This week marks the official end of winter and the beginning of spring. For myself and my fellow tour guides, this is also known as the time of year when people begin to visit Paris in ever greater numbers. Overall, it’s estimated that over 40 million people visit Paris every year, with most of them arriving once spring is here and the cherry blossoms are instagramable. Over the years I’ve noticed that a lot of people who visit Paris for the first time can easily get overwhelmed trying to navigate this city. And that’s okay! It takes some time to figure out the many quirks of Paris. However, if you want a head start, read on below for my introductory guide for your first visit to Paris.
What to Pack
Paris is a walking city. I repeat. Paris is a walking city. However much you think you’re going to walk, double or triple that estimate. Seriously. In the past, I’ve had sightseeing days where I’ve easily covered over 25km, so first and foremost, bring comfortable walking shoes. I know they may not be the most fashionable, but believe me, you will want to protect your feet. I’m almost always wearing running shoes while leading tours, and I tell people that I want them to remember Paris, not how much their feet hurt. Make comfortable shoes the first thing you pack.
Shoes aside, if you want to dress like a local while you’re here, know that Parisians in general prefer a very dark colour palate, with lots of blacks, greys, and navy blues on display. Also note that leisure wear is strictly for the gym. This is not to say that you can’t run out to the bakery and grab a baguette wearing yoga pants and a hot pink running shirt, but if you do, you will likely get lots of strange looks, frowns, and outright grimaces of disproval. I may or may not know this from experience…
In terms of what else to pack, keep in mind that the weather in this city changes constantly. Especially in the spring and fall. Some days it can go back and forth from rain and clouds to blue sky and sun over a dozen times throughout the day. If you’re visiting from June to August, chances are it will be hot and sunny, but any other time of year, err on the side of caution and pack an umbrella.
Once You’ve Arrived
Cafes and brasseries can be found on nearly every street corner. In fact, one of the most Parisian things you can do is to sit at a table outside to enjoy a coffee or glass of wine and people watch. Keep in mind, however, that you pay for that view. If you’re just looking for a quick drink, head inside to the bar. Drinks are cheaper if you just stand at the bar vs sitting down at an outdoor table.
Crossing the road can be an adventure unto itself, even if you’re in a crosswalk and you have the little green man on your side. It’s important to know that Parisian drivers will often drive right up to the edge of the pedestrian area before stopping, which can be a bit unnerving if you don’t know what to expect. That being said, if you’re not actually in the crosswalk, they won’t stop at all. Don’t be like me when I first moved to Paris and politely wait at the entrance to the crosswalk for drivers to stop. If you do, you’ll be waiting a long time. Wait for a reasonable break in traffic and then just go for it. Once you’re in the crosswalk drivers will stop, albeit somewhat reluctantly.
If you want to see a movie in English while you’re here, always check to see if there is a VO or VF after the showtime. VO means ‘version originale’, meaning that the movie will play in its original language with French subtitles. VF means ‘version française’ and the movie will be dubbed in French. Also keep in mind that if at any point the characters in your movie start speaking in a language other than English, the subtitles will still be in French. I know that sounds like common sense, but you’d be surprised by how many people have been tripped up by this in the past. And yes, by people, I mean me.
Getting Around Town
The Paris Metro system is one of the largest in the world, with over 300 stations and spanning over 200km. It’s incredibly convenient, but it can also be overwhelming due to its sheer size. So just a couple of tips to help ease the way. First and foremost, always remember that the signs directing you to the platforms are labelled by the end station of that line. This means that you have to know the last station of the direction you are travelling in order to reach the correct platform. This is very important, especially when transferring between lines.
If you are taking the train from the airport, remember to keep your ticket once you are on your train. You’ll need it to exit the system once you’re in Paris. For the rest of your stay, if you’re only going to be using the Metro once or twice a day, I recommend buying a pack of tickets instead of the day passes. You can buy packs of 10 or 20 tickets at a discounted rate, and you can share these among multiple people because they will be printed as individual tickets. Finally, keep those tickets away from cell phones! Phones have the unfortunate quality of demagnetizing the strip on the back of tickets, thereby rendering them useless. Always store your tickets in a pocket or wallet away from your cell phone.
Finally, always keep in mind that due to its convenience and ease of use, everyone and their dog (literally) uses the Metro, so don’t expect to find a seat. Once again, those comfortable shoes will come in handy. Trust me on this.
Enjoy Your First Visit to Paris!
As the title says, this is just Paris 101. There are lots more tips, tricks, and outright quirks to discover when you visit Paris for the first time, and discovering them is often half the fun of travelling. That being said, I hope that this little guide will help you navigate your first visit to this beautiful city and make the transition a bit more smoother. Although, speaking of the city’s beauty, one last bonus tip…
Always keep in mind that Parisians have a very laissez-faire attitude when it comes to picking up after their dogs. And when I say laissez-faire, I mean they literally leave the poop where it lands. If you’re walking around town, particularly in residential neighbourhoods, always watch your step!
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.