The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Paris (Or, Fifty Million Frenchman Can’t be Wrong)

Now that we’re back from our first trip to the French capitol, I’d like to share some of what we learned—some of it from experience, some from our friend Eric who has been paying annual visits to the city for decades. These are not insider tips (it was our first trip, after all), but I think you’ll find them useful.

Let’s start with some general information.

Be Prepared: if your credit card company is anything like mine, they’ll want to be notified of plans to use the card outside of the USA since their fraud-detection systems with otherwise flag those charges as possibly suspect. You’ll probably want to contact the bank that issued your ATM card as well to make sure it will be accepted outside of the country and to find out what extra charges might apply for withdrawals made abroad.

Language: While it’s a good idea to learn enough basic French to (say) read a menu, the fact is that most of the people you’ll deal with in a city like Paris will be able to speak enough English to make communication relatively easy. Indeed, our experience was that most Parisians would rather try to deal with English than listen to a native Anglophone mangle French. And don’t underestimate the value of sign language; that’s how we managed to make a purchase at a fromagerie (cheese shop) where the owner spoke no English at all.

Courtesy: If our experience is any indication, the legendary rudeness of Parisians is, like Thurber’s unicorn, a mythological beast. I saw no evidence that Parisians were any more discourteous than residents of any other major world hub. We generally found that if we treated people with courtesy it was returned. Maybe some of this myth is due to a simple misunderstanding. When you enter a shop or other place of business in Paris, it’s common practice to say “bonjour” before getting down to business. Not doing so is seen as rude.

Getting Around: Just about anywhere in Paris is easily reached via the Metro (subway) and/or bus and/or RER suburban rail system. Tickets for all three can be purchased singly or in bulk with either cash or credit card from terminals at just about any Metro station. Your best bet is a carnet—a packet of ten one-way tickets at a discount price. We went through several during our stay. And don’t worry about leftover tickets; they don’t expire, so you can use them the next time you’re in town.

Speaking of Metro stations, don’t neglect the Plan du Quartier map, usually found at the platform. It’ll show you where the various exits (sorties) lead—very useful for getting your bearings when you get topside. And, of course, large Metro system maps are posted at each station to assist in making transfers.

Plan to do a lot of walking in Paris. The streets of Paris teem with interesting sights, sounds, and (thanks to the many chocolatiers, patisseries, pistacheries, boulangeries, fromageries, and cafes) smells. Even if you’re just trying to get from point A to point B, you’ll find that (to quote an old advertising slogan) getting there is half the fun.

As for driving, don’t even think about it. That’s a sport strictly reserved for the natives.

The Apartment: There are plenty of reasonable hotels in Paris, of course, but give serious consideration to renting an apartment instead, especially if you plan to stay for more than a day or two. The convenience of having your own kitchen and laundry facilities can’t be overstated. Most neighborhoods will have a plethora of food and wine stores within easy walking distance (so not every meal has to be from a restaurant) and being able to wash your clothes means you can pack a lot less.

The two-bedroom we shared with friends in the 6th Arrondissment was a classic example. It was next door to a Carrefour supermarket and a wine shop, a block away from a pharmacie (drug store), and smack in the middle of a vast array of shops and restaurants of every possible variety. We had fresh baguettes and pastries every morning, as much reasonably priced wine as we could drink, and, with the exception of the pharmacie (see below), pretty much any consumer goods we needed.

In sickness and in health: While there are plenty of drugstores (easily distinguished by “green cross” signs) in Paris, the line of over-the-counter drugs differs considerably from those available in the USA, and your favorite remedy might not be available. My advice is to bring your preferred OTC medications with you. That includes items you might or might not need, like cold medicine. My attempts to locate a decent cough suppressant/expectorant were spectacularly unsuccessful, as were my wife’s to locate an antihistamine/decongestant combo that did not include acetaminophen.

There’s an app for That: If you have a smartphone, there are some incredibly useful (and cheap) apps that can add considerably to your Parisian experience. The one we used the most often was the TripAdvisor City Guide. The full version costs around $5.00 and is worth every penny since it includes a downloadable Paris map along with a database of Metro stations, attractions, restaurants, and so on. Combine that with your phone’s GPS capability and you have an invaluable navigation tool. At one point it enabled us to track down a nearly invisible restaurant (Le Petite Prince de Paris) tucked away at the end of a small pedestrian lane.

You’ll also want an app (like Convert for IOS) that enables you to do money, volume and temperature conversion. The RATP app is also useful for its zoomable Metro map.

Speaking of smartphones, if you plan to use your cell for voice calls you’ll need to contact your carrier about adding a calling plan that will allow you to send or receive calls and text messages while abroad. Unless you have a lot of money to throw around, you’ll also want to disable cellular data completely and confine your data use to Wi-Fi hotspots; international data rates are astonishingly high. You might also want to invest in a product like Hotspot Shield (a one-year subscription is only $12) that allows you to set up a secure connection to the Internet, thereby reducing the risk of your Facebook, Twitter, or email account being hijacked by someone using a “sniffer” program at a public Wi-Fi point.