The passages couverts (covered arcades) of Paris are as beautiful as they are enigmatic. Tucked behind decorative archways, the historic shopping passages situated on the Right Bank exude a sense of city life before Baron Haussmann's wrecking ball brought in spacious boulevards.
Dating back to the 19th century, the passages couverts have fallen in and out of fashion for years, but those that weren’t demolished along the way are now remarkable curios that are largely considered chic once again. So whether you're searching for antique books, artisan treats, fashionable boutiques or a forgotten slice of history, here's our guide to the city’s most fascinating arcades.
The galleries of rue des Petits Champs
Arguably the most bourgeois of today’s arcades is the Galerie Vivienne. Initiated in 1823 and inaugurated three years later, the main gallery was modelled on the nearby Louvre. With a stunning rotunda that originally hosted a statue of Mercury, the Vivienne is an L-shaped walkway with three entrances.
The legendary cellar of Legrand Filles et Fils greets patrons from rue des Petits Champs, selling vintage wines in eye-wateringly heavy bottles, while the wooden tables of the family-run Bistrot Vivienne, which dates back to 1823, spill out on the mosaic floors of the arcade.
Along one wing, visitors can buy plump Picasso pillows, pottery and exotic plants from Emilio Robba, whilst shops in the other arm sell designer handbags, antiques and extravagant wooden toys. It’s not all high-end luxuries — Librairie Jousseaume brims with second-hand books, including a fine sélection anglaise.
Next door, the Galerie Colbert opened shortly after the Vivienne and was widely considered the poorer relation to its commercial rival. However, it’s still an opulent space and has been commandeered by academia in recent years.
The deluxe belle-époque restaurant Le Grand Colbert serves affordable French cuisine, but the main drag has been taken over by the Institut d’histoire de l’art, part of the Sorbonne University. It features a lecture hall named after the German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, who wrote a vast, fragmentary collection of notes on the passages couverts, published posthumously as The Arcades Project.
A few minutes west along rue des Petits Champs is the Passage Choiseul which opened in 1827. It’s famed for being the former residence of 20th-century novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who complained it always smelled of gas and dog’s urine when he lived there between 1899 and 1907. These days it’s airy and candescent, and as well as hosting boutique stores and modern Asian restaurants, it houses the popular Theatre des Bouffes Parisiens, which was founded in 1855 by the prolific operetta composer, Jacques Offenbach.
Five minutes away, connecting rue de Jean-Jacques Rousseau to rue de Croix-des-Petits-Champs, is the Galerie Véro-Dodat. Built in 1826, it was named after a pork butcher and a local entrepreneur who split the property investment between them. The passage is only 80 metres in length, but it’s a handsome edifice that sells high-end stilettos from Christian Louboutin, as well as jewellery, make-up and antiques.
There’s one more passage with a titular galerie title, the Galerie de la Madeleine. Connecting the 8th and 9th arrondissements, the 53-metre arcade was almost certainly developed in 1845 by the Société du Passage Jouffroy. Its shops mostly sell luxury goods such as rare whiskies and gourmet mustard, and while the walkway lacks the appeal of other passages, the ornate caryatids adorning the entrance are enchanting features that complement the nearby Église de la Madeleine itself.
The passages of the Grands Boulevards
The Grand Boulevards area has three passages that lead into one another, stretching from the 2nd arrondissement to the 9th. Arguably the most characterful is the Passage des Panoramas, which was completed in 1800.
Among its delights is the luxuriant Canard & Champagne restaurant, which pairs exquisite bistro fare — like pink pan-fried duck breast — with exceptional sparkling wines. Dig deeper to discover Caffè Stern, an Italian coffee shop-cum-bistro-cum-cabinet of curiosities, which features two stuffed wolves in the window, one with a pair of angel’s wings. Things get stranger still at Victoria Station, a French restaurant that simulates the experience of being in an old locomotive. The passage also has no fewer than six shops specialising in stamp-collecting.
Across the boulevard, the Musée Grévin wax museum draws queues to Passage Jouffroy that snake right along the street. The arcade was built in 1845, the same year as Passage Verdeau, which lurches into the less fashionable rue du Faubourg Montmartre and is populated with a variety of art and antiques shops.
Along the boulevard Montmartre is Passage des Princes, which was erected in 1860 but destroyed by a fire in 1985. It took builders 10 years to reconstruct the arcade exactly as it was and now its labyrinthine passages that encroach on boulevard Haussmann exclusively sell toys.
The most isolated passage in the city is the rather dilapidated Passage Vendôme in the 3rd arrondissement. It was partially destroyed in 1867 to make way for the place de la République, but today offers little more than a 24-hour chemist and a key cutter’s shop that rarely opens. Pub quiz fans should note that Passage Puteaux in the 8th arrondissement is the shortest of the city’s arcades, measuring just 29 metres. It’s currently being refurbished.
The passages of rue Saint-Denis
The most beautiful of the passages orbiting rue Saint-Denis is the Passage du Grand-Cerf. Built in 1825, it can be transcendental on a spring morning. Its most intriguing features are the sporadic miniature passageways high up beneath the skylight, which lead to flats.
Below are boutiques, ateliers and fabric shops, including Rickshaw which sells mirrors, clocks, globes and other items from around the world. Passage Bourg-l'Abbé, across rue Saint-Denis, once forged a relationship with Passage Saucède, but the latter was later demolished to make way for rue Turbigo. Today, Bourg-l'Abbé seems a little lost without its twin, though it retains an interesting feature of having a clock and a barometer set into the roof that face each other along the hall.
There’s much uncertainty regarding the history of the Passage du Prado, which dates all the way back to 1785. It became a covered passage by virtue of the unusual wood and plaster Art Deco ceiling which was installed around 1925. It is home to a number of hairdressers, mobile phone kiosks and a nail shop.
The oldest surviving covered arcade is the Passage du Caire, which was built in 1799. Its name was inspired by the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt which took place one year earlier. Little of its ostentation remains and it now is resident to a plethora of wholesalers.
The Passage du Ponceau across the street might be the easiest of all to miss with its unfussy facade on rue Saint-Denis. Its glass plafond was replaced with perspex during the 1960s, and its most flowery decorations are provided by the florist inside.
Just 500 metres away is the famous Passage Brady, dating back to 1827. It was reputedly the longest arcade in the capital until Haussmann ran a giant road through it. These days it is the home of curry in Paris, making it the ideal final destination for those touring the city’s 17 passages couverts.
Offering the best in Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Kashmiri cuisine, the Brady is actually two streets bifurcated by the boulevard de Strasbourg. The more famous side is covered; the other, which boasts two excellent restaurants, isn’t. Le Trésor du Kashmir pairs flavoursome Punjabi food with authentic décor, including intricately carved wood, while the Restaurant New Delhi is known for its meat-free options, including a €6 takeaway veggie curry sandwich. In the summer, they also serve thali on an outdoors terrace.