France / Travels

Travel City Profile: Paris

My travel city profiles are not meant to be exhaustive guides covering every angle of a city. Rather, they are intended as an introduction for first-time visitors, profiling the city’s main sights and attractions and including useful ‘before you go’ type information.

Country: France
Population: 12 million
Good for: Culture, history, art, famous landmarks, food

Getting there: Paris is well connected via three international airports and an international train station. I always use Skyscanner to find flights, and the Eurostar website is the place to go for trains from the UK (or elsewhere serviced by Eurostar, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland). Other train routes can be found via the SNCF website.

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Viewing famous landmarks: Paris holds some of the world’s most famous landmarks, and these are most people’s primary reasons for visiting Paris. These include (but are not limited to – you will find more in other sections below):

One of the best ways to see Paris’s main landmarks is with a walking tour. We normally do walking tours on our first day in a new city to get our bearings and tick off the main sights before exploring places of particular interest. Some of the more popular walking tours in Paris include:

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Viewing art: Art is probably one of the biggest reasons for visiting Paris, from da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa to Monets, Van Goghs and Moulin Rouge! fans hunting down work by Toulouse-Lautrec (or maybe that’s just me). If this is one of the reasons you’ve come to Paris, these are some of the places you might want to check out:

  • The Louvre: Probably Paris’s most famous gallery, where you can view not only famous paintings (such as the Mona Lisa) but sculptures taken from ancient Greek and Roman sites, such as the Venus de Milo, Psyche and Nike. Free on the first Sunday of each month during off-peak season (Oct – March). Free for 18-25 year olds who are residents of the European Economic Area.
  • Musee d’Orsay: Perhaps one of my favourite art galleries in the world. This old train station has been turned into a gallery featuring 19th- and early 20th-century French artwork, but is best known for its impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. This is the place to find Monet, Manet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Toulouse-Lautrec.
  • Musée de l’Orangerie: More impressionist and post-impressionist work from Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir and more.
  • Centre Georges Pompidou: a museum of modern art.
  • The Picasso Museum: self-explanatory really.
  • Musee Rodin: Rodin’s personal collection and archives.

Learning about history: Not always at the top of visitors’ lists of reasons for coming to Paris, but no less fascinating – Paris is full of history, whether it be religious, revolutionary or military.

  • Les Invalides: Arms and armoury museum from the Middle Ages today. Also contains Napoleon’s tomb.
  • Catacombs: underground tunnels used to store the exhumed bones from Paris’s crowded cemeteries. The remains of around 6 million people can be found here.
  • Versailles: the famous palace of King Louis XIV.

Getting around: Most of Paris’s main sights are concentrated in the centre of the city and are easy to visit by foot. It does have a very good Metro system though, which is especially handy for visiting places a bit further out from the centre (such as anything in the Montmartre area), or for getting into the city if your accommodation is further out. It is more economical to buy a carnet of ten tickets rather than tickets individually. Tickets don’t expire so you can use them over the entirety of your stay.

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Tips to Know Before You Go:

  • In most supermarkets, you are expected to bag your own groceries. Do this while the cashier is scanning to prevent holding up the queue once he has finished.
  • In many cafes, it is more expensive to have your coffee or food seated at the cafe rather than take-away. If the weather is good, get it take-away and eat in a park.
  • Bread brought to your table in restaurants is rarely free. Don’t eat it unless you’re willing to pay for it.
  • Be aware of common scams in Paris. Don’t let anyone force anything into your hands, even if they use the word ‘gift’, because then they will try to make you pay for it. Paris was far and away the worst city we visited when it came to scams and peddlers.
  • Common everywhere you go: the closer you are to a tourist attraction, the more expensive the food is.
  • Parisians have a reputation for being rude, even among the French, however while I encountered indifference and brusqueness, I wouldn’t call anyone we encountered rude. We found they loved Australians though.
  • It is polite to greet shopkeepers when you enter a small store (‘bonjour’).
  • The French are very proud of their language and appreciate any attempt at speaking French. They will generally be happy to converse in English once you’ve greeted them in French. Our walking tour guide, an Australian who spoke fluent French, expressed frustration that many people try to converse with her in English once they detect her accent. If you don’t attempt any French at all though, some people will pretend they don’t know English (although the French tourism department has recently lead campaigns to encourage better customer service). Even just knowing hello (bonjour), thank you (merci), sorry (pardon) and goodbye (au revoir) is sufficient.
  • Another scam I’ve never read about online but happened to us: when you first arrive at Gare du Nord (the train station the Eurostar comes into) there are youths around working in pairs who will offer to take you to less-crowded ticket machines. I wouldn’t be surprised if they operate at other stations or the airport too. Our first mistake was going with them. They take you to a machine they know doesn’t accept foreign cards (or has some other issue with it) and when your card doesn’t work, one offers to buy the ticket for you with his french bank card while the other takes you to an ATM to withdraw money to pay them for the ticket. As soon as they tried to remove us from the guy actually buying the tickets, red flags started popping up all over the place for me. However one of my travelling companions (who will remain nameless) had already taken off after the second fellow, and I had no choice but to follow. That was our second mistake. Third mistake was actually exchanging the money for the tickets without examining the tickets closely, despite demanding they give us the tickets before we gave them the money (although when they’re in another language, and probably use abbreviations on the ticket, even examining the ticket might not help). The trick? They give you the cheapest ticket possible, meaning that depending on the cost of whatever ticket you think you’ve paid for, they make a profit. And they made a very good profit off us, because we thought we were buying three 5-day travel passes. That’s nearly 100 euros. I was still very uneasy about what had just happened, and when we got to the flat we were renting, we asked the landlord what tickets we had been given. What they gave us instead – three one-way child tickets. Not only were they worth a tiny fraction of what we paid, we could have been fined if we’d been caught travelling on them. Unfortunately, also, the youths who fleeced us were of a particular race which gets a bad rap in Europe for crime… so they kind of reinforced the stereotype for us.
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3 thoughts on “Travel City Profile: Paris

  1. I used to live in Paris in the early 2000s. A great city, with quite friendly people (maybe because I spoke French fluently? My French is a bit rusty now unfortunately)… shame about the scams. Bangkok is much worse though!

    • I did love Paris and I hope to go back. But it was certainly the worst city we’ve visited for scammers and peddlers (although Rome was pretty bad too). I think visitors just have to be a bit more cautious in Paris than somewhere like Berlin or London.

  2. Pingback: 30 Lessons I’ve learnt about backpacking & travel | andre & leah in europe

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