By Barb Harmon
Thomas Jefferson once said: “A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.” I can’t imagine anyone who has spent time in Paris disagreeing with our third President. The city of light has an energy, a pulse that comes alive in its rich history, dazzling beauty, and fashion sense. The French have earned the reputation of being trend setters, so it should come as no surprise the first ‘malls’ were located in Paris.
The History of Les Passages Couverts – The Covered Passages
The passages date from the late 18th to 19th century. They allowed the rich Parisian a way to avoid inclement weather while shopping, dining, or meeting friends. Folks soon realized they created a shortcut…it was possible to hop scotch across Paris via the passages…one barely had to step outside. While each passage is different they all share a common thread—extravagant glass roofs, achingly beautiful architecture, and woodwork with centuries-old patina. History comes alive in these marvelous arcades where we can glimpse what shopping was like in the 19th century. Stepping from a noisy busy street into any of the covered passages is like a trip back in time.
We can thank Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte for their demise
Emperor Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte enlisted the help of Baron Haussmann to renovate and redesign Paris. Bonaparte envisioned an openness, a grandeur for the city which was drowning in filth and disease. Haussmann fulfilled his obligation by creating a city with large open boulevards, grand leafy parks and uniform architecture. It’s the Paris we see today. Sadly, many of the passages were destroyed during the renovation. While there were over a hundred at one point, the number has dwindled down to 15 or so that are open to the public. All are loved by the locals. Tourists are now discovering them and descending in droves.
1. Passage des Panoramas – 2e Arrondissement
Built in 1799, this is one of the oldest covered passages. It’s also one of the most famous…it was the first public area in France to be lit by gas in 1817. People flocked to witness the marvel…I can imagine how exciting it must have been. Nowadays this passage is jam packed day or night.
Inside you’ll find scores of bistros and restaurants, many with seating along the narrow walkway. If you collect old stamps or letters, this is your nirvana. You’ll find numerous shops dedicated to both. Due to the age of the passage, the colorful shops are often tiny (room for 2 people), the enterprising shopkeepers extend their space by setting tables out front. I spent a good hour looking through boxes of letters deciding what I wanted to purchase. Bijou jewelry shops, old photograph and postcard shops, call Passage des Panoramas home.
Metro: Grand Boulevards
Entrances: 10 rue Saint-Marc or 11 Boulevard Montmartre
2. Passage Jouffroy – 9e Arrondissement
Passage Jouffroy built in 1845, is directly across the street from Passage des Panoramas. Its entrance is hidden in plain sight between a mens clothing shop and restaurant. This is my favorite passage hands down due to the unique boutiques and the belle époque architecture. Passage Jouffroy was the first to be built in iron and glass. The roof is two part—the rounded glass is covered with a V-shaped glass roof which allows ventilation and protects the rounded glass from the elements. It really was an architectural feat and is visually stunning.
The shops are one-of-a-kind treasure troves, their windows will stop you in your tracks…so much to see. Walking into La Maison Du Roy is like stepping into the 18th century. Here you’ll find elaborate carnaval masks, textiles, unique glassware, intricate embroidered wares, you name it…every nook and canny is filled with enticing items. It’s difficult not to buy something in this magical boutique.
Galerie Fayet carries a vast array of canes including antique canes with secret functions. If you are looking for a cane which hides a flask…you’ll find it here. If an elegant parasol is on your wishlist, Galerie Fayet is your shop.
Librairie Du Passage is one of Paris’s oldest bookstores. Founded in 1850, it sells rare books and lithographs but the bargain book can be found as well.
Of course there are restaurants and tea shops. You’ll also find The Hôtel Chopin—the only hotel housed in a passage. Opened in 1846, it’s one of the oldest hotels in the city…the front door is never locked.
The wax museum—Musée Grévin opened in 1882. This allowed the visitor to shop, dine, and view ‘the celebrities’ of the past and present while strolling through the passage. It has kept current with today’s celebs but make no mistake, you are surrounded with history. There is always a long queue waiting at the door. Reserve your tickets ahead of time.
Metro: Grand Boulevards
Entrances: 10-12 Boulevard Montmartre or 9 rue de la Grange-Batelière
3. Passage Verdeau – 9e Arrondissement
As you make your way to the end of Passage Jouffroy, cross the tiny street and you’ll find yourself in Passage Verdeau. This is a quiet passage. If you want to get away from the crowds and enjoy gorgeous architecture, add this passage to your ‘must see’ list.
With a nice selection of bistros and restaurants, you’ll find something to suit most budgets. Passage Verdeau is known for its antique dealers…there are numerous shops to visit if you enjoy browsing through history. Picturesque book shops, fine art boutiques, as well as old photo and postcard shops round out the selection.
Metro: Grand Boulevards
Entrances: 6 rue de la Grange-Batelière or 31 rue de Faubourg Montmartre
4. Galerie Vivienne – 2e Arrondissement
Built in 1823, Galerie Vivienne is the most elegant of the group. The ambiance is one of sophistication…it’s ultra posh. On a sunny day it’s filled with light thanks to its glass roof and rotunda. The Galerie is spacious. You’ll find the architecture opulent…decorated columns, arches, and polished wood add to its appeal. The mosaic-tiled floor by Italian mosaic artist Giandomenico Facchina, seriously takes my breath away everytime I walk into the Galerie.
Amidst the potted plants are bookstores, bistros, a wine cellar, and a variety of upscale shops. This is a Galerie that uplifts with its beauty.
Entrances: 4 rue des Petits Champs, 5 rue de la Banque, or 6 rue Vivienne
5. Galerie Véro-Dodat – 1e Arrondissement
If location is king then Galerie Véro-Dodat wears the crown. It’s close to the Louvre and the Palais Royal but tourists tend to overlook it. Built in 1826, it was popular with the locals who shopped at the food markets in Les Halles. Sadly, its popularity declined and it fell into disrepair. Thankfully in 1997 it was restored to its original splendor.
Although the passage is rather small, the diagonal black and white checkered marble floor, gives the illusion of a larger space. Coupled with a low glass and frescoed ceiling it feels intimate.
Galerie Véro-Dodat is known for its luxury shops. Christian Louboutin has a workshop-boutique here…in fact their offices are located here. You’ll find elegant restaurants, antique shops, art galleries, objets d’art shops, and exquisite clothing and accessory shops. Thank goodness, window shopping is free.
Metro: Louvre – Rivoli
Entrances: 2 rue du Bouloi or 19 rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Hours vary for each passage.
All photos by Barb Harmon