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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.”
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:
All about the bread! Look for an artisan boulangerie for the freshest bread baked on-site.
For the highest quality and best selection of cheese, visit a local fromagerie.
This shop is all about the sweets – pastries and desserts. Be sure to try macarons and éclairs in Paris.
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.
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.
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.