"The evolving Francophile..."

My husband Jack has always wanted to live in Paris and learn French. I thought it would be good for him to achieve his life time dream. Hence, we moved to Paris in 2008. My first year was difficult. I started "missives" to relieve some stress and chronicle my life so friends back in the US could read what I am experiencing. I currently write about my food and travel experiences, which is my passion.

It is definitely a challenge to live here, but each year it gets easier, and quite enjoyable, in large part because I value friendships over locale. I have a love/hate relationship with Paris as do most Parisians, mais La vie est belle (but life is good)!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

General tourist information about Paris

It's that time of the year again, where throngs of tourists will descend on Europe and especially the most visited city in the world, Paris. Jack put together some information that might be helpful to first time visitors as well as those returning.

In no particular order:

SAFETY.  In general, Paris is very safe; violent crime is rare however pick-pocketing is epidemic, and scam artists (typically Roma girls) are always hovering around tourist areas. Women walking alone at 3am generally will be ok.

Refer to my tips on avoiding being pickpocketed.  Click on following link. "Pickpocketing"

MONEY/CASH. The Euro (€) is used throughout most of the EU and of course in France.  You will most likely not be able to use any other type of money.  The exchange rate varies widely but the Euro is stronger than the US dollar so if something costs 1€ it will translate to you as costing more than $1.  The small value coins are called centimes in France (but their legal name in Euro cents).  Prices are typically written 2€50.  The best way to get Euros is via an ATM rather than using an exchange counter. French banks rarely have cash; people wanting cash get it from an ATM.

ATMs. ATMs are everywhere but check with your bank if they have partners or networks they participate with, and how much is your daily limit.  I don't think French banks charge a fee but many American banks do and some American banks charge a fee (eg $5) per transaction plus an additional % (eg 3%) on the exchange rate!  But you will get the best rates using ATMs.  I do not recommend getting Euros ahead of time at a US bank as they give terrible rates, frequently take several days (you can't just walk in at most branches), and it is so easy to find ATMs in Europe.  Safety is not usually an issue (cover the keypad when entering your pin so the code can't be seen).  And of course using a credit card to get cash is very expensive.  ATMs will usually ask you what language you want.

CREDIT CARDS.  You should have no problems using your credit cards.  Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted, American Express less so, Diners almost none, and Discover not at all.  Hopefully you have a credit card from an issuer that doesn't charge the extra fees for international usage, eg Cap 1, Schwab, certain Citi, the Costco Visa card, etc.  If your card does not have a chip however there are some automatic machines like in train/metro stations that might not work at all, and some may not work even if you have a chip but no pin.  But if there is a ticket counter you will not have a problem.  However some online merchants have problems with US credit cards.  Do let your credit card and ATM providers know of your travel plans.

AIRPORT.  At the airport, if you are planning on taking a taxi do not use anyone who approaches you..use the regular taxi rank (some touts stand at the entrance to the taxi ranks; ignore them). Taxi fares FROM the CDG airport to Paris are fixed 50€ to the right bank and 55€ to the left bank.  Uber FROM the airport is not much better and more difficult to arrange the meeting point.  There are lots of other options such as buses and trains and shuttle services.  Given Paris traffic, the train may be fastest (when not on strike) but with luggage and the stairs, and the potential of pickpockets, it may not be the most pleasant.  And then you need to get from the train/bus station to your lodging.  Going TO the airport taxi fares are also fixed (same price point 50/55€) and Uber might be a better solution for you if you are not taking public transit.  CDG (Charles de Gaulle) is around an hour north of Paris and is the principle international airport and you need to know which terminal your flights arrives/departs (terminal 1, 2A,2B,2C,2D, 2E, 2F, 2G, and 3). ORY (Orly) is around 45 minutes south of Paris and has 2 terminals (Orly-sud/south Orly-ouest/west).  Fixed taxi rates to/from Orly are €30 to the left bank and €35 to the right bank.  Ryanair flies out of Beauvais which is reachable only by bus and is quite inconvenient.

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION.  Paris has an extensive network of various integrated public transit systems, with the metro being the easiest option for tourists.  Once you are used to the way the metro works it is quite easy and will get you almost anywhere you want to go in Paris.  The public buses are difficult for tourists as the routes are somewhat byzantine.  The suburban trains are called the RER (or the Transilian) and you probably won't be using them. However the RER does have several stops within Paris and could be used like the metro.  Although the same tickets in Paris are used on all the Parisian transports, the tickets are paired differently with the Metro/RER being one pairing, and the busses/trams being another.  This is only a concern when transferring between modes; e.g. you cannot use the same ticket to transfer from the metro to a bus, but you can use the same ticket to transfer from 1 bus to another bus or tram, or from a metro to a Paris RER.  Within the metro system you can transfer between lines at stations where lines intersect (transfer is called correspondance). Tickets on the metro are good only within the system; once you exit a station that ticket is no longer good.  For the buses the ticket is good for 90 minutes.  Fares are 1 price on the metro, and within Paris on the RER and buses; fares going outside of Paris are variable depending on where you get on and get off.  You need a ticket to get into the transport but only need the ticket to exit the system on the RER/Transilian. However keep your ticket until you exit the system in case there is an inspector.  In general it is best to buy a 'carnet' of tickets (10 tickets) rather than individual tickets for a better deal and you get 10 tickets which you can distribute as you please (ie you and your travel companions can use the tickets; you don't each need your own carnet but you each need your own ticket).  Tickets bought from the driver on a bus cost a bit more and are not good for transfers, so buy your tickets from a machine or ticket agent at a metro or tram station.  The ticket machines are somewhat confusing and some only accept coins.  Some machines won't accept American credit cards but many do.  If there is a ticket agent and the machine does not accept your card then you can buy your tickets from the agent.

MOBILE PHONES.  Check with your cellphone provider on coverage and costs and making sure you have the international option turned on.  European cell networks use GSM (ie what ATT and T-Mobile use) but most smart phones usually have multiple protocols.  And be sure to turn off data roaming as you can run up huge bills very easily.  You can also get local sim cards if you wish.  To call US phone numbers on your cell use +1 and then the area code/number.  For French numbers use +33 plus the area code and number (remember to drop the leading zero, eg if the French number is you would dial +33612345678.  The plus sign is generally found on the zero key on your phone.  French cell number start with 06 or 07 and calls to cell phones are charged extra.  Paris landlines start with 01 or 09.  There are a variety of 800 type numbers but they are generally not free and work more like 900 numbers in the US.  If you are on a fixed line, for calls to the US dial 00-1-area code-number.  In many lodgings (not hotels) calls to most of the world, including the US, are free.  Unlike the US, calls to customer service lines (eg airlines, online merchants, etc) are charged per minute despite being an 800 type of number.

FOOD/RESTAURANTS.  Most restaurants prefer reservations, which can be made the same day (unless you are talking about someplace famous), so if you see a place that looks interesting on your walk or someone has suggested a place, make a booking.  Remember most restaurants vs cafes/brasseries do not open until 7:30pm for dinner.  If you do walk into a restaurant and you don't have a reservation, and the place is half empty, don't be offended if they say they are full..the tables are probably reserved for a later time and they will not seat you in case you decided to linger.  Please refer to this blog, www.parismissives.com with restaurant critiques. At fancier places lunch is generally cheaper than dinner but is mostly the same food.  There are online booking systems (eg thefork.com) for many restaurants so you don't have to try to book on the telephone (in French).  Although the French might be famous for food, food in Paris is a real crapshoot.  You usually will eat well at good restaurants outside of Paris but in Paris you really need to avoid the tourist places.  Anything Rick Steves has written about is the kiss of death.  If you like spicy food forget Paris (and most of Europe) as they hate spicy food.  If you do go to a Thai or Indian place be sure to tell them you are not French and to make it they way they would eat it.  And never go for Mexican food in Europe; as you will HATE it.  Maghreb food (Moroccan, Tunisian, etc) is pretty good (couscous, tagines), as is Middle Eastern (Lebanese).  Paris probably does not have as big a choice of ethnic places (avoid Chinese, but Lao, Cambodian and Vietnamese are good) because, as the French would say, if you can eat French why would you eat anything else?

The biggest question often asked, do we tip?  Please refer to this link "Tipping etiquette in France". New to France, at some restaurants there is a space for "tip" on your credit card receipt, leave it blank. If you must leave a few Euros, leave it in cash to ensure it goes to the server and NOT the restaurant. Service, which for us would be "tips" by French law is included in the overall bill. Remember anything extra is a token of appreciation and not to supplement income since servers earn a living wage.

ONLINE TICKETS.   For many popular places like museums, Versailles, theatres, etc it is always
better to reserve ahead of time so you can skip the lines waiting for tickets.  But of course you then need to know, and are committed to, a particular date and time.  And some online systems might not accept a US card.  In general you will need to have a printer to print the ticket as not all places will accept a photo on a mobile phone.

TRANSPORT OUT OF PARIS. Trains (not so much the suburban ones around Paris) in France are excellent and the TGVs are fast.  EasyJet is a good low cost airline (although their carry-on policy is a bit strict).  Ryan air is super cheap, charge for everything, but they fly out of weird airports; eg Paris Beauvais airport is way out there and can only be reached by a long bus ride, whereas EasyJet flies from both deGaulle and Orly.  If you make bookings way in advance the Eurostar chunnel train is excellent, fast, and affordable, city center to city center (eg London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord), similarly the Thalys train between Amsterdam and Paris.  The Thalys train to Brussels is only 90 minutes... you could go there for lunch and back!

MUSEUMS.  Going to museums in the mornings tends to avoid the longest lines.  The first Sunday of the month many museums are free (not true for the Louvre Apr-Sep) and packed so a good time to avoid.  I think students 18-25 who can show residency in an EU country are also free.  If you are interested in seeing several Paris museums in a short period of time there is a museum pass.  The museum passes are great IF you plan to hit several museums in a row as the multi-day passes are for consecutive days (I am not familiar with the Paris Pass but in general they are usually not a good deal).  The Louvre and the Orsay are open late on different days so if you do a museum pass you do some of the minor museums during the day and then the Orsay or Louvre late afternoon.  Most museums are closed on Monday, some on Tuesdays (Louvre), and some have late hours certain days during the week.  Almost all the museums have a website, usually with English.  Also, most museums have an online ticket/reservation system so you don't have to stand in the long entrance lines to purchase tickets; look for a special entrance/line if you already have your ticket.

Our favorite museum is the Musee d'Orsay and it is doable in 1-day and the building is beautiful.
The Louvre is a zoo... way too big and really can't be done in a day.  If you go, plan ahead.  Figure out what type of art you like (eg period/region, Flemish, Italian, ancient Egyptian/Greek, objects d'art, etc) , where in the Louvre it is, and see what's of interest to YOU first, then if you have time and stamina, see other things.  The Mona Lisa is usually a madhouse and you might not even get close to it.  There is a terrific wing of objects d'art from Louis IV or VI if you like porcelain, crystal, etc, and the Napoleon Apartments.

The Rodin has a large garden with sculptures but if it is rainy that's probably not the best place.
The Carnavalet (history of Paris) museum I believe is free.
The quai Branly has 'primitive' art (Pacific Islander, totems, figurines, etc).

There are several Jewish museums but we find them very depressing.

SEINE CRUISES.  I always recommend if tourists want to take a Seine cruise, skip the Bateau Mouche/Bateau Vedettes/etc that just ply the Seine, and go on the Canal St Martin cruise (ParisCanal.com).  This boat starts (or vice-versa) at the Parc de la Villette up on the 19th district, floats down a series of locks on the Canal St Martin, goes UNDER Paris for 1.5 km, enters the Seine by Bastille and ends up at the Musee d'Orsay. It's 2.5 hours, smaller boat with only 3 languages (the big boats have hundreds of passengers and speak 10 languages) and is relaxing. Paris Canal fills up so it is almost mandatory you reserve in advance.

PLACES OF INTEREST OUTSIDE OF PARIS.  Versailles is stupendous but also a zoo and you should try to get tickets ahead of time online.  It is a short train (or bus) ride from Paris.

Giverny (Monet's garden) is also a nice day trip, as is Chartres.

Avoid the Marche aux Puces Clignacourt/St Ouen unless you are going to the very expensive antique part located behind the racailles who sell stolen clothes.

PRIMARY TOURIST ATTRACTIONS. Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, walking by the Eiffel Tower/Trocadero (I don't think it is worth it to go up the tower), see the Pont Alexandre III bridge, walk along the Seine at night, see the Opera Garnier both during the day and when it is lit up at night.  There are lots of parks/gardens in Paris; the Jardin de Luxembourg is really nice and large, and Buttes-Chaumont is interesting, also the Palais Royal and Place des Voges. If you have young children the Jardin d'acclimatation and Jardin des plantes have animals.   A place that most tourists don't see/know about is the remains of a Roman amphitheater (arenes de lutece).  I don't like the Champs Elysees but the Arc de Triomphe is there but should be avoided it at night.

Don't forget you can generally reserve online for most things so you don't have to stand in a ticket line.

MOST OF ALL, HAVE FUN in our adopted city.

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