Hey, we’re going to Paris! This will be my third visit to the French capital but the previous two took place more than two decades ago (time does fly!) so I figured I’d better brush up not only on my meagre French but also on the most important tips and tricks that one needs to keep in mind when visiting Paris.
I’ve collected these tips from various blog posts, forum comments and Facebook tips provided to me by friends, as well as relying on my own experiences in Paris.
There’s a lot you need to know so this obviously won’t cover everything. Consider this a peek into my personal curated list of tips for visiting Paris. It reflects our own travel style which is family-oriented and budget-minded.
1. Paris is a big city so big city rules apply. That means watching over your belongings and staying away from suspicious persons.
2. Paris is divided into 20 areas called arrondissements. The 1st arrondissement is the city center. The higher the number, the further away from the touristy areas you get and sometimes into some shady neighborhoods.
Where you stay matters. This I can attest to from personal experience. I visited Paris with a friend back in my early twenties. This was before the Internet back when the dinosaurs roamed the planet. Ok, so no dinosaurs but no way for us to know much about Paris. We booked our hotel – wait for it – through a travel agent! The hotel was cheap and one of the reasons for the low price was its location. It was in the 20th arrondissement, away from the city center, and in what we discovered to be a not very safe neighborhood. We went out on our first night in Paris and as we returned, we were followed and harassed by three men. It was a pretty scary experience. We got back to the hotel and called our travel agent demanding to move to another area. They moved us to a hotel in the 4th arrondissement which was so much better.
Etiquette and communication
3. Greet shop owners and other service providers when you enter their establishment. Use Bonjour Madame or Bonjour Monsieur during the day. Replace the Bonjour with a Bonsoir in the evening. Don’t expect them to greet you first, as service providers would in the US. They’re not rude, they just practice a different social code.
4. More generally, try to speak French. It’s a fun language to use and well worth learning some phrases. Youtube has so many videos that’ll teach you French there’s no excuse to not being able to communicate with the locals in their own language.
5. Get a translation app. Some of them can even pronounce words for you out loud so you’ll know you got those right. It’s easy to just pull out your phone and get some instant help on how to say this and that.
Food & Dining Tips
6. Save money by ordering tap water instead of bottled mineral water. Refuse the waiter’s suggestion to get you a Perrier and ask for “une carafe d’eau” – a jug of water – instead. The word for “tap” is robinet, if you want to make sure your message went through.
7. Learn the names of the different types of coffee available at a typical Parisian cafe. Nothing is as frustrating as not getting your dose of caffeine the way you like it in the morning. For me, a cafe au lait. I’ve memorized “Je voudrais une café au lait s’il vous plaît” to the point I can ask it even in my pre-coffee morning state of brain fog.
8. Speaking of coffee, it’s cheaper if you drink it standing up at the bar inside the cafe. Of course, sitting down for a coffee in a Parisian cafe may well be worth the extra euros!
9. For a quick lunch deal, many bakeries (aka boulangerie) often offer a takeaway lunch which consists of a premade sandwich + drink for €4-6.
10. Don’t tip automatically. Many places include the cost of service in the price and you’re not expected to tip. Check the bill to see if service is included and if it is, don’t feel compelled to tip (unless you want to, of course!)
11. Sitting outside on the terrace is something Parisians like to do when the sun is out. Just keep in mind that many of them smoke and smoking is allowed there. You may want to stick to the indoor no-smoking zones even on a nice day.
12. If you want to go to a fancy restaurant for dinner, it’s best to make reservations in advance. Dining hours are sometimes limited to 8-10:30. Overall, if you want to sample the cuisine of a fancy restaurant, lunch may be a better idea. Less formal and less expensive too.
Paris Sightseeing and Attractions
13. Do your homework and see if a museum pass is right for you or not. It all depends on how many museums you actually plan on visiting in Paris.
14. Check the free options. Kids enter for free in most places, as do students. Many museums have free days as well.
15. The Louvre is open until 9:45PM on Wednesday and Fridays. Rumors say that if you get there after 6PM the price of a ticket is only €6 instead of 15. I couldn’t find that information on their website but it makes sense.
16. There are “secret” entrances to the Louvre that can help you bypass the lines. Apparently, the only certain way in – open during all opening hours – is indeed through the glass pyramid but some people manage to enter much faster through Porte des Lions. The street address for that entrance would be: 14 Voie Georges Pompidou, 75001.
17. Avoid Monday and Tuesday for D’Orsay and Louvre. The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays and D’Orsay is closed on Mondays. When one is closed, the other museum gets an additional influx of tourists, so if at all possible, it’s best to avoid either museum on Mondays and Tuesdays.
18. You can buy tickets online for many attractions. It’s not always worth it though. For example, if you buy your ticket to the catacombs online, you’ll pay 23 euros. That’s more than double the price you’d pay if you just show up and buy your ticket. Yes, you’ll skip the ticket line on the day (but not the security checks line) but you’ll also be committed to a certain day and hour. In other words, getting your ticket in advance isn’t always the best option. Do your homework and see which option is better for your trip.
Getting around Paris
19. The train system both above ground (RER) and underground (metro) is safe and cheap. You can buy a packet of 10 tickets (carnet) at a discount, bringing the price of a single ride to under 1.5 euros.
20. You can use Uber in Paris and it’s generally cheaper compared to a regular taxi. Not everyone likes the concept of Uber but we have found their service to be reliable and cheaper than a cab, so we plan on giving them a try during our visit. While the metro is good, for four people traveling together, an Uber ride is not such a bad idea.
21. Keep some cash on you, especially coins. Coin-operated bathrooms are available in many areas in Paris and they’re supposed to be tolerable.
Heading out to the airport tomorrow! We’re all looking forward to finally seeing Paris (some of us not for the first time). I’ll be sure to post a lot about our trip when we get back! If you have tips to add to this list, please do add them in the comments section!