Adventures in architecture can take you near and far, and if Paris is on your must-see list (it really should be), these tips will help you navigate the city with ease.
On one hand, a first visit to Paris is the same for everyone who has ever dreamed of spending time in the most romantic city on the planet. Baguettes and coffee and museums, oh my! Floating on the River Seine. Seeing the city from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Getting a glimpse of the Mona Lisa. Eating French macarons and Nutella crepes. Walking where kings walked in the gardens at Versailles.
It’s Paris, France and there is something for everyone. Something that will leave you feeling a little bit French – or at least wishing you were. Something that will stay with you long after you return home.
Before my trip to Paris, I read a lot. Blogs, books, travel guides, you name it. And I learned a lot of Paris tips and tricks. But there were still some observations I made during my visit that I didn’t read about. Below is my list of Paris travel tips. Observations and insights I made during my first trip to Paris in April 2018.
Paris Travel Tips
Some of these Paris travel tips are very specific things that I noticed during my trip that might save you a bit of time if you are visiting France for the first time. Some of them are just general observations that I felt might be something you would want to know when planning your trip. These tips aren’t specific to architects, though some of them may reveal my nerdy obsessions. Hopefully I can find some kindred spirits among you who can appreciate my attention to detail and observant nature to help you prepare for a trip to France.
Subsequent articles in the series will talk more about the architecture and, of course, will feature lots of photos of historic places across Paris.
1. Paris is all about the carbs
Bread, croissants and crepes are staples in the French diet. In fact, you will be hard pressed to find traditional American breakfast options like eggs and bacon.
Strangely enough we also ate a lot of Italian style food. Lasagna, Bolognese sauce, etc. It was all really, really good which kind of surprised us. Who knew that the French made great Italian food?
During our entire trip we noticed very few people carrying food and drink around with them. No commuters carrying coffee cups. No one eating on the go. Parisians take their time when they eat. They linger over their meals; they enjoy conversations with friends. In fact, once you have your food, servers will not come back to your table unsolicited. They will not return time and again asking you how you are doing. They are glad to help you if you get their attention, but they will not interrupt your meal or your conversation. Not even to bring your bill.
3. Everything in Paris is small
Coffee cups are small but it packs a punch. Milk or cream is not always available because “coffee with milk” is not a French specialty. Espresso is the norm in Paris, although usually sugar is available. If you want a cup of coffee like you get in the states, you probably won’t find it. The closest you will find is the “coffee with milk” which is like a latte.
There were Starbucks in Paris, and I do think they served their usual options, though I didn’t look that closely at the menu board. We went into the one near the Moulon Rouge to use the restroom and I ordered a muffin (so I could use the bathroom). They had the other baked goods I was used to seeing there, so I think the coffee was standard as well – types of drinks and sizes too.
The bathrooms, or toilettes, are very small. Much smaller than even a toilet stall in a typical American public bathroom. Very, very small. Small enough that it is something to consider if you are overweight. There are some bathrooms that would be pretty much unusable for some plus sized people.
Small hotel rooms
Many hotels in Paris are small and have rooms with a single twin bed. You may find rooms with a larger bed, but it’s rare to find one with two beds in it in downtown Paris. There are a few, but not many. Closer to the airport you will find hotels with more American style rooms.
We stayed at the Hotel Etats-Unis Opéra in their “Economy Single” rooms. Because they were singles, my friend and I each had our own room which was kind of nice. It allowed us some personal space at the end of our very long days. The elevator in this hotel was so small it only fit one person with their luggage. You could maybe get 3 people in there without luggage if you really like each other enough to forego any personal space sensibilities.
It was a nice hotel overall. Very clean and quaint. My only real complaint was that it was really warm in there, even with the air conditioning on and turned down as cold as I could make it.
During our stay at the hotel, they actually upgraded us on our last night in Paris to a larger room. It was their “classic double” room and it had a great view of the street. I liked this much better than the courtyard room because of the ability to sit in the window and enjoy the view of the buildings across the street.
4. Weather is merely a state of mind in Paris
Parisians are not afraid of a little bit of weather. Rain or shine. 40 degree temps. Doesn’t matter. They walk where they are going and they sit outside at the cafes. Most cafes in Paris have an outdoor seating area and heaters to keep people warm. But I have a feeling they would sit out there anyway, even they didn’t have heaters.
5. How to get around Paris
People do drive in Paris, but I am not sure I would recommend it. I’ve been in Chicago cabs and New York City taxis and neither of those compares to the roads in Paris. It takes special skill to navigate the insanity. Not only is there not a single straight road, they drive fast and close and motorcycles whiz by in all directions. And there are tons of motorcycles on the roads. Even the sidewalks aren’t safe. Although pedestrians did seem to get respect from the drivers.
We took a taxi once because we had a tour booked and didn’t have enough time to walk. We also weren’t confident enough to use the subway because we didn’t want to be late. It was a pretty slow ride because of the traffic, but still faster than walking.
Most people, however, walk in Paris. The streets always seemed to have people on them going somewhere, no matter what time of day. The sidewalks are always crowded.
We walked everywhere else except to Versailles. We took the subway and a train to Versailles and back. The Subway ended up not being as scary as we thought it would be. So long as you know where you need to get off, it’s no different than an American Subway.
Walking served us well. We had a short list of things we absolutely wanted to see, and then just wandered around exploring the rest of the time. We used the Ulmon Paris app to navigate using their offline maps, it opens directions in Apple maps if you have an iPhone and we got around sometimes without cellular turned on, it just didn’t give us turn by turn directions.
6. Fit folks, except…
People in Paris appear to be very fit. I guess they have to be to fit into the tiny bathrooms. In all seriousness though, I think the fact that they don’t rush their meals plays a part in that. Plus they care more about what is in their food than we do. They don’t have the same artificial ingredients and GMOs that we do. Maybe that plays a part too. But Parisians also smoke. A lot. Inside and outside, smoking is a very popular pastime in Paris.
7. Get a Museum Pass
With a Paris Museum Pass, for one price you can get unlimited access to a huge list (over 50) of Paris museums and historical locations for one price for a set period of time – 2, 4 or 6 days. In many cases you avoid the lines because you already have a ticket. It was totally worth it and we saved a lot of money by using the pass.
8. Lockers at The Louvre
The Louvre offers free lockers to store your stuff in during your visit. This is super helpful so you don’t have to carry your jacket or other things around the museum. It’s huge and you will be thankful to have your hands free. They also have locking umbrella storage too.
9. Parlez-vous français?
You don’t have to speak French to visit Paris. I was really nervous about the language barrier but I was very pleasantly surprised. In most cases, people knew more English than I knew French and we made do. Just be clear that you don’t speak French. A few key phrases are appreciated by Parisians, however.
- Parlez-vous anglais? – do you speak English?
- Merci – thank you
- Bonjour – hello
- Au revoir – goodbye
- Toilettes – bathroom
- S’il vous plaît – please
Do not let your lack of French dissuade you from visiting Paris. I didn’t use any more phrases than I listed above, and it was more than enough.
10. What time is dinner?
Parisians eat dinner late. In fact, between 5 and 8 pm you may be hard pressed to find a place to eat dinner. Most restaurants don’t open until 7 or 8 pm. There are fast food chains like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Subway and Five Guys but they aren’t on every corner. These seem to be open all the time.
11. Corner stores
In the downtown part of Paris, there doesn’t seem to be any convenience stores or drug stores such as CVS and Walgreens like we are used to in the US. They do have pharmacies but they are tiny and appear to only have medicine.
There are sweet shops on almost every corner though. Cookies, chocolates, crepes, macarons, etc. Parisians love their sweets. Probably another reason they walk so much. They need to burn off all those goodies.
12. Avoid the crowds
The Louvre was more crowded on Thursday than it was on Friday. Supposedly this is because the Musee d’Orsay is closed on Thursdays. Also, the Musee d’Orsay is very crowded on Wednesdays. Likely because they are closed on Thursday.
Friday morning around 9-9:30 am is a great time to visit Notre Dame Cathedral. The lines didn’t start to queue up until about 10:30 am. Also, if you plan on going up to the Notre Dame Towers, reserve your spot in line using the “Duck the Line” mobile app. Instead of waiting in line, you arrive at the tower entrance at your reserved time. Super convenient. Although they do seem to allow a lot of people up in the towers at once, so it’s jam packed up there.
Versailles was extremely crowded, even just shortly before they closed. We were there in April and we were told that it wasn’t even high season for tourists yet.
13. Parisians apparently have very large bladders
Public restrooms are hard to find in Paris. No restaurant will let you use their bathroom for free. You will either have to pay a .50 Euro to 1 Euro to use it or buy something. Make sure you have some .50 and 1 Euro COINS with you if you are someone who needs to use the restroom a lot.
Make sure you save your receipts if you buy food, some places put a code on the receipt that you can use to access the bathroom. You will find some bathrooms have both coin operated stalls and code operated stalls.
Also, in crowded restrooms, people will often hold the door open for you so you don’t have to pay. That’s all fine and good but just note that the door won’t lock again after it’s opened until more money is put into it. So you are risking that someone may walk in on you.
Some tourism articles make it sound like it’s hard to find a bathroom in Paris. It’s not that they are hard to find, it’s more that they are reserved for paying customers or people who pay to use them. That being said, there are areas, just like in any major city, where residential buildings or small shops without public bathrooms fill the streets. In these situations you may have to walk a bit to find a bathroom you can use, but you will find one.
My rule was when I found one I used it regardless because I never knew when the next one might appear. But in general I never found myself needing one and unable to find one. No matter how much coffee I had that morning.
Self-cleaning public free toilets
Some of the streets in Paris have some free self-cleaning toilets available. We spotted them in three places, so there aren’t many. They are quite strange because they are actually really large inside, but they are clean! I had a little bit of trouble with the first one I tried. It almost starting cleaning with me in it. I got out of there fast. The second one worked just fine. They didn’t have toilet seats on them though, just the cold porcelain. I guess Parisians do a lot of squatting to stay in shape too.
14. Book a guided tour whenever possible
There is so much history everywhere you go in Paris. One of my most favorite Paris travel tips is to make use of a guide. Whether you are an architect, architecture buff, or just your average traveler wanting to make the most of your trip, you should definitely consider a guided tour of some of your top attractions.
Airbnb is a great place to look for tours. We booked two tours through Airbnb and both of them were amazing and I highly recommend both of them. The Versailles: Food & Palace Bike Tour was an all-day experience with very knowledgeable guides. It was a unique experience that I will never forget. Laugh Your Way Through the Louvre was the other tour we did. It’s adults only and was so much fun. After the tour, we sat and chatted with a couple from Ireland. Four hours later it was getting dark so we had to part ways. Fantastic experience and Cedric, the host, was hysterical.
In hindsight I wished we had done a couple more guided tours because the guides were so knowledgeable and we learned things we would never have learned on our own. And I am old enough for enough time to have passed to completely obliterate my architectural history knowledge.
No matter where you go, Paris will be filled with people. they will be in your photos. Usually in the worst possible place. They will be standing in line. Usually the line you want to stand in. Because Paris is so magical that everyone wants to and should visit at least once. If you have an opportunity to chat with people, take it. So many great stories are hiding behind the faces of those people. I am so thankful for the few opportunities I had to chat with and learn about people, both Parisians and tourists alike.
16. Don’t be afraid of international flights
The only international flight I had been on previously was when I visited Mexico, and that really wasn’t a very long flight. So my trip to Paris was to be my first real international trip. And I was really concerned that the flight time and dealing with customs would be a buzzkill for the whole trip.
The reality is that the flight went by fast because Delta offered free movies in little screens embedded in the backs of the seats. Simply pop in your headphones or get a pair from the flight attendant. They had a lot of the new DVD releases, more than enough for a round-trip flight.
The food on the flights were pretty decent too. During the 12 hour flight they provided a number of snacks and a full meal.
Arriving in Paris was super quick. We got off the flight, retrieved our luggage and were in our car rental (we booked car service with driver) within like 45 minutes of arriving. On the way home, customs in Atlanta went far smoother than I expected as well. We barely stood still, the lines moved quickly.
Don’t be afraid of the long flight, it really wasn’t that bad at all.
17. Cell service
Verizon Wireless is my cell provider and I was able to add an international plan (free to add) that gave me full use of my current data plan for $10/day on the days I used it. Since we have an unlimited data plan, it made sense for me to keep my phone on for an emergency. My travel companion didn’t have the same plan and would have had to pay a lot more for cellular data. She was, however, able to receive iMessages (iOS) when she was on Wi-Fi which many locations in Paris did offer for free but it wasn’t always reliable.
18. Your phone might be enough
I brought both my digital SLR camera and my iPhone 7 plus and I found it very difficult to juggle between the two for taking pictures. With both options at hand, I felt like I had the pressure to take double the photos. In hindsight I think that was a bit distracting and rather stressful. If you like to have your photos on your phone, I would recommend taking your DSLR but limiting it’s use to all day activities like Versailles, or for views if you are climbing to rooftops like at Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower.
I hope you enjoyed these Paris travel tips!
These 18 Paris travel tips are just some insights into planning a trip to Paris based upon my recent experience. I learned a lot, and absolutely want to go back. Heck, I’m ready to move there. Well, I’d move to Versailles, but that’s a conversation for another day. Since this is actually an architect’s guide of Paris travel tips, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include specific architectural information about my trip. So follow along as I share with you a number of the top architectural landmarks in Paris, France as I continue my Paris travel tips series in my next article.
I was fascinated by many of the details, not only in the historic architecture but in little things like bathroom fixtures, door handles and a distinct lack of considerations for people with disabilities.
Bonus Paris travel tip: Travelling with limited mobility
As an architect, everything I’ve designed has had to apply to the American’s with disabilities act, and even historical things here are often modified to accommodate people. In Paris, this sensitivity to people’s needs seemed more limited to only some of the main larger historic venues. But I get it, Paris is an old city and has buildings that are almost 500 years old. To modify them to accommodate everyone may affect them in a way that compromises their historical value.
This is something to keep in mind for people with limited mobility visiting Paris. Bathrooms in many restaurants are either upstairs or downstairs, with the only access being a very narrow spiral staircase. Some of the streets, like in areas like Montmartre are cobblestone and I tripped a number of times and I don’t have mobility issues.
But you certainly can visit Paris with limited mobility, you just want to plan ahead so you know which places and activities will work for your needs.