The Historic and Magnificent Passages of Paris

Categories:Travels To France

The list of amazing and inspiring things to do in Paris is endless and you could return time and again to this most amazing city and still only scratch the surface.  The one thing you should put high up on your priority list are the covered passages of Paris which are in fact the original shopping arcades of the city where you will feel as though you have stepped back into another time – the early 19th century to be exact.  These charming passages were actually pierced through other buildings and were the prototypes for the arcades and shopping centres or Les Grands Magasins of Paris we see today and are mostly concentrated in the grands boulevards neighbourhood of Paris.  Les Grands Boulevards created during the reign of King Louis IV was the mastermind behind the notion of promenading along wide paved streets.  Over time, it made sense for architects to install covered shopping arcades in order to shelter the well attired aristocratic ladies from the elements.  Each and every passage has its own distinct character and some connect to other passages extending your strolling pleasure and exploration.

Long ago there were over 200 passages all over Paris and many were demolished over time, particularly during the Haussmannien era to make way for the broad boulevards and manicured new buildings and so now only around 20 remain.  The few passages that are scattered throughout Paris are perhaps the finest examples and retain their historic qualities and authenticity even though some have been rejuvenated over the years.   Back in the time when the passages of Paris were a new sensation they totally revolutionised the shopping, dining and even entertainment experience as it became a refined and elegant way, especially for ladies, to enjoy some time for themselves.  For women, the passages were a much needed escape from the muddy and dirty Parisian streets and became a place they could go to be on their own without being chaperoned by a male companion.  Even though there were cafes and restaurants as early as the mid 18th century, it was not considered proper for ladies to go to such places on their own without family members or a male chaperone.  The passages near the grands boulevards, provided women a sense of freedom for the first time and allowed them the opportunity to meet with their lady friends for some tea or to shop for accessories, clothing, books or other interesting items in a sheltered and elegant environment.   You have to imagine the horrible conditions in many parts of Paris where Parisian streets were covered with unsanitary sewage and waste left behind from markets and the daily activities of Parisians.  The passages were particularly perfect for rainy or cold weather and were not only beautifully designed but had marble flooring and were advanced for their time with gas lighting and high intricate ceilings made of glass and iron – an avant guard concept for the time.  Today come rain or shine the passages still remain a wonderful place to explore, meet with friends, dine, browse through charming book shops, specialty stores, antiques, photography or perhaps to pay a visit to a theatre, hotel or museum.

Even though I have visited Paris a number of times, I haven’t quite managed to allocate sufficient time to visit all the passages.  However, on my last visit to Paris last year in November, perfect time for rainy day Parisian activities, mon mari and I made it a priority to explore a few of the loveliest passages in the city.  The first and most iconic and historic of all the arcades we had visited was the Gallery Vivienne, built in 1823, after taking a glorious stroll through the Palais Royale gardens nearby.  The neo-classical interiors of Gallery Vivienne with its outstanding mosaic tiling, classic sculptures and paintings, stunning ornate arched windows elevate the shopping arcade experience to a level of sheer elegance.  The goddess and nymph statuary that adorn the incredibly beautiful rotunda together with the glass and iron canopy provides the gallery with an ethereal quality and floods the interior with natural sunlight.  Here you will find the quaintest story book shops, tea rooms, specialty shops, old bookstores, high end fashion boutiques and more to explore that will aesthetically please and delight your inner Parisian.  Pop into Pret-A-Porter Femme or Pret-A-Porter Mixte for some quality fashion or Librarie Jousseaume for an interesting book or perphaps aBis or Photo Vivienne for a lovely souvenir or gift for a friend.  The home interior shops in Galerie Vivienne are particularly wonderful too and Vivienne Art Galerie, Secrets d’interieurs and Galerie Martine Moisan are great shops to lose yourself in Parisian chic art of design.  After some shopping take the time to have a café or a delicious meal at Bistrot Vivienne, Legrand Filles et Fils or Le Bougainville and pop in and out of the charming little shops outside Galerie Vivienne as well for some Parisian inspiration.

After Galerie Vivienne, take a leisurely stroll to Galerie Colbert nearby at 2 Rue Vivienne to appreciate a grandeur of a time gone by.  The Galerie Colbert was named in honor of King Louis IV ‘s finance minister – Jean-Baptiste Colbert as it intercepts the site of where his mansion once stood before construction of the gallery began.  This covered passage way with its elaborate glass rotunda featuring the classic style of half moon arches and columns incorporated around its perimeter and a stunning statue of Eurydice (one of the daughters of Apollo in Greek mythology) beneath it speaks to the incredible attention to detail within Galerie Colbert completed in 1823 like its neighbouring sister arcade, Galerie Vivienne.  Unlike the other arcades of Paris, it is a culturally inspired passage with no commercial shops where you will discover the Institute Nationale d’Histoire de l’Art and the Institut National du Patrimoine, however, the Galerie Colbert belongs to the Bibliotheque Nationale presently undergoing a major renovation.  There is only one brasserie inside the Colbert Passage Le Grand Colbert that has developed quite a big reputation after featuring in a number of films including Something’s Gotta Give – a delightful romantic comedy with Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson.  Le Grand Colbert pays tribute to its ongoing popularity and appreciation of the film by displaying posters of the film inside and outside its premises (read more about Le Grand Colbert under the travels to France category here on this site).  This beautiful art nouveau style brasserie is listed as a historic monument and to dine here is quite a special and memorable experience where you can enjoy superb traditional French cuisine and elegant old style Parisian service while having a view into the Galerie Colbert itself.  Walk inside the elaborate 83 metre long hallway of the Galerie Colbert to appreciate the incredible glass and iron ceiling, the intricate marble detailing of the floor, mosaic tiling, crystal candelabras and interiors and of course the magnificent 15 metre high central dome.

Hop off at metro stop Grands Bouldevards to continue your exploration of three passages or galleries I highly recommend you to visit when in Paris not only for their magnificence but to appreciate the historic architectural features.   The passages all had glass and iron ceilings inspired by the train stations of the time and innovative gas lighting these features were considered avant guard for the 19th century.  The Galerie Jouffroy (pronounced Joofwa), Verdeau and Des Panorama connect or continue from one another transepting two main boulevards and as a result extend the passage experience.  Each passage is roughly about the same length and width and filled with delightful specialty shops, cafes, tea salons, museums, beauty salons and even a hotel.  The Passage des Panoramas is situated between Boulevard Montmartre to the north and Rue Saint Marc to the south.  Passage Jouffroy then continues on from the Passage des Panoramas from the south end and curves its way around and down to Rue de la Grange-Bateliere.   The passage Verdeau then continues from the passage Jouffroy from Rue de la Grange and extends to Rue du Faubourg-Montmartre ending or perhaps beginning your walk through the passages combined.

The Passage des Panoramas is a very special covered passage of Paris as not only is it the oldest of all the covered passages, built in 1799, it was the first passage to have a glass and iron roof top and gas lighting for illumination.  The Passage des Panoramas was named after the beautiful panoramic mural paintings on its two large rotundas featuring historic and religious themes associated to the cities of Paris, Rome, Toulon, Jerusalem and other well known cities of the time.  A staircase would take you up to the rotundas where the stunning murals could be viewed up close, however, the panoramic paintings and rotundas were demolished after the Passage des Panoramas was renovated years later.  The passage, however, kept its name and was famous for hosting antique shops, postcard, letter, autograph and postage stamp collector shops.  Here you will also discover some lovely restaurants and the historic Theatre des Varieties, in the Passage des Panoramas entrance, where many famous people of the past performed.  The Theatre des Varieties hosts regular comedies and concerts and as a result many celebrities can be spotted around the Passage des Panoramas.  The theatre, which has been entertaining Parisians for 200 years is perhaps why restaurants settled into the Passage des Panoramas for theatre goers to have somewhere close by and cosy to dine in before or after a show.  Coinstot Vino restaurant is one of the lovely more modern restaurants inside Passage des Panoramas where you can enjoy a local, organic glass of wine with a delicious organic meal.  For a more historic venue and traditional menu dine at Canard & Champagne or L’Arbe a Cannelle where you will notice an original façade unchanged since the passage opened centuries ago. You will truly enjoy floating in and out of the lovely shops as we had on our visit and meeting with the lovely store owners who are all very knowledgeable about their specific trade.

The Passage Jouffroy, my personal favourite, is where mon mari and I spent the most amount of time admiring its historic architecture and features, its adorable shop fronts, geometric marble flooring and glass ceiling.  Here is where you’ll find entrancing little cafes, bookstores, postcard shops, hair and beauty salons, quaint specialty stores and delightful toy shops like Pain d’Epices.  This enchanting toy store, with the most beautiful old fashioned toys you’ll ever see anywhere, has wooden puppets, tin toys and adorable stuffed animals and weighted teddy bears made the old fashioned way so that they sit up properly and are nice to cuddle.  The store is also a mecca for anything and everything to do with doll houses where one can find anything one might need to furnish their doll house including delightful Tiffany lamps with tiny light bulbs that actually illuminate, replica earthenware, dollhouse pets and even croissants to place on the tiniest serving dish.  Speaking of croissants, here at the Passage Jouffroy you will discover one of the oldest and first tea salons Le Valentines (read more about Le Valentines under travels to France category on this site) where you can rest your tired feet at a quaint table and enjoy a delicious selection of teas, classic French pastries like the well loved millefeuilles and viennoiseries while admiring the vintage décor within.  While enjoying your tea and pastry at Le Valentines, imagine ladies of long ago coming here to meet and be alone with their lady friends unaccompanied by any males – something quite special and unusual for the time.  While the luxury tailors, milliners, glove makers, hair salons and fancy restaurants have disappeared along with the dance hall and puppet theatre the original Musee Grevin wax museum still remains which was a huge sensation for its time.  The Musee Grevin was originally created so that people of the era could come see important 3D wax figures exact replicas of people of French history or about people they had read about in newspapers.  While the entrance to the Musee Grevin is on the main street the exit is situated in the Passage Jouffroy where visitors to the musee can then enjoy a promenade through the passage.  What makes Passage Jouffroy extra special and alluring are the old world shops like Pain d’Epices that continue selling specialty items of a particular era or preserve a trade by honouring the tradition behind it.  La Maison du Roy is another example of such a specialty store and a wonderful place to lose yourself and step back in time as you discover genuine 18th century antique pieces of furniture, fascinating artwork and delightful curiosities.  Galerie Fayet is an entrancing old world bespoke store offering antique and modern day canes with an unusual twist that are not only works of art but gems of the belle epoque era and an important status symbol to men who would not leave their deluxe apartments in Paris without this luxurious accessory.  The canes at Galerie Fayet are not ordinary canes as they each have their own secret function made according to the needs of the client. As an example, an easel would be incorporated into a cane design for an artist or perhaps a bow would be designed to fit inside a cane for a violinist or a flask with a couple of shot glasses for someone who enjoys an impromptu spot of cognac while rendezvousing with a friend.  Librairie du Passage is a very special bookstore and boasts to be one of Paris’ oldest where you will find beautiful lithographs from te the 1900s and beautiful art books as well as collections of fine art reference books and much more.  A unique feature of the passage way is the charming Hotel Chopin constructed at the same time as the passage in 1846 and where you can stay to have a quintessential Parisian experience.  The Hotel Chopin was named after the romantic Polish composer Frederick Chopin who adored Paris and writer George Sand.  The hotel is tucked away to the end of the Passage Jouffroy making it a quiet and romantic place to stay away from the bustling boulevards and has lovely roof top views of Paris from its top floors.  Staying at the hotel would be a perfect location to not only enjoy the passages of the area but the opulent Grands Boulevards,  Opera Garnier and shopping district filled with lively cafes, entertainment and glorious shops.

At number 55 Passage Jouffroy,  avid collectors and lovers of photography, old photographs and vintage shots from notable photographers will fall in love with Paris Est Une Photo – a store that specialises in historic and contemporary photography by past and current photographers.  Mon mari and I spent a joyful hour at Photo looking through gorgeous photography from all eras of Paris and I especially was overjoyed to find some vintage photography by famous photographer Charles Doisneau and some wonderful black and white photography of notable artists and celebrities like Charles Aznavour and Picasso.  While some photos come at a hefty price, the store has trunks of countless old photos for one euro that you can rummage through to perhaps frame and take home with you as a delighful souvenir.

After Passage Jouffroy, continue your walk to the Passage Verdeau – a delightful passage where mon mari and I discovered that time really does stand still.  The love Parisians and tourists have for this charming passage is reflected in its well trodden and worn marble flooring and untouched shop fronts illuminated by the high glass and iron neo classical ceiling reminiscent of glass tiling or fish bones.   Passage Verdeau’s delightful cafes, antique and vintage book, postcard, photography and art stores are perhaps a reflection of its elegant location and proximity to the famous Hotel Drouot – the antiques and fine art auction house.  Lovers and collectors of vintage second hand books must pay a visit to Achat de Livres where you will delight in rummaging through the countless old books and if your lucky enough you might even discover an old edition of your favourite French writer or perhaps a charming book on Paris to take home as a souvenir.  If you’re a lover of photography and postcards like me and mon mari, take the time to pop into Photo Verdeau and Librairie Farfouille or Photograhies Anciennes where you will spend a pleasurable period of time searching for postcards of Paris to take home and frame for yourself or a friend.  Crafty people will be overjoyed to find Le Bonheur des Dames – an old fashioned and charming haberdashery store where you can imagine ladies of the past would go to purchase their supplies or perhaps some pretty buttons to sew onto a special dress.  This lovely store is a mecca for all things haberdashery and offers sewing kits, tassels, buttons, quality thread and even embroidered gift cards.

While there are many more passages to discover in my future trips to Paris, the few I have seen gave me the opportunity to step into another time in Paris – into the passages of time.  I now look forward to continue my exploration of the other passages of Paris like the Passage des Princes at 5 Boulevard des Italiens, Passage Brady 46 Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis, Galerie Vero-Dodat 19 Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Passage de l’Ancre at 223 Rue Saint-Martin, Passage du Prado 18 Boulevard Saint-Denis, Passage du Bourg l’Abbe at 120 Rue Saint-Denis, Passage du Caire at Rue de Alexandrie, and the opulent Passage du Grand Cerf at 145 Rue Saint-Denis.   As I recall indulging in tea and patisserie at Le Valentine and sifting through old books, postcards and remarkable photography of Paris through the ages I felt very privileged and overjoyed to have experienced the fine trade and specialty shops that perhaps won’t be there for us to enjoy and admire in years to come.  Paris has seen so much commercialisation and chain stores settling in to areas that were once filled with old historic shops but hopefully the passages in the Grand Boulevards will continue to stand the test of time and never lose their admiration or appeal but remain the charming and narrow shopping galleries that offer a window or glimpse into Paris of long ago – that vital soul and essence of Paris I hope will always remain.

Galerie Vivienne – 6 Rue Vivienne 75002 Paris

Galerie Colbert – 2 Rue Vivienne 75002

Passage Des Panoramas – 11 Boulevard Montmartre 75002

Passage Jouffroy – 10 Boulevard Montmartre 75009

Passage Verdeau – 26 Pass Verdeau 75009


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