If you’ve never visited Paris, France, you’re in for a treat. There’s an insane amount of things to do and see for every type of traveler. However, the sheer number of stuff this city offers can be overwhelming for first-time visitors. That’s why I’ve created a list of some super useful and practical tips for visiting Paris. Whether you’re a Paris first-timer or a France fanatic, you’ll learn how to save money, skip lines, and save time in order to get a more enriching experience out of your trip.
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Practical Tips for First Timers in Paris
Plan on taking a million photos.
Paris is one of the most visually stunning cities in the world and there’s so much to see. I’m from North America and it’s a complete 180 from what I’m used to seeing in our metropolitan cities. To this day, I’m still baffled by how a city can be so, so beautiful. So get your cameras ready. And don’t forget to bring extra rolls of film / a battery charger!
3-4 days is not enough.
I’m just going to say that outright. You’ll barely be scraping the surface of what the city has to offer, so just be okay with that. Prioritize your must-see’s and must-do’s, not what other guidebooks and itineraries tell you are the top attractions. Personally, I still have not been to the Louvre or the Notre Dame, because there were other things I wanted to do/see more.
If you can swing it, extend your trip to Paris by a few days more (even then, there’s still too much to do to fit it all into one trip). Give yourself time to slow down and fall in love with the city. Shift your mindset from knocking attractions off an itinerary and just live. Paris is one of the best places to do this.
Try to communicate in French first.
Really. The French are very proud of their nationality and language— “when in France, people should be speaking French” kind of thing. So make an effort to learn a few simple phrases in French. Greet the locals you encounter (shop owners, staff, waiters, etc.) with bonjour (good day)! Say merci, au revoir (thank you, goodbye) when you exit a shop or restaurant. If you’re up for it, try to learn even more phrases and dish them out throughout the day. The locals will really appreciate the effort.
If you have absolutely no idea how to do this, then ask if they speak English, but ask in French. “parlez vous Anglais?” Chances are, they do know English so don’t be afraid of there being a language barrier. Just show them that you’ve tried, it really goes a long way and people are nicer to you for this. Trying to adapt to their language/culture will really enhance your experience.
Paris is slightly dead in August.
Avoid going to Paris in August if you want a mix of local and touristic experiences. Parisians usually leave the city this month to head off to their vacation destinations. As a result, the majority of non-touristy businesses close in August. Tourist attractions are obviously open and still very full of people given that it’s summertime, but many local boulangeries, boutiques, and restaurants may be closed.
Find your bearings.
Sign up for a free walking tour or take a bike tour to learn about the city on a geographical, historical, and cultural level. Do something like this on your first day to set you up for the rest of your stay. You’ll have a more immersive experience if you attempt to get to know the city on a deeper level past the pretty sights. Paris has too much history to ignore.
Wear comfortable shoes and be ready to walk.
Walking is really the best way to see the city (and my preferred method of transportation!). More often than not, the streets you pass will be lined with shops, restaurants, and bars, as well as fountains, statues, and other structures that will keep you entertained as you walk. Not to mention the fact that I’m sure you’ll be gorging on all the French pastries, so why not get a bit of physical activity going so you can offset the calories you intake?
Take the metro.
If walking is not your thing, don’t be afraid to take the Metro. It is easy to navigate, safe, and a very affordable option. Just follow the instructions on Google Maps or download an app like City Mapper to help you with the trains. Uber is also relatively inexpensive so it’s a good option as well, but includes wait times and dealing with traffic on busy streets. I found it significantly faster and easier to metro around.
Another option, rent a bike!
Try Vélib’ Metropole, a city bike rental system that you can easily sign up for from your smartphone. There are approximately 15,000 bicycles at more than 1,200 stations, which makes it very easy to drop off whenever you’d like. For short visits, you have two options: A one-day “V-Découverte” pass or a seven-day “V-Séjour” pass. You can use the card to borrow up to five bikes at one time, which means you’ll need only one pass for a family or small group.
Things To Do
Prioritize your must-dos.
Make a list of your top 3 attractions and really focus on prioritizing those first thing in the morning. Really, don’t underestimate how crowded Paris can get. Go to your top attractions and museums as early as they allow to beat the lines. You’ll save yourself so many hours, hours that could be spent on exploring other things rather than waiting in line!
Throw in some cultural experiences too.
It doesn’t always have to be about the big sites and attractions. Guided walks that take you to smaller neighborhoods, cooking classes, and food tasting tours are equally as fun and enriching. You can find chocolate and pastry classes, hidden Paris bike tours, Taste of Montmartre food tours, ghost and legends night walks, cheese and wine tasting, and more in Paris. During my own trip research, these were some of the ones that stood out to me the most. When I get the chance, I’m going to do all of these.
Check out Palais Garnier.
Go see a ballet at the Palais Garnier, an incredibly opulent theater. If this is out of your budget range, taking a tour of the palace is an attraction in itself. It’s one of the most beautiful opera houses to have existed!
Plan your Versailles day right.
If going to Versailles, skip the line and bypass the hoards of crowds by planning to explore the gardens first in the morning (trust me, there’s a lot to see and you’ll be busy here for hours). By the afternoon, the lines to get into the palace will have dwindled down significantly. There will be fewer tour groups crowding the place, which frees up a lot of space inside the palace.
If you aren’t going to be there right when they open, then buying skip the line tickets are a must. Buy a skip the line ticket (or arrive early, around 8am) and visit the gardens before the palace to really dodge the crowds and streamline your experience here.
If visiting Versailles go on a weekend when the fountains are on. This may mean more crowds, but just plan to arrive earlier.
Getting there: You don’t need to go with a tour if you’re looking to save money. Just hop on the train and in less than 1 hour, you’re there. If you’re confused, ask some people on the train and they’ll help you out. It’s really not a daunting experience. Anyone can do it, granted you do a little bit of planning/research beforehand.
To have the optimal experience of no wait times, you’ll need to wake up early (6-7am or so, and then travel to Versailles) or else deal with the lines. For late risers or families, this tour is a good skip-the-line option. If you’d rather bike than walk mile upon miles through the massive grounds, check out this skip-the-line bike tour option.
The Catacombs are going to be crowded.
This is a popular attraction so it’s not “off the beaten path” as some guidebooks suggest. Often, the wait to get in is way over an hour. To avoid the long line, purchase your tickets ahead of time. If you want to wait in line, get there before 9am. I’ve read of people getting in line at 9am, and didn’t actually enter the stairway to the Catabombs until 90 minutes later. The long wait time is due to the 200 person restriction in the catacombs. This tour allows you to skip the line.
The Eiffel Tower experience.
Go online to reserve a time to visit the Eiffel Tower. Weather is a risk, but instead of having to wait in that crazy line upon arrival, just walk up at your designated time. Times open up three months in advance online.
Want the best view if the Eiffel without the crowds? Just go walk the Left Bank of the Seine, or head to the Trocadero by metro.
If you can afford it, eat lunch or dinner at the restaurant at the top. 58 Tour Eiffel, overlooks all of Paris and is an experience of a lifetime. I’ve been recommended this so many times, but have never had the chance to. It’s definitely on my list though!
Visit the Louvre at night.
Each Wednesday and Friday, the most famous of Parisian museums extends its hours of operation to 9:45pm. By 6:00 pm, most other French museums will have closed, but if you’re still itching to explore museums, you can do it here. You are unlikely to have the galleries all to yourself, but it will be significantly less crazy than in the daytime!
Entrance to the Louvre is €9. If you head there after 6pm on a Wednesday or Friday, entrance is reduced to just €6 and the museum is open until 9:45pm. Entrance is free for people under 26 on Friday evenings.
Allocate enough time to the big attractions.
Plan at least an entire day for The Louvre, Palace of Versailles, or The Orsay. Don’t forget to factor in wait times.
Looking for something shopping-related?
The neighborhood of Le Marais is loaded with very hip and fashionable boutiques, yet the neighborhood is a million times more down-to-earth than the Champs-Elysées. There’s something for everyone here!
Get an olfactory diagnosis at a perfumery. At Nose, technology guides shoppers to their favorite perfume.
Go off the beaten path.
Looking for something different to do? There’s no shame in wanting to skip museums to sit around and drink coffee instead! Heck, I spent most of my time just roaming the streets and eating bread. Here are a few more recommendations for things to do other than the highly popularized attractions.
Pro tip: Atlas Obscura is a great resource that will open your eyes to the hidden wonders of the world. It provides you with options on funky and super interesting landmarks and sights. Highly recommend checking their recommendations before stepping foot in new destinations!
Get a different perspective of the city.
Go for a morning jog outdoors and enjoy early mornings in Paris among locals hustling to get to work. Head to a no-frills cafe at 7-8am, grab a coffee, munch on a croissant, and chat with people who actually live there. It’s a great experience.
Eat all the carbs.
The patisseries and boulangeries are incredible, truly a Parisian experience not to be missed. Try something at each one (heck, I even tried multiple items at the well-known ones) and worry about the calories later. Once you’re back home, you’ll only be able to dream about Paris’ bakeries and pastry shops, so really take advantage of your opportunity to eat everything. They are so cheap compared to US pastries and taste a million times better.
If you’re traveling during warm weather periods, try eating dinner at restaurants with outdoor patios so you can people watch. Paris’ outdoor ambiance during sunset is like no other city.
Try the local flavors.
Never heard of it? Try it! I discovered my favorite jam in the world at a small cafe in Paris because I was given jam options to go along with my baguette/butter (mirabelle jam, it’s amazing). Now that I’m back in the US where mirabelle plums are illegal to import, I order the jam online because it reminds me of Paris so much and brings back all the feels.
Sample the cheeses.
Walk into a fromagerie and ask the staff for recommendations, or just grab a few chunks of whatever catches your eye. Have a cheese sampling picnic with a baguette and a bottle of wine by the river or the Eiffel Tower. I live for these moments.
Schedule dinner later.
Parisians, as well as a lot of other Europeans, tend to eat dinner later. Aim to head out to dinner around 8-9pm, as you’ll find many of the good restaurants won’t be open until 7:30pm. Also, note that many restaurants close between lunchtime and dinnertime.
Get pumped for your trip! Check out these visually stunning movies set in Paris for some inspiration.
Got any tips for enhancing a trip to Paris for first-timers and return visitors alike? Share below!
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