Bustling, diverse and surprising: such is Paris!
Due to its variety and density, navigating the city for the first time may seem challenging. Even after nearly 20 years of living in Paris, I still encounter nuances in the local lifestyle and learn about Parisian peculiarities, such as being fined for taking a Metro corridor the wrong way.
Here are some practical tips and cultural insights to help you plan for your trip and better understand France's capital.
1. You will want more time in Paris than you think
As the busiest city in France, Paris isn’t short of events, attractions or activities. A glimpse of it can be caught in just a couple of days, but to truly experience the city's diverse sights and experiences, five days to a week is considered ideal. Paris can be enchanting year-round, yet it's worth noting that August is the traditional holiday period in France, which might mean encountering closures and a slowdown in local activities.
2. Book some main attractions in advance
With limited time, pinpoint in advance the main attractions you want to visit. Booking online for museums, exhibitions or theater performances will save you a lot of time waiting in lines. Remember, Parisians enjoy their museums as much as tourists do, so visiting on weekdays and starting early can significantly change your experience of busy landmarks.
3. Leave some time to wander
If you’re more the type who goes with the flow, you might want to stroll until you find yourself surprisingly lost, discovering the unique identity of each arrondissement (district). They are all shaped uniquely by various layers of history. With most landmarks concentrated in the city center, it is easy to wander around and never get bored. In fact, there's even a French word for this way to visit a place: flâner.
You might traverse from the upscale Champs-Élysées to the tourist-packed Saint-Michel, then to the trendy Le Marais and the more bohemian Belleville, all within the city's boundaries, without even realizing it. For deeper insights, consider themed tours (food, culture, history, street art, architecture, etc). Many Parisians are eager to share their city with visitors, and it’s a great way to get first-hand insider tips.
4. Dress like a Parisian
Wear something comfortable, because Paris is best explored on foot. Dark clothes will generally help you blend in with the Parisians and help deter pickpockets. That said, if you are into dressing up, don’t feel shy! This is the home of couture afterall.
5. Personal space is important
More importantly if you wish to blend in, is being mindful of personal space, especially on public transportation. The golden rule when navigating Paris, particularly on the Metro and RER (suburban train network) is to be unobtrusive.
During busy times, especially at rush hour (from 7am to 9am and 5pm to 7pm), put your backpack or luggage down and avoid using fold-down seats. When the carriage is full, it's often better to wait for the next train, which usually arrives within minutes. Always keep to the right on corridors and escalators, and have your ticket or Navigo travel pass handy at all times for frequent ticket barriers and control.
6. Get familiar with cafe culture etiquette
The best places to experience Paris and its people are at the cafes. Take a moment to rest on a terrasse – cafe tables on the street – to people-watch while planning the next part of your day. Upon arrival, simply choose a table and sit; servers will come and attend to you. Bills are often left with the order on the table, but payment isn't expected immediately unless explicitly stated. Tipping is not required but always appreciated.
It's not uncommon to exchange a few words with people at neighboring tables, but it's equally normal and acceptable to keep to oneself, despite the close proximity of seating (as most establishments maximize their use of pavement space). Smoking tobacco is widespread in France, particularly at outdoor cafes. Indoor smoking is prohibited by law; so if you're wondering whether smoking is allowed, look for ashtrays on the tables. Additionally, Parisians generally value discretion, so loud voices might attract disapproving looks.
7. Try and speak French, even a little
Despite the hustle, Parisians will generally stop to help if asked. Most people are able to give basic directions in English. The phrase "excusez-moi, parlez-vous anglais?" ("excuse me, do you speak English?") is the best way to get someone's attention. It's also polite to greet and say farewell to anyone you interact with, such as shopkeepers, with bonjour (or bonsoir at night) and au revoir.
Should you befriend locals, don’t be surprised to see them make a move towards your cheeks. La bise – giving kisses on the cheeks (two in Paris) – is the most common greeting among friends, including between men. However, as a foreigner, you won’t be expected to do it spontaneously.
8. Bus and tram services are more accessible than the Metro
The few Metro stations that have elevators are indicated on Metro maps. Wheelchair users or those traveling with a stroller may find it easier to travel by bus or tram, as they are more spacious, at street level, and usually equipped with ramps.
9. Always keep an eye on your belongings
Wherever you go, watch out for your personal belongings, as pickpocketing is a risk on the Metro and near popular tourist sites. Scammers may approach you with a petition to sign or items for sale, distracting you from a potential pickpocket accomplice. A "lost" jewel or banknote on the street is another distraction scam.
In some tourist areas, you might encounter people trying to place a bracelet on your wrist and then demand payment. In all cases, politely decline any unsolicited interaction and walk away. Be aware that souvenirs sold by street vendors, including plastic souvenirs at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower, are often significantly overpriced compared to those in shops.
10. Crossing roads can be complicated
Be cautious on the streets as some roads are shared, and cars, taxis, delivery trucks, bikes, scooters, motorbikes, skaters and pedestrians are expected to coexist in these busy spaces. Although the French drive on the right, be aware that bicycles and scooters may use dedicated lanes that sometimes run counter to the traffic direction or merge with pedestrian walkways. They are not always visible so watch out in all directions before stepping out into the road.
11. Paris is generally a safe city
Fortunately, Paris is a safe city overall. In localized areas in the north-east of Paris there can be occasional criminal activity, typically at night time. As a tourist, you are unlikely to be targeted for violent crimes based on race or origin, especially when sticking to central attractions. If you need transportation late at night when the Metro isn't running (it stops between midnight and 5am on weekdays, from 1:30am on weekends), it's safest to call a taxi or use a ride-hailing app.
Generally, Paris is welcoming and LGBTIQ+ friendly (Le Marais is one of the historic “gayborhoods” in Paris). Unfortunately, catcalling towards women can happen on the streets or on public transportation, despite efforts in raising awareness. Take reasonable precautions as you would in any big city: watch out for potentially aggressive behavior – particularly from individuals who may be intoxicated or disoriented – on the Metro or on the streets.
12. Every district has its own central police station
Unfortunately things do sometimes go wrong, so if you run into a situation where the help of the police is required, look for the closest police station. Every arrondissement has its own central office open at all times. Alternatively, dial the European emergency number (112). For the fire department, dial 18.
13. The standard of medical care is high
Should you be in need of medical assistance, Paris has the largest operating public hospital system in Europe with emergency rooms equipped to receive travelers. In case of emergency, dial 15 for the ambulance service. Over-the-counter medicines can be found at pharmacies, which are on almost every street in Paris, with English-speaking staff around tourist areas. A mapping app will direct you to the nearest 24-hour pharmacy, should you need it.