“April in Paris, this is a feeling-Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong (Written by ernon Duke / E.y. Harburg)
That no one can ever reprise”
I have to say, I was a bit nervous before my first trip to Paris. Whenever I mentioned that I was going to Paris, people would exclaim, “Ah I LOVE Paris!” and “You’ll LOVE it!” It was hyped up to me so much that I was determined not to set my expectations too high.
Therefore, Paris exceeded my expectations in many ways. I was told it would be beautiful, but I didn’t expect almost every corner of it to be so picturesque!
There were quite a few things I learned on my first trip to Paris that I had to discover for myself just by being there. Some things were pleasant- such as I knew the food would be good, but I didn’t expect French ice cream to be so delicious! Other things I learned through mistakes- such as forgetting to ask for tap water in a restaurant and paying for a bottle of still water.
If you are traveling to Paris for the first time, here are some helpful things that I learned through both good and bad experiences. May these tips help you save time (and face) to get the most out of your first time in Paris!
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Things I Learned On My First Trip to Paris
Paris is Very Walkable
Coming from New York, I was prepared to walk most places in Paris. (I was also super nervous about taking the Paris Metro, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) I was delighted by how walkable Paris is.
Paris is divided into neighborhood sections called “arrondissements”. The 1st Arrondissement is one of the oldest and is the geographical city center. It is where you’ll find the Louvre and Tuileries Garden. From there, the arrondissements spiral outwards like a snail’s shell.
I was a bit surprised by how small the actual city of Paris is. Paris is approximately 6 miles (9.5 km) from north to south and 7 miles (11 km) from west to east.
Without stopping, the average able-bodied person can walk from the Arc de Triomphe (west part of the city) to Notre Dame Cathedral (east part of the city) in a little over an hour. This means that you can see a lot of the city even if you only have a few days!
The Metro Isn’t Scary
That said, I was happy to walk most places because I was nervous to take the Paris Metro (even as someone who rides the NYC MTA almost every day). Not only is it daunting to take a new subway system, but directions are in a new language. Plus I’d heard many horror stories of pick-pocketing on the Metro. So yes, I was apprehensive.
Turns out, the Paris Metro isn’t anything to be feared. Like most public transit systems, you just buy your ticket, put it in the ticket reader, and follow signs for the way you want to go.
Similar to the MTA, the different colored subway lines have numbers. To figure out which direction you want to go, check for the name of the last stop. For example, if you decided to take the Metro rather than walk from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre Dame, instead of a “southbound” or “eastbound” train, you would want the (yellow) 1 Line headed to Chateau de Vincennes, because Chateau de Vincennes is the last stop on that line.
As far as pick-pocketing, as a general rule, it’s always good to be aware of your surroundings. Whether you’re wearing a crossbody bag or backpack, keep it in front of you with a hand on it.
The Paris Metro was quite clean, and we never had to wait too long for a train!
Learn Basic French Greetings
As a first-time visitor to Paris, I was told to make sure I knew some basic French greetings before I went. This advice was extremely helpful for interacting with servers, guides, and shop employees.
Parisians have a bit of a reputation for being snobby, but I didn’t find this to be the case. They’re just more likely to be unfriendly when a tourist (probably an American) waltzes into an establishment and immediately assumes everyone speaks English.
While everyone I came into contact with did speak some English, it is wrong to assume that they do. You’ll therefore have much more pleasant human interactions if you begin and end your conversation with some basic French.
Basic French greetings to know when visiting Paris for the first time:
- Bonjour (Hello/Good day)
- Bonsoir (Good evening)
- S’il vous plaît (Please)
- Merci (Thank you)
- Oui/No (Yes/No)
Pro Tip: Hop on the language-learning app, Duolingo, before traveling to Paris for the first time! It’s fun and easy to use and will give you a bit of practice before you go.
Wake Up Early to Avoid Crowds
Paris is one of the most-visited cities in the world, so it makes sense that there will always be people around. However, you can avoid the majority of crowds by waking up early. Paris is so quiet and peaceful in the morning!
Getting out early came in useful for taking photos on my first trip to Paris. We didn’t have to wait long for popular vantage points and didn’t have people walking in and out of our shots.
One downside, though, is that many places don’t open early for breakfast. Most cafes don’t open until 9 am, and even bakeries/boulangeries don’t open until 7 or 8 am, so you may have to wait a bit before grabbing coffee or breakfast.
Book Tickets in Advance
If it’s your first time in Paris, chances are you’ll want to hit some of the city’s main attractions. Places like the Louvre and the Catacombs* are some of the most-visited sites in Paris; so if you want to make sure you see them, I highly recommend booking tickets in advance!
Book your tickets for museums, tours, or experiences you don’t want to miss in Paris one or two weeks before you even get on the plane.
*The Paris Catacombs only release tickets 7 days in advance, so keep an eye on what day you want to visit!
We made the mistake of not booking all of our museum tickets in time and had to rearrange our itinerary a bit to fit in the only available times.
The Get Your Guide website ended up being our saving grace a few times! For example, we were able to book tickets to Musée de l’Orangerie for the same price as on the museum’s website, on the day we wanted, and were able to enter via an expedited line.
Be Prepared to Wait in Line (Everywhere)
Because Paris is such a popular destination, you must be prepared to wait in line almost everywhere you go. Granted, my first trip to Paris was in the month of May, and it was the start of the high tourist season. Still, Paris sites are popular year-round.
Even if you do book “skip the line” tickets for an experience, there will still be a line (it’ll just be shorter).
We waited in line for museums and bathrooms. Unfortunately, I drew the line (no pun intended) at not waiting in a line out the door at Shakespeare and Co. bookstore.
Check Religious Calendars
One thing I did not think to do on my first trip to Paris was check any sort of religious calendar. While it wasn’t that big of a deal, it’s still something to be aware of.
France is a predominately Catholic nation and thus observes Christian holidays. We just happened to be visiting during Ascension Day in May. This year it fell on a Thursday.
This meant that some things were closed for the holiday, but it also meant that many people were off of work. Restaurants were a bit more crowded in the middle of the day than they normally would have been on a Thursday.
Ask for Tap Water
When eating out during my first trip to Paris, I learned two things about ordering water during a meal:
- The server usually won’t bring water automatically, so you will have to ask for it
- If the server does offer water and asks if you want it still or sparkling, it’s okay to ask for tap water. (Still water and tap water aren’t the same!)
I’ll blame it on the jet lag, but when eating our very first meal in Paris, I forgot all of the above and asked for still water, which came in a bottle that we then had to pay for. Whoops.
It’s worth learning “une carafe d’eau” (a carafe/jug of water) in French as well!
Dinners Start Late
One of the things I enjoyed most about eating dinner in Paris, was that it was leisurely. French meals are to be enjoyed and not rushed. However, as an American, one thing that took some getting used to is that dinners start later in Paris.
Many restaurants will close between lunch and dinner, allowing staff to go home or take a long break. They will then reopen for dinner around 7:30 pm. (Some places will reopen around 6 pm, mainly if they cater to tourists.)
If you get hungry before then, you can always stop in a brasserie, which serves food all day.
Take a Day Trip (or Two)
Before traveling to Paris for the first time, I’d read many itineraries that suggested adding a day trip. They were absolutely right! France is such a beautiful country, and Paris is only a piece of it.
Taking a day trip is pretty easy to do. You can rent a car or take a train. We decided to take the easy route and go on guided tours that provided transportation so that we could just sit back and enjoy the ride!
Some popular day trips from Paris:
- The Palace of Versailles: This is probably one of the most popular day trips for first-time visitors to Paris because it is relatively close to the city. Explore the opulent palace and gardens of French royalty, including the infamous Marie Antoinette. Book your tour (with transport) here!
- Monet’s Home in Giverny: Leave the bustling city behind and head to the French countryside. When you arrive in Giverny, it’s easy to see why Impressionist painter Claude Monet was inspired and made his home there. Book your half-day tour from Paris here!
- Champagne Region: If it’s not truly Champagne unless it’s from Champagne, you might as well try the real thing and take a day trip to the French region known for its cellars. Enjoy wine tastings and rolling hills of vineyards. Book your day trip of tastings here!
- The Loire Valley: Live your Disney princess dreams and take a day trip to the Loire Valley, which is known for its many castles. Tour beautiful chateaux and medieval towns dotted throughout the countryside. Book your tour of fairytale castles (plus wine tasting) here
Want to cross two places off your list in one day? We took this guided tour and visited Giverny in the morning and Versailles in the afternoon! (While I would’ve liked to have had more time at both, it was a great way to save time during our one week in Paris.)
I had a delightful first trip to Paris and am looking forward to returning someday with all of my newfound knowledge. I hope these Paris tips for first-timers help you have a fantastic trip to the City of Light!
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