The view of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Look at all the tour buses down below! And yup, that tall black building in the distance is Montparnasse Tower.
Ah, Paris – the City of Lights, Love and…tourists!? That’s right, Paris is known for the hoards of tourists crowding the city sidewalks pretty much 24/7, any time of the year. But despite the millions of people that visit the city annually, there is still something magical about Paris, whether it’s the history, the sights, or – gasp! – the Parisians themselves. Whatever it is that draws people in, you don’t want to be the tourist that sticks out like the Montparnasse Tower. There are certain things you can do to blend in with the French natives, while still experiencing all of the “touristy” things the city has to offer. On the flip side, there are things you definitely should not do, lest you want to seem like the obnoxious, pesky tourist that Parisians have become so tired of encountering.
1. Do wear comfortable but stylish shoes.
Despite its size, the city is actually quite walkable, so make sure your shoes are durable and comfortable. But, considering that it’s Paris (aka the fashion capital of the world), try to avoid wearing clunky tennis shoes (or infinitely worse, Crocs). Instead, upgrade to a pair of quality loafers or flats, which are oh-so-chic. That way you can walk the city all day and night, and look good doing it! However, if your dogs do end up hurting by the end of the day, remember that the city has one of the most advanced mass transit systems in the world. If your feet are killing you, you can always hop on the Metro, RER or a tram, and get anywhere you need to go.
The Louvre, with the famous pyramid entrance out front.
2. Do take advantage of Navigo and museum passes.
Considering that you’ll soon be taking Metro and light rail everywhere, you’ll want to invest in a Navigo pass, which allows you an unlimited amount of rides on public transportation for your desired amount of time (a week, month, year, etc.). It will save you a ton of money in the long run. And since Paris is known for its multitude of museums (the Louvre, the Rodin, & D’Orsay were a few favorites), you’ll definitely want to get a Paris Museum Pass. Depending on the pass you can pick, you can visit the included museums unlimited times within a 2-, 4-, or 6-day period. Like the Navigo, it might seem a bit expensive at first, but once you realize how much you’d spend to visit each museum separately, you’ll see it’s well worth the money. Not all museums are included on the pass, but the ones that are validate how much you pay. And a few must-see destinations (Versailles, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame) are included on the pass, so those alone make the price worth it.
3. Do learn some French linguistic basics.
Parisians love their native tongue, and with good reason – it’s a beautiful language! But even if you don’t plan on becoming fluent before your trip, at least learn some rudimentary grammar. Trust me, a simple “s’il vous plait” and “merci” will go a long way. And from my personal experience, “pardon” will quickly become your best friend in the crowded city, and especially on mass transit. Check your local bookstore for a French pocket guide before you journey across the Atlantic.
4. Do explore the city on your own.
There is something so peaceful about strolling the city sidewalks by yourself (even as you make your way through the throngs of other tourists). The French have even coined a term for this idle wandering: “flânerie.” (Read more about that here). When you’re exploring Paris alone, you don’t have to feel rushed by anybody to get to a certain destination by a certain time. You can enjoy the sights, smells, tastes at your own pace and really take the chance to appreciate your environment. N.B. of course, you should have common sense about it (don’t go out at night by yourself, be watchful of your things at all times, and always be aware of your surroundings. Also, be particularly careful when visiting Sacre Coeur in the 18th district; it is notorious for its pickpocketers).
Moulin Rouge. It was a lot smaller than I imagined.
5. Do try to make it to each of the city’s twenty arrondissements.
Each district has its own distinct character and way of life. If you really want to get to know Paris, you have to see them all. A few favorites were the 7th (home to the Eiffel Tower), the 4th (also known as the Marais), and the 18th (where you’ll find the world-famous Moulin Rouge).
The town of Chartres.
6. Do venture beyond the city limits.
The quaint town of Chartres, about an hour outside of Paris, is best known for its impressive Cathedral with some of the most beautiful stained glass windows in the world. Monet’s gardens in Giverny and champagne tasting in Reims are two day trips that are definitely worth the train ride.
Part of the Bastille Day military procession down the Champs Élysées.
If you’re in the city for the 14th of July (French Independence Day), make time for the holiday festivities. Get to the parade early, as you’ll want a good view of the military procession as it makes its way down the Champs Élysées towards the Arc de Triomphe. And make a point to watch the fireworks show over the river. Set up camp early, and watch the concert in the Champ de Mars or view the awe-inspiring display from Trocadéro, across the Seine. Once it is dark enough for the spectacle to begin, you’ll probably have to stand up to see over the crowds. But the 45 minute extravaganza is unlike any fireworks show you’ve seen before, and you’ll realize that the 5-6 hour wait was totally worth it.
8. Do have a picnic (or two…or three) by the Seine.
Grab a warm, crusty baguette, some fromage (that’s cheese, for those of you who still need to brush up on your language skills), and a bottle of your favorite French wine and head on down to the river. Each night, the river’s banks are rife with people eating, dancing, frolicking, and just having a good time – tourists and natives alike. Make sure to wave to the many passenger-toting riverboats sailing past.
L’As du Fallafel, home to some of Paris’ best falafels and beloved by Lenny Kravitz.
9. Do be adventurous and try some of Paris’s (in)famous cuisine.
Escargot, frog legs, foie gras. You’ve probably heard of all of these, but have you ever had the desire to try them? Even if you haven’t, I would suggest tasting them at least once, just for the experience. You never know –they might end up being your new favorite dishes! And of course, you have to try some of their non-adventurous but delicious classics: you can never go wrong with a fresh baguette, Croque Monsieur, or crepes (the Nutella and strawberry variety are heavenly). Paris also has a large population of Moroccans and subsequently an abundance of Moroccan restaurants, so definitely seek out one of those (anyone up for couscous and chicken tagine?). Likewise, Lebanese cuisine has become quite a hit; my friends and I definitely returned to L’As du Fallafel a number of times (and if the sign out front is telling the truth, Lenny Kravitz is also a big fan).
The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Tons of mirrors and tons of tourists.
10. Do visit the “tourist attractions.”
They’re famous for a reason. The Eiffel Tower, which is arguably the most recognizable landmark in the world, may not be the prettiest or most practical piece of architecture, but once you are close enough to it to bask in its presence, you’ll understand why it’s as famous as it is. For a good workout, climb the 600+ stairs to the second level and take the elevators the rest of the way up (or just take the elevators to the top, we won’t judge you). Definitely make time to see Notre Dame; in person, it looks exactly the way it did in the Disney movie, and the gargoyles are pretty awesome. Not to mention, the top level of the towers offers one of the best panoramic views of Paris that the city has to offer. The view from the terrasse of the Arc de Triomphe also has an incredible view, with the Champs Élysées on one side, and La Défense, the business district, on the other.
And although the Mona Lisa may not be the most majestic piece of artwork ever made, I’d still suggest trying to take a selfie with the Louvre’s most famous lady, if you can get close enough (she was recently moved from the crammed Salle des Etats to her own private gallery, which should give you a bit more breathing room). And of course, you have to get to the Palace of Versailles. While you might not be able to afford a private tour of the grounds (ahem, Kim and Kanye), it will be worth it to fight your way through the crowds to see the splendor of the 550,000+ sq. ft home (which, of course, led to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s demise, but that’s beside the point). Take the ultimate mirror selfie in the famous Hall of Mirrors and leave yourself enough time to explore the expansive gardens and fountains, as well as Marie Antoinette’s private residence.
Would you just look at that majestic piece of steel? It’s so much prettier when you can’t see the masses of people gathered at the bottom.
1. Don’t wait in line all day to see the aforementioned tourist attractions.
Listen very carefully to me: buy your museum pass IN ADVANCE, not on the day you plan to use it. This will help eliminate a ton of wasted time spent waiting in line to get tickets (since usually for attractions, there are two lines: one for getting tickets, and another for getting in). Furthermore, if you’re planning on going to some of the city’s most populated areas, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, or Versailles, get there early to beat the crowds.
If the only free spot in your schedule is mid-afternoon, just be aware that that is the busiest time to visit, and you’ll most likely be waiting a very long time to get in. If you’re not going right at opening, though, make sure you leave enough time to wait in line and then actually have time to explore the site too. My friends and I made the mistake of going to the Catacombs only three hours before closing time – naively thinking that would be more than sufficient – and we had to wait in line for two-and-a-half hours! Luckily, they still let us in and we had sufficient time to explore the dark depths of the underground tombs. Lastly, dress accordingly as it can get very hot waiting in long lines during the summer: wear breathable clothing, slather on the sunscreen, and throw on a cute hat (but please, no berets – French people don’t really wear them).
Luxembourg Gardens. A beautiful place to practice your flânerie.
2. Don’t be afraid to have some downtime.
I know it seems like there’s so much to do in Paris that you fear wasting any precious moment that could be spent exploring yet another tourist attraction. But I speak from personal experience when I suggest that you don’t have to have your itinerary planned down to the last second. Make some organized excursions, but also take the time to just stroll through one of the city’s many gardens or take a walk by the river (this goes back to the idea of flânerie). Part of the charm of the historic city is in just watching others pass by and imagining the thousands of places they could be going. Go to a quaint cafe, order a cappuccino, and just watch the rest of the world go by for a few moments.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions.
If you’re not speaking French, people will automatically know you’re a tourist anyway, so you might as well just suck it up and ask them how to get to your destination. Just remember to pick someone who looks trustworthy to ask. Who knows? You might meet a lifelong friend or perhaps the love of your life just by daring to ask how to get to the nearest “toilettes.”
4. But, by the same token: don’t be afraid to get “lost.”
Okay, if you’re legitimately lost and find yourself in a seedy area, you’ll probably want to find someone decent to ask for help. But if you just got off at the wrong Metro stop or turned left when you should have turned right, savor it. You’ll likely discover something that you probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Some of my greatest adventures came when I couldn’t quite figure out which direction I was supposed to be heading.
Notre Dame Cathedral. Quasimodo wasn’t there, but the gargoyles were. And of course, there were tourists – lots of tourists.
5. Lastly, don’t be the rude, annoying tourist that French people hate but pretty much expect you to be.
They’re extremely protective of their culture, and want you to appreciate it to its fullest. Prove them wrong and show them that you’re not just another uncultured philistine, but rather someone who is genuinely interested in learning more about their country’s history and way of life.
Hopefully, these do’s and don’ts will help you navigate your way through the city and make the most of your time in the glorious city!
Have you been to Paris? Do you have any tips for fellow tourists? Let us know some of your most memorable moments in the comments!