So you’ve decided to visit Paris? Congratulations! One of the most visited cities in the world, Paris can seem a little daunting at first. Like other great cities, Paris is almost a world within a city. Planning our travel to Paris first seemed like an insurmountable challenge but we decided to tackle it methodically.
Before we started planning our itinerary, we hunted for people who’ve blogged as extensively about the time before their travel as they have about their holiday. Most of the information we found was randomly scattered, with no concise handy guide to kick beginners off in the right direction. This Paris guide is an attempt to help other travelers orient themselves to Paris before they begin actually planning their trip.
Sidewalk wisdom from a local: Paris needs many lifetimes before you can say you’ve seen a little of her.
One of the first things to do is begin reading short descriptions of Paris (there’s a short list to get you started at the end of this guide). This will give you a brief picture of what the city is all about and how much time you need to spend there. Paris is more than what you actually think it is (definitely more than the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, cafes, bistros and escargot). And there’s never going to be enough time to experience it completely on a short visit. There was a Parisian who once told us you need many lifetimes to see Paris. And at the end of our trip, we couldn’t agree more.
Paris is a city that offers, as the cliche goes, something for everybody. There’s art, music, architecture, food, education, fashion, shopping, people watching…so much to do and so little time to do it all. Given this fact, it’s good to learn how to get around before you get to Paris because after you get there, you’d rather spend your time discovering Paris than discovering how to get around. At the end of this section, I’ll tell you about the indisputably best way to see the city!
Geography is always a good place to start and you need to remember just two simple things about Paris.
The second thing to remember is that Paris is divided into Arrondissements numbered 1 to 20. The 1st Arrondissement is located in the historic centre of Paris (on the Right Bank) and the other 19 spiral outwards clockwise on either sides of the River Seine. This division might sound complicated but it actually makes getting around and planning much easier (and you can thank Emperor Napoleon III who did this in 1860). Each Arrondissement has it’s own distinct character, sights, history, cafes, restaurants and bistros. [Tip: The last two digits on the Paris postal code tell you which Arrondissement you are in (75001 to 75020).]
Paris offers great options for travellers to get around. There’s the network of trains (Metro and RER) and Bus to pick from, in addition to taxis. While most of the information is available online in detail, including the fantastic RATP site, I’m just going to give you a quick overview of the basics.
The Metro, like metros in most other cities, is a quick, efficient way to get around with stops at every station along each line. The Metro has 300 stations and 16 lines, each with a unique colour. The lines are numbered 1 to 14 but there are two secondary lines 3b and 7b. The lines are named according to the name of the terminal station.
The Metro runs from 5:30 am to 12:40 am from Sunday to Thursday and 5:30 am to 1:40 am on Fridays and Saturdays, with trains at an interval of a few minutes. Visit the RATP site for detailed information, including maps.
It’s important to figure tickets before you travel, since public transport in Paris offers a variety of ticketing options – single & multi-day tickets, weekly, monthly & yearly passes and ticket booklets. Tickets are valid for the Zones that you purchase them for and the prices referred to here are largely only for Paris and not specifically for the suburbs or sights out of Paris, like Versailles. For more details on the pricing for different zones, visit the RATP site.
- Single ticket:A single ticket (called ticket t+) costs 1.70€ and is valid for one single continuous journey, including change of lines to your destination or on the RER. A better option for travellers is a booklet called the Carnet.
- Carnet: A Carnet is basically a booklet of 10 single tickets sold at 12.50€ (at 1.25€ a ticket, it’s a better option than buying single tickets). You don’t get an actual booklet. What you get is a set of 10 tickets to use whenever you want to. There’s also a discount for children from ages 4-9 (children under 4 years ride free).
- Day ticket: Called the Ticket Mobilis, it gives you unlimited rides on the Metro during operational hours for 1 day. It costs 6.30€.
- Multi-day tickets: Called the Carte Paris Visite, this is a pass that is valid for 1, 2, 3 or 5 days and for different Zones. In addition, the Visite also comes bundled with discounts at certain attractions. From what I’ve read and researched, it’s not a very good option compared to the Carnet or the…
- Pass Navigo Decouverte: For people like me who were staying for more than a week, this is a fantastic option. No flimsy tickets to deal with, no fumbling with the ticket slot, no nothing. It’s valid from Monday to Sunday with no continuous 7-day usage period from midweek. The card is activated on the Monday following the day you purchase the card and expires the following Sunday. So if you’re arriving mid-week, a Carnet is still a better option. It’s priced at a great 18.85€ per week (but remember to add a non-refundable 5€ fee for the first time you buy the card). Remember to carry a 2.5cm x 2cm photograph for the nominative card that accompanies the plastic card. Both cards must be carried together for use and the hard plastic jacket they come in ensures they stay together. Unlike the ticket, you just wave the pass over the purple sign and it beeps you through. I had mine in my camera bag and I usually just had to wave my bag over the purple sign for the pass to register (a trick I learnt watching locals with passes!).
RER (Reseau Express Regionale – Regional Express Network)
The RER is pretty much like the Metro, except these are fast trains with fewer stops. There are 5 lines (A, B, C, D & E). The RATP site has detailed maps of the RER that you can download. If you’re arriving at CDG Airport (detailed out below in the section of getting to and from CDG Airport), the RER connects you to the city. It’s also a great option if you’re visiting Euro Disney. If you’re travelling wihin Paris, the Metro ticket (or pass) can be used on the RER as well.
The following passes are valid for travel on the RER: Ticket Mobilis, Carte Paris Visite and Pass Navigo Decouverte. But do remember the fares for the passes and the tickets are determined by the zones you buy them for.
Travelling by bus in Paris is a fantastic option. It’s definitely the most scenic way to get around and it also gives you the option to hop off if you’ve seen some place interesting where you want to make an unscheduled stop.
There are Bus stops every few blocks all over Paris and some of them act as points where different lines intersect. Buses run from 5:30 am to midnight, although it would be wise to check the actual timings since not all of them run until midnight. There’s also a night bus network, called the Noctilien, that runs through the night. Buses on this network aren’t as frequent as the regular buses and aren’t as well-spread either. Arm yourself with a map for the Noctilien to avoided getting stranded late at night. Some buses also run through a lot of scenic routes but I’ll list them out in future posts on things to do and see in Paris.
Venice has it’s Gondolas, Paris has Batobus. Well, they’re not as romantic and exclusive as the gondolas but the Batobus River Shuttle is still a great way to explore Paris. The Batobus is basically a hop on-hop off service that has 8 stops along the River Seine – Tour Eiffel, St-Germain-des-Pres, Jardin des Plantes, Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Notre-Dame, Hotel de Ville and Champs-Elysees. The boats run at different frequencies around the year but on an average, you can find one every 20 minutes or so. Tickets are available in a variety of options. 1 day pass (14€), 2 day pass (18€), 5 day pass (21€) and an annual pass (60€). Remember, on the 2 day and 5 day pass, it’s 2 or 5 consecutive days from the first day you use it. The Batobus is definitely a great way to see Paris and I suggest at least a 1 day pass where you can hop on and hop off at every stop and see the bits of the city around these stops. The link to the site has detailed information on the rates, points of sale and timetables around the year.
From Charles de Gaulle Airport
Train: You can get from CDG Airport to Paris in a number of different ways – train, bus or taxi/shuttle.
The RER B line runs from CDG Airport to Paris city with stops at Gare du Nord, Chatelet les Halles, St Michel/Notre Dame, Luxembourg, Port Royal, Denfert Rochereau and Cite Universitaire. The ticket price is 9.10€. If you have heavy luggage, it’s not advisable. Escalators aren’t available at every station and are known to be shut without prior notice. It’s also not the easiest thing in the world to cart large suitcases in and out of packed commuter trains.
Bus: There are quite a few bus options available. Air France operates buses from both Terminal 1 & 2. There’s also the RoissyBus & RATP that connects CDG Airport to Paris city.
Taxi: Depending on when you arrive, the number of passengers and the luggage you’re carrying, taxis are an option you can also consider. If you’re a larger group (or willing to take a shared taxi), a shuttle is also an option.
I’m intentionally not going into the details in this post because there’s a lot of information available online, especially here.
Paris also offers other ways to get around. One that’s really popular with the locals and a few tourists is the Vélib, a unique innovative bicycle hire system that’s great if you know your way around the city (and of course, are a master at understanding Paris traffic!). The bicycles are all locked in and the automated system releases one when you make a booking. There are different passes you can buy including daily passes. The first 30 mins are free and if the docking station is full when you want to return your bicycle, you get an additional 15 minutes free to let you find the next docking station. Quite efficient, actually! We didn’t use the service this time because we preferred taking in the city walking around or used the Metro when we had to get somewhere quick.
In addition to the Vélib, taxis are also an option in Paris. Unlike taxis back home (in Mumbai), the taxis is Paris were much more comfortable and the drivers far more willing to taxi you around. A taxi driver is bound to take you as long as his cab is operational and in the designated stop (a taxi driver actually briefed us about this once). Head to the front of the queue and simply hop in and give him your destination.
Top Tips – Getting Around
- Familiarize yourself with the map of Paris.
- Familiarize yourself with the Metro map. It looks complicated but it isn’t.
- Watch for pickpockets at stations (I’ve included this because I’ve read about it almost everywhere. Personally, I’ve never witnessed anything and have always felt extremely safe on trains.)
- Pick the best ticket option on the Metro and RER. This depends on which day of the week you’re coming in, how long you’re staying and what your schedule is looking like. For all practical purposes, a Carnet is a great idea. For those coming in early during the week, the Pass Navigo Decouverte is excellent. It’s also perfect if you’re coming in later during the week and plan on staying through the following week.
- Tickets and passes are valid for both buses and the Metro & RER (depending on the zones you’ve purchased them for).
- Tickets to and from certain venues (CDG Airport, Versailles, etc.) may not be covered by what you’ve purchased previously. So check your zones and buy separate tickets for these journeys.
- If you’ve got a lot of luggage (more than one large item per traveller), spend a few extra Euros and get a taxi or a shuttle.
- Download a Metro app on your phone or begin using the RATP site. It’s really helpful and user-friendly.
- Ben Lam has written what I consider the Bible on travelling in Paris by train. I’ve found his site invaluable. I’m sure you will too when you check it out. Or you’ll kick yourself for not checking it out once you get to Paris.
- If you’re lost, don’t worry. You can walk your way out in Paris.
- Finally, here’s the best way to actually get around Paris: by foot.
Picking your stay all comes down to the kind of holiday you want. A hotel works great for some people. For others, an apartment is more originally Parisian. We try and experience destinations the way locals do. It keeps us closer to the streets, it puts us in the midst of locals and we’re forced to interact with them – from the baker around the corner to the grocer on the ground floor. Essentially, it’s living local in a foreign land.
We were very clear that we didn’t want to stay in a hotel during our first visit to Paris. We weren’t backpacking but we weren’t on a very big budget either. [We’re traveling from India, where the current exchange rate is 1 Euro to 68 Indian Rupees. Trust me, that’s not good at all if you’re Indian!] Another big reason to not stay at a hotel was because we really wanted to experience Paris the way Parisians do. I will never be able to get the ‘r’ in French right or pronounce ‘Bonjour’ exactly the way it should, but I can at least try and stay in an apartment with Parisians for neighbours, shop at the grocery store they do and hopefully get on a first name basis with the closest baker and barman! Here are a few other pros and cons of an apartment as opposed to a hotel or a B&B.
- It’s much, much larger than a hotel room. Hotel rooms in Paris are notoriously small from what I’ve seen and read. Some don’t come with wardrobes and the cheaper ones barely have room for two people to move around at the same time.
- It’s cheaper than a hotel room. A good hotel room isn’t very cheap. Weekly rates for apartments are also much lesser than daily rates. With a hotel, it’s almost always a fixed price that you multiply by the number of days you stay.
- It’s more than just a room. You can cough up your family’s fortune on a hotel suite but for travelers like us (who don’t have surnames that end with Trump), it’s out of the question. An apartment is a home. Even the tiny ones come with a living room, dining space, an open kitchen, a bedroom and bathroom. Even a studio measures up better than a similarly priced hotel room (if you do actually find one that’s liveable at that rate).
- You get a kitchen. For people like us who love cooking (and eating), that’s just perfect. The thought of cooking our own breakfast or a nice dinner or a midnight snack sounded so much better than calling room service.
- Everything you need is only a few doors away. There are bakeries, cafes, patisseries, grocery stores, pharmacies, fresh fruit… You could dial room service in a hotel and easily pay twice as much for a croissant . But think about actually standing at a bakery, picking what you want and waking up in the middle of the night slightly hungry and finding a basket of croissants waiting at the dining table.
- Appliances. I’m a big coffee drinker and I like walking up to the kitchen and refilling my cup whenever I want to. If you’re staying longer, nothing beats having your own washing machine and dryer. Or a microwave to warm up a little leftover that’s sitting in your refrigerator.
- Cleaning up. You’ve got to do it all yourself, just like you would at home. Some apartments have cleaning help that you can pay for.
- Linen. Your linen isn’t changed every day (or alternate day) like it is at a hotel. Want your linen changed? Wash it, press it and change it yourself. Most apartments also have extra linen in the closet, so remember to check with the apartment renter.
- Dishes. Although every apartment I came across had a dishwasher, you need to do the dishes yourself. You’re not going to be eating every meal at home, so it isn’t really a huge chore.
- Essentials. Toilet paper, shower gel, shampoo, dishwashing powder, detergent, soap, etc., you have to get yourself. Although many apartments come with a few bare essentials to get you started right away, you need to get the rest yourself during your stay. There’s no elf to replace used bottles of shower gel or shampoo while you’re away spending the afternoon with a naked Venus at the Louvre!
- No room service. 3 am hunger pangs? Sorry but there’s no quick dial on the phone to order a sandwich.
- No bellhops. Some apartments have elevators, some don’t. That’s something to think about while packing every item of clothing you own.
If you do decide on an apartment, make sure you check on a few things.
- Check which floor your apartment is on and if there’s an elevator. Lugging baggage up a very high floor may not be a good idea. Also consider climbing 5 floors after a night out.
- Check on linen. Most apartments come with linen and a set of towels. Don’t expect 5 star quality linen. This is just the kind of stuff you have at home so you should be fine with it actually.
- Check on the security deposit – how does it get paid and how long before you’re paid back.
- Some apartments also offer a cleaning service if you’re staying for long periods. If there isn’t one, check with your owner if one can be arranged.
Homelidays: Great place, great apartments, lots and lots of options. This is actually a listing where owners list their apartments, so you deal with the owner directly. This was the one we finally settled with! We found a great apartment and a wonderful owner.
Top Tips – Stay
- Do a bit of reading before you go hotel or apartment hunting. It’s going to give you an overview of the different sections of Paris so you can decide which area suits you best.
- Really, really do consider an apartment over a hotel.
- It’s tasking but go through a million apartments before you decide on the one you want.
- Make a shortlist of about 8-10 apartments and then begin contacting the agency or owner to check availability, extra costs, etc.
- Once you’ve found one, don’t ever, ever, ever look at another rental site! You will find more interesting ones and it just doesn’t ever stop.
- Important: Don’t judge the quality of an apartment by either the quality of the website that it’s listed on or the quality of the photographs.
Paris Notes (a wonderful site that has unfortunately stopped its service but you can still access all its back issues)
[There’s lots of other information elsewhere. Notably, Lonely Planet, which gives you great information but I’ve found it more tuned to budget travelers/backpackers. So make sure you go through a few of these for a couple of days and get a fix on which one’s best for your travel.]