WHY GO NOW?
Shrug off the wistfulness of winter and prepare for a Joyeux Noël by heading for the City of Light. Over the next month, Paris will be brimming with Christmas cheer. And you are guaranteed much more fun shopping in the French capital than in your local high street.
From London Waterloo and Ashford, Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) runs to Paris Gare du Nord for fares starting at £59 return. You can fly from a wide range of UK airports to Charles de Gaulle airport, from which the RER (suburban railway) takes about half an hour to Gare du Nord, and continues to the more centrally located stations of Châtelet and St-Michel ; the fare, €8 (£5.70) is the same to any station in Paris. Flights from Bournemouth, Coventry and Doncaster on Thomsonfly (0870 1900 737; www.thomsonfly.com) arrive at Orly airport, linked by bus or light rail/RER to the centre.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
The quarters of Paris where the festive spirit is most in evidence are concentrated in a relatively small area of the capital: the big department stores such as Au Printemps and Galeries Lafayette on the Grands Boulevards; Les Halles and the rue de Rivoli; the Marais, centring on the Place des Vosges ; and, further east, the Bastille . The handiest tourist office is at 25 rue des Pyramides; open 10am-7pm daily (Sundays from 11am). For information, call 00 33 8 92 68 30 00 or visit www.parisinfo.com.
TAKE A RIDE
Within this area, most places are walkable, but a €1.40 (£1) ticket for the highly efficient Métro, bus and RER covers any distance within the city limits. A carnet of 10 tickets costs €10.50 (£7.50). Use one to visit the Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre station; the entrance on Place Colette sparkles with decoration.
December's most festive place is the five-star Hôtel Meurice at 228 rue de Rivoli (00 33 1 44 58 10 10; www.lemeurice.com). In addition to its annual exhibition of elaborate Christmas trees, next weekend (1-3 December), the hotel is organising its very first Christmas market in one of its suites, featuring labels such as Yves Saint Laurent and Dior. Close by, the Place Vendôme will once again be lit up for Christmas. You can peek for free, but if you want to stay, a special offer running until 28 December will get you a superior room from €675 (£480) per night (for a minimum of two nights) including breakfast and tea in the Jardin d'Hiver.
For tranquillity, head for the Left Bank and the small, elegant and luxurious Relais Christine , at 3 rue Christine (00 33 1 40 51 60 80; www.relais-christine.com), a mansion in the 16th century. You can take a sauna surrounded by even more ancient stones. The special offer at present is €290 (£207) for a double room, including breakfast.
A one-star alternative for a quarter of the price is close by: the exotic Hôtel de Nesle at 7 rue de Nesle (00 33 1 43 54 62 41; www.hoteldenesleparis.com). Walking through the front door of this hippie favourite transports you straight to Marrakesh. The rooms are all individually decorated with historic scenes, and although the Nesle used to be a shoestring option, prices have risen now that its clientele is older, balder and richer. Doubles €75 (£53) without breakfast.
TAKE A HIKE
The Carrefour de l'Odéon is not a hypermarket but the Left Bank crossroads where this slice through festive Paris begins. At the statue of Danton in the middle of the square, turn your back on Starbucks (as many Parisians insist that they do) and head along the short rue de l'Ancienne Comédie. Bear right into rue Dauphine, lined with interesting shops. Cross the Seine on the Pont Neuf, which clips the western end of the Ile de la Cité. On the Right Bank, you will see the much-loved grand magasin La Samaritaine currently closed for refurbishment. Head straight along rue de la Monnaie. If you know any francophone travellers, an excellent place to shop for them is the Itinéraires bookshop , just off the trail at 60 rue St-Honoré (00 33 1 42 36 12 63; www.itineraires.com).
Continue aiming north for the church of St-Eustache , across the gardens that have superseded the old market quarter of Les Halles. Dodge the modern sculpture in front of St-Eustache and bear right past the market stalls that, on Saturdays, brim with the raw materials of great cuisine. The feast continues on the rue Montorgueil, where a gilt snail presides over the door of L'Escargot (00 33 1 42 36 83 51; www.escargotmontorgueil.com); other excellent restaurants and food stores share the street.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Even if your budget doesn't run to L'Escargot, rue Montorgueil is a good place to grab lunch. Try a cream-cheese bagel at Pains Délices .
You may not be familiar with the name Willy Ronis, but you'll recognise his photographs - moody, monochromatic moments of Parisian life - instantly. The gallery at the Hôtel de Ville , entrance at 29 rue de Rivoli, is quite small, so Parisians and visitors alike have been queuing up outside to see "Willy Ronis à Paris" before it closes on 18 February; it is worth the wait. Open 10am-7pm daily except Sunday, last admission 6.30pm, free.
An afternoon could easily be devoured at the heavyweight department stores: Au Printemps (00 33 1 42 82 57 87; www.printemps.com; open 9.35am-7pm daily except Sunday, to 10pm Thursdays) and Galeries Lafayette (00 33 1 42 82 34 56; www.galeries-lafayette.com; open 9.30am-7.30pm daily except Sundays, Thursdays to 9pm). Each seeks to outdo the other with elaborate window displays, especially at this time of year; the whole façade of the Galeries Lafayette will also gain a Christmas veil, which is dazzlingly illuminated after dark.
To get in the festive mood, aim high. The café on the sixth floor of Au Printemps features a copse of scarlet Christmas trees, while a beautifully decorated tree rises beneath the dome of Galeries Lafayette.
Both stores offer a great gift-wrapping service.
For more modest aspirations and more individual stores, explore the area just east of the Bastille . The triangle of rue du Faubourg St-Antoine, Avenue Ledru-Rollin and rue de Charonne offers stylish footwear, a picture-postcard boulangerie La Panetière at 109 Avenue Ledru Rollin, and cartoon books at Librairie BD at 26 rue de Charonne (00 33 1 4355 5050; www.bdnet.com).
Un orgasme? That'll be €3.50 (£2.50) during happy hour (4-8pm) at Cuba Compagnie , a trendy but friendly bar on the corner of rue du Chemin Vert and boulevard Beaumarchais (00 33 1 48 06 07 11; www.cubacompagnie.com). (The aforementioned cocktail contains vodka and grenadine.) Or you could shun tradition at the Café Crème on rue de Birague (00 33 1 48 87 53 16) and down a Desperados (beer laced with tequila).
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Chez Paul seems like an unassuming street-corner restaurant at 13 rue de Charonne (00 33 1 47 00 34 57), yet is steeped in atmosphere and extremely popular; book in advance for dinner, served daily from 7pm. Working through the menu from foie gras via succulent meat dishes to coffee is likely to cost around €60 (£43) per person. You can dine much more cheaply elsewhere in Paris, but it is hard to eat much better.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Unlike most great cathedrals, Notre-Dame welcomes tourists even during Sunday Mass. Its soaring architecture will lift your spirits any day, between 8am and 6.45pm, free. Afterwards, nip into the adjacent foyer of the Hôtel-Dieu (00 33 1 44 32 01 00; www.hotel-hospitel.com) - the oldest hospital in Paris, where visitors may admire the ornate courtyard.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Jo Goldenberg's , at 7 rue des Rosiers (00 33 1 48 87 20 16), is the place for an excellent kosher brunch, but the builders are in until 20 December; until then, settle for tea and a snack in the refined ambience of Mariage Frères at 30 rue du Bourg-Tibourg, which opens at 10.30am daily.
A WALK IN THE PARK
Find the shiny, modern Opéra Bastille . Walk beside it, along the rue de Lyon, and look to the left to see a wall that marks the end of the old railway arches . Climb the stairs to find yourself on the Promenade Plantée, a relatively new high-level linear park that provides a fresh perspective. Glide for 20 minutes or so through the elevated gardens. Then descend, turn right and walk back along the Viaduc des Arts, a series of cafés and galleries that have filled the arches.
ICING ON THE CAKE
From 2 December to 26 February, the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville is transformed into an ice rink (00 33 1 42 76 40 40). Admission is free, but skate rental is €5 (£3.50).
Additional research by Catherine Dawes