The Avenue des Champs-Élysées, for so long a flashy strip of cinemas and fast food eateries, is living up to its former glory thanks to a recent succession of glamorous openings.
The grand street can trace its history back to 1670, when the famed gardener André le Nôtre (of Versailles fame), after having beautified the Tuileries, mapped a road westwards from those gardens, piercing through swampy woodland. Edged with double rows of elegant elms, the stretch became known as the Elysian Fields, in reference to the paradisiacal resting place of mythological heroes.
As the street that took carriages out to the Palace of Versailles, the Champs-Élysées was extended and embellished over time, lined by grand townhouses. It also served as a sort of official approach to the city, and so garnered the descriptor of Avenue, which in Old French meant ‘way of access.’
In the nineteenth century, the area around the Champs-Élysées was a kind of party ground of earthly delights; some of the city’s most popular music halls could be found in the gardens here, where Parisians danced the polka and drank champagne by the glowing light of hundreds of gas lamps.
The twentieth century, however, had other ideas, and many beautiful buildings were torn down, while the clattering carriages of old (filled with women in feathery hats and men in tuxedoes day-tripping to the Bois de Boulogne) were replaced by the roar of countless cars.
But fortunately there remain some portals back to the heyday of the Champs-Élysées, while new boutiques are helping bring the glamour back.
To experience the Champs-Élysées in the style it deserves, try the following itinerary …
10.00am. Ascend the Arc de Triomphe. It’s worth the climb of over 300 steps. Up on the terrace, your efforts will be rewarded with a breathtaking 360-degree panorama of Paris. You’ll also see exactly why the roundabout was originally known as Place de l’Étoile; the twelve avenues radiating outwards do indeed make for a star-shaped effect, studded with a diadem of elegant buildings. Pre-purchase your tickets here.
11.30am. Shop (or, at least, window-shop). As you begin to glide down the avenue, you’ll notice Cartier on your left; for a more affordable fix of retail therapy, cross over to Publicis Drugstore, where you’ll find some great stationery.
Further on, you’ll come to the new Dior store — here while the flagship Avenue Montaigne store is refurbished — and then Louis Vuitton. Cross back north and you’ll find yourself at Apple.
Even if you’re not in the market for new technology, venture inside to admire the sculptural glass roof above the courtyard, sparkling like a gem.
12.30pm. Settle in for a long lunch. The fabled Fouquet’s has been on the avenue since 1899, but a much more fun and feminine way to tap into the old spirit of the avenue is at Ladurée, a block south.
Ask to be seated upstairs, amid such velvet and tasselled splendour that Madame de Pompadour would feel at home — and don’t forget to buy a box of macarons on your way out.
2.30pm. Do some beauty shopping. Across the avenue you’ll see 86 Champs, the inspired co-creation of beauty brand L’Occitane and pâtissier Pierre Hermé (another coffret of macarons? It would be rude not to!). From here you’ll come to Sephora’s first and flagship store, the iconic Guerlain (go beyond the marble and crystal foyer to experience the gorgeousness of the fragrance displays on the first floor), and the newly unveiled Chanel beauty boutique.
3.00pm. And shop some more … Don’t run out of shopping steam just yet, because the glamorous new Galeries Lafayette must be seen to be believed.
With an interior design that is part futuristic flashiness, part Art Deco glitz, this temple to fashion and food is a spectacular conceptual take on a department store in a digital era that is making us rethink old rituals. If we make the effort to shop in the real world, it’s because we’re also after inspiring experiences — just like this one.
4.00pm. Revel in some earthly delights. The Jardin des Champs-Élysées, just on your left beyond the Rond-Point, still retains much of its Belle Époque spirit. You’ll see the vintage swings and puppet theatre in the nook where a young Marcel Proust used to play, as well as a scattering of pastel-painted, bijou buildings that conjure up the world of Gigi. Wind your way around the fountains and flowering greenery, then cross to the other side of the avenue. You’ll spot the pretty buttery-yellow pavilion that houses Ledoyen, a restaurant whose first life was as a pre-revolutionary drinking hole. If it’s time for a reviving cup of tea (or glass of champagne), head into the gorgeous garden courtyard at the heart of the Petit Palais (open until 6pm, Tuesday to Sunday).
At the foot of the Champs-Élysées, look back up to where your day began. It’s such a magnificent vista, with its tiara of a triumphal arch, and totally deserves to be crowned in glory once more.