The city of light can be dazzling, which may explain why it’s on so many travel bucket lists. Paris seems maze-like and full-on at first, with its different arrondissements (neighbourhoods) and its constant trendsetting, but once you start wandering you’ll see it’s not so daunting after all. Are you ready to explore?
Your First Trip to Paris: The Basics
Start as you mean to go on…
- If you’re travelling from the UK, choose the Eurostar over planes. Charles De Gaulle airport is nowhere near where you want to be, and it’ll cost €10 for a train ticket to the city centre, whereas the Eurostar takes you straight to the Gare du Nord.
- The Mayor of Paris’ website has a ‘First time in Paris’ guide full of tips – I like the sound of the helium balloon tour in the André Citroën Park (weather-permitting).
- Using the Metro is pretty straightforward, and the ticket machines have an English language option. Buy a carnet which gives you 10 tickets – much easier than buying a single or return each time. Try to avoid travelling at rush hour (09:00-10:00 and 18:00-19:30).
- Read the free Metropolitan magazine on the Eurostar for up-to-date events listings and more ideas of what to see. Text is in English (phew!).
- The big Tourist Office is at 25 Rue des Pyramides, near the Opera metro station.
- Find out which local markets are on during your stay – useful for buying fresh food or souvenirs.
- Safety tips are as standard for any European city; keep an eye on your valuables, be wary of walking alone at night in quiet areas, and don’t react to tourist scams (e.g. someone asks if you’ve dropped a gold ring, in the hope of distracting you).
- We all know the French are a stylish bunch, but save your Louboutins if you’re seeing Paris on foot. Swap them for a pair of unisex Stan Smith trainers by Adidas – loved by the ever-chic Phoebe Philo of Celine, seen in a 2013 issue of Vogue Paris and sold at hot designer boutique Colette, where Pharrell Williams even issued a limited edition customised Stan Smiths range.
- Browse one of my previous posts for things to see and do on a budget when you get here, including the Pompidou Centre.
You don’t have to do these, but you’ve heard about the hype…
- I won’t big up the Eiffel Tower – you’re either desperate to visit or you’re not bothered, let’s be honest – but get alternative city views from the top of the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame. The Arc de Triomphe is open from 10am-11pm, with free entry for under 18s. Adult tickets cost €9.50. Notre Dame is open 10:30-18:30 Mon-Fri and 10:00-23:00 Sat-Sun. Tickets are €8.50, and queues move quickly.
- Montmartre’s famous Sacré Coeur church is open daily from 6am-10:30pm. The nearby Musée de Montmartre (2/14, Rue Cortot) is on a side street, and it’s open every day from 10am-6pm. There’s also Paris’ last working vineyard, Clos de Montmartre, opposite.
- If you won’t rest until you’ve seen the tiny Mona Lisa, pre-book your Louvre tickets to cut down some queuing time. The Paris City Pass gives you free entry here, and to many other museums and galleries.
- Desperate for a Seine cruise? High-end evening trips can cost up to €180pp, which isn’t good value in anyone’s books. Instead, the Paris Tourist Board has a range of daytime cruises from €6pp. Bateaux Parisiens has lunchtime trips from €33pp, including a one hour tour; if you get a Paris City Pass you’re entitled to a one hour Bateaux Parisiens Seine cruise (without food) for free.
- Loads of major museums and galleries are closed on a Monday or a Tuesday; many restaurants can also be closed on a Sunday or Monday. Always check listings before you travel!
- The Musée des Arts et Métiers (60 Rue Réaumur) is a bit like London’s Science Museum, with exhibits covering science, technology, energy and communication, including Foucault’s pendulum. Visit from Tues-Sun, 10am-6pm, and late night on Thurs until 9:30pm. Tickets are €8 for adults and €5.50 for children.
Food and Drink
Not every meal is baguette-based or best consumed with wine…
- Lunchtime main meals are far cheaper than evening main meals. Parisians tend to eat lunch at 1pm and dinner from 8pm, so arrive from 12pm or 7pm to beat the queues.
- There are lots of small cafes selling takeaway crepes, waffles and ice-cream if you need a quick snack on the go. You’ll also find good quality bakeries on most streets, selling things like quiche and pizza slices as well as fresh bread and cakes, and these shouldn’t blow the budget. Look out for food trucks, too – some of the best have recently been granted a one year licence.
- Contrary to popular opinion, you can be a vegetarian, vegan or intolerance-plagued eater in Paris without starving. Le Marais has a good selection of veggie-friendly restaurants; try the Cafe Pinson or Fee Nature tea house chains for organic and vegan food; Gluten-Free Mom has a list of suitable restaurants, including Noglu in the 2nd arrondissement.
- Children’s menu’s aren’t a big thing, as the French don’t generally take their kids out to eat, but a plat du jour should be a manageable size. Most restaurants have English menus available.
- It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but McDonald’s – known here as McDo – is a big part of French food culture, and the other chains struggle to keep up. You can even order a McCamembert.
- Make food extra fun. Pink Flamingo Pizza (67 Rue Bichat) lets you order from its staggering list of pizza toppings, then you take a pink balloon and sit outdoors by the Canal St Martin. Your pizza is delivered to you outside. Alternatively, take a history lesson with a twist at Montmartre’s historic sweet shop, À la Mère de la Famille (35 Rue du Faubourg), which is 250 years old.
- Bottled water can sometimes be more expensive than wine in a restaurant, so ask for a carafe of tap water with your meal.
- Know the difference between service compris (tip included) and service non-compris (tip not included) when it comes to paying the bill, or you may end up tipping twice!
- If the weather’s good, stock up on picnic supplies at one of the city supermarkets, such as Monoprix, or from the food halls in department stores. Weirdly, creme brulee from the supermarché tastes almost as good as a freshly made restaurant version.
Keep your eyes peeled for my next post, when I’ll be covering in-depth recommendations for families and anyone travelling solo.