Bonjour et bienvenue !
Looking at all the messages you left on the blog or on the French Girl in Seattle Facebook page, you have enjoyed last week’s French dining tips! Here is part 2 of our Travel Tips Series: Getting around Paris, another popular topic. You think you have heard it all? Read on, and join me for another informative and fast-paced pictorial visit of la Belle France.
Tip #1: Driving in Paris.
Just don’t. You do not need to. There are more transportation options in Paris than in many other cities. Parisian drivers follow their own rules (creativity and anarchist leanings are prerequisites,) and they will test you. Parking is nearly impossible to find and expensive, except in August when locals flock away, and the whole city seems to fall into a heat-induced torpor.
If you need to rent a car to explore other French regions, pick it up on the outskirts of the city, or better yet, outside of Paris (for example, to visit Normandy, you could ride a train to Rouen, then rent your car there.) Even if you live in Manhattan or Los Angeles and love driving at rush hour, familiarize yourself with French rules of the road. “La priorité à droite” (giving way to vehicles coming from the right) is a concept you will be well advised to study before driving in France. Find more info here.
Tip #2: Riding a bicycle in Paris.
Unless you are an experienced – or at least habitual – cyclist, stay away from bicycles in Paris. Bicycles are everywhere, and they will tempt you. Parisians make bicycle riding look so romantic and so easy, don’t they? It’s not.
There are private bikes, and there is Vélib, one of the largest bike-sharing systems in the world. All over the city, the grey bikes beckon, and you can rent one for a few Euros. Many visitors do (read about their experiences here.) Be aware Vélib bikes do not come with helmets, or a guide to the rules of the road. Use them at your own risk, and never on the sidewalks, (it will help if you have the peripheral vision of a fly.) May 2018 update: Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, has decided to fix something that was not broken and has entrusted a new company with Paris’s bike sharing program. The initiative quickly turned into a debacle, to Parisians’s dismay. Read more here about what the press has nicknamed: “Vélibgate.”
If you really want to experience Paris by bike, there are a couple of companies out there who organize guided tours of the city in English. They would be a fun and safer option.
Tip #3: Riding the Métro.
A favorite mode of transportation in the French capital, and the most efficient. Of course, it is not perfect. Avoid riding the Métro during rush hour to avoid displays of the famous Parisian (short) temper, as locals try to get home. It gets hot and occasionally smelly in the summer. There are pickpockets. There are tourists with huge backpacks hitting you left and right. They are people begging for money. There are strikes. My take on this: Try and live in an area with inadequate public transportation for years, as I have. You will beg for a chance to ride the Paris Metropolitain again, even in the summer, even at rush hour.
The Paris Métro works, and it is easy to use. You only need a little planning, and the observation skills of a 10 year old to get it. The logic is directional. Know the name of your stop, the number of the line you have to ride to get there (there are 16 total,) and the name of the last stop on the line (it indicates the direction of the train.)
Tickets? Navigo is a popular option. The pass replaced the beloved Carte Orange years ago. Getting one is a bit of a hassle unless you always travel with a passport-size photo in your wallet, and you will be spending enough time in Paris to maximize the pass. Details about Navigo are here. I prefer Métro tickets, and purchase un carnet (10 tickets) when I arrive. I can use those tickets in the Métro, the RER train (commuter train) as long as I travel downtown (referred to as Zone 1) and even in the buses. When tickets run out, I purchase another carnet. To figure out the cost of a single ticket vs. the (greatly) discounted Carnet (10 tickets,) click here. One guarantee: The little Ticket-t+ will be one of your best friends in Paris, whether you prefer riding le Métro or buses.
Tip #4: Walking the sidewalks of Paris.
This one may not come naturally to visitors used to spending several hours a day in their car. It remains the best way to experience Paris. (Disclaimer: This French Girl may be biased. Speed walking has always been her favorite form of exercise, and she ranks cities and neighborhoods based on their walkability.) Parisians love walking. Many stay fit by walking miles every day. They walk fast, and with a purpose. On Sunday afternoons, they revert to strolling.
This means your shoe choice is one of the most important decisions you will make before visiting Paris. We have all heard the jokes about the conspicuous, brand-new white sneakers that immediately identify you as a tourist (not a good thing in a city plagued by pickpockets and other scam artists.) Always go for comfort first. You will walk miles every day. Leave fancy shoe options to (some) Parisian women, or save them for elegant dinners on the town when you can ride a taxi. I have news for you: Colorful sneakers have been a hit in Paris and in France, for many years. Over the past two years, logo sneakers, (yes, the types you see all over American suburban malls,) have been popping up everywhere. They include white ones (mostly on ladies, that’s true.) To be on the safe side, choose neutral or dark colors, with no patterns.
Walking in Paris can be hazardous. Be aware of your surroundings. This means you can’t be walking while holding a giant, unfolded map of the city, looking for the Eiffel Tower or your favorite macaron shop. Most free maps are incomplete and don’t show all the streets. Your best friend? Le Plan de Paris par Arrondissements, (titles may vary) a small book with detailed neighborhood maps, showing even the tiniest streets, Metro stations, and more. Best money you will ever spend in Paris.
This French Girl never leaves her homebase without it: My blue book is heavily highlighted before I explore corners of the French capital. In an emergency, it always gets me back on track.
Hazards to look out for while walking on Parisian sidewalks include: Hurried Parisians (who will bump into you then glare at you as if you had hit them,) Parisians grocery shopping with their sacs à roulette/caddies (these can prove as lethal to the tibia as the steel and concrete posts illustrated at the beginning of this story.)
There are cyclists (who should not be there unless they are pushing, instead of riding, their bikes,) mopeds, (see previous comment,) and dogs. In Paris, dogs rule. They are not confined to cars, or to their suburban yards.
Dog poop is a classic Parisian sight. The city has spent millions to try and convince locals to pick up after their dogs. Communication campaigns. Check. Fines. Check. Watch this hilarious video of a young Parisian, Antoine, asking one of city’s éducateurs canins du chien citoyen, (Canine Educators of Citizen-dogs,) how to use poop bags. You see what we are dealing with, here. Changing cultural habits can prove an arduous task.
Truth be told, I noticed during a recent visit that things have improved drastically. Parisians dislike dog poop as much as visitors do. I smile when I read stories about “les gross Paris sidewalks,” (if nothing else, it gives people something to talk or write about.) In my corner of American suburbia, I occasionally spot signs like this one on the local trail, (if not abandoned dog poop around my apartment complex.)
Getting around Paris: An adventure, always. Whether you drive, ride a bike, use the Metro, a city bus, or just walk, be aware of your surroundings. Prepare, but be flexible too. Bonne visite !
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