12 Things You Should Know Before You Visit Paris

by Julie Blakley on July 24, 2010

by Julie Blakley | July 24th, 2010  

12thingsParis is a big, beautiful, historically and culturally rich, amazing, and a sometimes intimidating city. For those who have never visited the City of Lights, scoring a good deal on airfare to Paris, finding a hotel to stay in and deciding which attractions you just can’t miss are probably the things on the forefront of your mind. However, after many trips to Paris and living in the city for a period of time while studying at the Sorbonne, I discovered there are a few things that every person should know before they pack their bags and head to Paris.

>>Also read 30 Paris Tips from a local for more great suggestions on what to expect in Paris and how to get the most out of your trip. If you are headed to the City of Lights for the first time you should also make sure you check out the Paris First-Time Visitor Guide

1. Not all Parisians are rude. Nor do they hate Americans.

Now, I am certainly not guaranteeing that you will only run into totally charming and polite people during your trip to France, but I do think people assume they will get poorer treatment in Paris than most actually do. Contrary to popular belief, not all French hate Americans. In fact, especially among the younger generation (many of whom love American pop culture), seeing an American is a great excuse to practice their English and discuss American movies and music.

They say that there are Parisians and then there are the rest of the French (much like how in the U.S. there are New Yorkers and then there are the rest of Americans). People in Paris do tend to be more big city like—a little no nonsense and, yes, sometimes rude. That does not mean, however, that you should expect poor treatment during your stay in the City of Lights. In fact, you may be surprised just how friendly everyone seems to be. Be courteous, don’t bash the French way of doing things, try to learn a few phrases and you may just come home talking about how much nicer the French were than everyone thinks.

David Lebovitz, an American author, blogger and pastry chef living in Paris sums it up perfectly:

Visiting and dining in Paris all boils down to one rule: How You Get Treated is Directly Proportional to the Way that you Behave and Present Yourself. It’s taken me a few years to get used to the fact that I can’t run to the corner bakery for bread wearing sweatpants and flipflops, nor can I wolf down pastries on the métro without getting disapproving stares. So don’t be afraid to dress a bit better than you would at home and to practice a few words of your high-school French. Believe me, even the feeblest attempt at a little French will take you much further than you can imagine in Paris.

2. At least try to speak French

No, you don’t have to take a bunch of French classes before you go, but learning a few key phrases, even if it is only “parlez-vous anglais?” (do you speak English?) is probably a good idea. The French tend to admire those who at least give an effort to speak a few words of French, before assuming everyone speaks English. Sure, you may have a bad accent and butcher it, but most Parisians will probably appreciate the effort and then switch into English.

Although the French have a notoriously bad reputation as English speakers, more and more French are speaking better and better English. In fact, some Americans who actually DO speak some French get frustrated at not being able to practice when they find many people automatically revert to English to converse once they detect an accent.

>>Want to know what your taxi driver is shouting at the traffic? Read all about cursing in French

3. Say hello/goodbye when you enter stores and restaurants

Wonder why the woman behind the counter of the boutique you just strolled into is giving you an icy glare? Did you say “bonjour” when you walked in the door? If you didn’t, that’s most likely why she’s giving you the evil eye. It’s not because you’re a tourist. In Paris, it’s imperative to say “Bonjour Madame/Monsieur” when entering a shop or restaurant, and “Merci Madame/Monsieur” when leaving. There is an equally incorrect perception that Americans are impolite since they don’t acknowledge the salesclerks in their shops, which is like being invited into someone’s home and stepping inside without saying hello.

Smile, say “Bonjour” and you’ll often get an equally warm response back (and perhaps even offers to help you find something)

4. The Metro is easy to master

metroSure that big map with a million different colored lines and French on it looks initimadating, but the Metro is remarkably easy to master. Plus, because it is so well connected there are very few places in the city that are not located close to a metro stop. After a trip or two you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ve figured exactly how to get anywhere in the city. Most travelers find buying a carnet (pack of 10 tickets) is the cheapest way to ride, though if you plan on staying for longer than a week, you may want to look into the longer-term passes (carte orange).

There are a few tips that will help you be a master before you even descend below groud, so check out these tips about the Metro before you go and you’ll be ready to conquer the city (and the underground):

5. Don’t rush through a meal

When I asked for a bill once while I was still eating at a restaurant in Paris (I was running late for a class at the Sorbonne), my waiter lectured me on the importance of taking your time when eating and then refused to bring the bill until after I finished my meal and had sat for at least 10 minutes (yup, I was late for class).

Unlike in the states, where the bill sometimes comes as you place the first bites in your mouth, it is expected that you’ll sit around for awhile after you are done eating. When your plates are cleared and there is still no bill, it’s not because the waiter is ignoring you or doesn’t like you, it’s because it’s the French way not to rush when eating. So, take your time and be patient.

6. Elevate your sense of casual

Yes, I understand the need to be comfortable when traveling and spending a day walking around Paris, but that does not mean you should be wearing athletic shorts, socks and white tennis shoes around Paris. Paris is a fashion capital and the French are a notoriously fashionable and well-dressed group. While you certainly don’t have to wear heels around the city or dress head to in designer duds, you may also feel awfully out of place in your cut-offs, t-shirt and flip-flops in Paris.

I asked a friend for her number one tip she’d give to a new visitor to Paris (she went on her first trip to Paris recently) and she said, “My main thing if I went back would be to pack differently.” With constantly changing trends (which always seem to be ahead of ours), it’s hard to tell you exactly what to pack, but there are some good general rules of thumb that can help you feel not quite so out of place.

>>Read my tips on What to Wear in France in the Summer and What to Wear in France in the Winter

7. Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements (neighborhoods)

arrondissementsParis is a big city that is divided in a few different ways. It is both divided by the the Seine River into Left and Right bank (read Left Bank versus Right Bank to understand more of what that means), but also by neighborhoods, or arrondissements, of which there are 20. Numbering wise, these neighborhoods start in the center and continue in a circular pattern around the city. You will often here people mention a store/restaurant etc. as being “in the 12th,” which is referring to the number of the arrondissement. However, to make things even more confusing, there are also some neighborhoods with names, like the Marais, Latin Quarter and Montmartre.

Buy a good Paris map that marks both and you’ll probably have an easier time getting around and understanding where everything is in relation to other sites.

>>Read more about Paris Neighborhoods

8. Not all things in Paris are expensive

While you will find many things in Paris to be quite expensive, Paris does not necessarily have to be a city that sucks all the money out of pockets and bank accounts. After living in the city on a poor student’s budget, I learned some valuable tricks for how to save money while still having a great time in Paris. For example, there are plenty of ways to Eat Cheap in Paris. Plus, walking around the city, taking in the sites and people watching for hours costs nothing.

One of my very favorite parts about Paris is that you also don’t have to be stuck eating crepes from street vendors your entire trip to stay on budget. In fact, eating out at nice restaurants is really quite affordable.

Once again, David Lebovitz sums it up perfectly:

There’s lot of top-notch restaurants in Paris where you can get a terrific…no, make that superb…three-course meal for 30€ including tax and tip. I ate at one last night, and had a salad of cured quail on a bed of lentilles de Puy. That was followed by slices of moist rabbit loin on a rectangle of baked macaroni and cheese, which was finished up by a warm crêpe filled with homemade bitter orange marmalade and a scoop of housemade ice cream. Our wine was a 22€ bottle from the Savoie.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of any restaurant in San Francisco or New York that offers a three-course meal with wine for less than $50pp, including wine, tax and tip. If you avoid the high-end places, there’s great bargains in Paris.

Most restaurants and cafés offer specially-priced formulas for lunch. A simple corner café lunch can be had for around 12€ and even the high-end places have fixed-priced menus that are much more affordable than at dinnertime.

9. You’ll need voltage converters and adapter plugs for your electronics

Since the modern day traveler rarely goes anywhere these days without a gaggle of things that need to be plugged into the wall, you want to make sure you’ve got the proper adapter plugs before you take off for the land of wine and cheese. France runs on 220 volts, so some of your electronics (like blow dryers) will need a converter switch as well, so you don’t fry it when you plug it in. While most computers will work just fine with a simple adapter plug, I’ve fried more than one hair straighter trying to plug it in in France.

>>Read Dealing with Electricity in Paris to get more tips on getting the correct plugs and adapters

10. Public restrooms are not always free…or easy to find

paristoiletIf you have a full day of walking and sightseeing, it is inevitable that you are going to have to use the restroom when out and about at some point in Paris. However, finding a public restroom can be a bit on the tricky side in Paris.

A great place to look for public restrooms (don’t think you can waltz into a restaurant and ask to use the restroom unless you are a paying costumer) are the many parks scattered throughout the city. The Tuileries and Luxembourg gardens both have nice restrooms. Don’t be surprised to find an attendant, however, and be expected to shell out 40 to 50 centimes when you used them.

You’ll also see those intimidating, automated toilet structures on the streets of Paris. They cost a little bit of money to use, but they do the trick in a pinch. You also can find FREE restrooms in many large department stores.

>>Read more on Using Public Toilets in Paris

11. August is vacation month in Paris

Unlike most work obsessed Americans who get 2 weeks of vacation a year, many French take a whole month off in the summer months. Especially during August in Paris, when many people flee the city in the summer to enjoy vacations on the beach in the countryside, many tourists are surprised to find so many museums/shops/restaurants closed for weeks at a time in the summer.

While you may feel annoyed when the restaurant you’ve been told to has a sign hanging in the door that says “closed til August,” this is normal, and you have to admire (and perhaps envy) the French appreciation for time away from work.
However, since there are still many tourists in France, you should have no problem finding a place to eat or things to do in these summer months. Since the weather is usually beautiful in the summer (albeit a little hot and muggy), park cafes and restaurants with large terraces are popular dining spots in the summer months. There are plenty of great options for summer dining in Paris, where you can sip your café or citron pressée in the sunshine and participate in the national French pastime of people watching.

>>Read more Summer Travel Tips for France

12. Taxis are expensive, especially at night

Probably because the Metro is so quick and easy to use, Taxis in Paris tend to be on the expensive side. A ride that is only a few kilometers long can end up costing you a small fortune. This is especially true late at night, when taxi fares go up even more. This means if you are stuck after the Metro shuts down (at 1 am), you may find yourself having to part with a fat stack of cash just to get home. Stick to the metro or be prepared to pay heft taxi fees if you decide to travel above ground.


{ 40 comments }

Teresa August 29, 2009 at 4:06 am
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Yes, I like this article very much and find them very useful, thanks a lot for all the information!

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Meirivam Costa August 31, 2009 at 1:33 pm
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I think that informations will be very importants for my first travel in Paris. Thanks for spend your time to help peoples like me…Meirivam Costa, Ipatinga, MG.

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William Wallace September 27, 2009 at 11:03 am
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You offer some sound advice. It has been a few years since I was last in Paris and good quality cheap local bistros can be found in abundance.

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Patricia October 25, 2009 at 8:20 am
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This is wonderful. I wish I had found this site 2 weeks ago be fore I arrived in Paris.

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Charles October 27, 2009 at 7:54 pm
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Nice guide. As someone who’s been living here for 6-odd years now I can agree with a lot of that, especially respect of sales-people. I disagree about taxis though. I’m not from the US, so don’t really know how much they are there, but I think they work out cheaper the longer the journey is. I can get from Charles de Gaulle airport to my apartment (39kms) for about €50. Because of the fixed minimum charge (around €4 I think) a short journey of 10 minutes can be a bit unreasonable (maybe about €10) but it’s a convenience thing and certainly not a big deal if you’re just going out late once and so forth.

I’d also add, on the subject of taxis, that I find a lot French taxi drivers, to be incredibly dishonest. If they figure out you’re a tourist a lot of them will take you on a “scenic route”, taking 3 times as long as it should to rack up the meter a bit more. If you find you’re being taken for a ride but don’t have the required language skills to argue, note down their license plate number and the address for complaints (on a sticker on their left side rear window) and contact them later.

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Mike November 27, 2009 at 1:55 pm
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Great site! Great information!

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jon November 30, 2009 at 2:09 pm
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would anybody care to get in touch with me about their travel experiences in france, partcularly, paris. i am doing a compilation of perhaps 10 travel stories to france and would love it if you were willing to share some of your experiences. if you would post your comments on this website, or send an e-mail, (please say that the topic is paris trip), so i will recognize your correspondance as pertaining to this topic. i would like very much to hear from you. my e-mail address is jpn100557@yahoo.com. looking foward to hearing from some of you. thank-you.

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amjad zia mughal December 25, 2009 at 3:07 am
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thank you again. itz very useful page . people like me dont knows a word for thank s .merci

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marlene hermosura December 26, 2009 at 8:54 am
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oui! the information on your website is very, very, helpful for a first-time visitor. i’m looking forward to finally going to my favourite country.
sincere thanks,
mmh

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Hans Bulos December 26, 2009 at 9:00 am
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Great tips! They will be handy info for our trip in Paris a few days from now which will include New Year’s eve at the Eiffel Tower! I shall use your first 3 tips in dealing ith Parisians. They make a lot of sense and makes me optimistic in experiencing pleasant interactions with Parisians.

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maura February 13, 2010 at 11:06 am
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Good information, will take my first trip in April

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Jen February 28, 2010 at 10:25 am
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This is a great site, thank you. I would love though if someone would contact me about tips for an 11 layover at CDG. It will be my 1st time ever abroad, and in Paris for about 6 to 7 hrs of getting around before catching the next flight. My main goal is to see the Eiffel Tower. Does anyone have any tips on a good tour bus maybe that picks up from GDC and can get me around and see quite a bit plus the Tower in that time frame? I found one that was a 5 hr tour for about $75 US, I was hoping for something a tad cheaper. Thank you!

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AB Hardwick April 3, 2010 at 12:15 pm
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Very informative. Thank you.

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Candice April 26, 2010 at 9:58 pm
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Wow this is a great article. A lot of things I did not know or realize about Paris especially the train situation. I assumed everything was above ground, silly me. And the neighborhood outlay it pretty cool to say the least. Very very useful. I would like to go to paris for a day while im in the UK (to visit family). This is definitely a good resoucre for planning. Thanks again!

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dipika May 7, 2010 at 3:37 am
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thank you for the information. its quite usefull in planning a budget trip!

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BH of Singapore May 7, 2010 at 11:51 pm
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Fantastic information! Thanks. I will be a first time visitor and is just in time for my trip in Jun. Thanks

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SUSAN June 13, 2010 at 9:02 pm
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I will enjjoy Paris more after reading your tips on general manners………we are going in Sept.and I am very excited, my wardrobe will be ,black, white , touch of red and pearls !!…not forgetting my red lipstick !

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Bandido July 11, 2010 at 11:29 am
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Nice article. But you didn’t mention the “Notilien”. A nice but sometimes a little dangerous bus service that runs all night long. I only take it when I have no choice but the nice thing is that it I can drop you 5 blocks from home at 4:00am.

Paris is cool !

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Cherie August 1, 2010 at 5:00 pm
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Finally, some advice that isn’t cheezy. I found these tips very useful indeed.

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KATIE October 8, 2010 at 4:12 pm
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LOVE IT , ALL IMPORTANT INFO THAT I NEED ON MY TOUR TO PARIS. THANK U

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Sh October 13, 2010 at 9:25 pm
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Thank you so much for your useful tips. I am looking forward to going back to Paris. The first time was in ’67!!

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Chris October 25, 2010 at 1:47 am
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These tips are spot on. As I sit here in my Paris hotel waiting for the sun to come up, I have noticed many of the things mentioned in this article. Colorful scarves are an absolute requirement (I am here in October so warmth is important). Purses and shoes are very classy, much more so than in the USA. The metro is the very best bargain both in time and money. It takes only a day to become comfortable with the metro system. Checkout the final stop on the metro to be sure you are going in the direction you wish and you have it made. I have not been really aware of the custom of greeting shopkeepers, but being accustomed to speaking when spoken too, I have fallen accidentally into the polite response. I am glad to know now it is a rule of etiquette. Thank you for your tips, they are excellent.

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Jen October 30, 2010 at 7:59 pm
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This was very helpful! I will make sure to speak the little French that I know or get the translator ap on my phone. Merci!

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Marilyn Mahlberg November 7, 2010 at 1:22 pm
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I accidently came across your web site & was more than enthralled reading all your information & tips, which I found most uesful to know.

I have a friend coming to visit England in two weeks from California, & she has expressed how very much she would also like to visit Paris.

Many thanks for all your information.

Best regards,

Marilyn

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Jessica December 16, 2010 at 1:46 pm
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So glad to know you’re all finding these tips useful! :)

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rimau malaya December 31, 2010 at 11:49 am
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great info..im planing to paris this february…but im feeling too hard to be there bkoz im not into fashion or wear casual..

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Mary O'Dwyer January 9, 2011 at 4:12 pm
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A very informative website. Practical tips, especially in relation to speaking a bit of French… un petit peu! How wonderful it would have been to be a student in Paris…… Heading back for visit in March. Cant wait.

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Conniebeau January 9, 2011 at 6:59 pm
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I have been to Paris many times and agree with everything in this article. Take advantage of the lovely parks in Paris and spend an afternoon in Luxembourg Gardens or the Tuileries just doing nothing. I sometimes pack a lunch of wine and cheeses; take along a good book; and spend an entire morning or afternoon just lounging in the reclining chairs throughout the park. Paris is also excellent for people watching and lounging away a morning or afternoon in a local cafe.

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Hannah Gillard March 28, 2011 at 6:01 am
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This website is unbelievably helpful! I will probably print off every page, thankyou so much :) xxxx

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zakir hussain April 6, 2011 at 5:54 am
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hi
it is really a very good site with all the inforamtion.
it is so easy now to travel through france………….
thanks

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Lin April 16, 2011 at 1:54 pm
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I Love Paris! everybody has been so nice to me all the time I have been there. They try to help me. it’s fun because when I say Pouvez-vous m’aider s’il vous plaît ?
and then their start speak french with me and then I bring another worrd Parlez-vous anglais? and then they trie to help me even if their don’t speak.Some people are shy is not that their are rude. Some don’t speak english and beeing very shy when you ask for help or when they can’t I said..Je recherche de l’avenue… the name of the place or subway. etc. I always with the names in the Iphone pictures, maps or books etc.. well you must be prepar and make your part also.
Well the french was talk to me everywhere! was awesome!

I met my boyfriend in Paris walk in the Avenue Champs Elysee when he was in his way to work in the bank! he come a little near to me and gave me a complimment because my shoes.ask if I was wearing Christian Louboutin.Tthat’s right …I said- How do you know- He store is just down there – he said. lol Awesome! LOL and everything started there… ;) )

I love Paris.! ;) )

I have seen many tourist in Paris start talk to french people like english is the Paris language, Tourist can be very annoying and rude when they think everybody should speak english and learn english very very well. I think is the tourist that is rude. Because I think if you in a new beautiful country as Paris you should try to say a few words in french. if you don’t dare why do you think the french should/must talk to you in english?!

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Tani April 22, 2011 at 3:37 am
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Thanks for the information, I’m planning to go again, but this time without guides…and I know I’ll need to know more about Paris before going on my own :)

Also, I didn’t know that speaking a little of french is useful, and I did speak french,so after having read three times that that’s useful I felt ok, I mean…I was trying to practice, though I was missing french lessons back in my country while in Paris, and it’s true that there are very nice people, we didn’t know how to use those métro machines to buy tickets and a man helped us, as I’d heard of those skillful thieves I was kinda aware of my purse, but I didn’t had a problem with that. Such a welcoming city!

The food, I ate for around 3 euros, obviously in MD, but it tasted good and I was hungry, and had a restricted budget, though the brasseries prices weren´t that bad, I mean, in my country there’s places waaaay more expensive to eat.

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Lily April 22, 2011 at 4:11 pm
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Great tips.

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Ofelia Bauer May 24, 2011 at 4:26 am
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Yes.Its very informative. I got all questions answered. Thank you so much!!

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TamKeys September 1, 2011 at 8:14 pm
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Just returned from Paris and would have liked to have read this before going. Didn’t know the restaurant/bill thing so that would have saved us a little stress. Really thought we were being ignored! LOL Great article, right on point, except for one thing. The street “toilettes” actually ARE free of charge. We used them many times. They are great and convenient, you just have to keep your eyes open for them. They were a godsend because yes, toilets are tough to find. Skip the caffeine ladies. We loved our time in Paris and hope to return if we have the good grace in the future!

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Jane September 21, 2011 at 6:09 pm
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This was an excellent article. Everything the author said was true and relevant. I concur with her completely, as the information she provided was consistent with my own experience.

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muzikler October 4, 2011 at 11:58 am
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This website is unbelievably helpful! I will probably print off every page, Merci Lol :) )))

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