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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”