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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Enlightened Traveler: What's On In Paris And Why You Should Spend The Holidays There

Are you planning a cozy Christmas holiday week at home with friends, family, lots of good food and movies? Or are you joining the legions who already have decided that the holidays are going to be no big deal this year?

Either way, you could do better.

We recommend heading straight for Paris, which, while magnificent at any time of year, seems most magical at Christmas.

(Hey, if it's too late for this year, there's always 2010. So, read on!)

By day you'll have your pick of dozens of wonderful museums and exhibits, sans the long lines and crowds of summer.

The Grand Palais is currently running an ambitious exhibit that explores the work and influences of Spanish cubist painter Pablo Picasso. Whether you're an expert on Picasso's work or are encountering it for the first time, "Picasso and the Masters" promises to give a solid overview of the artist's development and early influences, from Goya to Renoir and Manet.

The exhibit showcases some 200 works and should allow even those who are very well-versed in Picasso's creations to gain new perspective. Through February.

An exhibition devoted to Louis Comfort Tiffany is at the Musée du Luxembourg. This show brings together some 160 works (stained-glass windows, vases, lamps, objects, jewels and mosaics, drawings, watercolours and photographs), to reveal Tiffany’s outstanding contribution to the glass industry as well as to decorative arts in general. Through Jan. 17.

Other tantalizing exhibits on now include, "Renoir in the 20th Century" at the Galeries Nationales, "Venetian Rivalries: Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese" at the Louvre, and "Louis XIV: The Man and the King" at the Chateau de Versailles.

Plan to spend some quality shopping time at our favorite grand magasin, Au Bon Marché on the Left Bank. Even if your budget prevents you from loading up on designer duds, you will find affordable, memorable gifts in the store's La Grande Epicerie, a showstopping agglomeration of gourmet foods, sweets, and spirits.

Save some time to explore the charming boutiques – laden with gifts, tabletop items, and antiques – on the several streets that lead from Au Bon Marché through the Latin Quarter to the Seine.

A this time of year sometimes testy shopkeepers will be happy to see you. (In this economy, they'll be positively ecstatic.)

After an afternoon at the galleries, restore yourself with a cup of rich hot chocolate at one of the numerous patisseries to be found in every neighborhood. You'll enjoy it all the more in the crisp air of December than in the sweltering heat of July. If in doubt, head for the famous Ladurée or Angelina. (For more ideas, see David Lebovitz's Hot Chocolate Address Book.)

During Christmastime, Paris is breathtaking at night with dazzling light displays on the Champs-Elysées and other major thoroughfares.

Many fine restaurants and theatres remain open and welcoming throughout the holidays. Waiters normally are convivial, not brusque, owing to the season and absence of tourists.

Still, it may be difficult to find a place to dine on Christmas Eve or Christmas Night.

Our choice for Christmas eve: the famous patisserie Ladurée also operates an elegant restaurant with excellent food at their Champs-Elysées location.

We once chatted with a French couple seated next to us who boasted that they dine at Ladurée every Christmas Eve. Turns out the the husband is executive chef for Air France first class; he knows what he's talking about.

Sleep in on Christmas morning, then eat a hearty late lunch at your hotel and plan to skip dinner. Instead, reserve tickets to see the Nureyev staging of "Nutcracker" by the Paris Opera Ballet at Opera Bastille.

On another evening, see the company's new Ballets Russes de Dhiagilev program at the historic Palais Garnier, magnificently restored to its original splendor. The original choreography and stage settings for Spectre of the Rose, Afternoon of a Faun, Three-Cornered Hat, and Petroushka are on offer. Not to be missed!

At 4p.m. on Christmas afternoon, there's a free concert of organ and choral music at the Church of La Madeleine.

You'll also get a kick out of the Parisian version of the Broadway musical "The Lion King" at Théâtre Mogador. It's in French, of course, but that won't matter as you've already seen the show in the States, right?

Go for the enchantment, sheer spectacle, and fun of watching a French audience clap and stamp their feet in time with the music. As the show has been running for two years, it's likely to still be there next Christmas.

Looking for more amusement? How about outdoor ice skating until 10p.m. (midnight on Fridays and Saturdays) at the Hotel de Ville?

There's lots more to do in Paris at the holidays.

Even if you don't follow any of our suggestions, go anyway. Whatever you end up doing, you're sure to have the experience of a lifetime.

Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année à tous!

(For more Paris travel tips, click here.)