Paris can be crisp in January, and Paris can be dreary in January. Regardless, it’s wonderful in January. The city is quiet yet alive. Christmas crowds have gone, but lights and decorations remain. It’s a perfect time to go, bundle up, and walk, and walk, and walk, stopping in at sights or for un chocolat chaud.
Rather than summarize any one trip, I’ll mention a few of my favorite highlights, both in the city and day trips, across a few trips.
Note: when possible, links in this post are affiliate links (i.e., we earn a commission). For planning, there’s an abundance of information online. If you were to get a book, I recommend Rick Steves. It doesn’t cover everything, but hits the highlights and includes detailed descriptions of his favorites, helping you not just figure out what to see but how to make the most each stop.
Where to stay?
There are a lot of good choices, but I’m always drawn toward the 11e, and particularly the area near Oberkampf metro station. It’s a good base for walking, fairly residential, and has ample good food options. I prefer to rent an apartment over staying in a hotel. Having even in a modest kitchen gives me more options for taking advantage of whatever I can’t resist when walking through a market.
Go for walks. Lots of them.
If you stay in the 11e, Canal Saint-Martin is close by. You may recognize the canal from Amélie: the titular character skipped rocks at the canal’s locks. You can follow the canal north. Du Pain et Des Idées (34 Rue Yves Toudic) makes a tasty stop for bread and croissants. I enjoy walking through the gardens of Hôpital Saint-Louis, a historic but still functioning hospital. You can also detour a bit further, to Parc de Buttes Chaumont. An artificial pond circles a rocky hill. From the top of the hill you can enjoy good views, particularly toward Montmartre.
The banks of the Seine are, of course, a deserving walk. Take time to cross bridges and see the banks from each side. Notre Dame is spectacular at golden hour.
I also recommend the Promenade Plantée, also known as the Coulée verte René-Dumont. This 2.9 mile park on an old elevated rail line opened in 1993 and precedes New York’s High Line.
Stop in museums.
The Orsay, located in a former train station along the Seine, is pretty much the perfect art museum. It boasts a wonderful collection that is not so large as to overwhelm, and the building’s architecture merits attention as well.
The Louvre’s reputation precedes it. Everything people say about going in with a plan, and knowing you won’t see everything, is true. Even if you don’t stop in the museum, I love the courtyard by the Pyramide du Louvre at night. In January, you can often be alone or almost alone.
The Petit Palais — the Paris museum of Fine Arts — is also worth a stop. Housed in a structure built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the permanent collection includes ancient Greek and Roman art, medieval and Renaissance work, a collection of 18th century furniture, and a great variety of 19th century sculpture and painting. The permanent collections are free to visit.
Another free collection, the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art, merits a stop. For me, the Raoul Dufy’s mural La Fée Electricité (The Electricity Fairy) is unquestionably the highlight. Covering 200 feet of wall, the mural was created for the 1937 World’s Fair.
For more of a curiosity, consider visiting the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature. This museum describes the relationship between nature and humans, with a particular focus on hunting. It includes a range of taxidermied animals, hunting-related art, and even a room of gold dog collars.
Finally, consider a stop at the Cluny (Musée national du Moyen Âge). The museum is housed in a building started in 1334 as the town house for the abbots of Cluny. The museum displays an outstanding collection of medieval tapestry, as well as other artifacts, sculpture, and art.
See some churches.
It’s Paris. You’re going to walk the Seine, and you’re going to stop on Île de la Cité to see the massive Notre-Dame and the spectacular curtains of stained glass at Sainte-Chapelle. Yes, they’ll be crowded even in the lowest of low season, but they’re worth it. I stop in to Notre Dame — which is free to just wander — on every trip, and Sainte-Chapelle on nearly every one. Don’t miss walking around outside Notre Dame, either.
At sunset, there’s no place in Paris I’d rather be than the dome of Sacré-Cœur. Located at the top of Montmartre, you can see the entire city — the churches, the Eiffel tower, blocks and blocks of homes. At sunset, the sun glints off of roofs and casts shadows on the gargoyles and towers of the church. Even on a cloudy day, it can be gorgeous.
Take a Day Trip
Paris presents you with a number of good options for day trips.
The Palace of Versailles is the classic, and well-worth a visit if you have not been. It can even be done as a half-day and is easy to access via RER trains. For a somewhat less-visited palace, I recommend Château de Fontainebleau, about 34 miles outside of Paris. The grounds of Versailles contain curiosities, such as Marie Antoinette’s “Queen’s Hamlet,” a model farm. Fontainebleau’s gardens are more expansive and open, giving the palace more of a sense of grandeur. A January afternoon walk here can be chilly, but peaceful.
For a longer day trip, consider visiting Mont Saint Michel. Mont St Michel is crowned by an 11th-13th century abbey, with a fortified town clustered below on this tidal island. At 180 miles from Paris, it is along day trip, but it is easy (if expensive) to take a TGV and perfectly timed connecting bus to the Abbey from Paris. On a recent trip, we considered staying overnight on the island, but decided against it after being deterred by overpriced and underwhelming restaurants. Instead, we got up early, had a good day wandering the island, and got back to Paris in time for a delicious and relatively inexpensive dinner. Also, wear layers — the coast can be chilly and gloomy, or brisk and bright.