I’m often surprised when I hear about the bad experiences fellow travelers had in Paris. Here is some advice from a parisian.
Paris is a beautiful city (some may say it’s like an open air museum) and there are things to see at every corner. The best way to visit it is to walk! I know I’m repeating myself with the walking advice but it has never been as true as this time. To go quicker from one place to another, consider renting a Velib, the public bikes in Paris. It’s (very) cheap and there are stations everywhere.
If you need to cover more ground, use the metro. I wouldn’t recommend buying the unlimited tourist passes unless you’re taking the metro a lot. For most people, I think buying ten tickets at once, which only costs 13.3€, is the best bet. If you are staying a long time, consider a “Navigo Découverte” pass.
(The bus is a better way, as a tourist, to move around the city as you get to sightsee. However, it is a bit more complicated to use than the metro if you do not speak a word of French)
Be careful in the metro, there are a lot of pickpockets. I would even say be cautious everywhere as there is a lot of scammers in Paris. Try to not look like the cliché tourist (you cannot imagine how easy it is to spot a tourist in Paris). Unless you’re going hiking in the Alps, no need to come with the big walking shoes and the tek clothes…
I think the best plan is to target an area to visit, go with the metro then walk or bike around. In the evening, take the metro back to your accommodation. This way you only need two metro rides per day and a Velib pass. 10 tickets + 1 week bike pass costs you around 22€.
Paris has a LOT of museums. If you’re planing to do a lot of visiting, consider buying a Paris Museum Pass. These are not cheap and some museums require an extra so be sure you are going to take full advantage of it. Also consider that there are a lot of free museums and that most of them are free on Sunday. The Paris city council put up a page which lists free museums.
The thing that surprises me the most is when people tell me that they didn’t find the food good or that it was very expensive. Although it is probably more expensive than in many places, you can find relatively cheap restaurants with very good food. How many people I met who never heard of a Brasserie, yet this is where the typical Frenchman will have their lunch if they go out.
My best advice would be to get out of the tourist places (which is valid everywhere in the world). The Champs Elysées is not a good place to have good food for cheap nor is the Quartier Latin (around St Michel). Walk around the 11th, 14th, 15th and 20th arrondissements or Le Marais where you’ll find hundreds of Brasserie which usually serve good food. Stick to the Plat du Jour (daily dish) in most cases. A lunch costs between 12 and 15€ (starter + main or main + dessert, water and bread included).
(Small note: entrée in French means starter and not main dish like in America. The main dish is called plat principal).
If you are on a tight budget, Chinese restaurants and Kebabs (you’ll find them at every corner) are safe bets. You’ll get a meal for 5 to 7€. Your best bet is to find a Boulangerie and buy a sandwich (French people love sandwiches!). Finding a supermarket (common brands are Monoprix or Casino) and buying a precooked meal is a cheap way to eat decently (most supermarkets in Paris have microwave ovens).
A rite of passage which you must not miss is buying a baguette. Get in any Boulangerie and ask for a Baguette (costs between 0.7€ and 1€). (Do not ask for “bread”, there are many kind of them, ask specifically for a baguette). Good things to eat your baguette with are camembert, saucisson (with butter) or paté.
(Note: the quality of Boulangeries varies a lot, try different ones to taste the difference)
Wine is cheap in France, try it! You can find good bottles for 5€ in supermarkets or Nicolas stores. Buy a bottle, a baguette and some cheese and sit down along the Seine or Canal St Martin. Enjoy!
Another very French thing to experience is the market (marché in French). France still has a good market culture and there are markets almost everyday of the week somewhere in Paris. Markets take place directly on the streets. Producers come and sell their products straight to the customer. You’ll get real fresh food, you can taste many things and it’s a very lively event. This page lists markets in Paris but it’s only available in French.
Bars are expensive (clubs are really expensive) and it’s easy to find places which will charge you 8 to 10€ for a pint of beer. Some bars around metro Grands Boulevards and Chateau Rouge serves it at 3 to 4€. Happy hour is still your best bet. Buying a pack of beers and wine bottles, drinking on the docks at Bastille or along the Canal St Martin is what many Parisians do.
But the best advice of all is not to start your sentences in English. Always start with Bonjour (hello in French) and ask if the person speaks English (“parlez-vous anglais?”). French people are very proud of their language and although they may speak English, they will not use it if you do not make an effort in return.
Last time I was there, I was sitting at a café watching an American couple trying to order something in French. They were barely speaking it but where trying hard. After letting them destroy every French words they were pronouncing for a minute, the waitress started talking in a very good English and helped them with their order.
Finally, the best time to visit Paris is, in my opinion, Spring, September or Christmas season. Avoid August as Parisians leave en masse as it’s holiday season. Many restaurants and shops are closed. The city is not the same and mostly filled with tourists. Keep in mind that Paris is more than a museum, it is a living city where history, culture, fashion, food and a lot more awaits at every corner. You have to experience it with its people.
Paris is an amazing city with many things to visit and experience. You will be shocked in many ways at how different it is from what you may expect. Keep an open mind and enjoy one of the greatest city in the World!