The first thing I learned about Paris: it’s an absolute dream.
It’s an immortal city with hundreds of years worth of history. It has been so romanticized that you can’t help feeling giddy the moment you set foot on Parisian soil, no matter how hard you try. Five hours of sleep in a smelly hostel the night before and a 8 am train wasn’t going to stop me from seeing Paris.
Of course, there are parts of Paris that make it just like every other city and there were times during my stay where it wasn’t greatest place in the world, but I still loved it. Travel will always have its ups and downs.
If you ever find yourself planning on visiting the City of Lights, here are 10 things to consider:
1. Don’t fear the Metro
The Metro seems daunting, but it’s extremely user friendly. Even for me, and I tend to get a bit flustered on metros in different cities. I don’t really like being so far underground. And I also don’t like heights, so there’s no hope for me.
When buying tickets, the cahier, or booklet, isn’t really a booklet rather than 10 individual tickets. But it’s worth the 12 or so euros if you’re sure you’ll be using the metro often. Most of Paris is rather spread out so it’s hard to walk from one site to another if you don’t have the time.
It’s a pretty standard metro, though certain lines have newer cars than others. Some are fancy and open automatically and some do not. I almost missed my stop waiting for the doors to open a few times, at least until some angry Parisian would reach over my shoulder and slide the door open.
You do have to change lines quite often, but it only takes about 30 minutes to get from one side of the city to the other.
On certain holidays the Metro will be open earlier or close later, depending on the season. For New Years, it was running all night long. And, it was free! When we left our hostel at 6 am to catch a train, the last (and slightly tipsy) stragglers from the night before were still heading home.
2. Watch out for pickpockets and scammers
We were lucky enough not to have any encounters with pickpockets, but I know many people who have. The main, and most useful, tip I can give is to just be aware of your surroundings.
If I had my wallet in my pocket, I had my hand on it. Try not to keep anything valuable in the front pocket of your backpack; it’s the easiest pocket to open and you probably won’t even feel someone slip their fingers in. I didn’t keep much on me and, because it was winter, I had a long coat that covered my pant pockets.
There are a lot of scammers in Paris, even if you try to avoid them. I did my research and knew the places where tourists were preyed on the most – the Eiffel Tower and the Scare-Coeur.
At the Eiffel Tower there are a lot of people, usually young girls, who will come up to you with a clipboard and want a signature for a petition that they won’t explain. I’ve read online that the petition will say things along the lines of “I am willing to pay such amount to ….” It does happen often; on a 20 minute walk through the Champ de Mars we were asked about 5 or so times. They’ll ask if you speak English and when you shake your head no, they walk away.
The only problem we had with scammers was at the Scare-Coeur. There’s usually a group of young men who wait at the bottom of the hill, watching tourists meander by and taking in the beautiful sights, and they will stop you and try to get you to try on a brightly colored bracelet. Usually, they will say it’s free but then, once you put it on, they will demand for money. My brother, who is very much American and doesn’t really blend in well, was always a target every time we passed by. Sometimes they got physical, actually grabbing his arm, pulling his hand out of his pocket and trying to reach his wrist.
3. Embrace the security.
France is tight on security, and rightfully so. There are a lot of lines to get into big malls, certain stores, and especially national landmarks. We didn’t have too much trouble with the lines, but they can get pretty long. There’s nothing to do about it, so just take the time to practice your French or just let it all sink in. You’re in Paris!
4. Don’t forget! Student IDs are everything.
Trying to get into a museum? Use a student ID for a discounted price. Hungry? Some restaurants have cheaper student menus. If ever in doubt, ask.
Usually any kind of student ID will work and I always carry one, even though I graduated college. One time I went to Lyon and forgot my student ID. We ended up in a museum and I paid 5 euros when I could have gotten in for free. Those 5 euros could have been a coffee and a few pain au chocolats.
5. Maybe stay in Montmartre.
Montmartre is the artistic, young, and hip part of the city. There you will find the Scare-Coeur, the Moulin Rouge, four story sex shops, quaint outdoor cafes with sparkling lights, a few cemeteries, and a wall that says je t’aime (I love you) in over 100 languages.
It’s a good place to stay if you’re looking for a cobblestone streets, discount stores, tiny boulangeries, and exciting night life.
Montmartre is also the cheapest neighborhood for hostels and hotels. However, I found myself doing most of my sightseeing and touristy things on the other side of the city. For my next trip to Paris I will be staying closer to the Louvre, which is slightly more expensive but I will only be staying one night. In a few months, I’ll end up in Paris again for a few days and will probably stay in Montmartre. Book accommodation near a metro station for easy access to the entire city. We stayed at Le Village Hostel, a 2 minute walk towards the Scare-Coeur from Anvers station. You could see the church looming on top of the hill from the outdoor patio.
6. If you spend New Years in Paris, remember that the party isn’t at the Eiffel Tower.
There are no crazy crowds or spectacular fireworks; that’s on Bastille Day.
Instead, the locals party it up on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees and in the glow of the Arc de Triumph.
We couldn’t get into the area because we had a bottle of champagne to open at midnight and security wouldn’t let us through, but we ended up at the Louvre, where we could see both the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triumph. At midnight, the Eiffel Tower sparkled and the Arc de Triumph shot off a few blue and red fireworks. We popped open our bottle to ring in the New Year in 20 degree weather. It was very, very cold.
7. Speaking French isn’t a necessity, but it’s greatly appreciated.
My French has improved and isn’t as bad as I make it out to be but, with my brother around, my accent got really thick and every now and then people, especially waiters, would switch to English. But that’s the last thing you want to do for someone learning a language. If I don’t ask, don’t switch! Let me struggle and say stupid things, please.
But, if you don’t know French, it’s not a problem. English is the standard second language and most people in France can speak it well. Even if they act like they don’t. Though some really don’t, so never assume. But learning key phrases goes a long way and you’re less likely to meet the stereotypically snobbish Parisian.
8.Go to Shakespeare and Company early, unless you don’t mind having a lot of literal company.
We waited in a small line for about 5 minutes, walked in, got nudged by too many elbows and stepped on by too many boots, and walked out. We were inside for all of 2 minutes, maybe.
I’ve heard wonderful things about Shakespeare and Company and I will certainly be back so I can explore and find a book or two, but definitely before the main crowds. I always try to avoid 11-2, that dreaded time where every tourist stumbles out of bed and crowds to the places they’ve read about in their city guides. Maybe next time I’ll head over to across town for a late lunch at a small cafe after wandering through Pere Lachaise Cemetery. No one is going to bug me there. At least no one with a pulse.
9. Be prepared to walk. And then walk some more.
Paris is one of those cities best seen on foot. There’s nothing else to it. Sure, you can take the metro, but then you can’t walk from park to park with the Eiffel Tower on the horizon or stroll through the tight streets of the Latin Quarter and take in the sweet, wafting smell of freshly made crepes.
We made the walk from the river to Montmartre far too many times than I wanted to after walking all day long, but we stumbled upon some tucked away churches and hidden shops. Walking a city makes it personal, as you end up finding your own path rather than the one Google Maps has for everyone.
10. There are, in fact, two operas.
First, you have the opera with the classic architecture and the slightly gaudy, but still insanely beautiful, facade. And then, unknown to me at the time, there’s another, modern opera building in the Place de la Bastille.
I figured that out after having dinner with a friend. Instead of deciding on a restaurant, we settle on meeting by the opera first, though we didn’t know to specify.
Thirty minutes past the time we were supposed to meet I get the text “on the stairs in front of the opera! Where are you?”
“I’m on the stairs in front of the opera too but I don’t see you.”
Thirty more minutes and a metro change later, we finally found a small restaurant down some alley and I ordered the snails. They tasted like garlic.
Until next time,