Hello, let me be your Paris Tour Guide!
This blog post is 10 years in the making. I have absolutely no idea why I never did this before. Sometimes we people are just too “close” to things. I’ve written it a least a dozen times. Every time a friend or colleague was heading to Paris, they would inevitably ask me, “can you give me some tips and tricks of things to do in Paris, what to eat, what are the best Paris attractions, that should I not do.” And each time I wrote a long email or document with a stream of consciousness or data dump on my Paris knowledge and experience. This past Thanksgiving, another happy couple was heading to the City of Light, I dutifully wrote my recommendations and tips from scratch and then swore to myself I would write this post! So here goes!
If you remember only one thing from this blog post, this is it!
France and the French culture run by an unwritten code. It is not important for you to know all the code (trust me, married to a Frenchman and the daughter-in-law of a French mother-in-law, it can be exhausting!), but there is one SUPER IMPORTANT thing to know, remember, and use. I cannot stress it enough! For every single interaction you have with another human being in Paris (or France), the first thing that comes out of your mouth MUST be “Bonjour” – you are acknowledging that person and showing respect. So, when you enter a restaurant or store, when you order something at a bakery when you buy a ticket for a museum, metro, show, etc. When you enter the hotel, when you need to ask someone for directions or help, always, ALWAYS say Bonjour first – trust me, it will get you a lot farther with absolutely everything in Paris (and France). It may feel weird to say Bonjour to what seems like an empty store or to the security guards, but it will be noticed, heard and appreciated.
Also, it isn’t necessary to have a big smile when you say it. French people think there is something wrong with us Americans always smiling like we are “crazy” or something!
A few more Cultural Things to Note that will make Life a little Easier:
- Money does not make the world go round in France or to French people, money doesn’t impress anyone. It is a pretty taboo topic. So “throwing money around” to get better service, etc. is not going to work.
- The French are not known for their customer service, the customer is not always right and frankly, most people don’t care about providing good service – there are a rare few who do. Don’t get aggravated, etc. if you feel you are getting poor service, it’s not you, it’s them! Getting mad will not do anything (no “speaking to the manager”, etc. just won’t fly…)
- However, if someone, say a lady in a bakery, is getting service, they are getting all the service, meaning if she wants to sit there all day telling the baker about her daughter, you are just going to have to wait. Good news is that when you are ‘up next’ you will have all their attention.
- You will end up with a lot of coins! I highly suggest a coin purse. Keep your coins separate from your bills, life will be easier.
- Make sure you keep Euros on you. Smaller places may not accept cards.
- Except for a few fancy pastry shops and boutiques, most of the shopping bags are crap, they will tear (or if they get wet the handle may stain your clothing – true story). I always bring several canvas bags with me to throw things into. Bring plastic ones too, they don’t wrap food or pastries very well so I often find myself putting them in a plastic bag and then putting them into my canvas bag.
- If you go to a farmer’s market or shop for food someplace like Rue Montorgueil then I’ve written a whole post on the etiquette to know.
Okay before we get to the food and restaurants, there are a few things to know. Luckily, I’m writing a whole blog post on that topic as well! But here are some highlights:
- Customization is not a thing in France so you can’t ask for something with “x removed” “a side of that” “no mayo” etc. It comes the way it comes. The only place you can customize is Starbucks.
- The waiter will not clear away your plates until everyone is done with their course.
- You will have to ask for the check, they will not bring it to you automatically.
- The one place where this is different is at bar/terraces, they will usually have you settle your bill when they serve you. That doesn’t mean you have to leave, you can stay all day if you want.
- In restaurants, bars, etc. do NOT leave a tip.
Here is what Barb had to say after she visited Paris for the first time.
Transportation in Paris
Personally, I think walking is the best way to explore Paris! Mr. Misadventures and I can clock 10-15 miles a day while we are on a trip. However, there are times you when it makes more sense to rely on other forms of transportation.
You cannot flag down a taxi on the street. You have to go to a hotel, find a taxi stand (not always easy) or now, in the last 2 years you can order one with the G7 Taxi app (it is France’s version of Uber) and works quite well. You will see your taxi marked with G7 on it. Trust me, this is revolutionary, only a few years ago it was impossible to get a taxi! If a taxi has a green light it is available.
If you are going to use the Metro a lot (it can be very convenient) by your tickets in a carnet (pronounced car-nay) of 10 tickets, it is more economical. When going through with your ticket, keep it in a safe place. Metro police sometimes do random checks with a reader and in some stations, you need the ticket a second time to get through the entrance. Once you exit, throw away your ticket so you don’t combine it with other tickets. One ticket is one ride. The Paris Metro map is available as a phone app. Also, here is a great post on getting around Paris by metro.
The Batobus is a water bus that does a loop on the Seine River – stopping at 8 spots – 3 on the side of the river (with the Louvre) and 5 other stops on the other side of the river (with the Eiffel Tower) – all the most visited spots. The Batobus is cheaper than the other “bateaux mouches” riverboats. On the Batobus, you can hop on and hop off for 24 hours. We used to buy a 3-day pass, but then we bought an annual pass because it was (a) and easy way to get around and (b) a nice 45-minute ride when your feet hurt and you just want to relax but still see some sites. During bad or rainy weather it is a nice break as it is covered.
Food in Paris
Food is going to feel expensive. It is not all the price of the actual food, but what really gets you is the VAT (taxes) on your meal. Be prepared for that. It is for that reason, we “usually” limit ourselves to one restaurant a day. Try to get a hotel room that includes breakfast and eat there as often as you can. We usually eat our “big meal” at lunch – a lot of the restaurants have the same amazing menu for lunch that they do for dinner, only cheaper. Particularly the Michelin-starred ones. One of the best meals of my life was at the Le Grand Vefour located in the Palais Royale. Wow! What a meal, and at lunchtime, it was a steal! Most restaurants open for dinner between 7 and 8 pm – that may be late for you (it usually is for us) – you can always eat at a brasserie which basically serves food non-stop, there are some really famous ones throughout the city, but also regular local ones as well.
I have a friend who has a great food website – you can look up restaurants by arrondissement, type of food, how expensive and what days they are open/closed. It is called Paris by Mouth. Meg also offers food tours. I’ve done one or two and they are good. More on tours later. I have lots of friends that live in Paris and some of them I have interviewed about their neighborhoods, you might want to check them out for their food recommendations. One of my very good friends, Lindsey Tramuta, wrote a book called The New Paris if you want something to read on the plane, get it! She has a great guide on her blog. She lives in Paris and it is her job (she is working on her second book) to keep up on the latest and greatest in food.
One of my favorite foodie spots in Paris is a place called the Grande Epicerie. Basically a food department store, you can shop, eat inside at various spots, nibble and indulge! The Galeries Lafayette in the Opera also has its own version of the Grande Epicerie across the street from their main store, but I prefer the Grande Epicerie. It just all depends on where your hotel is and what your plans for the day are.
If you are traveling to Paris in the autumn, don’t miss these seasonal favorites.
Parisian people and restaurants are not early risers. I am. You are going to get the earliest breakfast in a hotel. After that, you will have to wait until 8:00 for places like Le Pain Quotidien (decent breakfast) or more likely 9:00 at other restaurants. You probably won’t be jonesing for an American or British style breakfast, but if you do, there is NO better place than Holybelly. I’ve only been to the one at 5 Rue Lucien Sampaix – everything is to die for – you must show up before 9:00 – there will be a line!
Here is a little more on breakfast in France.
As a general rule of thumb, the coffee in France is not great. Traditionally, they use Arabica coffee which is pretty bitter. In bars/terraces the best you can hope for is Café Richard (which has a monopoly) or maybe Illy. But there are newer American style coffee shops that have better coffees and smaller independent roasters like Belleville which are doing great coffee. If you end up having breakfast at Holybelly definitely have their coffee!
More on ordering coffee in Paris.
As I mentioned, usually my biggest meal in Paris. I shared the Grand Vefour, but I have a few other favorites too – Comme Chez Maman; Astier; Pied au Cochon; a fantastic falafel/gyro long lines though – L’as du Falafel; and Breizh Café (amazing crepes).
We usually “picnic” meaning we get a good baguette, cheese, meats, pâté, etc and chill with a bottle of wine. Of course, any of the places I mentioned above are great for dinner too! With one addition, Le Souffle, a restaurant that serves soufflés in 3 courses a starter, a main and a dessert – delicious! And kind of unique. If you want to eat a super traditional French meal in a very historical environment, check out Le Procope.
Angelina’s is super touristy, but 100% worth it! There are wonderful pastry shops on Rue Montorgueil. Ice cream – it is worth the line to eat the best ice cream in Paris at Berthillon on Ile-Ste-Louis (behind Notre Dame) they were closed for an annual vacation when I was there in October and I was devastated! Best gelato in town – Pozzetto (no website: 39 Rue du Roi de Sicile in the 4th). There are pastry shops galore, some specializing in one thing: eclairs, choux, macaron etc. I have a new favorite too, not French but Russian in the Opera district, Café Pouchkine and their banana Médovic.
Things to do in Paris (or NOT to do)
You should note the following activities, just like this entire post, are based on MY opinion. Everyone experience life through a different lens, which makes the world so interesting! At this point in time, I just love wandering around and absorbing the city. But I get you might have a list of spots you want to check off your list. So here is what I have to say about some of the most popular Paris attractions. You should also note that you can use a Paris Pass to skip lines with Fast Track Entry or get your individual tickets ahead of time at a lot of these places.
I’m just going to say it. I know it is on everyone’s bucket list when they visit, but honestly IN MY OPINION ONLY, it isn’t worth it. At least visiting the actual tower. Remember when you are standing on it, you are actually not seeing it and there are better places for views of Paris. At the moment with terrorist threats and construction, 3 sides are fenced off, which pushes a whole hell of a lot of people into one flow. Add to that the pickpockets and street vendors, it is just a nightmare. It has been so smoggy lately in Paris the view isn’t that great either. But if you still want to go, just have your wits about you and be careful. Also, when you are done, get the heck out of the area and go somewhere else. Also, if you are going to visit consider a meal at 58 Tour Eiffel which will get you access to the second level.
If you still want to visit the top of the Eiffel Tower, buy your ticket ahead of time!
There is a great view from the Batobus. Also, it is beautiful at sunrise (which isn’t too early this time of year) at the Trocadero – I have been a few times and it is usually only about a dozen people
I much prefer this museum to the Louvre, but do both. The Orsay is in an old train station and is absolutely beautiful – great photo spots and a nice café. Buy a ticket ahead of time and skip the line, fantastic store inside as well. I’ve also done an amazing tour in the museum with Context Travel.
Louvre & Tuileries Garden
If you do visit the Louvre, skip the Mona Lisa – seriously, it isn’t worth it and you should visit the other sections, it is quite beautiful. Buy your ticket ahead of time. Do not buy from someone walking up to you – if you cross the street towards the Hotel Regina from the Westin and continue on the Rue du Rivoli, you’ll come to a shopping mall called the Carousel de Louvre, you can buy tickets at machines in there. If you really want to do something out of the ordinary try a treasure hunt, my friend Daisy set them up and it is a lot of fun! Also, pro tip: the museum is open until 10:00 pm on Wednesday or Friday evenings. Most people leave at 6:00 on those days because they think is going to close. And do note, the Louvre is CLOSED on Tuesdays!
I highly recommend you spend some time in the Tuileries Garden next to the Louvre, it is quite beautiful and there is always something going on there!
Champs-Élysées & Arc de Triomphe
I usually avoid this area, I am not a shopper. If you are into the French luxury brands, definitely visit their flagship stores, but most of the merchandise is available in retail stores around the world. If you do visit this area, take time to get a picture of the Arc de Triomphe. Don’t forget the underground passageway it is the only way to get to the entrance. You can use your Paris Pass for free entry to the viewing platform on top.
The is the main shopping district (yes, there is the Champs-Élysées, but…) located in the Opera district with large beautiful department stores – Printemps and Galeries Lafayette – you will find a large variety of products at decent prices (they have sales unlike a lot of other stores – sales are regulated by the French government and only really happen twice a year – February and July) plus gorgeous architecture. They both have rooftop terraces that you visit for nice views of Paris and they have little restaurants as well. I am addicted to scarves and usually buy all mine at the Galeries Lafayette!
Also in the Opera, is well, the Opera building! It’s gorgeous you can visit guided or unguided and I enjoy when I go – their museum store is very good too and I always seem to pick up something unique there.
I would pass it unless you really, really want to visit Montmartre. It is a beautiful, historic neighborhood. Just don’t go in the morning – youngsters, immigrants, and petty criminals drink there during the night and there is glass everywhere in the morning until the cleaning crew comes. With the smog these days it is not a great sunrise, not sure of the sunset. If you do go for sunset, watch out for pickpockets. If you want to do Montmartre you may want to do a guided tour or just wander around, but don’t go before 9/10 nothing is open!
TOTALLY under-the-radar 360-degree view of the Paris skyline. Seriously, I have been there twice and done the tower tour with less than 10 people in each group! Get there before 10 (sometimes there are tours, but they don’t go to the tower so don’t worry, you just want to get ahead of them before the opening). When you go inside to buy your ticket make sure it has the tower tour as well, the first tour leaves about 10 minutes after they open – perfect for you. Once you get to the top you will be able to go around the entire circular rooftop with great views. Once you go back down, the rest of the Panthéon is nice to visit.
Day Trips from Paris
Versailles is a nice day trip. Give yourself the entire day. Once you tour the chateau you’ll want to visit the grounds (my favorite part, I usually skip the chateau!) there are gardens, Marie Antoinette’s farm and just lots and lots of places to walk and relax. We also rented bikes one time and loved it. You can do a tour, but the cheapest and easiest way to get to Versailles is by train using the regional RER, using the C line. Here is a pretty good how-to post on getting to Versailles.
I also recommend Giverny as a day trip. It is an easy train ride from Paris to Monet’s home and it is a great place to visit and the town around his house is fun to wander through. I’ve been there on a tour with Context Travel and on my own at different seasons, it is always beautiful!
As I mentioned, Paris-by-Mouth does fun food-related tours. I have also done a TON of Context Travel tours, not only in Paris but London, Kyoto, Rome, Florence, it is a great company and they have great, small, curated tours. I loved The Bobo Palate tour and Baguette to Bistro. I’ve also had fun doing a cooking class at La Cuisine Paris, it is owned by an American and they do classes in English – baguette, macaron – lots of fun!
What to Wear
I am going to be adding to this section, but in the meantime, I have 5 Things I Packed for Paris – springtime edition! Here are some tried and true Paris packing tips:
- Layers, always layers, the weather can shift dramatically and having layers allows you to dress as cool or as warmly as need be. Also, you can go from a daytime look to nighttime very quickly!
- Pack in 2 to 3 colors makes mixing and matching easier.
- No shorts or flip flops, the French aren’t big fans, unless you are doing “le fitness”!!
- Comfortable shoes for all the walking.
The Ugly Stuff
No one likes to think about crime. The recommendation I have is the same I would tell to anyone going to any big city, including San Francisco. In the most touristy areas of Paris, there are bands of pickpockets. Generally, they are young women from Eastern Europe (gypsies) not trying to be racists, it is just the facts. They are at Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Tuileries Garden (the part closest to the glass pyramid by the Louvre); Sacre Couer, Ponts-des-Arts (pedestrian bridge where they used to put the love locks); Champs-Élysées (although less so as the luxury security guards try to keep them away).
They will approach with papers or clipboards in their hand, usually more than one at a time and bug you, confuse you, etc. They will also bend down in front of you and pick up a ring or gold jewelry and ask if it is yours. They can be quite aggressive. The best way to keep them at bay is to look them in the eye as they walk towards you and very firmly say “NO!” or if you want to sound French: DE GAGE!” (deh-gahge) which is basically “fuck off.” Do the same with the people selling you metal Eiffel Towers or keychains. They won’t try to pickpocket you, but they can be aggressive.
I do not recommend a backpack for Paris.
The Metro is safe, just be aware of your surroundings and your bags. Do not make eye contact with anyone and know where you are going ahead of time!
A Few Last Notes:
- Don’t try to do everything! Leave something for the next trip. Paris is a very old city constantly evolving. The classics will be there along with all the new stuff. Take a smaller chunk of the city and thoroughly enjoy it. Sit at a cafe and do nothing but soak it all in!
- Going to the restroom in Paris isn’t always easy but I’ve got some tips!
- If you are a Sex and City fan, here is my list of locations from the final episodes which took place in Paris!
- Want to read some books before your first trip to Paris, here are my suggestions.
- I wrote this post years ago, but my guidance still stands: How Not to be the Annoying American Tourist in Paris
- Here’s another great 4-day Paris itinerary that I think is very well done.
- A great run down from Travel with Me 24/7 on Where to Stay in Paris.
Well, that’s it, my guide for Paris first-timers in a nutshell! I am sure there is plenty I am missing, but I think it is a good start! If you are visiting Paris for the first time please do let me know, I’d love to hear how your trip goes!
How about you? Do you think these tips are helpful? Do you have any to add? Do share!