Paris Travel Guide: Overview
Paris, also known as the City of Lights and the City of Love, is truly one of Europe’s most recognizable and enduring cities. The architectural landmarks—from the Eiffel Tower to the Arc de Triomphe to gargoyle-adorned Notre Dame—are iconic; the food, whether picnic fare or triple-Michelin-starred cuisine, is almost always exquisite and expertly prepared; shopping ranges from Les Puces flea market to the Dior design house and is practically a citywide pastime; and artistic treasures are housed not only in the slew of excellent museums but in the city’s many gardens as well. (And that’s to say nothing of the vibrant street art scene!) It’s hard to imagine anywhere living up to the hype surrounding Paris, but after walking along the Seine and taking in everything the city has to offer, many find this majestic place actually manages to surpass expectations.
The earliest traces of human occupation in Paris were from hunter-gatherers around 8000 BC, and by the third century BC, a Celtic tribe known as the Parisii had established a fortified settlement along the banks of the Seine River. In 52 AD, the Romans conquered the tribe and built a town along the Seine. (Although the Romans called it Lutetia, this was the humble beginning of modern-day Paris.)
With Rome eventually in decline, the Franks took Paris in 486, and the area flourished. After a brief Viking raid in 845 (during which the French king paid the plunderers 7,000 pounds of silver to leave), the city again prospered. By the Middle Ages, Paris was one of Europe’s largest and most established towns. Paris University stood as a symbol of the city’s intellectual prowess, the stunning Cathedral de Notre Dame was constructed in the late 12th century, and the Seine was the lifeblood of bustling trade.
Difficult times soon befell the city, though. In 1338, the Hundred Years War began, pitting France against England in a long and bloody conflict, and in 1348, the plague devastated the city.
After a slow recovery from these double calamities, Paris seemed to once again thrive, but religious turmoil roiled below the surface. With the 16th-century Reformation, Protestants and Catholics fought, murdered and persecuted each other. On the social front, opulent, beautiful buildings were constructed throughout the city as an ever-widening social and economic gap emerged, and many of the poor in Paris lived in squalor.
The subsequent discontent eventually boiled over into the French Revolution, including the now-celebrated July 14, 1789, storming of the Bastille. Just a few short years later (September 1793 to the summer of 1794), the Great Terror descended on Paris. During this dark and violent period, 16,594 death sentences were officially issued, leading to 2,639 executions in Paris.
With the abatement of the Great Terror, Parisian life slowly returned to normal, and Napoleon became France’s ruler in 1799. His reign lasted until 1815. In 1830, yet another revolution in Paris led to Louis Philippe becoming France’s constitutional monarch. With the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, growth throughout Paris was rapid and impressive, but still many of its inhabitants lived in deep poverty. Just as the socioeconomic conditions of the 18th century brought discontent, this economic divide spurred yet another revolution. Napoleon III subsequently took power and rebuilt much of the city, leading to financial prosperity and a growing population within Paris.
The iconic Eiffel Tower was erected in 1889, and despite the onset of World War I, Paris remained relatively unscathed from warfare and continued to enjoy prosperity through the 1920s and ’30s. World War II, though, was traumatic and difficult for the City of Lights. Paris fell to the Germans on June 14, 1940, and wasn’t liberated from Nazi control until August 26, 1944.
After emerging from the global war, Paris continued to grow and to prosper. Today, the city is home to over 2 million people, and it’s a flourishing hub of tourism, culture, fashion and food.
Many consider Paris one of the world’s leading authorities on Western culture, and it’s easy to see why. The city houses some of the world’s most notable cultural centers, including the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and a litany of other museums dedicated to Picasso, Rodin, modern art and more. Other significant cultural icons include the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and Opéra Garnier.
Perhaps no facet of Parisian culture, however, is more prominent or ingrained than fashion. Haute couture traces its roots back to this city, and design houses here include Chanel, Dior, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent and more. Alongside Milan, New York City and London, Paris stands as one of the world’s “big four” fashion capitals.
Paris is also noted for producing and influencing many notable literary figures, including Marcel Proust, Victor Hugo, Jean-Paul Sartre and Honoré de Balzac. The seemingly gravitational pull of Paris affected US writers as well. In the ’20s and ’30s, Paris attracted expatriates F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, just to name a few.
From art to architecture and food to fashion, Paris is truly a cultural experience from start to finish!
Good to Know
A service compris (service charge) is included in every food or beverage bill you receive, so tipping is not expected or required in Paris. That being said, if you received great service and you feel inclined to leave a little extra, rounding up the bill or leaving about 5 percent is acceptable. A 10 percent tip would only be for exceptional service.
Backroads Pro Tip
In a restaurant, don’t write the tip on the actual credit card slip; simply leave the coins or bills on the table or in the tray with the check.
In a coat check, about 1 euro per coat is expected, and theater ushers also expect about 1 euro per person showed to his or her seat. Hotel porters appreciate 1 to 2 euro per bag carried.
After a taxi ride, don’t feel obligated to leave a tip, but if you do want to leave a little extra, simply round the fare to the nearest euro. If, however, the taxi driver helped you with your luggage from the airport or was particularly helpful, 5 percent of the fare is customary.
Parisians tend to be discreet, and booming American voices can easily be seen as rude. Especially if you’re in a public or reverent place—churches, museums, restaurants, theaters and the like—lower your voice accordingly.
When walking into a store, always make sure to greet the staff, and say good-bye when leaving. Make an effort to do this in French. A simple “bonjour” (“hello”) and “au revoir” (good-bye) are enough. Similarly, before asking for directions or initiating a conversation, preface with a brief, “Excusez-moi, Madame/Monsieur” (“Excuse me, Ma’am/Sir”). Even stilted, limited attempts in French can help you win over the locals.
If invited to someone’s house for a party, it’s common and appreciated in Paris to send flowers to the hostess on the morning of the event. Barring that, bring a small gift, such as chocolates, wine or champagne.
The current in Paris is 220 volts and 50 hertz. In Paris (and the rest of France) you’ll find type C and E outlets. If you’re bringing devices made for use in the United States, you’ll need both a converter and an adapter.
While pay-to-use toilets were commonplace in Paris about a decade ago, they’re virtually nonexistent in the city now. If you come across facilities with an attendant, you might still choose to tip him or her for cleaning and maintaining the facility, but this isn’t compulsory.
Throughout Paris, there are over 400 self-cleaning, self-contained automated public toilets. These are known as “Sanisettes.” As of 2006, they’re all entirely free to use. Check out this website (https://www.paris.fr/equipements) for a handy way to locate the nearest Sanisette. The site’s in French, but simply enter your current location, and it’ll show you on a map where the closest facilities are.
If you’re not near a Sanisette, you can always try a restaurant, café, museum or shopping mall. Nearly all these places will have public restrooms, but in a retail space, you might need to purchase something first to use the facilities.
Backroads Pro Tip
If you see a room marked as “lavabo,” this isn’t a lavatory; it’s simply a washbasin. When seeking a bathroom, look instead for “toilettes” or “WC.”
Especially in older Parisian buildings, you might come across squat toilets, also known as Turkish toilets or Asian toilets. As the name suggests, these are used not by sitting but by squatting. They’re not as common as they once were in the city, but be aware you might still encounter one or two.
Tap water is safe to drink in Paris, but it does have a particularly high mineral content, and some find the taste off-putting. If this is the case, you can opt for bottled water.
Paris uses the euro (along with the rest of France and any nation in the eurozone). US dollars, as well as any other form of foreign currency, aren’t generally accepted, so avoid trying to pay (or even to tip) in anything but the euro.
ATMs are abundant throughout Paris. They can be found attached to most banks and post offices. Instructions will generally be available in French and English.
Many vendors will accept credit cards, especially if you’re using Mastercard or Visa. Higher-end establishments and those tailored to tourists will often also accept American Express. Don’t be surprised, however, if smaller bistros and merchants only take cash.
Backroads Pro Tip
To avoid having your ATM or credit card needlessly frozen, alert your bank ahead of time to your travel dates. In this era of increased financial security, many institutions will temporarily shut down a card if there are any international and, therefore, suspicious charges.
Money exchange is available throughout Paris, but many find ATM fees are, ultimately, less than those associated with exchanging. Calculate withdrawal fees on your specific debit or credit card to determine what makes the most financial sense for your Paris trip.
When To Visit Paris
You’ll find something unique and vibrant about every season in Paris, so there’s really no wrong time to visit this historic, beautiful and iconic city. April to June, as well as October to November, offer mild, enjoyable weather and fewer crowds, while December to February provides off-peak prices. If you’re interested in shopping specifically, don’t miss Les Soldes (“the sales”), which occur over two six-week stretches—one from January to mid-February and the other from late June to July.
No matter when you decide to visit, just make sure to book well in advance. Hotels and other accommodations in the city definitely fill up fast!
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- The French Army was the first military group to wear camouflage, and they started doing so in 1915. The name derives from a slang Parisian verb roughly meaning “to disguise.”
- The Eiffel Tower was built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle (a world’s fair), and it was intended to be a temporary installation. After 20 years it was to be torn down, but it proved an excellent wireless telegraph transmitter—quite handy during World War I—and it was spared from the wrecking ball.
- An unoccupied flat in Paris was kept under lock and key for 70 years. The rent was paid every single month, and when the renter eventually passed away, the contents of the room revealed a painting by Italian master Giovanni Boldini. The work sold for over $2 million at auction.
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Areas of Paris
Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements municipaux, or administrative districts. Here are just some of the highlights:
1st Arrondissement, Louvre (Right Bank)
One of the oldest Parisian neighborhoods, this districts contains many tourist highlights: the Louvre, the Palais-Royal, Tuileres Gardens and more. The area is small and very pedestrian friendly with a lively atmosphere and great (but expensive) shopping and dining. No matter the time of year, this historic area is sure to be crowded and to offer few budget options.
4th Arrondissement, Hôtel-de-Ville (Right Bank)
If you want to see the iconic and beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral, you’ll be making a stop in the fourth district. Beyond the grandeur of the cathedral, though, you’ll find a vibrant and multicultural scene filled with Paris’s city hall, upscale shopping, tons of restaurants and fantastic nightlife. For the greatest sense of immersion, explore this pedestrian-friendly district on foot.
7th Arrondissement, Palais-Bourbon (Left Bank)
No Paris travel excursion would be complete without an up-close visit to the Eiffel Tower, which means you’ll very likely pass through the stunning (and surprisingly relaxed) seventh district. It’s not all about the tower, though. Don’t forget to also hit the surrounding Champ de Mars gardens, stroll along the Seine and take in several museums, including the Musée d’Orsay and Musée Rodin.
8th Arrondissement, Élysée (Right Bank)
Fashion fiends and shoppers will delight in the eighth district. With the world-renowned Champs-Elysees, you get access to plentiful dining and some of the world’s most high-end boutique shops. From Chanel to Dior to Vuitton, there’s no shortage of ways to give your credit card a workout here! Bookended with the Arc de Triomphe and Grand Palais, there’s also lots for history and art buffs to swoon over.
Worth a Visit
The Art Scene: Paris is brimming with some of the world’s most extensive and famous museums. From the incomparable Louvre to the Impressionist-minded Musée d’Orsay, Parisian museums consistently offer up the opportunity to get inches from famous masterpieces that defined the very landscape of art in their time.
Backroads Pro Tip
Many museums in Paris are free on the first Sunday of the month. While visiting on these days is, obviously, much more crowded, it’s a great way to see some of these amazing works on a budget.
Not a museum person? Not a problem. Simply stroll the streets of Paris. The city has a long and proud history of stunning, evocative street art.
Luxembourg Gardens: If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the city, seek out the quiet and serene charm of Jardin de Luxembourg. With approximately 61 acres of green space, there’s plenty of room to soak in the sun, to enjoy a picnic or simply to people watch. Entry is free, but hours vary seasonally.
Pere-Lachaise Cemetery: It might seem strange to make a dedicated trip to a cemetery, but this one really is worth a visit. Spanning almost 110 acres, this cemetery is an absolutely stunning maze of green space, cobblestone and leafy trees. With over 70,000 burial plots, it can be difficult to find the most sought after of the interred (Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf and Gertrude Stein, to name a few), so make sure to grab a map before diving in.
Tourist Sites: Iconic and instantly recognizable sites fill the districts of Paris. Discovering quiet nooks and undiscovered gems in Paris is certainly part of this city’s appeal, but don’t miss the heavy hitters too. Sure, the lines will be long at the Louvre and Arc de Triomphe, and you’ll probably never get the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame or Sacré Coeur to yourself, but these feats of human accomplishment are famous for a reason, and they almost certainly won’t disappoint.
Versailles Palace: Just 14 miles southwest of Paris lies the opulent Château de Versailles. Once the seat of French power, Versailles is a thing of grandeur. With approximately 2,300 rooms in all, the palace is a nearly overwhelming collection of cascading chandeliers, stunning frescoes and gold figurines. Whether you’re interested in the spectacle, the artistic value or the rich history, make sure to allot enough time for the buildings and the surrounding grounds.
Things to See and to Do
Full Article Coming Soon!
How to Get to Paris
Paris, France, is within the European Union. US citizens, therefore, don’t need visas to enter for stays of three months or less (within any given six-month period). You’ll need a passport and proof of a return ticket.
Five airports serve Paris, but the two busiest, by far, are Charles de Gaulle Airport and Orly Airport. Both are international (for arrivals and departures). Be especially careful to check your ticket when you’re making arrangements after your arrival or when you’re departing. Many travelers have rushed to Charles de Gaulle Airport only to get to the check-in counter and realize they’re actually meant to be departing from Orly!
Backroads Pro Tip
Because Charles de Gaulle is one of Europe’s busiest hubs, make sure to give yourself plenty of time to check your luggage, to go through security and to find your gate. For international flights, the airport recommends getting there three hours before your scheduled departure.
Lots of public transportation options exist in Paris, including the Métro (an underground subway system), the Réseau Express Régional (RER) suburban rapid transit train, public buses and the Noctilien (night bus). In total, 16 Métro lines and 5 RER lines crisscross the city, making it seamless, practical and economical to hop on and off between districts you want to explore.
While renting a car is a possibility in Paris, you’ll seriously have to consider whether the benefits outweigh the costs. Parking can be difficult and expensive, traffic can be intense, and you might just lose your deposit over a slew of dings, dents and broken side-view mirrors.
The more common (and enjoyable) modes of self-transport in Paris are walking and biking. Many districts in the city are extremely pedestrian friendly, and you could spend hours wandering around the city and taking in the sights on your own two feet.
The city also has Vélib, one of the world’s largest bike-sharing operations. While the traffic might seem daunting and dangerous, biking is common in Paris, and cyclists are given plenty of space, as well as right of way. You’ll find lots of bike-specific paths and wide lanes intended for taxis, buses and bikes. Buy tickets online or at any Vélib terminal station.
Backroads Pro Tip
Don’t worry about biking at night. Every Vélib has lights. They’re powered by your pedaling!
French is the official language used in Paris, and if you don’t speak the language, you might be a little nervous about visiting Paris. After all, you’ve probably heard plenty about prickly Parisians being rude or dismissive to anyone speaking English. On the whole, though, most travelers find this to be exaggerated or even downright false.
Many in the tourism industry in Paris speak English, so it’ll be easy enough to get around in those arenas. In all other instances, many find simple attempts to use basic French phrases go a long way to making a favorable impression. Even leading with a polite “bonjour” rather than “hello” can truly make a world of difference.
With that in mind, here are a few simply phrases to practice before you depart:
- Hello: Bonjour
- Good-bye: Au revoir
- Excuse me: Excusez-moi
- Do you speak English?: Parlez vous anglais?
- Yes: Oui
- No: Non
- How are you: Comment allez-vous?, or Ça va?
- How much?: Combien?
Food and Drink
What Parisian travel guide would be complete without a discussion of the many culinary delights the city offers up? For many, Paris is practically synonymous with high-end dining, and it’d be all too easy (and delicious!) to plan an entire food-oriented trip here. After all, Paris has the most Michelin-starred restaurants of any European city, and it comes in third globally (only behind Kyoto and Tokyo).
Whether you prefer to drop into a quaint bakery for a quick bite or you like to sit down for a full five-course meal, you’re sure to find something to suit your dining style and palate. Here are just a handful of quintessentially Parisian dishes that simply aren’t to be missed:
Bakery fare: Whether you’re looking for a simple baguette, a flaky croissant or a sweeter treat, such as pain au chocolat, there’s really nothing to beat the amazing selection and quantity of Parisian boulangeries and patisseries. Take full advantage while you’re here!
Bordier butter: It might seem odd to add plain old butter to a list of must-try food items, but Le Beurre Bordier is no ordinary butter. It’s incredibly rich, smooth and flavorful, and there’s little to rival a healthy slab of this over oven-warm baguette (always torn by hand, not cut with a knife).
Cheese: Cheese in Paris is simply sublime, so it’s hard to go wrong, but make a point to at least sample some brie, camembert, Munster and Roquefort. Go to a market and pick random cheeses, or visit a place like Laurent Dubois, where a cheese consultant will work with you to determine your taste and make personalized suggestions.
Dessert: Yes, this is another broad topic, but how can you pick just one dessert in Paris? Absolute must-eats include crêpes, crème brûlée, lemon tart, éclairs and ice cream from Berthillon.
Escargot: Feeling adventurous in your next culinary excursion? Then dive into some escargot, or snails. Give the traditional style a spin, or treat yourself to the more decadent truffle and butter escargot.
Wine: France is one of the world’s leading wine authorities, so don’t miss the opportunity to partake while you’re in the city. Grab a cheap red at the grocery store, or simply order a demi-pichet for a half liter of the restaurant’s house wine. For bold flavor and big value with your reds, opt for a Côtes du Rhône or Bordeaux; if you’re more into whites, check out a Loire or Alsace.
Keep in mind that Paris is also an incredibly multicultural and international city, and nearly any variety or style of food can be found within the city limits. As just one example, don’t miss L’As du Fallafel for an absolutely delicious falafel!
Following several notable terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, some travelers are still concerned about the relative safety of the city. Statistically speaking, however, Paris is one of the safest metropolitan hubs in Europe, and it consistently has very low violent crime rates, especially against tourists.
Pickpocketing is the most common crime tourists come up against, so always take common sense precautions when you’re out sight-seeing for the day. Be especially vigilant in areas like subway stations, tourist sites or train stations. If your hotel has a safe, keep your passport and all important documents you won’t need for the day in there. Everything else—credit cards, cash and the like—should be kept on your person or in a secure money belt. If walking alone at night, stick to well-lit areas, and avoid Les Halles, Châtelet, Gare du Nord, Stalingrad and Jaurès. (This holds especially true for solo female travelers.)
Travel insurance and international health insurance are both recommended (as they would be when visiting any foreign destination).
If you do find yourself needing emergency services, any of the following numbers can be dialed from any phone without charge:
- Medical emergencies: 15
- Police: 17
- Fire: 18
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great France adventure!