Everyone who knows us knows we love the city, and we are often asked for suggestions about what to do and see. Here are some of the things we tell people.
We should start by mentioning that we dislike standing in long queues when there are more interesting things we could be doing, and we do have to watch our budget. So we have never been up the Eiffel Tower, we prefer small museums to the Louvre, we do not have the maitre d’s of the top restaurants on speed-dial, and we travel in the off-season. We also find that when the weather is good, we want to be outside walking; we go to museums and galleries when it rains.
A good place to ask questions in English: Any English-language bookstore. We used to rely on the Red Wheelbarrow on the rue St-Paul, but alas, it has closed. However, W.H. Smith and Galignani on the rue du Rivoli and Shakespeare and Company near Notre-Dame are still going strong.
How to buy Métro tickets: You can get “un carnet de billets” at a self-serve machine in any Metro station (instructions in English are available). This means 10 tickets, good on Métro, buses, and trams inside Paris (to go farther afield, such as Versailles, you’ll need a different ticket). You can use them for a journey of Métro-plus-bus, as they are valid for an hour or so once they’ve been stamped. Otherwise, the Navigo card is available as a weekly pass (good from Monday to Monday only, though, or by calendar month). You’ll need a photo for this, but as anyone who has seen Amélie knows, there are photo booths in most large Metro stations and train stations.
How to see Paris by bus: No need to sign up for one of those monster tour buses. Take one of your Metro tickets and hop on the regular No. 69 bus. It travels between the Champs de Mars near the Eiffel Tower on the Left Bank and the Père Lachaise cemetery on the Right, crossing the river and passing Les Invalides, the Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, the Place de Vosges, the Place de la Bastille, and the trendy area of the Faubourg St-Antoine. Buses have an automatic system that calls out the stops, so you will know what is what. Best deal in town.
How to see Paris from the river: Take the Batobus. You buy a ticket that is good for the whole day and can get on and off at any of the stops. This is more fun than taking a regular river tour, where you are stuck on the boat until the end. And you can get off to have a decent lunch wherever you like.
How to see Paris from the Canal St-Martin: Two companies offer trips – Canauxrama and Paris Canal. We recommend Paris Canal. The trip starts near the Musée d’Orsay at 9:30 a.m. and ends two and a half hours later in the huge Bassin de la Villette in the northern part of the city. You have to reserve in advance.
Where to buy anything you forgot to bring: Monoprix has stores throughout the city, including some all-food stores called Monop’. We’ve bought clothing, food, gifts, toiletries, extra suitcases… you name it, there. It’s inexpensive, and a fun place to browse. Another favourite is the BHV (Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville) on the rue de Rivoli, near the Hotel de Ville (City Hall). The kitchenwares department is heaven for foodies, Norman loves the basement hardware section, and the stationery department offers gifts galore.
Where to get a good view of the city for free: The department stores on the right bank, Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, have roof decks where you get a splendid view of the city. Although they offer rooftop cafés too, you don’t have to buy food there to enjoy the view. You can also go to the Centre Georges Pompidou and say you are going to the bar called Georges. The elevator to Georges is separate from the regular entrance and you can enjoy the view without entering the restaurant. The restaurant interior is quite eye-popping, though, and not a bad place to have a glass of wine (we’ve never eaten there). Finally, the Montparnasse Tower Observation Deck offers a splendid view over the Left Bank.
Where to get a light meal: If you go to anything that calls itself a restaurant, you will usually be expected to eat a full, multi-course meal at midday or in the evening (after 8 p.m.). If you want a light lunch or a snack or a modest dinner, or anything at all before 8 p.m. when the restaurants open, try a bistro, brasserie, café, or salon de thé.
Where to get an inexpensive and good lunch: Many of the museums have really good cafeterias, located in some great spaces, often with superb views. The Palais de Tokyo, the Petit Palais, the Cité de l’Architecture et Patrimoine are all good places to get lunch, and in many cases, you don’t have to pay the museum admission to eat there.
Another type of inexpensive lunch: Buy food at a market and make a picnic in the nearest park. A handy guide called Markets of Paris by Dixon and Ruthanne Long (now into a second edition) offers details on which open-air markets are open when, and what you will find when you get there. A baguette, some cold meat, cheese, fruit, and a half-bottle of rosé makes a splendid picnic lunch on the banks of the Seine or in a city park.
Where to pick up bargains: The flea market at the Porte de Vanves in the southern part of the city is a relaxed and informal market open Saturday and Sunday mornings. Not everything is super cheap, but bargains are there if you look. It’s like wandering through the attic of a French grandmother who has never thrown anything away since the turn of the last century. We’ve bought silver, glassware, old Metro signs, Ricard water jugs like those in retro cafés, and so forth. Vanves is smaller and more accessible than the huge market to the north of the city (Clignancourt) and the neighbourhood is nicer. When you are finished, you can ride on the ultra-modern tram through some very pretty parts of the city, past the Cité Universitaire and the Parc Montsouris.
Where to hop on a bike: Anywhere, with Velib’. It’s a two-step process. First, you buy a subscription, which can be for a single day. Then, you use your subscription number to actually rent the bike. You have to have a credit card with a chip and a 4-digit PIN to make the system work. There are bike paths throughout the city (click here for a downloadable map). If you have access to a computer, go on the Velib’ site to find out which nearby stations have bikes available. If you would like to join a bike tour, which means you don’t have to worry about picking the route and will be shown some interesting parts of the city you might not find for yourself, we recommend Paris à Velo, c’est sympa.
How to check the weather forecast: If you have access to a computer, go to the Paris Meteo site. The forecasts are remarkably accurate.
How to find what’s on at museums, theatres and galleries: Go to a newsstand and ask for l’Officiel des Spectacles. It is in French, but it is a mine of information on opening times and prices. (Note that “tlj sf lundi” means open every day except Monday.)
Where to watch the world go by: The cafés on the big boulevards and in the tourist areas are often overpriced and the food is nothing special. The more out-of-the-way areas and smaller streets are usually a better bet, and the people you will be watching won’t all be other tourists.
How to get good service in shops: When you enter a boutique, take a moment to look around for the shopkeeper, make eye contact, and say “Bonjour.” This sends the signal that you have good manners and you will usually receive better service.
What to do if you feel unwell: Go to a pharmacie. They are indicated by an illuminated green cross. The larger pharmacies in the central areas should have someone who speaks some English. Pharmacists will not only suggest helpful medications for whatever ails you, but if they think that you might need a doctor’s help, they can suggest one who will see you fairly quickly by appointment (better than trying your luck at a hospital) or give you the address of the nearest S.O.S. Médecins (a walk-in clinic).
What to wear: We usually dress in a style that in North America would be considered office casual – pants and a shirt for Norman, skirt or good pants and a blouse or sweater for Philippa. You can wear jeans, but they must be smart jeans (unless you are already a supermodel, in which case, anything goes). Buy comfortable leather walking shoes that are not sports shoes; this is the most important investment you can make, because you will walk miles. We each have a fairly formal coat for cool days, worn with a scarf, because everyone seems to wear a scarf. We dress up a bit in the evenings if we are going to a restaurant – jacket and tie with good pants and dress shoes for Norman, dress or skirt/blouse with pantyhose and pumps for Philippa.
How to behave: Paris is a big city, and like all big cities, it has pickpockets who operate wherever there are big crowds, as well as red-light districts, some rougher neighbourhoods, and so on. Keep your valuables close to you, don’t flash a lot of bling, and after dark, keep to well-lighted, well-travelled streets if you are on your own. If someone approaches you on the street offering to sell something they have just “found,” such as a piece of jewellery, move away. It’s a popular scam.
Where to find a toilet when you need one: Department stores, museums, large hotels, and very busy cafés are your best bet (where there are crowds, nobody notices you are not there to eat). You are also permitted to use restrooms in some of Paris’s grandest buildings: the city halls in each of the twenty arrondissements. There are street toilets, most of them free, but they often have line-ups and are inevitably out of service when you are desperate.
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