Paris – love it or hate it, you have to admit it’s a city that’s full of character. Shan James, who lives there with her young family, tells us 10 things locals want visitors to know when visiting their beloved city.
To most visitors, the quintessential Parisian experience generally involves a frantic sightseeing schedule, harried (read: rude) locals and an ability to swallow your sticker shock at the incredibly inflated prices. Whether you’re in France for a quick stopover or for a longer stay, here are some tips and recommendations that will allow you to look beyond your guidebook and experience Paris a little more like the locals do:
1. Say “Bonjour”, “Pardon” and “Merci”
Many Parisians tend to be a little reserved with people whom they do not know. Greeting retail and service staff or people you stop for directions on the street with a simple “Bonjour” is very much the social norm, and you will most likely find that their attitudes will warm significantly toward you if you make the effort to exchange simple pleasantries. Bonus points if you try out a few other words of French, though there’s no need to be fluent – most people will appreciate that you at least tried to speak their native language.
One caveat: If you are approached by a stranger at a tourist site trying to sell or even ‘give’ you something, your best bet is not to engage them in any manner. While the authorities have really tried to clamp down on scammers, distracting tourists while their accomplices try to steal their valuables is a common tactic.
2.There’s so much more to French pastries than the macaron
Pâtisserie is a much revered art form here, so much so that one of the most popular TV programs is a Top-Chef like reality show for the best amateur Pâtissier in France. Biting into a perfectly crafted, delicately flavoured macaron is an experience unto itself, but consider foregoing the queues at Ladurée and spend your calorie quota on the myriad other pastries on offer.
La Pâtisserie des Rêves
Multiple locations: lapatisseriedesreves.com
Just walking into one of their patisseries is an experience. Stunningly crafted pastries are proudly displayed under glass cloches like jewels. Philippe Conticini’s Paris-Brest – a large ring of airy choux pastry filled with rich praline cream – is generally considered the best in Paris.
Des Gateaux et Du Pain
63 Boulevard Pasteur, Paris 15ème (Métro : Pasteur, Montparnasse-Bienvenue)
89, rue du Bac, Paris 7ème (Métro : Rue du Bac)
This powerhouse of pastries and breads is set up more like a designer boutique than a bakery, and its offerings are similarly top notch. One of its bestsellers is the l’Absolu Citron, a luscious, tangy lemon curd tart that is a perfect counterpoint to all the other patisseries you will probably not be able to resist while you are in there. Also try: the Saint-Honoré
Pierre Hermé(pictured above)
Multiple locations: pierreherme.com
If you are still craving your macaron fix, this iconic name is instantly recognisable for his macarons with decadent, outrageously creative fillings. Do not miss his infamous Ispahan, an inspired alliance of sweet rose cream, litchi and raspberries encased within a delicate macaron shell that is a cult favourite.
3.Try the bus – on both land and on water
Sure, the Paris Metro is a fantastic, fast and cheap way to get around (when it is running!) But to truly soak up the sights of Paris, consider taking a bus. Try one of the many Hop-on Hop Off bus tours for a quick and convenient way to reach as many of the famous sites and monuments as possible, or go truly local and take an RATP bus. The 42 bus route is a great route for sightseeing at a budget price. It begins at the Gare du Nord train station and stops along the Place de la Opéra, Place de la Madeleine, Place de la Concorde and the lower Champs-Élysées. It then crosses the Seine via the Pont de l’Alma, goes along the Left Bank of the Seine, through the Champs de Mars and to the Eiffel Tower.
Finally, there’s the Batobus that runs along the Seine, with eight stops at key tourist destinations. Be prepared for long queues on weekends and peak periods, particularly when the weather is good.
4. Stretch your Euro further by shopping during ‘Les Soldes’
Twice a year, the whole of France goes on sale. Yes, you read that right. Held once in the summer, and once in winter, ‘Les Soldes’ sees deep discounts all over Paris during a six-week period which is regulated by the state. You will find deep discounts at almost every retail outlet from the most exclusive boutiques and department stores to the everyday supermarket, with prices continuing to be slashed as the weeks progress. Your only dilemma? Deciding whether to shop early for the choicest picks, or wait until the end for the best bargains.
For specific dates, check out the official website here.
5. Still want to take a tour ? Try something a little out-of-the-ordinary
Whether it’s a language barrier or limited time in town, you may prefer to have the insight and know-how of a local to maximise your experience in Paris. In addition to the classic landmark sightseeing tours that abound, there are many other unique tours available that take you beyond the Champs-Elysées:
To truly ramp up the glitz and glamour of your visit, take a jewellery tour. Paris is synonymous with fine living and incredible jewellery. Here, a jewellery expert arranges private and small group visits to museums, private jewellery ateliers, as well as jewellery focused walking and shopping tours. Details here.
Meeting the French
You’ll be spoilt for choice by the selection of tours, from cooking classes and gourmet tastings to personalized visits to Art Galleries and storied showrooms. There are also unique takes on visits to more well-known landmarks, many with skip-the-line tickets.
See here and here for more details.
6. Paris has over a hundred museums other than the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and the Centre Pompidou
Spoiler alert: The posters of the Mona Lisa at the gift shop are bigger than the real deal. There is no denying that the Louvre is truly spectacular and definitely worth the visit, but you might also want to consider skipping the queues and the crowds to explore some of these lesser-known gems instead
158 bd. Haussmann, Paris 8ème (Métro: Miromesnil; Monceau)
Located in the former private home of avid art collectors Edouard André and his artist wife, Nélie Jacquemart, this gorgeous museum is worth a visit just to ogle at the opulence of mansion. Its much-admired collection features plenty of pieces from the Renaissance period, including artwork by Boticelli and Rembrandt.
Musée Marmottan Monet (pictured)
2 Rue Louis Boilly, Paris 16ème (Métro : La Muette)
This museum is in an exclusive residential area and a little out of the way, but a must-visit for fans of Impressionist period. It features about 100 of Claude Monet’s masterpieces, as well as works from Gauguin, Renoir, Sisley, Degas and Morisot. The jardin du Ranelagh just outside is a beautiful bonus.
7. Not every meal needs to be a three-course spectacle
Watching your budget? Or still full from your extravagant dinner from the night before? While the leisurely, multi-course lunch is still a very beloved institution, there are several delicious options for a quick lunch on the go. Find a spot in a park (Paris is well endowed with beautiful gardens and public parks open to all), or on a street bench, and just watch the world go by.
Make like many busy working Parisians and grab a freshly made crusty baguette sandwich from a boulangerie. Many offer menus with a sandwich or panini, a drink and a choice of pastries for dessert. Check out: Le Petit Vendôme, (8, rue des Capucines, Paris 2ème Métro : Opéra ). Don’t let the casual set-up fool you. Their jambon à l’os-beurre is a testament to simple food, done perfectly. Bonus: they are located right by Place Vendôme and a short walk from the jardin des Tuileries – perfect for some serious people-watching.
Paris would not be Paris if you weren’t also spoiled for choice when it comes to gourmet sandwiches! Try: Abri (92, rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, Paris 9ème Métro : Poissonnière). You will need to book at least a month in advance to score a reservation for a regular meal at this restaurant noted for its Japanese-French fusion cuisine, but Abri is also famous for their incredible sandwiches. Think fluffy omelette, a perfectly cooked ‘tonkatsu’ style pork cutlet, Mimolette cheese and a special homemade sauce, all in a huge, satisfying stack. Available only on Mondays and Saturdays.
If you fancy a side of celeb-spotting with your food, head to L’As du Fallafel, (32-34 Rue des Rosiers, Paris 4ème Métro : Saint-Paul) for what many Parisians claim are the best Falafels in Paris (pictured above). Lenny Kravitz is purportedly a fan!
8. Yes, Parisians really do love sitting on la terrasse
Need a ‘pick-me-up’ between meals and sightseeing? Take a breather at any one of the multitude of bistros and cafés. Such a cliché? Perhaps. But this is as quintessentially Parisian as it gets, especially in good weather. Expect prices to vary by a few centimes depending on where you choose to sit. The counter will be the cheapest, while the terrace might cost a little bit more.
If you’re in a rush, stop for a quick coffee or drink at the counter, where you’ll find the quickest service. More and more cafés offer take-away options for coffee these days too. If you have some time, indulge in one of my favourite practices, the pre-dinner aperitif or ‘apero’. Some classic ‘aperos’ include kir (white wine and a fruit liqueur, usually cassis – blueberry) and kir royale (Champagne and fruit liqueur – bubbles make everything more festive!) Or go old-school and try a pastis, an anise-flavoured spirit that turns cloudy when water is added to it. ‘Happy Hour’ has really caught on in Paris, so you will also find plenty of familiar cocktails and beers on offer at many spots.
Finally, the French don’t tip, but it’s quite standard to leave a “pourboire” – the small change from your final bill.
9.“Trust me, I’m a pharmacist”
It’s every traveller’s nightmare – you’re on vacation, and suddenly your body isn’t functioning the way you want it to. For minor aches, pains, bumps and bruises, get thee to a pharmacy. They are easy to find, with one on practically every street – just look for a flashing green ‘Pharmacie’ sign. French pharmacists are very well trained and fully qualified to give you basic first aid and medical advice. Over-the-counter medications are very well priced and highly effective. Many pharmacists speak basic English but if you want to be sure you get the help you need, here are some pharmacies that offer services in English:
Pharmacie Cotinat: 151 rue la tour de Grenelle, Paris 7ème Métro : La tour-Maubourg
Pharmacie les Champs: 84 ave des Champs Elysées, Paris 8ème Métro: Franklin Roosevelt
Pharmacie Rouche: 104, rue Saint Dominique, Paris 7ème Métro: Ecole Militaire.
Pharmacie Homeopatique Weber: 8 rue des Capucines, Paris 2ème Métro/RER: Opéra/Auber
Be aware that most pharmacies are closed on Sundays, which brings me to my next point:
10. Know where to go on a Sunday
Many visitors to Paris are taken aback by the lack of shopping and eating options in Paris on a Sunday. In some of the more residential quartiers, Paris becomes a veritable ghost town, as Parisians take their days off very seriously. Although some eating places and boulangeries open on Sunday mornings, most boutiques, grocery shops and eateries do not open at all, with a few exceptions during the Christmas season. To avoid disappointment, check with restaurants if they are open on Sundays.
Try heading to areas more frequented by tourists such as Le Marais, Les Champs-Elysées, Montmartre or the Carrousel du Louvre, where most boutiques and restaurants tend to remain open on Sundays. Museums and public parks also remain open on Sundays. In fact, many museums (including the Louvre!) are free on the first Sunday of every month. However, be prepared for extra-long queues.
Sunday mornings are also ideal for exploring the many markets all around Paris, bursting with gorgeous fresh produce, artisanal products and handmade crafts. The permanent markets at Rue Mouffetard (Paris 5ème, Métro: Censier-Daubenton or Place Monge) or Rue Montorgueil (Paris 1ére & 2ème , Métro: Metro Etienne Marcel or Sentier) are probably the most well-known, and the market at Rue Cler (Paris 7ème Metro Ecole Militaire) is definitely worth a look. Just be aware that while there are bargains to be had, market prices do not always equal rock-bottom prices. Expect some of the more premium products to come with equally premium price tags.
Bonus tip: In fact, some restaurants, bakeries and shops that are open on Saturdays are closed on Mondays so as to give their employees a complete “two-day weekend”. If you’re planning a meal at somewhere specific, it’s always best to make a reservation or at least find out when they are open.