Paris can be quite an overwhelming city to visit. On arrival, there is an immediate cacophony of sounds, sights and smells assaulting your senses. It is also a huge city with so much to see and do that working out how to spend a few days in Paris can be hard work (in the best possible way).
Part 1 of my guide to Paris for first time visitors focused on the sights that Paris if famous for. Part 2 is all about the practical information to make a first visit to Paris as hassle free as possible.
Arriving at Charles de Gaulle
I have been to some big airports in my time. I have flown into and out of Heathrow, JFK, LAX and Singapore airports. I honestly don’t think I have ever seen an airport the size of Charles de Gaulle. Our flight landed at 2.20pm and so I had always imagined that we would have an afternoon to spend in Paris – not so. 10 minutes after landing, the plane was still taxiing to the gate. Once there, it was only a train ride and 30 minute walk to get to passport control, then only another 10 minutes after that to get to the train. It would have been a real struggle to navigate the airport if we had any mobility difficulties, and it also took away a good chunk of the afternoon. From landing at 2.20pm, we did not arrive at our hotel until 4.45pm. Remember to factor in time to get through and out of the airport when planning your short break.
Paris is not a walkable city
I had read time and time again that Paris is a very walkable city, and that the best way to see Paris is to walk. The latter may be true, but Paris is only walkable if you stay within a confined area. It is possible to walk between the main tourist sites to an extent, for example between the Louvre and Notre Dame, or the Arc de Triompe and the Eiffel Tower, but it is not possible to walk between everything. Paris is not a compact city like Rome or Brussels, it is a big city like London. So save your feet, and make use of the public transport system. It is not expensive, it is very easy to use, and it covers the whole city.
Cafe culture is expensive
One of Paris’ big selling points is the cafe culture – spending hours on end with friends and loved ones, laughing and watching the world go by. People visit Paris to experience this cafe culture, but it costs a fortune. I have never been anywhere else where it costs more to have a hot drink than a glass of wine. And that is not because the wine is cheap – although a bottle of wine in a supermarket will cost from €3, in a cafe a thimbleful will cost upwards of €4. Hot drinks are more expensive again, costing upwards of €5. We did partake in the cafe culture – it was welcome to sit down with a hot drink after pounding the streets in February – but we did so sparingly.
Besides the hot drinks, Paris was actually much cheaper than I expected it to be. It compared favourably with other European cities with the costs of eating out, grabbing a picnic and using the public transport.
Nothing in Paris is free
A lot of capital cities, like London and Washington DC, have a host of national museums which are publicly funded and free to visit. Paris has nothing like this – every museum charges an entry fee. The best time to visit Paris as an EEA citizen is before your 26th birthday – Paris is a totally different city when you are under 26 as everything is free then! The fact that all the museums charged an entry fee meant that we focused our plans and only spent money on things we really wanted to do.
We were lucky in that respect that the weather was good enough during our visit to do plenty of the one activity that is free in Paris – walking.
Self guided walking tours
There are many organisations offering walking tours of Paris, some free, some not. Jim and I are not fans or organised tour groups as we like to discover things at our own pace, and not be herded from one place to the next. However, there is no denying that being part of a tour gives more depth and context to whatever it is that you are visiting. On this trip, we discovered the beauty of the self-guided tour – we had information, context and history whilst being able to wander at our own pace and stop when and wherever we felt like it. For our trips around the Latin Quarter, the Marias and Montmarte we used walking tours copied from the Frommers guide to Paris.
This was a really successful part of our visit, and I will definitely research walking tours for future destinations.
I’ll be honest here – Paris is a city that I felt a little on edge in. It is a much bigger, much grittier city than I had imagined that it would be. I never felt unsafe when walking or travelling around, including walking around at night, but I was aware of my surroundings, and there were times when I felt uncomfortable. For example, when heading into the centre of Paris at night from the Gare du Lyon, there was a large group of loud and boisterous male beggars, one of whom tried to corner a woman walking alone in the opposite direction. She just ignored them and carried on walking, but it did make me feel very aware of the fact that I was obviously a tourist and had an expensive camera hanging around my neck. I don’t think that Paris is more unsafe that any other city anywhere else in the world, but all of the usual precautions should be taken, e.g. limiting the amount of cash and valuables you carry, make sure someone else knows where you are going, and try not to draw too much attention to the fact that you are a tourist.
Like London or New York, Paris is a city in which you will never run out of things to do. So my final tip for planning a trip to Paris is don’t try to do it all in one visit. It is tempting to try to fit everything in as you never know if you will ever be back. I imagine that is particularly true for anyone who is visiting Paris from outside of Europe. But even if it is a once in a lifetime trip, you still need time to actually enjoy Paris, and not just hurtle from one must see to the next. I don’t always practice what I preach, and I tend to start with wildly ambitious plans of what I can see and do in a few days. I am glad that we did not do half of the things that I had on my list, as we had time to just walk around, or stop to drink the expensive drinks. There will be plenty more to discover in Paris on the next visit, whenever that may be.