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No matter how often you visit Paris, there's always some hidden gem to discover. In the early 1800s, beautiful glass-covered passages were built to protect wealthy shoppers from the rain. There were once over 100 passages couverts throughout the city, now only about 20 still exist. Some still protect passages with very high-end stores, others with just regular shops. Explore these unique shopping arcades on your own or take a tour.

Discovering the Passages Couverts

Many of the passages, also referred to as galleries, have been beautifully restored with magnificent, mosaic-tiled floors and sparkling-glass, skylight roofs. Others could use some repair. You can easily do a walk of discovery on your own. The only caveat is, while most passages are clearly marked, some entryways are so inconspicuous you might walk right past them. If you'd like some guidance or want to learn more about the history, here are some tour options:

Association Passages et Galeries (tel. 01/44-71-02-48; www.passagesetgaleries.org): The association offers a tour of the passageways at 10:30am on the first and third Tuesday of every month. (Cost: €10 a person, only in French.) But, on their website, under "Les Passages," click on "Les itinéraires" for downloadable maps for 3 walks. Click on "Renseignements pratiques" for exact addresses and opening hours (some are closed at night and on Sundays).

French for a Day (tel. 01/47-53-91-17; www.frenchforaday.com): Offers "Passages Couverts" -- private, half-day tour with a bilingual guide. (Cost: 250€ for 1 or 2 people, includes hotel pick up and a café stop.)

Purple Beam-Visitez Autrement (tel. 01/42-46-92-02; www.purplebeam.com/fiche.php?s=506&t=7&prod): Has "Covered Passages of Paris" -- an hour and a half tour of several of the passages (Cost: 15.50€, adult; 8€, child; in English or French.)

Passages Couverts

Here is just a sampling of the 20 glass-covered, shopping arcades that exist today. Wander through them, browse, shop, stop for a coffee, or a snack in the bistros. Thrill to the fact that you are shopping the way Parisians have done for centuries and following in the footsteps of illustrious writers such as Honoré de Balzac, Alfred de Musset, Gérard de Nerval, and Emile Zola.

Galerie Vivienne (4 rue des Petits Champs or 6 rue Vivienne or 5 rue de la Banque; 2nd arrondissement; Metro: Bourse or Pyramides; www.galerie-vivienne.com)

Built in 1823, this is considered to be the most elegant passage with a beautiful mosaic floor, hanging lamps, symmetrical arches, and pretty potted trees. It's filled with high-fashion boutiques, antiques shops and old bookstores. (It converges with the Galerie Colbert.)

Galerie Colbert (6 rue des Petits-Champs or 6 rue Vivienne; 2nd arrondissement; Metro: Bourse or Pyramides)

Built in 1826 to rival the Galerie Vivienne, the passage was restored in the 1980s by the Bibliothèque Nationale (National Library). It leads to a magnificent, glass-covered rotunda with a bronze statue by Charles-François Leboeuf.

Passage du Grand-Cerf (145 rue Saint-Denis or 10 rue Dussoubs; 2nd arrondissement; Metro: Etienne Marcel; www.passagedugrandcerf.com)

Built in 1835, this passage is stunningly stylish with wrought-iron work, wood-paneled shop fronts and an interior that reaches 3-stories high to a shimmering-glass, skylight roof. It is lined with boutiques for fashion designers, artisans and decorators.

Passage des Panoramas (11 Boulevard Montmartre or 10 rue Saint-Marc; 9th arrondissement; Metro: Grands Boulevards; www.passagedespanoramas.fr)

Built in 1799, this is the oldest covered passage in Paris and the first public place lit by gaslight in 1817. It's still bustling with activity with stamp collectors, antique postcard boutiques, restaurants, new trendy shops and venerable establishments such as the Théâtre des Variétés (www.theatre-des-varietes.fr) opened in 1807. (It links to several other passages: Galerie des Variétés, Galerie Feydeau, Galerie Montmartre, and Galerie Saint Marc. And, it's across from the Passage Jouffroy, which leads to the Passage Verdeau.)

Passage Jouffroy (10-12 boulevard Montmartre or 9 rue de la Grange-Batelière; 9th arrondissement; Metro: Grands Boulevards)

Built in 1847, Passage Jouffroy is full of shops selling collectible film posters, old books, postcards, vintage toys and interesting bric-a-brac. There's also a quirky wax museum, Musée Grévin (www.grevin.com).

Passage Verdeau (31bis rue du Faubourg-Montmartre or 6 rue de la Grange-Batelière; 9th arrondissement; Metro: Le Peletier)

Built in 1847 with neo-classical decor, the Passage Verdeau is only one block long and lined with old-fashioned shops selling vintage photos and prints, stamps, old books and postcards.

Galerie Véro-Dodat (19 rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau or 2 rue du Bouloi; 1st arrondissement; Metro: Louvre Rivoli)

Built in 1826 by two butchers, Véro and Dodat, this neo-classical style passage, with painted ceilings and copper pillars, has art galleries and antique shops selling everything from fine stringed instruments to collectible toys and dolls.

Perhaps start with a tour -- even one in French -- to get the lay of the land. Then, return to explore all the passages' shops, curiosities and restaurants at your leisure.

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