These are the best tips & tricks for any American visiting Paris
If you look at Paris in nearly any pop culture context, it is always super romanticized. From movies to shows (like the recently popular Emily in Paris) to beautifully staged Instagram pics, Paris always looks like a dreamy travel destination.
In fact, it seems everyone around the world wants to visit Paris. In 2019, Paris was the 6th most popular tourist destination in the world, with over 19 MILLION arrivals. Drawn to the romantic charm and the many sites, Paris is often the first destination that many visit when traveling to continental Europe. Although I had visited Italy prior to traveling to Paris, Paris was the first destination where I backpacked as a solo traveler.
Truth be told, I did not enjoy Paris the first time I visited. I was overwhelmed by the crowds, the swarms of tourists, the sketchy souvenir salespeople, and the sprawl of the city. There was so much to do and I felt like I had to go-go-go to get everything done. I found Paris to be exhausting instead of magical, which was frankly a letdown.
After getting a lot more travel experience under my belt (7 additional European countries and at least a dozen more cities), I decided to give Paris another shot this last January. I wanted to see if I could enjoy the city with more travel experience and give Paris a fair shot. Despite experiencing the country’s worst transportation strike in history and getting hit by a car while crossing the street (true story!), I actually did enjoy Paris the second time around. From these two adventures, these are my best tips for visiting Paris for the first time!
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You won’t be able to see and do everything in Paris
Paris is absolutely massive. I’ve spent 12 solid days in Paris now and I still haven’t done everything I want to do. If you don’t have much travel experience, you may find that you’re a “checklist traveler” and want to jam-pack your time so that you can see & do everything.
It doesn’t matter how hard you try, you won’t experience everything. So take a deep breath, prioritize your list, and just focus on enjoying Paris.
You should plan to stay in Paris at least 4 full days
When I say 4 full days, I mean 4 days not including your arrival or departure days. I know, that may seem like a long time, but Paris offers so much! It is possible to only spend 3 days in Paris, but I really think that 5 days is the sweet spot.
Don’t stay near the Eiffel Tower – pick somewhere closer to the Louvre instead
You’re probably dreaming of waking up and opening your Juliet balcony doors to a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower, right?
I know, that sounds wonderful, I get it – trust me. In terms of the main sites in Paris, however, the Eiffel Tower is sort-of an island. It’s a fair bit away from a lot of other things. If you stay near the Eiffel Tower, nearly everything else is at least a 45 minute walk away.
The neighborhood of the Louvre, on the other hand, is very centrally located. The Louvre is located in the First Arrondissement (1e) and will be very expensive, but I recommend that area so you can at least check out a map and pick someplace nearby. When I visited in January, I stayed in St. Germain and it was lovely. Central to everything, super walkable, really safe, and plenty of cute cafes nearby.
On a similar note, I would also recommend you stay someplace near a Metro line. You’re never typically too far from a Metro station in Paris, but being closer is always better. More on that below!
Try and speak at least a little French
Parisians have a reputation for being rude but I really never experienced that. One of my tips for traveling to Paris is to begin any interaction in French.
Imagine being in your home city and someone comes up to you babbling in Spanish or French or Italian, but all the time. That would get annoying, right? I try and put myself in their shoes and imagine them dealing with annoying tourists, day in and day out, and navigating language barriers from all over the world.
Anyway, moral of the story: try and start in French and you’ll be fine.
The main words you should know, along with rough pronunciations, are:
- Bonjour – boh-jhoo – Hello
- Merci – mair-see – Thank you
- Excuzez-moi – excuse-eh mwah – Excuse me
- Parlez-vous anglais? – pahrl-eh voo ahn-glay – Do you speak English?
- Je suis désolé – juh-swee day-so-lay – I am sorry
- Où sont les toilettes – ooh son lay toy let – Where is the bathroom?
- Au revoir – oh vwah – Goodbye, until we meet again
My recommendation is to begin any interaction with “Bonjour, parlez-vous anglais?” They may say “Non” or “A little”. Regardless of the answer, try and speak slowly (not loudly!) and clearly. Always end with “merci, au revoir.”
Paris is crowded – try and prepare yourself for that
Pop culture and social media had me dreaming of strolling down tree-lined streets, enjoying the beautiful Parisian architecture with a croissant in hand while cute Frenchmen nodded flirtatiously in my direction.
I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but Paris is nothing like that.
Paris is so crowded. There are tourists everywhere, tours buses, angry cabs, honking cars, salesmen selling low-quality souvenirs, pickpockets, gypsies, and frustrated locals. The only way you will get to experience Paris in any kind of peace is if you go out and explore in the early morning (pre-8 or 9 am – not too early, this is Paris, after all!)
You won’t get the Emily in Paris experience, but if you adjust your expectations, you will find that Paris is still a lovely city.
Definitely use the Metro line to get around!
Public transportation is somewhat foreign for a lot of Americans and I find that many American tourists end up too intimidated to use it in other countries. In many cities, you don’t really need public transportation, but in Paris, it is a necessity. The Metro is so easy, available, connected, and cheap. You can go from one end of the city to another in just minutes with very little effort and very little cost. If you aren’t using the Metro, you’re either wasting money (from Ubers or taxis) or time (from walking everywhere).
Find a complete guide for using the Paris Metro system here. The app recommended in this guide is one of the most useful tips for visiting Paris for the first time, in my opinion.
Purchase carnets for using the Metro
The easiest way to ride the Metro is to purchase carnets. A carnet is a booklet of 10 one-way tickets that are sold at a slight discount to purchasing 10 individual one-way tickets. The advantage is that you don’t have to stop to purchase a ticket each time and you save a little bit of money.
To use each ticket from the carnet, put it into the turnstile, remove it, enter through the turnstile, and save the punched carnet ticket for your journey (in case a ticket checker comes by). This validated ticket is good for your entire one-way journey, included Metro line transfers. Easy!
Take the Metro from the airport to your hotel
After an 8+ hour transatlantic flight, you would think that a taxi ride straight to your hotel would be most convenient, but it isn’t. Traffic in Paris can be awful and the Metro lines get to skip all of that. If you use the app I mention above, it will be super easy to take the Metro, a ton cheaper (like 80 euro cheaper, at least), and quicker.
Pack at least two pairs of super comfortable walking shoes
When I backpacked in Paris the first time, I tried to pack super light and only brought one pair of shoes. They ended up getting super wet in an afternoon rainstorm and made them too uncomfortable to wear the next day.
Bring two pairs of shoes so that you can swap around. This helps so that (1) one pair can get wet and it doesn’t matter and (2) your feet have some relief if any hot spots occur.
I really like these shoes because they are comfortable enough to walk all day in (I’ve walked 10+ miles in them with no problem) and they are cute-ish. They don’t look like hiking shoes, but they almost look like flats. I think they’re a great compromise for travel.
Even if I bring the most comfortable shoes in the universe, I seem to always get blisters. Because of that, I always pack blister Band-Aids or something similar. I promise, they are a life saver!
These may seem expensive, but buy a box and throw it in your luggage. There is nothing worse than having foot pain when you’re traveling because it’ll ruin your trip pretty quickly. It’s a small investment for making sure you can continue exploring uninterrupted.
Don’t forget these other travel necessities!
There are a whole bunch of other items I recommend for traveling – check out the list to prepare before you depart.
It’s definitely worthwhile to pre-purchase tickets for visiting the Louvre
You’ll probably read some guides that say some day, time, or entrance are the “best” places to get in without a line, but everyone else is reading those guides, too.
It takes literally no extra effort to pre-purchase a ticket. I read the same guides you read and still ended up waiting in line for an hour and a half … in the rain. It was miserable.
Standing for an hour and a half before entering the Louvre just adds to the misery because the Louvre is absolutely MASSIVE. You can go through it in about two hours, but it’s hitting the highlights and missing a lot.
But that’s going to be your entire experience in Paris, so nothing new.
You can see wings of the Louvre on the right and left of the picture, and this photo is taken from another wing. It is genuinely massive. Look at the size of the people for scale!
Skip-the-line passes are expensive but absolutely worth the money
The main attractions often have the option to skip the line and I promise you, this is worth it.
I definitely recommend you skip the line to climb the Eiffel Tower or enter the Catacombs. In both instances, the lines can be literal hours long. Your time is worth more than that, especially if you’re traveling to Paris for the first time. Think of it this way: every hour you spend in line is an hour you missed out on experiencing something in Paris.
Buy wine before you go to see the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night
The Eiffel Tower sparkles at the top of the hour and people gather in the grassy area in front of the Tower to hang out, drink wine, and watch her sparkle.
Vendors will walk around and sell wine and charge ridiculous prices, like 20 euros for a bottle of wine. You can buy literally the same bottle down the street for 3 or 4 euro, so pre-purchase your wine before you head out.
Don’t forget to bring a wine opener and wine glasses!
Get travel insurance before you go (and be careful when crossing the street)
When I visited Paris in January 2020, the entire country of France was experiencing an unprecedented transportation strike. Trains, Metros, buses, basically any public transit was shut down. This meant that I had to walk everywhere (and Parisians had to drive everywhere).
Well, one night while I was crossing the street (legally, I might add), I got hit by a Porsche. I wasn’t hit hard, but he ran off and I was left to figure out what to do next.
When I made my way back to the hotel, every single person at the hotel laughed and said I was now a true Parisian and then told me stories of when they had been hit by a car!
Long story short: it seems that this is common. So get travel insurance before you go.
Carry some cash and call your bank ahead of time
France’s currency is the Euro, like most of Europe. Your credit card will be accepted at most places, but I’ve had some instances where my card was difficult or impossible to use due to differences in our chip & pin systems. Because of that, I always recommend you carry some cash with you.
Before you leave, let your banks know that you’ll be traveling so you can use your cards uninterrupted.
I’ve learned a lot of tips related to money throughout my travels: check out the complete international money guide here.
Don’t worry about tipping
This is one of those Paris travel tips for Americans specifically: you don’t need to worry about tipping. It’s going to make you feel really uncomfortable. I get it. I still feel uncomfortable when I don’t tip.
You can leave your change at the table or leave a small tip if service is excellent, but otherwise, tipping is not obligatory.
Keep safety in mind while you travel
Because Paris is such a popular travel destination, it’s also a popular spot for pickpockets and scammers.
Be mindful of your surroundings when you’re at an ATM or on the Metro. Keep personal belongings close to you and don’t keep valuables in wallets.
I personally recommend you purchase anti-theft bags. For me, at least, they give me great peace of mind and allow me to continue exploring without feeling like I have to be so hyper-vigilant about my surroundings. Anti-theft bags make it difficult to open a zipper and offer anti-slash features, so they’re worth the extra cost.
French hot chocolate is magical, and you absolutely need to try some
French hot chocolate is basically warm ganache. It’s decadent, rich, delicious, and you will have missed out if you leave Paris without enjoying at least one cup of this wonderful stuff.
I get that it may not be that appealing during the hot summer months, but if you’re visiting when it’s a little cooler, you definitely need to treat yourself to some delicious Parisian hot chocolate.
Do something unique while in Paris (trust me, you’ll be relieved to escape the crowds)
I know I’ve said that it’s not possible to do everything that Paris offers, so you’re probably wondering why you would venture “off the beaten path” to do something more unique.
I have done the typical touristy things in Paris and the more unique things and the more unique things have been more enjoyable 100% of the time. Paris offers macaron baking classes, French bread baking classes, perfume-making classes, bicycle tours of Versailles, tours of the Paris sewer systems, and more. Find out what unique Parisian attraction is perfect for you with this fun quiz!
With these 20 tips for visiting Paris, your first time in the City of Lights will be as magical and easy as possible
Paris can be overwhelming, even for the most seasoned traveler. These tips for traveling to Paris can help any traveler have an easier time navigating and exploring the city.
Do you have any travel tips you recommend? Comment them below!