Paris has been known as the « most romantic city, » and you could practically see and feel the love in its many tourist spots. But there is more to Paris than the Eiffel Tower or the Notre Dame Cathedral. Here are some things that you have to know and you can do when you visit France’s capital city.
« The City of Light »
This tag-name of Paris actually comes from « Ville Lumière, » a reference not only the the then revolutionary electrical lighting system implemented in the streets of Paris, but also to the prominence and aura of « enlightenment » the city gained during « La Belle Époque, » the Parisian golden age of the late 19th century. It was during this time when Gustave Eiffel’s famous tower was erected, as well as the first Métro line, and the creation of parks.
A multi-cultural experience
Paris enjoyed considerable growth as a multi-cultural city beginning in the 1970s with the influx of new immigrants from all corners of the world, especially among French-speaking countries, including most of northern and western Africa as well as Vietnam and Laos. These immigrants brought their foods and music both of which are of prime interest for many travelers.
Migration even continues in Paris until now, with a marked increase of immigrants from Latin America in the 21st century, bringing along with them the « taquerias » (which were hard to find in Paris even during the 1990s), the introduction of the chili pepper, and Samba and Salsa music that has become all the rage in the city (alongside Paris lounge electronica).
Today, there’s more nationalities represented in Paris than even in New York.
The city lives in an atmosphere like that of London or New York, with hurried, businesslike people. In France, the Parisians have a reputation for arrogance and perpetual hurriedness. The arrogance is also in keeping with the fact that Paris is a very big city, and the stresses of city life can drive anybody to be a bit brusque.
Aside from which, Parisians undergo constant requests from beggars, salespeople, and buskers every day. Sometimes, they turn out to be crooks, so naturally the Parisians become a bit suspicious of strangers asking for anything, even their time. Try to keep this in mind when you need to ask for directions in the Métro. A shabbily-dressed, badly-shaven, backpack-carrying, foreign-speaking tourist may be, in the eyes of the Parisians, yet another person who till tell some dramatic life story finishing with a request for money.
Despite the Parisians being notoriously arrogant, Paris is observed with a high level of politeness. Even if you don’t speak the language, bear in mind that courtesy is extremely important in everyday dealings. Even one word in French, like « bonjour » (good morning), means a lot and the person will help you with overwhelming charm; or at least, give a greeting in English. Write on a slip of paper or, better yet, remember some French speak with their hands and there should be no problem.
Speak with a well-mannered tone
Just like in any other major city, Parisians generally expect people to speak in a measured voice when in a crowded place. They are likely to look down on people who talk very loudly in a train or subway car. While it’s unlikely that anybody will say anything, such behavior will mostly get you classified as rude and is likely to reduce the possibility that you’ll get help should you need it.
Americans, in particular, are advised that they are often considered ill-mannered by the French, most notably because of groups who talk very loudly in restaurants or the Métro. Keep in mind that the people around you are not on a vacation, in general. They are probably going to or coming back from work and thus may not appreciate another source of headache. Also, the vast majority of the Parisian population are not in any way related to the tourism business. You are not in a resort or theme park, but in a city where people have to get on with their lives.
Speaking in English
For most people, English is something they had to study in school, and seems a bit of a chore. People helping you out in English are making an extra effort, sometimes a considerable one. Younger people are more likely to be fluent in English than older people.
However, English language in Paris is a bit more complicated since they learn British English in the « received pronunciation, » also known as the « Queen’s English. » In order to communicate your English properly to a Parisian who learned English in school, always do try to speak slowly and clearly, and maybe affect a bit of a Margaret Thatcher accent, but please do not shout.
Speaking in French
Speaking French in Paris is just as complicated, since the French taught in schools in English-speaking countries tends to be « written » French and it is quite different from the spoken French. This makes your « French » hardly understandable by the actual French person. The French people speak their language very fast, swallow some letters, and make all sound like a beautiful music. If the Parisian asks you to repeat what you just said, do not feel offended. Instead, write down phrases or place names.
One determinant into knowing your « expertise » in French is that if you understand (or at least sort of understand) French movies without its subtitles, then you can speak French like a true Parisian.
Asking for directions
When in need of direction, find someone who is not in a hurry, preferably a younger person or someone reading a book or magazine in English. Greet him or her with « hello » or « bonjour, » then start by asking if the person speaks English (« Parlez vous Anglais? »), even if he or she is reading something in English, speak slowly and clearly–evern writing down names when necessary. Don’t forget to smile a lot. Also, carry a map, given the complexity of Paris’ streets.
Do not stop a random person in the Métro and, without a greeting, start asking questions in your own normal way of speaking English. That person is likely to depart quickly with no word of apology.
If you do speak French, remember two magic sentences: « Excusez moi de vous déranger » and « Pourriez-vous m’aider? » Use these liberally, even in shops.
The districts of Paris
Central Paris is officially divided into 20 districts called « arrondissements, » numbered from 1 to 20 in a clockwise spiral from the center of town. The arrondissements are named according to their number. For instance, you might stay in the « 5th, » which would be written as 5ème (« SANK-ee-emm) in French. The 12th and 16th arrondissements include large suburban parks, the « Bois de Vincennes, » and the « Bois de Boulogne » respectively.
Each district has its own main attractions. For instance, the « 1st » is where you find the Louvre, while the « 2nd » is the location of the Paris Stock Exchange.
Navigating through Paris is easy if you have a pocket map, the most recommended would be « Paris Pratique par Arrondissement, » which you can buy at any news stand.
Visit the museums and monuments with just one card
One of the best value and most convenient ways to see the sights of Paris is with the « Carte Musées et Monuments, a pre-paid entry card that allow entry into over 70 museums and monuments around Paris and comes in two-day (30EUR), four-day (45EUR), and six-day (60EUR) denominations. This card allows you to jump otherwise sometimes lengthy queues and is available from participating museums, tourist offices, Fnac branches, and all the main Métro and RER train stations. However, you would still need to pay to enter most special exhibitions.
Schedule your museum visits
Note that most museums and galleries are closed on either Monday or Tuesday, so check ahead to avoid disappointment; and most ticket counters in museums close 30 to 45 minutes before closing.
Aside from which, all national museums are open free of charge on the first Sunday of the month, and this may mean long lines and crowded exhibits.
Explore the sights
As said before, each arrondissements of Paris has something to offer in terms of infrastructure beauty. The Eiffel Tower, located on the 7th, is one of the most famous–and tallest–landmarks in the world. The Notre Dame Catheral, an impressive Gothic cathedral that was the inspiration for Victor Hugo’s novel, « The Hunchback of Notre Dame, » is located at the 4th. The 3rd is where you would find Picasso Museum, containing the artist’s own masterworks.
There are also unpopular but just-as-wonderful sights that you can visit when in Paris. The Sacré Coeur on th 18th is a church perched on the highest point of the city, while the Sainte Chapelle on the 1st is far more beautiful than the famous–but gloomy–Notre Dame. The Panteon (5th) is where you would find the resting place of the great heroes of the French Republic. And the Carnavalet (3rd) is a museum of Paris’ history; its exhibitions are permanent and free.
See Paris from above
At the 9th, you can check out the skyline from the roofs of Printemps and the Galleries Lafayette. There’s also a hot air balloon at Parc André Citroen (south-western Paris) in which you can ride on. It doesn’t operate on windy days, though.
Watch inline skaters
Every Friday night and Sunday afternoon (except when raining), hordes of inline skaters take to the streets of Paris on a preplanned route for about 3 ½ hours. Even if you do not participate, find a café near the route and watch them fly by. If you are interested in participating, check out http://www.pari-roller.com.
Celebrate Bastille Day
The celebration of the beginning of the French Revolution, which is held every July 14, is a crowd-drawer. The day starts with a Bastille Parade held on the Champs-Élysées at 10:00 a.m. and ends with the Bastille Day Fireworks, with many city-sponsored events in between. Remember to arrive early to get prime viewing spots. The city officials recommend gathering around the gardens of the Eiffel Tower during the Bastille Day Fireworks.
Witness its many festivals
Paris has many festivals, each catering to a particular group. For instance, the city celebrates a « techno parade » every mid-September, with Djs and (usually young) fans from acrosss Europe converging to Paris for five to six days of dancing. This culminates in a parade whose route traces roughly from Place de Bastille to the Sorbonne. Also in its events list are Six Nations Rugby (February), Paris Fashion Week (March for winter collections; October for spring-summer collections), Roland Garros (also known as tennis’ French Open, May), and Fête de la Musique Paris (June 21)
Watch a movie
The cinemas of Paris can be considered the envy of the rest of the world. Big-budget Hollywood films are screened in Paris often a few weeks after its release in the US, and do not forget its prestigious and artistic French films. Also, during any given week there are at least half-a-dozen film festivals going on, at which you can see the entire works of a given actor or director. Meanwhile, there are some older cult films that you can enjoy any day you wish.
Many non-French movies are subtitled (called « version originale » or « v/o »). However, when watching French movies, it is probably a good idea to watch it with subtitles especially if your French is not adequate to follow fast conversations.
To know the movie schedule around Paris, buy a copy of « Pariscope » at newsstands.
Crimes in Paris is similar to most large cities, but violent crime is uncommon in the heart of the city. Pickpockets are active on the rail link from Charles de Gaulle Airport to downtown Paris and on the #1 Métro subway line. A common scheme is for one thief to distract the tourist with questions or disturbance while an accomplice picks pockets, a backpack, or purse. Thieves often time their crime to coincide with the closing of the automatic doors on the Métro, leaving the victime secured on the departing train.
Many thefts also occur in major department stores like Galleries Lafayette, Printemps, and Smarantine. Tourists tend to leave wallets, pasports, and credit cards on cashier counters during transactions, leaving your possessions vulnerable from pickpocketing.
Popular tourist sites are also popular hunting grounds for thieves who favor congested areas to mask their activities. Areas to watch out for include the crowded elevators at the Eiffel Towers, escalators at museums, and the area around the Sacre Coeur Church in Montmarte.
The area around the famous Moulin Rouge is known as Pigalle. It is best to avoid going there after dark unless you’re with a group headed for a show. Pigalle is an adult entertainment area known for prostitutes, sex shows, and drugs. Unsuspecting tourists often run up exorbitant bar bills and are forced to pay before being permitted to leave. Other places to be alert on are the Marché aux Puces flea market, the suburbs (or « banlieue ») like Barbès.
The Métro is relatively safe, but pickpockets do work in the stations and on the trains especially near tourist destinations. If you carry a bag make sure that it is closed tightly. If you have wallet in your pocket keep a hand on it while entering or exiting the trains. Don’t carry any more cash than you can afford to lose and keep it on different parts of your body: like on your money belt, your wallet, your shoe. When you have to access your money, do so in private.
There are recent reports of new tactics by thieves, targeting taxis on their way into the city from Charles de Gaulle Airport. Thieves wait for the cab to stop in the usual traffic jam along the A1 highway and break windows to get the passengers’ bags. To avoid this, you may place your bags in the trunk of the taxi or take the very safe Air France shuttle.
Do not litter
Not only this is disrespectful, but violators are also fined with hefty fines starting at 18EUR. Place your trash in the many trashcans provided by the City or the subway authority.