Feature Friday | The Insider's Guide to Paris
Oh Beautiful, Romantic, Stylish Paris.
You have one hell of a reputation. You are cool, individual, pretty, diverse and a massive,massive Tourist Trap!
Being one of the most photographed cities in the world and with movies such as Midnight in Paris, Before Sunrise and my personal favourite Moulin Rouge, being set in this romantic city, it is of no surprise that it's high on most people's bucket lists'.
But do we really need to hit all the famous landmarks we see in pictures and guides? Ashley doesn't think so. In fact, in her guide the less time spent in Tourist queue's means the more of the "Real" Paris you'll experience.
I love controversy so let's dive right in!
Reason for Visit
I’ve been to Paris six times, living there for 10 months when I was in college. It is my absolute favorite place in the whole world, except the place I live (Nashville, TN). Whenever people visit Paris, they ask me for ideas of what to see or do and are always surprised that I don’t recommend the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower or Les Champs Elysees. Those are not my Paris. My Paris hides from the tourists, offers delicious cheap house wine, and specializes in quiet moments. My Paris is a maze of side streets and parks, smaller ticket attractions with big photo op's, affordable restaurants and accommodations that will let you live like a local.
Airport: Charles de Gaulle is the easiest option.
Currency: the Euro!
Best time to go: Not only can the summer be boiling hot but July and August are the two months that all of Europe goes on vacation so either it’ll be jam-packed with fellow tourists or it’ll be empty because everyone left and half of the shops and cafes are closed. The spring can be a bit rainy but that means fewer people and cooler temperatures. My favorite time to visit is Sept-Oct (nice weather, fewer tourists, just beautiful!) but if I were going to Paris, I wouldn’t be picky about time of year (except not in August, never again! And probably not January as it’s cold and grey and dreary.)
How to get around:
· Walk! Paris is not a huge city. You can literally walk top to bottom in 2 hours. (Not kidding, I’ve done it.) Walking allows you to diverge from your path, stumble upon small neighborhood parks and dive bars, and gives you lots of photo opportunities along the way. It’s my favorite way to explore any new city or to enjoy familiar ones.
· Cabs: My least favorite way to get around unless you’re in the mood for an adrenaline-filled life-or-death ride. They cram in extra lanes of traffic, don’t always look out for pedestrians and aren’t always the friendliest. We only took one cab on our last trip, just because we were dragging a bunch of luggage from our apartment to the train station, and it was fine; we survived, it wasn’t expensive, and the guy was nice enough. But I’ve had some terrible cab experiences and this is at the bottom of my list.
· Uber: Regardless of where I am, I find Uber drivers to be more careful than cab drivers, and I like the convenience of hailing a ride from my phone, tracking our route, and rating our drivers. This isn’t an option, obviously, if you don’t have an international data plan (and I don’t think you need one to get around) so I actually haven’t used Uber in Paris.
· Subway! The Paris metro is, in my opinion, one of the finest in the world (but don’t get into a fight with a New Yorker about this! Haha) and it’s one of the easiest to navigate. But it can be intimidating if you don’t speak the language. You can buy “carnets” (packets) of 10 tickets at a time from the kiosks, or if you’ll be there for a long time buy a long-term metro pass. Some key things to know:
o Signs with the M in a circle = Metro = Subway. Just your regular run of the mill subway line, going from Destination A to Destination B. You don’t need to know north or south or east or west; just know which destination, A or B, is in the direction of where you’re headed and go to that ‘quais’ (platform).
o Signs with RER in a circle = metro/subway trains that go out to the suburbs. If you take the train from the airport into the city, you’ll be on an RER. If you go out to DisneyLand Paris, you’ll be on the RER. Rides within the city on either the M or the RER cost the same.
o Zones: There are 5 Metro Zones, and you probably will stay within Zones 1 and 2 the entire time, unless you head out to La Défense, which is Zone 3, or Versailles in Zone 4.
o Ask for help! Living in a super tourist destination, Parisians are used to people not knowing what they’re doing. Ask one of the cashiers, or even a fellow traveler. Say “Excusez-moi, pouvez-vous m’aider?” and smile. (Don’t worry, there’s a quick phrase cheat sheet below!)
Arrondissements: Say it with me: “Air-en-deece-mon.” This word looks complicated but it’s one of the most genius things about Paris. The city is divided into neighborhoods, but unlike say parts of Chicago, Barcelona or London where the neighborhood names don’t tell you where they are, the arrondissements of Paris are numbered and arranged in a clock-wise snail shell. Take some time before your trip to learn the basic layout of the spiral so when someone tells you “Oh, it’s in the 8th” or “That’s in the 20th” you don’t feel like a total noob.
Each arrondissment is like its own little town, with its own personality and specialties. The 3rd and 4th, the Marais (the swamp) is the historically gay and Jewish district (recommend for those who like the trendy, spendiness of San Francisco). The 5th, the Latin Quarter, is full of students and home to Rue Mouffetard (mentioned below). The 1st is kind of commercial and the Paris you see in commercials; le tour Eiffel is in the 7th; the 6th is full of tourists but an iconic example of the Left Bank; the 11th is loud and fun but not completely gentrified; the 14th is residential; the 18th is not a place you’d hang out at night; the larger the number, the further outside the center of the city you get and the more into some interesting, ungentrified ethnic neighborhoods that might be a little rough around the edges and are definitely worth checking out but maybe not great places for first-timers to stay.
Hint: If you look up addresses of places, the zip code will tell you which arrondissement it’s in! 75001 = the 1st, 75002 = the 2nd, 75003 = the 3rd, etc.
What must we Do?
The first thing on the to do is very, very important but might be difficult for some: make a decision to enjoy a different Paris, not the Paris in your guidebooks, not the Paris you think you want. Once you accept that you might not see the Eiffel Tower, except from a distance, and might not even go to the world’s most famous art museum (don’t hyperventilate!), and decide to take it easy, inhale the city, and experience it in a different way, I promise you will have an amazing time.
Visit each arrondissement. This was one of my favorite adventures when I lived in the city. I spread it out over months, but you could make a couple days of it and see every side of the city. You’ll get to see how Parisians live by visiting the residential neighborhoods. Have a coffee in a side café in the 13th where no one speaks English. Grab a bottle of water from a little shop in the 12th. Cross the bridges in the 16th, 4th and 12th to see totally different faces of the city. Be brave, be bold, and explore!
Have a picnic. I don’t mean a cheesy picnic basket full of chocolate covered strawberries. Just grab a quick snack from a 8 à 8 (think: 7/11 or Kwik Mart), a bottle of wine, a panini, whatever, and go sit in a parc or on le pont des arts (the famous ‘lock’ bridge) and just take in the city, the people, the energy, the history.
Check out the markets like a local. Rue Mouffetard Market in the 5th (and right around the corner is Hemingway’s old apartment). Marché des Enfants Rouge in the 3rd is the oldest market in Paris, built in 1615! Marché aux Puces is the most famous Flea Market but also the most crowded, so you could check out the one by place d’Aligre in the 12th which is also right by the Marché d’Aligre food market.
In the 5th: Stroll through the Jardin des Plantes, stopping to literally smell the flowers. Pay to go inside le Panthéon and pay your respects to Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, Voltaire and other historical giants. Touch a piece of the original wall that surrounded Paris (remnants exist throughout the city with signs; one of the oldest is on Rue Clovis). Buy some books at Shakespeare and Company, a little English-language bookshop on the Seine (so you can head on over to Notre Dame and Point Zèro, the point from which all distances in France are measured from).
In the 7th: Skip the Eiffel Tower and head underground to the Musée des Égouts to take a fascinating tour of the sewers of Paris.
In the 10th: Have a drink by the Canal Saint-Martin.
In the 15th: Take your photo with the mini Statue of Liberty on Pont de Grenelle. Kiss your lover on the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.
See incredible views of the city from the 16th, the base of Sacrè Coeur, Parc de Belleville in the 20th, or the hills of Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
Outside of the City: Relax for an afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne, just outside the 16th on the other side of the Périphérique (the highway that circles Paris). Skip Disneyland Paris (it’s a copy of the Magic Kingdom in Orlando or Disneyland in California but with signs in French) and head to Parc Asterix for a fun, local theme park experience. Day trip to Mont Saint-Michel – if I had to pick between this or Versailles, I’d pick Mont Saint Michel every time; it looks like Hogwarts!
Or Ignore all of these suggestions. Walk around. Stop when you see something interesting. Go to hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Be brave and ask your waiter or bartender for advice on where to go next. Paris can be intimidating with its reputation but try out some of the phrases in the language cheat sheet below, smile and let them know you’re interested in seeing how they live. Give yourself permission to miss the big stuff and relax. When I took my husband last summer for his first time, we didn’t see: Sacré Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, les Champs Elysees, Musée d’Orsay, le Moulin Rouge…. It sounds like I didn’t take him anywhere, but we spent three days walking hand-in-hand, eating mussels and roast chicken and baguettes and crêpes, drinking vin de maison, kissing on bridges, and doing something I never let myself do: relax. It was LOVELY and my husband loved the vibe of the city.
Where should We Eat?
Literally anywhere. Okay, that is an exaggeration, but you’re in Paris and, just like New York, you can close your eyes, spin around in a circle, point and end up in a fantastic little café. You’ve probably never heard of it, it won’t have Michelin stars, and heck it might not even have a website (Gasp!) but the food will be good, inexpensive and there’s always delicious house wine.
95% of the places post menus outside (often in English) so you can examine your options before sitting down. They always have multiple “prix fixe” (fixed price) menu options and I recommend picking one instead of eating à la carte. And if one place doesn’t have something you want, move on down to the next. Good food is always a stone’s throw from wherever you’re standing.
If you’re staying on the left bank, though, go to Rue Mouffetard and turn down Rue de Pot de Fer, a tiny side street with tons of eating options. I’ve always found something good in that area. And if you’re staying in the 4th, check out Restaurant Les Sommets de l’Himalaya for some Indian food.
Where Can We Drink?
Beer: Brewberry Beer Cellar in the 5th; La Moustache Blanche or the Bears’ Den (also a gay bar) in the 4th; La Fine Mousee in the 11th; and les Trois 8 in the 20th.
Wine: Everywhere. Don’t order expensive bottles at restaurants; ask for “une carrafe du vin de maison” (a carafe of the house wine), “rouge” (red) or “blanc” (white).
Cocktails: The craft cocktail scene hasn’t really hit Europe yet but it’s slowly starting to pick up. If you like Rum, check out La Rhumerie, in the 6th. Their servers are super knowledgeable, friendly and speak fantastic English. If you don’t mind paying $15 for an expertly crafted drink, check out Little Bastards off of Place de la Contrascarpe in the 5th.
Locals bars: The Moose, a Canadian bar, in the 6th; Black Dog, a metal bar, in the 4th; le Lèche Vin, in the 11th, definitely a locals place. The décor is religious but the bathroom is…well… you’ll just have to see for yourself here
Any street café or brasserie: The great thing about European cities is that cafes serve booze and coffee, so whatever you’re in the mood for can be accommodated anywhere. Grab a table (notice the chairs face the street, so you can people watch!), order a beer or wine, snack on the little bowl of nuts they bring, and enjoy the fact that you’re in Paris!
On your own: Paris does not have open-container laws, so pick up a cheap Côtes du Rhones (you don’t need to spend more than a few euros on a tasty bottle of wine; 10 euros would be a splurge), some fromage and croissants and people-watch along la Seine or in any of the small parks you find throughout.
Where Shall We Stay?
I will not recommend hotels because that will not give you a local experience and are full of tourists! Rent an apartment from AirBNB or ParisAttitude.com.
First time to Paris? Stay in a more central neighborhood: 1 – 7 or 11.
I like the 5th, the oldest arrondissement in the city, for a more casual, central, youthful left-bank experience. It’s easy to get around from those areas, they’re safe, and has enough restaurants, bars, parks, historical attractions and streets to explore to keep you busy for days.
I’m more of a left-banker but have had a great time staying in the 11th. And I’d stay in the 1st if I wanted to get my history on (lots of historical attractions nearby such as les Tuileries, Pont Neuf, le Louvre; and lots of shopping at Les Halles and Rue de Rivoli) and didn’t mind a bit of activity.
Anything to Avoid?
Avoid getting ripped off. Montmartre has kind of bad reputation for being seedy (kind of), full of sex shops (accurate), a place where tourists lose their money to con men and pickpockets (also true). Hordes of guys peddling keychains and friendship bracelets will swarm you at the base of Sacré Coeur (and sometimes the Eiffel Tower); don’t let them put anything on your body; wear your purse cross-body; keep an eye on your valuables; and don’t get suckered into playing the “Where’s the ball?” game. Keep your voice low so they can’t hear you speak English and if they persist, tell them to leave you alone -- “laisse-moi” (less-mwah) – or to go away– “casse-toi” (kass-twah).
I hate crowds, get anxious in small cramped spaces, and do not like paying $20 to stand in line, so I usually avoid riding the Montmartre Funicular (just take the stairs and burn off all of the croissants!), going to the top of the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe (there are other great views), or visiting crowded museums (the whole city is a museum!).
Avoid les Champs Elysées. There, I said it. Yes, it’s pretty but in the end it’s just a street with high-end shopping, like 5th Avenue or Rodeo Drive, and overpriced crêpes you have to eat with a fork. Go to Rue de Rivoli for more affordable shopping and do not let me catch you eating a crêpe with a fork!! Go to any crêpe vendor on any street, and hold it in a paper envelope in your hands like a civilized person!
Why The Heck Should We Go?
Paris is a classic destination, the one place everyone always wants to visit when they go to Europe. But too often I hear tales of long lines at big attractions, costly hotels and meals, and less-than-stellar experiences in one of the most beautiful and history-filled cities in the world.
You should go to walk down cobblestone streets while munching on a freshly baked baguette, to witness a juxtaposition between incredibly old and brand new that just doesn’t exist anywhere in America, to feel in love with your partner, yourself or just the city itself. You should go to drink cheap wine you can’t get at home, eat sweet crêpes on your way to the subway, and stroll through markets with the locals. You should go to Paris not to check things off but to truly experience one of the most romantic, beautiful, historic and delicious cities in Europe.
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Meet the Author
I’m a remote-working, musical-loving 30-something living with my husband and our two cats in Nashville. I run the production department for a small elearning company, am an advocate of remote work, and try to balance my Netflix habit by reading too many books at one time. Inspired by my grandmother’s typewritten travel memoirs that she gave to me in a three-ring binder, I wanted to start documenting my own travel adventures for posterity, so I started a travel blog to share stories from my travels, both past and present. Check out her blog: https://noplacelikeanywhere.com/
Woah! What a thorough guide. So much amazing information and advice, get me on a plane now! What do you think everyone? Would you be happy to visit Paris and not see all the major sites? Have you already done it? Let us know below.