Paris for the First Time: A Travel Guide to the City of Light

The pyramid dome of the Louvre Museum in Paris lit up in the evening. There is a crowd standing outside waiting to get in the doors.
The iconic Louvre Museum in Paris.
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Audrey Hepburn once said, “Paris is always a good idea.” But may I add “if you are prepared” to her famous line? Ask a few travelers to reflect on their experience in Paris, and you’ll quickly pick up on contrasting views: Magical yet chaotic, romantic yet dull, elegant yet dirty. The city can easily be misunderstood, especially if you are traveling to Paris for the first time. This guide helps you understand the intricacies of the City of Light and prepares you to embrace the French capital’s uniqueness. That way, you aren’t fumbling around the metro on your first trip to Paris. Instead, you are soaking up info in the renowned museums, strolling through the historic and perfectly-manicured gardens and lounging over a pot of tea in an outdoor café.

Related: Once you know what to expect in Paris, read this four day Paris guide to build your itinerary (filled with all the best things to do and see)!

Paris for the First Time: Geography 

The city of Paris straddles the Seine River. The area north of the Seine is commonly called the Right Bank, and the Left Bank is the area south of the Seine. Then, the city is organized into 20 districts referred to as “arrondissements.” The two smaller islands on the Seine River are Île de la Cité and Île Saint Louis.

The Seine River in Paris with the Notre-Dame Cathedral in the background.
The iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral sits on the Île de la Cité, one of Paris’ two islands. This photo is from my first trip to Paris in 2016. Sadly, much of the Notre-Dame cathedral was destroyed by a fire in the spring of 2019. As of January 2020, the area surrounding the cathedral is restricted from the public. And although the cathedral is currently being reconstructed, there are concerns it may never recover from its fragile state.

How Long to Stay in Paris?

The number of things to do in Paris is endless – stay as long as your schedule allows! Okay, okay, I know that’s unreasonable so four or five days in Paris is a good start for your first trip. Most first-time Paris travelers combine the trip with London, or they explore other parts of France (such as vineyard-hopping in the wine regions, lounging on the beaches in the French Riviera or taking a trip to Normandy).

Travel Tip: You need an outlet adapter/converter if traveling to Paris from the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and most countries outside of Europe. France uses the type C and type E plug. Purchase this international adapter (if traveling from the United States) and you are good to go.

Where to Stay: First Time in Paris

I’ll let you in on a secret: There isn’t a “best place to stay in Paris.” It’s entirely subjective. Before deciding on where to stay in Paris, first determine the things you want to do in Paris, specifically your must-dos. Then, you can use Booking to view a map of available accommodations near those sights. As you may expect, there are a variety of accommodation types: Hotels, bed and breakfasts, apartments and hostels are just a few. And some of the apartment rentals are huge, which may be perfect for large groups and families traveling to Paris. Traveling solo, on a budget, or just like to meet people? Check out these highly-rated hostels.

The interior blue dome and murals painted in the church in Saint Germain neighborhood of Paris.
Pop into the main church in the Saint Germain neighborhood (called Église de Saint Germain des Prés). It’s free to enter, and the stunning blue ceiling is a must-see in Paris. 

Saint-Germain-des-Prés

Travel back in time to this historic neighborhood in the sixth arrondissement. Saint-Germain-des-Prés is conveniently located across the Seine from the Louvre Museum, and it’s a stone’s throw from the famous impressionist art museum, Musée d’Orsay. This area is right smack in the middle of everything.

Accommodations nearby: Hotel La Villa Saint Germain Des Prés (luxury), Welcome Hotel (friendlier on the budget) and Edgar Suites (large apartment – great for families)

A statue on the Pont Alexander III bridge in Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
Arguably one of the city’s prettiest bridges, a walk across Pont Alexandre III is a must-do when visiting Paris for the first time.

Eighth Arrondissement

This area is close to many of the big sites – Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées, Pont Alexandre III. And it’s a short walk to the Eiffel Tower and many popular museums.

Bastille

Patrons of the bars, cafés and clubs take to the streets at night in the Bastille neighborhood. This lively neighborhood is the perfect place to stay in Paris for partygoers. Because this 11th arrondissement neighborhood is further from the main sites (30- to 45-minute walk) many budget-friendly rentals are found in this area. Accessing the main sights is easy via metro (and most are a direct metro line – no transfers).  

Accommodations nearby: Hôtel Les Deux Girafes (affordable boutique hotel) and Hôtel Paris Voltaire (affordable hotel)

A photo of the green grass, water fountain and townhouses in the garden of Place des Vosges in Paris.
Place des Vosges is in the running for one of the prettiest gardens in Paris.

Le Marais

This trendy neighborhood in the fourth arrondissement is home to one of the oldest squares in Paris, Place des Vosges. Cafés, bars, art galleries and high-end shopping are abundant here. It’s an easy walk along the Seine to many of the main sites. And if needed, Le Marais is very accessible to the rest of the city via the metro.

Accommodations nearby: Le Marais Studio (apartment) and Hôtel Beaubourg (not too high-end yet not budget-friendly)

The green grass of Luxembourg Gardens with a statue and building in the middle.
Paris’ iconic Luxembourg Gardens.

Latin Quarter

The Latin Quarter (in the fifth arrondissement) is another spot worth checking out due to its proximity to the famous Luxembourg Gardens, Panthéon and botanical gardens. Like nearby Saint-Germain-des-Prés, most Paris attractions are a simple stroll from this neighborhood.

Accommodations nearby: Hotel Observatoire Luxembourg (luxury hotel)

The massive, gray Sacre-Coeur church in the Montmartre neighborhood in Paris.
The colossal Sacre-Coeur church in the Montmartre neighborhood.

Montmartre

Located in the 18th arrondissement, Montmartre is a trendy neighborhood with local boutiques, cafés, and lots of hills! Prepare yourself for the steps. Budget-friendly accommodations can be found here. 

Travel Tip: It is not common for carbon monoxide detectors to be installed in apartment rentals in Paris. I travel with this detector for peace of mind. (Note: It’s a U.S. plug so be sure to purchase a second travel adapter).

Best Time to Travel to Paris

Remember Hepburn’s famous words, “Paris is always a good idea?” It’s wonderful no matter the season. During the spring, the flowers are in bloom and the weather is beginning to warm up. Summer is hot, and you should expect crowds and lines at major attractions. If traveling in the summer months, confirm your accommodation provides air conditioning. It’s important to note that in the past, Parisians left the city in August for vacation. While you may see a couple of smaller, locally-owned shops closed in August, this isn’t very common anymore. 

In the fall, the weather is perfect for walking around the city. Finally, winters in Paris are very cold, but the holiday lights are magical. The festive and holiday cheer makes it easier to embrace the cold weather. But unlike some destinations, Paris is always busy, even in the winter months.

Related Reading: If you’re looking for a small town in France to visit after the bustling Paris, check out the many things to do in Bayeux. It’s the perfect base for exploring the Normandy beach landing sites.

A christmas market in Paris.
Perk of traveling in the winter? You may stumble upon one of the many Christmas Markets in Paris!

How to Get to Paris 

Paris Airport to City 

You will likely fly into the Charles de Gaulle airport (CDG). Trains, buses, taxis and Uber run directly from the airport to the city center. If you fly into Orly airport, take the bus to the city center. The train isn’t as convenient, as you must transfer trains to get to the city. Of course, it’s very doable, but not as convenient as a direct journey.

Christmas lights on the shrubs and trees outside a hotel in Paris
Many hotels offer airport transport. Check with your hotel, as it is usually required to arrange the shuttle in advance.

Paris Train Station

Traveling to Paris from another city in Europe? Arriving via train couldn’t be simpler. The busiest train station in Paris is Gare du Nord, although there are six regional train stations in Paris. Gare du Nord is the terminal for the Paris to London Eurostar.

Use the TrainLine, Omio, RailEurope or SNCF to book a train to Paris online. 

How to Get Around Paris: Understanding Public Transportation

Do as the Parisians do – walk! Paris is the most walkable city, and walking presents opportunities that can’t be found on a bus or a train, like stumbling upon the open-air book shops along the Seine. 

However, sometimes it is more efficient to use the public transportation in Paris. The RATP is the public transportation network made up of the subway/metro, buses and regional trains.

A sidewalk bookstore in Paris located by the Seine River
The best way to get around in Paris? Walk! That way, you stumble upon some of Paris’ gems, like these sidewalk bookstores.

CityMapper App in Paris

Download the CityMapper app before your trip to Paris. This app is much more effective and accurate throughout France than Google Maps. CityMapper provides all options for getting from place to place using the RATP (bus, metro or a combination). Not only is it simple to navigate, but there are not any advertisements or pop-ups requesting an upgrade to a paid, premium subscription.

Paris Metro

There is an official Paris Metro app, but I suggest using CityMapper to navigate the metro. It operates like Google Maps and Apple Maps in that the GPS directs you to the nearest station, informs you of the exact train number, prompts you how to transfer lines, etc. Gone are the days of searching for the printed map in the station and wondering when the next train arrives. Even without CityMapper (or another app), the Paris metro is easy to navigate. The train lines are marked by number and color, and clear signage throughout the station ensures you board the train in your intended direction.

A screenshot from a GPS app of directions for getting around Paris using public transportation.
The CityMapper app helps you navigate public transportation in Paris. It’s more effective and accurate than Google Maps, so be sure to download it before your trip to Paris.

How to Buy Metro Tickets in Paris

A single destination ticket can be purchased, but the packet of 10 tickets is more affordable per journey. Self-service kiosks, operating in a variety of languages, are in each train station. After purchasing a ticket, head to the turnstiles toward the train platforms. Put your ticket in the machine (almost always on the right). The machine takes your ticket (like a vending machine takes cash) and dispenses the ticket back to you with a light mark on the back of the ticket. Then, you are free to push through the gates. Never throw your ticket away until exiting the station of your destination, as a RATP attendant may ask to see your ticket at any point in the journey.

Travel Tip: If you are having trouble with the ticket machine, go to the ticket counter and speak to the staff member behind the desk. Don’t accept help from an unsolicited stranger. Train stations all over the world are a place for scammers. There’s more on pickpocketing and scams toward the end of this guide.

Bus in Paris

The buses are equally as easy to navigate. Simply input your destination into CityMapper, and the app will direct you to the closest bus station and indicate the correct bus line. Tickets for the bus and metro can be used interchangeably. In some cases, the fastest journey consists of the metro and bus. Do not buy a second ticket. You have 90 minutes to transfer from bus to metro (or vice versa) using the same ticket.

A riverboat in Paris carrying passengers down the Seine River.
Why not see Paris from a different angle? Cruise along the Seine River.

River Transport in Paris

Want to see the city from the Seine? Ride the Batobus, which is the riverboat that stops at many popular spots along the Seine. It operates like a hop-on, hop-off bus in that it allows unlimited rides within a fixed time frame. The shortest duration is 24 hours. 

Electric Scooter Rentals in Paris

Like many big cities, the rentable electric scooter market hit Paris. There are several companies to choose from, although Lime is the most popular. Most services charge by the minute. Download the app and choose an available scooter (usually found scattered on the sidewalk) to start the journey.

Note: Riding on the sidewalk is not permitted and expect a fine if stopped. Cities around the world are frequently changing the rules on scooters so do a quick Google search to ensure you are compliant with the city’s laws.

A blonde young woman on a bike in Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
One of my favorite ways to get around Paris (in the summer) is by bike.

Bike Rentals in Paris

Very similar to scooter rentals, Vélib is the bike-sharing service in Paris. The first 30 minutes of the journey is free.

Hop On, Hop Off Bus

Not only is the Hop On, Hop Off tour bus a fantastic way to see the major sites, it’s also an efficient method of transportation. Like the riverboat ferry, a ticket provides unlimited transport for a duration of time. Although more expensive than the metro or bus system, the tours are educational and informative. The tour operator provides headphones to plug in at your seat, and the audio can be played in several languages. Purchase your ticket on the bus. Simply find the nearest bus stop, and wait for the next bus. Stops are clearly marked around tourist sites.

Traffic along a busy street in Paris. The trees and buildings along the street at lit with Christmas lights.
Avoid renting a car in Paris. Just look at this traffic!

French Meal Times

Breakfast in Paris

Are eggs, bacon and pancakes your kind of breakfast? Mine, too. But finding it in Paris is difficult. A typical breakfast in Paris is light (if it’s even consumed at all). An espresso and croissant (or light pastry) are more reflective of a Parisian breakfast. Espressos, café crème (coffee with steamed milk and foam) and café au lait (coffee with warm milk) are popular caffeinated beverages. Parisians love their juices, as well! 

An egg sandwich and blue cup of coffee in a Paris breakfast spot.
In need of that All-American breakfast? Head to Neighbours, a specialty coffee shop serving delicious breakfast, lunch and dinner. It straddles the third and eleventh arrondissement on Boulevard Beaumarchais, a popular shopping street.

Lunch in Paris

Restaurants in Paris serve lunch from around noon to 2 p.m. (14 hrs). Although many cafés and restaurants remain open all day, the kitchen typically closes between the two services. During this window of time, coffee, tea and other beverages are served but not food! So, plan your day accordingly. However, a crêpe from a street vendor makes the best takeaway snack should you miss lunch, and there are crêpe stands and trucks all over Paris.

Dinner in Paris

Dinner service typically begins at 7:30 p.m. (19:30 hrs). Parisians dine later than most Americans, so expect the restaurants to start filling up around 8:30 p.m. (20:30 hrs) or even 9 p.m. (21 hrs). The dining experience in Paris is a lengthy engagement. A French course consists of an appetizer, entree, cheese and dessert. Do as the French do and end the meal with an espresso! Feeling rushed in a restaurant is not common in Paris so enjoy the dining experience. When you are ready to leave, ask for the bill. It will not be brought to the table until you request it. 

An outdoor cafe in Paris
Paris is well-known for its outdoor cafes. Be sure to visit one (or two or three or four!).

What to Eat in Paris

Like any big city, you can find the highest quality of international cuisine in Paris. But you’re in Paris so indulge in French cuisine. Some staples are baguettes, croissants, macarons, éclairs, pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant), crêpes, quiche, oysters, mussels, coq au vin (braised chicken) and of course, escargot. 

Perhaps my favorite Parisian lunch is the Croque Monsieur and Croque Madame. The Croque Monsieur is a warm ham and cheese sandwich (like a panini). The Croque Madame adds an egg to the sandwich.

Finally, many restaurants offer a “plat du jour,” which is the recommended dish of that day. Ordering it allows you to try a French specialty. Plus, it tends to be cheaper than the other entrees. Win, win!

Related Reading: The French take their cuisine and dining very seriously. So do the Italians. Check out this travel guide to Ravello, a charming town on Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

Tipping in Paris Restaurants

Tipping in Paris is not expected or necessary. Servers do not rely on gratuity as part of their wages, and you may even notice that service is listed on your bill. However, every now and then a server goes above and beyond. Feel free to leave a small tip or round up (such as leaving 20 euros for a 19-euro bill). 

Outdoor steps that have been painted a variety of colors in Montmartre in Paris.
Check out the Montmartre neighborhood in Paris for authentic, local restaurants and cafés. Afterward, you can walk off your meal on the neighborhood’s many steps – like this one.

Tap Water in Paris

The tap water in Paris is perfectly safe to drink and completely free. In a restaurant, the server will ask you if you prefer sparkling or gas water (which tastes divine but is not free). So if you prefer water from the tap, request “l’eau du robinet.”

The French aren’t stingy with their tap water, either. Prepare for a pitcher of water to arrive at your table. After a recent trip to Barcelona (where we felt we were begging for water in restaurants), it was nice to not bother the server for refills.

Travel Tip: Be friendly on the environment and save space in your suitcase with this collapsible water bottle. It easily rolls up!

Café Culture in Paris

The most quintessential Parisian experience is sipping coffee or tea in an outdoor café. Even in the winter, cafés spill out on the sidewalks, and Parisians bundle up under heaters. The Saint Germain neighborhood is known for its historic cafés, which were visited by famous artists, intellectuals, politicians and historical figures. 

In most cafés, there is no need to wait for a hostess/host to seat you; just sit down at an open table. In a restaurant or more formal café, ask a staff person if you don’t see a host stand. Learn to say, “Table pour duex, s’il vous plaît,” which translates to “table for two, please.”

A dessert from Angelina Cafe, a historic cafe in Paris.
Angelina is one of the most popular historic cafés in Paris. It opened its doors in 1903 and became well-known for its hot chocolate and Mont-Blanc dessert. This spaghetti looking dessert is so sweet. Split it with a group.

Specialty Shops in Paris

France is well-known for its boulangeries, fromageries and pâtisseries. Let’s decode the French terms so you’re comfortable entering these shops:

Boulangerie

All about the bread! Look for an artisan boulangerie for the freshest bread baked on-site.

Fromagerie

For the highest quality and best selection of cheese, visit a local fromagerie. 

The green exterior of a tea room in Paris with three tables on the sidewalk.
Bonus: This shop is a pâtisserie and tea house in one.

Pâtisserie

This shop is all about the sweets – pastries and desserts. Be sure to try macarons and éclairs in Paris. 

Boucherie

If you plan to cook on your trip to Paris, visit a boucherie for high-quality meats. Even if you aren’t cooking in, pick up meats for a homemade charcuterie and cheese tray. Then, enjoy it in a local park or garden. 

Salon de Thé

Ah, the best for last! A tea house or tea room is called Salon de Thé in Paris.

One of the best views in Paris is here from the Sacre-Coeur, which looks over the buildings of Paris.
Pickpocketing usually happens in large crowds. Be mindful at busy sights such as the Sacre-Coeur.

Safety in Paris

We all know unfortunate incidents can happen anywhere. Be vigilant about pickpocketing and scams near major tourist attractions. Pickpocketing tends to happen in large crowds, such as rush hour on the metro. Be mindful in these situations. Scammers prey on easy targets, so make it difficult for them and they will move on to someone else.

Scams in Paris

Beware of groups of young, teenage girls asking you to sign a piece of paper (such as a petition). While you are signing or conversing with them, someone in the group pickpockets you. Another common scam is teenage boys and young men asking to tie a bracelet around your arm and/or show you a trick. Then, they demand you pay them to take the bracelet off. These guys are out in full force near the Sacré-Coeur. They are aggressive (mostly verbally). If you stop and talk to them, it’s much harder to get away. Just ignore them.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris lit up at dusk.
Be mindful of pickpockets outside the Eiffel Tower and other crowded tourist sites in Paris.

Lastly, many people sell souvenirs (mini Eiffel Towers, magnets, bags, etc.) outside of the Eiffel Tower and Sacré-Coeur and on Champs-Élysées. Once you take an interest in a souvenir, the sales tactics may become pushy. It’s not a scam but be aware. 

Travel Tip: I purchased this emergency whistle in the event I find myself in a very bad situation. It is intended for weather-related emergencies, such as being lost on a lake or while hiking. However, I believe it serves the same purpose. I sure hope I never need to use it, but it brings me comfort knowing it’s in my pocket.

Smart Traveler Enrollment Program

Finally, register your international travels with the United States State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (or the department/program that is comparable in your home country). In the event of an emergency or disruption (such as a strike), the State Department sends email updates to keep its citizens informed. Most of the time the security alerts aren’t major emergencies, but it’s nice to know what is going on in the city you are in. 

Feeling prepared for your Paris trip? Now, you are ready to plan all the fun things to do in Paris. Or check out these other European guides for more travel inspiration.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. travelingness says:

    Excellent tips on what to know when traveling to Paris for the first time! My first time there I struggled with navigating the metro but that was before social media and apps! Knowing the basics before going makes it so much easier once there. 🙂

    1. I agree. It’s so funny how much social media and apps have changed the way we travel! Some times I purposely try to get lost, but it’s not the same when I know I can easily pull out my phone and get back on track.

  2. What a comprehensive guide! And your photos are just stunning. I’ve been to France but for some reason I’ve never been to Paris. I love the idea of walking and biking to explore the city.

    1. Yes, biking is a fantastic way to get around. You’ll have to make it to Paris sometime (although there are so many other wonderful places in France so I can see why you haven’t been to Paris yet!).

  3. anth0nyr0yer says:

    This is a very comprehensive post, all one needs to prepare their Paris visit! Looks like you had a great time in Paris. Have you been to the Père Lachaise cemetery by any chance? It’s one of my favourite places. By the way, the sidewalk book sellers are something of an institution – they’re called “Bouquinistes”.

    1. Ah, thanks for sharing the name! I knew the book vendors were iconic and have been around for centuries – should have known they had an official name. It is so neat to browse through their stands. Also, I haven’t been to the cemetery yet, but I have read that it’s gorgeous and a special space to walk through. The beauty of Paris is that there is so much to do – you have to keep coming back!

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