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Paris celebrates Christmas with its typical urban flair: extravagant lighting, yummy window displays and ice skating in the heart of the city. If you go, here are 10 ways to have a “Joyeux Noel” in the City of Light … without breaking the bank.
FIND A CHRISTMAS CAROUSEL. These seasonal merry-go-rounds (called “Maneges de Noel”) pop up in every neighborhood in Paris. The biggies are at Hotel de Ville, Place Joffre near the Eiffel Tower and at the base of the Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Montmartre — but more fun are the charming “maneges” in less touristy neighborhoods (free, daily 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. until early January).
LICK A WINDOW. The French phrase for “window shopping” is “leche-vitrine” — literally, “window licking.” Big department stores compete with one another for the most fabulous window displays of animation and whimsy. French parents dress up their kids and come from all over the country to compare the windows of the three great Parisian department stores: Galeries Lafayette, Printemps and Bon Marche. The first two stores also have illuminated “canvases” covering their facades with thousands of lights.
RIDE A FERRIS WHEEL. See Paris from a whole new angle — ride La Grande Roue at Place de la Concorde. It’s best at night, when you soar more than 200 feet above floodlit Paris in one of 42 heated compartments (10 euros, daily 11 a.m. to midnight).
GO FOR A PONY RIDE. Take your children to Luxembourg Garden to ride the ponies or (sometimes at Christmas) donkeys. If you’re lucky enough to be there when the donkeys are, you can tell your children the Christmas story about a very pregnant Mary riding a donkey on the journey to Bethlehem with Joseph. And whether you have kids or not, the garden is a delightful place to watch Parisians at play.
SHOP FOR CHOCOLATE. Buy your best friend a box of chocolates at La Maison du Chocolat, run by Robert Linxe, the high priest of Paris chocolate. Specialties include jewel-like bonbons with lemon, mint, and ginger-infused fillings. The lines go out the door at Christmastime, so allow plenty of time for your visit at one of his seven boutiques (www.lamaisonduchocolat.com).
GAZE AT AVANT-GARDE TREES. Visit the annual exhibition of Christmas trees created by top couturiers and designers that’s held in a chic corner of Paris (this year they’re in boutiques mostly along Avenue Montaigne near the Champs-Elysees). The “trees” don’t look much like your standard evergreen; they’re Christmas concoctions with something vaguely tree-like about them. Creations are by turns wickedly funny, seductive, political, lovely, and just plain weird. Go early because in mid-December the trees are auctioned off to assist French charities (www.lessapinsdenoeldescreateurs.org).
CRUISE THE CHAMPS-ELYSEES. Bundle up, wander over to the Champs-Elysees, and walk the length of the boulevard, with its fairy forest of twinkling trees. Time it so that you can walk (or take the Metro) over to Place du Trocadero in time to see the lights on the Eiffel Tower shimmer — on the hour for five minutes every night until midnight.
EAT MORE PASTRIES. Indulge yourself with a “buche de Noel” (yule log) from the oldest patisserie in Paris. One day in 1725, Queen Marie Leszczynska, daughter of the king of Poland, stopped in Strasbourg on her way to Versailles to marry Louis XV and met a pastry chef named Nicolas Stohrer. She fell in love — not with the chef, but with his famous “puits d’amour” (“wells of love,” cups of puff pastry filled with a rich, creamy custard). The Queen offered him a job, and Stohrer packed up, opened up a patisserie in Paris five years later, and became famous. Even the Queen of England couldn’t resist a stop at Stohrer’s on a recent trip to Paris (www.stohrer.fr.).
VIEW THE CITY OF LIGHT’S LIGHTS. Seeing the City of Light floodlit during the holidays is one of Europe’s great travel experiences. For less than the cost of two seats on a big bus tour, you can hire your own taxi at night and have a glorious hour of illuminated Paris. Try a circular route from Notre-Dame to the Eiffel Tower along the river and back.
EXPERIENCE PARIS ON ICE. Put on something chic and cozy. Then head for Paris’ historic city hall (Hotel de Ville) for some outdoor ice skating. The rink is free to use (around 5 euros to rent skates, generally open from late November to February from noon into the evening). If you’d rather be indoors, the landmark Grand Palais near the Champs-Elysees hosts one of the world’s largest indoor skating rinks from mid-December to early January (15 euros includes rental).
At Christmastime, the City of Light is as beautiful and seductive as ever. If you’re thinking about traveling during the holidays, consider this French twist to the spirit of the season.
(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.)