A beauteous Blue Christmas

Rows of decorated trees curve up the long hill of the Champs Élysées, Paris' most famous boulevard, converging at the Arc de Triomphe.
Rows of decorated trees curve up the long hill of the Champs Élysées, Paris' most famous boulevard, converging at the Arc de Triomphe. (ROBIN B. SMITH)

Parisians call twilight "l'heure bleue." At Noël, the blue hour glistens and the City of Light makes indescribable magic.

Posted: November 25, 2013

No place can outshine Paris at Christmas.

With its illuminated monuments, buildings, and bridges, the City of Light lives up to its billing all year. During December, however, its visual splendors exceed all superlatives. The kaleidoscope of shifting views down grand avenues and boulevards dazzles and astonishes.

Darkness comes early, but there is an enchanted hour just after sunset, when the hastening dusk triggers the streetlights and rich color fills the sky. The French call it l'heure bleue, the blue hour, "when the sky has lost its sun but has not yet found its stars."

This is not a time to remove your shoes in a hotel room for a predinner rest. It's time to rejoin the flow of pedestrian traffic and gaze at the holiday decorations. It's not a question of which way to look, but of which way to look first.

Panorama of lights

A 360-degree panorama of picture-postcard views makes the Place de la Concorde a good starting point. The eye is drawn northwest by tulip petals of lights draped over the trees lining the Champs Élysées' promenade. The parallel rows of trees curve up the long hill and converge at the Arc de Triomphe, itself illuminated.

To the southwest, the Eiffel Tower's regular amber lights seem festive enough, but keep an eye on your watch for the hourly surprise. From sunset to 1 a.m. at the top of the hour, 20,000 twinkle lights on the tower sparkle for 10 minutes. The show stops both Parisians and visitors in their tracks. Originally, only 2,000 extra lights were installed for a one-year special, but the public (and mayoral) response was so enthusiastic that the lighting was enhanced permanently.

Ice-skating wonderland

But that is only the eye candy. If you are enticed across the River Seine, a magical experience awaits you throughout December and January: ice skating 187 feet above ground on the Eiffel Tower's outdoor rink. Ride the lift or walk up to Level One, and the skating (and the use of skates) is free. With the city's lights spread out below, you can glide and spin under the massive girders, and when the hourly sparkling begins, it feels like being in fairyland. The adjacent restaurant transforms its bar into a tearoom each afternoon, where you can warm cheeks and fingertips nipped by wintry air.

Two modes of transportation fare best for an overview of Paris' holiday highlights, both from above and from below. Buses give a high-angle view of decorated streets and monuments, while cruise boats and the Batobus (a water-shuttle service with eight strategic stops) glide along the Seine under illuminated bridges for a river-level view.

Shop decorations

Back in the shopping districts, specialty shops and food emporiums lure shoppers with creative displays and wafting scents of spices, chocolates, and other delicacies. The doorman at Baccarat attentively waits for the slight turn and slowing step of a well-heeled woman striding toward the entrance. Bold red drums of tea line the shelves at Hediard; salespeople carefully place spheres of chocolate into foil bags at Lenôtre and Fauchon. Even the smallest purchase is wrapped with care and respect.

The major department stores compete with each other in lights and decorations, but together serve as a magnet for Parisians and visitors to the Boulevard Haussmann. Under a canopy of colored lanterns and tinsel along the sidewalk, children climb onto elevated ramps to press their noses to the animated window displays of Printemps. Their excitement is contagious, and puts smiles on the faces of nearby adults as well. Don't miss this opportunity to mingle with French families enjoying a traditional outing during the holidays.

Rival store Galeries Lafayette, on the next block, boasts the world's largest in-store tree, glowing inside the central shopping dome. Men and women come and go, speaking of perfumes and gilt packaging on the lowest level, of soft leather and outrageously pointed stilettos on the balconied upper floors.

Farther east, step back to the early 19th century when covered shopping arcades, cutting north to south across the grand boulevards, were the rage in Paris. Precursors to our malls by 150 years, "passages" such as Galerie Vivienne and Passage du Grand-Cerf harbor bookstores, art galleries, and boutiques in the luminous light that filters down through the glass roofs.

Noël everywhere

Festive lighting is abundant in other areas of the city as well. The plaza in front of Notre Dame cathedral usually features a decorated evergreen. The hotel Le Meurice invites a different group of creative-arts businesses each year to adorn individual trees spread throughout the lobby and public corridors.

Although it is not illuminated any differently for the winter holidays, the Louvre's pyramid entrance seems to have the spirit of Noël also, in both its shape and its position in the Cour Napoléon courtyard, its crystalline glow reflected on the arched corridors of the museum's wings.

Streets like Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré and Rue Courcelles are draped with banners of lights for blocks, which encourages the tendency to keep walking until you discover you've walked from the Opéra Garnier all the way down to Saint-Germain-des-Prés without ever using the convenient Metro system.

The rhythm of the street is not a hurried one, but rather a hesitation two-step: stroll, pause, back up, and look again.

The champagne fizz of the Parisian twilight will go to your head, empty your wallet, and swell your heart. It's a sensory delight not to be missed.

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