No matter where you go when you travel, you’ll need to eat at some point. But with some destinations, eating can rightly be considered one of the things on your “to-do” list while you’re there – and Paris is one of those places.
Paris – not to mention the entire country of France – is world-famous for its cuisine, so it makes sense to go into a trip to Paris with a list of French foods you want to make sure you don’t miss while you’re there. This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the French delicacies that you can find in Paris, but it will most certainly get you started and help keep you sated in between visits to the many museums in Paris.
>> If you’re traveling on a budget but still want to eat well in Paris, be sure to check out these tips for finding cheap eats in Paris.
What to Eat in Paris for Breakfast
The French don’t eat big breakfasts, and this is especially true in Paris. The typical Parisian breakfast consists of a croissant and a cup of coffee – and not only will this smaller breakfast help save you a little money each morning, it will also give you a chance to eat something very French every single day. I’m talking, of course, about the croissant.
The name itself is French, meaning “crescent,” and refers to the shape of the pastry – but don’t feel limited to just sampling the actual croissants your chosen cafe is serving. Pastries in Paris are an art form, and, at their best, are light, flaky, crisp on the outside, and chewy on the inside. Besides the traditional croissant, other breakfast pastry options include:
- Pain au Raisin – A pastry with a sweet custard-like filling and raising, usually rolled in a spiral
- Pain au Chocolat – A pastry with a filling of pieces of chocolate (not a chocolate pudding)
- Chausson aux Pommes – A pastry folded in half and baked with a filling akin to apple sauce
There are other pastries in Paris that are more appropriate for dessert – like eclairs and profiteroles – but you’re on vacation. If you want an eclair for breakfast, go for it.
If all of these options are too sweet for your tastes first thing in the morning, another option is to enjoy some of that famous French bread – pretty much any bread shape will do, although a portion of a traditional baguette with some butter and jam makes a lovely breakfast. There’s also the puffy brioche, which has a touch of sweetness but not nearly as much as the pastries listed above.
>> Read more about French pastries
What to Eat in Paris for Lunch or Dinner
I’m lumping these two meals together here because you will sometimes find smaller versions of the dinner menu available for lunch, which helps travelers on a budget sample some famous Parisian fare at a lower cost. It’s also a good idea to look for prix fixe menus for whatever meal you’re making the largest of the day, since you’re more likely to get a better deal (not to mention food that’s actually in season and fresh) if you go with the chef’s choice for the day – but you’re still going to get quite a bit of food!
Some of the things you’ll see on menus in Paris that you can consider for lunch or dinner, depending on your dining style when you’re traveling, are:
- Croque Monsieur/Madame – The French version of the grilled cheese sandwich, a croque monsieur is a grilled sandwich with cheese (usually on the outsie) and ham (on the inside). The “madame” adds a sunny-side-up egg to the top. These are often available from crepe stands, so can be eaten as a snack or (for larger ones) as a more complete meal with a salad.
- Quiche – The most famous quiche is a quiche Lorraine, made with egg, cream, cheese, and bits of ham; but there are many other quiche varieties.
- Escargots – Snails aren’t to everyone’s liking, but if you’re trying to be adventurous this is a good place to start. Proper escargots are served with the little critters still in their shells, cooked in a sumptuous buttery sauce (perfect for soaking up with bread after!). There’s a special utensil you’ll be given to hold onto the shells while you pull the snails out, and if you’re confused (and being nice about it) your waiter will likely give you a lesson.
- Steak Tartare – Another way to eat adventurously is by ordering steak tartare, which is very finely chopped raw beef that’s been marinated and seasoned. The only “cooking” it’s been through is being marinated in alcohol, but it’s still mostly raw. (Fun fact? The original name for this dish was steak a l’Americaine.)
- Omelet – You may recognize the word, but an omelet in Paris isn’t breakfast food. In fact, paired with a salad it’s a lovely light lunch.
- Onion Soup – Outside France, this will usually be on menus as “French onion soup;” in Paris, they don’t need to designate the country. This is a rich beef-based broth full of onions cooked until they’re soft and sweet, then covered with cheese and baked in the oven. It’s delicious, but don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s light because it’s soup.
- Boeuf Bourguignon – A favorite dish in the winter months, this is a slow-cooked beef stew with an enormous quantity of Burgundy wine poured into the sauce.
- Coq au Vin – This is a chicken dish where the bird has been cooked in wine (yes, Parisians like to cook with wine), and is another cold-weather favorite.
- Confit de Canard – In English, this is duck confit, and it’s an incredibly popular dish among the French. If you’ve never tried duck, this is a great introduction. Prepared right, a confit de canard is tender, flavorful, and could serve as a stand-in for just about any comfort food you can imagine.
- Moules – When they’re in season, you’ll see signs for moules (mussels) on sidewalk chalkboards in front of restaurants all over Paris. They’re a Parisian must-have, and worth trying even if you’ve had mussels in other places. They’re different in Paris. (For a variation, try “mouclade,” which is a dish of mussels baked in a cream & white wine sauce.)
- Huitres – Mussels aren’t the only shellfish popular in Paris. Huitres, or oysters, are a nice splurge meal at one of the many oyster bars in Paris (if oysters are your thing).
- Steak Frites – This is one of those dishes people have heard of before visiting Paris, but may think is something more complicated than it actually is. It’s a steak and fries – and that’s essentially it. If you have to try it to say you did, that’s fine, but it’s not as exotic as it might sound.
Luckily, waiters in Paris will no longer look down their nose at you if you’d like just a salad for your meal – especially since so many salads in Paris restaurants these days are quite large enough to be lunch (or even dinner) all by themselves. Here are some different kinds of salads in Paris, most of which are meal-sized.
Not all of the popular food in Paris is French, however. This city has a sizable immigrant population, and two dishes in particular that have made their way into the Parisian consciousness to the degree that the locals probably don’t even think of them as “ethnic” anymore are couscous and falafel.
Couscous comes to France by way of North Africa, and it’s particularly common in certain neighborhoods of Paris. It’s an excellent budget-friendly meal (for locals and travelers alike). Read more about couscous in Paris.
Falafel is another import from North Africa and the Middle East, and it’s good as a snack or a light lunch – especially when it’s served in a pita as a quasi-sandwich, meaning it can be eaten with the hands and without sitting down at a restaurant table.
What to Eat in Paris for Snacks
Parisians don’t “snack” the way people do in some other countries, but if they’re looking for something quick between meals or – and this is especially Parisian – to sustain them through a night of clubbing, the most popular things are cheap, quick, and eaten with the hands. In other words, between-meal foods that are still very Parisian include:
- Falafel – Mentioned above, falafel itself is a dough made from ground chickpeas, formed into golf ball-sized balls, and fried. Most often served in a pita and dressed with condiments, eaten sandwich-style.
- Crepes – Ultra-thin pancakes filled with just about anything you could imagine, then folded up. Can be sweet or savory. (Read more about finding the best crepes in Paris.)
- Galettes – Also ultra-thin pancakes served with fillings and folded up, but these are more often eaten with a knife and fork. Galettes are often made from buckwheat flour, and are predominantly savory.
But maybe you’re not Parisian. Maybe you’re running around all day from one museum to the next, burning through your breakfast croissant or lunchtime croque monsieur too quickly. What then? Is snacking midday just too gauche?
The truth is, you’re on vacation – and since eating in Paris is such a delight, there’s no reason you shouldn’t indulge in more than three meals a day. But if you’re looking for a typically Parisian snack that isn’t a full-fledged meal, you really can’t go wrong with a crusty baguette from a good boulangerie, a selection of fine French cheeses, and maybe some pate for good measure. Take all of these things (plus a bottle of water or wine, depending on your preference) to a nearby park and enjoy a perfectly Parisian picnic.
What to Eat in Paris for Dessert
Thankfully for anyone with a sweet tooth, Paris will not disappoint in the dessert category. If you’ve enjoyed a good meal at a restaurant, chances are the desserts there will be tasty as well. Some French desserts you might find on offer are:
- Iles Flottantes – This translates to “floating islands,” and it’s essentially dollops of meringue “floating” in a pool of creme anglaise, a vanilla-cream sauce.
- Clafoutis – This is a sponge cake that usually has baked right into it whatever fruits are in season.
Also keep in mind that to many French people, a selection of fine cheeses is the perfect way to end a meal. So if you’re looking for a dessert alternative that’s less about sugar, you could try a cheese plate (many places will bring out all the cheese they have and you point to the ones you want pieces of; these are sometimes served with honey or jam for drizzling on certain cheeses).
But if you’re looking for a more portable option to satisfy your sugar craving, here are a few things you can hunt for while in Paris:
- Macarons – Don’t confuse a French macaron with that little mountain of shaved coconut. These are a completely different animal. French macarons are light cookies (made with egg whites) that sandwich a layer of icing. In addition being dainty and delicious, they’re usually extremely brightly colored. The most famous macarons come from the shop that started it all, Laduree in Paris.
- Ice Cream – Ice cream is a nearly universal phenomenon, thank goodness, but in Paris there’s a particular ice cream shop that’s not to be missed. There are a few branches of the Berthillon ice cream shops in Paris, but the best one is on the tiny Ile Saint-Louis near Notre Dame. Berthillon’s sorbets are especially noteworthy (they taste so real, you’d swear you were eating the actual fruit), but I’ve never tasted anything there that wasn’t top-notch and well worth writing home about. (Read more about Berthillon in Paris.)
- Madeleines – These famous French sweets are halfway between a cookie and a cake, and although you’ll more often see them served with coffee or tea as opposed to being listed on a dessert menu, there’s nothing stopping you from saving a few from your afternoon stop at the patisserie and letting them melt in your mouth on the Metro ride back from your dinner that evening.
- Chocolate – Paris didn’t invent chocolate, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a long list of chocolatiers in Paris who are busy perfecting the art. There are entire books dedicated to the chocolate shops in Paris, so even if you’re not that into chocolate it can’t hurt to stop into one if you’re passing by.
- Hot Chocolate – If the weather’s the least bit chilly, you owe it to yourself to indulge in a cup of hot chocolate in Paris at some point. European hot chocolate is nothing like the watery microwaveable stuff you may be used to; in fact, it’s more akin to pudding than something you might drink. And yes, that’s why I think it qualifies as dessert and not a beverage.