On a scent trail in Paris

Navigating through the streets of Paris, the global capital of perfume, in search of the world’s finest scents – and the perfect places to recharge after a heady day.

A view of Paris with the Eiffel Tower. Johannes Mann / Corbis

Paris is the perfume capital of the world, and it is keen to keep a firm grip on that title. In the 10th century, Arabia did much to refine the art of perfume-making, which was invented by the ancient Egyptians, then improved upon by the Romans, and introduced to Europe (via Hungary – hence the name of one of Europe’s oldest perfumes, Hungary Water) only in the 12th century. But perfume has been a French speciality since the 16th-century queen Catherine de’ Medici popularised the idea of scenting gloves and handkerchiefs to mask the ghastly aromas of unwashed courtiers. In 1889, it was in Paris that Guerlain launched the world’s first mass-produced fragrance, Jicky. In 1921, Paris was where Coco Chanel introduced the world to what has gone on to become the biggest selling perfume of all time, Chanel N° 5. And today there is nowhere else more agreeable to browse the glamorous perfumeries – grand and niche.

The great department stores – Le Bon Marché, Galeries Lafayette and Le Printemps – devote large areas to the big-brand names. But it's more of a thrill to buy favourites in the flagship boutiques. With a few exceptions, the best-known perfumes generally belong to the great fashion couture houses, which derive the bulk of their profits from the perfumes they diversified into as a way of making their brands affordable to the masses, and these boutiques are some of the most seductively beautiful shops in the world. They're all to be found in the heart of Paris, strung around the triangle formed by the grand avenues Montaigne, George V and des Champs-Élysées, and some on the long – very long – main fashion street running parallel with the Champs-Elysees, Rue Faubourg St Honoré. On Avenue Montaigne, the most chic street in Paris, No 30 is the dove-grey, deep-carpeted home of Christian Dior (dior.com), whose first perfume, Miss Dior, was launched alongside the famous New Look couture collection in 1947, after the Second World War. The sumptuous temple of marble and mirrors to perfume that is Caron (parfumscaron.com), launched in 1904, is at No 34 and Nina Ricci (ninaricci.com) is at No 39.

Nearby, at 3 Avenue George V is the site of the flagship of the perfume house, Givenchy (Givenchy.fr), which Audrey Hepburn was loyal to all her life. At the top of Avenue George V, at No 68 on the Champs-Élysées, is the mini Versailles – designed in 1914 by the Ritz designer, Charles Mewès – that is Guerlain (guerlain.com), arguably the loveliest shop in Paris. Hermès (hermes.com) is at No 24 and at 101 is the huge Louis Vuitton (louisvuitton.com) – under permanent siege by Chinese customers taking advantage of prices much lower than in China. And a 15-minute walk away, off Rue Faubourg St Honoré, is Chanel's flagship store (chanel.com), at 31 Rue Cambon, and at 9 Rue de Florentine is the famous Patou (jeanpatou.com), whose 1929 creation, Joy, heady with essential oils of tuberose, ylang ylang, jasmine and musk, was launched at the height of the Great Depression as the most expensive perfume in the world and still sells at approx Dh310 for 50ml of the eau de parfum.

Then there are the newer arrivals in Paris – the niche houses. The first of these small, specialist perfumeries is L’Artisan Parfumeur, set up in 1976 by a chemist and parfumier set on combining classic scents, high-quality ingredients and a twist of something unexpected. That has since been joined by companies set up by “noses” such as Serge Lutens, Annick Goutal, Frederic Malle, By Kilian’s Kilian Hennessy, grandson of the founder of LVMH, Parfums Divine’s Yves Mouchel, and Francis Kurkdjian, the scent genius whose grandfather launched Parfums Christian Dior. The newest, midway down Rue St Honoré, is Ex Nihilo, a minimalist glass box of a shop offering the novelty of a customisable scent, mixed on the spot. One wall is covered by a factory-grade steel and copper contraption encasing giant glass tubes, in which the personalised blending takes place while you wait. Sandalwood, orange blossom and four other natural ingredients can be added to one or more of the eight base scents, which include rose, jasmine and vetiver, according to taste, with 50ml starting at €180 (Dh750).

In the past few years, Paris has also seen the revival of small old perfumeries, such as Detaille, as well as the arrival of multi-brand stores dedicated to niche names: Sens Unique and tiny, scarlet-painted, one-off Marie Antoinette, for instance, both in Le Marais; Nicolai, a chain set up by Patricia de Nicolai, granddaughter of Pierre Guerlian; and the marvellous Parfums Jovoy. Opened in 2010, it now sells more than 1,200 different scents. It’s a heady choice, ranging from Amouage – at €345 (Dh1,440) for 100ml of Beloved Woman – and the elegant offerings of AJ Arabia, whose bottles echo the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and whose Black 1 sells at €198 (Dh830) for 50ml, to the deliciously old-fashioned fragrances of the venerable English brand Grossmith and the French E Coudray, set up in 1822, and the newest creations from Roja Dove, the English ex-Guerlain “professor of perfume”, who launched his own perfume house in 2004. Just 30ml of his heady Amber Oud Absolu costs €990 (Dh4,140).

So there's a lot to experience. I set out to visit them all in two days, and the first thing to note is that sampling scents is oddly exhausting. If you don't take regular coffee breaks – coffee is what any parfumier will tell you refreshes the olfactory sense best – you will soon lose all sense of smell, let alone sanity. But here's how to organise an all-encompassing plan of attack. Most of the flagship perfumeries are on the Right Bank, in the central, 1st and 8th arrondissements. Start by taking the metro to Palais Royal, at the bottom of Rue Faubourg St Honoré. Inside the arcade of the Palais Royal gardens are two jewel-box shops. At 142 Galerie de Valois, Serge Lutens' Salons du Palais Royal (sergelutens.com) is a dimly lit space, dramatically decorated in violet and black and dominated by a central spiral staircase, all reflecting the bold, clear, pared-down nature of his scents. (Big-name brand fragrances typically contain several hundred ingredients; Lutens', just 20 or so.)

Barely 100 yards along the arcade is the super-feminine Les Parfums de Rosine (lesparfumsderosine.cegetel.net). Here all the perfumes have a rose base, many originating in the Picardy garden cultivated by the owner. Five minutes north, L'Artisan Parfumeur (artisanparfumeur.com) is at 2 Rue de L'Amiral de Coligny, and at 28 Rue de Richelieu is the main branch of Nicolai (pnicolai.com). After browsing there, head back onto Rue du Faubourg St Honoré.

At 5 Rue d'Alger, a side street on the left, is the dazzling little white-on-white Francis Kurkdjian shop (franciskurkdjian.com), notable for its generous samples – perfect for travel, these little bottles.) Back on Rue Faubourg St Honoré, have a look at Ex Nihilo (ex-nihilo-paris.com) at No 352, and then turn left into Rue Castiglione. There's a minute but enchanting Annick Goutal shop (annickgoutal.com) on the corner. At the end, at No 4, is the fragrant joy of Jovoy (jovoyparis.com). If you have the energy, pay homage to Chanel in Rue Cambon and Patou in Rue de Florentine. After that, you will be ready to pass out.

On day two, you can tackle the Avenues Montaigne, George V and Champs-Élysées stores in the morning, and then devote the afternoon to the farther-flung niche shops in the 2nd, 4th, and 9th arrondissements. In the 2nd, at 21 Rue du Mont Thabor, is Frederic Malle's exquisite, gallery-like Editions de Parfums (fredericmalle.com). Nearby, the very cool Nose (nose.fr), at 20 Rue Bachaumont, offers a "scent diagnosis" service to aid selection, and stocks cult favourites such as Juliette Has a Gun, Etat Libre d'Orange and Atelier Cologne. Marie Antoinette (marieantionetteparis.com) at 5 Rue d'Ormesson and The Different Company (thedifferentcompany.com) at 10 Rue Ferdinand Duval, launched in 2000 by an ex-Hermès nose to showcase the own-name creations of other noses working for big-name brands, are both in the 4th, Le Marais. So too is Sens Unique (sensuniqueparis.com) at 13 Rue du Roi de Sicile. In the 9th, Pigalle, at the end of the endless Rue de St Lazare at No 10 – don't give up, it's worth trudging on – is the little old-world shop Detaille. Set up in 1905 by a countess who owned one of the first motor cars in Paris, the brand has recently developed a cult following in Paris after being taken over and revived by a middle-aged husband and wife who had no experience of the world of perfume but always loved the look of the old-fashioned shop. Finally, summon the energy to make just one more stop, and head to the Left Bank and St Germain for Lubin (lubin-parfum.fr), at 21 Rue des Canettes in the 6th. One of the world's oldest perfumeries, set up in 1798 by Pierre Lubin, once apprentice to the royal perfumer to Queen Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XIV, Lubin recently recreated the perfume she wore, Black Jade, a chypre floral with amber, jasmine, vanilla and cinnamon; €120 (Dh500) for 100ml.

A day spent in and out of the shops is sure to work up an appetite, even for the most seasoned shoppers. For coffee, you are spoilt for choice in a city where going to a cafe to sit over an Dh12.5 espresso – outside unless a gale is blowing and it's snowing – is a routine part of almost everyone's day. The historic spots are a particular joy. En route to Detaille, in the 9th, there's Mollard (mollard.fr) at 115 Rue St Lazare, with its beautiful 19th-century tiled interior, chandeliers and world-weary but humorous maître d'. In the 4th, Marie Antoinette stands opposite a square lined with temptingly atmospheric old cafes, and the lushly atmospheric old branch of Mariage Frères (mariagefreres.com), the 19th-century gourmet tea importers, at 30 Rue du Bourg, is even more appealing (and expensive, with a club sandwich for €21 (Dh87) and fantastical cakes). Ideal before you do Rue St Honoré is the fashionistas' favourite, Cafe le Nemours, perfectly placed for people-watching outside the Palais Royal on Place Colette. And the restaurant and shop, Ladurée (laduree.com), at No 75 on the Champs-Élysées – always busy but open to 11pm – is a draw for lovers of the famous sugar-almond coloured macaroons set on comparing its 18 flavours (€28.50 [Dh120] for a dozen) with those of rival Pierre Hermé (pierreherme.com) whose shops include one close to Chanel, at 4 Rue Cambon.

But it feels wonderfully sybaritic to stop midday for a massage as well as a light lunch. At the new Thémaé Spa (themae.fr) at 20 Rue Croix-des-Petits-Champs, in the 1st – very chic, with its dim lighting, heated massage beds and seven uncluttered treatment rooms, one with a teak Japanese bath – the USP is massage creams based on fragrant teas that leave no sticky residue on the skin or in your hair. Convenient: after an invigorating Singapore massage (an hour for €98 [Dh410]) you feel completely comfortable dressing without showering again after a treatment, and can soon be on your way pausing to buy a deliciously scented silky body cream (at €62 [Dh260] for 200ml). By the evening, however, you'll need the full, indulgent works. At the sumptuous George V spa, you feel Marie Antoinette herself could be in the next room. A Sodashi 80-minute facial (€260 [Dh1,085]) followed by a Carita Cinetic scalp massage and hair treatment (120 minutes, €295 [Dh1,230]) should set you up for the rigours of the next day; a particularly indulgent touch is being wrapped in something like a large hot-water bottle "cosy" as you recline.