How To Enjoy Paris When Everyone In It Takes Off For Vacation
An empty-city guide to the food and drinks you won't have to wait in line for.
July 29, 2017 ● 4 min read
By Olivia Terenzio | Image Trisha McMillan via iStock
My fishmonger was the first to go.
Around the third week of July, he set off for Corsica, and the poissonnerie doors have been shuttered ever since. My second-favorite bakery was next to board its windows, then the Italian traiteur where I bought my pasta. Eventually, handwritten signs started popping up on brasserie and café windows all over the neighborhood: closed for the holidays.
This is the story of Paris in August, when Parisians leave the city in one swift exodus in favor of the beaches of Marseille or La Rochelle. There, they will stretch out in the sun and spend the bulk of their five-week, government-guaranteed vacation – that precious birthright, the stuff of harried American worker legend. Yes, times are changing: more people choose to travel throughout the year than used to. But for the most part, Paris is still a ghost town in August. Which begs the question: what to do if you’re one of the few who sticks around?
First – and let’s get them out of the way – the cons. Many restaurants close for at least two weeks of the month, and won't post these closures on their websites. Don’t be surprised if you arrive at your favorite spot only to learn it will be empty until September 1st. Also, although there aren’t as many Parisians around in August, tourists still flood the city center. Finally, it gets hot – very, very hot. Many restaurants, cafés, stores, and apartments are not air-conditioned, so prepare to sweat.
On the flip side, fewer Parisians on the streets means that metros and sidewalks are less crowded than during other times of the year (and parking is easier, if you have a car). More importantly, Paris gives its reluctant summer guests every opportunity to linger outside: in the grass of the city’s famed parks and gardens, on the banks of the Seine, or people-watching from one of the ubiquitous café terraces. Here are a few ways to make the most of the city during its sleepiest but sunniest month of the year.
Hit up the outdoor food markets. There’s a different outdoor market every day of the week in Paris, and this month you won’t have to compete with the locals for first dibs. Plus, produce tends to be both higher quality and less expensive than what you find in the U.S. Some vendors will take vacation during August, but you should still be able to find all of the staples – and you haven’t lived until you’ve tasted a French melon or strawberry in the dead of summer. Depending on the day of the week, check out the Marché des Enfants Rouges (3rd), or the markets at Monge (5th), Mouffetard (5th), Raspail (6th), and Bastille (11th).
Faux-vacation at the Paris Plages. Every summer, the banks of the Seine and the La Villette Basin transform into a makeshift resort with lawns, umbrellas, temporary sand beaches, and patios to placate everyone left in Paris during August. Cheesy? Sure. But you’ve got to admire the ingenuity coming from the mayor’s office, and the Paris Plages have been a major success. Buy a drink to go from one of the bars and sip by the water, or try one of the ice cream shops or restaurants (Maison Maison, next to the Louvre, is a solid pick). And it’s not a beach, but Les Berges – a pedestrian stretch on the Left Bank of the Seine – is a perfect spot to bring coolers of wine and oysters for an afternoon of shucking, drinking, and waving at the bateaux mouches as they cruise by. (No, it’s not oyster season, but you can still buy them at most covered markets or any poissonneries that stay open.) Happily, it’s perfectly acceptable to add ice to your cups of white and rosé in Paris – they call it a piscine: a swimming pool.
Picnic – or apéro – in the park. Apéro culture reigns in Paris, thanks to the prevalence of good cheese and charcuterie. Any covered market, corner bodega, or traiteur (or, in a pinch, Monoprix supermarket) will offer staples like cheese, fruit, olives, prepared salads, baguettes, and hummus – and, of course, wine – for you to cobble into a proper meal. And no, you don’t have to conceal your bottles. In August, some parks stay open all night; the sun doesn’t even set until 10 p.m. Try the Parc Buttes-Chaumont (19th) for a diverse crowd and killer elevations and views. On a Sunday, you can do your pre-park shopping at the nearby Bastille market. Tip: Use Velib, a bike rental service with stations all throughout the city, to avoid the sweltering metro.
Watch a (food) movie on the lawn. The Cinema en Plein Air de la Villette film festival will show free movies in the Villette Park (19th) until August 20th. This year the theme is “In the Kitchen,” so every movie centers on food, dining, cooking, and eating. Think Ratatouille, Babette’s Feast, Sideways, and plenty of intriguing foreign titles you haven’t even heard of.
Stake out a spot on a terrace. The number one Parisian pleasure will always be to drink, snack, and smoke on one of the thousands of bar terraces that the city boasts. Even in August choices are endless. For a rooftop perspective, check out Le Perchoir, which has locations in the Marais and the 11th. The drinks and small plates are good, but the Eiffel Tower views are even better.
Get physical (and cultural). Ground Control (12th) is a pop-up space with a huge patio, food truck park, and urban vegetable garden (plus yoga, hula-hoops, pétanque, and fortune-telling, if you’re into that sort of thing). The workshop-cum-gathering space is known for its street food snacks, from the Argentinian flank steak and empanadas at the Asado Club, to the hot smoked trout with sweet and sour cucumbers at Røk by WoodMen.