Christmas shopping can be so much more fun when you combine it with a trip abroad. And the French capital is close enough for a day trip yet far enough away to feel like an exciting break.
This is the traveller, not independent consumer...
No, but Christmas shopping can be so much more fun when you combine it with a trip abroad. And the French capital is close enough for a day trip yet far enough away to feel like an exciting break. From London, Eurostar (08705 186 186, www.eurostar.com) will take you to les magasins for £70 for the day, or make a first-class weekend of it for £151 with Eurostar Holidays Direct (0870 167 6767), including two nights in a two-star hotel and free upgrade to first-class. By air, there are plenty of deals, the best of which are on Buzz (0870 240 7070, buzzaway.com) from Stansted, for as little as £38 return with no minimum stay. The other main airlines offering deals from regional UK airports are British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com), Air France (0845 0845 111, www.airfrance.com) and BMI British Midland (0870 60 70 555, www.flybmi.com). Dozens of short-break companies will sell you a trip to Paris, including Time Off (0845 733 6622) which is offering two nights in a two-star hotel from £155 including flights with British Airways from Heathrow.
It's still a long and expensive trip to go shopping
Yes, but filling the family's Christmas stockings with Parisian treats need not be incompatible with enjoying the numerous cultural, architectural and historical sights that the city offers – all it takes is some organisation.
But a word of warning: the dispute between France's culture ministry and staff at the nation's leading museums has yet to be settled, so visitors to the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay and other attractions in Paris and the rest of the country are still having their plans disrupted. Sporadic strike action is taken at different museums on different days. Closures are announced on a day-to-day basis – but only halfway through the day. Some, such as the Louvre this week, open only partially, but admission charges are waived. You can find out details, in French, of closures and partial opening on 00 33 8 25 88 26 50 from the UK.
Where should I start?
By getting your bearings. Paris is relatively compact. It's divided into 20 arrondissements – more simply into Right and Left Bank. The main shopping areas are clustered in the 1st (les Halles), 4th (the Marais), 6th (the Latin quarter) and 8th (up-market Champs-Elysées and Madeleine) districts. The Métro makes it easy to get around. Buy a carnet of 10 tickets for Fr61. These tickets can also be used on buses, some of which are mini-sightseeing routes in themselves (for example, No 39 passes Bon Marché, down through St Germain des Prés, across the Louvre and up to Gare de l'Est).
No serious shopper to Paris should overlook the department stores, where everything from table linen to designer fashion is brought together (although not quite under one roof). They are particularly handy for time-restricted shoppers, e.g. day-trippers. There are four major stores, and two are conveniently located within a stone's throw of each other on Boulevard Hausmann. Galeries Lafayette and Printemps (Métro: Chaussée d'Antin La Fayette) are both spread out over several adjacent buildings.
Printemps is classed as a national monument – not for the newly reorganised first floor, given over entirely to luxury goods, or its vast perfume and cosmetics department, but for the Art Deco ceiling and dome. If anything, the choice in Galeries Lafayette is even wider (well, I spend more money here), and another striking Belle Epoque ceiling draws the eye upward. The best place to take a breather is on the rooftop terrace. The outdoor restaurant is closed during the winter months (there's an alternative place to eat one floor down), but the views over the Opéra Garnier's roof across to the Louvre and to the Eiffel Tower in the south-west are stunning.
That's only two so far. What about the other pair?
La Samaritaine (rue de la Monnaie, Métro: Pont Neuf) isn't quite as glamorous as its rivals, but still has plenty of big names. Its own-label clothing is imaginative and well-priced. Best of all is the view from the main building's rooftop: it's a straight line from here all the way up the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, and you can follow the curve of the Seine and its bridges through half the city. The contrast between the Pompidou Centre's coloured pipes and its sandstone neighbours is even more striking from above. The best time to come is late afternoon, when the setting sun bathes everything, including Montmartre's Sacré-Coeur, in a warm red glow.
Across on the Left Bank, Bon Marché (rue de Sèvres, Métro: Sèvres Babylone) was Paris's first department store and remains in some ways the most attractive. Far from the bustling crowds, it has the same selection, often at slightly better prices. From here, it's a mere 10-minute walk along Rue du Vieux Colombier to the lovely Place St Sulpice and the church of the same name, with its uneven Italianate towers and murals by Delacroix. This winter's must-see art exhibition is a street away at the Musée du Luxembourg (open from 10am daily, closes at 7pm on Tues/ Wed/Thur, at 8pm on Sat/Sun, and at 11pm on Mon/Fri; 19 rue de Vaugirard). "Raphaël, Grace and Beauty", is small – 11 paintings, nine drawings (and reproductions of Roman frescos) – but these include such masterpieces as the re-discovered and restored Lady with the Unicorn and La Valeta. Entry costs Fr55, and the exhibition runs until 27 January 2002.
What about a bit of haute couture?
Hardly Christmas present stuff, but if you want to see how the other half lives – and dresses – there are two or three areas to focus on. The first is the "triangle d'or", between Place de la Concorde, Place de l'Alma and the Arc de Triomphe, where several big names are based. Avenue Montaigne is home to Inès de la Fressange (the former model turned designer, No 14), Christian Dior (No 30), Prada (No 10) and Nina Ricci (No 39). Alexander McQueen's designs for Givenchy are at No 3 av. George V.
Not far away, the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris has a collection of modern and contemporary art to compete with the nationally run Pompidou Centre, including works by Modigliani and Matisse. The current temporary exhibition features the Italian artist Morandi (11 avenue du Président Wilson, Métro: Alma-Marceau, closed Monday, admission Fr35).
Across Place Concorde, the Avenue du Faubourg St Honoré is another centre for luxury shops. Hermès's flagstore has all the headscarves, handbags and belts anyone on your Christmas list could wish for at No 24, Guy Laroche at No 28, and Christian Lacroix at No 73.
Georgio Armani stirred things up in literary St Germain-des-Prés when he opened a store at No 149, opposite the Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots, erstwhile haunts of angst-ridden existentialists, but this area is also home to Yves St Laurent and Sonia Rykiel.
I'm looking for something a little different
Ask any Parisian, and you'll be told to head to the Forum des Halles shopping centre or the Marais district. The controversial shopping mall on the site of the old city wholesale market has rented out vacant shops to young créateurs, giving them an opportunity to market affordable, one-off designs. The Marais' narrow streets are home to dozens of boutiques selling original clothes and gifts of all sorts, as well as better-known labels. Rue Pavée and Rue Vieille du Temple are always busy, and the wonderful Rue des Francs-Bourgeois shouldn't be missed. The Cour des Francs-Bourgeois behind No 8 has a good selection of coats, while Couleurs d'ailleurs (No 8 itself) is packed with bright accessories, jewellery and the Besimon clothes range. Anne Fontaine (No 12) has fantastic blouses, mostly in black or white, and if you're completely out of ideas, the kitsch Why? at No 41 has the ultimate flying pig for Fr89.
Most shops here are open on a Sunday afternoon – as is the Musée Picasso at the Hôtel Salé, 5 rue de Thorigny (Métro: St. Paul, admission Fr26 on a Sunday). This is the world's largest collection of Picasso paintings, given to the French state in lieu of death duties, and includes examples from almost all his artistic periods.
Perfume always goes down well at Christmas
Needless to say, the big couture houses all sell own-brand perfumes in their stores. One of the best places to try out – and purchase – a full range of perfumes without pressure is the specialised Sephora chain (00 33 1 53 93 22 50, open 10am until midnight, noon till midnight on Sunday). Its shop at 70 Avenue des Champs-Elysées is a real pleasure to visit, despite the crowds. To the left as you enter, there's a seating area with copies of the latest fashion magazines (notably Vogue and Elle) in English, French, Japanese and German, and a section with books on perfume and fashion history. From Aqua de Gio to Yohji, the perfumes are arranged alphabetically along each wall – men and women's scents are separated, and the central area has aisle upon aisle of make-up, beauty products and gift ideas (including a children's top 10). The Marionnaud chain (00 33 1 40 20 08 80, open from 10 am-9pm Mon-Sat, and the first three Sundays of December) is also worth visiting for perfume, not least to try the latest scent for the pet who has everything – Oh my Dog! and Oh my Cat! are guaranteed not to harm animals, and should give them that little plus in the canine or feline snobbery stakes.
I need something for my children
Once again, all the grands magasins have everything that Santa might possibly need, but the toy store in Paris is Au Nain Bleu (00 33 1 42 60 39 01, 408 Rue St Honoré, at the corner with rue Richepanse, Métro: Concorde). Open since 1836, it goes in for traditional presents (not many video games here), but has an amazing selection of soft toys at all prices (although the stuffed giraffe at Fr7,900 will probably need a seat to itself on the Eurostar). A tyrannosaurus-seeking grandparent was directed to the "pays des dinosaurs" on the first floor during a recent visit. The shop is a short distance from Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries Gardens.
French sartorial elegance begins young, and there are numerous children's clothes shops dotted around the city. The classics include the Pêtit Bateau (main branch is at 26 rue Vavin, Métro: Vavin) and Jacadi (76 rue d'Assas) chains. Good value and cheerful designs are available from Du Pareil au Même (15-17 rue des Mathurins, Métro: Havre-Caumertin).
And the men on my list?
Madelios is a vast, specialised department store for men, at 23 bld de la Madeleine, and includes a spa and café. Longchamps (404 rue St Honoré, Métro: Concorde) has the kind of stylish leather accessories that will make them forgive you for years of socks and hankies. Anyone who gets a present from Ecriture & Cie (10 rue Royale, Métro: Madeleine) has no excuse for forgetting their thank-you notes – the wide range of elegant pens and writing accessories should provide inspiration.
I'd like something arty
Where better than the Louvre? The Carrousel du Louvre is a sizeable shopping centre under the Pyramid, and includes a bookshop with a huge selection of art books (many of them in English), museum shops with history- and art-inspired gifts, and FNAC for contemporary literature, music and film. (Like the Louvre, the Carrousel is closed on Tuesdays). The biggest concentration of art galleries is probably along the Left Bank streets of rue Jacob and rue des Saint-Pères, but the Marais (especially Place des Vosges) and the artists' workshops under the arches of the Viaduct des Arts (avenue Daumesnil, Métro: Bastille or Gare-de-Lyon) are just as rewarding. The top of the Viaduct is part of a cycle and pedestrian route that continues all the way out to Bois de Vincennes.
Any other gift ideas?
Colette (213 rue St Honoré, Métro: Tuileries) is currently one of the city's most hyped new shops: there's an eclectic mix of designer furniture and knick-knacks, CDs and make-up (Nars, Kiehl's) on the ground floor, a minimalist restaurant in the basement with designer bottles of Evian water, and fashion, a bookshop and gallery on the first floor.
Cookery enthusiasts should head for the Kitchen Bazaar chain, which sells smart but affordable cooking utensils, cutlery and kitchen equipment in shining chrome. The branch at 23 boulevard de la Madeleine is conveniently located for foodies' favourite shops on Place Madeleine.
Still looking for luxurious and beautiful stocking-fillers on the way to Gare du Nord and the Eurostar terminal? Rue du Paradis, a few streets south of the station, is home to several crystal and porcelain designers. The delicate and ornate items on display in the Baccarat Crystal Museum (No 30) (closed Sundays, admission Fr15) will provide extravagant last-minute inspiration, but there's something for most budgets elsewhere along the street.
And the million-franc question – when are the shops open, and can I use my credit card?
Almost all shops are open from 9.30am to 7pm, but many stay open later on Thursdays (until 9pm). France has strict rules on Sunday opening, but all the big Parisian stores plan to use three of the five Sundays they're allowed to open per year in December (9, 16 and 23). Expect crowds. Although the French use a PIN number when paying by credit or debit card, they're one of the few nations to do this, so there's absolutely no problem with using a British card. As in the UK, you just have to sign.
TELL ANYONE in the know that you're going shopping in Paris and they'll tell you not to miss Fauchon (26 Place de la Madeleine, 00 33 1 47 42 60 11). Established in 1886, Fauchon is the most famous food shop in the city. However, it's rather like a museum, silent and immaculate – a place in which to browse rather than shop.
Nearby Hédiard (21 Place de la Madeleine, 00 33 1 43 12 88 77) lacks Fauchon's fame (and its prices) but provides a more engaging experience, with food crammed on to floor-to-ceiling shelves. The shop is famed for its spices, coffee and teas, which are piled high in giant tins.
The St Germain district has much more down-to-earth food shops. Barthélémy (51 rue de Grenelle, 00 33 1 45 48 56 75) is one of the city's smallest shops, and one of its most tempting. Every inch is covered with cheese, aged to perfection in the shop's own cellars. The smell is intoxicating.
For a tipple to accompany your cheese, visit Ryst Dupeyron (79 rue du Bac, 00 33 1 45 48 80 93), a classy but welcoming wine shop. The shop's particular appeal is that it personalises bottles: supply a name and any other details and it will print up a label within the hour, for just Fr10.
Chocolate shops lurk around every corner. The best are like shrines, none more so than Richart (258 Boulevard St-Germain, 00 33 1 45 55 66 00). Famously minimalist, Richart's miniature chocolate squares are decorated with intricate patterns and are almost too perfect (and expensive) to eat.
The city's most magnificent food hall is La Grande Epicèrie de Paris (38 rue de Sevres, 00 33 1 44 39 81 00), part of Bon Marché, with packed shelves, mouth-watering displays of charcuterie, cheese, meat and fish, and helpful staff.
Paris is full of excellent bakeries, but none can match the reputation of Poilâne (8 rue du Cherche Midi, 00 33 1 45 48 42 59). It's hard to believe that such a tiny, old-fashioned shop is the public front of a vast empire supplying shops all over Paris. Buy Poilâne's signature dark-crusted, sour-dough loaves fresh from the oven.
Some Paris streets simply overflow with food shops. Rue Montorgueil – the remnants of the old Les Halles market – is one of the most extensive. Rue de Buci, in St Germain, is also popular, with the added appeal of a lively market.
After the French Revolution, city-centre land became available for commercial use as aristocratic families were forced out. Early 19th-century businessmen came up with the idea of building covered galleries, where the city's new money could shop, drink coffee and gossip in relative comfort. Although most of the original 200 or so galleries have since been demolished, about two dozen remain, mostly in the 1st and 2nd arrondissements. Many have been restored in recent years. They're worth visiting for the architecture (tiled floors, arched windows and glass roofs), and for attractive shops. Village Royale at 25 rue Royale (Métro: Madeleine) is probably the most upmarket – Limoges china in the Haviland shop, Barbour coats, fur-clad fellow shoppers, and an expensive café for people-watching. The beautiful Galerie Véro-Dodat at 2 rue du Bouloi (Métro: Palais Royale) specialises in objets d'art, antiques and art shops. In contrast, the Passage Brady and Passage du Prado, just after 43 Faubourg St Denis (Métro: Strasbourg/St Denis) specialise in Indian goods, food and clothes.
The Anne Lowe discount shop at 104 rue du Faubourg St Honoré (Métro: Champs-Elysées-Cleménceau) has up to 60 per cent off last season's designer clothing. The Montreuil flea-market (marché aux puces), Métro: Porte de Montreuil, has good-quality second-hand, designer and mass-market clothing on sale, and is open Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The huge St Ouen flea-market (Porte de Clignancourt, Sundays) might have bargains, but you'll have to search among a lot of junk first.