By Bryan Pirolli in Paris—
The holidays are a magical time in Paris. Due to a lack of a buffer holiday in the fall, the lights start going up just as Americans are digging in to their Thanksgiving turkey. Stores, public squares, and streets are all decorated with dazzling displays of holiday cheer brightening up the already aptly-named City of Light.
Here are several ways you can catch the Christmas spirit in Paris:
1. Department store window displays
The windows at the department stores are not quite as extravagant as those on Fifth Avenue in New York, but the Galeries Lafayette and Bon Marché stores do their best to compete. And the best part is that you don’t even have to worry about expensive price tags to enjoy the holiday decoration.
Galeries Lafayette: This year a Broadway theme dominates at the Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann. Children especially love watching the puppets dancing to the “Mamma Mia!” soundtrack. (38 Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin, 75009, Metro: Chaussée d’Antin-Lafayette)
BHV: Meanwhile, over at the iconic BHV department store on rue de Rivoli, Santa tackles the circus in a series of colorful windows. (52 Rue de Rivoli, 75004, Metro: Hotel de Ville)
Make sure to take a look inside each store for their elaborate Christmas trees, as well.
2. Christmas markets in Paris
If you are looking to do a little holiday shopping like the Europeans do, check out the holiday markets around town.
A tradition hailing from neighboring Germany, the bustling marchés de Noel can be found throughout Paris. While the merchandise may be kitschy and overpriced, the hot mulled wine is always yummy at just €3 for a cup of cheer.
Here are a few marchés to consider:
Champs Elysées: Tourists flock to the famed Champs Elysées market, a holiday wonderland once the lights twinkle to life at night. If you feel like splurging €8 on a breathtaking view of the city, take a spin on the Ferris Wheel at the end on Place de la Concorde. (Metro: Concorde or Champs Elysées-Clemenceau)
Saint Sulpice: Other markets are much more intimate. At the market outside Saint Sulpice church in the Saint Germain neighborhood you can browse scarves and various cheeses. (Metro: Saint Sulpice)
Montmartre: A stroll (or Metro ride) up Montmartre and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a market at Places des Abbesses in the picturesque neighborhood-with-a-view. (Metro: Abbesses)
La Defense: For a more modern take on the holiday, browse the 350 vendors at the La Défense market, located in the city’s business district. (Metro: La Défense)
Real Parisians know that the best Christmas markets in France are located in Strasbourg, about two hours to the east of Paris. However, any competition fades after a few glasses of hot wine.
For more Christmas market listings, check out About.com’s list.
3. Christmas at Notre Dame
Sure, it may be “on the beaten tourist path,” but the city’s medieval cathedral has an extra magical glow during the holidays. A Christmas tree shimmers with blue lights outside under the massive Gothic bell towers. Inside, the famous nativity scene is on display and visitors are encouraged to leave messages of peace.
On December 20, the church will host its annual Christmas concert–and of course it’s all free! (Metro: Saint-Michel).
4. Holiday feasting
Eating is, of course, essential in France during the holiday season (and most seasons, for that matter). Parisian supermarkets are rife with chocolates and cakes, most importantly the bûche de Noel, a scrumptious chocolate and chestnut cake. Hot wine flows in most cafés as well throughout the holiday season as the temperatures drop and spirits need a little lifting.
Of course all of this holiday cheer doesn’t stop on Christmas day. Look in any bakery or pastry shop for the galette de Rois, or King Cake, that is popular around the time of the Epiphany in the two weeks after Christmas day. A word of caution: Be careful not to swallow the figurine hidden inside. Whoever chomps down upon the the prize is crowned King or Queen–and buys the cake the next year!