With summer right around the corner, and wedding season in full effect, I can usually count on getting several messages this time of year from friends and family who are considering a trip or honeymoon to Paris. After all, the smartest thing you can do before a vacation is make sure you’re as prepared as possible.
Most sites will give generic advice like, “don’t dress like a tourist”, or “bring enough cash”. Helpful, yes. But it’s nothing you haven’t heard before. As such, here are 10 things I wish I would have known on my first few trips to Paris.
1. August is equally the best and worst time to go to Paris.
Thanks to the generous French vacation policies, most people get an estimated 5 weeks paid vacation a year. Parisians alike use this vacation time at the end of summer, pouring out of Paris, leaving the city relatively empty for the month of August. While this certainly has its’ benefits (the city is less crowded), it can prove tricky to navigate. One of the cons of traveling to Paris during vacation month is that it’s not uncommon for stores or restaurants to completely lock up for the month. Need to make an appointment? Good luck. Once, I tried to make an appointment with a government official in July, and I was told the man I needed to get in contact with would not be available until he returned from vacation. In September.
2. It is not enough to just carry cash.
They say that cash is king, but as we all know, the French got rid of their kings a long time ago. Today, Euro coins are the way to go. Any vending machine you will need to access (whether it be for a quick coffee, metro tickets, or vending machine) will only accept coins up to €10. Therefore, having paper money proves relatively useless unless you are going somewhere with a cash register.
Bonus tip: When paying at a cash register, use paper money as much as you can. Then, when they give you change back in coin format, save them for future use at ticket or vending machines.
3. The reality of pickpockets and scams.
Just like any other large city, pickpockets do exist, but there are ways that you can lessen the chance of falling victim. I always encourage friends and family to wear the Parisian uniform- neutral colors like black, navy, white, or gray to help you stand out less as a tourist. Also, be aware of the different types of pickpockets and scams that are frequent in Paris. There are the more obvious schemes involving children, or there are less obvious ones that involve signing petitions.
4. Speaking of scams…
Do not buy French memorabilia from the men on the streets who have trinkets for sale. You will find these men lining the streets near monuments like the Eiffel Tower or Sacre Coeur, with their figurines placed on bedsheets on the ground. There is a good reason why their items are displayed on sheets; it’s because what they are doing is illegal and as soon a police officer approaches, these men grab the corners of the sheets, pick up their things, and take off. I have personally witnessed dozens of these men pack up and run away from the police. What they do is illegal, and in purchasing from them, it perpetuates the problem.
Bonus tip: A safer, more legitimate option for Paris memorabilia is any of the newspaper stands. They line the streets selling newspapers, postcards, magnets, Eiffel Tower statues and all legally.
5. Not all metro lines are created equal.
This may go without saying, but those lines in the center of Paris (like the 1, etc.), are much nicer than their counterparts that run on the outside of the city. Don’t let the appearance dissuade you.
Bonus tip: Check out the art work in the metro stations. Many have art/decor pertaining to the stop. For example, the station at the Louvre has statues lining the inside of the hall while the Bastille station has paintings depicting the French Revolution!
6. You don’t have to speak French to enjoy Paris, but it certainly helps.
Fortunately, as one of the top tourists destinations, Paris is really quite friendly to non-French speakers. Most of the main sites and attractions have all vital information in English, and some places like Versailles that have audio tours offer English headsets as well.
Bonus tip: Most big companies, restaurants, hotels, and sites in Paris have an English version of their website. If you are not automatically redirected, check the top right hand corner of the page where the language options are usually placed.
7. Be prepared for terrible cell phone service, and plan accordingly.
Regardless of your cell phone plan, cell phone reception can be spotty in Paris. I have been there with several different carriers, and every single time I struggle. I suggest keeping notes in your phone of all important addresses and phone numbers. That way, in the event you’re unable to connect to the internet, you’re not left stranded unable to access the address of where you’re trying to get to.
Bonus tip: Download RATP, the app for Paris’ metro system. It allows you to plug-in your current location, your destination, and it gives you the best way to get there via the metro. Then, screenshot these directions so you have them regardless of your internet connection. I did this my last time in Paris and it was a lifesaver!
8. Pick your arrondissement according to your travel goals.
Paris is made up of arrondissements, or neighborhoods, and they all vary in price point for lodging and what they have to offer. Obviously hotels near the Eiffel Tower will be more expensive than on the outskirts of the city, and you get the idea.
Whenever I give advice to people on where to stay, I always recommend them to think about their goal of the vacation.
Perhaps your main objective is to see all the main sites. Or perhaps your main goal is to not spend too much money on hotels while in Paris. Or, maybe the only thing you want is to have a terraced view of the Eiffel Tower to wake up to every day. Regardless of your primary objective, it’s important to figure out what your “goal” is, because this will dictate where you stay.
Bonus tip: Regardless of which arrondissement you stay in, try to book your stay near a grocery store like Franprix. Being close to one will make your stay in Paris more convenient for last minute dashes for wine!
9. Keep your receipts.
As in many big cities, Paris only allows patrons to use their bathrooms. In order to enforce this, they print the code to the bathroom on your receipt. After your purchase, you can find your code at the top or bottom of the receipt, and then key in that specific code to use the rest-room.
Bonus tip: Many places will have their wi-fi code printed on the receipt as well!
10. A word on fast food restaurants
Be prepared that McDonald’s in France does not taste the same as McDonald’s in America. I can only speak to “Le MacDo”, since that is the only fast food I have had in France, but just know going into it that it will taste different because they use different products for the same item. For example, perhaps unsurprisingly, they don’t use American cheese!
I hope you enjoyed these tips, and I would love to hear from you! If you have been to Paris, what’s one thing you wish you would have known prior to your trip?