12 Things You Should Know Before You Visit Paris


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):

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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.