If you’re planning a trip to Paris for the first time, you’re probably thrilled, slightly overwhelmed, and maybe even a bit baffled as to where to begin. This travel guide is for you. My husband and I recently got back from a 12 day stay there and I’m sharing all.
When to Go
My husband and I were in Paris during the last two weeks of May to celebrate our anniversary, so we didn’t have much flexibility regarding our travel dates. That being said, the timing turned out to be very fortuitous. Temperatures ranged from upper 50’s to lower 70’s, staying mostly in the mid-60’s. It only rained maybe three out of the 12 days we were there, and since the weather was a bit cooler, it was perfect for doing lots of sightseeing and walking (a lot!) around the city. Local Parisians told us that warmer summer temperatures last from June through September.
Where to Stay
We stayed at a small boutique hotel in the 17th arrondissement that was a two-minute walk from two different Metro stops. Its location worked really well for us: it was about a 10-miute walk from Gare Saint-Lazare (one of the six largest railway stations in Paris); a 20-minute walk from Galleries de Lafayette and Printemps department stores; and 30-minute walk from Sacré-Coeur Basilica.
The main two things to keep in mind when choosing where to stay are transportation (my husband and I are subway people, so for us this translates to proximity to Metro stops), and safety. Here’s a map of the Paris Metro for reference, or you could check your hotel’s website because they typically give information on how far they are from public transportation.
As far as areas to avoid, there was never any place that we really felt unsafe or like we were in any danger. That being said, I want to mention:
- The red-light district is located in an area called Pigalle; Moulin Rouge is in this area, along with a number of other adult shows and shops. Take caution because if you’re walking through this area at night, odds are that the ladies will try to beckon you into their lair. Also, the concierge at our hotel told us that this area is known for nighttime muggings.
- There is a wonderful flea market called Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen (which is commonly referred to as Marché Clignancourt) that is, quite unfortunately, renowned for its pickpockets. Someone actually tried to pickpocket Mike at the Porte de Clignancourt Metro stop; luckily, Mike felt the pickpocket’s hand reach into the front pocket of his shorts. On reflex (or so he says, lol), Mike turned around and landed a shot right in the guy’s nose! The guy cursed at Mike in French and scurried off as quickly as he could. (Note: I do not condone punching or violence of any kind, or pickpocketing, for that matter; if someone attempts to pickpocket or mug you, report it to the authorities.)
Like a lot of major cities, pickpocketing is pretty rampant in Paris; there are warnings to beware of them all over the place on the Metro and at touristy areas. Here are a few (common sense) tips to help prevent pickpocketing and mugging:
- Don’t carry a lot of cash.
- Leave your best jewelry at home.
- Keep any essential personal items you need in a small purse that you can wear diagonally across your torso.
- Avoid keeping anything valuable in your pockets.
- Remember to put your wallet away right after you pay for something.
- Be mindful of how close other people are standing to you.
You can read more Paris safety tips from Paris-dweller David Lebovitz here.
Like any big city, you have several options: the Metro, taxis, and your own two feet. Although they’re great in a pinch, taxis can get pricey, especially if you’re headed several different places in the same day (we took a taxi probably three times total while in Paris and for some odd reason no matter where we were going it cost about 10€).
We became very familiar with the Paris Metro on our trip; it’s very easy to navigate and very cost-effective. However, we also walked approximately seven to ten miles per day, as calculated by a pedometer. (Paris is a big city and walking is inevitable…just wear comfortable shoes! And bonus, walking is a great way to burn off all those croissants you know you’ll be eating.) Our general rule was if we were going to a place that was four or fewer Metro stops away, we went on foot, otherwise, we used the Metro.
A word of warning, there are sometimes random Metro ticket checks as you’re exiting the Metro. What this means for you, is do not throw away the Metro ticket you used to get on the Metro until after you’ve excited the Metro! Mike and I made the mistake of throwing away our used Metro tickets before we exited, and lo and behold, a lady asked to see our tickets as we were exiting (we were on our way to see the Eiffel Tower). We tried explaining to her that we had no idea we needed to keep the used Metro tickets until after we exited (no one tells you this!), but she fined us anyway. We had a stack of unused Metro tickets (so she could clearly see we weren’t trying to evade paying for Metro use), so our fine was reduced to 33€ per person down from 50€ per person. She told us our only other alternative to paying the 33€ per person fine was to let her call the police and then we could pay a 180€ per person fine. Lesson learned.
You can check out ticket prices for the Paris Metro here.
Now, what I’m about to tell you will probably come as quite a surprise; if you’re American you’ve probably heard how French food is the next best thing since sliced bread since you took your first bite of solid food. I’m just going to come out and say it…food at most brasseries in Paris is overrated.
Before you barrage me, let me quantify that statement…
The crêpes, bread, pastries (especially the croissants!), cheese, fondue, and farmers’ market fresh produce are to die for. Literally. The coffee was good just about everywhere and so was the tea. Mike and I don’t drink alcohol so we can’t comment on that, but no one we talked to seemed to have complaints about it, especially the wine. The problem arose when we wanted an actual sit-down meal, like lunch or dinner. You’re thinking, Just hit up a restaurant – any restaurant – they’re all good, it’s Paris, right?! Guess again.
Most of the restaurants we encountered in Paris (you know, the standard adorably charming brasseries with the little round tables and chairs on the sidewalk outside the restaurant) offer mediocre-quality food at rates that average about 55€ for two people per meal. The menu items are just about the same at all of these places (think classics like Steak Frites, Duck Confit, Boeuf Bourguignon, Roast Chicken, etc.). It wasn’t that we couldn’t find a dish we liked (because we could every single time); rather, it’s that the food itself just wasn’t anything special and in some cases, it was downright not good.
The thickest nougat I’ve ever seen…and you can find it all over in Paris! I regret not trying it, but that’s what I get for trying to be good, lol.
At one point, Mike ordered what was called a steak on a menu, but was actually a ground meat patty (aka, a burger). Thinking there was a mistake, Mike asked the waitress and she replied, “No, you ordered the steak.” Of course the only rational response to that would have been yeah, that’s my point…and this is, in fact, a hamburger, but being the polite people we are, Mike just ate two bites (which was all he could get down; it was a flavorless, tough, and dry burger) and then we paid the bill and left. I will say this: if all else failed I could always order a mixed salad along with an onion soup from one of these places and be relatively satisfied, if somewhat disappointed that I had to resort to that (again). And Mike made sure to order frites (what we know as “French fries”) as his side for every meal because they were fabulous just about everywhere.
Here is Mike’s Infamous Hamburger “Steak” in Paris
We did have a favorite place to go for mealtime though; Saint-Michel in the Latin Quarter did not disappoint. In this area, the doner kebab was good and the crêpes were fabulous. Also, if you’re in the mood for fondue, this area has a plethora of good-quality fondue places that are much more reasonably priced than many other areas.
The best advice I can give you on eating in Paris? At the end of our trip, Mike and I realized that we would have been better off splurging on a few really high-end meals and the majority of the time just eating street food along bread from local boulangeries, cheese from local fromageries, and prepackaged salads from Marché Franprix or Carrefour.
If you’re planning on doing a lot of sightseeing, you should take a look at The Paris Pass because you can potentially save money and time. Of course where you want to go will vary based on your own interests, but here are a few places we didn’t want to miss (in random order):
Standing at the base of the Eiffel Tower and looking up will take your breath away. You can purchase tickets to go to the second floor or to the top where there is a champagne bar. My favorite was seeing the tower lit up at night; also, it sparkles for the first five minutes of every hour after sunset until 1 or 2AM.
Arc de Triomphe
Built between 1806 and 1836, this breathtaking arch honors those who fought for France, particularly in the Napoleonic Wars. Standing in the center of the arch with the wind blowing through as you look down the Champs-Élysées is an incredible feeling. Take note, you cannot cross the traffic circle to get to the arch. There is an underground tunnel on the Avenue de la Grande Armee side of the circle. You can access this tunnel from the Wagram exit of the Metro. You can purchase tickets to access the top of the arch.
Before you even get inside, the glass pyramid is a work of art in itself (at night too!). Of course you won’t want to miss the “Mona Lisa”, which is completely enthralling, but if you have an afternoon free I highly recommend meandering around – you won’t be disappointed! The “Winged Victory of Samothrace” is incredible, as is “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss”, “Liberty Leading the People”, and the jewelry collection.
The Winged Victory of Samothrace
I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of being at Notre Dame. It is beautiful beyond words and when the bell tolls, it almost feels like being transported back in time.
The Tower of Notre Dame
You can purchase a ticket to walk up the 387 steps (there is no elevator) to the top of the South Tower. There you’ll get to experience a breathtaking view of Paris and a close up look at the roof, the spire, and the cathedral’s largest bell, the Emmanuel Bell. The entrance to visit the tower is located outside the cathedral on the left-hand side of the façade on Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame. The line can get pretty long; I’ve heard the best time to go is early in the morning or later in the afternoon, just note that the last admission is 45 minutes before the cathedral closes.
The Crypt of Notre Dame
You can get a ticket to go down to the crypt under the cathedral’s Parvis, which have been excavated to reveal the ruins of Paris. The entrance to visit the crypts is located outside, opposite the cathedral’s façade, across from the Police Headquarters. I’ll be honest about this; we expected it to be super cool (come on, it’s a crypt), but in actuality it was a bit boring. If you’re short on time and have to cut something, personally, I’d skip this.
As much as I enjoyed Notre Dame, I enjoyed Sacré-Coeur even more so. It stands on top of a hill and is truly magnificent; plus, when you climb up the hill you can look down for the most breathtaking view of Paris, especially at sunset. I also thoroughly enjoy meandering around Montmartre in the area where Sacré-Coeur is located. It’s really charming with cobblestone streets and lots of shops and restaurants.
Expect the ride from Paris to Versailles to take about an hour between the train and the short walk (or bus) from the train station to Versailles, but it is well worth the travel time. The grandeur and opulence of Versailles is nothing that can be put into words…really, just go and see it. The Hall of Mirrors is something to marvel at, and so are the King and Queen’s chambers. And the gardens are like something from a fairy tale.
King Louis XIV’s Bedchamber at Versailles (above)
Marie Antoinette’s Bedchamber at Versailles (above)
This is an avenue with lots of luxury shopping, restaurants, and theaters, which to me is sort-of like Times Square meets 5th Avenue in New York City. Arc de Triomphe is located on the Champs-Élysées, so if you go to see that, definitely take a walk down the avenue. Also, if you’re a fan of macarons, there’s a Ladurée located there. One other thing that bears noting: the McDonald’s on Champs-Élysées sells macarons too.
Ahhh, shopping in Paris. The stuff every girl’s dreams are made of, right? If you’re heading to Paris and are planning to shop until you drop, just know in advance that like many large cities, most places in Paris can be pretty pricey. (We found smoked salmon for sale for 170€ per kilo at Lafayette Gourmet.) Here are of a few of our favorite places to shop (in random order)…
Gourmet Food Halls
Prepare to be wowed. You’ll see the prettiest pastries, cakes, and confections, as well as cheese, meat, bread, jam, savory condiments, spices, coffee, tea, chocolate, wine, fresh produce, etc. There are also restaurants where you can grab food to take away or sit down for a full meal. In short, the selection is enormous.
- Lafayette Gourmet (located inside Galeries Lafayette Maison)
- La Grande Epicerie (a subsidiary of Le Bon Marché)
Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen (aka Marché Clignancourt)
Maybe the simultaneous best and worst thing about this market is its massive size. The good news is that you can find just about anything you’re looking for here; the bad news is you may have to spend all day looking. And then if you find it, you may need to be prepared to spend a small fortune because prices at this market are more like prices at an antique store rather than a flea market. You are welcome to try to barter, but most venders I talked to seemed to be rather set on their prices.
This is like a three-for-one market: outside there’s an open-air produce market (with an area devoted entirely to organic produce) and an open-air flea market, and inside there’s a flower market and a food market offering fish, meat, cheese, olives, pastries, bread, etc. The great thing about this is that you can put together an inexpensive and extremely delicious meal out of market foods. Also, unlike Marché Clignancourt, the flea market at Marché d’Aligre is actually priced like a normal flea market and bartering is commonplace.
Ceramics Shop Astier de Villatte
These are truly Parisian ceramic masterpieces, handmade by Parisian artists using Parisian clay. Be warned that the prices are steep, but this is very much a case of you-get-what-you-pay-for, and I think it’s worth a splurge on a couple of really nice pieces that will hopefully become heirlooms. They’re absolutely gorgeous.
Some of the Wares at Astier de Villatte
Other Shopping Resources
- Paris Flea Markets and Thrift Stores from David Lebovitz
- Marjorie R. Williams’ website, which has a lot of information on shopping in Paris.
- My Beautiful Paris: What To Do > Shop from Norma Thiessen
Now for a few things that you should be aware of that you might not hear anywhere else (hey, I heart my readers and I have to keep it real for you):
- Spitting Off the Eiffel Tower: So, Mike and I were walking around the base of the Eiffel Tower, and I got spit on from someone at the top. (<– Yeah, I know you’re laughing your tush off right now, but trust me, when it happens it feels so gross you’ll want to peel your own face off…and yeah, he/she got me in the face. Ugh.) Now, I know there’s no way on earth it was personal, but wow is that vile. And yes, people aren’t supposed to do it, but obviously it’s not a perfect system. Or a perfect world. Just beware.
- Smoking: It seems like everyone and their mother smokes in Paris; we saw a 10-year-old boy and a 90-year-old woman smoking. It’s not like it is here in the U.S. where even outdoor airspace is regulated and preference is given to clean air and nonsmokers. In Paris, smoking is the norm, so anticipate being exposed to secondhand smoke all the time. (I’m not judging; I just mention this in case you have allergies and/or asthma so you can plan ahead and be prepared.)
- Using Your Mobile Phone Over There: Whether or not you’ll have phone and data service depends on your carrier’s plan. If you have an unlocked smartphone you can go to a local carrier in Paris (a Parisian recommended Orange to us) and get a SIM card. Or you can pick up a cheap mobile phone while you’re there and get a pay-as-you-go plan; for more information on this option, check out Cell Phones in France: Staying in Touch on Your Trip to Paris from David Lebovitz.
- Language: Yup, as I’m sure you guessed, they speak French in France. If your French language skills are sparse, at least make an effort (pick up one of those phrase books if you have to) to talk to them in their language in their country. Even if you fail miserably, they will be impressed that you tried and be much more likely to be willing to talk to you in English.
- French People: You may or may not have heard that French people are rude and/or arrogant. (Let’s call a spade a spade; unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 100 years, you’ve probably heard that.) I’m not going to say that no French person is arrogant or rude, but to make the generalization that they all are is overkill, and quite honestly, completely inaccurate. Of course there are some French who don’t like Americans and whose behavior indicates a lack of manners; however, as a whole (aside from a mere two or three incidents in a span of 12 days), Mike and I had a wonderful time dealing with the French. Our French concierge took us out on his night off. A French woman we asked for directions on the Metro happened to spot us passing by the café where she was dining later that evening with a friend of hers, and invited us to join them for dinner. Most people were willing and actually eager to help when we were lost, many going so far as to look up the address of our destination on Google Maps using their own phone just so they could give us accurate directions, and some people even changed their direction and walked us to our destination just so we wouldn’t get lost. So many strangers showed us true kindness, giving us a glimpse of the real French attitude, and for that we were truly grateful.
I hope this helps if you’re planning a trip to Paris. Feel free to ask me questions in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer. Bon Voyage!
Photography Note: I shot all photos in this post with an iPhone 6; I would have loved to tote around my DSLR to get better quality shots, but it’s heavy and it just wasn’t feasible. You are welcome to use any photos from this post for educational purposes if you credit me (Faith Gorsky/An Edible Mosaic), with a link back to this page as the source.