The forerunners to modern-day malls, Paris’s passages couverts (covered passages) allowed the 19th-century flâneur to take shortcuts, shelter from the rain, shop, dine... or spend a secluded, debauched hour in the arms of a lover. Nowadays these tucked-away arcades, mostly around today’s Grands Boulevards, are where to head for hours of sumptuous browsing. The Galerie Vivienne must be one of the prettiest, with its ochre paintwork and mythological mosaics. Best for a mooch, though, are Passage Jouffroy and its continuation, Passage Verdeau, inaugurated in 1847. Here you’ll also find the Musée Grevin waxwork museum and an array of dinky boutiques selling everything from precious stones, stamps and jewellery to antique cameras and furniture.
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Best ‘passages couverts’ in Paris
A gracious walkway 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 at peak times this place has an air of quiet elegance, making it a pure pleasure to browse the array of chic boutiques – look out for Nathalie Garçon, bijou toystore Si Tu Veux and venerable wine cellar and deli Legrand Filles et Fils.
With its 12-metre-high glass roof, the Passage du Grand Cerf – made famous by Louis Malle’s 1960 film ‘Zazie Dans le Métro’ – is the tallest of Paris’s covered passages. Linking the Rue Saint-Denis and the Rue Dussoubs, it’s one of a second wave of passages built after Haussman’s restoration of central Paris, and had to close for a period because the glass roof had become dangerous. Major works have since returned it to its original glory.
Opened in 1834 and going strong ever since, the Passage des Panoramas is the most characterful of Paris’s covered passages, crammed as it is with quality bars and restaurants, vintage postcard shops and philatelist boutiques. Your first stop should be the quirky Victoria Station, where you can dine in what looks like a velvet-lined train carriage. We also recommend gluten-free Noglu and the gorgeous, wood-fronted Arbre à Cannelle.
At 370 metres, the Passage du Caire is the longest arcade in Paris. Today it’s in a rather deplorable state – as elsewhere, the eerie corridors are glass-roofed and mirror-lined, but here you’ll find shabby discount clothing stores, dry cleaners and wholesale mannequin outlets whose naked wares make the whole experience even more surreal. It’s definitely worth wandering through, if only to admire its striking façade on the Place du Caire.
Come out of the Passage des Panoramas by the Boulevard Montmartre and cross the road straight into Passage Jouffroy, which opened in 1847. Lined with charming bookshops brimming with excellent second-hand art books, Jouffroy also hosts the Musée Grevin waxwork museum and the Hotel Chopin, a slightly down-at-heel hotel that’s fantastically affordable (especially given the très romantic surroundings).
On the Rue de Palestro, two majestic statues – allegories of commerce and industry – flank the entrance to the Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé. Today, however, this small walkway is principally occupied by offices and art galleries – plus Les Cariatides, a long, narrow bar with retro décor that hosts concerts in its cosy basement.
This narrow gallery links Rue des Petits-Champs, Rue Saint-Augustin and Rue Sainte-Anne. 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 chaotic mix of stores offering bric-à-brac, discount clothing and accessories.
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 boasts the same avant-garde architectural details and a cradle-like glass roof. Elsewhere, though, it’s rather more low key – come here to avoid the crowds and browse antiques, postcards and speciality comics from the ’50s.
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Still after a one-of-a-kind souvenir?
If you’re looking for a classy, time-worn curio to remind you of Paris across oceans and continents, you could do worse than a trip to one of its many brilliant flea markets. And for exquisitely fresh grub – admittedly slightly less transportable – there are also innumerable excellent food markets in Paris that can deliver.