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Your First Time in Paris: Everything You Need To Know Before Visiting

Your First Time in Paris: Everything You Need To Know Before Visiting

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As someone who speaks French and has dreamt about romantically wandering the cobblestone Parisian streets like a local, it wasn’t until I was 29 that I spent my first time in Paris.

By the time I started planning my first trip to Europe, I was inundated with tips, opinions and recommendations from friends and family who had already visited Paris.

What surprised me the most was that many comments from my trusted squad hovered around the fact that the city was dirty, smelly and was home to unfriendly residents.

But after visiting Paris for the first time, I couldn’t believe how wrong they were!

That being said, most of my friends and family had said Paris is a city that you absolutely need to visit once in your lifetime, and don’t need to return.

I’m here to tell you that my first trip to Paris was everything and more than I imagined and absolutely fell in love with this historic city. 

I did learn a few things though, and there are a few things I wish I had known, or expected before my first time in Paris.

I’m sharing my tips to make your experience everything you imagined. 

This post contains a few affiliate links. If you make a purchase through the links I may make a small commission. This comes at no extra cost to you, and I only share products I know and love.

Paris is Expensive

I was expecting this, but it was still way more expensive than I had planned. This is the reason why I suggest 3 days in Paris if you’re planning to visit other parts of France or Europe on your trip.

You will blow a lot of your budget here!

A great way to save money on meals is to do-it-yourself! Grab a baguette, some cheese and some charcuterie meats, a bottle of wine and enjoy dinner on your balcony.

Or better yet, find a spot to have a picnic.

On a nice summer day, there are so many people outside having picnics and enjoying the sun.

If you’re visiting Paris on a budget, you could try this tip for getting into the Louvre for free:

When people purchase admission to the Louvre, it’s valid all day and you can enter and exit as many times as you please.

If you visit the Louvre grounds a couple hours before closing, you might be able to find tickets that people have dropped on the ground that you can use.

It’s not always a guarantee but worth a shot.

Choose Authentic Accommodations Instead of Hotels

One way to save money when visiting Paris is to use home sharing vacation rental sites, like VRBO.

This will allow you to stay in the heart of Paris for less.

I’ve written a full guide to help you choose the best vacation rental suite, so that you know exactly what you’re getting when you arrive.

If you want to be one of those people that’s never had a bad VRBO/Airbnb experience, this guide will help.

Where to Stay for Your First Time in Paris

Paris is split up into 20 different neighborhoods. These are each called an ‘arrondissement.’

I chose to stay in the 18th arrondissement, which is called Montmartre.

You will get the full feeling of the city of love from staying in this district. We found our adorable apartment on VRBO.

It had a large balcony with a view of the Eiffel Tower and it was walking distance to the Sacre Coeur Basilica and the perfect location to stroll around all the Montmartre attractions.

Very reasonably priced, too.

Best Hotel Choices in Montmartre

There are many old apartment buildings that have been converted to boutique hotels.

Or for a cute hotel for good value, complete with the cute wrought iron balconies and a view of the Eiffel Tower, stay at Hôtel des Arts Montmartre

I chose this neighborhood because it’s built up on a charming hilltop, has the quintessential Parisian cobblestone streets, lots of culture and was a little quieter and cheaper than some other neighborhoods as it’s a little further out from the center.

But with the metro being so accessible, it’s very easy to get to all the Paris attractions you want to visit.

Also, if you’re a fan of the French movie Amélie, much of the film was shot in this neighborhood.

You can even visit the Café des Deux Moulins where she worked in the film.

looking through the narrow streets of Paris

Headed to Europe? Don’t miss Germany’s cutest fairy tale town!

Keep Your Schedule Light

My favorite thing about traveling to Paris is that it’s the perfect city to wander and explore.

My best advice to is plan to hit only a couple landmarks or major attractions per day, and then discover the rest as you go.

Lineups can be long, so it’s hard to stick to a tight schedule if it’s all planned out ahead of time. Take it slow and don’t rush!

Contrary to Popular Belief, Parisians are Pleasant and Friendly!

We North Americans sometimes stereotype Parisians as being a little snooty, pretentious or unfriendly.

On my recent visit, I can tell you that I did not have a single encounter with a local in which this was the case.

To my surprise, every Parisian I interacted with was very pleasant and friendly.

As long as you’re respectful and make an effort to speak a few words or phrases in French, this goes a long way for many locals.

Know a Few Key Words for Your First Time in Paris

You don’t need to know how to speak French to visit Paris, but a few key phrases will help you go a long way when visiting.

When meeting someone or engaging in a conversation, always start with Bonjour (hello) or Bonsoir (good evening).

If you’d like, you can also go as far as saying Ca Va (how are you)? Or if someone asks you this, an appropriate response would be Ca Va Bien (I’m doing well).

Remember your manners! Say S’il Vous Plait (please) and Merci (thank you).

P.s. Google Translate is your friend! You can also get help with how to pronounce these words.

Essential Restaurant Tips for Your First Time in Paris

Let’s start with coffee. If you love a big cup of drip coffee, you’re not going to find it here.

And you’ll have even less luck trying to find a cup of coffee to go (like we all grab at Starbucks).

When you’re ordering coffee (or espresso) or breakfast items, you will be asked if you want it Sur Place (to stay) or À Emporter (to go).

After a couple mornings in Paris you’ll notice very few of the locals take their coffee to go; it’s meant to be enjoyed! 

Sit and sip and take in all the French café ambiance!

When you’re at a Boulangerie (bakery) and want to order croissants, pain au chocolat or macarons (can you tell I have a sweet tooth and possibly the reason i LOVED Paris so much…) take note of how they count with their fingers.

This will be helpful because when you’re ordering a few items and don’t know a lot of French, likely you and the staff will be using some hand gestures.

They start their count with the thumb being number one, and the index finger is number 2 and so on. So if you’re trying to order 2 croissants, you’ll fit right in if you hold out your thumb and your index finger showing 2.

Just don’t point directly at someone, hold your hand flat or at an angle. 

When you sit down for lunch or dinner, pay attention to the others around you. Most will be speaking softly.

Parisian servers prefer when you’re not loud and obnoxious.

This will help ensure you don’t have a rude encounter.

Another practice I found so different than North American dining is that the servers tend to leave you alone and be as unobtrusive as possible.

Not like at home where they check up on you every 5 minutes.

This took some getting used to at first; we thought we were being ignored all the time and started to get frustrated. After a couple outings, we realized this is custom.

This was something I didn’t really know before visiting Paris.

Your servers will generally leave you alone until you flag them down for something. A simple gesture of eye contact and subtly raising your hand or finger will suffice. Monsieur!

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Tips for Ordering at a Restaurant in Paris

Your server will usually ask if you would like some water. Most of the time, unless you specify, they will bring you sparking bottled water in which they will charge you.

If you want free water with your dinner, you must order tap water! Simply ask for une carafe d’eau s’il vous plait. This means you’re asking for a pitcher of tap water, please

When you’d like to order house wine, ask for une verre du vin. Rouge is red and blanc is white.

Don’t ask or expect ketchup with fries, Parisians think this is kinda gross.

So if you don’t want to stick out like an obvious tourist, try your fries with the mayo!

When you’re ready to pay, simply flag down your server and ask for: l’addition, s’il vous plait (check please)!

Dinner is Served Late!

Dinner is typically served later than in North America.

Don’t expect to sit down for your meal earlier than 7 or 730 pm, so be sure to plan out your day accordingly.

It’s very typical for restaurants to be open for a few hours for lunch, close for several hours in the afternoon and then reopen for dinner service.

You will, however, find many restaurants that advertise and are open for all day service, but these are establishments that mostly cater to and attract tourists, so expect to pay higher prices for lower quality or bland food.

the facade of a restaurant on an old building

Is Tipping Required at Paris Restaurants?

The short answer is no, but tips are still accepted if you wish to provide one for good service. As far as tipping goes, it’s not as much of a custom compared to North America.

Servers are generally paid good wages and prices reflect this.

However, if you do receive good service that you’d like to tip for go ahead.

Rounding up your bill to the nearest couple of dollars is usually appreciated and an easy way to go about it.

And lastly, order all the baguettes, stinky cheese, escargot, Crème brûlée and cheese you can handle.

Washroom Tips

Keep in mind that in Paris (and many cities in Europe) you’ll have to pay to use washrooms unless you’re a paying customer at a restaurant.

One thing I learned very quickly during my first time in Paris was to use the washroom every time I was finished eating at a restaurant.

Other wise you’ll have to find a public restroom on the streets (of which there are several) but they’ll run you up to a Euro per use.

And there are often lineups as these washroom stands self clean after each use. 

The Metro

the entrance to the metro station in paris

One of the most quintessential Parisian activities you can do is not only take the metro everywhere, but master it!

Trust me, it’s not as intimidating as it seems and once you figure it out you’ll be hooked.

It is one of the most efficient forms of transportation in any city you’ll visit and once you learn to navigate it, it will be a breeze to get around the city. 

The super easy way to do this is to plug your route into google maps on your smart phone and it will tell you which lines to take, which stops to get off at, and which stops you need to transfer at.

If you’re from the USA or Canada, the best way to have wifi access all day is to use a pocket wifi service like Skyroam.

Google will even tell you how far you’ll have to walk after you get off the metro which is super helpful as sometimes it’s hard to tell from being underground!

Also, don’t get rid of your ticket until you’re completely out of the station as you might encounter a security guard who does random checks for tickets.

Be careful of where you place your ticket while you’re traveling and avoid putting it next to something magnetic.

If you’ll be in Paris for at least a few days, purchase a booklet of 10 tickets, it’s called a ‘carnet.’

You can purchase them at the automated machines, or if you encounter a cashier, you say: “Je voudrais un carnet s’il vous plait.”

You can use one ticket for any single trip on the metro, the tramway and the Funicular in Montmartre if you plan to visit the Sacré-Cœur.

Tips For What to Wear in Paris

Yes it’s true, Parisians do like to dress very well kept. One thing I noticed when I visited in late-May (well into the warm weather) that no one was wearing open toed shoes or sandals.

I honestly don’t know why this is, but once I noticed I made sure to pay attention and found that I was definitely in the minority wearing my open toed sandals.

I also noticed the locals mostly choose to wear neutral and solid colors and patterns and prints are soft or muted if worn. Not much for flashy style. 

When packing for your first time in Paris, err on the side of neutral colors if you’re unsure.

a corner building with iron plated balconies

The Parks and Green Spaces

Parisians love their public parks, gardens and green spaces; they’ve been an important part of Paris’ history since the middle ages.

One of the things you’ll notice about the city right away is that on a nice warm day, many locals are relaxing in a nearby park.

If you want to be more like a local and less like a tourist in Paris, pack a small blanket and plan some rest and relaxation time in a park.

When visiting Paris you will be doing a lot of walking, so a nap in a park is a great option to enjoy the city like a local and help prevent some fatigue!

Some favorites are: Luxembourg Gardens, Square du Vert-Galant and Place des Vosges (the oldest square in Paris).

Place des Vosges

Paris Safety Tips

If it’s your first time in Paris, you’ve likely read about pickpockets being something of a concern.

This is something you definitely need to be mindful of but you should be fine as long as you’re smart about your belongings and surroundings in busy areas.

Carry a small purse with zipper closures and always keep it in front of you and close to your body, with your arms covering it when possible.

And men should never carry their wallets in their back pockets.

My husband always travels with his crossbody fanny pack.

He loves it because he can keep his wallet, phone and keys close to this chest and it’s so flat that he doesn’t need to take it off at restaurants or in museums.

Be aware of the scam when you’re sitting outside at a Parisian café and someone comes up to your table and mentions you dropped something.

They will put down their newspaper on top of your phone or wallet on the table while you’re distracted and then swiftly pick up their paper and your items underneath without you noticing.

Another recent scam are two people who ask you for directions with a map they’re using.

One person will distract you with asking for directions while the other person sneakily grabs your phone/wallet/camera. Always know where your belongings are.

Visit Places Most People Never Discover

Whether you’re visiting Paris for the first time or 10th time, there’s always going to be new things to see.

But I think it’s worth checking out a few less busy hidden gems on your first trip to really fall in love with the city and get a feel for the true heartbeat of Paris.

Given that the Notre Dame Cathedral is now closed to visitors from the fire in April 2019, there are alternative places you can visit for a similar feel and experience.

Visit the Eglise de la Madeleine in the 8th arrondissement. It looks more like a Greek temple than a church and is often overlooked by tourists.

For epic views, visit the Saint-Jacques Tower to see the entire skyline, including the Eiffel Tower.

It’s a little off the tourist path and the tour is only offered in French, but brochures are provided in English and other languages.

This means that you won’t be sharing your visit with any loud and obnoxious international tourists, mostly French tourists. It doesn’t seem like that high of tower at first, but the views from the top are surprising!

For another free view of the city, head up to the rooftop terrace of the Galeries Lafayette department store.

Head here just before dusk to see the city during the day, and order a cocktail or two for romantic views at night.

You can even rent a boat and tour the canals for alternative views of Paris that most people miss. It’s the perfect way to spend an afternoon if you’re on your honeymoon in Paris.

Visit Café Le Dôme for the perfect quintessential Parisian café experience, with views of the Eiffel Tower.

Making the Most of Your First Time in Paris

If you only have a few days (or less) to visit Paris, it’s helpful to book a couple short tours to make the most of your time.

The first thing I love to do when visiting a city for the first time, is to take a walking tour.

This gives you a great lay of the land on your first morning or afternoon, and gives you a little confidence boost in navigating the streets like a local for the rest of your trip.

Explore my favorite neighborhood (mentioned above) with a quick 2-hour Montmartre walking tour.

If you prefer to eat your way through a city, book this French gourmet food & wine tasting tour.

  • You’ll sample gourmet cheeses, delicate pastries and perfect wine pairings.

Take advantage of ‘skip the line’ packages to help you save time seeing the sights instead of waiting in line.

Take a browse, there’s tons of great ideas for essential things to do in Paris for first timers.

My last final tip for your first time in Paris is actually for when you return home.

You will miss it dearly and will start saving your pennies to make your way back to the city of love as soon as possible! 

Before you go…

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Wednesday 21st of August 2019

Heading to France and Paris in a few weeks with family who has never been before. I will pass this along to them to ease their fears. They too have heard all the 'horror' stories from people who have heard about these things, yet never been to France. (Sorry, pet peeve,) It has been many years since my last visit to Paris, so these were some great tips. What a nicely written post! Loved it!


Wednesday 21st of August 2019

Thanks, Donna! I hope you and your family have a great time. I had the same pet peeve--too many of my friends would tell me to visit once but that's all you need. Yet, it's one of the most visited cities in the world, surely people must love it!

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