Table of Contents

Why go to Paris?
When to Go
What to Bring
Where to Stay
What to Do
Food in France
Other Areas to Explore
Random Tips and Thoughts

Why go to Paris?

For many people, Paris is a place that they’ve heard about, they’ve seen as the setting of endless movies, and there is just this certain “je ne sais quoi” that draws them to want to go there. For me, on the one hand, Paris represents and has all of the things I love about France: endless boulangeries, parks and boulevards full of people just strolling, bustling markets, and incredible restaurants where you linger for hours over a meal. To me, it feels incredibly different from anywhere in the United States and I get excited every time I think about making it back there. But Paris is also quite different from the other parts of France that I’ve visited or lived that I would say it really isn’t representative of France as a whole and it doesn’t embody many the things I love about France. And yet...I love going there and keep going back. How’s that for a contradiction?

Wandering around the Père Lachaise Cemetary

My advice - go there, embrace Paris for everything it is, but don’t expect it to share its secrets with you from the moment you land at Charles de Gaulle airport. Make sure you see the highlights that every tourist “should” see at least once (within reason of course) but also take the time to explore, wander, and not worry about checking everything off the list just to say that you’ve done it. While there’s a reason that everyone wants to go to the Louvre, visit the Eiffel Tower and take a walk through the Place de Vosges, in my opinion, it is only once you take the time to really get to know Paris, to step away from the tourist attractions and find “your” Paris, that you will come to love it. And this guide is meant to help you start that adventure!

When to Go

My favorite time to go to Paris is in late winter. I think February, March and early April are the best times to go. Why? Because it’s the least crowded and the least expensive, and therefore you’re more likely to feel like there are Parisiens around compared to when everything is at peak crowds and it seems like everyone is a tourist and you’re moving in a constantly jostling mass of people trying to go from one “must see” spot to the next. I, personally, don’t mind the weather at this time of year either. It’s usually in the 30’s and 40’s, it might be rainy and a bit windy, but the lack of crowds and inexpensive hotels and flights for me outweigh the less than ideal weather situation. Plus, you are much more likely to get into a restaurant that you want to go to. I’m perfectly fine bundling up to wander around the city for an afternoon, but it all depends on what is most important to you when you travel.

A couple of things to know to help you decide when to go to Paris:

  1. The holidays (Christmas and New Years) are always going to be busy. It will be festive and crowded and while there are holiday markets in Paris, if that is what you are looking for, I think you’re better off trying a different city or country. Within France, I’d suggest Lille, Strasbourg or Metz. Those are all accessible from Paris by train, especially Lille, so if you’re very ambitious, you could do Paris and one of those cities during the holiday period. If you are willing to look outside of France, London, Dresden, Copenhagen, Salzburg, Vienna, Prague, Nuremberg, and Munich all have world renowned Christmas markets.
  2. July and August are both holiday months in France. This means that all French people are given about a month off for vacation and they, especially if they are Parisiens, all leave the city and head to their favorite vacation spot. As a result, many restaurants and shops are closed for weeks at a time and the city is mostly tourists. It’s often very warm and most places do not have A/C like in the United States. Plus, everyone who is still around is often upset that they aren’t on vacation, so their sentiments toward tourists might even be less positive than normal...
  3. Weather-wise, May, September and October are lovely. The weather isn’t too hot or too cold, there are significant crowds in some places, but it’s not terrible, and so if the weather is a strong factor in your overall enjoyment of a place, then one of these months is likely better for you.
  4. If you are able to travel and include the 1st Sunday of the month in your trip, then do so! Why? Because every museum in Paris is free the first Sunday of the month. Yes, this does mean they are crowded, especially the big ones. But the smaller ones, which I prefer, are manageable and you then don’t feel compelled to spend hours and hours because you paid for a ticket. And if you go right when they open, then you can hit the highlights right away and escape before they become overwhelming.

My advice - go there, embrace Paris for everything it is, but don’t expect it to share its secrets with you from the moment you land at Charles de Gaulle airport. Make sure you see the highlights that every tourist “should” see at least once (within reason of course) but also take the time to explore, wander, and not worry about checking everything off the list just to say that you’ve done it. While there’s a reason that everyone wants to go to the Louvre, visit the Eiffel Tower and take a walk through the Place de Vosges, in my opinion, it is only once you take the time to really get to know Paris, to step away from the tourist attractions and find “your” Paris, that you will come to love it. And this guide is meant to help you start that adventure!

What to Bring

It’s a personal decision what you bring, but here are some random suggestions that I think will make your trip more enjoyable.

  1. Bring a reusable shopping bag. One of those tiny ones that fits into its own pouch is great because grocery stores charge for bags and so when you go to get your picnic lunch, you have your own bag.
  2. Have good walking shoes. Maybe this is a “duh” statement, but I walk everywhere in Paris and it just makes sense to have good shoes. Make sure they can get wet too...because if you’re there in February or March like I am, you will likely get caught in the rain and you don’t want to worry about ruining your shoes.
  3. Bring your phone and download offline maps of Paris. With google maps, you can easily get around Paris. In particular, offline maps are great because while you can get wifi in your hotel or airbnb to get you where you need to go next and make your reservation or find the phone number to call, once you’re out, you can use offline maps to figure out which metro line you need to take or how to walk from where you currently are to where you want to go next.
  4. Have layers, a warm jacket, a scarf and likely a hat and gloves. If you have all of these items, you can be outside for hours at a time and stay warm. Places such as restaurants and museums aren’t heated like they are in the US. You shouldn’t expect it to be 70 degrees inside when you are having lunch at a restaurant as an excuse to warm up. And having a scarf will make you look like a local, especially if you’re a woman, so bring a scarf and wrap it around you and you’ll blend right in. Plus, many cafes will have outdoor seating with heaters and while those heaters certainly help, they aren't as warm as you might like, so you will appreciate your extra layers.
  5. Bring a bag that you can carry a day’s worth of “things” in. For women this is easier since you just bring a large purse. I travel everywhere with my huge longchamp purse and that might be cliché but it folds up and doesn’t get dirty so I don’t mind that it’s very cliché and lovingly refer to it as my “Mary Poppin’s purse.” I put everything in there. If you wear a backpack, you’ll stand out more as a tourist and you’ll just need to be more careful on public transit and in crowded areas, but that is a good alternative to a purse.
  6. Have a water bottle and fill it up before you head out for the day. Bottled water is expensive and drinking fountains are basically non-existent. As an American, this baffles and frustrates me so I bring my own everywhere. The lack of public restrooms combined with the lack of drinking fountains makes me feel as though it’s a plot to keep me dehydrated and I am unwilling to let that happen.
  7. For a suitcase, bring something you can carry up several flights of stairs. I swear by backpacking backpacks when traveling because they are easier to carry around, weigh very little on their own and you can stuff a LOT into them. I’ve had 6+ flights of stairs to walk up to get to where I’m staying and a backpack is way easier compared to a rolling suitcase. Especially if you’re staying in an airbnb, I’d be prepared for stairs. Hotels will likely have an elevator, but I’ve also had the experience of being told the elevators are out of service more often than seems normal, so I’d just be prepared to carry your suitcase. The metros often don’t have escalators either, so, again, just something to be prepared for!

Where to Stay

Overall, just know that you won’t have much space. Hotels and airbnbs are both going to have small rooms and be smaller than you might like. Hotels are likely going to be expensive and you might not even have room to walk around the bed, so I’d recommend an airbnb if that is something you are comfortable with. This also gives you the flexibility to eat some meals in, which can be nice to save a little bit of money, especially if you are in Paris for a while. You can also eat breakfast at home if you are in an airbnb. Given the prevalence of boulangeries in Paris, this gives you a wonderful excuse to try a new pastry each morning you are in Paris. While hotels will offer breakfast, I find it quite expensive for what you get and the quality of the pastries is lower than if you were to seek a pastry out yourself.

I do think location is important, especially if you're trying to see a lot in a short amount of time. I'd recommend that you try to find something in the Marais district (the 3rd arrondissement) since that is a great area to have as your home base. The 6th is a good place to look since it’s also conveniently located (but on the other side of the river) and the apartments are likely going to be very beautiful if you can find something in one of the Haussman type buildings. The Latin Quarter (the 4th arrondissement) is somewhere I've stayed often since it is centrally located and often less expensive but it can be very noisy very late into the night since it's so popular with students. Generally speaking, be prepared for noise and sirens since there are very few places that you will be able to escape the street noises, especially with airbnbs. If you are a light sleeper, then you might want to look for something in a more residential area and definitely avoid the Latin Quarter.

What to Do

For Paris, the typical things I recommend doing include:

  1. The Eiffel Tower: It is on every bucket list and I think it’s worth it! I’ve been up to the top only once but climbed the stairs several times. The view is incredible. You can buy tickets online and I would look to buy your tickets as soon as you have your plane tickets since they sell out very quickly. Going to the top is great if the weather is good, but if you have not gotten tickets, you can always just wait in line and climb the stairs to the first level. If you can, go at night.
  2. A "Bateau Mouche" boat tour of the Seine River. There are many different companies that offer river cruises from multiple starting points all along the Seine. I've tried almost all of them and there isn't a discernable difference in my opinion. They're a great way to see all the sites without walking forever, and they're fun and offer tours in many languages. This is a good way to see the sights quickly if you only have a couple of days and I would recommend starting your itinerary with this as it will give you a good overview of the city.
  3. Visit a museum or two: My personal favorite art museum is the Musée Jacquesmart André, which is the art collection of the Jacquemart family and is housed in their gorgeous mansion. It is small and doable in an afternoon without being overwhelming. I also recommend the Orangerie museum, which is home to many of the Claude Monet "Water Lily" mural paintings and is also easier to tackle than the larger museums like the Louvre or the Musee d'Orsay, although both are incredible.

One of Monet's Water Lily paintings

  1. Versailles is a good day trip, especially in good weather since the gardens are fabulous. A couple of things to note about Versailles: The crowds will be a lot, so if you go, get there before it opens, and see the palace right away, and then do the gardens afterwards, since the grounds are huge and it will be warmer by then, especially if you are there in one of the cooler months. You can take the RER from Paris to get there, it is the last stop on the RER C line and is simple to navigate.
  2. Check out the Bois de Bologne, especially if you decide that the hassle of Versailles isn't worth it and you have a nice day. It's a giant park with a lake, playgrounds, tons of walking paths and good people watching. I would not recommend being there after dark. The park still has a bit of a sketchy reputation, so while it is TOTALLY fine during the day, just don't go at night. If this is too far from where you are staying, walking around the Jardin de Tuileries at the Louvre, is also a must-do. There's a carousel and delicious waffles and crepes at the stands there, which you can enjoy on one of their many lovely benches.
  3. Find a market! Every day there are local neighborhood markets, which start bright and early and usually wind down by noon. The stalls sell every type of fruit and vegetable you could want as well as seafood, meat, cheese and different sweets then there are clothing markets as well. You'll likely just stumble across them, but you can also search online to find when there might be one in your neighborhood. These are where most Parisiens will buy their produce and I'd recommend trying to buy something, even if it might seem intimidating at first. Do note that everything is sold by the kilo, which is 2.2 lbs. If you have any interest in flea markets, the biggest flea markets are on the weekends and the most famous ones are outside of the city. My aunt is a huge flea market person and she is constantly complaining that they are overwhelming and expensive. However, continuing the theme of the contradictions of Paris and those of us who love it, she also has a collection of cafe au lait bowls that have been exclusively purchased at the flea markets in Paris and which she adds to every time that she goes back to France.

One final, slightly macabre, recommendation: the Catacombs are really spooky but totally worth it. Two recommendations to make this experience incredible and not a huge time suck: 1) Get the audio guide! It really helps provide the historical context for why the bones ended up where they are and, to be honest, otherwise you will likely just stare at piles of bones. Not that the designs they do aren’t cool. 2) Buy tickets online ahead of time. The lines are really long if you don’t buy tickets online. I’m talking hours, not just a 15-20 minute wait where you can chat with your travel companions. If you buy tickets online, you have to get the audio guide, but since you already planned on doing that, it’s not an issue! You also have to create an account. It is STILL WORTH IT. When you arrive and see the lines stretching around the park and you breeze by everyone to the pre-ticketed line and entrance, you will thank me.

Food in France

I could go on for way too long about food. The Latin Quartier is a great place to wander and find tons of different, cheap, food options, they have every type of cuisine imaginable. For crêpes as a meal, my recommendation is Breizh Café in the Marais District. It's consistently rated one of the best crêperies in Paris, but you need a reservation for dinner since it's very popular. But worth it! Try the cider, its traditional to drink cider out of small bowls with crepes, since they don't really drink wine in Brittany, the region crêpes are from.

Look at that banana nutella crêpe...how could you pass that up?

Other than that, I am a huge proponent of picnics. Grocery stores are some of my favorite places in France, because you can wander around, get really random food, and then just have a picnic at one of the parks or, if you are staying at an airbnb and have a kitchen, you can make your own french meal like this.

All you really need is bread, cheese and wine right?

While I ADORE french grocery stores and will happily buy most of my dinner ingredients there, there are several items I would recommend you seek out separately. The first is bread. Always buy your bread from a bakery (boulangerie). Which brings me to baguettes- I don't think you can go wrong, all bread in France is amazing. All french people have their "favorite" bakery and would never dream of going anywhere else, but they are spoiled. You can try lots of other kinds of breads, but baguettes are delicious and only 1 euro, or maybe 1.10 euro (fun fact: the price of bread is set by the government, a holdover from the revolution and the "let them eat cake" comment by Marie Antoinette). For sweets, you must try a croissant at least once, but I also adore viennoises, specifically viennoise with "pepites aux chocolat" aka mini chocolate chips. Viennoises are more eggy, dense, bread-like pastries, kind of like challah, and with chocolate chips...it's my breakfast of choice. I also adore chausson aux pommes, which are apple filled pastries, but honestly, I just point at things and try whatever appeals to me the most...

The second item you should buy at it’s dedicated store is cheese. Go find a fromagerie and I promise you will not be disappointed. Warning - it will be smelly and you likely won’t have any idea what to buy. Just make sure you ask for a small slice of whatever you choose. Cheese is very expensive and, like produce, is sold by the kilogram (1 kg = 2.2 lbs) so do some quick math but it will still likely be expensive. It’s worth it.

Before this gets too long, let’s talk about finding good restaurants...the cliché thing is to find a place that doesn't have an English menu, because it will be less touristy, which means less expensive and likely better quality food, but then you might not know what you're ordering. So what I'd say is just try and avoid restaurants right by the big sites, try to take a smaller street and see what you can find. Generally, places with less things on the menu or a blackboard menu will be a good sign, but again, if you're not feeling adventurous or if you don't want to end up with a random sausage made from intestines...then opt for somewhere else until you're feeling daring. Always go for the "menu" in my opinion. This is where you choose from an appetizer, a main, and a dessert (or 2 of the 3) and they're always the best value!

Restaurants

  1. Le Soufflé
  2. Angelina
  3. L’Epigramme
  4. Le Petit Châtelet
  5. Breizh Café

***Restaurants are an incredibly personal thing and I also won’t even try to claim that I’ve tried enough to make recommendations that would be representative of all the amazing food you can find in Paris. I would recommend checking out Yelp, looking at every menu you pass by while you’re wandering around Paris and then highly advise that you MAKE A RESERVATION if you want to go out to dinner. You can even just walk in at lunchtime and make a reservation for dinner that night, provided they have availability. Just so you are aware, restaurants fill up quickly, particularly on weekends and they often won’t seat you even if it looks like there’s space, or, if it’s full, let you wait, which is another baffling experience for Americans. The more touristy places will let you wait, but the restaurants you really want to go to likely won’t.

With all of those disclaimers, the 5 restaurants are each listed for a specific reason that is 100% personal, which I’ll do my best to explain now. Together, they represent a mishmash of Paris dining and food that, in my mind, go together perfectly. Feel free to disagree!

Le Soufflé is a restaurant that, shockingly, only serves soufflé. I always go for lunch because it’s too expensive, in my opinion, for dinner. I often go all out and get a main course soufflé and a dessert soufflé. If you get the grand marnier one, they will flame it for you at the table. Definitely worth it. Every time my aunt and I are in Paris together, we make it our main meal of the day and always have wine. Try the more adventurous flavors if that suits you, but their more “basic” soufflés are light and yet decadent at the same time.

Delicious soufflé

Angelina is a famous bakery and tea shop on Rue de Rivoli. Their african chocolate is so decadent and amazing, I still dream about it, but you feel as though you are drinking molten chocolate with more heavy cream than you could imagine because, well, you are. Both of these restaurants are located in the 1st arrondissement and are great choices if you’re going to the Louvre or strolling through the Tuileries.

L’Epigramme is somewhere I always try and go, however I’ve been recently thwarted because I haven’t been able to get a reservation on the nights I’ve been in Paris. They are only open Tuesday-Saturday. Their fixed price menu is, in my opinion, a great deal and their menu changes often but has enough choices to please most tastes.

Duck breast at L'Epigramme

Le Petit Châtelet is, for me, the closest I can get to comfort food while I’m in Paris. What that means is that they have “traditional” french dishes, but the portions are generous, it’s not going to be a Michelin star presentation, but I have always enjoyed my meal there. The best dishes are the ones that they cook over their wood burning stove, so their lamb kebabs and their steaks. Their seafood is also very solid in my opinion and the owner always remembers my aunt and I so, again, I am biased. It is right across the river from Notre Dame and is one of the only restaurants that I’d consider touristy but worth going to.

Finally, I’ve already said that when I want a crêpe in Paris, I go to Breizh Café. Again, make a reservation! And make sure you order cider, not wine.

Other Areas to Explore

  1. Montmartre – it’s at the “top” of Paris and has the Moulin Rouge. In terms of going to a show at the Moulin Rouge, I’ve never seen one. If you’re really determined, by all means, go for it, but be prepared for a very touristy experience. Or tell me I’m wrong! Instead, I’d recommend wandering around, walking up and down a lot of stairs, checking out the Sacré-Coeur, and then heading to the Père Lachaise cemetery. If you happen to be there when they are having a market, it will likely contain lots of artists, although since this area is so touristy, I’d be wary of buying anything too expensive because they’re likely preying on tourists.
  2. Marais District - This is where the Place des Vosges is located and is the old Jewish quarter. The winding streets and covered galleries of shops are worth a meander and there are several interesting museums here as well.

Inside the Place des Vosges

  1. Canal St. Martin - another great walk. There are houseboats, restaurants on boats, bars on boats, and just a lot of quai that you can walk up and down. If the weather is nice, it’s a very enjoyable experience, less so in the rain.

Random Tips and Thoughts

If you want to go to the Louvre: Get there through the “secret” entrance – there is a separate entrance to the Louvre that can help you avoid some of the insane lines. You go in through the Carousel mall entrance and then there is an entrance from the mall to the Louvre where you can buy tickets and not wait in the glass pyramid line in the main courtyard. Still make sure you take a picture by the pyramid to prove you were there, and same with the Mona Lisa, but don’t be surprised at how small she is in real life...but make sure you look at the picture from both sides of the room. Don’t ask why, just do it!

For running: Check out the Bois de Bologne or the Bois de Vincennes, they are two parks that are at either end of Paris and you can run around the random paths for several miles at least. If you’re not close to those, the Canal St Martin is a great place to run where you can’t get lost and you have the ability to run for a long while without weaving down small streets!

The metro: it can take you everywhere and is the most reliable way to travel around Paris. The 1 line has, more or less, all of the main tourist attractions on it. The RER is the regional train and is useful mainly to go to the airport (RER B) and Versailles (RER C). You can buy a "carnet" of 10 tickets, a 1 day unlimited ticket, or carte visites that are for 1, 2, 3, 5 days by zones or the 7 day pass Navigo découverte.