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Beginners Guide to Paris

Christophe Vaille is a professional writer, editor, and historian.

beginners-guide-to-paris

When the pandemic crisis has passed, and France once more opens its doors to international tourism, Paris will again be one of the world’s top travel destinations. If you, like many, are planning that long-awaited trip to the “City of Light,” it may seem a bit overwhelming. Myriad of travel books, YouTube videos, and websites offer a plethora of information on the subject, but sifting through all of it can be daunting. Fear not, however, with a little street savvy and “how-to” tips, France’s historic capitol will leave you saying oui, oui, rather than... Well, you get the picture. The first two essentials likely to be on your mind are lodging and transportation. Like any city, your choices will vary according to your budget. While Paris features five-star hotels galore, there are many economical options depending on your tastes and pocketbook. Air Bnb is a wonderful choice for those wishing to experience authentic Parisian life at a reasonable price. Apartments in all parts of the city are available for far less cost than one would spend at an upscale hotel. Of course, living in the neighborhoods with the locals, while authentic and charming, is sans the amenities of a hotel, such as valets, porters, and concierge service. It is a trade-off, so one must choose between convenience and luxury, or the “slice-of-life” Parisian experience.

beginners-guide-to-paris

Once the hotel/apartment choice has been made, the next crucial decision is where in the city should you stay? This will mainly be determined by the itinerary one has in mind. To simplify matters, I have provided a quick overview of the main neighborhoods—arrondissements—of central Paris. As the city is bisected basically north and south by the river Seine, locales in Paris are referred to by which bank of the river they reside on. The north bank of the Seine is referred to as the Right Bank, the south bank as the Left. All arrondissements are numbered from 1-20. “Twenty,” you’re saying to yourself, “that’s a lot!” Fortunately, for the sake of a first-time visitor to Paris whose time is limited, we need only concern ourselves with five arrondissements. I will refer to each by their number starting on the Right Bank (the north bank) with the two most popular choices likely being the 1st and the 4th.

Paris Map - Layout of Arrondissements

beginners-guide-to-paris
The Louvre

The Louvre

RIGHT BANK - The 1ST

Residing in the 1st is the Louvre, the Place de Concorde with its Egyptian obelisk and beautiful fountains, as well as many of the famous upscale hotels and stores. Also the Jardin des Tuileries with its ponds and broad verdant pathways is a pleasure to stroll through in the heart of this area. Running east/west through the 1st is the bustling Rue de Rivoli lined with fashionable shops and restaurants. To the west the 1st ambles into the 8th and the Champs-Élysée—Paris’ iconic grand boulevard whose terminus is the famous Arc de Triomphe. In short, staying in the 1st will situate you in the heart of “classic” Paris, though bear in mind that the famous Eiffel Tower is located on the Left Bank so you will need to take the Metro or bus across the river to visit this attraction, (or you may prefer a lengthy stroll!) In general the 1st will likely be more expensive than the other areas, but if your budget can handle it, the luxury and convenience of the 1st might be the perfect match for you.

Main attractions in the 1st arrondissement:

  • The Louvre
  • Place de Concorde
  • Rue de Rivoli
  • Musée de l’Orangerie (a smaller museum, home to Monet’s water lily paintings as well as works by Derain, Picasso, Renoir, and others)
  • Palais Royale
  • Shopping on the Rue Saint Honore, Place Vendome, and Les Halles district. Don’t miss the massive underground shopping mall called the Westfield Forum des Halles.
Falafel Shop in the Marais

Falafel Shop in the Marais

RIGHT BANK - The 4TH

The 4th is dominated by the diverse Marais district with its distinctly cosmopolitan vibe and lively street life. A combination of the old and the new, the Marais is home to the futuristic Pompidou Centre—Paris’ museum of modern art, as well as the city’s venerable Jewish quarter with wonderful kosher restaurants, and outstanding Middle Eastern fare. If you love falafel don’t miss the falafel shops on Rue de Rosiers. Brimming with hip boutiques and cafes, the Marais also features many of the town’s popular gay bars. The historical showcase of the area is the stately Place des Vosges with its elegant Louis XIII-style architecture and charming arcades. This magnificent complex was once home to French monarchs as well as France’s most celebrated writer, Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The east end of the 4th flows into the historic Place de Bastille, where the infamous Bastille prison once stood—an historic memorial of the French Revolution. The Pont au Change and Pont Notre Dame bridges both connect the Marais area with the Ȋle de la Cité, one of the islands in the Seine and home to Notre Dame Cathedral.

Main attractions in the 4th arrondissement:

  • Pompidou Centre Museum of Modern Art.
  • Jewish Quarter
  • Place des Vosges, home to French monarchs and the famous writer Victor Hugo—also houses a Victor Hugo museum
  • Hotel de Ville
  • Place de Bastille
  • Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Saint Sulpice in the Latin Quarter

Saint Sulpice in the Latin Quarter

LEFT BANK - The 5TH

Crossing the Seine to the Left Bank, the 5th (known as the Latin Quarter) is steeped in a rich intellectual and artistic tradition tracing back to the Middle Ages. It is home to the Sorbonne—the University of Paris—one of the world’s oldest universities. The Rue Mouffetard runs through the heart of the Latin Quarter neighborhood with its lively cafes of university students, engaging shops, and a plethora of bars and restaurants. Don’t miss Rue Mouffetard’s classic outdoor market featuring farm-fresh produce, meats, and other products. Nearby, in all its neoclassical splendor, is the Pantheon, a stately building which serves as the resting place of some of France’s greatest individuals such as Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Marie Curie. For lovers of literature and the arts, a pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore is de rigeur. Sylvia Beach’s famous book shop that figured prominently in the careers of renown writers such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and others, moved some years ago from its original address on Rue de l’Odeon to its present location at 37 Rue de la Bûcherie. One of the oldest sections of Paris, the Latin Quarter features a rare vestige of its Roman past. In a park in the appropriately named Arenes neighborhood, resides the Arenes de Lutece, a former Roman coliseum that hosted gladiatorial games during ancient times. Be sure to take in the church of Saint Sulpice, the second oldest church in the city, featuring wall murals by Delacroix.The 5th also contains the Jardin des Plantes, Paris’ botanical gardens, and the impressive Museum of Natural History.

Main attractions in the 5th arrondissement:

  • Latin Quarter
  • Sorbonne
  • Church of Saint Sulpice
  • The Pantheon
  • Cluny Museum of Medieval History
  • Natural History Museum
  • Botanical Gardens
  • Roman Arena
  • Rue Mouffetard
  • Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore
  • The Pont Au Double connects to Ȋle de la Cité and Notre Dame.
  • Area borders Luxembourg Gardens
Saint Germain by Night

Saint Germain by Night

Left Bank - The 6th

The 6th encompasses the area known as Saint-Germain-des-Pres, or more commonly, Saint Germain. Upscale and fashionable, St. Germain oozes sophistication and refinement, with a plethora of designer boutiques, top notch restaurants, and famous cafes. It was once the stomping ground of artists and intellectuals such as Simon de Beauvois, Jean Paul Sartre, Hemingway, Picasso and Albert Camus. Many of their favorite cafes such as Café Deux Magot, Café de Flore, and Lipp’s Brasserie are located along the Boulevard St. Germain. Across from Café Deux Magot is one of Paris’ oldest churches, the Abbey of St. Germain-Des-Pres, dating back to the 6th century. Some of the city’s best art galleries and furniture stores can be found in this swanky district. The 6th is also home to the Luxembourg Gardens with its ponds, fountains, and broad walking paths. Located on the grounds of the gardens is the Luxembourg Palace which houses the French Senate, along with the Luxembourg Museum. Families with children will enjoy the park’s pony rides, puppet shows, and live music performances. Finally, the 6th is home to Le Procope one of the oldest restaurants in Paris where the likes of Rousseau, Verlaine, and Diderot met to exchange ideas over sumptuous Coq au Vin and decadent Millefeuille.

Main attractions of the 6th arrondissement:

  • Luxembourg Gardens
  • Shopping for art, unique home furnishings, designer apparel
  • Historic Cafes along Boulevard St. Germain
  • Abbey of St. Germain des Pres.
  • Odeon Theater
  • Le Procope
Café du Marche  on Rue Cler

Café du Marche on Rue Cler

Left Bank - The 7th

Paris aficionados may balk at my recommendation of the 7th over other worthwhile candidates such as the 18th (home to bohemian Montmartre), or the 10th (with vibrant areas such as Republique, Strasbourg St. Denis etc.), but bear with me. As the article title states, this guide is crafted with an eye towards the newcomer to Paris. Thus, I would be remiss in neglecting the iconic Eiffel Tower. If one only visits Paris once (hopefully this is not the case...) they certainly wouldn’t want to miss the colossal steel tower that’s come to symbolize Paris itself. After all, what trip is complete without the traditional picture to commemorate one’s visit while standing on the Champ de Mars with the Eiffel Tower looming in the background? That being said, the 7th —referred to locally as the Palais-Bourbon district—is home not only to the Eiffel Tower, but also the charming Rue Cler with its popular cafes such as Café du Marche and Café Centrale, and attractive open air markets. Heading towards the Seine in the 7th one can’t miss the golden dome of Les Invalides prominent above the rooftops, where the military history museum resides as well as Napoleon’s tomb. At the far west end of the 7th sits the magnificent Musée d’Orsay. Housed in an old train station, this unique and impressive museum is a “must see,” from an architectural standpoint alone. Inside the Orsay reside the works of the Impressionists—Monet, Renoir, Pisarro, et al. accompanied by the work of the other major art movements of the mid 19th to early 20th centuries. With the inviting Rue Cler pedestrian zone, and the Eiffel Tower walking distance away, and excellent Metro and bus access/connections there is much to like about the 7th for first time visitors. A popular neighborhood for American and British Expats, and home to the diplomatic community, English-speaking travelers may find this area easier from a language perspective.

Main attractions of the 7th arrondissement:

  • Rue Cler
  • Eiffle Tower and Champs de Mars
  • Les Invalides - Napoleon’s Tomb, Military History Museum
  • Orsay
  • Musée Rodin and sculpture garden
beginners-guide-to-paris
beginners-guide-to-paris

Transportation

Getting around the “City of Light,” is a snap—at least once you get the hang of it. Paris enjoys inexpensive and efficient public transportation via the Metro—the Paris subway system, and also the above-ground commuter trains called RER. In addition to the trains there are buses which service the entire city. For detailed information on public transportation in Paris go to: www.ratp.fr, the official website for the city. There are two different passes available: Paris Visite Pass, and Navigo Decouverte Pass. Which pass is right for you? It’s a bit convoluted, so let me break it down for you. If you’re willing to pay a little extra for the convenience of purchasing your pass online from your home country, and you desire the flexibility of arriving on any day of the week without it impacting the duration of your pass, the Paris Visite pass is much more convenient as it provides the option of choosing between 1, 2, 3, or 5-day versions and the duration of your pass is not affected by the day of the week you begin using it. Depending on whether you plan to remain within central Paris, or venture by train beyond to Versailles, Disneyland Paris, or either of the two airports, you can choose an option that suits your needs—zones 1-3 for central Paris only, or the option which includes all the zones. The Paris Visite pass is valid for the Paris Metro, the RER trains, as well as buses and regional trams. In addition, the Paris Visite pass provides discounts on attractions such as the Arc de Triomphe, Picasso museum, and others.

However...

If your travel budget is extremely tight, and saving money is worth contending with additional requirements—such as having to provide a 3cm high by 2.5cm wide picture of yourself (which you can purchase at photo kiosks in most stations), and the fact that the Navigo Decouverte is only valid for one week, commencing Monday morning and expiring at midnight on Sunday (regardless of which day you purchase it on), then, depending on the length of your stay, you may save up to 50% compared to the Paris Visite. The Navigo Decouverte is not available for online purchase, but must be bought in-person at most ticket windows in Metro, RER, or Transilien train stations. The Navigo Decouverte pass is valid for all zones in Paris including the airports, Paris Disneyland, and Versailles.

For more detailed info on the workings of the Paris Metro I’ve included this excellent article: www.feelslikehomeinparis.com/tips/how-to-use-the-paris-metro. Please note that unlike in many cities, it is not necessary to obtain a schedule for the Metro/buses, as they literally run at intervals of a few minutes apart. One rarely has to wait longer than 5 minutes before the next train or bus arrives. A map of the Paris Metro can be obtained at: https://parisbytrain.com/paris-metro-maps/?amp

On the front of Metro trains a sign indicates the last station on that line in the direction the train is heading. Thus, if you need to take line 8 on the Metro, and the sign on the front of the train reads “Balard,” you know the train is heading in the direction of the Balard station, which is the starting point for Line 8. If the sign on the line 8 train reads “Creteil,” you know the train is heading the opposite direction with Creteil station as its end point. The key to navigating the Metro system is simply knowing the name of the station at the end point in the direction you need to go, and following the signage in the stations accordingly.

beginners-guide-to-paris

Navigating Paris on Foot.

Upon arriving in the neighborhood you desire, you are now confronted with navigating the streets to your destination point. This can be more challenging than you anticipate. Oftentimes main intersections spoke outward in 3 to 5 different directions, not to mention diagonal streets which veer off the main boulevards in confusing angles. While I highly recommend a good laminated map, the Ulmon Paris app (which can be downloaded free through your phone’s App Store), can be a lifesaver. Unlike most navigation systems on your phone that depend on internet service via one’s carrier—the Ulmon app works offline via GPS direct satellite link. Thus, should you happen to be without web connectivity (imagine that!) the Ulmon app will still function. The directional arrow indicating your exact location will literally rotate to reflect your change of direction on the ground.

Musée d'Orsay

Musée d'Orsay

Museums:

If visiting Paris’ world-class museums is on your agenda, I highly recommend the Paris Museum Pass. This pass provides free access to over 50 museums and monuments in the Paris metropolitan area, including the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, the Orsay, Pompidou Center, Saint-Chapelle, and the Pantheon, just to name the main ones. Outside Paris the pass grants access to the Palace of Versailles, Chateau de Fountainebleau, and many other interesting attractions. For complete info on the Paris Museum Pass visit their official website at: https://en.parisinfo.com/discovering-paris/info/guides/paris-museum-pass

At certain museums and venues the pass will also allow you to bypass the regular entry queue for immediate access to the location. (Please note that Museum pass-holders are still subject to security checks where required.) As of the writing of this article the pass ranged in price from 52 euro to 78 euro depending upon the pass duration you choose. The pass can be purchased online from the official site listed above, or from any of their partner venues.

"Bonjour, une bagette, s'il vous plait."

"Bonjour, une bagette, s'il vous plait."

Last but not least...

I cannot stress enough the importance of etiquette in Paris—and throughout France in general. One does not need to be fully conversant in French to observe the following guidelines:

Bonjour,” and “Au revoir.”

Upon entering any establishment smaller than a large department store or super market—definitely for any smaller boutiques, shops, restaurants, cafes etc.—always greet the employees with “Bonjour!” upon entering, and “Au revoir,” upon exiting. This is basic etiquette in France, and it is considered rude not to be mindful of this common courtesy. Many a tourist has received the “cold shoulder” by neglecting this basic social interaction. I know it may sound trivial to you, but it’s not to the French.

S’il vous plait” and “Merci.”

Whenever you would normally say “please,” or “thank you,” be sure to use “s’il vous plait,” (please), and “merci,” (thank you) instead. Feel free to apply these polite sayings liberally, as they will foster good will in general with the locals you meet. Neglecting these two important phrases typically invoke the opposite response.

Comments

Christophe Vaille (author) from USA on May 04, 2021:

Thanks, Liz! Appreciate the kind words. Cheers

Liz Westwood from UK on April 22, 2021:

Paris is one of my favourite cities. You have done well to get so much useful and interesting information into one article. This would work well as a handy guide for anyone visiting the city and gives a helpful overview.

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