There are many ways to shop in Paris. You could binge in the famous department stores, go all out along the designer strips, or track down that elusive brand of French Girl chic in the boutiques of Saint-Germain. But if you prefer a more leisurely style of retail therapy, devote a day to fossicking in the city’s galeries and passages.
Popular in the nineteenth century, shopping arcades boomed with advances in lighting and glass technology. They were warm and glowing spaces, perfect for Parisiennes who in this era were limited in where they could safely — and respectably — go in public. Anyway, in those pre-footpath days, Parisiennes hardly wanted to walk the filthy streets, which were hell on heels and hemlines; they much preferred the pretty arcades, with their parasol boutiques and sweetly scented pâtisseries.
By the 1870s, there were over 150 such arcades weaving this way and that across Paris, mostly on the Right Bank. Now, hélas, there are fewer than twenty. Some are more shabby than chic, but several have carefully restored a quaint air of yesteryear that is a joy to inhale. And there’s inspired shopping (and feasting) to be had along the way, too.
Set aside a day to discover the joys of Parisian shopping à l’ancienne … Here’s your itinerary:
Dating from 1826, this is a subtly glamorous arcade, with its gleaming wooden shopfronts trimmed in old gold, and ball lamps that glow like gaslight and illuminate the marble chequerboard floor. Note the neo-Classical touches as you wander through: shimmering paintings of Roman deities and carvings of Cupid. At one end, Christian Louboutin showcases his sexy scarlet-soled footwear; at the other, By Terry sells her refined brand of beauty à la parisienne. If you arrive too early to shop, order your petit déjeuner at the pretty Café de l’Époque.
From here, head west along Rue Montesquieu, through the arched passage to Place de Valois, then through the next arch in the divine rococo building ahead. You’re now in the …
This is the location of the first ever Parisian galeries: the Galeries de Bois, inspired by Arabian souks, which were replaced by the Galerie d’Orléans. Sadly, all that’s left are the open-air colonnades running across the Palais-Royal, just north of Daniel Buren’s black-and-white-striped columns. But if you wander around the arcades edging the gardens, you can revel in some old-style shopping. For a window into this past: À l’Oriental has sold pipes and tobacco-related paraphernalia since 1818; and Bacqueville, with its shelves brimming with candy-striped ribbons, has fashioned medals for two centuries. At Didier Ludot, ooh over the vintage designer dresses, or head to Stella McCartney if your style is more inclined towards modernity. The finishing touch: a splurge, or at least a spritz, at one of the Palais-Royal’s celebrated perfume boutiques; Serge Lutens is the master of seductive scents, while Les Parfums de Rosine bottles up prettiness.
From Les Parfums de Rosine, scoot north through the columns, and cross Rue de Beaujolais to nip up the stairs of the Passage des Deux Pavillons. At the other end of this cute nook you’ll see, across Rue des Petits Champs, the entrance to …
First up, stop at the lusciously decorated Bistrot Vivienne if you’re in need of a caffeine fix. Then, head through the ornate gallery entrance — note the two nymphs lolling about up there — and prepare to be wowed. Surely the most beautiful of Parisian arcades, Galerie Vivienne is an all-encompassing beauty of a space, from the swirling mosaic tiles underfoot, to the garlanded details strung along sweet mezzanine fanlight windows, to the graceful glass canopies overhead. At the back of Legrand Fille et Fils’ wine bar you’ll find the family’s 1919 sweet shop. Another blast into the past: the bookstore Librairire Jousseaume up where the arcade bends left.
When you reach Rue Vivienne, take a right and walk straight ahead, past the old stock exchange, until you see Rue Saint-Marc on your right. At no.10 you’ll find the entrance to …
Passage des Panoramas
One of the oldest of all the arcades, this was so named in 1800 because it featured two large panoramas at the northern end — rotundas exhibiting large circular paintings, which were in a way the cinema experience of the times. The space remains lively today as a restaurant strip, so it’s an ideal place to stop for lunch. Consider Canard & Champagne, set among the florid woodwork of an old tearoom, or Caffè Stern, in a mock-medieval 19th-century engraving and printing house. Before you leave, make sure to spend time perusing the boxes of the vintage postcard shops, another portal in a Parisian past.
Exit north and cross over Boulevard Montmartre; directly ahead you’ll see …
Those panoramas might be long gone but at the entrance to this arcade good old-fashioned fun can still be had, in the form of Musée Grévin, a waxworks museum from the Belle Époque. Inside is a jewel box of an old theatre and psychedelic-style hall of mirrors, along with a succession of famous (wax) figures hanging out glamorously; other sculptures still recreate vignettes from French history. It’s quite a rabbit’s hole of an experience, and very much sets the scene for the olde-worlde curio that is Passage Jouffroy. Don’t miss the cane boutique, Galerie 34 M.G Segas, which has been selling quirky walking sticks since the arcade opened in 1846, and Pain d’Épices, a nostalgic-minded toyshop since 1950 (the doll’s house offerings will have your inner five-year-old in a giddy spin). Meander to the very end, riffling through the vintage books and posters as you go; you’ll find more still just across in the shorter Passage Verdeau. Then head back into Passage Jouffroy, stopping for afternoon tea at Le Valentin, a gorgeous salon de thé that celebrates a ritual beloved by Parisiennes for centuries.
If you’re not quite ready to leave this lovely old Parisian world of passages, retrace your steps, picking up an old book or printed scarf along the way, and perhaps a glass of wine, too. That’s the essence of arcade shopping: enjoying life’s little pleasures.