What the Locals Do in Paris
To appreciate the City of Light as the locals do, start by learning some of the daily rituals of Parisian life. These simple pleasures will quickly get you into the swing of things.
Hit the markets. Parisians prefer the boisterous atmosphere of bustling street markets to the drab supermarchés (supermarkets). Even if you're just buying picnic fixings, you can follow suit. The city’s website (www.paris.fr/english) has a full listing of Paris's markets (many of which are closed Mondays), but a few of our faves include Le Marché d'Aligre, just off Rue du Faubourg St-Antoine beyond the Opéra Bastille, a food market which dates back to the 18th century. Le Marché Mouffetard, between the Panthéon and the Jardin des Plantes, is a combination of stands and food shops that spills out onto Rue Mouffetard, a cobbled pedestrian street crammed with restaurants, cafés, and tempting little stores. You might not need to buy a bouquet, but the flower markets are lovely for wandering.
Go on a shopping spree. You can’t avoid the fact that Parisians dress spectacularly and would not be caught dashing to the boulangerie for a morning croissant in sweatpants, if they even own a pair. A pair of belted jeans, a black tee with a navy boyfriend blazer, leather ballet flats (or 6-inch heels, depending on the mood), and a designer handbag draped over an arm is more likely the look you need to go for to fit in. Yet few do their shopping on the Champs-Élysées, which these days is littered with chain stores. The Marais district is a safe bet for one-off shops, but for prestigious brands head to Avenue Montaigne or Faubourg St-Honoré.
Ride the métro. Taxis in France are pretty expensive (and there’s a war against Uber) so the métro is a practical and often economical way to buzz around the city. Trains start running at 5:30 am with the last train pulling into the station at around 12:30 am weekdays (and 1:30 to 2 am on weekends). Tickets can be purchased at the green machines in stations with bills or coins, 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. There’s the Visiter Paris en Métro app to help guide you.
Take a blue bike. The city’s bike plan Vélib’ has 20,000 bikes across the city at your disposal 24/7. It's a convenient way to get around with the added advantage of discovering off-the-beaten-path routes. You can buy a 1-day pass (€1.70) or a 7-day ticket (€8) online or at any Vélib’ station, which includes the first 30 minutes free. If you keep it for more than 30 minutes you pay an additional €1, then €2 for the next 30 minutes, and €4 for each half hour on top of that.
Food and Drink
Soak in the coffee culture. Le café in Paris isn't simply a drink that begins the day: it's a way of life. Though Parisians do stop at the counter to order a quick café expresse, bien serré, s'il vous plaît ("good and strong, please"), more often people treat the café as an extension of their home or office, with laptops precariously balanced, cell phones ringing, gossip being shared, and business being done at any time of the day. Choose one with a patio or good windows for people-watching, or pause at the nearest counter, and you're in for a dose of Parisian café culture. There's no rush to leave and it's fine to request a glass of water. Just one caveat: don't complicate your coffee order. Other than at a trickle of places, cafés don't serve low-fat or soy milk, even if they say they do.
Chomp down on a baguette. The Eiffel Tower might be the most famous symbol of Paris, but perhaps the true banner of France is the baguette, the long, caramel-color bread offered at every meal. Locals take inordinate pride at finding the best baguette in the neighborhood. To locate a worthy boulangerie—a bakery that specializes in bread, as opposed to a pâtisserie, one specializing in pastries—look for a line outside on weekend mornings. Also look for places labeled artisan to ensure that you’re getting the genuine creation, not a less-tasty industrial version. A tip: if you see little raised dots on the underside, it means the baguette was made by a machine instead of by hand. True Parisians know that all baguettes are not created equal and will order one bien cuit (well-done) to get the crispiest of the batch. After buying yours, do what many locals do: nibble the end of the crust while it's still warm.
Indulge in some pastries. High prices are making luxury all the more elusive in Paris, but there's one indulgence most people can still afford, at least occasionally: fine pastries. As you can see when you stop in at any of Paris's extraordinary pâtisseries (pastry shops), a wonderful array of French treats awaits those with a sweet tooth. Be sure to try the deliciously airy and intense macarons—which have nothing in common with the heavy American shredded-coconut macaroons you might be familiar with. Another traditional sweet is the mont-blanc, a mini-mountain of chestnut puree capped with whipped cream.
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