In 18th and 19th century Paris, the areas around today's Grands Boulevards created many glass-roofed shopping galleries known as les passages couverts (covered passages). These forerunners to our modern day malls simultaneously allowed you to take a shortcut, shelter from the rain, shop, dine or spend a secluded, debaucherous hour in the arms of a lover. Paris's reputation for its ubiquitous merde may even have roots in this era, as most passages were equipped with a salon de décrottage – literally a de-pooping room, in which punters had their shoes scraped clean.
Nowadays these passages are real architectural gems – olde-worlde galleries perfect for hours of delicious browsing. Galerie Vivienne is one of the prettiest, with ochre paintwork and mythology-themed mosaics. It also has a tearoom. Passage des Panoramas, built in 1800, takes the credit for being the first public area in Paris to be lit by gas in 1817. Best for a mooch, though, are Passage Jouffroy and its continuation, Passage Verdeau, both built around 1847. Here you'll find the Musée Grévin waxwork museum and dinky boutiques for everything from precious stones, stamps and jewellery to antique cameras and furniture.
Take a tour of the galleries
A gracious gem dating back to 1873, the Galerie Vivienne is in perfect condition, all polished wood, glass and wrought iron, its mosaic-inlaid corridors lined with plants. Even during busy times it has an air of quiet elegance, making it a pure pleasure to browse the chic boutiques – look out for Jean-Paul Gaulthier, Nathalie Garçon, bijou toystore Si Tu Veux and venerable wine cellar and deli Legrand Filles et Fils...Read more
With a 12-metre-high glass roof, le Passage du Grand Cerf is the highest of the covered passages in Paris (featured in Louis Malle’s 1960 film ‘Zazie Dans le Metro’). Linking the Rue Saint-Denis and the Rue Dussoubs, it's one of a second generation of passages built after Haussman’s restoration of central Paris, and had to close for a period because the glass roof had become dangerous. But major works have since returned it to its original glory...Read more
On the Rue Palestro, two majestic statues – allegories of commerce and industry – flank the entrance to Passage Bourg-l’Abbé. Today, though, the little passage is principally occupied by offices and art galleries – plus Les Cariatides, a long, narrow bar with a retro décor that offers concerts in its friendly basement. Opposite is record store Goodies Records, also worth a look.Read more
This narrow gallery links Rue des Petits-Champs, Rue Saint-Augustin and Rue Sainte-Anne, but is seemingly forgotten by the chic neighbourhood's property frenzy. Unlike its neighbours the Vivienne and Colbert galleries, Choiseul is shabby and down-at-heel, with many outlets sitting empty – still, it’s charming and unpretentious, with a mix of friendly stores offering bric-a-brac, discount clothing and accessories. Spruce fast food joint Bioburger is at number 46...Read more
The longest passage in Paris (370 metres in all) is in a deplorable state; the rather eerie corridors are glass-roofed and mirror-lined, mostly hosting shabby discount clothing stores, dry cleaners and wholesale mannequin outlets whose naked wares make the whole experience more surreal. But its definitely worth a wander through, and a stop-off at the façade of the building in the Place du Caire. Instead of the usual toga-draped statues, there’s an effigy of the Egyptian God Hathor set between lotus-shaped columns.Read more
Come out of the Passage des Panoramas by Boulevard Montmartre and cross the road straight into Passage Jouffroy, which was inaugurated in 1847 in order to make the most of the success of its neighbours. Lined with charming bookshops that can offer great second-hand bargains on art books, Jouffroy also hosts the Musée Grevin waxwork museum and the Hotel Chopin, a slightly down-at-heel hotel that is nevertheless fantastically affordable for the romance of the location.Read more
Opened in 1834 and going strong ever since, featured in Emile Zola’s 1880 novel ‘Nana’, the Passage des Panoramas is the most characterful of Paris’s covered galleries, crammed with quality bars and restaurants, vintage postcard shops and philatelist boutiques. First up is the quirky Victoria Station, where you can dine in what looks like a velvet-lined train carriage, followed by the gorgeous wood-fronted Arbre à Cannelle, the gluten-free Noglu, Indian and Chinese restaurants...Read more
The last of the passages in the Grands Boulevards after Passage Jouffroy and the Passage des Panoramas, Verdeau was built at the same time as Jouffroy in 1847, and has the same avant-garde architectural details and a cradle-like glass roof, though it's rather more low key – come here to avoid the crowds and browse antiques dealers, speciality comics from the 50s and old postcards.Read more