Paris is a wonderful city to explore for anyone visiting Europe for the first time. It’s a big, beautiful, and has so much to offer. However, if you’ve never been, you might be a little nervous and have a few questions. This first timer’s guide to Paris will help you with planning from when to go to what area to stay in to see the most sights by foot.
Let’s get planning
- We loved being in Paris in early fall. It was still warm enough not to need a heavy coat, but cool enough that we weren’t sweating while walking around the city.
- It rained one evening while we were there, but nothing crazy. We were thankful to have our small umbrella and rain jackets. Better to be prepared than not!
- Paris wasn’t as crowded as I was expecting. I’m not sure if this was the time of year or if we just got lucky.
- Summer and spring are also great times to travel to Paris. Just keep in mind that many accommodations will not have AC. If this is something that you absolutely need, the sweltering summer may not be the best time for you (or just make sure your hotel/Airbnb has AC). Spring is beautiful with flowers starting to bloom and many hours of daylight.
- The 7th arr. is close to the Eiffel Tower. We could see it from the window of this Airbnb! Do you know how much hotels cost with a view of the Eiffel Tower? A LOT.
- It was perfect for 2 people. 3 people could work, but it would be tight and you would need to be really friendly with each other. The space was small, but it was normal for Paris. There was no AC, but there was a fan that worked well for us. We also kept the windows open at night. There was a small kitchen with a little refrigerator that we used to keep breakfast and picnic items. Two 2 grocery stores were right across from it which made buying picnic supplies really easy (a serious must-do).
- There were 2 flights of stairs to get up to the apartment and no elevator. Many apartments in Paris are like this. It’s rare to find an elevator.
- Overall, it was a fantastic experience and we would definitely stay there again.
- Update: It looks like this Airbnb isn’t available right now, so here are a few similar options in the exact same area:
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Transportation: Walking & Metro
- We used the metro way more than we thought we would. Keep this in mind when you arrive. We should have bought a book of metro tickets when we arrived at Gare Nord from Brussels. We honestly didn’t think we’d use it very much. The book will save you a bit of time and money, so even if you don’t use them all (which you probably will) I still think it’s worth it to buy instead of doing single tickets each time.
- The buses take metro tickets! I seriously didn’t think we would ever use a bus, but it turned out to be the best option for us to get to the Louvre first thing in the morning on a Saturday. Once we figured it out, it was so easy. But not knowing about it ahead of time really threw us through a loop.
- Bring your walking shoes! From our Airbnb, we could walk to the Eiffel Tower, Trocadero, Arc de Triomphe, and the Champs Elysees. Everything else was a short ride on the metro.
- If you don’t already have it, download Google maps. You can use their maps offline, however, we did have service while we were over there. Before we would go anywhere, Eric would look up the route we were taking and took a screenshot. This way, if we didn’t have service, we could still easily look at the directions. Google Maps saved us while we were there. I don’t think we would have been able to navigate the metro half as well as we did without it.
Arrondissements or Neighborhoods
- Paris is split up into 20 different neighborhoods. They are called Arrondissements (abbreviated “arr.”). I found that understanding how these neighborhoods are laid out helped us when we were planning where to stay and our itinerary as a whole.
- I am a visual person, so if you are too, refer to the map below to understand how they are laid out. It’s basically a spiral with the higher numbers on the outer rings. To get your bearings, the Eiffel Tower is in the 7th, The Notre Dame is in the 4th, Montmartre is in between the 17th and the 18th, and The Louvre is in the 1st.
- The reason why I am an advocate for the 7th is not that it is close to the Eiffel Tower (however, that was nice when we walked over for the sunrise), it’s because it didn’t feel touristy. It felt like a nice, calm, Parisian neighborhood with lots of families. We saw parents walking with their kids every morning. Never once did we feel unsafe or uneasy while walking in this area during the day or night. Paris was only 3 days of our big Europe trip, but it felt more like we were living there rather than just visiting.
- You do not need to know French to have a wonderful time in Paris. I’d say 95% of the people we interacted with spoke English. However, please do yourself a favor a learn a few keywords. Disclaimer: The pronunciations below were completely made up by me to help an American say the words with an American accent. I am aware that a French person would never pronounce Merci as Mare-SEE.
- Thank you = Merci (Mare-SEE)
- Excuse me = Pardon (say it like you normally would, but leave the ‘n’ off or make it really soft)
- Please = s’il vous plait (See-voo-play)
- Cheese = fromage (fro-mahj)
- Wine = vin (again, don’t pronounce the ‘n’)
- If you want to learn more, download the Duolingo app on your phone. It’s a fantastic way to learn a language, even if you just want to know a few key words and phrases.
- This was one of my favorite things we did in every city we visited in Europe. We were a little nervous at first since we had never bought groceries in another country before. We didn’t know the rules or what was considered ‘good’ (you know what not to buy in your home grocery store). Don’t miss out on this! Buying interesting cheeses, bread, and wine was so fun and we even were able to get our toiletries there too.
- Here’s what we bought:
- Breakfast items: yogurt, bananas, croissants
- Cheese: brie and mimolette are my favorite. Brie is a soft mild cheese, mimolette is a bright orange hard cheese; it has a bite like parmesan or cheddar. We couldn’t find a reasonably sized wheel of brie for our picnic so we went with camembert which is very similar to brie.
- Wine: you really can’t go wrong, just make sure what you’re buying is made in France. No sense in going to one of the wine capitals of the world and getting a wine made in California!
- For toiletries: shampoo and lotion – Le Petit Marseillais. Klorane is another great shampoo/conditioner. They will have brands you’ll recognize by the label, but everything on the bottle will be in French, obviously. Do yourself a favor and get Evian face mist. It’s so refreshing and helps set your makeup. We had a really hard time finding sunscreen, believe it or not. So this is something I would bottle at home and bring as a carry-on (or in your checked luggage if you’re going that route).
- Buy more bottled water than you think you’ll need. Bring some with you while you’re walking around. It’s not something you’ll think about until you’re dying of thirst with only expensive cafes surrounding you. You’ll be walking a lot more than you’re used to (probably) so you’ll need to hydrate more often.
- Don’t be nervous about the language barrier. One of the non-English speaking people we encountered was at the grocery store. It didn’t matter. We put our things down on the counter, he rang them up, the price showed on the screen, and we swiped our credit card. No words needed.
- Don’t go without a reusable grocery bag! If you read my Travel Favorites post, you know one of my favorite travel items is this reusable shopping bag. It folds down smaller than a wallet and weighs practically nothing. In Paris, most grocery stores will charge you for disposable bags. They will expect you to have your own bag and to bag your own items. Be prepared! You’ll look like you know what you’re doing even if it’s your first time ever setting foot in a Parisian grocery store. Keep it in your day pack just in case you decide to pop in a grocery store on your way back from sightseeing.
- One of my biggest fears as we were going from city to city, was sitting down at a tourist trap cafe or restaurant. Luckily this only happened to us once when we were on the island of Capri. Paris is known for its food, so make sure you take advantage! You don’t need tons of money to eat incredible things.
- Here are some tips to avoid those touristy restaurants:
- Try to avoid cafes that are actively trying to pull you in; they are desperate for a reason. We didn’t notice this as much in Paris as we did other cities.
- Observe. If there are lots of locals, it’s probably a safe bet.
- When all else fails, go to a grocery store. You can buy pre-made sandwiches or get fresh ingredients to make your own. We did this so many times all over Europe. It was fun to explore different grocery stores and we saved quite a lot of money doing this.
- Our favorite meal of our entire time in Paris was when we bought picnic items at the grocery store and ate everything on a bench by the Eiffel Tower. We did this for dinner on our last night it was the most fun and least expensive meal of our time there. We even had leftovers for snacks for our train journey to Switzerland the next day!
Credit Cards vs. Cash and Tipping
- You should not have any issues using credit cards while you’re in Paris. It is a big city and unless you’re going to a produce market or a tiny stand somewhere, you should be able to use your credit card.
- IMPORTANT: Make sure your credit card company knows that you’ll be traveling abroad. Double check this. We have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. We called them to let them know, but we still had problems when we reached Brussels. Chase was so great and fixed this immediately, but we were fumbling a bit when we were trying to buy train tickets straight off of our flight from Atlanta.
- Speaking of this card, if you’re looking to get a new credit card to help you travel more, this is the one to get. Free lounge access at airports around the world, $300 travel credit every year, use points towards flights, hotels, and experiences (we’ve done all 3). The sign-up bonus if you use my link is 50,000 points after spending $4,000 on the card within the first months. Those points are worth $750 in travel rewards when you book through their site. That’s 2 round trip airfare tickets or a really nice hotel stay! Not to mention the card is really cool because it’s made out of a special type of metal. Click here to sign up!
- Tipping is unnecessary and if you use a credit card, you might not even get the option to do so. It was actually kind of refreshing; zero pressure.
- Whenever you use your credit card to pay for something and get the option to pay in Euros or USD, choose Euro. I’m not sure why, but we got a better exchange rate doing it that way. We found this out mid-trip.
- Don’t go to Paris with preconceived notions that all Parisians are snobby and rude. This is just not true.
- Parisians are quiet (for the most part) and keep to themselves. They do not smile constantly like Americans. This is where the “rudeness” may come across. In the US, everyone smiles and if you’re having a good time, you might be a little loud. It’s a cultural difference. You won’t get a “warm and fuzzy” feeling when you go to a restaurant and this doesn’t mean the people are rude, it’s just how they are. So don’t immediately assume a waiter is being rude if he doesn’t smile when he shows up to your table.
Be Aware of Scammers
- As with any big city, be aware of pickpockets. Don’t keep anything in your back pockets. If you’re in a crowded area, put your day pack in the front of you. If you can avoid bringing a purse, do it.
- The area around the Eiffel Tower and the base of Montmartre are the worst. This is not the time to be nice and chatty. Firmly say no and don’t make eye contact. If someone touches you, immediately walk away. One of the biggest scams we saw was where a man would come up to a woman and start making a bracelet on their wrist. Once he was finished, he would expect payment. I had a guy approach me when we were walking back at night from Montmartre. He physically grabbed my arm and tried to put a bracelet on me. I jerked my arm away and said “DO NOT TOUCH ME” as loud as I possibly could. Eric was with me, but it still scared me since it was late and he grabbed me. Never stop, never say anything but “no”. Do not buy any cheap trinkets from them. I know it sounds harsh and they are just trying to make a living, but it will never end if there’s money to be made. If you must get souvenirs, spend your money at a brick and mortar store. They need your money just as much, if not more than the street vendors.
This is a big deal to me which is why I saved it for last. No matter where you’re traveling, you are in someone else’s home. What you’re used to may not be the norm.
- Be kind and courteous. Say please and thank you in the native language. They are the easiest words and they may be the only words you know. USE THEM! You may not say them correctly, but the fact that you are trying means so much. There is an assumption that all Americans expect everyone around the world to speak English. The reality is that most people do, but you should never assume. We expect people that visit the US to be able to speak English… don’t be a hypocrite.
- Parisians are not loud and tend to keep to themselves. When you are riding the metro, visiting a museum, sitting in a quiet cafe, be aware of others around you. Try not to be boisterous. Blend in with the locals.
All of the advice above is based off my personal experiences in Paris as well as the extensive research I did ahead of our trip. Of course, I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments! Do you have any extra tips you’d add for first timers?