I’ve been to Paris in winter twice now. The first time – a few more decades ago than I’d like to admit – I was maybe 11 years old. My main impression of the Eiffel Tower from that trip was that I was cold and unimpressed by the view. (What can I say…I was just a kid!)
My second time was just last winter, a sightseeing detour during a business trip to Frankfurt for the Creativeworld trade show. The dates of the trade show dictated the timing of my trip to Europe but visiting Paris in winter turned out to have some major benefits (as well as a few drawbacks).
Pro: Lower Prices
The first thing that makes many people consider going to Paris in winter is definitely the price. Off season airfare to Paris from the east coast is usually well below $1,000 roundtrip, even on major airlines. Hotels are also heavily discounted during the winter tourist off season. This can make it surprisingly affordable to stay in a beautiful hotel with loads of character that is walking distance to the popular tourist sights and museums.
Taking advantage of Paris’s winter off season can mean a serious upgrade in the accommodations you can afford. (Or it can mean finding bargains that make the trip affordable at all.) I’m a serious budget traveler, but last winter I was able to afford a small hotel near the Seine steps from the Conciergerie. My cozy single room oozed Parisian charm and was walking distance to all the major attractions. I got all of this for about the same price as a Disneyworld value resort room that same time of year.
Pro: Smaller Crowds
Paris is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, and it has the crowds to prove it. In the warmer months, the popular sights (and the areas around them) are crawling with tourists. There isn’t a lot of breathing room to enjoy the beauty around you. Besides being a hassle, the crowds bring out another Paris menace – the pickpockets that target tourists.
But visit Paris in winter and you’ll find the crowds are much lighter. Although large crowds will still gather in the immediate area of key attractions like the Mona Lisa or the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, other areas are much quieter. You may even find yourself virtually alone in less popular galleries of the Louvre, and able to walk in relative quiet along the Seine. Fewer people isn’t just more enjoyable – it also makes it easier to maintain personal space to protect from pickpockets. You don’t have to worry about getting your pocket picked when there’s no one within ten feet of you!
Pro: Shorter Lines
Queueing is something of a national sport in Paris. Lines can be over an hour in high season to get into popular attractions like the Louvre, Notre Dame, Versailles, Musee d’Orsay and others. Most travel experts recommend that visitors buy tickets or a Museum pass in advance to be able to use the special “skip the line” entrance. But during high season even those special entrances have lines because visitors need to go through security before going inside.
During the winter off season, even the walk up entrances at the most popular sights frequently have virtually no lines. (The photo above shows the line to get into Versailles on a Tuesday afternoon in late January. The line might look long, but would be three or four times longer at other times of year.) Less time waiting in line equals more time spent doing the fun things you came to Paris to do. And short lines make it easier to cram more of the city’s highlights into a short stay in Paris in winter, maximizing the value you get from your trip!
Con: Cold Weather
The major reason that visiting Paris in winter is the off season, of course, is the weather. Paris, though, is actually slightly moderate by what we’d consider winter in the northern United States. Temperatures in January and February average overnight lows just above freezing, and daily highs in the low to mid 40’s F. (Of course, these are just averages.) It rarely snows in Paris and doesn’t stick long when it does.
I’m personally a total wimp when it comes to the cold (especially after living nearly 20 years in Florida). I’ve found though that a good winter coat, hat and gloves are pretty sufficient for walking comfortably around the city in late January. Long underwear, wool hiking socks, and wool sweater are optional but helpful when it is windy. (Dignity is also optional, since wearing a hat means getting hat hair pretty fast taking it on and off all day.)
Obviously, this is not a time of year to be doing things like sitting outside at sidewalk cafes or picnicking by the Eiffel Tower. But with the right clothing and attitude, touring Paris in winter can absolutely be an enjoyable experience.
Con: Brown Gardens
Read any Paris guide and they’ll tell you about the beauty of the gardens at Versailles, the Tuileries, Luxembourg Gardens, and the tree-lined Champs Elysée. And that is absolutely true – in the warmer months of the year during tourist high season.
Visit Paris in winter during the tourist off season and the cold weather leaves an entirely different picture for you to see. The famous gardens are mostly dormant. Instead of lush green, the Champs Elysée is lined with bare sticks of trees. (In the photo above, you can see brown hedges and empty flowerbeds in the famous gardens at Versailles.) You are definitely giving something up by visiting Paris in winter. Personally, I feel this trade-off is a small price to pay for the lower prices and the smaller crowds, since the big attraction to Paris for me is the art and history that lives there. But it’s all about what your priorities are in visiting.
While tourists love the lack of crowds in low season, tourist businesses don’t. During the tourist off season, some attractions may be open fewer days or shorter hours. Guided tours and excursions are offered less frequently due to lack of demand. However when they do run, they are unlikely to to be crammed full like in high season. Last winter I enjoyed a half day bus tour to Versailles, with only four of us riding on the entire double decker bus!
Another Paris landmark that you’ll probably miss visiting during tourist off season is the city’s trademark bouquinistes. These green painted boxes dotted along the Seine between the Louvre and Notre Dame transform into used book stalls when opened up. Walking during a Friday and Tuesday in late January, I didn’t see a single one open for business. I’m told that most of them close entirely for the winter.
Con: Shorter Days
Well, there’s 24 hours in a day no matter what time of year you go to Paris. But going to Paris in winter means fewer hours of daylight during which to experience the “city of light”. Whether this matters to you or not depends on your plans for your days in Paris. If you plan to spend your evening enjoying the city lights, seeing shows, or enjoying French restaurants, an early sunset is probably not a deal breaker.
Paris in winter can be a wonderful – and affordable – experience if you’re willing to make a few compromises to your picture postcard image of the city. I will be making another winter trip to Paris myself next month. Don’t be afraid to try out visiting Paris in winter for yourself!
Interested in traveling to Paris? Don’t miss the fabulous resources on my Paris Pinterest Board!