Know Before You Go: Paris

If Paris is a croissant, crafted with immeasurable pride, kneaded by the hands of many, some visitors only get a taste of the flaky exterior. Whether you’re traveling for a long weekend or coming back for more, here’s a quick primer on getting to, from, and around this iconic city with ease.

Know Before You Go: Paris

>> When to go:

The metro is a way of life in Paris. Embrace it. (Photograph by Simon Gilberg, Your Shot)

The metro is a way of life in Paris. Embrace it. (Photograph by Simon Gilberg, Your Shot)

Spring: As Audrey Hepburn famously remarked, “Paris is always a good idea.” But spring — the time when cafés start dismantling their tented patios and the cobbled banks of the Seine transform into a canvas of picnickers, joggers, and bookworms — is the time when the city snaps awake. It’s no wonder why; after a cold and dreary winter, Parisians are drawn to the sun like flowers. Summers can be pleasant too, save for long lines and les vacances, when locals shut up shop en masse in favor of more temperate climes. Can’t make it in the spring? Fall’s your next best bet.

>> Getting there:

Two airports lie just beyond the Périphérique. International passengers touch down at Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to the northeast, while Orly (ORY) to the south typically plays host to a more regional stream of traffic. Be warned that while some sites advertise Beauvais Tillé Airport (BVA) as an alternative aeronautical gateway to Paris, the airstrip lies more than an hour away in the Picardy countryside. Though buses and trains serve all three, only an impossibly cheap fare warrants the pilgrimage to or from Beauvais.

Speaking of trains, France boasts one of the best rail networks in the world, with the renowned TGV as its centerpiece. Six major stations (seven if you count the Bercy annex at Gare de Lyon), facilitate travel in and out of Paris to and from neighboring cities and countries, including the U.K. (yes, the train goes underwater). Show up early to listen to the unmistakable clack of the departure board, then grab an all-appeasing pain au chocolat once on board. You’re already there.

>> Getting around once you’re there:

A view of Rive Gauche and Rive Droite from above. (Photograph by Ivete Basso, My Shot)

A view of Rive Gauche and Rive Droite from above. (Photograph by Ivete Basso, My Shot)

Go underground. Locals use the phrase “métro, boulot, dodo” – subway, work, sleep – to describe their daily routine, and for good reason. The metro is an integral part of Parisian life. Though trains are often rickety and unkempt, the system’s convenience is unrivaled. Nearly 150 miles of track snake through subterranean Paris, linking hundreds of stations across town. Hours vary, so consult the RATP site before you ride. (For a glimpse at the Paris metro of the future, take a ride on Line 1.)

The RER, Paris’s commuter rail service, is also hard at work underground. After chugging along through les banlieues (outskirts), trains dip below street level for stops at major points like Châtelet, Port Royal, and Musée D’Orsay. Because the RER skips smaller stops, it’s considered an express. Gritty trains and labyrinthine stations can make for an unpleasant voyage, but the RER definitely has its perks.

Hit the ground. Lace up your shoes, because long walks seem a lot shorter when there are street markets, an eternal waft of doughy air, and the gentle bonjours of the bouquinistes to enjoy along the way. In many areas – Rue des Rosiers, Mouffetard, Buci, Montorgueil, and Ile Saint Louis, to name a few — sidewalk and street become indistinguishable with cafés and shops spilling out onto the blacktop. Plus, Paris pioneered bike sharing. The Vélib’ network is one of the largest in the world. Unfortunately for Americans, there’s a snag: the automated kiosks often reject U.S. credit cards (cards with embedded chips are preferred throughout the city).

Taxi? Non. The Parisian taxi business is as beleaguered as Napoleon was at Waterloo. A perpetual bureaucratic licensing battle caps the number of cabs at 16,000. In a city with more than two million residents (with eight million more in the metro area) and a continual influx of tourists, the math just doesn’t add up. As coveted drivers have no problem refusing service for want of a better fare, it’s best to save taxi-queue stress for the times when it’s absolutely necessary. Otherwise, you can always follow the lead of students and young professionals who know how to beat the system by reveling until the metro reopens in the morning.

Three essential tips >>

The Sacre Coeur is in the 18th arrondissement.  (Photograph by Rebecca Taylor, My Shot)

The Sacre Coeur is in the 18th arrondissement. (Photograph by Rebecca Taylor, My Shot)

Choose a side. The Seine splits Paris, leaving two distinct districts — Rive Droite and Rive Gauche — in its wake. As the city evolves, the disparities become less evident. Historically, the Right Bank is the Paris of wide avenues, imposing monuments, luxe hotels, and Haussmann-inspired facades, while the Left Bank exudes a quaint bohemian confidence derived from the artists and students who frequent it. Here you’ll find many of Hemingway’s haunts, as well as the Sorbonne and Sciences Po. More than anything, Rive Gauche and Rive Droite endure as a mindset. Remember this when choosing where to stay.

Rendezvous with the arrondissements. The 20 administrative subdivisions that form the Parisian quilt are a product of city hall politicking, but they’ve taken on a life of their own. Locals treat them like mini municipalities with a parlance to match. For instance: “I live in the fifth but work in the seventh.” New visitors, fear not. Just look up. Street signs throughout Paris will tell you which arrondissement you’re in at any given moment. Zip codes are also useful indicators. The last two digits correspond with the arrondissement number (from 75001 to 75020). Though arrondissements 1-8 spiral out in succession to form the city’s inner circle, each district has its charms. Find your favorite.

Français, s’il vous plaît. To put it gently, the French love French, and in Paris, life revolves around the language. Simple interactions carry a heavier weight in Paris than they do in other parts of the world. Salutations are nearly sacrosanct. Never walk into a shop without saying bonjour and always offer an au revoir when leaving. It’s more than a matter of linguistics. From imperial conquests to a modern immigration debate, language has long been the Republic’s preoccupation of choice. Look no further than the Académie Française, a governing body that quite literally legislates the language. Respect the tradition and learn a few key phrases before you go, d’accord? 

Alex Markoff, an editorial intern on National Geographic Traveler‘s digital teamprovided reporting for Know Before You Go: Paris. 

Do you have Know Before You Go tips for Paris (or any city for that matter)? Share them in the comment section below or use the #B4UGO hashtag and shout out @NatGeoTraveler on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Adrien Monteil
    Barcelona
    April 17, 6:10 am

    Thanks you for all these tips ! I will be in Paris in 2 weeks for the very first time and it’s helpful. One more thing to know before going to Paris : how to manage the luggage ! this is very problematic for me each time and I know that it’s the same for a lot of foreigners in Paris. I’ve heard about a new concept called City-Locker : it’s luggage storage spots in the center area of Paris. You can book your locker online on their website contrary to train station’s lockers very hard to find and most of the time full… A friend of mine recommend it to me and I will try in two weeks :)

  2. Penelope Clearwater
    Ireland
    April 1, 3:06 pm

    Me and my friends were planning to visit Paris during the Summer. Do you know of any affordable places to stay that are within walking distance of the major sites i.e. the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre etc. ? We are only students and have very little money but would like to stay somewhere comfortable and that showcases the culture of Paris.

  3. Sandi Hemming
    San Diego, CA
    January 4, 6:04 pm

    I spent a week in Paris and used taxis everywhere (my friend had a bad hip). We rarely waited, often rode in BMWs or Mercedes. Restaurants will get a cab for you after dinner. Or in front of hotels. My first visit with much less walking and more time to do things. Direct metros are great, but changes often involve a lot of walking.

  4. Chris
    United Kingdom
    July 28, 2013, 2:26 pm

    This article is a good introduction to the ‘city of light’ which is Paris but like every great destination you need to take your time to discover and explore all that this beautiful city has to offer.

    For a lot more information on Paris, where to stay, things to do, places to eat etc… then visit:

    http://citybreaks.amoretravel.co.uk/paris-attractions-city-break/

  5. Dimitri
    Paris
    June 25, 2013, 4:50 pm

    Hi. No Brigitte ! Not at all ; much too far for a walking distance! But same métro Line . Line 1. Station Gare de Lyon and station Musée du Louvre are on same Line and not long !

  6. Brigitte
    ottawa
    June 21, 2013, 12:52 pm

    which hotel did you stay at near the LOUVRE?
    is it walking distance to GARE DE LYON?

  7. Ivete Basso
    Palmdale, California
    June 1, 2013, 9:11 pm

    I recently visited Paris and I stayed at the Hotel that was very close to Louvre Museum, very convenient place, it was also close to the metro and you can walk to many places like: Louvre Museum, Arc of Triumph, Tower Eiffel, Parks, Business Street, and more. I really liked to walk because I can experience how people commute in Paris, and get a glimpse of how they live everyday.
    My suggestion is that you purchase a 24 hours pass to the metro, this way it’s more convenient, you can use the Metro or any City Bus to get around Paris. Don’t forgot take the route map as well as the Metro/Bus schedule at the station. I took the bus more often, because I can see the city better this way, than the metro.

  8. Alice Rose
    New Jersey
    May 15, 2013, 7:26 am

    Remember the buses! One huge benefit to the Paris bus is that you can see more of the city along with taking a little break.. Many trips ago I realized the benefit of the short bus ride. The metro ticket also works on the bus. Of course the buses are best at quieter times of the day and tourists should not be taking the seals of those commuting to and from work.
    An added bonus is that the tickets don’t expire so extras can be saved for the next time….

  9. Walter Morgan
    England/Lyon,France
    May 14, 2013, 1:10 pm

    Having lived in Paris recently for a couple of years, I must take issue with you about the Metro. The age of trains varies line to line and there are still a few older sets in use. These have a certain old school charm compared to newer trains. The Metro has character and travelling in it is cheap easy and can be enjoyable. Recently driverless trains have started running on a couple of lines. These are fast safe and great fun at the front watching the twists and turns, rises and falls. Buy a carnet of 10 RATP metro and bus tickets with cash or card and hop on and off wherever you want. Walking this great city is the number one choice and make up for any longer wanders with RATP. INDEED do ensure every conversation begins “bonjour” wait for the reply then ask for whatever it is and remember S’il vous plait” PLEASE and at the end Merci and smile then “au revoir” Much of the alleged frostiness in Paris can be attributed to tourists not enthusiastically engaging in these courtesies.