Ah Paris, always my favorite subject to write about. I can write a thousand journals about Paris, and will still feel that I barely scratch the surface of the City Of Light. For those of you who’s been here on this journal for a bit, you surely know that there’s almost one journal about a favorite spot in Paris every week; that’s how much this city has inspired me. For those who hasn’t had the chance to visit Paris and is planning to somewhere in the future, this journal today is dedicated to you. Here’s the complete guide for first timers in Paris!
On my first trip to Paris, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep for days. I made an itinerary that includes all the historical landmarks, monuments and museums I could ever think of. This was looong way before digital camera and travel blogging era, thus the informations available online were mostly from the city tourism or travel agent websites.
I’ve hopped on the double decker city bus, eaten as many crepes, croissants, macarons and drank as much bad coffee as possible, to soak as much Paris as possible… and I still barely covered anything!
But nowadays, with an overwhelming amount of information you can find online, deciding on how to start and what to do on your first trip to Paris can be a real challenge. Last time I checked, there were almost fifty travel books dedicated to Paris in Kinokuniya bookstore Senayan, thousands of official Paris Guides online and tens of thousands blogs writing about Paris… so I can sense your confusion.
Your first time is Paris should be as smooth sailing and fun as you want it to be, so without further ado, here is (yet another) guide that might help you prepare for your first Paris trip. A bit of preparation can dodge a lot of regrets, especially when you only have a few days in the city. I try to make it as effective, moneysaving and timesaving as possible (and full of fun), complete with preparation, tips on what to do and what not to do to ensure your perfect debut in the City of Light.
Before You Arrive
Don’t build up irrational romantic images of Paris solely based on what you only see in movies, postcards, books or instagrams. I surely don’t wait to ruin it for you guys, but ever heard of The Paris Syndrome*? I don’t want it happen to you.
On my first visit to Paris, I and my mom booked a hotel close to Gare du Nord station, with the consideration of our arrival by train was at night and we didn’t want to commute too much to get to the hotel, especially in a new city. This was in 2006 when parts of the 10th Arrondisement (where the station is located) was a bit… dodgy. Admittedly I was pretty scared wheeling my luggage in the dark, with people shouting on the streets, in a language I didn’t understand. I went to sleep that night feeling incredulous about the city of my dream. However our trip turned out to be very fun (and I learnt how to shout back in french)
The City of Light is beyond beautiful, but just like many others cities, there are indeed places with less romance than the 1st or 2nd Arrondisement. So do not get your hopes up by thinking the whole Paris looks like the scenes from Amelie. It’s indeed city full of character with both its beautiful and gritty sides. It’s completely safe (under logical measures… like don’t go out alone pass midnight if you’re a female traveller.) and just remember that you’re going to have the best time in your life.
If it’s possible, don’t book a really early morning flight home. Paris Metros don’t operate before 5am and finding a taxi/uber in the wee hours of the morning can also be a problem. I’ve had sweat running out of my forehead trying to find an uber/hail a cab to go to the airport at 4:30 am in one of the supposedly busiest street in Paris.
Do learn some basic survival French before you arrive. I am definitely NOT a french speaker, in fact I feel that I’ve butchered the most beautiful language in the world many times with my twisted tongue. But I’ve learnt that greeting and trying to communicate with people in their language will open a barrier between you guys, and show that you respect them. Here are some survival phrases to learn:
- Hello / Good Morning / Good afternoon : Bonjour
- Good Evening : Bonsoir
- Thank you : Merci / Merci beaucoup.
- You’re welcome : De rien / Je vous en prie.
- Please : S’il vous plaît, abbreviated as svp
- Yes : Oui.
- No : Non.
- Excuse me : Excusez-moi / Pardon.
- Good bye : Au Revoir.
- Where is the restroom : Où sont les toilettes?
- Do you have a light? : Tu as du feu, svp? (informal) / Vous avez du feu, svp (formal)
- I am very close with Jean-Paul, now can you show me the black 25 inch Togo Birkin? : Je suis très proche de Jean-Paul! maintenant, puis-je voir le Togo Birkin 25 inch en Noir?*
*merci beaucoup mon cher Jul xxx
Arriving to The City
Upon arriving, you can choose to either take a cab or the RER train. Do have the address and direction to your hotel/AirBnb handy offline, including metro stops, transfers and walking route, in case you don’t get a wifi connection.
- Taxi from CDG to the Paris city center will cost you around €55 and you’ll be sent straight to the doorstep of your destination (highly recommended if you’re traveling in a group of three or four –sans huge suitcases obviously), for information on finding taxi within the terminal, check the official website of Paris Aeroport here.
- RER B Train from CDG to the city center will cost you €10 and the train will stop at the big stations, then you might have to transfer again with a metro to the station closer to your destination. Find more informations about RER B here.
If you’re staying for more than a week, do get a local simcard. It will help you a lot in finding directions, ordering Uber, calling your AirBnb host, whatsapping your family members that you’re alive, feeding your Instagram, etc. I usually buy mine in the Orange shop. The Orange Holiday simcard is perfect for a one week trip, it costs you €39,99 and you will get a local phone number, 120 mins calling time, SMS, and 10gb of mobile data valid in almost the whole Europe. You can top up easily online or from the Orange shop and any Tabac shop.
Your number will be valid for 6 months from your last top up, in case you leave something and need to go back to the city… you know, like your heart.
Don’t expect to arrive in a smoke free city. Do keep in mind that it’s still socially acceptable to smoke in Paris. Hotels, Cafes and Restaurant ban smoking in indoor areas but most of the cafe outdoor seating have ashtrays on the table. Any outdoor areas (except in parks, gardens and palaces) is an espace fumeur. Just something to consider if you’re really anti smoking or traveling with young children.
Do stay in the center of the city. You might find better deal in higher number Arrondisements but remember that staying further from the center will require you to commute by public transport or cab if you want to visit the main museums or popular attractions. That’s more money and more time to spend. Besides, you didn’t fly all the way to Paris to spend hours inside the train, right? Most travelers plan itinerary based on a budget, that’s true. But remember that time is a a valuable currency as well when you’re on the road.
The 1st to 9th Arrondisements is my recommended area to stay, especially for first timers. They’re the safest, they house some major sights or have easy access to them, have plenty of restaurants, cafes and supermarkets, and very well connected to the other parts of Paris with excellent transport link.
If you are traveling with big suitcases, do check whether your hotel/AirBnb have elevators in the building. If you already book a minimum 3 stars lodging, feel free to skip this section; but for the others… trust me, I’ve climbed enough narrow, winding Parisian staircases to learn better.
If it’s not included in the room rate, don’t pay for a hotel breakfast; but rather go out and have freshly baked croissant and coffee from the bakery next door.
Paris is one of the most pedestrian friendly city in the world, so do enjoy your days in Paris by foot and wear comfortable footwear. Watch out for pigeon poo. Or any animal poo.
Get a map, but don’t look like a lost tourist while reading the map in the middle of the street. Paris is indeed safe from violent crimes, but pickpockets can target confused tourists. Google map it for the win.
Bonus: Most picturesque walks in Paris are here:
- Montmartre. Ahh Amélie. Do not torture yourself by wearing high heels here, because the hills are pretty steep.
- The left/right banks of the Seine. Try to cross every bridge and keep walking back on the banks. Don’t miss Pont Alexandre iii, Pont des Arts and Pont bir Hakeim, some of the prettiest bridges in Paris.
- The Latin Quarter, the bohemian Paris (read more about it here)
Do use Uber instead of Taxi. And don’t worry about having to make or take calls from the drivers; because unlike here in Jakarta, the Uber drivers in Paris will find you without having to call you; their GPS system is almost flawless. Just remember to put the right address for the pickup.
Do use the metro, it’s fast, reliable and there’s always a station in every turn of the corner. It might be confusing at first, but it’s really not. Ok, the map is totally intimidating for first timers, let’s take a good look below:
It’s pretty much like every other metro system in any big cities in the world. It’s all numbered and color coded based on the directions. To get from point A to point B, just remember to pay attention to both the stop you’re going to get off at AND the final stop in that direction so you’ll know which track to head for. Remember that some destinations might require one or two transfers.
Do buy a carnet of 10 T+ metro tickets from the ticket booth. They’re cheaper than buying one each time you’re taking the metro. These tickets are valid for metro, RER and bus within the 1 and 2 zone. There’s no expiry date on them provided that they’re never been used. I bought three carnets on January this year and keep using them on my next visits.
Do check each museum opening hours and days. Some museum maybe closed on Mondays, some on Tuesdays, and some might be closed around lunch hours etc. The informations are available on Google map. Also do check whether there’s a public holiday or building renovation on the date you’re planning to visit.
Unless you’re an art buff or you only visit Paris to solely check Museums, don’t buy the 4 or 6 days Museum pass. The 2 days museum pass is more than enough (€48), because trust me… there are simply countless things to do and visit free of charge. Also do check first if your preferred museum to visit is included in the pass or not, so do choose wisely which museums or attraction you’re planning to visit. You might not need the museum pass at all if you only decide to visit 1-2 museums because it will be much cheaper to pay for each entry. Also, some museums give free entry on every first Sunday of the month (brave the masses tho)
If you only have less than 3 days to visit Paris, do skip the Louvre (again, unless you don’t mind being on the inhumanely long line with a hundreds of other visitors, OR unless your whole intention of visiting Paris is to see Mona Lisa, spoiler: it’s really really really tiny. And the “Me and Mona” selfie is waaaay too played out already.)
Don’t get me wrong, I admire the whole collection displayed inside, but you will also need more than a few days to really enjoy each artwork displayed in this huge museum. If you’re really really partial about the Louvre, do dedicate a whole day just for it. Since the morning. But if you’re only there for a few days, just skip it guys.
However, do wander through the main courtyard of the Louvre and admire the impressive glass pyramid and the building’s architecture.
Instead of spending the precious hours waiting in line, opt for smaller and less crowded Museums such as:
- Musée d’Orsay : Impressionist and Post Impressionist masterpieces. Entry is €8, Free for the first Sunday of the month. Read more about it here.
- Palais de Tokyo : Modern & Contemporary Art. Entry is €12
- Musée des Arts et Métiers : Science, technology, energy and communication, including Foucault’s pendulum. Entry is €8
- Musée Carnavalet : History of Paris, Free of Charge
- Petit Palais : Free of Charge, never crowded at all
If you’re a first timer, you surely shouldn’t miss the greatest monument ever created in history. But please, do skip climbing up the Eiffel. There are long line for the tickets, then long line for security checks, long line for the elevator, endless long lines everywhere. On peak season months, be prepared to queue for at least four hours with thousands of other visitors. It is the world most visited monument… what else can you expect?
Yes, you can have a great panoramic view all over the city from the top of the tower. However, the best panoramic view of Paris should have the Eiffel in it, right? When you’re standing on top of it, it’s obviously won’t be on the frame. So trust me, skip it.
For the free of charge and best view of the Iron Lady, do come to Trocadéro on sunset or bring your picnic basket and enjoy your time at the Champ du Mars. For a less crowded but equally beautiful photo spot with Tour Eiffel in the background, head to Rue de l’Universite, Rue St. Dominique and Pont de Bir Hakeim.
For the most gorgeous panoramic view all over Paris, head to Tour Montparnasse, the
ugly tall building offers the most beautiful view of Paris from their observatory deck on the 56th floor, which overlooks the whole city from a height of 200 meters. Entry is pretty steep at €17, but you can stay here as long as you want.
Or if you don’t want to pay a dime, head to Printemps Department Store Terrace Cafe (it’s in the Beauté/Maison building) on the 9th floor. Their rooftop cafe offers one of the most beautiful rooftop view in Paris.
A stereotypical Paris story from books or magazine or someone who visited Paris is that all the restaurants waitstaffs are rude and treat patrons like dirt. Maybe I’m just lucky, or not too sensitive, but I never experience a bad time dining out in any restaurant in Paris. All of the waitstaff take my orders and answer my question nicely (maybe sometimes a bit rushed when the place is very crowded), and most of them will even follow up after they see I’m finished with the plate, “Ça va mademoisselle?” -How was it, miss?
But here’s some personal words on this: I’ve worked as a server in a restaurant back in college days and there were times when I couldn’t stand obnoxious patrons who yell their orders or asking for bills without a single “thank you.” I think we are often responsible for how others behave towards us. It’s just basic politeness and common courtesy, guys. Do give a smile, a greeting, a polite question, a “merci beaucoup!” and I’m sure you too will have a good experience dining out everywhere in Paris.
Do ask for “une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plaît” (a jug of tap water), to save up from buying bottled water in the restaurant (also piling up the trash with one more empty plastic bottle is not chic #ecofriendlymessage)
Sitting down in a café terrace, having a cup of coffee and watching passerby might be the most ultimate Parisian experience, however if you’re a coffee
snob aficionado, don’t expect good coffee in a typical Parisian cafe. A cup of okay latte café crème in Café de la Paix might cost you €12; so if you really need your caffeine fix, head to the more low profile cafe next to it. Read my journal on where to actually find good #artisanal #coffee #roasters in Paris. #millenialsyo
Do hunt for Vintage pieces! Paris are famous for the second hand shops, flea markets and vintage clothing sold by the kilos! My favorite vintage/second hand shops in Paris are located mostly in Marais:
- The Kilo Shop : 69-71 Rue de la Verrerie
- Free’P’Star : 61 Rue de la Verrerie
- BIS Boutique Solidaire : 7 Boulevard du Temple
Les Puces de Saint-Ouen in Porte de Clignancourt is one of the biggest vintage/antique markets in the world (opens only on Saturday and Sunday), spreads on seven hectares and hosts 15 markets categorized by the products. My favorite is Le Marché Dauphine (read about it here), the flea market concentrated on antique furnitures, clothing, books, film and vinyls.
Most business/shops are closed on Sundays (and some even on Mondays), so do head to the antique markets, Le Marais or any of the big department stores (Galeries Lafayette, Le Printemps, Le BHV and Bon Marche) if you happen to spare Sunday for shopping.
Unless high fashion boutiques, luxury car showroom, Sex and the City season finale and overpriced restaurants are your thing, do skip tracing the entire Champs Elysees. It’s windy, it’s expensive, it’s boring and it’s … well it’s a nice quick stroll, but after a half hour seeing the same things…
If you really want to see Arc de Triomphe and cross it from your Paris monument list, head straight to it by the metro.
Don’t try to pack everything in your schedule. I’ve been lucky and extremely grateful to have the chance to visit Paris quite often, staying one up to three weeks within each trip… and as much as I want to, I still can barely scratch the whole surface. There’s simply just too many museums, galleries, monuments, churches, parks, chateaus, restaurants and shops to cover in a whole year. It’s good to have a list, but choose wisely or you’ll end up running around and not enjoying your time. Rushing takes away the fun, especially in a city filled beautiful places that demands more of your time and full attention.
Do be flexible on your plans and always keep a plan B. It can rain heavily on your preferred morning to hang out in Montmartre, your favorite museum can be closed for renovation, there might be a protest march that blocks and closes down some of the main streets, or there can always be Perturbations sur la ligne. Just chill, change the plan and keep rollin.
Despite your packed to-do list, do allow yourself some downtime. Wander aimlessly and you’ll find surprising treasures waiting for you in every corner: Cool street art, centuries old bookshops, a row of pastel colored houses, taxidermy gallery, and many more weird and beautiful things. Paris is full of extraordinary experience. It will never stop charming everyone who sets foot on it.
*Paris syndrome (French: Syndrome de Paris, Japanese: パリ症候群, Pari shōkōgun) is a transient mental disorder exhibited by some individuals when visiting or vacationing to Paris, as a result of extreme shock derived from their discovery that Paris is not what they had expected it to be. (source: wikipedia.com)