Paris, the City of Lights, is the European capital many Americans dream about one day visiting. Imagine taking strolls along the River Seine, visiting world-famous landmarks and museums and eating buttery croissants at an outdoor cafe. Having lived in France for 2 years, we’ve learned a few things about French culture and its citizens. Before you set out on your fantasy trip, take a look at our tips for things to know before visiting Paris.
Learn Basic French
Learning basic French will go a long way to making your trip successful. When visiting a new country, it’s important to learn at least a few basic words and phrases in the local language. Yes, many people in the touristy areas speak English, but you shouldn’t arrive without being able to greet someone in their native tongue.
Good Day = Bonjour /bon zor/
Good Evening = Bonsoir /bon swah/
Good Bye = Au Revoir /oh-ruh-vwah/
Please = S’il vous plaît /see voo play/
Thank you = Merci /mer-sea/
Excuse me & sorry = pardon /pahr-doah/
You’re Welcome = De rein /duh-rhee-uh/
Ma’am = Madame /mah-dahm/
Sir = Monsieur /mis-eeyuh/
Yes = Oui /we/
No = Non /no/
Good to know:
Take away (as in your food to go) = á importer /ah ahm-por-tay/
Do You Speak English? = Parlez-vous anglais? /par-lay voo an-glay/
I don’t understand. = Je ne comprends pas. /juh nuh com-pren pah/
Where Is the Bathroom? = Où sont les toilettes? /ehw ay lay twah-let/
When entering an establishment such as a shop or restaurant, it is always polite to say “Bonjour” in greeting. It is also polite to say “Au revoir” when leaving. Of course, the use of “S’il vous plaît” and “Merci” are important just as in the U.S. and other countries.
Learning the numbers 1 – 10 will also be beneficial.
Unlike in the States, tipping is not required in restaurants, although it is appreciated. If you experience good service, consider leaving 5 – 10% of the bill. Some of my French friends say they don’t leave a specific percentage, just a bit of what they have. IF the service was good. If the service wasn’t good, they don’t give a second thought to not leaving a tip.
You may see 15% service compris or tip included on your bill in Paris. However, in France it’s pretty much known that service is included. As French servers are paid a full wage, independent of tips, you should tip based on the level of service. This does take some getting used to for Americans where always tipping 15 – 20% is the norm.
For example – If having a café (coffee), I might leave 0.50€ if the service was good. But, many of my friends only leave 0.20€ – 0.30€ or nothing at all.
Note – Tip in cash as there isn’t an option to write in an amount on your credit card slip.
Tipping a couple euros or 10% of the fare for taxi rides is appreciated. However, we have found uber to be easiest and the drivers are usually more friendly than Parisian taxi drivers.
Eating and Dining:
Be aware of restaurant opening times. Lunch is served from around noon – 2pm and dinner is served from around 7pm – 10:30pm. All day service restaurants are usually tourist traps. If you’re starving when restaurants are closed, pop into a boulangerie or bakery for a sandwich or treat.
If possible, make reservations. If you don’t have time to make a reservation, arrive when they open, around 7 – 7:30pm. You’ll have a greater chance of getting a table. You may also be told that they are full but you can be seated if you can be gone by a certain time. They might have that table reserved for 8:30, but know most Americans aren’t going to sit around after the meal.
Additionally, the servers will have more time to help you with the menu if you eat early.
Ask for tap water (carafe d’eau) at restaurants to avoid the added expense of bottled water. French water is perfectly safe to drink. I’d rather enjoy a cappuccino or dessert after my meal than pay for water.
Eating is an experience and is not to be rushed. Don’t be surprised or angry when it takes the server a long time to bring even a cup of coffee. Relax and enjoy the atmosphere. If you’re in a rush, order a café at the bar like a Parisian.
You’ll need to ask for the check once you’ve completed your meal. It won’t automatically be brought to the table. Simply say, l’addition s’il vous plaît /lah dee-see-onh see voo play/ and the bill will be brought to your table. If paying by credit card, the machine will be brought to the table as they don’t take your card to swipe at the register.
If you just want a drink in a café, do not sit at a table that’s set for a meal. Just before lunch, you’ll notice some tables being set with placemats, silverware and glasses. If you want to eat a meal, sit here. If you’re just grabbing a drink, pick the table without the setting.
Get out of your comfort zone and eat new foods. A few ideas include quiche lorraine (a typical quiche with cheese and ham). Believe it or not, my kiddos highly recommend escargots (snails in the shell cooked in garlic and butter). Another popular dish is steak tartare (raw beef patty mixed with spices). Foie gras (liver of a duck or goose fattened by force-feeding corn). While I refuse to eat it on principal, this is a popular dish. Also don’t miss baguettes, croissants, pain ou chocolate and of course, macarons.
Have a picnic during your visit. Stop by the market to get a baguette, cheese, fruit and a bottle of wine, then head to the park for a picnic. Sitting on a bench along the Seine is also a great way to enjoy a meal.
When is it open?
Most grocery stores, pharmacies and shops are closed on Sunday. If a grocery store is open on Sunday, it will be only in the morning – usually until around 12:30pm. Plan to do your shopping on Saturday or you’ll be stuck eating out all day.
On Sundays, or after hours, signs will be posted on pharmacy windows announcing which locations are open – and at what time. You’ll notice select pharmacies are either open in the morning or afternoon – not both. The pharmacy is the only place to get your over-the-counter or non-prescription medication. You won’t find headache medicine at the grocery store.
While it may seem strange to Americans for even restaurants to close on the weekend, it’s perfectly normal to the French. When I’ve questioned this practice in Nice, I was looked at like I was crazy and told that weekends are a time for family.
You’ll notice many shops closed during lunch and at what appears to be random closing and opening times. You just need to remember this is normal in France. If you see a shop you want to visit, go in and don’t assume they will still be open later.
It’s also common for many attractions to be closed on Monday or Tuesday. Even when planning visits to tourist attractions, always check opening days. For instance, the Musée d’Orsay is closed on Mondays and The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays.
Save money by purchasing the Paris Pass, an all-inclusive sightseeing card which grants pass holders free entry to the top Paris attractions. The key benefits of The Paris Pass are:
- Free entry to 60+ Paris attractions & tours
- Fast track entry to popular attractions
- Free Travel Card for use of public transport
- Free Paris Bus Tour
- Free Paris Visite Travelcard included
- Free 120+ page guidebook
Two of the Fast Track entry benefits are for the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay. This is a HUGE time saver as lines can get long during peak season. This is particularly beneficial if you’re short on time or have kids. You can even get out of the city and explore some of the châteaux including the Palace of Versailles!
Purchase attraction tickets in advance to save time. Some of the most popular attractions such as the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay offer this option. Please be aware that times for the Eiffel Tower do sell out well in advance, so book early.
Take in the view from the top of the Arc de Triomphe for sweeping views over Paris.
Don’t go to The Louvre just to see the Mona Lisa. There is so much more to the museum than the Mona Lisa and you should plan time to see those other works of art. While it would take days to tour the museum properly, plan to spend time admiring the masterpieces within.
Take advantage of public transport. In Paris and throughout most of France, the public transport system is great. When you need a break from walking, jump on the metro. The metro system is vast and will take you to most of the city hotspots.
When getting on the metro, unless someone is getting off, the doors don’t automatically open. You’ll need to push the button to open the doors. Don’t stand around waiting for something to magically happen.
Don’t throw away your ticket! Make sure to keep your metro ticket until after you have exited the station. Occasionally, you will be asked to show your ticket to the inspectors at the exit. If you don’t have it – there is an on-the-spot fee.
Save money by purchasing a carnet or book of 10 tickets instead of single journey tickets. A single journey is 1.90€ and a book of 10 tickets is 16€.
Transport is FREE for children under 4 and half price for children between 4 and 11 years old.
Be mindful of grèves or strikes. A train strike can put a serious damper on your travel plans. Try to go with the flow as much as possible. Look for alternative modes of transport or attempt to rearrange your schedule for the day.
Pack comfortable shoes. While this is a typical recommendation when traveling, you’ll walk A LOT in Paris. Don’t bring those cute new shoes you just purchased and not expect blisters by the end of the day.
Are they walking straight toward me on purpose? When walking along the sidewalks in France, it seems that people make a beeline to walk right in front of you. And they actually kind of do. The French don’t require as much personal space as Americans and when passing on the sidewalk, you both just move your shoulders a bit to avoid a collision.
Bring a credit card with a 0% foreign transaction fee. You don’t want to waste money every time your swipe your card. Read more tips in our ultimate guide to managing money in Europe. We’ve included tips for using foreign currency & saving money in France.
Keep change for the bathrooms. When you find a public toilet, you’ll likely need to pay 0.50€ to enter. Every time we stop to eat or drink or visit a tourist attraction, we always make sure to use the bathroom there before we leave. Why waste money on a toilet later?
Shop for less during the soldes. Bargains can be found during the sales in January and July each year. Sales are government regulated so these are the 2 times per year when huge sales can be found all over France.
Where to Stay:
Hotel rooms in Paris and most of Europe tend to be on the smaller side. It can also be difficult to find rooms that will accommodate a family. Consider booking an apartment through Airbnb. You’ll not only get more room, but save money as well.
Use THIS LINK and get a $40 credit on your Airbnb rental!
European floor numbers and U.S. floors aren’t the same. In the U.S., we start on the 1st floor while in Europe it’s the ground floor or floor 0. When you rent a 3rd floor walkup, you are really going up to the 4th level.
Paris is a collection of numbered neighborhoods called arrondissements. The 1er (1st) arrondissement is the center of the city and the neighborhoods. The 7th arrondissement is home to the Eiffel Tower and the 8th arrondissement is home to the Champs-Elysées, Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde as well as shopping.
Stay central even if traveling on a budget. Consider staying near the attractions you want to visit instead of booking accommodation outside of the city. You may save a bit of money by staying outside of the center, but you’ll spend a lot of time and money commuting every day.
A Few More Things:
Watch where you step! Beware of what dogs leave behind on the streets. While supposedly the streets are cleaner than they used to be, it is common for people not to pick up after their dogs .
Avoid visiting in August, if possible. Most Parisians will be on holiday, so you’ll notice a lot of closures. Additionally, it’s HOT in August. However, since many tourist visit this time of year, you will still find plenty of places open. I just recommend avoiding the sweltering heat of August, if you can.
Beware of pickpockets, but don’t stress too much. Yes, throngs of tourists are prime pickings for a thief. Just be smart and don’t spend your time worried about what might happen. Don’t put your purse on the back of the chair, don’t leave your bags unattended on the ground and men should keep their wallets in their front pocket. Wherever you travel, these are a few things that should become habit.
Don’t forget your adaptor. With all those things that we need to charge daily from cellphones to iPads to computers to camera batteries, don’t forget to bring an adapter on your trip. Yes, they can be purchased once you arrive, but it will be more expensive. We travel with two types of adaptors, a universal adaptor and a 4-port adaptor for our electronics.
You don’t have to dress like a supermodel, but pack clothes that are on the nice side. Keep your shorts, tattered jeans, yoga pants and scuffed up shoes at home. Think chic, not sport.
Don’t try to cram in too much. Paris is a huge city with countless museums to visit, history to discover and streets to wander. You won’t see everything in just one trip – and that’s okay! Select a few must-see attractions, and save time to stroll through gardens and people watch while drinking a glass of wine at an outdoor cafe.
Finally, explore more than just Paris! There is so much more to France than its capital. Yes, Paris is a gorgeous city full of history, amazing food and architecture. However, getting outside of the city is also just as important.
We’ve put together 5 ideas for day trips from Paris to provide some suggestions. Another great idea is to head South and explore the French Riviera. Possibly basing yourself out of my home city, Nice.
The National railway, SNCF, makes getting around the country convenient and fairly inexpensive. You can also catch inexpensive flights from airlines such as Easy Jet.
Looking for more tips? You might like the Lonely Planet Pocket Paris for more hidden discoveries in the city.
Paris, a global center for fashion, gastronomy and culture, is a must see when visiting Europe. As you prepare to cross France’s capital city off your bucket list, keep in mind some of these things to know about Paris before you go. They will help you save money and allow you to visit Paris with more knowledge and confidence.
What other ideas can you share for first timers in Paris?