August in Paris, and why we’re not there...

Traffic around Tour Eiffel heading out of City

August in Paris

When we first moved to Paris in 2008, it was all a very new experience, and by no means did we feel “local”, we still felt very much like tourists.  In July, our gang of ex-pats, locals, and visitors from around the world would gather weekly to have a picnic "apéros" at Palais Royale.  It was a great way to meet people, “catch-up” on the latest, as well as enjoy the beauty of the Parisian parks.  This event became a local staple. As August neared, less and less people starting attending, hmmm.

Picnic apéros Palais Royale
In 2008, we lived in the Montmartre area of Paris (18eme).  After living there a few months, we developed our list of favorite restaurants, favorite boulangerie, patisserie etc. On August 1, we went to our favorite restaurant to discover much to our dismay that they would be closed for a month-and-a-half, closing August 1, re-opening September 15.  At first I thought how weird, why would anyone close for a month-and-a-half? In my American way of thinking that is a huge business loss opportunity, especially since it's peak tourist season.

As we proceeded into August, I noticed that more than half of the stores and even cafés were closed on Rue des Abbesses (18eme), one of the main shopping streets where we lived close to Montmartre.  I’m in complete shock, where am I going to get my bread, and an even bigger problem is where are we going to eat? I even noticed some pharmacies closed for the month; fortunately there was a list of pharmacies that would be open during the August exodus.  And, friends from our weekly picnics starting thinning out, many going on planned vacations to  the beach, to their country homes, or out of the country altogether.

What is this August exodus?

It’s an annual event like “Christmas” or “Easter” break for Americans. Parisians escape typically starting mid-July and returning first week in September, otherwise known as "La Rentrée". Why do they go and where are they going?  Think of it like this, when US kids are on summer break, they’re usually on break for a minimum of a month-and-a-half. So, starting typically in June, families organize vacations around their children and work schedule. Big difference is that Americans usually go on a vacation for a week or two and it's spread out during the summer, since many parents have to return to work and vacations are quite short compared to France or most of Europe.  Average vacation for US workers is about 2-weeks; whereas at minimum vacations in Europe and particularly in France can start at 6-weeks

August is known as the vacation month. Parisians usually go on vacation for the whole month of August, and sometimes longer preferring to leave sometime in July.   In some cases, businesses actually go on hiatus, or there are skeleton crews to staff “critical” operations.  I asked a close Parisian friend, why August, and he basically said, that as far as he can remember, when he was a child, his parents would pack them in their car every summer and head anywhere outside of Paris, especially towards the beaches to escape the heat and humidity.

Why August? It’s “just” because, that’s what Parisians have been doing since time-in-eternity.  One is expected to go on vacation, Paris weather is hot and humid and not very pleasant, most shops, stores, and restaurants are closed, and the only people in Paris are tourists.  In fact, I believe tourist outnumber Parisians in August.

On the other hand there are a few advantages to remaining in Paris in August:
  • Less crowded.  In fact, parts of the city seemed almost eerie. If I didn’t know any better, it would almost seem as if the apartments, shops etc., were all abandoned.  A big hint that people are on vacation, window shutters are all closed.
  • You can walk through the metro “maze” without playing “bumper shoulders” with people.  And, you can actually get a seat on the Metro, buses and trams.
  • Less noise, especially if you live in a congested area.
  • Although there is traffic heading out of the city during the peak exodus and for the return “La Rentrée” – once most Parisians are gone, the traffic lightens up significantly, especially around the peripherique (highway circling Paris).
  • Paris provides activities for kids who are not able to leave Paris for the summer. They create a gigantic beach scene, sand and all at “Hôtel de Ville.” And, there is also  "Paris Plages", with sand and beach like atmosphere, lounge chairs and parasols are provided along the Seine.
Paris Plages

Things to consider when remaining in Paris in August:

  • Your favorite boulangeries, patiserries, charcuteries etc., may be closed. However, you will always find an alternative, and sometimes the store owners will give you a list of e.g., boulangeries open in the area.  Interestingly, some merchants who do not leave Paris  will close anyway, because they too need a vacation/break.
  • Medical. Your primary physician will most likely go on hiatus as well. However, there is usually someone to take over in his/her absence, or s/he will give you a referral.
  • Most restaurants are closed; a fabulous website  "Paris by mouth" has an excellent list of restaurants, bistros, bars etc. open in August.  And, the restaurants that remain open are not crowded.
  • August can be extremely hot and humid.  Most Parisians don’t believe in air-conditioning.  Hence, air-conditioning as we known in the US is not common in Paris. So, don’t be surprised if some of the restaurants, bistros etc  are not air-conditioned, or even some of the stores.  In fact, some of the larger department stores such as “Bon Marché” will be air-conditioned, but since many still believe the old French wives tales of drafts making you sick, most are on low or at a much higher temperature, so bring a personal hand fan. This is also true for some of the metros and trams that are “air-conditioned”.  Note, on average vacation rentals are not air-conditioned but they typically provide fans.
Kids cooling down at Parc André Citröen fountains in August

“To go, or not to go is the question?”

As we become more “local” and especially when we moved to the 15eme arrondissement, which is more residential, we felt a need to escape Paris in August.  In fact, our second year, we left for 2-weeks and headed to Belgium, the following year we went to the south of France, last year we went back to the U.S. and as a I write this article, I am back in the U.S. and will not return to Paris until mid-September.

We recently had a conversation with our local boulangère.  She asked if we were going away in August, we responded, yes in fact we were, and we were going because she would be closed in August, and we would miss her bread terribly, so we are forced to leave. She laughed!

So, I guess in one respect we’ve become Parisians, so as Parisians prepare for their August exodus, I bid everyone a “Bonnes vacances” or “Bon été”…

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