We just had our first time in Paris!
After years of keeping Paris on my travel bucket list we finally were able to visit in 2019. For our first time to Paris it was an absolutely amazing trip!
While I had studied Paris and all things French for years and thought I knew what to expect, there were so many things that caught me by surprise in Paris. From knowing the best place to stay in Paris for first timers to all the intricacies of French culture, there’s a lot to learn on a first visit to Paris!
As dorky as it sounds, I made notes as we made our way around the tourist sites in Paris. I wrote down all the things I was learning as a first time visitor to Paris. I wanted to be able to capture our first trip to Paris as newbies, knowing that we will certainly return again and again!
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Things to Know Before Going to Paris
Paris Drivers & Traffic
The drivers in Paris are crazy!
We are used to cars and drivers behaving in a relatively orderly way, adhering to basic traffic laws and staying in marked lanes. Not so in Paris!
On your Paris first time visit, don’t be surprised to see cars weaving in and out of traffic in what appears to be a really haphazard way! Many major thoroughfares don’t have marked lanes so cars don’t seem to drive in the straight lines we’re used to.
There were many intersections in Paris with more than 4 streets converging together – sometimes as many as 6 or 7. Despite trying to figure out how it worked, for the life of me I couldn’t! Thankfully, the drivers all seemed to know how it worked.
There are literally thousands and thousands of scooters and motorcycles in Paris. The riders lane-split, meaning they ride in between cars in an effort to get to the front of a line of traffic. It was amazing on our first time visit to Paris to see the hordes of scooters converge at stop lights! Seeing all the motorcycles in Paris made me want to do some motorcycle touring in Europe.
We were also surprised to see a lot of scooter riders using scooter skirts, even the men. I have literally never seen these in North America. Very useful and handy for keeping dry!
The traffic in Paris can be really overwhelming, especially in morning and evening rush hour. As a first time visitor to Paris, you have to be really mindful that drivers and riders aren’t that interested in stopping for you if you try to cross the street! They have places to go and want to get there fast. Use marked intersections and cross on green lights only.
Expecting the Unexpected on Your First Time to Paris
Paris is frequently subject to road closures, demonstrations, strikes or other public gatherings. All of these activities may affect your ability to get around the city in the way that you want to.
When thinking about visiting Paris for the first time, always expect to encounter something that may affect your planning.
On our first time in Paris it was Fashion Week and this big event caused closures in areas of the Tuileries Garden as well as traffic problems in the general vicinity. There was also a Yellow Vest Movement protest that led to road closures all throughout the 1st Arr. as well as very visible increased security.
Prices in Paris
For your first time to Paris, be prepared that Paris is tied as the most expensive city in the world in 2019 (tied with Singapore and Hong Kong).
When visiting Paris for the first time, we were honestly surprised by the prices – particularly the prices for food. The prices are quite high for both grocery items and restaurant meals.
The typical advice is to budget at least 160€ per couple per day if you want to dine at reasonable restaurants. However, there are many ways to economize if you want to spend less.
We spent less by having simple breakfasts we purchased at grocery stores, like croissant and coffee/tea. We also had several picnics of baguettes with cheese and meat, which is a great thing to do in Paris.
Coffee in Paris
As an avid coffee drinker, Ross was very surprised not to find his preferred coffee in Paris, namely filtered drip coffee.
The typical North American version of coffee is not found in Europe and particularly Paris except in American chains like Starbucks (and then only in limited varieties).
The only way Ross was able to get his daily fix of caffeine was to order an Americano, which is espresso diluted with hot water. Most often, it was served in a very small cup compared to the giant vats he is used to at home ;-). There were no classic Canadian coffee to be found.
Parisians typically enjoy a cafe au lait (coffee with milk) first thing in the morning – only. After mid-morning, the coffee drink of choice is an espresso.
One of the things to know when visiting Paris is that most Parisians order and drink their coffee while standing at the counter in the cafe. That might explain the small serving sizes! If you choose to drink your coffee while sitting at a table in the cafe, it will cost almost twice as much.
Nicola has some great tips on where to find the best coffee, tea and pastries in her post on the Marais district. Check it out!
Pro Tip: If you only intend on sitting to drink coffee, choose a table that isn’t set with silverware, linen and glasses. There will usually be a mixture of set and unset tables and the wait staff might grumpily ask you to move if you sit at a set table drinking coffee only.
Dining Tips for Paris for First Time Visitors
Parisian wait staff are usually dressed rather formally, with white shirts and long black aprons. They’re viciously efficient and not usually as friendly as typical North American wait staff.
Wait staff are paid a living wage in Paris and don’t depend on tips like North American restaurant staff do. A fee for service is usually included in the bill. It’s customary to leave change or to round up your bill if the service was excellent. If you get exceptional service you can certainly leave more but it is not expected. You won’t be able to add a tip if you use a credit card, as European credit card processing doesn’t allow for leaving a tip.
We found that not tipping restaurant staff felt really odd and was actually a difficult habit to break! When visiting Paris for the first time, you might feel the same but don’t be tempted to tip as you normally do.
Bread & Butter
Bread is typically served with all meals, but without butter. This surprised me and at first I thought the butter had just been forgotten. But no, the French do not serve butter with their beautiful baguettes, except when it is served with cheese or charcuterie (or at breakfast with jam).
Parisian wait staff will not automatically present the bill at the end of the meal. You have to request it. They would never want you to feel rushed, after all – this is Paris :-).
If you ask for water, you will be automatically brought bottled water and charged rather a lot for it. Just ask for tap water or simply une carafe d’eau. The tap water in Paris is fine for drinking. If you’re at all concerned, bring along a filtered water bottle.
French gastronomy is completely deserving of its excellent reputation. We found the food in Paris absolutely delicious almost everywhere we went.
Paris is definitely not the city to diet in! Put aside all the strict rules you follow and try all the food you can – you won’t regret it!
Seriously, even fast food restaurants like McDonald’s had rather excellent pastry for sale. I’m still surprised!
Types of French Restaurants
A bistro is a small and intimate family-run restaurant that typically serves traditional French food such as escargots, roast duck, rabbit, onion soup (soupe a l’Oignon), Ham and cheese sandwiches (Croque Monsieur) and quiche.
Bread shops. These are the places where you’ll see Parisians go daily to get their baguettes.
This is akin to a French pub. Beers and ciders are typically served as well as casual meals like steak frites and mussels. Brasserie’s are typically open all day.
These are bakeries that specializes in pastries and sweets like macarons.
A casual place to get coffee or a light snack like a salad or sandwich.
These are the places serving the multi-course meals with a wide selection of dishes on a fixed price (prix-fixe) menu. Some also have a la carte options. Restaurants are usually only open during meal hours, which tend to be later than typical North American standards. Definitely visit a French restaurant during a 4 day trip to Paris!
Paris is divided into 20 large administrative districts, known as arrondissements.
Beginning at the centre of the city (the 1st Arr.), the arrondissements curl around in a clockwise direction, much like a snail shell.
Handily, all of the street signs in Paris indicate which arrondissement you are currently in.
Map of Paris
Free maps are available in Paris from ticket offices in Metro stations, in department stores and visitor information centres.
Not surprisingly, we found Google Maps to be the best way to navigate around Paris.
Best Way to Get Around Paris
For our first time in Paris, we were surprised by how easy it was get almost everywhere.
Paris is quite a large city but despite its size, there are many ways to navigate the city that will get you where you want to go quickly and easily.
Walking Around Paris
Our first steps in Paris were by foot. By choosing the best place to stay in Paris for first timers, we made it easy on ourselves to get to where we wanted to go.
Paris is a city made for walking – after all, it is an ancient city and how else did its previous inhabitants get around? There are so many beautiful streets to walk down. Our favourites were the Rue des Barres in the Marais, one of the most ancient streets in Paris and the Rue de l’Abreuvoir in Montmartre, a lovely winding street that is quintessential Montmartre.
The rapid transit system in Paris is one of the best in the world and is fast, efficient, and inexpensive at just 1.90€ per ride.
We found the Metro very easy to use, despite our poor French. Trains are fast and there’s seldom much of a wait. It’s not too crowded if you travel outside of commuting times. It was even easy to navigate pulling my wheeled backpack.
There are 16 lines, named for colour and number (yellow, red, magenta, etc.). It runs from 5:30am to 1:15am, with later hours on the weekends. Some metro lines are accessible. There’s a rule that passengers must give up their seats to disabled people, the elderly and pregnant women or women with small children.
Daily and weekly passes are available and can be a good choice if your plans include using the Metro on a daily basis.
We used the Metro a few times during our first time visit to Paris. It was a bit hot (there was a minor heat wave at the time) but otherwise it was easy and pleasant.
Ride Sharing Services – Uber
We used Uber several times during our first trip to Paris. It was slightly less expensive than a taxi and very quick to arrive as soon as we ordered one. Our Uber drivers drove in the same manner as other Parisian drivers – like maniacs! It was ok as long as we didn’t look out the windows 😉
Electric Micro Mobility Scooters
Surprising even ourselves, we rode these cute scooters all over Paris. I wrote all about it here!
Do People In Paris Speak English?
Despite being Canadian, our French is not fluent. I can read and understand quite a lot of French but I speak it poorly and Ross has mostly none at all.
Nevertheless, we found that most people speak English in Paris.
Certainly, we dealt mostly with people working in the tourism industry in hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions. But still, the ordinary Parisians we spoke with on the Metro or casually elsewhere mostly spoke at least some English.
It was my experience that Parisians really appreciated it when I attempted to speak any rudimentary French. A bonjour and merci went a long way to establish good will.
Pro tip: Take the time to learn at least a few words in basic French before your first trip to Paris. Parisians will really appreciate it!
Essential Items for Paris
We found the weather in Paris unpredictable, despite avidly following the weather forecasts before we went out each day. We soon began to always carry an umbrella with us.
This is the perfect umbrella to bring to Paris!
It’s got unbreakable fiberglass ribs (perfect for windy days!), folds up super-small and has automatic open and close functions. Perfect!
You’ll want to carry a tote bag whenever you’re out and about in Paris. You’re sure to find things to carry in it, like baguettes, water bottles or that beautiful souvenir you’ve been eyeing.
Don’t add to the plastic problem by using a plastic bag! Not only will the Parisian shopkeeper give you the side-eye, but you’ll run the risk of it breaking at the worst possible moment!
It almost goes without saying that a camera is a must-have when visiting Paris for the first time. I use my iPhone X camera and really recommend it. It’s better than almost any digital camera I could buy and takes great photos.
Bee has a great list of the best accessories you need for traveling in Europe. Check it out!
Toilets in Paris
Don’t Ask to Take a Bath!
Before asking ou sont les toilettes in Paris, there are a few things you’ll need to know in advance.
Don’t make the mistake of asking to use the bathroom in Paris – ou est la salle de bain? A Parisian will think you’re asking if you can take a bath! It is instead correct to ask – ou sont les toilettes?
In my experience, the toilet paper in Paris is quite a bit rougher than we’re used to in North America. If you have a preference, bring your own paper!
Public toilets in Paris are scarce and you may not want to use them in any event. These facilities often have a fee attached (I saw between .5€ and 1 € ). You may want to ensure you have change handy!
Using Cafe & Restaurant Facilities
The most convenient thing to do in Paris is to ask to use the toilet in a cafe – est-ce que je peux utiliser vos toilettes s’il vous plaît. Always ask if it’s a small cafe but if it’s larger you may be able to slip in unnoticed. Toilets are often upstairs or downstairs.
Cafe owners and staff often prefer you to order something small to use the facilities. Order something cheap and whether you drink it or not, it’s worthwhile to get access to a toilet.
I used several gender-neutral facilities in Paris. Surprisingly, I had to walk by the urinals to get to the stalls. Be forewarned and avert your eyes!
Best Hotels in Paris for First Time Visitors
We stayed at the Westin Paris Vendome in the 1st Arr. It was an extremely convenient location within easy walking distance of the Louvre, the Tuileries Garden, the Eiffel Tower and several Metro stops.
I recommend that on a first time visit to Paris to stay close to where you want to visit most. The 1st Arr. is a great choice, particularly for a first time visit to Paris.
If you’re visiting Paris with children, Kirsten has written a great guide to the best places to stay in Paris with kids.
Attraction Tips for First Time Visitors to Paris
It’s ALWAYS best to purchase your attraction tickets ahead of time.
Everywhere we went in Paris there were long lines of visitors waiting to get in. Invariably, there were two queues: One for visitors who had already purchased tickets (the short and quick line) and another long line for visitors waiting to purchase tickets.
My BEST advice is to ALWAYS purchase your attraction and tour tickets ahead of time. Don’t be one of the visitors waiting in the long line in the hot sun!
Pro Tip: download your ticket to your phone before you leave your hotel wifi. Internet connections are frequently very poor in crowded areas which may prevent or delay you being able to download your e-ticket.
The best attractions like the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and Versailles always have throngs of visitors no matter what time of year. If you prefer a more serene experience, book the early tour or decide to visit at opening time.
For an excellent skip-the-line guided tour of the Louvre, click here. It’s worth every penny!
For a comprehensive skip-the-line tour of Versailles, click here. It’s such a beautiful and amazing place to see!
For a spectacular view from the Eiffel Tower, book this experience
I Want to Go to Paris!
If you haven’t been to the City of Lights, join the millions of happy visitors who now claim Paris as one of their favourite cities!
There are many things to know when traveling to France but they’re easy to learn and so very useful when you arrive.
Have you been to Paris? What is your favourite memory of the visit?
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Essential Travel Books for Paris
If you’re like me then you want to learn about where you’re going on your vacation before you get there.
I like to read both travel guides and novels about the places I’m visiting. Guides provide concrete and useful information that I need to know, and novels give me the flavour and feel of a city.
These are my top recommendations for travel books about Paris: