Paris - Know Before You Go

Heading off to the French capital? Here's some things you'll need to be prepared for.

Photo by Sarah Holgate can be used under the CC BY-NC-SA license, which is available here: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/

Paris has a well-established reputation for its iconic landmarks and tourist attractions. It can be hard to simply plan an itinerary that fits in everything worth doing, in a city fueled by culture.

But before you even think about the queues at the Eiffel Tower, have a read of our top tips for navigating this vast European metropolis:

Arriving in Paris

Make sure you know how you're getting to the city centre from wherever you're arriving from—especially if you're coming into Paris by plane.

Charles de Gaulle (commonly referred to as CDG) Airport, named after the former President of France, is one of the busiest airports in the world.

What makes it unique, though, is the fact that Terminal 2 (of the three terminals there) is split into sections, such as 2C, 2D and so on. They all have their own departure and arrival areas, which means that you can't just tell your cab driver that you'll be coming into 'Terminal 2'—it's a huge building, and if you're not specific then you might have a bit of a walk to deal with when you get there. Most flights coming to/from the UK are from T2 as well, so if you're flying with easyJet, British Airways or Air France for example, make sure you do your research.

And when you do leave the airport, it's not exactly a short hop into the city. Your fastest way to get into the bustle of Paris is using the RER B train service (more on the confusing public transport system later), and costs just over ten euros each way. It will take you at least half an hour.

When we visited recently, we treated ourselves to a much more comfortable journey by cab—if you book well in advance, it might only cost you a couple of pounds more, and you'll arrive feeling much more refreshed.

Getting to Paris by train? The Eurostar can take you to the city's doorstep—it goes to the Gare du Nord train station, just north of the centre.

The People

It always amazes me how many people speak English, in countries where it is not the first language.

Maybe it was just our luck, but when we were out exploring Paris and would stop to ask a stranger where something was, hoping of course that they would understand what we were saying, in most cases they were more than happy and able to assist.

It's interesting to think about whether or not we offer the same level of service in this country. A small, independent restaurant (Bistrot du Coin, Avenue Ledru-Rollin in the 12th district—would highly recommend) offered us their menu in English and one server spoke it fluently. I'm not sure that many of the chain restaurants in the touristy parts of London would be able to surprise a foreign guest with the same in their language.

Parisians were mostly friendly throughout our visit.

The Exceptions

Weirdly, our least positive experiences with customer service were at the main tourist attractions in Paris, including its most prominent one.

The magnificent, breathtaking Eiffel Tower. Our favourite visit was at night. The lights looked incredible, especially at the top of the hour, when the whole monument glittered and sparkled and made you feel all warm inside.

Two days later, we returned during the daytime, to get the view from the top. Once we actually found the right queue to get in, the security was rude and rushed. The same could be said at the ticket office, where it appeared we inconvenienced the lady at the desk when we asked for the discounted youth tickets. "How old are you?" was her response. No manners. We were then bundled into the waiting area for the lift that takes you to the top of the tower, and shouted at by more security guards, to move further into the waiting area so that they could cram more people in.

This is becoming more anecdote than advice, but I'll remedy that by saying if you're planning on visiting what I would describe as the two 'big' attractions—the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum, then make sure you:

  • Be proactive: don't take a lot with you, it'll all get searched and you'll get sick of carrying it
  • Be prepared to queue
  • Have a look at the cheapest ways to get in, especially if you're a young person from an EU country—they discount tickets for us lot, and that goes for plenty of the other museums and attractions, too!
  • Don't lose your temper with rude staff (we didn't do this, but I could imagine it would be a bad idea, it's easy to do as well)

Buying Things

A rule of thumb: the closer you get to the Eiffel Tower, the more things are going to cost.

The exception, I guess, are the street vendors. Five small, metal Eiffel keyrings for a euro? That'll be a nice gift for your Great Aunt Margaret. But the vendors can get quite annoying, especially when they approach you, and they don't always bugger off when you first ask them to, which can be anxiety-inducing.

Wherever you are in the centre of Paris, there will no doubt be a souvenir shop around the corner. Many of them are reasonably priced, and some shopkeepers are even open to making a deal with you. In fact, there are so many of these businesses that we even found the gift we were looking for in what was advertised as an 'internet cafe'!

One of the best purchases you can make in Paris is literally anything from a local bakery. They offer some of the best cakes in the world. I've read somewhere that it is actually the job of the French police to make sure that there is a bakery open in every district (neighbourhood) during the summer holidays. Don't quote me on that one. Would the British equivalent be a Greggs police force? I don't know.

The point I was trying to make, is that some of the best bits of Paris are where you will least expect them.

We really enjoyed the walk between two of the city's most iconic landmarks—almost more than the sights themselves. If you head from the Place de la Bastille towards the gorgeous, Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral turning off from the Pont de Sully, you'll come across a row of fantastic, quirky shops where you can spend ages sifting through a miscellany of interesting bits and bobs. The whole street is stunning, and you'll properly feel like you're away from home.

Getting Around

We only used the Métro and RER subway networks to get us around in Paris, and we had a relatively good experience with this.

The key bit of advice here is to plan ahead. As with the Tube in London, you absolutely have to know what line you're getting, and in which direction. If you're trying to find landmarks (literally all of them except Disneyland), you'll need to know which stop is closest to them, because otherwise, it will not be clear to you. For example, the obscurely named 'Bir-Hakeim' stop is the nearest to the Eiffel Tower.

The different lines have different quality trains. On the RER A service, you'll be surprised that the trains are double-deckers. On the Métro number 1 line, you'll find information screens and a more comfortable, modern interior. The number 6 line has door latches so confusing it may be difficult for you to leave the damn thing. But as long as you're travelling in Zone 1 (the city centre zone, again like the Tube), every journey will cost you just short of two euros, and you can buy tickets in a pack of ten, so you don't have to try and use the ridiculously designed ticket machines every time you travel, which, to be fair, have an English language function.

Apart from that, we found walking to be a really cool way of seeing Paris, which is another way of saying that we were too poor for taxis. When navigating the busy roads, do be careful though, as some local drivers/cyclists won't care if the green man is lit for you to cross the road.

In fact, if you want to learn how to drive in Paris, then forget everything you know about courtesy.

Also, if you're looking for a romantic way to explore the city, try a cruise along the river Seine. You'll begin to wonder how you never noticed all of those bridges before!

When to Go

We visited Paris in early October, and we think this is a really good time to go. The weather was only a little chilly, after what was a scorcher of a summer, and because the kids are back at school, the queue for just about everything was relatively short. Just take a coat with you, and you'll be fine.

Bonus Round - Disneyland Paris

You're going to be someone who either loves Disney or hates it.

But even the biggest fan of Mickey and the gang would have to admit that going to a Disneyland park as a child, and as an adult, are two very different experiences.

Without too much cynicism shining through, there's a lot to be said about the prices that they charge for lunch. The rose-tinted glasses of my childhood Disney experience (magic and sugar in equal amounts) steamed up a bit when they wanted eight euros for some chicken nuggets.

Unless you're the wise, pre-planned, frugal kind who has the foresight to bring a packed lunch and dinner, then bring loads of cash, because every shop and restaurant on-site is the same.

The rides are certainly more suitable for children, and if you're a grown-up looking for a day of thrill-seeking, you may be better off looking elsewhere. That said, Space Mountain is definitely worth a try. I'm a big wuss, so I didn't dare embark on that particular voyage, but Sarah loved it. Pirates of the Caribbean is great fun for everyone and has some really cool scenery.

The park is a 45-minute RER journey away from Paris' Gare de Lyon train station and costs nearly eight euros each way. Remember, the Métro/RER network doesn't offer return tickets—only singles.

Random Paris Observations

Some Métro stations smell strongly of urine.

French coffee is really good.

We saw some rats when walking between the Eiffel Tower and the Métro station. They made Sarah very scared.

I'm always skeptical to try McDonald's in other countries. We were not disappointed in France, however.

When we left the Louvre Museum, passing through the shopping gallery, Miss France 2018 was randomly there, offering photos with passers-by. We declined that opportunity.

Tourist Attractions - Our Reviews

  • Notre-Dame Cathedral: 5/5. What more could you ask for? With the most incredible stained-glass windows, the beautifully crafted detail in the ceilings and walls, and a sense of awe felt by everyone there, the cathedral is free to enter, and the queue wasn't very long.
  • Louvre Museum: 3/5. This was a tough one to rate. The museum itself is magnificent and features some of the most famous pieces of art in the world, including the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. The building is huge—you'll need a full day to tour the whole thing, and as a former royal palace, looks pretty incredible. Entry for us was free because we're youths from the EU, so our only expense was five euros each to rent a nifty audioguide that was built into a Nintendo DS. Sadly, it didn't come with Mario Kart and the map was difficult to use, but we would recommend taking their 'Masterpiece' tour, to save time and focus on the good stuff. We didn't have a particularly good experience with the staff - they were often unhelpful and blunt, and trying to work out where to go from the entrance hall is quite confusing. Plus, the busiest bits of the museum are boiling hot, crammed with tourists and you're not even allowed a bottle of water. (Tip: Bring your ID if you're under 26 and from the EU so you can get in for free. If you want to rent an audioguide, go to the ticket office downstairs first.)
  • Eiffel Tower: 3/5. Still worth it for the views, but it's problematic, and a quick buck for them. It's hard to find the right entrance. If you need the loo, don't go here—it's like a prison, with its own security guard and very outdated. The staff were rude. The communication is incredibly poor—no guides, pointers, anything to suggest how to make your way around the top, when you get there. It was packed full of people. You couldn't move. But the views are good, and the lift to the top is enjoyable. If you can breathe. And don't take the stairs, we took them on the way down and our knees didn't thank us for it.

A Hidden Gem

La Manufacture De Chocolat Alain Ducasse, 40 Rue de la Roquette, 75011, Paris—the smell when you walk in is like no other. This beautiful chocolatier near to the Place de la Bastille is well worth a visit. Buying the whole shop is optional.

Details of Our Visit

Dates: September 30—October 3 2018

Hotel: Hôtel Albe Bastille, 66 Rue de Charenton, 75012, Paris (Our rating: 4/5)

CONTRIBUTIONS: SARAH HOLGATE

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