Forget about springtime in Paris -- the French capital is at its most Parisian in winter, as residents reclaim their glorious city for themselves. Airfares plummet, hotel rates are off-season, restaurant reservations easy, and lines relatively short. From Jan. 9 to Feb. 13, the famed soldes (sales) are on, with savings up to 70 percent. Average temperatures range from 35 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit; misty rain and snow flurries can fall, but if you dress properly -- don't forget the obligatory scarf -- you can comfortably stroll, popping into a cafe to warm up with a hot chocolate or mulled hot wine.
Winter in Paris is romantic, especially around Valentine's Day, when the City of Light displays its splendor, offering restaurant promotions, decorated shop windows and spectacular chocolates and patisseries. You'll quickly understand why Paris is the City for Lovers, too. For a Valentine's splurge, reserve ahead for an amorous candlelit dinner at Laperouse, a private town house founded in 1744. It was a popular spot with Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Georges Sand, as well as a favorite trysting place for gentlemen entertaining their courtesans in the private chambers -- available today for discreet dining at an extra charge of about $40 per meal.
Julia Child's favorite
Equally romantic, and perfect for inclement weather, are the famed passages couverts, early 19th century glass-roofed shopping arcades. Close to 20 still exist and many have been exquisitely restored. The most elegant is the 1823 Galerie Vivienne with its boutiques, bookshops, restaurants, mosaic floor, fanlight windows and rotunda ornamented with nymphs and goddesses.
Nearby is one of my (and Julia Child's) favorite restaurants, Chez Georges, serving Lyonnais-style cuisine in its white table-clothed, candlelit dining room. Also check out the Galerie Colbert; the Passage des Panormas, with its Asian restaurants and shops selling vintage stamps, postcards and film posters; and my favorite, Tombees du Camion ("fell from a truck"), selling gross lots of antique toys and trinkets. Also nearby is Passage Jouffroy, with its Musee Grevin wax museum and toy and dollhouse stores.
Have fun exploring the daily or weekly outdoor food markets. Among the top permanent markets is the pedestrian-only Rue Montorgeuil ("mountain of pride") near Chatelet-Les Halles. The food stalls and shops are lavish and especially noted for seafood; in winter, fresh oysters can be shucked to eat on the street. Founded in 1730, the ornately frescoed Maison Stohrer is Paris' oldest bakery, where baba au rhum was invented. It's still a superb pastry shop, cafe and caterer. The Rue Mouffetard market on Tuesday to Sunday mornings dates from 1350 and is one of Paris' most famous and colorful. Other major daily markets are on the Rue Cler near the Eiffel Tower, the Rue de Buci in St-Germain des Pres and the Marche d'Aligre in the 12th arrondissement, with its distinct Asian/African/trendy flavor.
Work up an appetite or work off calories at one of the free outdoor ice-skating rinks. Two of the best are at Hotel de Ville, which has an accompanying luge for kids, and on the second tier of the Eiffel Tower. The rinks are free, skate rentals around $6.60; the Eiffel rink requires Tower admission.
One of the city's best-kept secrets is the annual International Agricultural Show, which brings farms, complete with purebred animals, into central Paris. This year, its 50th, the fair will be held Feb. 23 to March 3. Farmers from around the country submit their finest animals to the General Agricultural competition and their culinary goods to the Agricultural Products competition. Marvel (but watch your step) as they walk their stately cows, pigs and sheep to the judging ring. Animals are available for petting, and children will enjoy the teaching farm. One section is devoted to eco-farming and sustainable living; another to wine; another to gourmet food, all available for sampling. The fair is spread out over seven large pavilions, and it has interactive displays and restaurants featuring cuisine from each region of France and its overseas territories.
For the Chinese New Year of the Snake (Feb. 9-10, 16-17), dazzling and noisy parades will slither through the city's Chinatowns. The largest is in the 13th arrondissement.
Remember that most stores are closed Sunday and many on Monday. Sunday is a perfect day to visit the Marais, the old Jewish quarter (4th arrondissement), now one of the most fashionable with its funky boutiques and chic cafes. Everything is open Sunday, with most streets devoted to pedestrians. Enjoy the easy mix of Orthodox Jews, BCBG (Bon Chic Bon Genre -- French yuppies), gays and lesbians. Don't miss the Musee Carnavalet, devoted to Paris' history; the Musee Picasso; the Holocaust (Shoah) Memorial and the exquisite Place des Vosges, where you can have lunch or a drink at Ma Bourgogne in the heated outdoor arcade. Or stroll along the rue des Rosiers, the Jewish Main Street, to Chez Marianne for the best falafel sandwich in Paris or a superb Moroccan-Jewish meal.
Paris has some of the world's finest museums, and winter is the perfect time to visit them, when you might not want to spend as much time outside. There's the Louvre, of course, but the big crowd pleaser for winter 2013 is the Salvador Dali exhibit at the Pompidou Center, known by Parisians as the Beaubourg. Two shows at the Pinacotheque, "Van Gogh, Dreaming of Japan" and "Hiroshige, Travel as Art," show the influence of Japanese art on Van Gogh. Another major show this season is the Museum of Modern Art's "L'Art en guerre (Art at War) France 1938-1947, from Picasso to Dubuffet," displaying 400 works by more than 100 artists concerning life under Nazism.
And if you somehow manage to get bored with Paris, Disneyland is just a 45-minute train ride away.
If you go
Fares and package deals change daily on the Internet. When I checked in late December, I found cheap fares from $420 to $600 round trip. Good sites include kayak.com, orbitz.com, expedia.com, travelocity.com and venere.com. Compare prices.
In Paris, buy the Wednesday weekly Pariscope for events and addresses. Request a map (carte) in the Metro and buy a carnet ("carnay") of 10 tickets (around $16.50) to save money. Hold your ticket until you exit.
Reasonable boutique hotels:
Hotel Grandes Ecoles, 75 rue Cardinal Lemoine, 5th arrondisement, hotel-grandes-ecoles.com.
Hotel le St-Gregoire, 46 rue de l'Abbe Gregoire, 6th. paris-hotel-saintgregoire.com. In the heart of Left Bank.
Hotel des Saints Peres, 65 rue des Saints-Peres, paris-hotel-saints-peres.com/en. A charming boutique luxury hotel in the heart of St. Germain des Pres.
Hotel Lavoisier, 21 rue Lavoisier, hotellavoisier.com. In the heart of the chic Right Bank.
Galerie Vivienne, enter at 6 rue Vivienne. galerie-vivienne.com/en
Galerie Colbert, enter at 4 rue Vivienne
Passage des Panormas, enter at 11 boulevard Montmarte, passagedespanoramas.fr (in French)
Passage Jouffroy, enter at 10 and 12 rue Montmarte, passagejouffroy.com (in French)
Agricultural Fair: en.salon-agriculture.com
Salvador Dali at the Centre Pompidou through March 25, centrepompidou.fr
"L'Art en Guerre" at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris through Feb. 17, mam.paris.fr/en/home
"Van Gogh, Dreaming of Japan" and "Hiroshige, Travel as Art" at the Pinacotheque de Paris through March 17, pinacotheque.com/en.html
Laperouse, 51 Quai des Grand Augustins, 6th; laperouse.fr
Chez Georges, 1 rue du Mail, 2nd
Chez Marianne, 2 rue des Hospitalieres Saint-Gervais, 4th