Visiting Paris? Here are 5 Things You Should Know Before Visiting The "City of Light”
Since moving to Paris, we’ve had our fair share of visitors. We've also had many friends and acquaintances reach out to ask for suggestions on what to do and what to know as they plan their trip. Typically, the questions are very similar: What do we wear? How do we get around? Do I need to speak French?
While each visitor has their own unique needs, we do have a few things that we tell every person when they come to Paris. Some items are simple suggestions about clothing attire while other recommendations aim to keep visitors safe and secure while visiting a big city.
Tip Number 1: Do I Need to Speak French?
One of the most useful things you can do in preparation of your visit to Paris is to learn a few French phrases. Most people speak at least some English (and you’ll be surprised by how much English they speak, even when they say they only speak “a little bit”). However, learning a few phrases can help unlock assistance when you need it, as well as empathy for you as a traveler in a foreign city.
When to use it: This greeting (“Bonjour”) is more than just saying “Hello”; it’s a way of acknowledging the person as a human being and it shows respect. Use this word before you engage in any other part of a conversation with someone – even if the rest of the conversation is in English. Checking out at a grocery store? Say “Bonjour” to the clerk. Need to ask someone for directions? Please, please say “Bonjour” before you say anything else!
When to not use it: You don’t need to say it to someone passing on the street, or the person in line behind you. Americans tend to say hello and make eye contact to people in passing – Parisians prefer not to do this as a way of respecting each other’s privacy.
Other phrases that are useful are “Do you speak English?” (Parles-vous anglaise?), “Thank you” (Merci), “Goodbye” (au revoir), and “Have a good day” which is simply said by “good day” (bonne journée). Download Google Translate or another language app, which is especially helpful when looking at menus or identifying ingredients listed on a product (just make sure you have wifi or cell service to use the app).
If You Have Time to Learn Two More Phrases
My favorite way to begin a conversation with someone – even when ordering in a restaurant – is by saying, “Hello – I’m sorry, I don’t speak French well!” (Bonjour - Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas bien le français). This softens any cultural or language mistakes that you might make next, and shows the person that at least you’re trying!
The other useful phrase is to say, “excuse me” (excuse-moi). This is not used when you’re trying to get past someone on the street or metro (rather, “pardon” is used). This is used to get someone’s attention. This can be useful if you want to get your check from the waiter, get a stranger’s help with directions, or generally need to get someone’s attention. Just make sure you say “Bonjour” right before or after!
Tip Number 2: What Do I Wear?
In Paris, almost everything goes. However, there are a few things that will quickly make you stick out as A Tourist. One of the faux pas is athleisure. If you are exercising, by all means, wear work out clothes. But you will NOT see someone popping into a grocery store or grabbing their dry-cleaning in athletic wear (including the all-time favorite casual wear for many Americans– leggings).
Other items to avoid when attempting to camouflage as Not A Tourist:
· Baseball Hats
· Clothing with big brand names
· Sports team logos
· Baggy athletic shorts or other athleisure wear
· Neon or brightly colored outerwear/jackets
We always recommend that our guests bring layers, including cardigans or sweaters and a scarf. There is so much walking outside – likely more than you’re used to – that it’s helpful to have options when you’re warm from walking or cool while sitting outside for a meal.
You will see women wearing stylish button-down coats, tights, blouses, and even heels. However, the heels are always low and thick and meant for walking. Men often wear dress shirts and sports coats. You will also see plenty of people dressed in an entire range of attire, from casual to dressy. However, Parisians generally tend to "dress up" more than the comfy-casual attire that I'm accustomed to as an American.
Shoes that are comfortable for walking are THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO PACK. This is not the time to break out new shoes for the first time. If there are heels or other shoes you want to wear for specific pictures, by all means, bring them – but throw them in a purse or backpack and bring them out for photos instead of attempting to wear them all day.
Paris has a rainy season, especially in the fall and winter. This is probably the worst time to visit, weather-wise (November through January), but can be attractive to visitors who want shorter museum lines and a less-crowded city. Pack an umbrella or plan to buy one when you arrive, and it’s a good idea to have water-proof shoes and a light raincoat.
Tip Number 3: Safety
Paris is just like any other large city when it comes to safety – it’s best to be aware, keep your head up and your items close to you. Pick pocketers are in heaven in Paris where tourists carry lots of cash and valuables and don’t know the local customs or language.
When I first moved here, a new friend called me and gave me a thirty-minute info-session about Paris; a hefty portion of that included safety measures. If you use a purse, it’s a good idea to wear a cross-shoulder bag or backpack that cannot be easily swiped. If you’re on the metro or bus, wrap the bag strap around your arm so no one can grab it and hop off as the doors close. Keep your phone tucked away unless you are actively using it – phones have been swiped off dinner tables by pedestrians and even people on motorbikes.
Generally, take as little as you can with you when you’re out and about, and leave valuables, including important documents (like your passport) in the hotel safe or locked in your rental. Take a photocopy of your passport in your wallet; this is a good compromise for making sure you have ID in an emergency situation while keeping your documents safe.
Tip Number 4: Don’t Get Scammed!
There are many different ways to get scammed in Paris. Avoid scammers as soon as you arrive by going to the official Taxi line when leaving the airport. There is a fixed price for your ride depending on your destination (inside or outside the city - the costs are listed on the window).
There will be plenty of people inside the airport offering you a ride (“Taxi, madame?”), but use Uber (sometimes difficult depending on your language skills) or just get in the Taxi line to avoid a dishonest driver.
Another interesting scam technique is via fabric bracelets. You will often find people trying to tie bracelets on you as you climb your way up to Sacre-Coeur (don’t let this stop you from visiting, it’s a must-see). If someone approaches you and tries to put a bracelet on you, simply say “NO.” and walk away. If they are persistent and grab your arm (very unnerving), shake them off and get out of there! We have friends who gave a relatively large amount of money to scammers for bracelets when, in the cloud of confusion, they allowed them to place bracelets on their wrists.
There are also fraudulent ways for people to ask for donations – scammers often gather around tourist areas (think Eiffel tour, Notre Dame, etc.) and ask for donations. Donations are only in cash and “must” be at least 20 Euros. My advice is to skip the drama and donate to a well-established charity if you’re in the giving mood.
Tip Number 5: Avoid Silly Fines
If you take the metro or the bus, keep your validated ticket (the one you used when you entered) for your ENTIRE ride. For instance, if you validate your ticket on the 1 and transfer to the 6 (this only requires one ticket), keep that ticket your ENTIRE journey until you get OUT of the metro station.
Why? The RATP transportation security often check travelers for validated tickets, especially at the very busy metro stations. If you have lost your validated ticket or thrown it away, you will receive a fine of 35-50 Euros, depending on whether you have another ticket on you. Avoid the fine by simply keeping it in your pocket until you exit. We like to fold the one we’ve used it half, so as not to confuse it with unused tickets – then toss it once we leave.
Food specific tips we like to share:
Do as the Parisians do and grab a café (espresso) and a croissant or pain au chocolate for breakfast (yum!). Kiddos often have hot chocolate for breakfast.
For an inexpensive (and delicious) lunch, grab a salad or sandwich at a local boulangerie (bakery) – but do yourself a favor and throw in a simple dessert and a drink too; this formula is a great way to get a good deal on lunch while filling your tummy.
In that same sense, order from the menu (not to be confused with a menu in English – which is called the carte) if eating at a restaurant. This is a set list of items that are ordered together and often include an appetizer (entrée), meal (plat), and a dessert. It might include a drink as well. It’s another good way to save money and eat well.
Try the French classics – get a baguette to munch on, have a croissant or pain aux raisin, order duck at dinner, get foie gras as a starter, or try the escargot. Have a different pastry every afternoon for a treat. Why not??? You’re in Paris!!!
Plan meals accordingly – often restaurants are closed between 2 and 6 (ish), besides bakeries. Look for “Continuous Service” or a variation of these words to show that there is no break in service between lunch and dinner.
Ordering dessert? Ask for “café gourmand”, which includes small samples of several desserts, plus a small espresso (you can request decaf).
Other helpful tips:
If you want to attend a popular museum, buy a timed ticket for lunchtime (between 12p-2p), as most people will have paused their sight-seeing for lunch. Many museums allow you to buy a ticket on-site, but the entrance lines are often shorter for those who have bought in advance.
Buy a packet of 10 metro/bus tickets when you arrive – this saves you the hassle of buying them every time you ride.
Grab a map from Hôtel de Ville if you’re in the area, or ask your hotel or Airbnb if they have one. There’s something very satisfying about knowing where you are in relation to the rest of the city – even if you only use it while planning your day before you leave the hotel.
Besides downloading Google Translate or another language app, you might find it helpful to download “Paris Metro” (free), which shows all the metro lines as well as where they intersect.
A strange tip to share, but watch out for dog poop. With many streets and buildings and not as much green space, it’s common to see dog poop smeared on the sidewalks (gross!).
Pay attention to the crosswalk signs. When it’s green (indicating it’s safe to walk), get moving! When it turns red, don’t cross. We’ve found that drivers in Paris are very respectful of pedestrians, but some of the lights are quick. Make the most of your time and cross as soon as they indicate it’s safe!
I hope these Paris tips were helpful! What else would you like to know about Paris? Please feel free to ask me in the comments!