cold over extreme heat) have made me tolerant of conditions deemed ghastly by others.

After all, icy wind that mildly stings your face can occasionally be *enjoyable*, especially when you’re wrapped to the nose in scarves and heading for a warm cafe to meet a friend. There’s something cozy and even poetic about it.

Read related: 6 Of my Favorite Winter Haunts in Paris 

Maybe where my friends see endless blight and a depressing lack of activity, I see stillness and peace. The holidays have passed and there’s again space for contemplation, quiet and food that won’t tax your liver.

Tourists are thin on the ground, and I can visit an exhibit without getting subtly (or not so subtly) pushed along when I’m trying to fully appreciate the brush strokes on a particular painting.

Tables are actually free at my favorite cafes. Human traffic isn’t clogging the sidewalks, and riding the metro doesn’t set off waves of claustrophobic panic or a desire to claw at fellow passengers.

Cannibale Cafe in Paris/Courtesy of the official Facebook page
Cannibale Cafe in Paris

In short, it’s ideal if, like me, you dislike crowds and enjoy a quieter, more low-key pace when traveling. After all, there’s no “best time of year to visit Paris”: it’s all strictly a matter of personal preferences and tastes.

Enjoying the sounds of silence don’t mean you’ll be condemned to boredom, of course. Keep reading for my suggestions on how to enjoy January in the capital to the fullest, including a few shows and exhibits that I especially recommend. For further ideas, you can consult the Paris Tourist Office page and their handy event calendars.

January Weather in Paris, &  Some Packing Tips

Paris, winter by the Seine. It's often chilly and wet at the year's beginning. Credit: Henry Marion/Creative Commons 2.0 license
Paris, winter by the Seine. It’s often chilly and wet at the year’s beginning. Credit: Henry Marion/Creative Commons 2.0 license

January generally brings solid cold spells, with temperatures commonly near or sometimes even below zero. Make sure to line your bags with at least a couple of warm sweaters and winter coat, perhaps a waterproof jacket to go underneath in case of inclement weather.

Also pack warm, fuzzy socks, good gloves, scarf and a hat. Wind chill can be especially bracing at this time of year, and since the days are still running short, catching a chill is very likely if you don’t bundle up. But don’t exclusively bring winter wear along: warmer days can suddenly send you wanting to peel off the sweater and coat, so layering is generally advisable.

Minimum Temperature: 2 degrees C/35.6 degrees F
Maximum Temperature: 8 degrees C/46.4 degrees F
Average temp: 5 degrees C/41 degrees F
Average monthly precipitation: 2 inches

While it occasionally snows in January, it’s very unlikely to stick to the ground: but it might create minor hazards as it melts and forms into an icy sludge on the sidewalks and streets.

This is one reason (aside from comfort and warmth) that I discourage you from wearing heels while walking around the city at this time of the year. Who wants a sprained ankle to put a spanner in an otherwise wonderful trip? Unless it’s bright and clear out and the streets are free of ice or slick rain, pack your heels in a bag if you’ve planned to wear them for a special occasion later in the day.

What to Do in January?

It’s certainly not the busiest time of the year, and you admittedly may have to get a bit creative if you don’t wish to stay stuck indoors. But there’s still plenty to see and do– and, as mentioned, you’ll have the benefit of more relaxed conditions and relatively thin crowds on your side.

1. Indulge in some cafe-hopping.

Rue Montorgueil in Paris: traditional and idyllic.
View of the street from a cafe on Rue Montorgueil, sometime in winter. Image: Courtney Traub

The art of the cafe-hop is one that is practically baked into the DNA of Parisian culture. You can build a blustery day around stops at two or three cafes or brasseries, exploring various neighbourhoods on your way to the next warm refuge and “damn fine cup of coffee“.

January is also the perfect time to curl up somewhere warm with that tome you’ve been planning on getting through but haven’t had time to. (Side note: If you make it through James Joyce’s Ulysses, let me know: I never got past Book One…)

Wondering where to start? Over at TripSavvy, I have a feature on Parisian cafes, bookshops and gardens that also happen to be literary haunts, frequented by writers from Richard Wright to Ernest Hemingway and Simone de Beauvoir.

There’s also a more general, handy list of iconic cafe-brasseries in the capital  and another on the coolest new places in the city for gourmet coffee (from Kaitlin d’Avella). These are all good places to start.

I also recommend perusing  this list for particularly cozy, relaxed cafes in the capital, new and old. This one from food writer Clotilde Dusoulier is also helpful.

Parisian Tearooms I recommend

More of a tea person? Get cozy and warm at these fantastic places for afternoon tea in Paris.

2. Spend an afternoon at the cinema.

Cinema is more than a pastime in Paris: it's a sacred ritual, especially in winter. Credit: Kim Dokhac/Creative Commons 2.0
Cinema is more than a pastime in Paris: it’s a sacred ritual, especially in winter. Credit: Kim Dokhac/Creative Commons 2.0

As I’ve said many times before and will probably repeat going forward, there’s no city better suited to cinephilic fever than Paris. It screens over 300 films per week and has more “salles” (theatres) per capita than a film lover could possibly dream of.

January generally has a good share of mucky, icky, sloshy and otherwise unpleasant days: ones that make spending most of your time indoors seem like the most attractive prospect.

A single or even double screening will whisk you off the streets and do just the trick, but I’d avoid escapist blockbusters: instead, take refuge in an old arthouse theatre that will still give you a local, cozy experience worth writing home about.

For a good list of some of the better cinemas in Paris, see this page. I also list my favorites here.

3. Explore the sublime old “arcades” of Paris (covered passageways).

The covered passageways of Paris, also referred to as "galeries" or "arcades", offer old-world elegance. Image: Marmontel/Creative Commons 2.0 license
The covered passageways of Paris, also referred to as “galeries” or “arcades”, offer old-world elegance. Image: Marmontel/Creative Commons 2.0 license

Another of my preferred ways to get out of the cold (but not necessarily forgo sunlight on mercifully clear days) is to wander through the elaborate, elegant network of covered passageways that grace certain districts in Paris.

The most well-known of these include the Galerie Vivienne (pictured), Galerie Colbert, Passage des Panoramas and the Passage Jouffroy. Built mostly during the 18th and 19th centuries and also referred to as galeries or arcades, they were made famous by philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s astute, contemplative study in The Arcades Project .

{Related: Belle-Epoque Galleries & More in the Grands Boulevards District}

Harboring boutiques, restaurants and tearooms, bookshops, old-world toy stores, poster shops, etc., many of the passageways have been restored to their original glory.

Image: Soundlandscapesblog

It’s not difficult to admire the elaborate mosaic floors, glass rooftops, faux marble pillars decorated with paintings, and airy beauty that seems firmly anchored in a previous era.

Whether you stroll, shop, or stop for lunch or coffee, wandering through the loosely interconnected galeries on the right bank offer both a good way to understand how certain districts connect, and take refuge from the cold and rain.

Related: Step Back Into Belle-Epoque Paris in the Grands Boulevards District

For more on shopping in the capital, see this guide at Time Out . You can also check out this guide to navigating the annual winter and summer sales in Paris, with tips on how to avoid stress and disappointment as you hit the stores.

Exhibits and Shows Worth Your While in January 2020

No matter the season, there are generally at least a few excellent exhibits and shows on in the capital, and well worth a few hours of your morning or afternoon. Here are a couple I recommend to start the year out on a good footing.

Also make sure to see our complete guide to visiting Paris in 2020, with full details on exciting openings & things to do this year. 

Francis Bacon: Books & Painting (at the Centre Georges Pompidou)

Francis Bacon Centre Pompidou Paris exhibit

The Centre Pompidou has done it again, running one of the art season’s most-acclaimed shows. Its massive retrospective on British artist Francis Bacon continues for another month, following its opening last year.

The exhaustive exhibit shows how Bacon’s complex oeuvre evolved from the 1970s through the early 1990s, casting an arresting new light on his creative processes, techniques and sources.

Literature fans and those interested in the intersections between text and image will especially appreciate this show, which highlights literary and narrative sources and references in Bacon’s work.

When: The show is open until January 20th, 2020. You can buy tickets online here. 

Last Days: Leonardo Da Vinci at The Louvre

Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre Museum, Paris

If you haven’t caught this once-in-a-lifetime show at the Louvre, this is your last month to try to get a ticket. Even if you’ve already seen Leonardo’s masterpieces at the mammoth museum, this exhibit is unusually spectacular in its scope and creative in its approach.

Come to see over 140 works of art, manuscripts and invention from the Italian artist and scientific mind under a single roof. There’s even a virtual look at the Mona Lisa that even skeptics are calling mesmerizing, offering a fresh look at a painting that had started to feel staid.

Buy tickets as soon as possible: as you can imagine, this is an extremely oversubscribed show.

See more about the Leonardo da Vinci/Louvre exhibit here and buy tickets

The Golden Age of English Painting (at the Musée de Luxembourg)
Thomas Gainsborough,  Lady Bate Dudley, c. 1787. 

There’s something of a craze for English painting in the Parisian art world this season. If the aforementioned retrospective on Bacon at the Pompidou doesn’t quite sate your interest, this more intimate exhibit at the Musée de Luxembourg should certainly be on your list in January.

Covering what many critics call the golden age in British painting (1760-1830 or so), the show spotlights numerous masterpieces on loan from the Tate Britain’s permanent collection.

It offers insight into how the more traditional styles of English artists such as Reynolds and Gainsborough were succeeded by a period of bold experimentation and striking color in painting, exemplified by Turner.

When: Catch the show through February 16th, 2020 at the Musée du Luxembourg

Paris Loves Vinyl at the Espace Reuilly

Can’t stop collecting old records? Fans of their rich sound and tactile joys should beeline to the Paris Loves Vinyl event on January 12th.

Now in its 6th edition, this already-beloved event at the Espace Reuilly near Gare de Lyon gives visitors a chance to browse among an astounding 100,000 records.

The savviest record shops and dealers from France and other European countries hold court here, and there are even onsite Djs slated to spin throughout the day. This is definitely a way to liven up your January sojourn this year…

Ready to book your January Trip?

If so, you can find train tickets at Rail Europe and deals on flights or hotels (via Skyscanner).

I’d also argue that travel insurance is a pretty crucial part of preserving your peace of mind. You can generate a personalized quote from World Nomads and compare trusted policies here. 

One thought on “Visiting Paris in January: What to See & Do?

  1. I’m very tempted. I haven’t been to Paris in a few years and I usually go in February, hang out in bistros, shop the sales and generally bundle up and walk around. Thanks for the inspiration.

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