If you are one of the 30 million or so visitors to Paris each year and you haven't heard of the covered passages, don't worry; you're not alone. These lovely precursors to the present-day mall unfortunately haven't attracted much attention.
To better appreciate these covered shopping, dining and entertainment venues, it helps to remember that 18th and early 19th century Paris wasn't the beautiful city it is today. Streets were unpaved, muddy, narrow, crowded, and before the early 1800's, dark; not an environment conducive to the bourgeoisie who wanted to shop and dine without being rained on or splashed by passing carriages. Each covered passage was a dry refuge from grimy, everyday Paris of the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Before the middle of the 19th century, there were about 150 covered passages, but their number decreased with the renovation of Paris led by Baron Haussmann and the opening of the Bon Marché department store in 1852 where people could find a wider variety of goods under one roof. Now only a couple dozen remain. When you walk through them you notice common elements; they have beautiful glass ceilings, they connect two streets at either end and there are no motorized vehicles. They're a perfect way to pass a rainy day!
While not an exhaustive list, I've highlighted nine of the covered passages and two which are uncovered; I hope you enjoy this detour into 19th century Paris!
Passage des Panoramas
Between Bd. Montmartre and rue Saint-Marc
This is one of the oldest covered passages in Paris. Constructed on the site of the "hôtel particulier" belonging to the Duke of Luxembourg in 1800, the name comes from rotundas on the site on which large panoramic paintings of major cities were displayed. This passage has been home to stamp sellers since its inception and some stamp shops remain to this day.
Between Bd. Montmartre and rue de la Grange-Batelière
Step out of the Passage des Panoramas at Bd. Montmartre and you'll see the Passage Jouffroy across from you. Built in 1845, this is the first passage made entirely of metal and glass. It's home to the Musée Grévin, a wax museum, the Hôtel Chopin and the magical miniatures boutique, Pain d'Epice.
Between rue de la Grange-Batelière and rue du Faubourg Montmartre
Built in 1849 and located just to the north of the Passage Jouffroy, the Passage Verdeau houses several unique shops and antique dealers. The imposing and beautiful glass ceiling was created in a fishbone design.
Between rue des Petits Champs and rue Vivienne
Built in 1823, Galérie Colbert belongs to the Bibiothèque Nationale (the Library of France) and unlike most of the other passages, there are no shops. It houses the Institut Nationale d’Histoire de l’Art (National Institute of Art History) and the Institut National du Patrimoine (National Institute of Cultural Heritage). The beautiful glass dome is the centerpiece of the passage.
Between rue de la Banque and rue Vivienne
Like its neighbor, Galérie Colbert, Galérie Vivienne was built in 1823. However, unlike Galèrie Colbert, this short passage is full of interesting shops. The sculptured walls and the mosaic floor are beautiful.
Passage du Grand-Cerf
Between rue Saint-Denis and rue Dussoubs
The Passage du Grand-Cerf is one of the shortest (less than 400 ft.) passages, but its three- story ceiling makes it seem much larger. Built in 1825, this passage closed shortly after the French Revolution and went into decline until its renovation about a century later. Today it's filled with jewelry and clothing stores. If you need yarn for a knitting project, you're in luck!
Passage du Bourg-l'Abbé
Between rue de Palestro and rue Saint-Denis
Enter from rue de Palestro to see the beautifully carved caryatids which represent industry and commerce. This passage doesn't have the glitz that some of the others do, but it has one design element that is missing from the others; it's curved. When it was built in 1828 it was longer than it is now; Baron Haussmann's renovation of Paris several decades later widened the streets which eliminated a section of the passage. Like the others, it has a beautiful glass ceiling. The lovely hanging lights and muted colors give it an understated and refined atmosphere.
Between rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau and rue du Bouloi
Stroll down to the 1st Arrondissement, just north of the Louvre and you'll find this lovely passage. Built in 1826, the dark mahogany gives it an air of luxury apropos of the surrounding neighborhood. Its name originates from two wealthy pork butchers, Véro and Dodat, who made their way into the high society of the day and provided the funds to build the passage. The eclectic high-end shops were a treat for the eyes!
There are also some uncovered passages in Paris; below are two that deserve to be mentioned.
Between rue Saint-Martin and rue Quimcampoix
You can see immediately that this passage is covered only at either end when it passes under buildings. It's one of the earliest passages, built in 1791 and takes its name from the former Théâtre Molière which was located nearby. I loved the colors of the would-be storefronts in this sleepy little passage.
Cour du Commerce Saint-André
Between Bd. Saint-Germain and rue Saint-André des Arts
Step back into time to the 18th century when you go through the archway to the Cour du Commerce Saint-André and walk along the uneven cobblestones. A mere 400 feet in length, it boasts Le Procope, founded in 1686 and said to be the oldest restaurant in Paris, and many other restaurants and shops. It is also one of the very few passages located on the Left Bank.
The passage runs north and south, connecting the Bd. Saint-Germain at the south entrance to the rue Saint-André des Arts in the north. Most of the passage is uncovered, but look north toward the rue Saint-André des Arts and you'll see a glass roof added in 1823 when they became fashionable. There is also a gate there which is locked at night. This lovely passage has a dark history; it's here where the guillotine was perfected in the late 18th century! Nowadays it's a picturesque place to sit and have a coffee or a glass of wine when you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the 6th arrondissement.
If you've visited any of the passages, which is your favorite? I love Jouffroy for its shops and lively atmosphere and I love the Cour du Commerce Saint-André for its history and cobblestones.
➜ Top Tips
It's possible to visit all of the passages in a day, but it's best to spread out your time to get the most from them.
Most of them have cafés or restaurants so break up your time by enjoying a drink or a meal during your visit.
Don't forget to look up at the beautiful ceilings.
They're a great opportunity to purchase a souvenir, so bring your wallet!