My first year of living in Paris was a series of trial and error. I’ve learned a lot of tips and tricks through the years. Once you understand how it works and the cultural differences, it becomes a place of interest and fascination. Here are a few tips and tricks that might be helpful when visiting the “City of Lights.”
Housing: For a more authentic experience, rent an apartment. They’re plentiful and priced to meet everybody’s needs. There are several websites that can assist you to find an apartment, just simply Google Paris vacation rentals. Hotels tend to be very expensive and the rooms are extremely small. Three of the most trusted sites are www.vrbo.com ; www.parisperfect.com ; and www.haveninparis.com .
Many vacation rentals offer free WiFi and an internet phone system which allows you to call the US for free. Be forewarned, kitchens tend to be very small, and many have very small refrigerators since Parisians typically shop daily for their meals. A typical Parisian kitchen has 2 hot plates and a microwave!
Summers tend to be very hot and humid with occasional rain storms. Whereas Spring and Fall tend to be milder weather. Some rental apartments offer air-conditioning, but this is rare. August is a month when most of Paris goes on vacation. So, it is not unusual for many stores including bakeries and pastry shops to actually be closed for the whole month of August. And, unless you’re in the tourist areas, many restaurants are on hiatus as well.
Note: typically Sunday and Mondays are bad days to venture out for a meal, since many French spend Sunday meals with their family and Mondays are typically days that are closed.
Transportation: It is extremely easy to get around Paris. It’s a very compact city and the public transportation system is wonderful. You can hop on the metro or take the bus and they have trams as well. Personally, if we’re not in a hurry we prefer to take the bus. You get a visual view of the city and it’s just so much more pleasant than the hurried metro. You can get a carnet (booklet of 10-tickets) at any metro station for a cost of 12€. It can also be used on the bus, and if you’re going in the same direction you can switch to another bus or tram; however, you cannot use it on the metro and than transfer on the bus or tram. You must have it on you while riding the public transportation because they occasionally have inspections, and not having one could cost a huge fine.
Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements that go around the center of Paris, 1, 2, 3 and so forth. Transportation maps are available at all the metro stations and tourist offices. The single digit arrondissments tend to be the tourist areas with all the major sites, museums etc. The double digits tend to be more residential, with the exception of the 18eme, where the Sacré Coeur and Montmartre is located.
Shopping: They certainly have plenty of shopping throughout Paris, such as Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, Bon Marché all very large department stores and of course American style malls as in the La Defense. They’re nice to see, but I prefer the small boutiques in the Le Marais area of Paris (3eme and 4eme arrondissements). There are cultural differences between the US and France. When entering e.g., boutique, you are entering their “home” hence, it is always polite to greet the proprietor with a “bonjour madame/monsieur as you enter. In the U.S. they follow you around; in Paris they will only assist you if you ask them. Many of them speak English especially in the tourist areas (Champs Elysee).
My favorite shopping is shopping at the street markets. You can find these markets throughout Paris and this site tells you where they’re located "Paris Markets" although this site is in French; it has a map where the outdoor markets are located. Oftentimes the markets will also sell clothes, souvenirs etc. for a much, much lower price than at the boutiques or malls. Unlike markets in other countries, there is no bargaining.
If you are into antique shopping or flea markets, there are several throughout Paris. My favorite is Porte de Vanves. Here’s a website that tells you where they are located and times and days of operation "Antique Shopping".
Note: you can bargain. With the dollar being stronger, items are now much more affordable.
Museums: There are so many fabulous museums in Paris. A little trick, the first Sunday of the month, museums are free. Certain museums are free all the time, for example the Paris museum in the heart of the Marais. You can also buy passes which allows you to go to the major museums, check this site "Paris Museum Passes." There is a museum for practically every interest such as the fashion museum in the 16eme, the Arab-Islamic museum in the 5eme, and the erotic museum in the 18eme etc…
Cafes: Cafés are a way of life in Paris. It’s a meeting place before venturing out to dinner or a club, and where you can also get food. Since Parisian apartments are quite small by American standards, socializing usually happens at the cafes. You have no time limit, you can stay there as long as you like. Beware; in tourist areas sodas and tea are more expensive. And, prices vary depending on where you would like to sit. For example, prices go up away from the bar, coffee at the bar can cost 1.80€, the tables next to the bar can cost 2€, close to the window can cost 2.20€ and out on the terrace you can pay a minimum of 3.50€. These are just average prices. Wine is inexpensive, what a surprise? If you find espresso coffees (the norm) a bit too strong, ask the wait person for “alonget” it means long, and similar to a rich American style coffee. For a café au lait, ask for a café crème! And, if you want sugar free sweeteners, ask for a “sucrette”.
There will be some dishonest wait people who want you to spend more because their service fee is based on a percentage of what you spend. Hence, if a dishonest person wants to cheat you, e.g., when ordering a coke they’ll ask. “Do you want a large?” which means a liter bottle, many Americans will say yes. Large sodas cost an average of $9-$10. If you are unfamiliar with a place, always ask to see the menu (carte) so you know what you’re paying for. Tips are included, but round it up. So, if your drinks cost 9.50€ leave 10€.
Food: My favorite topic. France is known as the gastronomic capital of the world. Because Paris is the most visited city in the world, many restaurants in tourist areas are complacent and serve really bad food, because the chances of them seeing you again in the near future will be slim to none! You will see “hawkers” in front of restaurants, especially in the “Latin quarter” trying to solicit you to come in, avoid these restaurants. If you are a “foodie” as I am, read up on restaurant reviews and a good way to start is zagat guide, yelp etc. or read top food blogging sites from David Leibowitz, Alec Lobrano, or John talbott. Taste is subjective so these sites offer up some “insights”. When we first moved to Paris, the worst food we experienced was French food. Thus, it resulted in my sojourn into the Paris ethnic cuisine scene. I’ve since discovered after living in the 15eme arrondissement, a residential area of Paris, that good French food can be had, and have now started venturing out exploring regional French cuisine. The new “new” is that starred restaurants are out – thus making the smaller value friendly bistros very competitive to get into, even at 20 seats. These are the darlings of the presses and adored by locals alike. Another alternative is to take an ïnsider’s” food tour; there are several sites you can check. e.g., "Context Tours."
And, if you like going to the market and cooking, a dear friend of mine, Marie Johnston, "The French Market Maven" will give you a tour of the markets, than will assist you in cooking up a fabulous meal with your market finds in her apartment which has a fabulous view of the Eiffel Tower.
If you do venture out on your own, be aware if you get a bill and the bill says, “Tip not included”, its semantics. Some restaurants do this to get additional revenue. By French law service is always included! You do not need to tip unless the food and service was exceptional. If, however, you do leave a tip, leave cash for your wait person. If you put it on your credit card, there is no space for a tip, but sometimes people will just say add 5 euros. This will not go to the wait person, but will go to the house! Typically, if the service was exceptional I will leave 5 to 10 euros, but this is rare and not the norm. With that said, always round up, if a taxi cost 7.20€ round up to 8. If a café bill is 12.30€ round up to 13, and if a bistro meal is 33€ leave 35€.
Also note, when dining French people are not loud. It is considered rude and vulgar to be loud. And, many Americans are perceived as being inappropriately loud. So, just tone it down and you will have a fabulous eating experience. And, also call the wait person: male, monsieur; madam for a woman, and a very young woman mademoiselle. Never, ever call a waiter a garcon (boy)! The French are trained to be there when you need them and not to disturb you during your meal – which is why you have to ask for anything and everything. Don’t call out to them in ANY way except by “s’il vous plait” and catching their eye.
If you had your fill of French food, Paris has a huge ethnic food scene. You can find all ethnic restaurants in Paris. Be aware though, since typically the French palate does not like spicy; many ethnic restaurants (e.g., Ethiopian) that you may be familiar with will be very toned down, in fact “frenchified”. There’s no real one area for Ethnic food, except there is a Chinatown in the 13eme. Many of the Chinese restaurants are combined with Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese. Try to avoid these places, look for restaurants that only serve one ethnic food. The best Southeast Asian cuisines that I have found in the 13eme are from the old French colonies like Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia. Japanese and Korean restaurant have also become very popular, and some are very, very good. Again, do some research and depending on your budget you can have a fabulous ethnic food experience.
There are also a lot of African restaurants (e.g., Senegalese) in the 9eme. And many of the Maghreb countries (e.g., Algeria, Tunisia) are represented throughout Paris, and you can find an array of good North African cuisine or as we say in Paris couscous restaurants!
Now a little bit about the eating experience. The French are never, ever hurried during a meal. Hence, when you enter a typical French restaurant they will let you settle in first, and after a few minutes give you the menu and ask if you would like an apéro (pre-dinner drink). Some Americans view this as being rude and inattentive, but is part of their culture. Cocktails are not often served before dinner (e.g., an American martini), unless you’re in a restaurant that caters to Americans, and note cocktails are extremely expensive. A typical apéro is a glass of champagne or a kir (white wine with a sweet liquor added such as cassis or peach) or a kir royale using champagne. They will typically ask if you want cassis, peach, raspberry etc.
Bone up a little bit on how to read a French menu, for example farsi means stuffed, cote de boeuf means side of beef. Personally, I find steaks very tough when compared to American steaks, so I usually stay away from them preferring lamb, pork or duck over beef, unless of course the beef has been stewed e.g., boeuf bourguignon. French like their steaks extremely rare, in fact almost raw. Here’s some words you will need to now when ordering your “steaks” bleu (very rare), Saignant (rare), a point (medium), and bien cuit (well done). If you are in a tourist area, typically the menu will also be in English. Note, in the U.S. the entrée is the main course, but an entrée in France is the first course, and a plat is the main course. Typically, the restaurant will offer a Pre-fixe menu, and for a set fee you can get an entrée, plat, and dessert. These are better deals. If you are unfamiliar with wines, ask for the house white, rosé, or red, the house wines in France are typically very good and inexpensive. French fries are served a lot with your meal, they are typically eaten plain or with a Dijon mustard. You can, however, ask for catsup. Also, free refills do not exist. Ice is not typically given unless you’re in a tourist area. You must ask for ice, “avec glacon” (with ice). And, coffee is never served with dessert; it is always served after dessert.
Note, you have that table for the night; they do not turn tables as they do in the U.S., unless of course again, you are in a restaurant catering to Americans who like everything fast. The wait staff is only there if you need them. They do not ask you every 5-minutes if everything is OK or if you need anything else. You have to tell them. This cultural difference oftentimes is viewed as a rude, but again it’s a cultural difference. Whereas dinner can be quite fast and hurried in the US, it is slow paced in France. People like to enjoy their meals and conversation. You will only get your bill “addition” when you ask for it. I’ve seen this rule broken in tourist areas and in Chinatown where they want to turn tables. Typically, it’s considered very rude.
Note: there are no “doggy” bags, portions tend to be smaller, but very adequate.
Dinner invitation: If you are lucky enough to be invited into a French home for dinner, there’s a couple of tips and tricks you should keep in mind. If they ask you come at 8:00, arriving 15-minutes late is appropriate. Bring flowers, preferably already potted, or candies for the host/ess. Unless you’re really good friends, do not bring wine, since they will have already selected the wines for the dinner. The French are very, very well versed on what wines to drink with what course. Dinners tend to be extremely long, you will first have apéros (before dinner drinks and appetizers) usually champagne or a cocktail such as a martini over ice (these are not American martinis and more akin to vermouth), or a chilled pineau (sweet wine), you may be served patés, sausages, nuts or canapés.
Dinner usually commences around 9:30 pm and in the summer even as late as 10 pm. When seated, the host/ess will try to seat you away with your spouse or partner. This way you can share in conversation with others more easily. You will have an entrée, and this can be anything from soup to an amuse bouche (something tiny to titillate the palate). This will be followed by a plat principal (main course), usually a protein with a starch. Some people will serve the vegetable dish separately or with the main course, it just depends. Than after the main course you will undoubtedly have a cheese course. Sometimes the host/ess will serve the cheese with the salad, if not you will have a separate salad course to follow. After the salad course, you will have the dessert; it can be anything from tarts to cakes etc. And, in the summer when fruit is plentiful, fruit is sometimes served with the dessert or after the dessert. Note, coffee is never, ever served with desserts; it is served after the dessert. Than when all is said and done you will have a digestif, it can be cognac, brandy, calvados etc., and sometimes even chocolates to accompany your digestif.
If you leave before 11:30 pm, it is implying you did not have a good time. After 11:30 pm, you’re telling the host/ess that you had a wonderful time. But typically a dinner can last till 1 or 2 in the morning. The French enjoy long meals along with conversation. If your host/ess serves juice (e.g., orange juice), it’s a big red flag that you’ve overstayed your welcome and it’s time to go home.
Touring: Paris has many wonderful sights, just simply walk and explore. They have hop on hop off tour buses that allow you to visit different sights at your leisure. They also have boat tours along the Seine. My favorite off the beaten path cruise is the "Paris Canal" . This smaller known tour boat will traverse along the canal and its many locks, and you will actually go under the city of Paris and wind up on the Seine close to the Musee D’Orsay. Also, Paris has some of the most beautiful parks in the world. It’s easy to explore these parks. For a list of parks see "Paris Parks" .
Paris has a lot of pick-pockets. Even some of the most seasoned travelers have been pick-pocketed. The metro is a prime area to get pick pocketed, so just be aware where your money and ID is at all times. Make copies of the front and backs of your credit cards and passports in case they ARE lost or stolen, that way you have the telephone numbers and account numbers to call to cancel. When going through metro turnstiles always put your bag in front of you when going through and keep the zipper in the front where you can see it.
Around the Notre Dame, Gypsies will roam around asking if you speak English, just say NO. It’s a ploy for you to read their sob-sob story and hopefully get a few Euros out of you. In fact, if ANYONE asks you if you speak English it’s a red flag not to stop. Another scam, someone will stop and say you dropped a gold ring, and of course you say no it’s not yours. They will then proceed to say since s/he found it; s/he can give it to you for a few Euros. Its cheap plastic and just a con.
Paris is an extremely safe city compared to major cities in the U.S.; the only real crime tourist experience is being ripped off or pick-pocketed. You can walk around Paris in relative safety all hours of the night, but it’s also just good to be aware of your surroundings, since there are "bad" neighborhoods where you may get knocked down, but never killed, for your purse, backpack or camera.
Dressing: Black is a popular color in Paris especially for women, hmm, methinks it has to do something with appearing thinner. Scarves are also a French uniform. There are a zillion ways to wrap and tie them. French people tend to be much more fashionable and formal in attire. However, in summer Parisians tend to be a bit more casual. For whatever reason, Parisian women seem to love walking in heels, ouch to cobblestone streets. And, when going to a fine restaurant, it’s always good to dress appropriately. It’s considered rude and vulgar to dress down when dining at these institutions. It’s a matter of respect.
Anyway, these are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned. I hope this information will be helpful when visiting my new adopted home…. Randy
Also, please review my blog on "Theft on the rise in Paris". I provide some advise on how to protect yourself from the unthinkable, so you can enjoy your vacation.