VISITING PARIS FOR THE FIRST TIME
If you’re one of the 12 million Americans visiting Europe this year, chances are Paris is part of your travel itinerary. And with good reason. Each year, the romantic City of Lights welcomes more visitors from the United States than any other nation. If you are headed to France’s capital city, these tips will help you enjoy your experience to the fullest, especially if you are visiting Paris for the first time.
A Guest Post by Sage from Everyday Wanderer
BEFORE YOU GO TO PARIS
Do Your Homework
Americans are notoriously ignorant about the world outside of our borders. Rise above the reputation by knowing a few basics like the language spoken (French), the currency (Euro), and that Paris is France’s capital city.
Research Local Holidays in Paris
While the French and Americans share holidays like Christmas and New Year’s Day, other holidays are unique to each country. While Americans celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, that’s just another lovely, summer day in Paris. But on July 14th, Bastille Day is an important holiday in France. Expect many businesses and venues to be closed on holidays in Paris so that the nation can celebrate with family and friends.
FUN FACT: Did you know that the key to the Bastille is on display here? Spoiler alert: it’s not in France.
Learn a Few Words en Francais Before Visiting Paris for the First Time
Although English is widely spoken in Paris, knowing a few phrases in the local language will enhance your experience. From basic greetings to “Do you speak English?” here are nine phrases to know in French when visiting Paris for the first time.
Take US Embassy Information with You
I believe that when you plan for the worst, it never happens. So take out a free insurance policy by carrying the address and phone number of the US Embassy in Paris with you at all times. In case of emergency, from a lost passport to a medical situation, they are ready and able to assist.
Book Some Sightseeing Tickets in Advance
The last thing you want to do in Paris is spending your time waiting in line. So once you have finalized your travel dates, start purchasing tickets to some of the hotter sights in advance. Great tickets to purchase in advance when traveling to Paris for the first time include the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, and Versailles.
READ MORE – Paris Museum Pass Review
A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP
A Room for One
While Americans are used to hotel rooms that nearly always contain either a king or two queen-sized beds and enough bath towels for four people, accommodations in Paris are usually quite different. There is such a thing as a single room, and it’s what it sounds like: a room with a single bed and one bath towel. A room with a larger bed is typically two single beds pushed together.
READ MORE – Best Hotels in Paris with Eiffel Tower View
The Key to Managing Electricity Costs
Many hotels in Paris require that you insert your plastic room key in a special slot near the door before any of the lights or electrical outlets will power on. When you leave the room and grab your key, the power outlets will often stop working. I learned this the hard way when I left my laptop charging while I went to grab breakfast only to come back to a dead computer.
PRO TIP: Most hotels will give you a second room key upon request. So consider this option if you need to charge an item or two while you’re away from your room.
Essentials for your trip to Paris
Travel smart, don’t let your hair dryer explode in Paris . .
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Stairway to Heaven
Like most large cities, expect everything to be more compact in Paris. From the cars you see on the road to the space in your hotel room. Expect the elevators to be equally small. And by small, I mean that you and your bag may be all that fits in some elevators. Unless you are on a high floor, are lugging heavy suitcases, or have a physical condition that makes it difficult, use the stairs and leave the elevator open for other guests.
While Americans consider the ground floor to be the first floor, Europeans consider the first floor above the ground floor to be the first floor. This helpful tidbit will help you find your hotel room or your Paris furnished apartment. And it will help you count how many more flights of stairs are ahead of you as your lug your suitcase upstairs in a building without an elevator.
WHAT TO WEAR IN PARIS
Bring Good Walking Shoes for Paris
One of the best ways to explore the cobblestone streets of St. Germain-des-Prés, the tree-lined Champs-Élysées, or beautiful Jardin du Luxembourg is on foot. So be sure to bring a comfortable pair of shoes before walking a daily marathon while visiting Paris for the first time.
Best Shoes for Paris in Spring – Summer
Snazz Up Your Suitcase
The French aren’t just known for their flaky croissants, colorful macarons, and exceptional wine. They’re also known for their fashion sense. Replace your comfy yoga pants with loose-fitting slacks and your sloppy sweats with a sundress so that you don’t stand out like a gauche tourist when traveling to Paris for the first time. In terms of comfy footwear, opt for stylish flats, boots, or sandals instead of your broken-in and battered up sneakers.
Leave Your Stars & Stripes Speedo at Home
When visiting Paris for the first time, do your best to blend in rather than shine a bright spotlight on your nationality. Leave any clothing, suitcases, backpacks, or purses with the American flag on it at home. The same goes for anything sporting your favorite American sports team or college alma mater.
Paris Chic Inspiration on Amazon
Before you can gaze up at the colorful stained glass rosette window in Notre Dame or down at the brass gnomon embedded in the floor at Saint-Sulpice, you should be dressed appropriately. Most cathedrals, churches, synagogues, and mosques expect visitors to have their shoulders and knees covered. If you are visiting Paris for the first time in the warmer summer months, wear a long, flowy skirt to cover your knees and carry a lightweight sweater with you to cover up any bare shoulders.
GETTING AROUND AND EXPERIENCING PARIS
Take Advantage of Public Transportation in Paris
If at all possible, avoid driving when visiting Paris for the first time. The cars, roads, and parking posts are much smaller than in the US. The signs will be different than in the US, and often in French. From taxis to the underground Metro trains, there are many convenient (and less stressful) ways to get around Paris than driving. Well, as long as you don’t experience…
READ MORE – How to use the Parisian Metro
Transportation strikes are not uncommon in Paris. While they are an absolute nuisance, the strikes are usually announced in advance and last a clearly defined period of time. Watch for signs announcing an upcoming strike, and ask your hotel front desk for additional information and guidance. During one of my visits to Paris, a transportation strike hit the day I was scheduled to fly home. The hotel staff knew how to contact an independent, Vietnamese cab driver who wasn’t striking, and I was able to get to the airport without any trouble!
Be Mindful of Pickpockets in Paris
Just like you would in New York, Los Angeles, or any other major city around the world, be mindful of pickpockets when traveling to Paris for the first time. You should be especially vigilant when exploring touristy areas, stopping to observe a street performer, and using mass transit. I recommend a small, cross-body bag for women. Men, put your wallet in your front pocket. Split your cash and bank cards up, storing them in different pockets or bags. Do not walk around with your phone in your hand unless you’re using it at that moment to snap a photo or look something up.
I wish I didn’t know as many American friends and colleagues as I do who have had their cell phones, passports, or purses stolen by pickpockets in Paris. One seasoned American traveler friend’s instincts told her to wrap her arms around her cross-body purse when a small group of gypsies approached her by Notre Dame, tossing pieces of shredded paper in the air. It was only after another colleague shooed them away that she realized they had slipped her cell phone from her hand. One of my Dutch colleagues had her phone lifted from a table at a sidewalk cafe while she was telling the others in her travel group about the importance of not leaving your phone on the table.
Typically Not a 24/7 World
While Americans from cities and towns of all sizes are fairly accustomed to extended hours at grocery stores, transportation counters, and pharmacies, this isn’t as common in Paris. Many businesses may be closed on Sundays and for local holidays. During the week, many stores will close by 6 pm. Do your best to plan ahead, and always double-check the posted hours when visiting Paris for the first time.
It’s Okay to Skip the Sights That Don’t Interest You
Growing up, my artist mother dragged me to every art museum in Europe. While I absolutely loved taking a day trip from Paris to Claude Monet’s home in Giverny and taking another day trip to explore Auvers-Sur-Oise where Vincent Van Gogh lived, I don’t think twice about skipping the sections of the Louvre that don’t appeal to me. Nor do I think twice about skipping the Louvre completely in lieu of the Musee d’Orsay. When it comes to your itinerary, “you do you” when visiting Paris for the first time.
FOOD AND DRINK IN PARIS
Expect Mind-Blowingly Amazing Food
While it is possible to find a bad meal in Paris, it’s pretty hard. From a buttery croissant at breakfast to a jambon-beurre sandwich at lunch, from a terrine of cassoulet to a burnt sugar-topped crème brûlée, there are so many amazing foods to try when visiting Paris for the first time. To increase your chances of an amazing meal, eat at places away from the main attractions. Research your options online, read reviews, or ask a local contact for recommendations.
FUN FACT: There are more types of French cheese than there are days in the year. Yum!
Request an English Menu
If one is not automatically offered to you, ask your server if they have an English menu. Most restaurants have a few available, and they are a helpful way to help you select your meal.
Washing It All Down
From water to beer, drinks in Paris are typically served without ice and at warmer temperatures than Americans expect at home. Another drinkable difference is the concept of unlimited refills. This is very much an American phenomenon and not something you should expect when visiting Paris for the first time.
I’ve read several theories about why there aren’t unlimited refills. One potential reason is that drinks in Paris are served from glass bottles rather than the huge fountain dispensers common in the US. Another potential reason is that the cost of using real sugar in soft drinks is more expensive than the high-fructose corn syrup consumed by the gallons in America. Either way, expect to be charged several Euros for a small bottle of soda in Paris and enjoy the quality of real sugar over the quantity of a Big Gulp.
Dinner is an Experience
Set aside plenty of time for dinner in Paris. It is a delicious experience that should be savored and not rushed. Additionally, expect dinner to be much later than the typical American 6 pm or 7 pm dinner time. In Paris, most people eat dinner closer to 8 pm. And it can be even later in the summer months when the sun doesn’t set until well after 10 pm.
With the exception of bars, Americans are trained to wait and be seated by a hostess. But in Paris, you can generally seat yourself for drinks, refreshments, or meals at cafes and bistros. Avoid any table with a reserved sign, and only sit at an open table set with silverware if you plan on eating. If you’re just grabbing a drink, opt for a table without silverware instead.
Holler If You Need Anything
Because meals in Paris are social occasions, servers will not interrupt you every five minutes to ask if everything is okay. If you need something, simply make eye contact with your server or raise your hand to signal that you need something. It is rude to raise your voice or snap your fingers. Most servers will also wait for your signal to bring the check. Earn bonus points by learning how to properly request the tab in French (l’addition, s’il-vous-plaît)!
A Tip About Tipping in Paris
While we tip a minimum of 15% at full-service restaurants in the US — in part to fully compensate wait staff who receive lower hourly wages — tipping is much less expected in Paris. The wait staff at restaurants in Paris are fully compensated for their work and the service is included in the prices listed on the bill. However, if you want to add a small tip for excellent service, it is appreciated by your server. Unlike the minimum 15% at home, a tip of 5-10% is quite generous in Paris.
Whether paying in cash or by card, your server will typically want to know what you’d like the total charge to be at the time of payment. If your bill is €22 and you want to add a €3 tip, simply tell the waiter €25 when you hand him your card or cash. Because Parisian waiters and waitresses know that Americans tend to be generous tippers, it’s not uncommon for them to stamp “Service Not Included” on the receipt in English to try to increase the amount you’ll tip them. When in doubt, research the tipping customs for each country you plan to visit in advance.
PAYING FOR THINGS
Always Pay in Euros When Visiting Paris for the First Time
When swiping your debit or credit card to make a purchase, you may be asked if you’d like to pay in US dollars or in Euros. Always pick Euros or you may unknowingly be charged an additional 3-5% for the “convenience” of having your purchase converted from euros to collars.
Don’t Let Your Card Out of Your Sight
While Americans routinely slip their cards in bill portfolios that waiters whisk away to run at a register elsewhere in the restaurant, that doesn’t happen in Europe. The wait staff will always bring a portable reader to your table to settle up with you.
Carry Enough Cash
While just about every business in America, including some vending machines, accept debit and credit cards, some small businesses and eateries in Paris may have a €15 minimum. To increase your motivation to carry at least a small amount of cash with you when visiting Paris for the first time, know that it’s usually not free to pee. That’s right. You may need to pay a small fee, either via a coin-operated entry door or to a restroom hostess, to use the restroom in Europe.
PRO TIP: The first Euro bill is a €5. Everything else is in coin form, so you may want to take a small coin purse along, even the men.
ODDS AND ENDS
24 Hours in a Day
Europeans use 24-hour time, rather than AM and PM. Additionally, it’s typically written with the hour, the local language abbreviation for an hour, and the minutes. So what would be 4:24 pm here in Kansas City would be written as 16h24 in Paris. While it does take some getting used to, it’s simple to convert any afternoon time to PM by simply subtracting 12.
It’s a Date
In addition to using 24-hour time, dates follow a Day/Month/Year format in France rather than the Month/Day/Year format used most commonly in America.
Eight Days a Week
Unlike American calendars that start on Sunday and end on Saturday, French calendars typically start on Monday (Lundi) and end on Sunday (Dimanche).
A Logical Measurement System
Farewell confusing, archaic imperial measurement system based upon a dead king’s appendages. And hello brilliantly logical metric system! Prepare for temperatures in Celsius (not Fahrenheit), distances in kilometers (not miles), and one of those 365+ kinds of fromage weighed in kilos (not pounds).
Not only do the French consume more cigarettes per person than in the US, but also they are allowed to smoke in places not commonly allowed in the US. As is widely the case across America, it is forbidden to smoke inside public places. But you should anticipate that you will encounter more cigarette smoke on patios, terraces, and in other public places than in the US. Febreeze does a good job of reducing the lingering, second-hand smoke smell from the items you plan on wearing more than once — like pants, sweaters, and jackets.
Making New Friends
Beyond France, most Europeans think Americans are super friendly. Maybe too friendly. If the situation feels right, don’t be shy about speaking to others. I made a new friend on the train between Paris and Normandy by striking up a conversation with the woman sitting across from me when she asked about my Dentyne gum. Nearly five years later, we still exchange Christmas cards. (Yes, I always include a packet of Dentyne gum.)
However, don’t be like my middle-aged, first time abroad co-worker who aggressively approached everyone he could — cab drivers, restaurant hostesses, train ticket agents — with a recurring soliloquy about where he was from, how wonderful America was, and how his great, great grandparents immigrated to the US from Croatia.
At some point, your first trip to Paris will come to an end. When that time comes, you’ll have to be sure you’ve fully consumed any perishable items that you carried on or received during your flight. This includes everything from fresh fruit to that one last amazing croissant.
If your initial destination in the US is not your final destination, be wise about purchasing wine, beer, spirits, perfume, or other liquids in the duty-free shop at the airport or on the plane. If you are transferring to another flight within the US, you’ll have to collect your luggage and will want to immediately place these items in your checked baggage before sending them onto your final destination. Otherwise, when you go back through security (yes, even though you don’t really leave the secure area) they will be confiscated. And nobody wants to see a beloved Bordeaux handed over to an airport security officer…
READ MORE – Want to ensure your wine makes it home? Click here for our guide to the best wine tote bags and wine suitcases specially designed for travel.
Anything to Declare?
Shortly before your Transatlantic flight lands back in America, flight attendants will distribute declaration forms. Read the form carefully and thoroughly before you start to complete it. There’s a very good chance that you won’t have anything to declare if the items you purchased abroad are for your personal use or gifts.
You Smell Suspicious
As you wait in line to officially re-enter the US, don’t be surprised if officers with drug and bomb sniffing dogs are hard at work. (Aren’t you glad you’re returning home from visiting Paris for the first time and not Amsterdam?)
No Photos, Please
You are prohibited to have a cell phone or recording device out while you wait in line for your turn with a Customs and Border Protection officer. Watch for signs telling you to put your phone away, and know that they are absolutely serious about enforcing the rule.
When it’s your turn to submit your papers and passport for inspection, answer any questions in a simple, straightforward manner. The officer does not want to hear long-winded stories about visiting Paris for the first time. These officers can search you or your belongings without a warrant. Don’t give them a reason to do so.
When Visiting Paris for the First Time, Savor Every Moment
Whether you have a day, a week, or a month to explore Paris, you will not win a gold medal for rushing through your experiences. So slow down and savor every moment. It’s exactly what the French would do!
Sage @ Everyday Wanderer After growing up living all over the United States and Europe, Sage Scott writes her travel blog from America’s Heartland in Kansas City. From the midwestern city affectionately called the Paris of the Plains, she shares her travel experiences and provides helpful travel tips on her blog. Feeling social? Follow Everyday Wanderer on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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