A first-timer’s guide to Paris

There are as many ways to see Paris as there are travelers — but all travelers need some basic information.
In this post I share some tips, based on my experience, on how to:
• Avoid jet lag
• Get to your hotel or apartment
• Take the métro
• Navigate French culture
• Stay safe
• Find fantastic food
• Locate a loo

Please note that while I try to keep the links and prices up-to-date, some of this information may still be outdated. I encourage you to always double-check your own arrangements before leaving home.

First things first: Avoiding jet lag

If you’re more than, say, 800 miles from Paris, jet lag is a concern. Fortunately, you don’t have to suffer — at least not after the first day (evil grin). Here’s how:

Step 1. If you’re flying from the U.S., try to book a flight that leaves your home city mid-afternoon or evening, and arrives in Paris the next morning.

Step 2. Eat a hearty meal before you get on the plane. Then, as soon as the captain welcomes you aboard, pop a couple of melatonin tablets* (consult the package for dosage). Put on your headphones, cover your eyes, and sleep as much as possible.

Step 3. When they serve you breakfast, have a cup of coffee. Heck … go wild and have three. It’s free! And you’re about to land in Paris. Wheeee! [Important safety tip: If you do have three cups of coffee, stop at one of the bathrooms inside the airport terminal when you land, because you may be in line for a while to get through passport control.]

Step 4. If you’re able to check into your hotel or apartment before noon, grab a short nap and a shower. Otherwise, ask reception to watch your bags — or stash your luggage in a locker — and go for a stroll.

Step 5. Over the next few hours, your goal is to keep yourself awake for as long as possible at (almost) any cost. Anything involving the outdoors is good, because the sunlight will help keep you alert. Warning: You may feel crabby, delirious, or maybe even a little bit faint. Apologize to those around you and hang in there. It will pass.

Step 6. At about 6 or 7 p.m., grab yourself some dinner. Have a glass of wine, if you like. Then proceed directly to your hotel or apartment. The bad news? You’ll collapse into a crabby/delirious/faint/exhausted heap. The good news? You’ll wake up the next morning refreshed and happy in Paris — and your body will now be on Paris time.

Getting to your lodging

When you first land in Paris you’ll go through immigration (passport control) and retrieve any bags you’ve checked. Then you’ll be funneled unceremoniously onto the sidewalk. From here, you have five main options for getting to your hotel or apartment, ranked here from cheapest to most spendy:

Option 1: Travel by train. For about €12, the RER train into Paris is your least-expensive option. There are lots of sites that offer excellent step-by-step instructions. However, be aware that this line passes through Paris’ rough northern suburbs. Although you’re unlikely to encounter serious trouble, stay aware of your surroundings if you choose this option.

Option 2: Hop the bus. There are several regular shuttle-bus routes between Charles de Gaulle airport and central Paris. The Roissybus, which costs between €12 and €22, is operated by Paris’ metro transit authority. It picks up at all of the major terminals and has routes that drop you off at several locations in central Paris.

The advantage to buses is that they run regularly, they’re safe, and they’re a great way to catch your first glimpses of Paris. The downside is that they sometimes take a while because you have to stop at every terminal to pick up passengers — and you also have to figure out how to get from the drop-off point to your hotel or apartment.

Option 3: Grab a cab. Yes, taking a cab into central Paris will cost you (€53 flat fee between Charles de Gaulle airport and the Right Bank, or €58 between CDG and the Left Bank). But it will also get you directly to the front door of your hotel or apartment. You won’t have to worry about keeping an eye on your bags or getting lost. And you’ll be able to catch a little cat-nap on the way, if you want.

One caveat: Grab a cab only at the “official” cab stands outside each terminal (follow the signs in the airport). Although you may be accosted by people inside the terminal offering you a ride, they’re not licensed and may therefore charge exorbitant rates and/or offer less-than-predictable service.

Option 4: Rideshare with Lyft or Uber. I admit I’ve never done this in Paris — so I don’t know how reliable it is, or how much it costs. But friends tell me it works just like in the U.S., with your existing app and account settings.

Option 5: Book a car. I’ve used Blacklane in several cities and have found the service to be consistently impeccable.** Your driver will wait for you just outside the baggage-claim area and take you to your lodging in a spotless car. I especially recommend this service for your return trip to the airport: On our last visit, the driver saved us from missing our flight by being aware of road blockades and mapping an alternate route before he even picked us up.

Taking the métro

Paris has one of the best public transit systems on the planet, including a network of buses, trams, and even a funicular. But its crown jewel is the efficient métro subway system.

The Paris Métro consists of 300 stations on 16 lines — so, no matter where you are in central Paris, you’ll find a métro station within about a 10-minute walk.

Rick Steves offers a great overview of the system. But here are the absolute basics:

You can buy métro tickets at most tabacs (small convenience-type stores) or in many of the métro stations. If you’re staying for more than a week, it’s worth considering a Carte Navigo — a prepaid transit card that allows unlimited rides within a specified zone, for periods ranging from a week to a month.

But for shorter visits, you’re better off buying a 10-ticket carnet. The carnets cost €16.90 — a 25% discount off the individual ticket price — and each ticket allows a single continuous journey of any length within Zone 1 of the métro system.

Which brings us to the métro map. (You can download the full-res PDF, or get the free interactive app on iTunes.)

It may look like a multi-hued bowl of spaghetti at first, but it’s actually quite easy to navigate. For example, let’s say you’re staying near the Saint-Sulpice station, close the center of the map. The dark magenta color — which represents the #4 line — shows you the trajectory of this route.

If you follow the line to its end points you’ll see that the #4 line’s northern terminus is the Porte de Clingancourt, and the southern end is Mairie de Montrouge. The little solid knobs along the line show you the individual stations, and the white dots show you the correspondances — the places where you can transfer from your train onto other métro lines.

Now, let’s suppose you want to visit the Eiffel Tower. You’ll hop the #4 line on the platform that says Diréction Mairie de Montrouge. You’ll get off at the Bienvenue Montparnasse station, where you’ll transfer onto the #6 line (mint-green color) toward Diréction Charles de Gaulle Étoile. You’ll get off the #6 train at the Bir-Hakeim station and will then take the short walk (indicated in white on the map, and by signs along the actual route) to the Eiffel Tower. Voilà!

But don’t despair if this all seems a bit overwhelming. There’s a handy online route planner that can help sort everything out.

Navigating French culture

There’s a stereotype that Parisians are rude. To the contrary, I have found most to be patient and helpful, and remarkably tolerant of the tourists who descend like locusts every day.

That said, there are some cultural differences Americans may misinterpret as rudeness. For starters: Parisians are simply more reserved. There’s a formality with which they address strangers — but this is a sign of respect, rather than disdain.

They also won’t smile at you on the street, and may bristle if you launch into a question in English without first saying hello. And yes, sometimes Parisians can be undiplomatically direct. (Try not to take it personally.)

While I can’t promise you won’t encounter an officious waiter, these small politesses may help you have a better experience:

  1. Always start with “Bonjour, madame/monsieur” when you ask for directions, and especially when you enter a shop or store.
  2. Then ask if they speak English. (Practice this phrase in French.)
  3. Always end with “merci,” especially when you leave a shop or store.
  4. Try to learn a handful of other phrases to make purchases, apologize, and ask for help.

And one last thought: French is a complex and nuanced language, so don’t stress about trying to speak it perfectly. Even showing the slightest hint of effort will put you head and shoulders above 90% of the other tourists. Learn a few pleasantries, be gracious and respectful, and your attitude will be repaid in kind.

Staying safe

For a city of its size, Paris is generally quite safe. But pickpocketing is common on the métro trains and platforms, and traveling alone late at night can sometimes invite harassment. So err on the side of safety. Keep your purse or camera bag closed, and tucked against the front of your body. Be aware of your surroundings. And if you feel uncomfortable, trust your gut. It may be embarrassing to make a scene (or leave the scene!) but it’s better than getting robbed.

Violent crime is fairly rare in Paris. But it’s still a big city, so it’s wise to watch your butt. If you visit any tourist spots at all, you’ll likely witness at least one of the common scams. Be polite but firm in shooing away the offender(s) if you’re approached.

Paris also has a reputation for being the “city of love,” but for an outgoing American woman who can’t help smiling at strangers, it can feel more like the “city of unwanted advances.” Parisians make eye contact on the street, but it’s usually fleeting and indifferent. Holding eye contact for more than a second — especially if it’s accompanied by even the faintest smile — can be misread as an invitation to have wild sex. To avoid unwanted attention, try copying the Parisiennes’ detached, mask-like expression.

Finally, Paris can be a hotbed of social unrest. Protests are commonplace, as are strikes. It’s possible that you’ll emerge from a métro station to find yourself in the middle of a “manif” (short for “maniféstation,” or protest). Don’t sweat it too much; these things seldom turn violent. But stay on the edges of the crowd, just in case — no matter how tempting the photo ops. Trust me when I tell you that tear gas is a bummer.

Finding fantastic food

There are an estimated 6,238,554,279 great restaurants*** in Paris, so I haven’t tried them all. But below are a handful of my faves for different kinds of fare.

Before we dive into my recommendations, here’s a quick primer on the difference between brasseries, bistros, and cafés. Insider tip: The prix fixe (set-price) lunch menus can offer a good value, compared to the higher dinner prices.

Brasseries offer refined dining and serve the same menu all day (with an occasional daily special, or “plat du jour”). They feature classic French cuisine and many have a good beer selection. They’re a common choice for business lunches.

Bistros are a smaller neighborhood restaurants and with a less-formal vibe and simpler food. They’re usually open only at set times, but menus vary widely. They’re a good choice for casual sit-down meals.

Cafés are ubiquitous in Paris. They focus more on beverages (including wine and some beers) and also offer casual fare such as sandwiches, croques, and salads. They’re a great choice for a refreshment or a quick bite.

Salons de thé (“tea salons) serve cake and pastries, and tend to be quieter and more refined. They’re a good choice if you need a rest and a nice cup of tea or coffee in a relaxing setting.

La Frégate, 1 rue du Bac, 7th arrondissement
This traditional brasserie is one of my Paris touchstones: I always stop here at least once per vacation for the very old-school boeuf bourgignon — my one break from vegetarianism. The interior is beautifully preserved from the early 1900s, and the outdoor seating offers wonderful (if noisy) people-watching, with a great view of the Louvre.

Bistrot de L’oulette, 38 rue des Tournelles, 4th arrondissement
This charming little restaurant seats maybe 30 people, but its menu packs a mighty punch. It’s a great opportunity to experience the Parisian “nouveau bistro” movement, which blends modern experimentation with traditional French fare. If you’re determined to try an acquired taste such as foie gras, this may be a good place to take the plunge.

Restaurant Moustache, 3 rue Sainte Beuve, 6th arrondissement
Located near the southwestern edge of the Luxembourg Gardens, this little restaurant is charming and unassuming. But the ever-changing menu is full of delicacies such as vegetable terrine, beef tartar, and an assortment of fresh seafood. The portions are dainty for the price, but they’re exquisitely presented.

Auberge Nicolas Flamel, 51 rue de Montmorency, 3rd arrondissement
Harry Potter fans may recognize the name (yes Nicolas Flamel really existed) and history buffs may know this as the oldest house in Paris (dating to 1407). But I stop here for the consistently exquisite cuisine. I may not be the most sophisticated foodie, but I do recognize excellence in craft, presentation, and service — and this small, elegant restaurant has mastered all three in spades.

Locating a loo

What if I have to pee?” That’s maybe the most frequent question first-time Paris visitors ask me.

Although I’ll admit having voluntarily dehydrated myself to avoid this problem, you need not take equally drastic measures. In recent years, the city has installed more than 400 “sanisettes” — free, self-cleaning toilets. You can find them listed by arrondissement online.

PHOTO VIA HTTP://WWW.PARIS.FR

But if a sanisette is not forthcoming, the next best thing is a café. The vast majority of cafés (and restaurants) have a bathroom in the basement. Although some cafés charge a nominal fee for using “les toilettes,” it’s good manners to order an inexpensive beverage and then head for the loo. I used to resent this; now I see it as an opportunity to rest my feet and recharge the sightseeing batteries.

All right, then. You are now ready to attack — ahem, enjoy — Paris. Have specific questions (or worries)? Drop me a note, and I will do my best to help.

* THIS SUGGESTION IS BASED ON MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE AND IS NOT GUARANTEED TO WORK FOR EVERYONE (OR MAYBE EVEN ANYONE BUT ME). CONSULT YOUR DOCTOR BEFORE TAKING ANY NEW DIETARY SUPPLEMENT, HERBAL OR OTHERWISE. BE EXTRA-VIGILANT OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS WHEN YOU’RE FATIGUED, AND TAKE SPECIAL CARE WHEN WALKING OR DRIVING.
** I AM NOT AFFILIATED WITH BLACKLANE AND RECEIVE NO COMPENSATION FOR MENTIONING THEIR SERVICE. I AM RECOMMENDING IT BASED ON MY OWN EXPERIENCE, BUT YOUR EXPERIENCE MAY DIFFER.
*** RESTAURANTS POP UP LIKE DANDELIONS IN PARIS, AND SOMETIMES JUST AS QUICKLY DISAPPEAR. ALTHOUGH MOST OF THE PLACES I RECOMMEND HERE ARE WELL-ESTABLISHED, THERE’S ALWAYS A CHANCE THAT THEY’LL BE CLOSED, RENAMED, OR UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT. PLEASE LET ME KNOW IF THIS IS THE CASE — AND MY APOLOGIES IN ADVANCE FOR OUTDATED INFORMATION.




Text and images © Heather Munro.