12 TIPS FOR FIRST-TIME VISITORS TO PARIS
1. Plan your Transport to and from hotel.
There are TWO MAIN TRAIN STATIONS in Paris. Know which one you need.
When we booked our hotel, I didn’t know yet that there were two main stations. I found a hotel near Gare Montparnasse station and I thought I was good to go. But later, when I booked my train ticket from London to Paris. I found that it arrives at Gare Du Nord which is way across the other end of the city. So we still had to travel from Du Nord to Montparnasse. And there was no Metro or Bus or Train that travels directly from one station to the other. We had to find a combination of RER-C plus a Metro. And even then we still had to walk a good 10 mins to reach the hotel.
I know the easy way out was to just take a Taxi. But we wanted to learn the Metro / Bus system and a save a few Euros at the same time. What happened was when we arrived at Du Nord, we were immediately lost. It’s a huge station. When we finally found where we need to go, we got a little bit of a shock. There were so many people on the RER-C station and many of them seemed to be there with no specific purpose. Like they were just waiting and watching the people and we felt a bit scared actually. Like people were staring at us.. Adding to this creepiness is that when we got on the train itself, the lights were flickering inside. Its like riding the train on the movie, TRAIN to BUSAN. Thankfully there were some locals who assured us that we were on the right track.
We had found the shortest route using Google Maps. But the Map didn’t specify that it involved a LOT of stairs. So I had to carry heavy luggages up and down many flights, almost breaking my back because I also had a heavy backpack. Then coming out of the Metro we again lost our bearings and headed in the wrong direction. Then Montparnasse is all uphill so that by the time we arrived at hotel, I was all sweaty and hyperventilating.
The smarter way would have been to research which METRO has elevators. And this can easily be found by looking for METRO STATIONS with the logo of WHEELCHAIRS. It means they made the METRO wheelchair friendly so that translates to ELEVATORS. In hindsight, we should have chosen another METRO stop and just taken a BUS. So on leaving Paris, we changed our route and looked for Wheelchair friendly Metro stations and was all the better for it.
2. BUS system is easy to learn but also is a bit confusing
Whenever possible, we took the bus instead of the Metro. We expected all buses to stop at sidewalks but in some streets, the bus stop will be in the middle. And more confusing, some buses are coming from the LEFT side of the two-way street but once it crosses pass the intersection, it moves to the RIGHT side of the street. And then it stops in the middle of the street.
Another thing that confused us is that the some stops have the same first names, but different second names. Example is the bus stop Champs de Mars. The next stop is Champs de Mars but with a second name called Suffren. Another is on Bus 96 where there are three stops named RENNES (namely Rennes – d’Assas, Rennes – Saint-Placide, Rennes – Littre). And once you get off the Bus and found that you got off too early, you can’t use the same ticket on the next bus that comes along.
It’s a bit unfair actually because in Brussels, every ticket is good for 1 hour and they don’t care if you use it for Metro, Bus, or any combination even if its for the same Bus line. But in Paris, you can’t use the same ticket for the same bus line. We ended up wasting a lot of our tickets due to these silly mistakes.
Another very confusing thing for us is when we were rushing to catch the bus on a Rush Hour, I think around 5 pm and it was raining. Both of the buses in opposite directions had the same name! I think it was ETOILE or something… and we didn’t understand why it was so. Our understanding is the name on the
Bus should be the last stop but in that case, both buses were showing the same last stop. So yeah we got on the wrong bus until someone pointed out our mistake and we had to get off and move to the opposite bus stop and of course wasted another ticket.
3. EIFFEL TOWER and MAISON PRADIER restaurant
After the harrowing experience of arriving at our hotel which was NOVOTEL MONTPARNASSE, we still had to wait 20 mins for the receptionist to finally check us in. So, we had to just leave our luggage in our room and ran out back to the Metro to go to Eiffel Tower. I had booked us a dinner at a restaurant called MAISON PRAIDER located inside the National Theater Palace Chaillot. Its on Trocadero, across the river from Eiffel Tower.
I highly recommend it to all because the security was very tight and only those who had dinner reservations were allowed to enter the Theater. That night there was a performance going on you see. We were seated on the best window view and we had our first dinner in Paris with the Eiffel Tower in full view and it started its sparkling routine for us and gave us a magical night. Whats even better is that the restaurant was mostly empty due to all the patrons were watching the show. So, our French waiter was not busy and he was very kind and he even volunteered to take pictures and videos for us.
4. Start with BONJOUR, give a big smile, and ask for help
Many times we got lost, or took the wrong bus, or just wasn’t sure if we were on the right path. So we always approach a local, give a big smile, say BONJOUR, and then ask in English. And everyone we met were very nice to us. Even the French people who don’t speak English. For instance an old French lady couldn’t explain to us so she used hand gestures and walked with us to the correct bus stop. And in all the restaurants we went to, the waiters were very nice to us.
Since we don’t drink wine, we only order tap water. But we were refilling our water bottles from this Jar of tap water so we had to keep asking for refills. I didn’t see anyone get annoyed by it. When they brought us bread with no butter, I said EXCUSI MOI, may we have butter? And they happily brought it to us. Maybe its because they saw that we loved the food? Im not sure. I contrast this to BRUSSELS where all the restaurants we went to would not serve tap water. One waiter even told us these words “here in Brussels, we don’t serve tap water, unlike in France” .
And another nice thing we found in Paris is that many waiters carry with them CHANGE. So as soon as you pay your bill, they would give you the change immediately or they also have the wireless portable credit card machines with them. Again I contrast this experience with Brussels where TWO TIMES the waiters there did not give us the correct change and even took the change for themselves and just simply told us, “OH THE CHANGE is for TIPS”. I Found this very rude you see. Like when we had dinner in Brussels and the bill came to 70 euros. I gave them 100 euro bill. They gave me back a 20 euro bill and said oh we kept the change for tips. After these two times, I made sure to pay my bills to the exact amount.
On the day of our departure, we arrived at the train station and we had 1 hour for dinner. So when we sat down at the restaurant I told the waitress that we were in a hurry. She asked us what time our train will leave. And I told her in 1 hour. She said “don’t worry you will make it”. And she served us very quickly and gave us our check immediately too.
5. Plan AHEAD, Adjust to the place, don’t expect the place or people to adjust to you
We visited Notre Dame Cathedral at 9 am and were one of the first visitors. Absolutely no crowds and we were able to walk slowly and appreciate and took pictures and even had quiet moments. Afterwards we asked the security guard about toilets and he gave us two options. One is with a payment of 2 Euros and the other is the FREE SELF-WASHING TOILETS located just on the left side of the cathedral across the street. We chose to try those cubicles and were amazed at them.
Two times we entered different boulangeries. One of them had a long line and all the colorful and yummy pastries were displayed but didn’t have any name tags. Since I couldn’t speak French, I just took pictures of what looked interesting and when it was my turn, I simply showed the picture to the French lady and said one of each. No hassles. At the other time, when I was in front, and I couldn’t decide yet about which type of bread I wanted, I waved the next person to transact first while I was thinking. To be polite and not to hold up the line.
And two times when we dined at restaurants we were seated beside a mother and a very young daughter. We appreciated that the child was well behaved and the mom had brought a coloring book for her and she quietly colored and ate by herself without any hassles. Since we have 2 young boys of our own and often had to entertain them with mobile phones, this was a revelation. And something we plan to start doing with our own kids. The child would stare at us but she wasn’t rude or anything. Just curious because we were Asian I think.
At Versailles, we booked the Kings Apartment Tour in advance and we skipped the mile long line that was already there at 930 am. Having a private tour allowed us to visit rooms that were not accessible by the general public including going inside the chapel whereas the general public could only peek inside. Then we joined the crowd and skipped the security line too. When we got tired and hungry, we sat on benches and ate our sandwiches so that we avoided having to waste time on buying lunch and staying in line. Because we visited on Sunday, Oct 31, and it was the last Sunday of the year where they will operate the musical fountains, we already prepared for massive crowds.
6. Use alternative transport – SCOOTERS and GOLF CARTS
Our average daily steps at home was about 2,000 steps a day. Since we drive cars to work and even trying to prepare for our trip we could only get around 6,000 steps a day. But in Paris, our average became 20,000 steps and we were not used to it. So when we saw people zipping by on scooters everywhere we got curious. It turns out there are two major brands of rentable scooters – LIME and BIRD.
You must download the app and activate the scooter and pay 1 EURO for it. Then it charges you a few cents for every mile of usage. We tried it and enjoyed it extremely and I highly recommend it since a 45 mins walking tour can be cut down to 15 mins and without the foot pain. However, I have to caution visitors to make sure they have FAST DATA / internet. Ours was a very poor quality one so we had to waste 5 to 10 mins just to activate the scooter and another 5 to 10 mins just to DE-ACTIVATE it.
And also we had trouble finding the correct parking places for them. Since LIME and BIRD would charge you a 50 EURO fine if you parked incorrectly, we were always scared that we had parked them in the wrong place. Then there was also no clear distinction of bicycle lanes. One time my wife saw a scooter outside the Museum Orangerie and she wanted to ride it all the way to the Louvre. Since there was only 1 scooter I said go ahead and I will just walk it.
After we met up again she said that while she was scooting along, someone stopped her and told her its illegal to ride the scooters there and she apologized and had to move to the sides of the gardens. Then when parking the scooter she became afraid that it was also illegal to park it there. But as there was no clear signs, we are still living in fear up to now that our credit cards might be charged.
And ALSO, just a word of caution when using scooters. I read in articles that these scooters are becoming available in all major cities and many people are having accidents. So you must be very careful when using them. Don’t ride very fast. Just ride to save your feet from walking because we don’t carry around helmets and the company won’t be liable if you have accidents without wearing a helmet.
In our Versailles trip, there was an option of renting a Golf Cart. Its quite expensive at 36 euros per hour but we rented it anyway to save us from walking and to save on time. Its an amazing experience and the Golf carts will play French songs while riding so it adds to the atmosphere of imagining the time of Louie the 14th. We also offered a free ride to an old French lady and she was very happy to join us even we didn’t speak the same language.
There are designated zones where you can use the Golf cart and if you venture OUTSIDE the restricted zone, the Golf cart will automatically stop. At first it puzzled us and we thought the battery ran out. But we figured out that as soon as you backed it up, it started again. They really put technology to good use. Because we had the Golf cart we managed to finish Versailles at 5 pm and had enough time to go back to Paris to have dinner near the Arc de Triomphe.
7. THE LOUVRE and other Museums
We had a 4 DAY – PARIS MUSUEM PASS and it allowed us to visit the LOUVRE with only 10 mins of waiting on the security line. Then when we saw the Museum Orsay had a 1 mile long line for those with tickets already, it was easy for us to just postpone our visit to Orsay and go directly to Museum Rodin where there was no line at all.
After our Notre Dame visit which ended earlier than we thought because there was no lines, we had time to pop in to the Conciergerie for a quick 10 min visit and a Toilet break. So I highly recommended the Museum Pass. It was well worth our money.
But going back to the Louvre. We only had 3 hours for our visit and honestly after seeing the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, the Winged Statue, and some of the famous Italian paintings we were exhausted. You have to climb up and down many steps and we constantly kept getting lost you see. So because we wanted to go to St. Germain des Pres for dinner afterwards we asked the information desk as to where the exit nearest to Pont des Arts is. The lady directed us to exit near the Carousel. So we did. But we found out that it was still very far from St. Germain.
Well we found out the hard way since we kept walking and expecting the bridge to be near but kept finding out that its not the right bridge. So anyway, we ended up walking like 30 mins before we reached the restaurant – Les Deus Magots. So I don’t know if there is any other exit in the Louvre which we should have taken. But in hindsight we should have just taken a bus I think.
As for LES INVALIDES. We visited Napoleon’s tomb at around 4 pm. Then since we found out that the rest of Les Invalides closes at 6 pm, we took our sweet time in Napoloen and even stopped for ice cream and crepes. So that we arrived at the MINIATURES section of the museum at 5 mins past 5 pm.
And then we found out that it closes at 5 pm. So sadly, we missed it due to our dilly-dallying. And it looked very interesting too because they had some famouse French landscapes like Mont St. Michel in miniature there. So my advice is to make sure you arrive before 5 pm at the MINIATURES section and THEN afterwards do the Napoleon tomb.
8. LADUREE and ANGELINAS
We all know LADUREE is famous for MACARONS. But then these things only last 3 days and not good for bringing home. So our friends told us that LADUREE also sells some special chocolates. So on the day we visited Les Invalides, we walked to nearby RUE CLER to have dinner. And when we saw a LADUREE shop there we thought it would be our chance to buy those special chocolates. But it turns out that they don’t have it there. And the lady said those chocolates are only available either in the Charles de Gaulle airport store or the Champs Elysee store. So we weren’t able to buy them.
Then, I also read about a famous chocolate tea shop called ANGELINAS. And I made it a point to make a reservation. So, after our Il de la Cite visit in the morning, we went to RUE de RIVOLI – ANGELINAS and had a fantastic brunch with hot chocolate. Of course it was an amazing experience and I pointed out to my wife the long line outside the door and proudly said that it’s a good thing I made advanced reservation. But then, we found out that Angelinas had so many branches. They even have one inside the Louvre!
So… well It wasn’t as special as I thought. Not to lessen the value of our experience but when a restaurant has so many branches, its not the same feeling you know? Happily we were able to buy a painting from a local artist right outside Angelinas Rivoli so we still had something quite special to bring home.
9. BEEF BOURGINON and other French food
The day before arriving in Paris, we were in London. And as usual we got lost and hungry. So we tried to walk in on a restaurant only to be told that they were full. So we chose the next restaurant and it turned out to be a Michelin rated restaurant and the oldest FRENCH restaurant in London. Its called MON PLAISIR and owned by a French lady who welcome us very warmly and even gave us a private table on our own floor. We felt very pampered and had our first taste of authentic French food. And we thought it’s a wonderful beginning to our upcoming Paris trip.
So, while in Paris we ate exclusively in French restaurants and always trying out something new. But up to the last day I still could not find anyone serving the Beef Bourgignon that I had heard Annie talk about. So, when we were on our way to Les Marais on a bus and I suddenly saw a big sign of BOURGIGNON, I told my wife we have to get off the bus. So we got off and went to the restaurant which was the AU BOURGIGNON DU MARAIS. And I have to tell you, that was the best beef I had ever had. Truly melt-in-your-mouth beef. So I highly recommend it. Apparently this dish is not offered in all French restos.
Only those that specialize in dishes from Burgundy.
The best duck we had was in MAISON PLAISIR. Much better than LES DEUX MAGOTS. I think the reason is that MAISON PLASIR serves duck from the thigh so it was very soft. Whereas LES DEUX MAGOTS serve duck breast so it was a bit dry and tougher. So yeah go to LES DEUX MAGOTS for the ambience and the fact that you’re there but its not where the best food is.
10. GYPSIES and SCAMS
We first encountered them outside Opera Garnier. After our tour we went out and took pictures and gypsies approached us. We immediately walked away and it was easy to walk away since it was an open space. After Opera Garnier we walked to Galleries Lafayette. Then later we walked to a nearby Bus stop to catch a bus to Grand Palais. While sitting on the bus stop, these same gypsies approached us again. We ignored them but I was thinking that they had BALLS to approach people sitting on a bus stop.
The VERY NEXT DAY, we wanted to go to Orsay early. So we arrived by bus from hotel about 2 blocks away and while walking to Orsay we encountered them again!! They looked to be the same faces! We were walking along the pavement and I was looking down watching where I step coz I always watch out for dog poops. My wife saw them and immediately crossed the street to the other side. Too late for me. When I glanced up, I was suddenly surrounded by 5 gypsies all with some sort of paper asking me to sign.
On my left were cars and vans parked so I couldn’t move that way. But I saw a small opening in front and I suddenly ran very fast towards Orsay. They gave a big shout. After a while I noticed the guy walking very fast right beside me so I broke into another fast run and I ran all the way to the steps outside ORSAY. I arrived there 930 am and there was already a long line. When my wife later joined me I noticed my belt bag ZIPPER was already open. Thankfully my phone was still inside.
So I thought to myself that they managed to open the zipper and tried to run after me because they didn’t get my phone. While in waiting in line we heard other LOUD SHOUTS by other tourists. Then later we saw the gypsies running away. We thought they must have managed to steal something from someone that’s why they ran.
Later after ORSAY we walked across the bridge heading to Le Marais. And we saw an old gypsy with a small boy. The old gypsy was smiling and folding some money while some tourists were walking away. I pointed it out to my wife that it was the classic RING DROP SCAM. True enough the gypsy pretended to walk away until the tourist was out of sight then went right back to where she was before and started taking a new ring out of her pocket.
11. Bateaux Mouche
In your podcast, you had recommended it for first time visitors. In fact I remember that you said it would be good to ride the Bateaux Mouche on the first day as it gives you an overview of the entire city. But for us, we rode it on our last night. It was about 3 to 4 degrees and windy but we stuck it out riding on the top floor. I think its also an amazing experience to do it on the last day because it kind of gave us a summary of all the places we saw.
All the bridges we had crossed and those we didn’t have a chance to visit. Then waving to the people sitting on the banks of the seine. And also going UNDER the bridges was very unique as each bridge has its own unique architecture. Its like a RECAP of our entire trip you see. And then it ends on the EIFFEL TOWER sparkling again so it became a full circle for us. Remember our first night was a view of the sparkling EIFFEL too. So I highly recommend it either to do it on the first day OR the last day which was a different magical experience.
12. The Ideal number of days to visit
We had only 4 and a half days for Paris. The first day we arrived already 6 pm so only had time for the dinner with Eiffel Tower view. Then 1 day in Versailles and 3 days of musuems. On the last day we had to cut short our walking tour of Le Marais because we had to go back to the hotel and catch the train. So we didn’t get to visit Montmarte area. In hindsight, I think the ideal number of days is 5 FULL DAYS. Not including the Day of arrival and the day of departure.
If we had 5 full days we would have had a more relaxed time and not have gotten into minor arguments brought about by silly mistakes like taking the wrong bus or waiting 10 mins for the LIME scooter to activate, things like that. I would have been able to space out our itinerary more and spent more time in Louvre. During our trip, our lunches were mostly fast lunches and not much time to appreciate the food. It was only in dinners that we could have a more relaxed time and by then, we were already exhausted you see. We didn’t even have time to walk the entire Champs Elysee.
The other thing is that PARIS is so amazing that everything else pales in comparison. After Paris, we went to Brussels and Copenhagen. While in Brussels we weren’t even interested to visit inside their churches anymore due to we had seen NOTRE DAME and SAINT CHAPPELE and nothing can beat that.
And in Copenhagen we went to Fredericksborg Castle which was called the Versailles of Denmark and we were not as blown away as when we were in the real Versailles. So I do suggest for visitors to try to put PARIS at the end or the last stop if you are visiting several countries. In that way, your level of WOWNESS is built up properly. It would have been different if we had visited Denmark before Paris you see.
All in all, we have very good memories of Paris. Aside from the Gypsies, all the French people we met were very nice to us. The French lady who assisted us in the bus stop, the French people who helped us get off the bus when it was packed full of people and we had luggages with us, the one who rode with us in our golf cart, the waiter who volunteered to take our photos and video of us with the sparkling Eiffel, the tour guides in Versailles and in Opera Garnier, all of them made us feel welcome.
We would love to go back. In fact, we compared all 4 cities, LONDON, PARIS, BRUSSELS and COPENHAGEN. And we found that our hearts stayed in Paris and given a chance, we would love to live there. We found London too busy, Brussels had rude waiters, Copenhagen was too boring. But Paris was perfect. Like we would never run out of interesting things to do and see…