Aux Champs Elysées
“At noon or at midnight, there is everything you want on the Champs Elysées.” Joe Dassin’s song about the Paris icon spins through my head every time I find myself walking the world’s most famous avenue. The song is lovely, nostalgic and oh-so-romantic. But what about the avenue itself? There is much debate among Parisophiles, and I understand the logic when some bemoan the commercialization of the street. “It’s turned into a shopping mall of brands you can find anywhere in the world!” they cry. It’s true: the Gap, McDonald’s and Nike are all there in full force, but this also translates into some very exciting contemporary architecture, with enough traditional addresses to make it worth the trip—especially at Christmas, when the holiday lights give the neighborhood a uniquely festive feel and the spiced wine from the Christmas market perfumes the air.
When I was a student here in Paris, Le Drugstore, a 24-hour pharmacy facing the Arc de Triomphe, was THE place to meet. Parisians of all ages would arrange to meet here before heading out for a night on the town. Today Le Drugstore is owned by Publicis, an international advertising agency, and features a swanky café, comprehensive newsstand, high-end convenience store for snacks, movie theatre, bookstore and tempting selection of very exclusive gifts by local designers like Jerome Dreyfuss, Dinh Van and Barbara Rihl. It has had a stunning new face-lift by the architects Michele Saee and Bruno Pingeot, which sets the tone for tourists as they emerge from the Charles de Gaulle–Etoile metro station. The gleaming, shattered facade somehow blends with its Haussmannian neighbors for a look that is historic and contemporary, like the Champs itself.
If you like contemporary architecture, there is plenty more worth visiting. The latest addition to the H&M flagship collection was created by Jean Nouvel, while Louis Vuitton used the services of Eric Carlson to dream up the jewel of its collection. The Citroën store forms an optical illusion for all to appreciate. Edouard François designed the überexclusive, high-design hotel Fouquet’s Barrière, preserving the original interior of the century-old café that inspired the entire project.
For more-traditional addresses, the old-fashioned arcades (basically indoor malls) that you stroll past are worth a peek and great to explore on a rainy day. You can almost imagine the turn-of-the-20th-century elite strolling under the steel and glass ceiling, the women’s gowns gracefully sweeping across the mosaic-covered floors. Maison Guerlain has been on the Champs Elysées since 1914, and it is an elegant break from the modern world rushing past its door. A visit to the Artcurial auction house lets you see the inside of the Marcel Dassault mansion, with its fantastic art bookstore, comfortable café and (if you’re lucky) collection of masterpieces waiting to be auctioned off.
As you continue down the avenue, there are fast-food chains that spoil the ambience, but there is also the historic patisserie Ladurée; Flora Danica, an elegant Danish restaurant, with an outdoor garden terrace for the sumer and flaming heat lamps for a cozy winter break; or the very charming Pavillon Elysée Lenôtre, nestled in the gardens that connect the Champs Elysées to the place de la Concorde. It’s a peaceful haven after taking in the exhilarating sights and sounds of the avenue, Joe Dassin’s music accompanying you as you stroll.
Editor’s note: Hotels we like that are close to the Champs are Hidden Hotel (chic and affordable), Hôtel Keppler (beautiful value) and Fouquet’s Barrière (luxury, with a spa).