Shopping in Paris, the City of Light and Love, can be overwhelming. Think New York City on steroids.
My friend and I — first-time visitors with an embarrassingly inadequate grasp of the language — took a whirlwind shopping excursion earlier this month. The city glitters in December with holiday lights, and harried shoppers jam the sidewalks and stores. We jostled among them, and you might think about doing the same some Christmas season.
In just four days, we managed to hit some of the city’s unique and exquisite marketplaces, thanks to the help of a hired shopping guide and tips from hotel concierges.
And, having solved the issues of shopping navigation, we were able see the Mona Lisa and other Louvre masterpieces, attend a seasonal mass in the Cathedrale de Notre Dame and enjoy the spectacular window displays at Printemps department store.
Our home base was the boutique Hotel Scribe, which opened in 1895 and became headquarters of Nazi journalists streaming propaganda during the occupation of France in World War II. It’s located in the 9th Arrondissement, the Opera District, within easy walking distance of designer salons and department stores. Sturdy shoes and a healthy constitution can get you to the Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower and several museums.
We enjoyed being in the center of holiday activity and walking along the Champs-Elysees through the glittering Christmas market.
But, we also wanted to see the romantic Paris of literature and films. We refused to buy anything that wasn’t made in France (not easy), so we took the “Made in France” shopping tour designed by ex-pat Rebecca Magniant.
A Missouri native who met her French husband while studying for her master’s degree in art therapy at George Washington University, Magniant has lived in Paris since 2002. Her company, Chic Shopping in Paris, offers an insider’s view of the city through shopping trips for food, bargains, luxury items, designer clothing and other customized tours.
“I think one of the biggest mistakes Americans make coming here is thinking the Champs-Elysees is the best place to go for shopping,” Magniant says.
“It’s basically big-box brand stores you have anywhere in the world.”
Magniant, 38, and her staff of American and Canadian guides, lead small groups to flea markets, consignment shops and boutiques.
We were interested in French-made house wares, food gifts and quality souvenirs. We met at the Odeon Metro stop to shop in the Saint-Germain district.
Winding through narrow streets of tiny shops, we found treasures including stationery, linens and chocolate. Paris is chock full of chocolatiers.
The day ended at the massive food hall of the grand Le Bon Marche store, which Magniant describes as the “Neiman Marcus of Paris.” Mostly, we brought back sweet edibles.
Chic Shopping tours start at 100 euros (or $132) per person for four hours and can vary depending on the desired route. Along with trips like ours, Magniant says she arranges a lot of “Sweet 16” mother/daughter tours.
Besides the Saint-Germain neighborhood, Magniant said the “Unique Boutique” tour in the Marais district is one of her favorites.
Along with navigating the shops, our guide provided useful tips on negotiating French culture. For example, when we couldn’t find throat lozenges at the local drug store, Balmadier explained that we had to ask the pharmacist for medications, including traditional over-the-counter products. “When I go home to Boston, I like to shop at CVS,” she says.
She also gave us etiquette lessons.
“You always address the shopkeeper when you go into a store,” she says, offering each merchant a “bonjour, madame” in a sweet singsong. It’s also customary to say “au revoir” when you leave, even if just browsing. And don’t apply lipstick in public. Tacky.
While shopkeepers demand civility, they can be forward when it comes to purchases.
“They are always honest,” Magniant says. “Sometimes it’s a little bit brutal, but if you are trying on clothes, they will tell you if something doesn’t look good on you.”
Luckily, no one complained about the chocolate on our faces.