En Vacances or Why Paris is Empty in August
Paris in August. Hot. Humid. Empty?
Paris tourists are repeatedly warned that Paris is empty in August. Not actually empty, of course, but empty of Parisians. Restaurants are closed, shops are closed, a lot of services are closed. Pour quoi? Because August is the most popular time to take the annual family vacation. Just like in the U.S. and other countries, the kids are out of school. Plus staying indoors sounds fairly awful without air conditioning! Thus, those who can will flee the city, leaving Paris to the tourists.
For the tourist, this is both good and bad. There are a lot less people to contend with, making the metro and other services shared with locals less crowded. Most of the French don’t vacation to cities but to the beach or countryside, so the museums are also easier to access. I couldn’t find any studies, but I would suggest with fewer French people, there are fewer French dogs. And ergo less risk of stepping in le poop. All positives!
The negatives? The city is mostly you, the other tourists, and those who serve the tourists. That little restaurant you’ve been wanting to try? Probably closed. That chic boutique? Fermée as well. The Metro also does a number of repairs and closures during the summer. And now for the second year in a row, Paris is sizzling through another heat wave with minimal air conditioning. 🥵
Vacation History 101
Why does this mass exodus occur? What is the history? We have to rewind almost a century to find what created this pattern.
Before the 1930s, vacation time was largely the purview of the wealthy. The rest of us had to work to earn money and there was no paid vacation. But in 1936, after massive labor strikes, the Matignon Accords were enacted. These accords enshrined a number of labor laws, including a minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, and a 14-day paid annual leave. Yes, France did this in 1936. The U.S. still has not done this, if you are keeping score.
While people were excited by this boon, not everyone started vacationing immediately. According to the French government, about 600,000 people in 1936 went on vacation and actually left their homes. The next year, the number tripled to 1.8 million. This sounds like a lot until we see that the population at the time was 41.5 million. So roughly only 4% went on vacation in 1937!
It apparently took time to adjust to the idea, let alone find the money during the Great Depression. There was also a lack of appropriate hotels. The new law didn’t make any accommodation for, well, accommodations. Most existing hotels catered to the wealthy, not the newly liberated but cash poor working class. So to Aunt Marie’s they went!
In the end, most people in the pre-WWII era visited their families or did a traditional “stay-cation”. But the post-war era saw the growth in popular tourism in France and across the Western world develop into the patterns we know today. During this time, most blue collar French companies mandated that extended vacations occur in August. Since their customers were gone, restaurants and services followed suit.
In response, the more affluent white collar workers began taking their holidays in July. This created competing groups of vacationers: the juillettistes and the aoûtiens (the July-ists and the Augustans, if you will). Though now, it seems, that the juillettistes are perhaps also vacationing in August as climate change alters the weather!
Every year, chaos ensues when the juillettistes come back and the aoûtiens leave. Even with the pandemic, this year saw a 760km traffic jam!
For The Tourist
The summer tourist has a choice: to August or not to August (not this August, obviously!).
I feel this comes down to the traveler. I have been in Paris in August, in the middle of a heat wave. And in Paris in July, in the middle of a heat wave. Personally, I am a delicate flower and prefer the cooler weather of autumn. That said, the July traveler will be rubbing elbows with more Parisians and have access to more restaurants, shops, and services. The August traveler will have more space to themselves but will share it with other tourists. Both travelers will have access to the Paris Plages–the beaches set up along the Seine every year.
If it is your first time to Paris and your larger concern is to see the sites and walk the streets and be “in Paris,” then August is a perfect time to go. You may even save some money on the hotel and avoid the crottes de chien on the sidewalk!
If you have been before and want to dive a little deeper into Paris or if you have very specific places you want to see, July would be the better choice.
In a normal year, there are some additional reasons to be in Paris in the summer (or avoid it if you don’t like crowds!). For example, the Bastille Day celebration on July 14, the Tour de France in July/August (a bit of a moving target with COVID), and an endless number of festivals and outdoor events to keep the remaining Parisians and the tourists happy. For a more in-depth look, Rick Steves chimes in on Paris in Summer here.
Personally, if your schedule allows, I would skip both months and go in May, June, September, or October. You may get caught in the rain, but you also won’t be melting in the heat!
What about you? Would you prefer July or August? And does when you take your vacation reflect your socio-economic status in your country? Let me know below!
Further Reading: For an academic, in-depth sociological look at vacations in France, check out the article, “Making Mass Vacations: Tourism and Consumer Culture in France, 1930s to 1970s” by Ellen Furlough. For my fellow research geeks, JSTOR is free through the end of 2020!
Regards Cover: Regards Magazine, Issue 185, 1937-07-29. From The Gallica collections, Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Droit, économie, politique, JO-52336. Public Domain.
Kiki: Ville de Roubaix city council page, “11 € par crotte non ramassée!“.
Family Picnic: From “1936, l’année des congés payés” by La Dépêche du Midi, posted on Social Shorthand.
Midnight in Paris: ©2011 Sony Pictures Classics. Capture from Joe’s Geek Fest Blog.