Passages of time

Julie Street strolls the historic arcades of Paris where marble, brass and glass house boutiques and ateliers.

When a band of visionary architects designed Paris's shopping arcades at the turn of the 19th century, they used the best industrial-age technology, creating a labyrinth of wrought-iron structures topped with awe-inspiring glass skylights. These "passages couverts" offered pedestrians previously unheard-of amenities, such as gas lighting, heating and refuge from the filthy streets of pre-pavement Paris. Lined with elegant shops, fashionable cafes, theatres, reading rooms and public baths, the passages attracted a colourful crowd of shoppers, pleasure-seekers and flaneurs - urban dandies who strolled the arcades, observing and making sure they were observed.

Although the concept of the arcade was copied throughout Europe, construction of the Parisian passages lasted just a few decades; their demise signalled by the arrival of Paris's first department store, Le Bon Marche, in 1852. Scores more passages couverts fell to Baron Haussmann's wrecking ball the following year.

Two centuries on, about 20 of the 150 passages that criss-crossed the city remain and the Ville de Paris has launched a campaign to place these architectural triumphs once extolled by Balzac, Baudelaire and the Surrealists on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites.

Passage des Panoramas

First stop for exploring the arcades on foot should be the Passage des Panoramas. The city's second-oldest surviving arcade - built in 1800 and immortalised in Emile Zola's novel Nana - was named after the huge circular panoramas of historical scenes displayed at its entrance. The paintings, like the famous Cafe Veron, are long gone, with only the Belle Epoque facade of the restaurant L'Arbre a Cannelle (No.57) indicating the opulence of bygone years.

The passage, which thrilled visitors as the first gaslit public place in Paris, looks a lot less luxe today. Used by locals as a shortcut to escape the traffic on the grands boulevards, the passage has a quaint, old-fashioned feel. Passers-by can browse philately shops and vintage postcard dealers, and an intriguing autograph shop (No.60) displays letters by Rodin and Flaubert alongside signed photos of Ernest Hemingway.

Slow your pace to the ambling gait of the 19th-century flaneur and you'll discover a host of other attractions, such as the ethical fashion store Maalkita, the custom art framer Annie Guillemard and Tombees du Camion, a kitsch "cabinet de curiosites" selling everything from porcelain dolls' heads to 1970s jewellery.

The opening of Shinichi Sato's Passage 53 in 2009 marked Passage des Panoramas as a new foodie hot spot. The young Japanese chef has two Michelin stars for his edgy approach to haute cuisine and bookings for his pocket-size restaurant must be made weeks in advance. Sato is also behind the new Gyoza Bar (No.56), which has hipsters queueing for pan-fried Japanese dumplings. Meanwhile, Parisian food bloggers are raving about the biodynamic wines served at Racines (No.8) and the market-based prix fixe lunch menu at Le Diable Verre (No.38).

Passage Jouffroy

Cross the road into Passage Jouffroy and the foodie vibe continues at Le Valentin, a tempting little tearoom serving traditional gateaux and handmade biscuits. Specialty bonbons including calissons, nougat and olives au chocolat (actually chocolate-covered almonds) can be found at La Cure Gourmande, a modern-day confiserie whose vintage-style packaging inspires nostalgia for the French childhood you never had. Pain d'Epices, a toy shop just across the way, completes the retro fantasy with its old-fashioned spinning tops, wooden duck whistles and chichi dollhouse accessories including claw-foot bathtubs and miniature chandeliers. Le Petit Roi (No.39) caters to fans of Asterix, Tintin and Becassine (the Breton housemaid who was the first female protagonist in the history of comics).

Those who wish to follow in the footsteps of 19th-century dandies should visit Galerie Segas at No.34. This red-velvet boudoir cum boutique keeps antique walking sticks made of glass, mother-of-pearl, woven grass and more. Pommels are fashioned into animal heads, talismans and even a bust of Francois Premier, but the real star of the shop is a rare sadomasochist crop from the infamous Parisian brothel One-two-two.

Those whose fantasies lean towards the Sofia Coppola version of Marie Antoinette should head to La Maison du Roy, a boutique with lavish decor that sells re-editions of baroque furnishings alongside genuine antiques. To experience a slice of history firsthand, book a room at Hotel Chopin (No.46), which opened its doors in 1846, the same year the passage was constructed.

Passage Choiseul

This arcade, built between 1825 and 1827, failed to make it onto the historic monument list as Passage Jouffroy and Hotel Chopin did, and it fell into decrepitude. Now, thanks to a grant from Paris city authorities, Passage Choiseul will have its leaking glass canopy and peeling paintwork restored. It has an illustrious history: the writer Celine lived here as a child, and Offenbach's Theatre des Bouffes Parisiens was founded at No.65. Choiseul's bargain clothes, cheap luggage shops and stand-up lunch counters give the place a vaguely souk-like feel (which is fitting, given that Middle Eastern bazaars were a prototype for the Parisian passages). Careful browsing of this down-at-heel arcade reveals gems including the art supply shop Adam & Lavrut at No.52 (shop here for moleskin notebooks and painters' smocks), and Boisnard graveur at No.83, recommended for Montblanc pens and leather wallets. After picking up a retro-style gift from L'Effet Bulles (No.11), enjoy an organic takeaway from Bioburger (No.46) or have a lunchtime snooze at Zen siesta bar (No.29).

Passage du Grand Cerf

Built in the same year as Passage Choiseul, the Passage du Grand Cerf has enjoyed a better fate. The arcade's stylish wrought-iron work and wood-panelled shop fronts were restored in the late 1980s and the three-storey gallery is home to fashion designers, jewellery-makers and artisans, many of whom can be found beavering away at the back of their atelier-boutiques.

Approach the passage from the foodie neighbourhood on rue Montorgueil rather than the seedy red-light strip on rue St Denis and pay a visit to Anne Defromont, a gemologist selling antique jewellery and contemporary re-creations of vintage pieces. Next door, Sylvie Branellec puts an offbeat spin on cultured pearls, and Cecile Boccara (No.8) creates "textile jewellery" from luxury fabrics. Boccara's work has featured on Roger Vivier shoes and she has designed couture accessories for Valentino and Christian Lacroix, who also catapulted jewellers Eric & Lydie (No.7) to fame.

Don't leave the passage without checking out the vintage eyewear at Pour Vos Beaux Yeux, the handmade soaps at De Marseille et d'Ailleurs and the copious charcuterie platters at the hip neighbourhood cafe Le Pas Sage.

Galerie Vero-Dodat

It's hard to understand why it took until 1997 for Galerie Vero-Dodat to be restored to its neoclassical glory. Opened in 1826 to cater to a well-heeled clientele who alighted from stagecoaches in rue Bouloi, the Galerie features marble columns, a stunning black-and-white mosaic floor and a coffered ceiling painted with frescoes. The wood-panelled shop fronts are intact, with original brass-arched window frames that showcase a range of costly antiques. The Galerie contains a few curiosities such as the traditional lute-maker R & F Charle, which sells and restores all kinds of stringed instruments, and the exclusive cobbler Minuit moins sept. Since shoemaker-to-the-stars Christian Louboutin installed his flagship store in the Galerie, Minuit moins sept has become the only repair shop in the world accredited to replace the maestro's red soles. The cosmetics guru Terry de Gunzburg followed Louboutin into the arcade in 1998, opening her first boutique at No.21 when she launched her cult make-up line, By Terry. Sadly, the shutter has descended on Catherine Deneuve's favourite antique doll shop at No.26. Its former owner Robert Capia now devotes his time to running the Association Passages et Galeries, which campaigns for the preservation of Paris's historic arcades and organises regular walking tours of the passages, in English.

Galerie Vivienne

This grande dame of Parisian passages rivals Galerie Vero-Dodat in elegance and timeless chic. The sumptuous arcade, built in 1823, was one of the first Parisian passages to be renovated and its Italian mosaic floor, ornate mouldings and bas-reliefs are impeccably restored. Shopping highlights include Si tu veux, an upmarket toy shop specialising in wooden toys, Emilio Robba, a "sculptor" of silk flowers, and the historic wine shop and gourmet epicerie Legrand Filles & Fils.

Bookworms will enjoy perusing the shelves of Librairie Jousseaume (No.45), a former haunt of the writers Alfred Jarry and Louis Aragon, while fashionistas can shop for the latest looks at Jean-Paul Gaultier, Yuki Torii and Nathalie Garcon. Visit the Galerie during Couture Week and you'll find bevies of fashion editors brunching at A Priori Thé, snapping up second-hand designer labels at La Marelle or slipping silk shawls across the shoulders inside the 19th-century fabric emporium Wolff & Descourtis.

Galerie du Palais-Royal

Exit Galerie Vivienne via rue des Petits-Champs and cross the road to Passage des Deux Pavillons, a hidden alleyway popular with busking opera singers. Stylish Parisiennes in the know shop here for glamorous shoes by British Vogue darling Rupert Sanderson and custom-made eyewear from Maison Bonnet, a couture institution dating to the 1930s.

Follow the winding passageway to its end, descend a tiny staircase and you'll emerge on rue de Beaujolais at the northern end of Palais-Royal, the site of another historic shopping arcade. Louis XIV left the original palace of 1639 to his brother, but by the time Palais-Royal came under the control of Philippe, Duc d'Orleans, the latter was riddled with debt. In 1781, the duke came up with the idea of opening the palace gardens to the public and turning the vaulted stone arcades around them into a shopping and entertainment area. By 1789, Palais-Royal was home to a debauched mix of billiard halls, brothels, gambling dens and coffee houses which, because Philippe denied the police entry to the arcades, became hotbeds of revolution. More than two centuries on, Palais-Royal has dropped the debauchery but retains its vibrancy as a high-end shopping destination. Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney and Rick Owens have boutiques here alongside the flagship stores of cult French footwear designer Pierre Hardy and luxury Italian bag-maker Corto Moltedo.

Modern-day femmes fatales will love the custom-made gloves with couture finishings at Mary Beyer (32-33 Galerie de Montpensier) while urban dandies opt for Great Gatsby-style driving gloves at Maison Fabre (128-129 Galerie de Valois), a renowned gantier founded in 1924. Didier Ludot, the legendary vintage dealer, showcases his museum-quality collection of haute couture at 20-24 Galerie de Montpensier. Ludot's own, more affordable, line of little black dresses is sold across the way at La Petite Robe Noire (125 Galerie de Valois.)

If you end your visit with an apero on the outdoor terrace of Restaurant Palais-Royal, glance up at the apartments above the arcades, which were once home to Jean Cocteau, Jean Marais and the notorious French novelist and stage performer Colette, who died after drinking a last glass of champagne.


Shopping there

  • Passage des Panoramas at 11 boulevard Montmartre. Metro: Grands Boulevards.
  • Passage Jouffroy at 10-12 boulevard Montmartre. Metro: Grands Boulevards.
  • Passage Choiseul at 40 rue des Petits-Champs. Metro: Quatre-Septembre.
  • Passage du Grand-Cerf at 10 rue Dussoubs. Metro: Etienne Marcel.
  • Galerie Vivienne at 4 rue des Petits-Champs. Metro: Bourse.
  • Galerie Vero-Dodat at 19 rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Metro: Louvre.

Other noteworthy passages

  • Passage Brady for Indian restaurants, spice stores and sari shops. At 46 rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. Metro: Strasbourg Saint-Denis.
  • Passage du Prado for its Art Deco glass roof and Mauritian fast food. At 12 rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. Metro: Strasbourg Saint-Denis.
  • Passage du Caire for the hieroglyphics and Egyptian goddess heads. At 2 place du Caire. Metro: Sentier.
  • Galerie Colbert for its rotunda and Belle Epoque brasserie Le Grand Colbert, at 2 rue Vivienne. Metro: Bourse.

More information

Association Passages et Galeries, see