Exploring the City of Lights: What to Expect When Traveling to Paris

What to Expect When Traveling to Paris

“Paris is always a good idea” Or is it? There are two prevalent and diametrically opposed views on the City of Lights. Here is what to expect when visiting Paris.

First, Paris is the most romanticized place on the planet and ranks high on just about everyone’s bucket list. Why wouldn’t you want to visit? So many romantic comedies, television shows, and books have used this city as a backdrop for their stories. Images of cobblestone streets, couture fashion houses and world renown museums make Paris the ideal place to visit.

Second, some think that Paris is overrated. The crowds, smoke, and snooty Parisians tend to shatter the hopes and dreams of starry-eyed tourists hoping to create their own version of Emily in Paris. The inability to sit in one of those Instagram-worthy cafes without being bombarded by everyone smoking around you makes for an uncomfortable visit. And while the city is filled with some of the best and most well-known museums and art in the world, the idea of pushing through crowds of tourists to see them want people to skip over this place.

So let me share with you, my opinion. Both views are legitimate and hold some truth. However, like most places, if you know how to get around some of the imperfections of Paris then you can truly have an enjoyable experience in this magical setting.

You can see more of what to do in Paris and download a free travel guide here.  

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Paris Planning tips

Paris Planning Tips

  1. DO NOT GO DURING PEAK SEASON! This may seem like a “duh” thing to say but it will keep you from losing your mind and not being able to enjoy the best Paris has to offer. So, don’t go during the months of June to August, the worst time being July. Instead consider going March and April when the flowers are beginning to bloom. Another good time to go would be September and October where you can find some pretty fall foliage in and around the city.
  2. Paris at Christmastime is an enjoyable experience! Paris is magical but in December it is even more so! Christmas markets abound in several places around the city offering all kinds of souvenirs, treats and delicacies. If you are interested in other European Christmas markets, click here.
  3. Shopping in Paris on your to-do list? Then plan your visit during the only two times that sales are allowed by the French government, June and January. Just understand that if you go in June you will be dealing with high season crowds. If you are visiting during the holidays, consider staying around after the New Year for the sales. Even the luxury brands offer sales, so instead of buying that Louis Vuitton you have been eyeing for $2,500, you might be able to make it yours for $2,200. A steal right!?!
  4. Plan to stay for at least 4 days in Paris. Between getting over the jet lag and trying to cram everything you can into your time there, you need to allow yourself at minimum 4 days. I would add another if you want to visit Disneyland Paris or Versailles.
  5. Book your hotel well in advance of your trip. Paris is a large city and one of the busiest in the world which means hotel rooms go quickly. Booking.com allows you to find hundreds of hotels that offer free reservations and free cancellations up until a certain date. Click here to see some recommendations of where to stay in Paris.
Paris things to know

Things to Know Before You Visit Paris

  1. Know what the arrondissements are and how to get around them. Paris is divided into 20 sections or arrondissements. You will hear locals and guides refer to them like “I live in the 18th” or “You will find that museum in the 6th”. This is what they are talking about. If you aren’t sure which one you should stay in, read more Insert Paris destination page here.
  2. Watch out for pickpockets. Paris is no different than any other large metropolis, there are those people looking to score some tourism money with no work. The best tips to avoid becoming a victim of this is to keep your purse/bag at the front of your body. Do not use backpacks or anything that will be out of your line of sight. Don’t lay your bag down just anywhere, always keep an arm or leg through the strap. Here are a few bags that I would recommend no matter where you travel.
  3. Download necessary apps such as Google Translate and make sure you install the French language for offline use. This allows you to read menus or signs by simply holding the camera over the text for a live translation. INVALUABLE! The Fork is perfect for making restaurant reservations as a lot of European countries use this more than other platforms. Booking.com is necessary so you will always have your hotel address handy in case you decide to hail a cab or need assistance. It also keeps all communications with hotels in one place and provides you with a reservation confirmation in the language where you are traveling, such as French. This is useful especially if you come across someone at check in that doesn’t speak English (most do). I love the Wanderlog app and have used it for complex travel all over the world. I load my points of interests, restaurants, bars, hotels, and anything else into the app and it appears on the map. It has been invaluable and even keeps track of your reservations and tickets. It works offline and allows you to see where you are in the city and what is around you. It can even assist with giving you directions including the metro and bus lines.
  4. Use the Metro for getting around the city. While it can be daunting for a first timer, it is actually the easiest and most frugal way of moving to other parts of Paris. A word of warning, do not use the Metro if you have a lot of luggage. Just grab a taxi. The Metro is full of stairs, tunnels, and twists and turns, and let’s not forget, some unruly Parisians that don’t want to deal with tourists. Buy Metro tickets in packs of ten, this will save you money and get you ten trips on the subway. Hold onto your ticket during the entirety of your ride, sometimes your tickets might be needed as you exit a station. Another Metro tip is avoiding rush hour that takes place between 8-10 a.m. and 5-7 p.m.
  5. The French do not wait. Walking around Paris is the best mode of transportation. However, there are a couple things you need to know and follow. One of them is that jaywalking is not only extremely common but expected. So, as you are strolling around, taking in the architecture and sites, and find that you need to cross the street, go ahead. You can cross anywhere. Just look both ways before crossing. The only place where it is unacceptable to jaywalk is at the Arc de Triomphe. Follow the signs to get to the Arch safely by use of a tunnel. Also, stay to the right on all sidewalks, basically, get out of the way! This is not only to make the Parisians happy but to also help your fellow tourists get to where they want to go without you bumbling around all over the concrete. That’s a good way to get a bunch of people angry.
  6. When entering a hotel or other building you will need to know the floor structure. Huh? You might say. What I mean is that the first floor is not the ground/entry floor. You have the ground floor or the “Rez-de-chaussée” then comes the 1st floor (which is the second floor in the US), then the 2nd floor (the third story in the US) and so on. Hope this makes sense.
  7. Always carry coins for the public bathrooms. There are many public bathrooms around Paris, but most will cost you. The price is usually between 50 cents and a euro.
  8. The time zone is Central European Standard Time (GMT+1). Make sure you either change your time zone on your phone or watch or set up a dual clock that shows the time at your home and the time in Paris.
  9. Learn a bit of the language. French is beautiful and while you don’t need to know much, it is respectful to learn a few words such as:
    • Thank you / Merci
    • Please / s’il te plaît
    • Excuse me (to get someone’s attention) / Excusez-moi
    • Excuse me (to move around someone) / Pardon
    • Hello / Bonjour
    • Goodbye / Au revoir
    • Numbers 1-20 / checkout this awesome YouTube video that is adorable and will help you memorize these numbers.
Paris points of interest

Visiting Points of Interest in Paris

  1. Purchase attraction tickets in advance. Places such as the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower fill up pretty quickly. It is best to buy your tickets before you even get to Paris so you will be ready to go and enjoy these places without waiting in multiple lines. For more on the Louvre and the best things to see there, click here. Get Your Guide is another excellent place to reserve tours and get tickets. You can also get a museum pass that will get you into the top places such as the Louvre, Orsay, and Centre Pompidou.
  2. Become a morning person, if only for a few days. I know, as a fellow night-owl the idea of setting my alarm before 9 a.m. is an abysmal thought. However, if you want to explore Paris and enjoy it with empty streets and glorious light, then the morning, sunrise and on is the best time to do it.
  3. FREE!!! Usually, the first Sunday of the month is a good day to go see the city’s top museums, such as the Orsay, Orangerie, and Centre Pompidou, because they offer free entry. The Louvre offers free entry on the first Saturday evening of the month. You can find a complete list here.
  4. Prepare yourself and your expectations for strikes. The people of France strike… a lot. It has impacted my trips to Paris on several occasions. For example, I was taking my thirteen-year-old daughter to Versailles for her first visit to the palace when I was informed that most of the palace was closed due to strikes. We got to see a few rooms and that was it. It is not uncommon to have train strikes that delay or strand passengers. So, you might need to find other ways around town or change your itinerary. There isn’t much you can do in preparation for this, but you can Google the attraction the day before to make sure it won’t be closed but… don’t be surprised if you arrive and it is.
Paris safety tips

Safety Tips for Visiting Paris

  1. Do not accept bracelets from strangers. This is especially true at Sacre-Coeur, Eiffel Tower, and the Louvre. This is a scam wherein guys with string bracelets will be walking around touristy areas trying to sell them. They will even go so far as to tie the bracelet on your wrist without your consent and then demand you pay for it. Don’t accept free roses either. Basically, nothing is free and just avoid these guys.
  2. Don’t convert your cash into euros before your trip. This is a tip I share with my friends when they are traveling. Instead, put money into your bank account and use your debit card at local ATMs in Paris to withdraw euros as needed. The fee is substantially less than a bank or the airport conversion places. Just avoid using EuroNet ATMs. These have a much higher conversation rate and can make the transaction very confusing. Instead, find one that is connected to an actual bank. Do not carry around a bunch of cash.
  3. Lastly, should you face an emergency in Paris, there’s a few options for numbers you can call for help:
  • 112 – General line where you may be redirected
  • 15 –  Ambulance/medical emergencies
  • 17 – Police
  • 18 – Fire department
Paris food and drink tips

Food and Drink Tips

  • My biggest tip is to avoid any restaurants with giant pictures, ads, or any advertising a “tourist” menu. You will not be happy with the quality of the food, at all. It is not authentic French and tends to be overpriced and well, disgusting.
  • The difference between menu and carte. I am sure you know what a menu is, the piece of paper or online list that shows what dishes the restaurant is offering. Well, in France, menu refers to a combination of items that is sold in a set. Such as a sandwich, salad, and drink for one price. If you are looking for the list of dishes, then make sure you ask for the carte.
  • Make sure the prices are shown before you order. A common tourist scam is to make the hot and hungry tourists pay much more than locals for the same item. Why does this happen? Because it can.
  • Dinner in the states is usually around 6 or 7 p.m. In the whole of Europe, they usually partake in the dinner meal from 8 p.m. on. If you think you may need something to eat between lunch and dinner, then find a little café and grab a coffee and pastry or carry a granola bar with you.
  • Reservations are king! There have been many restaurants that I have missed out on because I didn’t think to make a reservation in enough time. Paris is filled with incredible places to eat, and everyone knows it. The weekends are even worse. Even if you are visiting during off-season, I would still encourage you to make a reservation. If the restaurant doesn’t take reservations, then plan on showing up early before dinner service.
  • A 15% service charge is added to every bill. There are many opinions when it comes to tipping on top of the service charge. Some say you should, some disagree. What I would tell you is that if you feel your server has earned the extra 5-10% then leave that with the bill. There is no obligation but do what you feel is right.
  • If you are wanting to experience a lot of the local cuisine but are limited on cash, consider eating a bigger lunch. Many restaurants offer the same dishes on the lunch carte as they do on the dinner carte but at a lower price. It is also acceptable to have a glass of wine with lunch. Don’t you just love the French!
Paris food and drink tips

 

  • There is no need to spend a bunch of money on bottled water at restaurants. Tap is fine but you will have to ask specifically for it by saying, “une carafe d’eau”.
  • Avoid eating in the touristy Latin Quarter. The food is not very good in most places and there are signs everywhere advertising “tourist menu” or “free wifi”.
  • Paris has a Happy Hour! Hours vary depending on restaurants. Some are even open from 4:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. It is the best time to enjoy a glass of wine, half price, and watch the world go by.
  • Find a boulangerie and try everything! Is there anything better than a warm, buttery croissant fresh from the oven? How about a tarte or loaf of crispy French bread? Grab some cheese and butter from a nearby market and head to a park or even just a bench on the corner to enjoy your treats.
  • CHEESE!!! It’s France, so of course you must try cheese. It is commonly enjoyed as a dessert or alongside a pre-dinner drink. I ate my body weight in every type of cheese I could find. I’m pretty sure I hardened a few arteries and raised my cholesterol to a frightening level in the process, but it was totally worth it!
  • It’s not uncommon to find crepe stands throughout the city. None of them are bad, real talk. I had a great one on the outskirts of Tuileries. If you want a fancy sit down type of environment to enjoy these tasty French burritos, then give Breizh Café or Crêperie Brocéliande a shot. 
  • Parisian service can be… well… slow. Picture the sloth from Zootopia. However, think of it this way. You are forced to calm your American ways down and embrace the slow actions of the French. This is best done in a great restaurant with a glass of wine.
Paris etiquette

Etiquette While Visiting Paris

  1. Always state “bonjour” or “bonsoir” when entering a shop. Failure to greet others when entering a place of business is considered super rude. Not sure what to say, a good rule of thumb is to say bonjour before 6 p.m. and bonsoir after 6 p.m. Also state “au revoir” goodbye or “merci” thank you.
  2. Always ask “parlez-vous anglaise?” do not just assume that everyone speaks English. Once someone has confirmed that they can help you in English then continue with your question.
  3. When visiting churches, you will need to have your knees and shoulders covered. Some Americans roll their eyes at this, but it is a sign of respect. Remember you are in their country, not yours, act accordingly.
  4. Keep your voice down. It is the number one complaint of American visitors from other countries. Americans are loud and obnoxious. I will say that after traveling to over 40 different countries I can say that I can pick out an American just about anywhere because of the volume of their voice. Do your best to show them that not every American fits the stereotype just like not all Parisians fit theirs.
Packing tips for Paris

Packing Tips for Paris

  • The city is full of cobblestones so while your stilettos will look good in photos with the Eiffel Tower, they will be murder on your feet and ankles. Pack practical shoes that are cute but comfortable so you can walk around all those lovely alleys.
  • To all my girls, bring a purse that has two types of closure. One of my favorites all time travel bags has a flap that snaps over a zippered entry pocket. It is kind of hard for pickpockets to get through all that. Do not wear a backpack!
  • Get a universal adapter that will work for France. Those can be found easily on Amazon.
  • Pack a refillable water bottle. Free water fountains can be found everywhere in Paris. The water is clean and cold and keeps you from paying for hydration. One of my favorites is a collapsible water bottle, it is packable and as you drink, it shrinks.
  • Unlike what you see on Emily in Paris, the Parisians don’t dress in loud, flamboyant outfits. If you want to fit in more with the locals, pack monochromatic colors.
  • If you want some ideas, check out my LTK!
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The best tip I can give you for visiting Paris is to have realistic expectations. Yes, sometimes it smells. Yes, you will encounter locals that have quite the attitude. However, it is a perfect city full of imperfect people. Paris is totally worth visiting!

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Kristal Ham

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Traveler and Photographer

My name is Kristal and I am so happy to have you visit my site! 

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Kristal

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