Top 10 free things to do in Paris in Winter
So, you have planned to visit the French Capital in winter? The grey atmosphere, the humid weather, or the crowds going Christmas-shopping may all give you the unpleasant impression that you have made a mistake.
However, I believe that winter is one of the best seasons to visit Paris.
The cold weather, the Christmas spirit, the coffee shops offering a cocooning break in the urban frenzy, all contribute to the enchantment of visiting the City of Lights once the shortest day of the year has passed.
In a time when money tends to run dry – did you already purchase that game your great nephew ordered? – you may still very much enjoy your time in Paris! Indeed, here are 10 things you should do in Paris to enjoy your time there, in winter. And what’s best : they are free!
1. Admire the Christmas lights in Paris
Paris is known for its lights. All year round, the main monuments are lit in a magnificent way, and the huge Haussmannian boulevards shine and sparkle.
However, the magic of Paris lights is nothing compared to the wonders you will see once Christmas time comes. The Christmas Lights on the Champs-Elysées are often inaugurated each year, around November 20, in a festive ceremony.
If the Champs-Elysées is the one that first comes to mind as far as Christmas lights are concerned, the whole city is covered with glitter in the weeks before Christmas. The Grands Boulevards are grandiosely lit as well. In more residential neighborhoods, merchants tend to club together to illuminate their own street. Head to Rue du Commerce or Rue de Sèvres on the Left Bank, or Rue Montorgueuil on the Right Bank for a good idea of neighborhood decorations.
At last, for a fairytale Christmas experience, the best area to head to is definitely the luxury Saint-Honoré neighborhood. Magical lights are put up on the very classy Rue Royale and Rue de la Paix, and Place Vendôme turns into a real invitation to dream.
You want to see more of Paris by night? Why not book our Paris Night Tour?
2. Go to the Christmas Markets
Once you rekindled your Christmas spirit, you may complete the experience by visiting one of the numerous Christmas Markets that punctuate the streets of Paris.
The Champs-Elysées used to have the largest one of all, but it was closed following the terrorist attacks in 2015. Now, most Christmas Markets take place in squares of the city. You may find them at the Tuileries Gardens, on the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, in front of Notre-Dame, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in front of the Sacré-Coeur, at Les Halles and in most main spots.
Their wooden and very-mountainy atmosphere is very prone for tasting some of the typically traditional Christmas food and beverages like hot chestnuts and mulled wine, and discover handmade French art.
Entrance is usually 100% free. Be careful, if you wish to buy something in the markets, credit cards are not always accepted. The largest markets are often equipped with ATMs.
The website of Paris city-hall lists all Christmas Markets and, more importantly, their opening dates. Most open either in late November, or in mid-December, and end in early January.
3. Take a look at department stores window displays
If the lights and markets have not yet revived your inner Santa, you may head towards the Boulevard Haussmann’s great department stores.
The stores window displays are themed each year differently and animated in a “It’s A Small World” kind of way. The main ones are those of Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. The BHV store near Hôtel-de-Ville and the Bon Marché on the Left Bank now also display nice decorations.
Also, don’t miss the giant Christmas Tree under the Galeries Lafayette’s cupola.
4. Ice skate
Winter is an icy time, and a great one to ice skate! Many ice rinks pop up across the city, mostly next to the Christmas Markets, and most of the time during the same dates.
Ice rink access is usually free, and the skates rental costs less than 10€.
The most common ice rinks in Paris are at the Tuileries Garden, at Hôtel de Ville, at Les Halles, and at Champ de Mars.
If you wish to have an even more memorable experience, you may also choose one of the special ice rinks opened each year. In the past years, great ice rinks were created at the top of the Montparnasse Tower or on the Eiffel Tower. This year, don’t miss the ice rink at the top of the Grande Arche at La Défense.
My favorite one is by far the huge ice rink of the Grand Palais : the setting is grandiose, the rink is the largest one in Europe with a 3000 square meter ice surface and the festive ambiance, amplified with spotlights, is unforgettable. However, all of these special ice rinks are NOT free. Expect an entrance fee between 15-20€. But the overall experience is really unique.
5. Attend a literary event
In our articles, you may have read about the English-speaking bookstores in Paris, the most famous one being Shakespeare and Co near Notre-Dame.
Did you know these places usually held free (or very cheap) events, year round? These events range from readings to wider debates.
They are great ways to have a taste of the literary mindset of the Parisian Left Bank, all the while protecting yourself from the cold.
You may find a list of upcoming events at Shakespeare & Co, here.
If you wish to see more of the literary mindset of the Left Bank, you can also book our Left Bank – Saint Germain des Prés Tour
6. Attend a pub event
After debating, time to relax! If drinking in one of the many Parisian bars is – of course – not free (and often not cheap!),some pubs or bars organise free events to have fun and take shelter from the bitter cold.
For instance, you could head to the Scottish pub The Highlander at 8, rue de Nevers (near Odéon and Saint-Michel). The pub hosts various events all week such as open mics, karaoke nights, and their weekly pub quiz on Sunday – when the winning team get a pitcher of a cocktail of their choice!
7. Attend a concert or mass at a Church
Whatever your religion – if you have one – and even if you don’t do this for religious purpose, Christmas time is a great time to attend religious events as they are usually filled with carols, music, and a very joyful and generous atmosphere.
The Christmas mass in Notre-Dame on Christmas Eve gathers the crowds, of course. However, other churches organise free events, concerts and gospel choirs that are nice to see.
For instance, you can see the program for the grandiose American Church in Paris, recognisable to its imposing spear, here.
8. Go to museums or exhibitions
There are free exhibitions, year round in Paris. What a better time to see them, than winter, when the weather convinces you to stay indoors?
The website Sortir à Paris, available in English here, is a great source to find what is currently happening in the city.
Also, never forget that the great national museums are free on the first Sunday of each month. They are a great way to flee the icy cold and rain. If you are younger than 18 years-old, access is also generally free every day, wherever you are from. If you are an EU citizen, free access is even granted up to 26 years-old.
9. Have a mystic walk in Père Lachaise
If the museums, pub quizzes, and free concerts are too conventional for you, what would you say of a spooky walk in a cemetery?
Yes, the idea must seem weird to most of you, but I dare list is as I don’t have in mind any cemetery. The Père Lachaise Cemetery is the most famous cemetery in France. On the heights of the French Capital are buried, there, many of the most renowned personalities that contributed to the artistic and cultural grandeur of the country.
If you are lucky enough to visit Paris under the snow, then you should absolutely head to this tombstone maze. Lose yourself between the resting places of Edith Piaf, Maria Callas, Oscar Wilde, or Jim Morrison and have a memorable winter experience.
Put on your warmest clothes, take an umbrella – just in case – and hit the streets of the most beautiful city in the world. Paris is fascinating in winter.
In winter, on days when it doesn’t rain, expect cold but dry days, perfect for a stroll out. If the inner parks of the Capital are not always nice places for a walk in winter, the outer woods – Bois de Boulogne & Bois de Vincennes – are great getaways for the coldest days as their lakes may freeze and the trees cover in a thin layer of ice.
The Seine riverbanks are also a great option as the monuments seem massively impressive in the cold but blue skies of Paris in winter.
Should you feel a bit too cold, you may always take shelter in the 2nd or 4th Arrondissements’ covered passages or in a cozy coffee shop…
By walking the streets of Paris in winter, you will overall experience the joyful spirit of the Holidays, the frenzy of late Christmas shopping and the pleasant feeling that this city is a great holiday destination, even when the weather is not on your side…