A few French words and this guide to Paris will make the City of Lights a cinch.
Paris can be a challenge. It’s a city that receives around 83 million foreign visitors a year. The romance, history, beautiful but slightly intimidating Haussmannian architecture combined with locals who might seem a little rude can make Paris quite confronting.
Fear not: a few French words, a map or two and this list of everything you need to know about the City of Lights will get you through.
Best time to visit
Pretty much everything in Paris (and Europe) shuts down in August as the locals take month-long summer holidays. Many restaurants and small businesses may stay closed for August and beyond.
However, travelling in August can also be a great time if you’re looking to avoid large crowds of locals and tourists. Paris during Christmas time is like a fairy tale and in the springtime it’s stunning.
The best time to visit Paris is right before or just after peak season. You’ll get good weather without the crowds. Aim for trips around cherry blossom season in April and the autumn foliage in October and November.
Learn a little bit of the language
While you don’t need to be fluent in French to communicate with Parisians, knowing some basics will ingratiate yourself to them. The four must-knows are bonjour (hello), au revoir (goodbye), s’il vous plait (please), and merci (thank you). Most French people can speak English, but if you start with English they will pretend not to speak English. But if you make the effort to start with French they’ll often switch to English for you.
Pleasantries aren’t optional
When you enter a shop, café or restaurant, or speak to a stall holder, always say bonjour during the day or bonsoir in the evening, and au revoir when you leave. Not doing so is considered the height of rudeness.
While there may be cheaper accommodation options outside the arrondissements (French for neighbourhoods), you’ll spend all your time travelling into the heart of Paris and you’ll waste time and money doing so. Shoppers and those looking for typical French charm should stay in Saint-Germain or Marais. The 19th and 20th arrondissements are ideal for anyone looking for a ‘local’ vibe. Central locations not far from tourist attractions are to be found in the first, second, third or fourth arrondissements. The ‘arty’ arrondissements are in hilly 18th, near Montmartre.
Keep your clothes simple, but smart
France is fashion conscious, but you don’t have to dress to the nines to impress the locals. Dress in a simple, smart casual style and you’ll fit right in.
Paris isn’t as expensive as everyone thinks it is
Before going to Paris, friends were warning me that the city was going to destroy my wallet and almost every person on any travel forum was telling me the same. But Paris does not necessarily have to be a city that sucks all the money out of pockets and bank accounts. Paris isn’t cheap, but it isn’t more expensive than other European cities. In fact, visiting London or Amsterdam will cost you way more money.
It’s common practice to air kiss each cheek when greeting men or women. It’s called Faire la bise and it takes the place of hugs or handshakes when being introduced to someone.
It’s all in the eyes
The French make a lot of eye contact and often hold it an uncomfortably long time – get used to it!
Pack some walking shoes
Walking is the best way to see Paris. The 20 arrondissements are well-signed and are organised in the shape of a counter clockwise snail, so it’s almost impossible to get lost. And wandering around Paris will give you a local’s perspective. You’ll be able to stroll down alleyways; peek behind shop doorways and discover the hidden treasures you would otherwise pass on a bus or on the metro. There are plenty of self-guided Paris walking tours or you could tag along with a free tour to get acquainted with the city. So, pack your comfy shoes and prepare to do some steps!
Riding the metro and RER
If you do have to travel a distance, Paris’s metro system is a great way to get around, with at least 15 lines connecting the city underground and linking up with the five regional (RER) lines out to the suburbs. There’s no need to rent a car. The metro is simple and cheap transport, and will get you where you need to go, with weekly passes only costing around A$35. The metro typically shuts at around 12.40am on weekdays and 1.40am on Fridays and Saturdays, but buses run during the times the train is down.
And don’t catch a cab to or from the airport – it’ll cost you a fortune. Pick up a metro pass at the airport and take the airport bus from Denfert-Rochereau. All airport rides are free with your weekly metro pass.
Always carry Euros in your pocket
While most restaurants and cafés accept cards, many boulangeries (bakeries) are cash-only, as are market stalls, so it pays (literally) to have some Euros at hand.
There are markets every day
Most outdoor markets take place on Saturdays and Sundays, but there are plenty of smaller produce markets open seven days a week all over the city. The best weekday markets are at Bastille, Belleville, Maubert-Mutualité and Place d’Aligré.
Look beyond the Luxembourg Gardens
Definitely visit the Luxembourg Gardens, but check out the outdoor havens on the Left Bank in Parc Montsouris; Parc Buttes-Chaumonts near Bellville, and Parc Monceau for a quiet pastry and a good book.
Check out the Paris Pass
If you plan on visiting a lot of museums, a Paris Pass will save you money and, with its skip-the-line feature, will also get you instant access to all museums, galleries and attractions, such as Versailles and the Eiffel Tower.
There are other museums besides the Louvre
Without doubt, the Louvre should also be on your list. But be warned, every other tourist in Paris will be there, so book a Louvre ticket in advance or use your Paris Pass to skip lines. If you don’t feel like mingling with the masses waiting in line to see Mona, there are plenty of smaller galleries with impressive collections. The Musée d’Orsay is big on impressionism as is the Chateau d’Auvers-sur-Oise. Centre Pompidou has an astounding modern art collection, the Cluny Museum is ideal for history buffs; and for sculptures in a garden setting, head to the Musée Rodin. Musée de la Magie (Museum of Magic) has some unusual but fun exhibitions, and so too does the Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine (Museum of the History of Medicine).
Make sure you take the time to see Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musée de l'Orangerie, where you’ll also find works by the masters Picasso, Chaim Soutine, Modigliani and Matisse.
Oh, and all of Paris’ museums are free the first Sunday of each month.
Give the Eiffel Tower a miss
Going to the top of the Eiffel Tower is expensive and possibly disappointing. Instead, take in views of the city from the top of the Tour Montparnasse or head to Montmartre for uninterrupted views of the Parisian skyline. Also, the stairs behind the Croatian Embassy offer amazing views, especially at night.
The Arc de Triomphe is just as impressive as the Eiffel Tower, and the Galeries Lafayette rooftop terrace offers unparalleled views of the Eiffel Tower, Opera House, and more.
If the Eiffel Tower is a must-see for you, then book in advance at Eiffel Tower tickets.
See the sunrise
Few city sunrises are as impressive as those over Paris and the best place to see the sunrise in Paris is at Trocadero.
Sail the Seine
For around A$15 you can sail the Seine on one of the many bateaux mouches boats – a must-have Parisian experience.
Unfortunately, you’ll only see the ruined remains of Notre Dame, so for your spiritual experience, head to Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre or, for stunning Gothic architecture and stained-glass windows, visit Sainte-Chapelle on the Île de la Cité.
Go outside the city
Spend a day exploring the palace at Versailles – but make sure you buy a skip-the-line ticket or you’ll wait around all day to get in. Or hop on a high-speed TGV train (one-hour direct train ride from Gare de l’Est to Reims) to Champagne – the birthplace of the bubbly. Alternatively, hit one of France’s famous wine regions at Burgundy or Bordeaux (two-hour train ride to Beaune/Macon or the city of Bordeaux).
Enjoy a public tipple and picnic in the park
Drinking in public is completely legal but being drunk is not. So take advantage of the lax laws and enjoy some cheese and champagne in one of the many city parks.
Prepare for late dinners
Most restaurants won’t open until 7:30pm, and they close between lunchtime and dinnertime. Many restaurants book out for dinner, too, so make sure you reserve a table. If a restaurant displays a sign saying service continu, it means they serve food throughout the day.
Don’t expect speedy service, either. Use the time to savour your meal. And while the bill for your meal will usually be service compris (tip included), a little extra will be appreciated.
Try French food, but also go global
Obviously, French chefs do French food well, but they’re also masters of many other foreign cuisines. So make sure you get your fill of global tastes with a French treatment.
The best French staples are steak frites, fromage, foie gras, crepes, croissants, but to try them, go to the 13th, 14th, 10th and 20th arrondissements, instead of the more touristic locales. Avoid restaurants with menus written in English/multiple languages and don’t even bother with food vendors near popular tourist attractions. Try takeaway stands attached to restaurants instead.
Try a traditional French breakfast
Order an espresso and a pain au chocolat from a French terrace café – just like the French do. If you want milk in your coffee order un creme not au lait.
You’ll be approached to buy sunglasses, umbrellas, key chains and water bottles around tourist hotspots. If you do bite, watch your wallet, because pulling out your Euros is when pickpockets strike. Also, if someone tries to tie a bracelet around your wrist – deny them – as once they do, they’ll follow you around aggressively demanding payment.
Oh, and Parisians aren’t really rude
They’re passionate, straight-forward, opinionated and always on the move, but they’re not rude. So don’t take offense – it’s part of their culture.
Have you been to Paris? Which attractions, museums or experiences would you recommend?
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