The Elegant Arcades of Paris
Part of the pleasure of getting to know the real Paris lies in getting off the main tourist trail and discovering its many hidden pockets and secrets. Its gorgeous arcades are one such secret, which still remains mostly unknown to tourists. The Passages couverts à Paris are a unique aspect of the city’s architecture, and are part of what makes up Paris’s lively street life. Walking through these gorgeous arcades is one of the highlights of visiting the city, and a window into the daily life of its inhabitants.
Designed mostly for commerce and dining, these walkways in many ways anticipated the large shopping malls of today. Many of the passages run between or through larger buildings, giving walkers a covered passage for shopping and visiting cafes. The invariably have glazed ceilings that bathe the passages with diffuse light, and allow for indoor plants of various kinds to decorate shopfronts. Their unique, Parisian architecture makes them an unmissable part of the Paris experience. They also have ornate, decorative glass and store designs, which creates a singular aesthetic.
This blog post offers a guide to some of the most famous and fascinating passages, with tips on how to make the most of your Paris walking experience. Odyssey’s Paris Tour: 22 Days of Parisian Life offers travellers the chance to explore many of these walkways, while many of our other Paris tours are focused on other hidden gems.
These passages were built from the late-18th through to the early-19th centuries. There were once more than a hundred such covered walkways, threaded through the city, though today around 30 remain. These remaining passages are clustered on the Right Bank, and have for the most part been immaculately preserved.
While historically the shops varied considerably, today travellers will find cafes, antique dealers, boutique clothes stores, bistros, and various speciality stores. Many of the stores have been in continuous operation for generation, and are frequented by loyal local customers as well as occasional travellers passing through the city.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Paris streets were typically dark and narrow. Overcrowding had become a serious problem, and the city’s industrial operations had left the city streets muddy and narrow. As such, only a few streets had open sidewalks suitable for walking and shopping. The covered walkways, which first started being constructed in the latter half of the 18th century, provided a space for wealthy Parisians to shop in comfort and style.
The first indoor gallery, constructed at the Palais Royal in 1786, soon inspired similar walkways. The Passage Feydau followed in 1790, before the Passage du Caire (1799) and the Passage des Panoramas (1799-1800). The passages each have their own unique character and charm, and are lovingly preserved reminders of Parisian history.
The Verdeau Passage
The Passage Verdeau lies in the Grands Boulevards district, and is named in honour of its architect. It dates back to 1847, and is still one of the most delightful arcades in the city. It actually links up with two other charming arcades: Les Panoramas and Jouffroy. You can therefore connect three arcades together in a delightful stroll through Parisian history.
The Verdeau Passage features a large number of antiques dealers and unique shops (selling old books, postcards, collectors’ cameras, etc.), along with several tempting food options. The cathedral-like ceilings of this arcade, designed to resemble fish bones, allows a gorgeous quality of light through. Spending time strolling through this elegant passage, admiring the well-worn floor, magnificent ceiling, original timber shopfronts, and surviving clock is a wonderful experience.
Passage des Panoramas
The Panoramas is one of the oldest covered walkways in the city, constructed at the turn of the 19th century, in 1799. It retains a certain amount of old-world charm, and is still being used for small shops in the way that it was originally intended. Built for the American investor James Thayer, it also featured the first gas street lights to arrive in Paris. Installed in 1816, the lighting caused quite a stir and was soon replicated across the city.
The arcade was originally decorated with enormous panoramas of major European cities, hence the name. To this day, each store window reflects moments of historical significance to the city, as a tribute to various dramas and events. The panoramas is only 133 metres long, but is still bustling with commerce and locals enjoying food and drink. Small bistros and cafes mingle with shops dedicated to crafts and antiques. In fact, the arcade has numerous craftsmen, whose handiwork is sold across the city.
The Architecture of the Passage des Panoramas
The 18th century architecture is still one of the highlights of this beautiful arcade. Many of the shops have retained the original design, including the quaint Chocolatier Marquis and Stern printing house, which serve as good examples of how ambitious 18th century commercial architecture could be. Also worth looking out for is the Théâtre des Variétés, still going strong after more than two-hundred years. This theatre stages regular concerts and comedies, and it is worth looking up the schedule upon your arrival in the city. The presence of the Théâtre des Variétés is part of what gives the arcade its unique spirit, as well as being part of the draw for French celebrities, who often haunt this passage.
Located in the heart of the second arrondissement, this luxurious arcade is 176 metres long. It has been included in the city’s registry of historic monuments since 1974, and has been immaculately preserved since its original building in 1823. It stands as one of the most elegant and refined of all Paris’s arcades. Its famous mosaic pavement, paired with vaunted ceilings, architectural details, and gorgeous sculptures and reliefs, makes for a charming walk. The arcade features many high-class shopping options, with immaculate window displays.
François-Jacques Delannoy’s neo-classical Pompeian decor style is well worth paying attention to as you make your way through the arcade. Lovingly restored, the galleries still feature the original mosaics, paintings, and scupltures, all praising French commerce. The gallery’s 42 metre-long central gallery features a glazed rotunda with a hemispherical glass dome that allows for air circulation.
Dating back to 1836, this is one of the city’s most popular and beloved arcades. It lies on the Grands Boulevards and features particularly fine iron and glass architecture, including an ogive glass roof. It also features exquisite marble paving, which has been lovingly restored.
While here, you will find antiques, artisan jewellers, Tea Salons, Patisseries, and homewares, among other wares. You’ll also find the famous Musée Grévin, with its famous waxwork models, and the she Salon des Miroirs,a former 19th century brasserie which. The Hôtel Chopin is also housed in this arcade, along with many unique specialty shops and the gorgeous Valentin tea rooms.
Galerie de la Madeleine
Situated next to the Church of the Madeleine, this arcade dates back to 1845. It features numerous luxury shops and cafes. A slightly smaller arcade, at just 53 metres long, the Galerie de la Madeleine is in a prime location to attract shoppers and has enjoyed considerable success since its opening. Situated in a fashionable part of the city, it was also originally located at the terminus for the early nineteenth-century stagecoaches. Travellers would alight and be eager to spend money in the arcade. Likewise, a popular English-style restaurant next door also attracted visitors to the arcade in the nineteenth century, as it still does today.
The decline of the stagecoaches meant that business was dramatically reduced, though in recent years the preservation work on the Galerie de la Madeleine has meant that this gorgeous arcade still attracts locals and tourists alike. It is now listed as a national monument of France, to be preserved in perpetuity.
Grand Cerf Passage
Built in the 1820s on the previous site of the terminus for stagecoaches of the French Royal Mail, this is the tallest of the city’s passages. In its early years, the upper levels from the third floor up served as residential space. Strolling through the passage today, you’ll find a number of shops offering variety of unique items and hand-crafted goods.
Getting off the Tourist Trail
Visiting these beautiful arcades is one good way of getting off the main tourist trail. Though many of the city’s attractions, such as the Eiffel Tower and the most popular museums and galleries, are of course essential to see, subsequent trips to a city are always better spent exploring how locals live.
Odyssey Traveller Tours to Paris are designed to show you how locals live, and to give you a taste of what it is actually like to inhabit this storybook city. The local knowledge of our experienced guides provides unique insights beyond the usual tourist attractions of the River Seine & surrounds. For example, the central sections of Paris, like those of many European cities, were built up long before any particular need was felt for open or recreational space. This circumstance, together with the height restrictions on buildings, has resulted in an unusually low green-space-to-inhabitants ratio. This means that exploring the city’s most beautiful spaces (both interior and natural) is a must for the serious traveller.
The largest areas of open space today are those that were protected from development by their status as royal preserves. Most noteworthy amongst these is the Bois de Boulogne, a tract of heavily used woods, trails, lakes and sports grounds located on the city’s western edge. This park is mirrored just beyond the eastern city limits by the Bois de Vincennes, which contains a zoo, a floral garden and several museums. Our 22-day tour allows travellers to explore these lush parks, which perfectly complement the elegant interiors of Paris’s most elegant arcades.
Walter Benjamin’s Arcade Project
Between 1927 and 1940, the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote a series of highly influential reflections on the Paris arcades. His unfinished project has been published in many forms, but its most famous incarnation is the 1999 Harvard University Press edition. In a series of wide-ranging essays, Benjamin illuminates what is so compelling about moving through these unique spaces, and writes persuasively on their expression of broader cultural and economic ideologies.
Many scholars take his Arcade Project to be one of the great works of 20th-century cultural criticism, history, and critical theory. It is worth tracking down for an enlightening, and cerebral, take on the city’s famous arcades.
The Paris Metro
Many of these arcades can be easily accessed via the Paris Metro system. Dating back to 1900, this intricate rail network provides the perfect way to get between the various arcades. Many of the subway stations near the arcades preserve the extraordinary original architectural style, heavily influence by Art Nouveau.
The network is mostly underground and is 214 kilometres long, with 303 stations. The Paris Metro is the second busiest subway system in Europe, after the Moscow Metro, and the tenth-busiest in the world. Since it carries 4.16 million passengers every day, it is the perfect chance to get more of a taste for life as it is actually lived in the city.
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