A first-timer’s guide to Paris

It seems lately that many of my friends are heading to Paris — most of them for the first time. I recently created a (virtual) walking/photography tour for my friend Craig. Now I’m back on behalf of my friend Jennifer.
Today we’ll cover the fundamentals: Preventing jet lag, getting around, staying safe, finding a good bite to eat and other practicalities. But check back soon to learn how you can avoid lines, visit (almost) unlimited museums for (practically) free, and see some of my favorite off-the-beaten-path gems.

First things first: Avoiding jet lag*

If you’re more than, say, 800 miles from Paris, jet lag is a concern. Fortunately, you don’t have to suffer — at least not after the first day (evil grin). Here’s how:

Step 1. If you’re flying from the U.S., try to book a flight that leaves your home city mid-afternoon and arrives in Paris in the morning.

Step 2. Eat a hearty meal before you get on the plane. Then, as soon as the captain welcomes you aboard, pop a couple of melatonin tablets (consult the package for dosage). Put on your headphones, cover your eyes, and sleep as much as possible.

Step 3. When they serve you breakfast, have a cup of coffee. Heck … go wild and have three. It’s free! And you’re about to land in Paris. Wheeee!

Step 4. If you’re able to check into your hotel before noon, grab a short nap and a shower. Otherwise, leave your luggage at the hotel’s reception and go for a stroll.

Step 5. Over the next few hours, your goal is to keep yourself awake for as long as possible at (almost) any cost. Anything involving the outdoors is good, because the sunlight will help keep you alert. Warning: You may feel crabby, delirious, or maybe even a little bit faint. Apologize to those around you and hang in there. It will pass.

Step 6. At about 6 or 7 p.m., grab yourself some dinner. Have a glass of wine, if you like. Then proceed directly to your hotel. The bad news? You’ll collapse into a crabby/delirious/faint/exhausted heap. The good news? You’ll wake up refreshed and happy in Paris — and your body will now be on Paris time.

Getting to your hotel

When you first land in Paris you’ll go through immigration (passport control) and retrieve any bags you’ve checked. Then you’ll be funneled unceremoniously onto the sidewalk. From here, you have three primary options for getting to your hotel.

Option 1: Travel by train. At a little under €10, taking the RER train into Paris is your least-expensive option. There are lots of sites that offer excellent step-by-step instructions. However, be aware that this line passes through Paris’ rough northern suburbs. Although you’re probably not likely to encounter serious trouble, stay aware of your surroundings if you choose this option.

Option 2: Hop the bus. There are several regular shuttle-bus routes between Charles de Gaulle airport and central Paris. The Roissybus, which costs about €10, is operated by Paris’ metro transit authority. It picks up at all of the major terminals and drops you off at the Opéra métro station. The “Cars Air France” buses also pick up at all of the CDG terminals, and offer four different routes into central Paris. A one-way ticket will set you back about €24, but you can get a 10% discount if you buy an e-ticket in advance.

The advantage to the buses is that they run regularly, they’re safe, and they’re a great way to catch your first glimpses of Paris. The downside is that they sometimes take a while because you have to stop at every terminal to pick up passengers — and you also have to figure out how to get from the drop-off point to your hotel.

Option 3: Grab a cab. I will admit that this is my single biggest Paris splurge. But, for me, it’s also the most worthwhile. Yes, taking a cab into central Paris will cost between €50 and €75, depending on the traffic. But it will also get you directly to the front door of your hotel. You won’t have to worry about keeping an eye on your bags or getting lost. And you’ll be able to catch a little cat-nap on the way, if you want.

One caveat: Grab a cab only at the “official” cab stands outside each terminal (follow the signs in the airport). Although you may be accosted by people inside the terminal offering you a ride, they’re not licensed and may therefore charge exorbitant rates and/or offer less-than-predictable service.

Taking the métro

Paris has one of the best public transit systems on the planet, and its crown jewel is the efficient métro subway system. The Paris Métro consists of 300 stations on 16 lines — so, no matter where you are in central Paris, you’ll find a métro station within about a 10-minute walk.

Rick Steves offers a great overview of the system, as does Paris by Train. But here are the absolute basics:

You can buy métro tickets at most tabacs (small convenience-type stores) or in many of the métro stations. If you’re staying for more than a week, it’s worth considering a Carte Navigo — a prepaid transit card that allows unlimited rides within a specified zone, for periods ranging from a week to a month.

But for shorter visits, you’re better off buying a 10-ticket carnet. The carnets cost €12.50 — a 25% discount off the individual ticket price — and each ticket allows a single continuous journey of any length within Zone 1 of the métro system.

Which brings us to the métro map. (You can download the full-res PDF, or get the free interactive app on iTunes.)

It may look like a multi-hued bowl of spaghetti at first, but it’s actually quite easy to navigate. For example, let’s say you’re staying near the Saint-Sulpice station, close the center of the map. The dark magenta color — which represents the #4 line — shows you the trajectory of this route.

If you follow the line to its end points you’ll see that the #4 line’s northern terminus is the Porte de Clingancourt, and the southern end is Porte D’Orléans. The little solid knobs along the line show you the individual stations, and the white dots show you the correspondances — the places where you can transfer from your train onto other métro lines.

As an example, let’s suppose you want to visit the Eiffel Tower. You’ll hop the #4 line on the platform that says Diréction Porte D’Orléans. You’ll get off at the Bienvenue Montparnasse station, where you’ll transfer onto the #6 line (mint-green color) toward Diréction Charles de Gaulle Étoile. You’ll get off the #6 train at the Bir-Hakeim station and will then take the short walk (indicated in white on the map, and by signs along the actual route) to the Eiffel Tower. Voilà!

But don’t despair if this all seems a bit overwhelming. There’s a handy online route planner that can help sort everything out.

Staying safe

For a city of its size, Paris is generally quite safe. But pickpocketing is common on the métro trains and platforms, and traveling alone late at night can sometimes invite harassment. So err on the side of safety. Keep your purse or camera bag closed, and tucked against the front of your body. Be aware of your surroundings. And if you feel uncomfortable, trust your gut. It may be embarrassing to make a scene (or leave the scene!) but it’s better than getting robbed.

Violent crime is fairly rare in Paris. But it’s still a big city, so it’s wise to watch your butt. If you visit any tourist spots at all, you’ll likely witness at least one of the common scams. Be polite but firm in shooing away the offender(s) if you’re approached.

Paris also has a reputation for being the “city of love,” but for an outgoing American woman who can’t help smiling at strangers, it can feel more like the “city of harassment.” Parisians make eye contact on the street, but it’s usually fleeting and indifferent. Holding eye contact for more than a second — especially if it’s accompanied by even the faintest smile — can be misread as an invitation to have wild sex. I have not yet succeeded at cultivating a detached, mask-like expression; please let me know if you figure out how to do this.

Finally, Paris is occasionally a hotbed of social unrest. Protests are commonplace, as are strikes. It’s possible that you’ll emerge from a métro station to find yourself in the middle of a “manif.” Don’t sweat it too much; these things seldom turn violent. But stay on the edges of the crowd, just in case — no matter how tempting the photo ops. Trust me when I tell you that tear gas is a bummer.

Finding good grub

There are an estimated 6,238,554,279 great restaurants in Paris, so I haven’t yet tried them all. But here are a handful of my faves.**

La Frégate, 1 rue du Bac, 7th arrondissement
This traditional bistro is one of my Paris touchstones: I always stop here at least once per vacation for the very traditional boeuf bourgignon and a glass of red wine. The interior is beautifully preserved from the early 1900s, and the outdoor seating offers wonderful people-watching — with a great view of the Louvre.

Bistrot de L’oulette, 38 rue des Tournelles, 4th arrondissement
This charming little restaurant seats maybe 30 people, but its menu packs a mighty punch. It’s a great opportunity to experience the Parisian “nouveau bistro” movement, which blends modern experimentation with traditional French fare. If you’re determined to try foie gras (nasty, I say!) this may be a good place to take the plunge.

Restaurant Moustache, 3 rue Sainte Beuve, 6th arrondissement
Located near the southwestern edge of the Luxembourg Gardens, this little restaurant is charming and unassuming. But the ever-changing menu is full of delicacies like vegetable terrine, beef tartar and an assortment of fresh seafood. The portions are dainty for the price, but they’re exquisitely presented. (Oh, and just so you know: They’re open every day of the week except Sundays, Mondays, and Saturdays during the day. How very typically French! Grin.)

A crêpe place near Notre Dame, Rue D’Arcole, 4th arrondissement
I can’t remember the exact name or address of this place, because I’ve never noticed. But look for this guy behind the crêpe stand…

… and you’ll be treated to one of the best crêpes in Paris. For breakfast, I like to order a crêpe jambon nature — just the crêpe and a couple of slices of ham. But if you have a sweet tooth, succumb at least once to the crêpe Nutella. For sheer lip-smacking, Calgon-take-me-away power, it rivals Johnny Depp.

Other practicalities

What if I have to pee?” That’s maybe the most frequent question first-time travelers ask me about Paris.

Although I’ll admit to having voluntarily suffered dehydration to avoid this problem, you need not take equally drastic measures. In recent years, the city has installed more than 400 “sanisettes” — free, self-cleaning toilets. You can find them listed by arrondissement online.

Photo via http://www.paris.fr

But if a sanisette is not forthcoming, the next best thing is a café. The vast majority of cafés (and restaurants) have a bathroom in the basement. Although some cafés charge a nominal fee for using “les toilettes,” it’s good manners to order an inexpensive beverage and then head for the loo. I used to resent this; now I see it as an opportunity to rest my feet and recharge the sightseeing batteries.

Oh, and one last thing: Have you heard that the French are language perfectionists? It’s true. French is a beautiful, nuanced and complex language — one that no non-native speaker will ever fully master. So don’t worry about trying to speak French perfectly. Even showing the slightest hint of an effort will put you head and shoulders above 90% of the other tourists. Learn a few pleasantries, be gracious and respectful, and your attitude will be repaid in kind.

Alright, then. You are now ready to attack — ahem, enjoy — Paris. Check back soon for the next installment: “Avoiding Endless Lines.”

* The suggestions offered are based on my personal experience and are not guaranteed to work for everyone (or maybe even anyone but me). Consult your doctor before taking any new dietary supplement, herbal or otherwise. Be extra-vigilant of your surroundings when you’re fatigued, and take special care when walking or driving.
** Restaurants pop up like dandelions in Paris, and sometimes just as quickly disappear. Although most of the places I recommend here are well-established, there’s always a chance that they’ll be closed, renamed, or under new management. Please let me know if this is the case — and my apologies in advance.


    • Thanks for the link to the BA jet lag calculator, Chris! I will add it to my arsenal in the next few weeks and report back on the results.

      By the way, your comment reminded me that I forgot to mention my #1 favorite weapon in the fight against jet lag: Enlisting the help of my friend Chris in staying awake! I’ll never forget that dude’s rant outside St. Eustache as we (more-or-less) calmly sipped out kirs. Or the two bottles of beaujolais that you, Silke, Esteban and I put down while munching on escargots last November. Priceless memories … and the perfect way to start our first day in Paris.

      As for come-ons from friendly grandpas, well, let’s just say that I’m getting hairier and less fresh-faced with each passing year. Soon enough *no one* will approach me, for fear of getting tangled in my goatee. Ha!

      Can’t wait to see you and Silke soon! xoxo

  1. Wonderful ! 🙂
    I’m lucky to live near enough not to have to worry about jet lag, but I just love the metro, and I eventually worked out that stopping at a cafe for a drink and a sit down is the best way to solve the question of “les toilettes”. 🙂
    As for the language … my Frenglish improves with every visit. 😀

    • You are lucky indeed to live close enough to be able to avoid jet lag, Sallyann! Perhaps one of these times our paths will cross in Paris? I would love that. 🙂

  2. Wow great post! I’ll be referring to this in the future next time a visitor asks me for advice.

    Funny I was just reading another author’s take on smiley Americans in Paris, and he had the same warning for women who unknowingly imply sexual intentions by too much innocent friendly eye contact with men on the street. I suppose, at least for the ladies who ARE looking for a Parisian one night stand, we’ve discovered the secret!

    Will definitely check out La Frégate. And btw, you will definitely need to work on your opinion of foie gras (and all forms of smooth liver-y concoctions) if you want to live here one day! 🙂

    I’ve said this before on your blog & I’ll say it again: this post should be Freshly Pressed. I think a lot of Paris visitors could benefit from a lil’ bit-o HBlog!

    • Merci infiniment, cher Corey! It’s quite possible that Esteban and I got into a batch of bad foie gras at some third-rate tourist trap along the Seine — but the taste and texture were so off-putting that I think not even Hercules could pry my mouth open to feed me another bite of the stuff. Hope it’s not one of the requirements for immigration into the otherwise wonderful nation that is France. 🙂 Oh, and if you think of other tips for first-timers, please drop me a note. I’m already working on the next post. Cheers, and see you soon!

  3. Thanks for the hints and tips, H. It’s good to see that some things haven’t changed. The last time I saw Paris was on the day of what was claimed to be the biggest “manif” ever: against the Loi Savary. when I took my bags to CDG in the morning, crowds were already marching on the Place de la Bastille;then I took that dreaded train back through the troubled northern suburbs to the city again and the menifestants were still filing through the city. I spent most of the day mingling with and filming the crowd before heading back to CDG again and my plane back to Sydney. Now, when I hear a Greek woman, singing in French a song originally written by an Italian: “Quand je chante, je chante de la liberte” (to the tune of the Chorus of the Hewbrew slaves from Nabucco) – I inevitably think of Paris It’s a small world after all. 🙂

Leave a reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s