I took a vacation to Paris for 2 weeks. It was great. Here are some tips on visiting Paris.
The language barrier
When speaking French: Parisians are drama queens. If you speak French to them, they will instantly recognize that you don’t speak French, but they will play along, as if they are part of a performance, in which you are the underdog character who is trying to make your way through Paris on limited French. The French love underdogs, and will help you out as long as you keep trying your best. The key is to always initiate a conversation in French, not English. Always start by saying “Bonjour Madame/Monsieur” (before 6 PM) or Bonsoir Madame/Monsieur (After 6 PM), preferably before they say Bonjour to you; then try to speak French to ask what you want: “Je voudrais … “, and always end the request with “S’il vous plaît”. If your French isn’t good enough, you can then switch over to Franglish, or even plain English; as long as you start out speaking French, you are fine. However, if you start off addressing someone directly in English first, you are basically setting up a different performance; a tragic comedy, where you are the butt of the joke.
When you walk into a store in Paris, think of it like walking into a friend’s home, where the person just happens to sell things. Which means you need to say hello and goodbye, as if you are visiting a friend. As soon as you enter the store, you need to immediately say “Bonjour Madame/Monsieur”, preferably before the shopkeeper says bonjour to you. When you leave, always say “Merci, Au Revoir”. And you have to do all this without mumbling, which you are likely to do if you are very self-conscious.
When you walk into a store, the shopkeepers seem to very much expect you to buy something. If you are just looking, say just looking: “Je regarde”. (zhuh ruh-gard).
In many shops, you are not supposed to touch the merchandise; if you want something, you are supposed to ask the shopkeeper to take it off the shelf for you. This principle can apply to even small items like chocolates in a chocolate shop. Always ask.
In Paris, the waiter will not bring the bill until you ask for it: ask for the bill by saying “L’addition, s’il vous plait”.
The French use totally different gestures for numbers. Get used to using these:
- One is identical to the “thumbs up” sign.
- Two is a gun: thumb and pointer finger, parallel to your chest.
- Three is thumb, pointer, and middle finger.
It is really helpful to learn French numbers, so that you know how much pay, and how much change you should expect.
It is also helpful to learn how to make restaurant reservations. For some restaurants, reservations are essential. For some restaurants, you can make reservations through TheFork app, which is the French version of OpenTable.
Ways to order meat:
- Saignante is rare: (sahn-yahnt).
- à point (ah pwanh) (to the point) is medium-rare.
- bien cuit (byen kwee) or semelle (shoe leather) medium.
- Brûlé (broo-lee) -burnt.
While walking around Paris, I would say that about 1/3 of the people I overhead were speaking English.
Unless you have taken several years of high school French, it is impossible to figure out how to spell French words that you hear; if you want to write something down, ask someone to write it for you.
Unlike in the US, French people keep left in most cases; if you are walking toward someone who is walking toward you, pass to the left, not the right.
There is an airline based in Iceland called WOW air. They offer very cheap plane tickets to Paris: As low as $700 if you book a few months in advance. But they have a low-ish check-in baggage weight limit: 20 kg = 44 lbs.
The on-board snacks provided by WOW air are terrible. Anything you bring with you is going to be better.
With Wow Air, you actually go through France customs in Iceland, before you board your connecting flight to Paris, so that you don’t have to go through customs when you get to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
If you take WOW airlines, be aware that they turn up the air conditioning to max in the cabin: It was freezing.
Other airline tips:
- Use seatguru to find out which seats on the plane don’t suck.
- Get a neck pillow.
- If you find a great wine, and you want to take a case with you on your way home, go ahead: Even though a case of wine is over the duty-free amount of a single bottle, the actual duty on a case of wine is really low: maybe $5. Just be sure it’s under the check-in baggage weight limit. Also, some airlines restrict the amount of bottles of alcohol, due to fire hazard issues. If you intend to bring back bottles of wine, you might want to take Styrofoam wine shipping packaging with you, since it’s a pain to find in Paris.
Restaurants in Paris
- For bakeries that also have tables: If you want to get some pastries/coffee and consume it at one of the tables, the process is very different than in the US: Go to the counter, and say you want some items “sur place” (for here). Then point out the items you want, and also any coffee drinks. The person behind the counter will collect the pastry items you select, and put them onto a tray. You then go and sit at a table; the person will bring the tray of goodies to your table. When you have finished eating, go back to the counter and pay.
- When you go to a restaurant, you should take a trip to the bathroom before you ask to be seated, because after you are seated … you might not be able to get out from behind the table! Tables in Paris restaurants are packed so tightly that the wait staff may need to shuffle tables around to open up a space to allow you to get to your chair, then re-assemble the tables in such a way that you can’t get out without totally moving the tables again.
- One oddity in Paris: The wait staff expects you to order almost immediately after they hand you the menu, and they get annoyed if you keep telling them that you need more time. To deal with this issue, I do a reconnaissance mission: The menu is usually posted outside, so I take a photo with my iPhone, then retreat and look over the menu, and figure out what I want. Then I go back, knowing in advance what to order.
- All Paris restaurants serve bread with meals, but you do not get butter unless you order oysters from Normandy, in which case you get salted Normandy butter to go on the bread.
- The waiter will plop down a basket of bread, and you generally take a piece of bread and place it on the table (not on your plate).
- I had difficulty finding good food in Paris. Maybe half of the dishes I ate were lack-luster. Tour guides were the best source of info on good restaurants, but even then, you really need to ask what specific dish to order. It’s best to avoid restaurants located on the busy Avenues; restaurants that have really nice sidewalk tables don’t need to serve good food. Go to a restaurant on a side street. The really good French restaurants are filled either with locals speaking French, or German tourists, who have done an exhaustive cost/benefit analysis.
- In terms of bread / pastries / sweets, there are a few things in Paris that are far better than anything produced in the San Francisco Bay area: that includes croissants, baguettes, and middle-eastern pastries. The croissants benefit from a really high-quality cultured butter than has a fermented taste. The French have applied classic cooking expertise to middle-eastern pastries, which is why they are so good. However, I did not find any other types of pastries or sweets that surpassed what we have in the Bay area. That included canelés, falafel, macarons, ice cream, mousse desserts, chocolates, and tarts.
- At a restaurant, always ask for a “carafe d’eau”, which is a carafe of tap water. Otherwise, they will bring you an 8 Euro bottle of Perrier.
- At restaurants, the prices on the menu include tax and tip. There is really no reason to leave a tip.
- Learn the names for foods that you don’t like, so you can avoid them. Avoid rognons (kidneys). Also avoid Andouille / Andouillette, which are intestines, NOT the Cajun sausage you probably expect.
- Be sure to try snails (Escargots), and frog’s legs (Cuisses de Grenouilles)
- If you are from the US, you have a “Chip and signature” credit card, which is different from a “Chip and PIN” that French people have. The difference: After the waiter scans your credit card, instead of entering a PIN code, you sign a receipt.
- Instead of doing lunch at a restaurant, consider doing a picnic at a parks. But be sure to check: Some parks do not allow people to walk on the grass. For instance, at the Luxembourg Gardens, you can only picnic on a very small strip of grass that tends to get super crowded. Also, open containers of alcohol are generally not allowed in parks. The Rick Steves guidebook lists a few places that are picnic-friendly.
- At restaurants in Paris, it’s necessary to “order wisely”. If you wind up with a dish that you simply don’t like, it may be the case that you just want to get out of there ASAP, and do something else, or go to a different restaurant. here’s a tip: Keep a few Ziploc bags with you. If you get an offending dish, pull out a Ziploc bag, and shovel the remains into it, then store it away in your camera bag. The waiter will come by, see that it’s all gone, and you’ll be on your way sooner than later.
- Don’t ask for the check until you are completely done eating; to ask for the check before you are done eating is incomprehensible to the French.
- restaurants generally do not post their hours. You need to rely on Google Maps / Yelp.
- There are no children’s high-chairs in Paris, except maybe at McDonald’s.
- They spell it Expresso.
Apps to install
- Google Maps: Also, download the offline maps for Paris. I have added all the sites / museums / cafes to a customized Google maps page of Paris that is very handy.
- Chauffeur Privé. It’s the French version of Uber.
- Uber, as a backup, in case something happens to prevent you from using Chauffer Privé. For some reason, my credit cards stopped working with the app.
- Strava, in case you take a bike ride / hike and want to record your progress on a map.
- Three bike sharing apps: Ofo, Donkey Republic, and Mobike. As of Summer 2018, the Vélib’ bike sharing system was non-functional, but it should be back in operation. If you buy a monthly pass to Ofo or Mobike, be sure to cancel your subscription after you return, otherwise the charge will auto-renew.
- Speakeasy: great for learning basic French. You can practice your French during the 9 hour flight between San Francisco and Iceland.
- Google Translate: Also, download the offline French language file. Google Translate has a camera feature: you point the camera at French text, and it translates in real time. It does not work well for the cursive menus written on a restaurant blackboard.
- HotelTonight. The app provides you with hotels that have cheap available rooms the same day. The list of available rooms usually comes out around 3 PM. Use this app if you booked an AirBNB, and the host cancelled on you at the last minute.
- TheFork: It’s like OpenTable. You can use it to make reservations at some restaurants. This app is the English version: The native French version is called LaFourchette Restaurants
- Yelp To search for restaurant details.
Museums / sites:
- Rick Steve’s Audio tour app
- Louvre app
- Get the augmented reality app for Sainte-Chapelle church. The full version is $.99, and worth it.
- Pompidou Center
- Grand Palais museum app
- DuckTheLine: This app has one and only one use: Starting at exactly 7:30 AM each day, you can use it to reserve a timed ticket entry to the Notre Dame Cathedral tower tour. Otherwise, you have to show up at Notre-Dame and use the kiosk machines to generate a timed ticket. This app is the English version: The native French version is called JeFile
- The Audible app, so you can listen to audio books while on your flight.
Pickpockets / Thievery
You need to make yourself pickpocket-proof, which means you can’t keep anything in your pockets while you are in Paris. Use a money belt at all times.
- Avoid fanny packs; those are easy for pickpockets to grab. Also, fanny packs will make you look like a tourist.
- If you are on a subway, and you have any type of bag or luggage, you need to take precautions to make it difficult for a thief to grab. You need to keep hold of your bag at all times. If the thief grabs your bag, and runs out the subway door right before the door closes, you can’t run after him. If you have a camera bag, wear it like a sling across your body so it’s difficult to slip off. If you have luggage, put yourself between your luggage and the door of the subway. If your bag is sitting next to you on a seat, unprotected, a pickpocket may try to get your attention, to cause you to turn your head, while an accomplice swipes your bag.
- Pickpockets often create a commotion in a public place; while people are looking at the commotion, their friends grab bags that are unprotected.
- Anytime you are in a crowd that is elbow-to-elbow, that is where pickpockets lurk. Be careful when you are in a crowd watching a street performer, or in a very crowded confined space like a packed museum. Pickpockets frequent the Louvre and Versailles.
- Avoid the ring scam; someone may “find” a ring on the ground that has been lost, and offer to sell it to you.
- Avoid the bracelet scam: someone may tie a bracelet on your wrist, then demand payment.
- Avoid the bird poop scam: Someone may surreptitiously put bird poop on your shoulder, then point it out to you, and offer to clean if off. While you place your bag down on the ground to take off your coat, another person swipes your bag while you are not looking.
- Pickpockets will often go around asking people to sign petitions; they size you up as you are signing. Just say “no merci” to anyone who asks you to sign anything.
- At the airport, ignore anyone who walks up to you and offers to drive you into Paris. You’ll get ripped off. If you want to take a Taxi, always go to the official Taxi stand.
- By law, the Taxi fare from the airport to the Right Bank is always a flat fee of 50 Euros. From the airport to the Left bank, it’s a flat fee of 55 Euros. If it’s anything else, the Taxi driver is ripping you off.
- At a restaurant, if you put down your bag, wrap the shoulder strap around the table legs, and try to do it in a way such that you notice if someone tries to move it.
- As an obvious tourist, you will be targeted by pick-pockets, because you will be looking up all the time. You will also be targeted if you have kids who are distracting you, or if you are an older person who can’t keep track of multiple things at the same time.
All these precautions sound like a huge headache, but you will eventually do all this stuff naturally, without thinking, and it won’t be a big deal. However, I assume that actual Parisians also have to take all these precautions; I imagine it would add a bit of ongoing extra stress to live in a city where you have to take all these precautions all the time.
To bring with you
- SD cards are big enough that I didn’t need to offload photos to an SSD. Two 128 GB SD cards were sufficient.
- I went through a few camera batteries per day. Bring your camera battery plug-in charger.
- Lens cleaner / cloth. I constantly had to clean my iPhone and camera lens.
- A circular polarizer: you are going to be photographing water features, plus the water at Giverny and Versailles.
- You probably need a camera bag that provides easy quick access; a backpack doesn’t quite work. Get one that you can wear across your chest, so it can’t be slipped off by thieves. It’s wise to get one that’s waterproof.
- A waterproof bag to shield your camera when you are taking photos.
- A hood for your camera LCD screen. The full sunlight at the Versailles gardens was intense, and the text in the viewfinder is tiny.
- The lens hood that came with your lens. Outdoor summer sun can cause lens flares.
- Before you leave for Paris, check your camera sensor: take a photo of the sky, and look at it in Photoshop to see if there is dust on the sensor.
- Noise cancelling headphones for the flight.
- Bring a SIM card ejector with you; you will need it to swap out your SIM cards on your iPhone after you arrive in Paris, and after you return from Paris. A paper clip does not always work.
- You will be using your iPhone for everything, all day: for reading the Rick Steves guidebook, for Google Maps, for looking up restaurants, for calling an Uber, for renting a bike share, for translating menus, for using museum apps, calling for reservations, confirming guided tours, etc. Which means you’ll need to recharge your iPhone multiple times per day. Buy a small but powerful power pack that is powerful enough to also recharge an iPad.
- Adapters to convert US type prongs to Euro type prongs. These do not convert voltage; they only provide a way to connect. Verify that all your plug-in electronics works with 220 volts.
- A voltage converter, if you have something like a hair curler that only works with 110 volts. Your hair curler will melt down and trigger the fire alarm in your hotel if you plug it in without a voltage converter.
- Bring a fitbit: It’s fun to track how many miles you have walked, so that you can brag about it when you get back.
- If going with a bunch of tech-equipped people, you may want to bring a power strip. Your hotel room might have only one usable outlet.
- You might want to bring wired earbuds, to use with the audio guide devices provided by museums; if you are wearing a hat, the regular headphones that some museums provide are not compatible with brimmed hats.
- If you want to use the Rick Steves audio tour app, you should bring earbuds for that.
- lightning cables and micro-USB cables for all your stuff.
- Really good walking shoes. I think I walked > 5 miles per day. So, take the most comfortable shoes you own. Beyond that, if you wear shorts and sneakers, you will fit in better if you have low-rise socks (or no socks seemed to be a tend), and sneakers that look more like Vans.
- A hat. Parisians never wear hats, so you will look like a tourist. But you probably need a hat to avoid massive sunburn. If you visit during summer, make sure it’s very breathable. Wear a fedora, not a baseball cap, otherwise you will be super-tourist.
- An umbrella and a windbreaker, and maybe a fleece; the weather in Paris can be really bad. The wind can be intense on a boat cruise of the Seine, or at the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower, or at the top of Notre Dame Cathedral.
- I found hiking pants to be amazingly useful. They are as light as wearing shorts, but still can pass for being formal. They breath very well, and don’t need to be washed as often.
- It can be really fun to bring formal attire, and go to a super-formal restaurant/bar, like the Hemingway bar at the Ritz Hotel, or the Les Ambassadeurs bar at the Hôtel de Crillon. You will pay 25 Euros for drinks, but the experience is worth it.
- The Rick Steves Guidebook, on Kindle.
- The safe at my hotel was quite large in terms of length x width, so I could have brought my laptop and kept it there. If you don’t want to risk bringing a laptop, bring a cheap Chromebook.
- launderettes don’t sell it.
- Sudafed and Nyquil: Paris is really germy. It has a million tourists from all over the world who bring germs with them. You will be touching subway poles, door handles, stair railings, dirty money, ATM machine buttons, etc, and you can get sick. It’s a huge pain to find powerful cold medication in Paris.
- If you want to bring back wine, then bring styrofoam wine shipping containers.
Stuff to keep with you during the day
- Floss, allergy pills, a nail file, etc. You may not want to go back to your hotel until the end of the day.
- Keep a hardcopy map of the Metro in your pocket at all times.
- A money belt, so that you can be pickpocket-proof. Or, you can get a wallet necklace.
- A durable water bottle that you will often refill during the day.
- Get this rub-on sunscreen
- An iDevice mount for a bicycle, in case you rent a bike. You’ll want to look at Google Maps on your iPhone while you are riding.
To do before leaving for Paris:
- The only reason you would need to get Euros before you leave for Paris is if you intend to take a Taxi from the airport to your hotel. Some taxis do not take credit cards, and the ATM machines at the airport are often out of money. You can get Euros at your local bank branch, but they may need a week to order the bank notes.
- A Ziploc bag of Laundry detergent powder, if you are going to do laundry. Some
- It is not possible to dial toll free US phone numbers from France. So make a note of the important non-toll-free numbers of your credit card companies, insurance companies, etc.
- Bring a 25mm x 30mm photo of yourself. You will use this photo if you buy a Navigo Découverte Metro card.
- Make photocopies of your passport.
- Verify that your passport is still valid for at least 6 months after your trip, otherwise France might not let you into the country.
- You will be walking > 5 miles per day. Do a lot of walking / treadmill for a few weeks before your vacation, otherwise you’ll develop shin splints, cramps, etc.
- It might be a good idea to pay off your credit card balance before leaving. You’ve probably just purchased airline tickets, a hotel stay, tours, and travel gadgets, so your credit card might almost be maxed out. You don’t want to hit your max while traveling.
ATM card issues
- Your ATM cards and credit cards must have a chip to work in France. If they only have a magnetic stripe, call your bank, and ask to upgrade.
- You must change your ATM card PIN to be exactly 4 digits, otherwise it won’t work in any ATM in Paris.
- The only way to avoid getting ripped off by ATM fees and currency conversion rates is to open a Charles Schwab brokerage account, then add an ATM card to it, and use the ATM card, which provides the best deal on foreign ATM transactions.
- If you have a Bank of America ATM card, you can use it at the Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP Paribas) ATMs, and you don’t get charged the $7 ATM transaction fee. But you still get ripped off on the exchange rate.
- Access your credit and ATM card accounts online, and inform the system that you will be traveling to France; otherwise, your cards will get suspended the instant you try to use them in Paris.
- At ATMs in France, be aware that if you enter a bad ATM PIN three times in a row, the ATM machine will eat your ATM card and not return it. You might want to use the ATM machine while the bank is open, so that if there is a problem, you can ask them to retrieve your card.
This is the short list of the more interesting places I visited in Paris. See photos of all these on my Paris photo album: https://scottfirestone.smugmug.com/Paris
Sites / Museums
- Rodin Museum: get the audio guide.
- The stained glass at Sainte-Chapelle church. Get the augmented reality app.
- Grand Mosque: Both the Mosque and the café.
- Montmartre neighborhood, with its hilly terrain and medieval, narrow, winding streets.
- Palais Garnier opera house.
- Notre Dame Cathedral and tower.
- Walking or biking along the river walk banks of the Seine.
- Bird market Sundays at Ile de la Cité.
- Versailles, especially the Hamlet and the Serenades.
Food / Drink
- Snails at Flo Brasserie.
- Duck Confit at Café de l’Industrie.
- Croque Madame at Le Central.
- Jazz Clubs: Duc Des Lombards, Le Caveau de la Huchette and 38Riv.
- Savory Buckwheat crepes (Galettes) at Creperie Broceliande in the Montmartre.
- Croissants at Tout Autour du Pain boulangerie in the Marais.
- Gelato at Il Gelato del Marchese.
- Drinking cider with crepes.
- Cocktails at mixology bars.
- Retro Tour of Paris in a motorcycle sidecar
- Catacombs VIP tour
- Food tour of the Montmartre
Wandering in Paris
- Before you go to Paris, you should check whether or not there are strikes planned. Striked can affect the major trains to/from the airport, Versailles, or Giverny. Also, workers at museums like Versailles or the Catacombs have been known to go on strike, shutting down those sites. One of the benefits of doing a guided tour is that the tour company deals with those strike issues for you.
- Paris is super crowded with tourists, at all times during the year. Which is why it’s important to plan your trip to avoid the crowds. The strategy: 1) Arrive at some places early, just before they open, to avoid the crowds, or very late, before they close; 2) Book private VIP guided tours; those tours get to use special entrances that allow you to skip the very long lines at some sites.
- It’s considered rude to eat something while walking down the street. At a minimum, find a park bench, where you can sit down while eating.
- In Google Maps, you can enable a tracking mode, to keep a record of the routes that you have taken while using Google Maps. This feature can be handy, to provide a record of where you went.
- You can use the Strava app to track your walking or biking route.
- Whenever you enter a church, you must take off your hat, and be really quiet. At some churches, they had a “shusher”, whose job was to shush everyone every few minutes. Technically, you are not supposed to wear shorts or have bare shoulders in a church, but I saw lots of people tromp through churches in shorts.
- Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) is everywhere; Take a photo of every Joan of Arc reference that you see, and make a Joan of Arc photo album. It’s like a drinking game.
- To get around, use Google maps. It tells you the most efficient way to get from point A to point B, via either walking, bike, Le Metro, or Uber. For Le Metro, it tells you which Metro stop to walk to, what line to take, and in what direction, shows you the stops along the way, and tells you what exit to take when you reach the destination stop. There are some limitations: In bike mode, it is not always able to provide a route that uses bike lanes all the time. In one case, Google maps had my bike route go up a flight of stairs. Google Maps also doesn’t know about certain subway closures. Also, sometimes Google maps does not provide the correct location of a Metro stop, which is infuriating.
- Use the Rick Steves guidebook, on Kindle. It’s very time-efficient. If only 5% of a museum is worth seeing, that is what the guidebook covers. His neighborhood walking tours are great. But his guidebook is very limited when it comes to restaurant recommendations and guided tour recommendations.
- Use TripAdvisor to more info on Paris, and what to see. You can also get very recent information, like if there is a strike that shuts down museums.
- Keep your passport locked in the hotel safe at all times: there is no reason to keep it with you while walking around Paris. You only need to keep a photocopy of your passport with you.
- When paying for something with a credit card, the credit card device menu may ask you if you want to pay in dollars or Euros. Always pay in Euros; if you pay in dollars, the credit card machine company will charge you extra fees.
- Avoid taking an Uber from the airport into Paris: It is just as expensive as a Taxi, but unlike Taxis, the Uber drivers are not allowed to use the bus lanes.
- Avoid taxis in general. They are super expensive. If you want to catch a ride instead of taking Le Metro, use Chauffeur Privé or Uber.
- Remember to tip porters who schlep your luggage, and tour guides. But unlike in the US, it’s not necessary to leave a tip at restaurants, or for the hotel maid, or for the taxi.
- A lot of shopkeepers hate the larger 20 and 50 Euro notes, and some places do not accept 50 Euro notes, even if you pay for something that is more than 50 Euros. I found that ATM machines only provide smaller bills if you get 100 Euros or less.
- It does rain in Paris, and it can be torrential. You need to have contingency plans for rainy days: do indoor museums, jazz clubs, restaurants, and performances.
- Bring a small bottle of hand sanitizer, especially if you do a lot of snacking on the go.
Paris Museum Pass
The PMP is worth it if you plan to visit several museums in a few days. The benefits:
- It covers maybe 85% of the museums in Paris, so it can save you money if you visit a lot of them.
- There is also the convenience factor: In some cases, it can allow you to skip the line to buy tickets.
- You no longer have to worry about maximizing the amount of time you spend to get your money’s worth; you can drop in to a museum an hour before it closes, and do a quick 30 minutes, and not worry about paying “full price” for the brief visit. You can go back to the same museum multiple times, and it costs nothing extra. You could pop into the Orsay museum, just to check out the terrace view of the Seine, and then leave.
- You still have to wait in line to go through security. The security screening line can either be before the ticket buying line (Sainte-Chapelle), or after the ticket buying line (The Louvre).
- The PMP generally does not cover the cost of audio guides. If you want to buy an audio guide, you may still have to wait in the ticket line. Some museums have great audio guides; If the Rick Steves guidebook says it’s good, then get it. The best audio guide I encountered was the one at the Rodin Museum.
- The process to use the PMP is totally different for each museum; for some museums, you flash your pass and walk in. At others, they need to scan the bar code; at others, you need to go to a special ticket counter, show the pass, and get a ticket to get in.
- Even if a museum accepts the PMP, you may still have to buy tickets for special exhibitions, or for special features, like the extra fee to climb to the top of the dome at the Pantheon.
You can buy the PMP in 2, 4, or 6 day versions. When you are ready to first use it, you write the date of the first day you are using it, and your name. The pass then expires after the set number of days.
Here are the guided tours I booked:
- Taste of the Marais walking food tour, from Paris by Mouth
- Taste of Saint Germain walking food tour, from Paris by Mouth
- Montmartre food tour, from Original Food Tours
- Giverny van tour, from BlueFox.
- Seine Cruise, from Canauxrama
- Catacombs VIP tour, from City Wonders
- Retro sidecar tour
- Eiffel Tour evening VIP tour from Fat Tire
- Evening Charms/Secrets E-bike tour
- Vaux-le-Vicomte and Fontainebleau Chateau day tour, from BlueFox
Some issues with guided tours:
- Some of these are not pleasant if it’s raining. A lot of tour companies allow you to cancel, with a full refund, if you cancel within 72 hours of the tour. During your stay at Paris, you might want to keep tabs on the weather report: If it shows torrential rains will happen during a tour that is more than 72 hours away, you might want to cancel and re-schedule.
- It’s kind of a bummer to have to be at a certain place, at a certain time: It tends to blow a very large hole in your day.
- There is an added benefit to having a tour guide who is a native Parisian. About half of my tour guides were Americans who spoke fluent French, but it’s not the same as the real thing.
Hotels in Paris
- For some hotels, you must leave the key with the front desk every time you leave. When you come back, they recognize you can hand you the key. It works.
- One upside of using AirBNB instead of a hotel: you generally know exactly what your room is going to be like. In contrast, at a hotel, you might arrive to find your room is next to a noisy dance club.
- A downside of AirBNB: It is possible for host to cancel your reservation at the last minute, in which case, you are totally out of luck. In Paris, it is really difficult to find a hotel room at the last minute.
- Most hotels offer breakfast in the morning, for an added fee. Skip that; instead, you can walk down the street and get world-class croissants.
- For some hotels, and most AirBNB rentals: If there is no mention of a toilet, and no photo of a toilet, assume that you must share a toilet down the hall.
- It’s beneficial to get a hotel near a Metro stop that services multiple Metro lines.
Le Metro subway
If you are using paper Metro tickets, be sure to keep them until you fully exit your destination; that is because ticket inspectors at the exits may ask to see your ticket, and if you don’t have it, you must pay a very expensive fine on the spot.
You can buy individual one-time-use Metro tickets. You can also buy a carnet (10-pack) of Metro tickets at a reduced price.
It is really convenient to buy a Pass Navigo Découverte. This is an RFID card that allows you to go anywhere on the subway, bus, train, or funicular, including to the far reaches of Paris (like Charles de Gaulle airport). The only thing it doesn’t cover is Le Bus Direct, a bus that goes to the airport. The pass must be activated one week at a time: it is valid from Midnight Sunday to Midnight the next Sunday. If you activate it half way through the week, it’s only good until midnight Sunday, in which case it’s not as good of a deal. As soon as Thursday night of the current week, you can top off the card with a credit for the next week. When you first buy it, you pay extra for the RFID card, and you must supply a photo of yourself, of size 25mm x 30mm. There are photo booths at the Metro stations that can produce the necessary photos.
An alternative is to get an all-day Metro pass called the Paris Visite
Le Metro shuts down around 1 AM. In Paris, it’s really easy to stay out late; during the summer, sunset doesn’t arrive until very late, like 10 PM! And Parisians do everything later; everything is open until 2 AM. After Le Metro shuts down, use Chauffeur Privé.
In case you need to use a Taxi, be sure to always have a piece of paper with the exact address of your hotel (including zip code) that you can show to the taxi driver. Taxi drivers never speak English.
France runs on 220 volts. Most of your electronics probably works with that voltage, but you need an adapter to allow your electronics to plug into the wall. Some items, like hair curler and blow dryers, will not work with 220 volts and need a special voltage converter.
Paris phone numbers look like this, for example: +33 (0)1 78 45 29 43. You dial this number in two very different ways, depending on whether you are dialing from outside France or inside France:
- If you have a French SIM card in your phone, and you are making a local call: You omit the +33 country code, but you keep the leading 0: 01 78 45 29 43
- If you are calling France from a US-based phone: Use the country code, but you drop the leading 0 from the phone number: +33 1 78 45 29 43. In this case, on your phone, be sure to enter the + sign, which tells the phone that the next digits are the country code. Instead of entering the + sign, you can enter the “exit code” (which is different depending on which country your carrier is in), but it’s more convenient just to use +.
Calling a Paris phone number from the us:
Drop the leading zero of the French phone number.
011 (US exit code, or +), 33 (Code for France), (9-digit number)
Calling a Paris phone number from a Paris mobile phone:
Dial all 10 digits, and keep the leading 0. The first two digits are the France “area code”.
Calling the US from a Paris phone:
00 (France exit code, or +), 1 (US country code), (US phone number)
Calling the US, collect from France: First call the AT&T toll-free number from France:
0800 99 00 11, then use the AT&T operator assistance to dial collect.
France’s toll-free numbers start with 0800-0805 and are called numéro vert (green number).
Here are some tips on the day trips I took outside of Paris:
- Day trip to Monet’s House in Giverny (pronounced jhivernee): I recommend a guided van tour that leaves from Paris, because taking public transportation is a pain. Also, it’s essential to be able to skip the long line to buy tickets. You also need a good tour guide who knows how to time things well to get good photos without tourists in the picture. On the other hand, if you do public transportation instead, you can take your time, and have lunch at one of the restaurants in the village.
- Versailles: On the Versailles web site, book a guided tour of the Chateau in advance, at the earliest time slot of the day. That will allow you to skip the very long line to get in. You might consider going on a day when the fountains are running, but be aware that the fountains only run during two brief windows of time. In the gardens, consider renting a bicycle, to see more fountains during those time slots. I also recommend the Serenades in the evening, offered on some days; it’s a costumed dance in the Hall of Mirrors. You get to go into the Chateau with a small group, after the crowds have been kicked out. To really see all of Versailles, you probably need to visit for 2 days. The PMP covers the entrance into the Chateau, but not the Serenades, or the garden when the fountains are running. During the summer, the train workers sometime stage strikes that affect the RER C train into Versailles. In that case, instead of a train running once every 15 minutes, trains will run more like once every hour, and may be randomly cancelled at the last minute. You may want to consider going another day, or getting up really early. If you arrive in Versailles super early, you can always do breakfast there. One issue with Versailles: At around 5:30 PM, they kick everyone out of the gardens. What this means: If you are on the other side of the gardens (near Marie Antoinette’s apartments), then in order to get back to the Chateau, you can’t go through the gardens; instead, you must walk around the entire estate: It’s about 1.4 miles, and takes a half hour.
- If you do a day trip to Vaux-le-Vicomte and Fontainebleau, you will probably have lunch just outside Fontainebleau, in which case, you should do some research to find out which restaurants are good.
Tips on sights
Several sites are worth returning to at night, when they are lit up by floodlights:
- Eiffel Tower
- Notre Dame
- Invalides dome
- Pont Alexander III bridge
Sainte-Chapelle Church: Arrive as early as possible to avoid the very long line to get through security.
The Seine river walk is really pleasant for either walking or biking, and some of the best views of Paris are from the walk. And yes, it looks just like it does in Ratatouille. There are also cafes that serve beer / drinks. Part of the walk has heavy cobblestones, which is unpleasant for bike riding.
Eiffel Tower: Do an evening guided tour (around 2 hours before sunset) that allows you to skip the line. The evening has the best views. You only need to go up to the second floor to get a good view.
Be sure to see the sparkling light display at the Eiffel tower: It happens after dark, at the top of the hour, for 5 minutes. During the height of summer, when days are long, the first display is very late, at 11 PM.
Notre Dame Cathedral: At exactly 7:30 AM, use the DuckTheLine app to reserve a timed tower tour ticket for that day. The timed tickets are available for slots starting at 10 AM. The alternative is to show up in person, and use the machines to get a timed ticket.
Catacombs tour: Definitely purchase a VIP guided tour that provides access to areas that are normally off-limits to normal ticket holders; those areas are really interesting. Also, skipping the line at the catacombs is a major benefit.
The Ontology of Art
What’s the difference between seeing artwork in-person, as opposed to seeing it on Wikipedia? In some cases, the Wikipedia version is better. At the big-time museums, like the Orsay, or the Orangerie, maybe 1/3 of the paintings had glass covering the canvas, presumably to protect against sneezing tourists. When glass is covering the canvas, you see the reflection of tourists over the artwork, in which case, Wikipedia is better. At the Louvre, there was another problem: bad lighting. The galleries are lit from diffuse skylights from above. It’s not enough light to see the artwork clearly. And what light there is comes down at an angle that maximizes the glare; Wikipedia is better than the Louvre. On the other hand, seeing Van Gogh’s Nuit étoilée sur le Rhône (Starry Night Over the Rhône) in person, with no glass covering the canvass, under good light, at the Orsay, was stunning:
You can burn out on museums; each museum is mentally exhausting. I could do maybe two serious museums per day, plus maybe a fluff museum, like the perfume museum. Unless you are really into museums, you might want to skip a few. I recommend skipping two museums: The Pompidou (modern art) and the Picasso Museum, which tends to focus more on history than artwork.
Movies to watch beforehand
- Amelie: This movie has a bunch of shots in the Montmartre area.
- Man in the Iron Mask. Leonardo makes a good Louis XIV.
- Midnight in Paris
- Hugo. The plot is thin, but everything else looks very Parisian.
- Da Vinci Code
- Les Misérables.
- Paris, je t’aime. It consists of 18 short vignettes of Paris. There is very little plot, but the scenery is great.
Books to read beforehand
- Paris to the Moon. Great read about how the French are different.
- French or Foe, Very entertaining explanation of why the French are so … French.
- L’Appart. (Get the audio book). How not to renovate your apartment in Paris, and an illustration of how the French can be cantankerous, especially French contractors.
- The Sweet Life in Paris, How to navigate interactions with the French.
Stuff I plan to do next time
- Day trip to the Champagne region
- Day trip to the Loire Valley
- Day trip to the Normandy beaches
- Electric Scooter tour, because why not.
- Off-the-beaten-path bike ride by Fat Tire. I was getting burned out on museums. I need something off the beaten path.
- Maybe another food tour that specializes in something like chocolates, or wine.
- Some kind of behind-the-scenes tour that tourists don’t know about.
Food / drink / nightlife
- Crepes at places around Montparnasse tower, which supposedly have the best Breton-style crepes.
- Butter ham sandwich at Chez Aline
- New Morning Jazz Club
- Atelier Charonne Jazz club: It tends to host gypsy Jazz bands.
- More cocktail bars and speakeasies.
- I’ll bring an actual Hawaiian shirt for Dirty Dick’s cocktail bar.
- I’ll go to a super-formal bar, like the Hemingway bar at the Ritz.
Museums / sites
- Climb to the top of the dome at the Pantheon
- Cluny museum of Medieval art, when it re-opens.
- Carnavalet Museum, when it re-opens.
- Other museums I mised, like the Marmottan, Musée de la musique, Musée Jacquemart-André, Petit palais, Wine museum
- Père Lachaise Cemetery
- Château de Vincennes, a small castle at the end of Metro line #1.
- Trocadero at night
- Versailles: I’ll go on a day when the fountains are turned on, and skip the Chateau, and just focus on seeing the fountains.
- If I try to learn French, then next time I’ll stop by the Polyglot club, where native French speakers and native English speakers get to practice speaking to each other.
- Visit more covered passages.
- I want to spend more time just walking around parks, like the Champ de Mars (south of the Eiffel Tower), or the Tuileries Jardin, or the Luxembourg Gardens.