Your guide to not getting bullied by Parisians.
As one of the biggest, most fabulous cities in the world, it’s easy to feel like you know Paris without ever having been there. And while Paris will do its best to welcome you with open arms, it’s always helpful to come armed with some tips and tricks for fitting in just like a real Parisian.
There Are Different Rules for Dining Here
Forget about formal table manners (although those are always good to know), there are more pressing issues to learn when it comes to eating out in Paris. Let’s start with baby steps: when to eat. Most restaurants are open for lunch (noon to 2) and dinner (starting at 8 pm). That means many places will be closed entirely from 2 until 8. But if dinner at 6 pm is a must for you, don’t fret—eateries in touristy areas tend to serve nonstop throughout the day. For Parisians, a pre-dinner apéro—drinks and snacks with friends—starts at 7. Secondly, forget the picky eating culture at home; yes, that means abandoning your no wheat, no dairy, no fat diet, and no ordering off the menu. You can ask for dairy-free sauce, but regardless of what the server says, you’ll most likely be served the same sauce from the same saucepan as everyone else. This can be a serious issue for those with severe food allergies; even if you’re able to articulate your issue in French, not all places take allergies as seriously as they do in the United States. People with severe food allergies are better off preparing their meals at their lodging or eating at vegan or organic shops and bakeries; these eateries tend to be more upfront with their ingredients, and their staff are more in tune with health concerns.
And eat slowly—there are only two services for dinner so there’s lots of time—and don’t be embarrassed to order tap water (une carafe d’eau) instead of forking out for the bottled stuff. Also, and this is a biggie, don’t do work or touch documents when you’re eating a meal or you’ll be the recipients of many gasps. And to really blend in, make sure you order your tea or coffee after your dessert. Earn brownie points by ordering the plat du jour and break off an extra piece of bread to wipe the plate clean (but never butter your bread!) Typically tipping is included with a meal’s price and is not an incentive for better service. Feel free to leave 5–10% if the service was excellent. But here’s the biggest tip: dress nicely, and if you are with your kids, don’t let them run wild.
Manners and a Little French Go a Long Way
The French are big on ceremony, whether it’s a kiss on each cheek as a greeting or saying “Mesdames, Messieurs” (ladies and gentlemen) when walking into a store or a doctor’s office. As a tourist, you’ll be fine with the basics. Stick with “bonjour” when you enter a shop or boulangerie. Say “merci” every time someone serves you a coffee or brings you change. This gesture of solidarity can really go a long way here. But be prepared, because no matter how nice you are or how much you try to speak French un peu, the French can be notoriously surly, especially those you come across working in retail and restaurants (customer service does not exist in France).
In terms of greeting someone, here’s the low-down about the bises (the kissing): when you first meet someone, shake their hand. When you say goodbye, offer your hand again and if they motion towards you, turn your head right to kiss their left cheek. No French person, especially someone you’ve just met, is coming in for a hug. When in doubt, shake on it. Kissing relative strangers may seem like a personal boundary issue to many North Americans, but if you shared an elevator with a French person and started engaging in small talk, they’d feel like you violated their space. Note to self: the French don’t do small talk. Finally, to act with the utmost decorum, keep your voice low. The most common complaint against American tourists is that they are too loud (and that they tend to insert themselves into the conversations of strangers sitting at tables nearby; remember, no small talk!).
Paris Is Divided by Different Arrondissements
Thanks to Baron Haussmann’s mid-19th-century redesign, Paris is a compact wonder of wide boulevards, gracious parks, and leafy squares. And without question, the best way to explore it is on foot. The city is divided into 20 arrondissements (neighborhoods) spiraling out from the center of the city. The numbers reveal the neighborhood’s location and its age, with the 1er arrondissement at the city’s heart being the oldest and where you’ll find the Palais Royal and Place Vendome. The arrondissements in central Paris—the 1er to 8e—are the most visited. In the 2me, you’ll find the bustling Etienne Marcel and Rue Montorgueil with tons of trendy cafés and shopping while 3me/4me is the Marais neighborhood, and the Latin Quarter is the fifth arrondissement. To help you navigate, download an app like Citymapper or Smart Paris, or pick up a copy of Paris Pratique Par Arrondissement, the city’s essential map guide, available at newsstands and bookstores. Keep in mind that the city is more walkable than you think: the entire length of the Champs-Élysées (8me) is only 2 km (1.2 miles), and to go from Notre Dame (4me) to the Louvre (1re) is even less than that, although walking to the Eiffel Tower from Notre Dame would take longer (about 2.6 km/1.6 miles).
Paris Isn’t a 24-Hour City
Museums are closed one day a week (usually Monday or Tuesday), and most stay open late at least one night each week, which is also the least crowded time to visit. Store hours are generally 9:30 or 10 am to 7 or 8 pm, Monday through Saturday, although post offices, banks, and smaller shops may close for several hours during the afternoon. Department stores—including Galeries Lafayette and Printemps—are open on Sundays, and along the Champs-Élysées, the Marais, Montmartre, and the Latin Quarter, you’ll find shops that usually open around 2 pm on Sunday.
In France, summertime (particularly August) is when many businesses shut down for their monthlong fermeture annuelle, or annual holiday, and residents escape to the countryside. Museums, monuments, and attractions operate as usual, but if there’s a certain restaurant you’ve been dying to try, it’s best to check in advance if it’s open in August.
The Metro Is Your Savior
Taxis in France are ridiculously expensive (and there’s a fierce war against Uber) so the metro is a practical and often economical way to travel around the city. The walking distance to the next metro is never more than a quarter mile and it will get you just about anywhere you want to go for €1.90 a ride (a carnet, or “pack” of 10 tickets, is €14.90); tickets also work on buses, trams, and the RER train line within Paris. Trains start running at 5:30 am with the last train pulling into the station at around 1:15 am weekdays (and 2:15 am on weekends). Tickets can be purchased at the green machines in stations with cash and chip-based credit cards. Remember to validate your ticket at the turnstile and hold on to it in case an inspector asks to see it; otherwise you could be fined. Except for new trains, you’ll have to open the doors by button or handle. Use the train number as your guide, not the color, and if you go the wrong direction, get off at the next stop and turn around; you don’t have to buy a new ticket. When all else fails, the Visiter Paris en Métro app can help.
Don't Just Stay by the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre
Leave the lines and crowds behind, and head outdoors on the Ile Saint-Louis (4me), the small island next to Notre Dame. This charming 17th-century “village” with cobblestone streets and views of the Seine is home to galleries, shops, the Franc Pinot bistro, and legendary ice cream maker Berthillon Glacier. Be sure to stop at La Charlotte de L’isle for a hot chocolate. Or for something completely urban, visit the Villa La Roche du Corbusier (16me), a three-story cubist house that’s one of the most important early examples avant-garde architecture. Another nod to a French architect can be found steps from here: a street named after Robert Mallet-Stevens is surrounded by buildings designed by this master of the modern movement.
You Don’t Have to Look Like a Celebrity, but You Should Make an Effort to Dress a Little Like a Parisian
When it comes to clothing, the standard French look tends to be classier than the American equivalent, but that doesn’t have to mean spending more money. The French Visa and Mastercard are essentially debit cards (no rolling credit here) and the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita in France is $31,137 compared to $44,049 in the United States. So how do they pull off Paris chic with a limited budget? Simplicity. Accessorize an outfit with one item, and hide your labels. No one wants to see a giant polo horse across half your body. You can mix dressy with casual, but athletic clothes are reserved solely for sports. Sneakers are not typically worn by adults, but if you pack yours, keep them for daytime only. Neat jeans are acceptable almost everywhere. For both men and women, it’s a good idea is to toss a blazer in your suitcase, with a few dress shirts to mix and match. Former French Vogue editor-in-chief Carine Roitfeld once said that “perhaps the most important way to achieve Parisian style is to work on the aspects that are more mental than exterior; perfect your posture, feel confident everywhere you go. Clothing can only do so much; Parisian style is more than skin-deep.”
Be Prepared to Slow Down
France does not move at the same pace as the United States. Flânerie is the act of strolling depicted in 19th-century Paris (literally meaning “the man of leisure or the connoisseur of the street” and is a favorite Sunday pastime for locals. But since you’re on vacation, you can be a flâneur any day of the week. The streets here beckon, leading you past monuments, down narrow alleyways, through arches, and into hidden squares. Saunter along the Seine, into the poetic streets of St-Germain, or through the tangled lanes around the Bastille and Canal St-Martin. Perhaps join a free tour or stop and have a leisurely meal at a random restaurant along the canal. Don’t get frustrated when the waiter doesn’t come immediately to take your order and don’t throw down your payment as soon as you’ve finished a three-course meal. Dial that frustration level down to low when you’re waiting at a checkout line, and remember that no one else has their credit card in hand ready to hurry the payment process along. Ditto when checking your Instagram and you realize the Wi-Fi in your 17th-centruy hotel isn’t as speedy as it is at home. Slow down and take it all in.
Paris Is Safe, but Still Recovering From the Terrorist Attacks of 2015
Paris is as safe as any big city can be, but you should always be streetwise and alert just like anywhere else; be prepared for extra security, too. Scarcely a week goes by without some kind of march or public gathering—the current weekend gilets jaunes (yellow vests) are protesting against President Macron and his economic policies—and although most are peaceful, it’s best to avoid them. The CRS (French riot police) carefully guard all major demonstrations, directing traffic and preventing violence. They are armed and use tear gas when and if they see fit. During holidays (especially Christmas), you’ll notice an increased number of security forces on the streets, hands on their machine guns. Like anywhere else, pickpockets are present on the streets, on the metro, and on trains, so it’s best to leave your flashiest jewelry at home.
Look for Ways to Save Money When You Can (There Are a Lot!)
In 2018, Paris was the world’s third most visited city with 17.95 million international visitors. With those kinds of crowds, it pays to be prepared. Buy tickets online when you can; most cultural centers, museums, and tour companies offer reduced ticket sales in advance, and the small service fee you’ll pay will probably be worth the time saved waiting in line. Check out alternative entrances at popular sights, and check when rates are reduced, often during once-a-week evening openings. National museums are free the first Sunday of each month (this includes the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and Centre Pompidou). A Paris Museum Pass can save you money if you’re planning on some serious sightseeing, but it might be even more valuable because it allows you to bypass the lines. The two-, four-, and six-day passes cost €48, €62, and €74, respectively. The Paris Pass offers the perks of the Museum Pass plus a Travelcard for free unlimited travel across Central Paris on the metro, RER, and buses. Offered for two, three, four, or six days, adult rates start at €131.
If you need cash, stick to the omnipresent ATMs (but try to use indoor machines) for the best exchange rates; exchanging cash at your hotel or at a currency exchange outlet is never going to be to your advantage. Take a refillable water bottle with you and fill it up for free at one of the city’s 800 fountains, and later in the day, look for happy hour drinks at reduced prices in many of the city’s bars and cafés. There are free public restrooms in department stores, and many parks and cultural sites have free toilets, too. Also, free Wi-Fi is everywhere.