Paris is well-known for its many passages; hidden shopping arcades that were created at the end of the 18th century. They were typically dug through existing building or created as the buildings were constructed, and they were covered by glass roofs to allow well-off residents to shop rain or shine. Around 1850, the city counted over 150 shopping arcades and most of them were located on the right bank, which was the area where the wealthiest people of Paris resided at the time. Most were destroyed when Haussmann built his large avenues and after the Grands Magasins opened in Paris (allowing customers to find everything under one roof), but today, 25 passages still exist and are open to the public.
I have not purposefully sought out passages in Paris, preferring to stumble upon them by chance instead. Every time I discover the narrow opening of a new passage, it feels like opening a present: it’s mysterious and what you’ll find inside is always a surprise. Some shelter antique merchants and philatelists’ shops while others cater to the tourists’ needs with souvenir shops and crêpe counters.
My favorite passage, Passage du Grand Cerf, is off the tourist map in the 2nd arrondissement, and it links rue Saint-Denis and the Montorgueil neighborhood. As usual, I found it by chance when I was walking back to our nearby apartment when we lived in Paris in 2009. It was opened in 1825 on the site of the Hôtel du Grand Cerf, which closed shortly after the French Revolution. By the end of the 19th century, it was in a severely neglected state due to the fact that its merchants weren’t profitable. A century passed before it was restored and it is now in my humble opinion the most beautiful passage in Paris. Its three-story height and narrowness gives it a stately allure, its glass ceiling is simply breathtaking, and the passage looks even better at night, when the flattering lighting makes it look like the interior of a luxurious hôtel particulier.
But the reason why I love it so much is that it’s lined with small designer and jewelry shops that sell unique, high-quality but reasonably priced wares. It’s my favorite place to shop, and it’s the one place where I always find a perfect little souvenir pour moi. It’s only 117 meters (383 feet) long, but I could spend hours going from one shop to the next and discovering what’s changed since my last visit.
When I visited last week, Passage du Grand Cerf was all decked up for the holidays, the tiled floor covered with a red carpet and the height of the passage illuminated by long strings of lights, which made it magical. Here are a few pictures and some of my favorite shops in the passage. The visit starts from the western end of the passage, at the corner of Rue Dussoubs and Rue Marie-Stuart (for more location details, see the end of this post).
Antique, vintage and imported objects / Website
The French have a knack at mixing old and new in their interiors, and I suspect that’s due to shops like RickShaw, who present a carefully curated collection of antiques, vintage and imported objects from around the world. The shop is like Ali Baba’s cave: filled from floor to ceiling of interestingly unique items. If you can’t bring one of their beautiful pieces of furniture back home, perhaps a couple of vintage hooks or hand-painted door knobs will do.
Intricate, bohemian-inspired jewelry / Website
A jewelry boutique founded by a globe-trotting couple 25 years ago, Satellite now has several locations in France. Their creations incorporate materials and stones imported from exotic locations around the world.
Photo (c) Satellite.
- Eric et Lydie
Eric et Lydie are said to have been catapulted to fame when they were discovered by famous French designer Christian Lacroix. Their feminine jewelry feels vintage-inspired, if not a little nostalgic. They do not have a website, but you can see some of their creations here.
- Pour vos beaux yeux
Vintage and collectible glasses / Website
The owner of this shop, an optician and devoted collector, goes out of his way to find stocks of never-worn vintage glasses and sells them (with prescription lenses, if needed) in his shops, the first in Nice and the other in Paris, in Passage du Grand Cerf. Love vintage-looking glasses? Skip the recent imitations and get an authentic frame from the 1950s instead.
Jewelry, bags and accessories / Website
One of my favorite places to snag a unique bracelet or necklace, Dear also sells bags and accessories made by Paris designers. They can adjust the length of any piece of jewelry while you wait. I love how the products are presented, laid over vintage books or hung inside a frilly frame.
- Cécile Boccara
Textile jewelry / Website
Cécile Boccara’s boutique may be the reason why I’ve first fallen in love with Passage du Grand Cerf. Her colorful jewelry drew me in, and her light-as-air designs made me buy a pair of earrings on the spot. Unable to get her creations out of my head, I went back the next day to buy a necklace. I still love and wear both pieces as much as I did four years ago. Her boutique’s decor is the finest of the passage, and her unique style has been noticed by big fashion houses like Valentino and Christian Lacroix, with whom she has collaborated for their runway shows. Her most famous designs are the silk-covered bauble and silk flower collections, but she regularly creates new pieces, like her latest Swarowski crystal flower collection. Her website is in construction, but you can see some of her creations here and here.
- As’Art, L’Afrique d’Est en Ouest
Handcrafted creations made by African artisans / Website
A colorful and contemporary shop, As’Art goes beyond the traditional masks and wooden sculptures often sold in African art boutiques. They favor sustainable materials and ensure fair wages are paid to artisans.
- L’Illustre Boutique
Paper products / Website
Want to start building your own art collection? This boutique sells paper products, bags, and objects for the home embellished by the drawings of young contemporary artists, as well as original prints and reproductions.
- De Marseilles et d’ailleurs
Beauty products / Website
A great place to stock up on famous Marseilles soaps and beauty products from France and beyond. The intoxicating aroma will draw you in.
- Messages du Grand Cerf
Fresh flowers / Website
This charming flower shop makes me want to move to Paris so that I could go and buy a fresh bouquet of flowers from them every week.
Photo (c) Messages du Grand Cerf.
- Café Le Pas Sage
1, Passage du Grand Cerf (at Rue Saint-Denis)
This café’s cheeky name (litterally, “not well behaved”) refers to its location on Rue Saint-Denis, which is lined with sex shops and strip joints. Rue Saint-Denis is one of Paris’ oldest streets and it has been known as a mini red-light district for decades, but I’ve always found it strange that it’s located right in the heart of the fashionable and family-friendly Montorgueil neighborhood. Although the street may look a bit seedy and prostitutes can be seen at night on the northern part of the street, it’s not dangerous. I have crossed this street daily day or night for 6 months and I’ve never seen trouble (something that cannot be said of other neighborhoods that may appear better behaved). So as you come out of the very chic Passage du Grand Cerf, you find yourself facing neons advertising anything and everything related to the sex industry. Café Le Pas Sage corners the passage, its narrow front facing Rue Saint-Denis, but its atmosphere is a world away from that of its neighbors: it’s a hip and chic place to sip a glass of wine after shopping in the passage (I love the few tables that border the outside of the café), and its menu offers a simple but inventive French bistro cuisine. Read a full review of Le Pas Sage.
Where to Find Passage du Grand Cerf
After seeing all that this beautiful passage has to offer, I doubt that you’ll feel like waiting to stumble upon it by chance. Here’s how to get there: Passage du Grand Cerf links rue Dussoubs and Rue Saint-Denis in the 2nd arrondissement. It’s easily accessible by metro: get off either at the Etienne Marcel (line 4) or Réaumur Sébastopol (line 3 and 4) stations. Note that the entry closest to these two metro stations is the one on Rue Saint-Denis, but don’t be intimidated. As soon as you step foot in the passage, you’ll forget all about the neighboring neons.
Map (c) Passage du Grand Cerf.