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November 13, 2011 6:41 PM   Subscribe

What do we absolutely need to plan or know before going to Paris?

We have plane tickets and passports. We have lodging. We have one reservation for dinner at a nice restaurant. That's as far as we've gotten, and we are both feeling too busy to do thorough itinerary planning. We have some ideas of things we'd like to do, but we also want it to be a relaxing trip. We don't want every moment to be scheduled.

That said, we don't want to miss out on something really key because we didn't buy tickets or make reservations in advance. What do we need to know? Some more specific questions:

- We'd like to avoid long lines for museum tickets. Someone mentioned the Museum Pass in a previous thread about Paris travel. Should we plan to buy one at the airport? (Our key museum interests are the Louvre and the Rodin museum, but I think it'd be nice to pay one up front price and therefore have an excuse to hit up a number of other museums, even if it's just for a few hours at a time.)

- We'd like to go to a cabaret. We have some info about a few in a guide book a friend gave me. I've heard that reservations are ideal, but are they necessary? Or do we have some flexibility in determining what night we want to go when we get there?

Bonus question:
It's been a while since we've been to Europe. (We live in the U.S.) We're picking up a power adapter so that we can plug in the few electronics that may need charging (including our phones, to which we'll download maps). Anything else critical we need to think of?
posted by Terriniski to Travel & Transportation around Paris, France (32 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
How long are you planning to spend in Paris?
posted by datarose at 6:48 PM on November 13, 2011

5 full days (one of which may be us dragging a bit because of the time change)
posted by Terriniski at 6:52 PM on November 13, 2011

I came in specifically to recommend the Museum Pass. It is a great deal if you are going to do a lot of museum sightseeing and most major museums and sites accept it. (The Eiffel Tower, sadly, is one that does not. Your post doesn't mention if you have ever been before ... If you really feel you have to do la Tour Eiffel, I would try to buy tickets in advance. That wait will be much shorter. We didn't do that and kind of regretted it.)

However, I wouldn't buy the pass at the airport. I would buy it at a museum that is NOT the Louvre - read, one without huge huge lines. We happened to be staying near the Pantheon in the Latin Quarter, so we strolled over and picked one up without going to see the actual museum. Took two minutes. :) A lot of museums are closed on Mondays and some on Tuesdays - plan accordingly.

One wonderful experience I had in Paris was going to a classical music concert at Sainte-Chapelle (which is one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen in the world, so not missable). It was great to hear world-renowned opera singers perform sacred music under that glorious stained glass.

I could go on and on, but one last thing - climb up stuff if at all possible. Climb to the top of Montmartre, Notre Dame, etc. We took a day trip to the cathedral at Chartres and were blown away - climb to the top of that one too. The breathtaking view is worth the 200 steps. :)

(And no matter how long you are there, you will miss things. There is simply not enough time. So you'll just have to go back!)
posted by bookgirl18 at 6:55 PM on November 13, 2011 [6 favorites]

Are you going this month?

If so, I'd recommend a modern circus show over a cabaret, most of which are tourist traps at this point. Here's a link (in French) to the big circus venue:

posted by vecchio at 6:56 PM on November 13, 2011

I went to Paris this time last year for two weeks and had a great time. Some thoughts:

- The first day or so, we did the Paris bus tour to get the lay of the land. We liked "L'Open Tour" -- you just pay the driver and get a day pass that lets you join the bus at various stops throughout the city. The tours are subdivided. I liked them because it really made the city digestible. I knew where everything was after taking it and it took the pressure off "seeing it all" as well. More info here: L'Open Tour

- regarding museums, we didn't buy a Museum Pass but it was OK. Examples: We just went early to the Musee d'Orsay, about 45 mins before opening time, and in that first 30 mins when the museum was practically deserted, had some magical encounters with various masterworks. No one in sight apart from chattering museum personnel here and there. As for the Louvre, no issue either. It's more about planning your time. You could barrel through the place at high speed in a day and appreciate very little while seeing everything. Or you could divide it into a few visits, and spend some in-depth time in a particular wing. The place is so vast!

- if you have an iPhone, you can download a Paris map app that lets you see yourself on it without paying for data (i think it uses cell towers to cross-reference). It was very handy to plot oneself on the map. (the app was called Paris2Go but any app that lets you store an offline map is fine).

- really recommend WALKING. So if you get a guide book, refer to the walking tours in various areas and do them. You discover so much. Wonderful. Plus burning all those calories means you get to hit the boulangeries big time! =)

Hope you have a wonderful trip!
posted by teedee2000 at 6:59 PM on November 13, 2011

Oops, I also wanted to mention some other highlights:

* cemetaries -- Visit Pere Lachaise Cemetary in the east end of the of city. So many famous people buried there, plus it is atmospheric and stunning. Montparnasse Cemetary is another good one. (And if you are into dead people, hit up the Paris Catacombs.)

- if you are going to Sacre Coeur at Montmartre, watch out for the con artists at the bottom of the stairs who try to tie a string on your wrist and then collect $30-50 for it. Just barrel through and stare them down - DON'T let them intimidate you.
posted by teedee2000 at 7:05 PM on November 13, 2011

1. Definitely get a museum pass. They have them for a few options (3-day, week, etc. I believe). Don't buy it at the airport. Rather, going with bookgirl's suggestion, get in line to go to the top of Notre Dame. You have to wait in line there, even with a museum pass so it's worth it.

2. Eat macaroons. They're something you rarely get in the USA and a fun thing to try. Most patisseries will have them.
posted by raccoon409 at 7:08 PM on November 13, 2011

Cemeteries are neat but bring a map for the bigger ones -- also check when they close, sometimes it is on the early side.
posted by starman at 7:09 PM on November 13, 2011

This is a little dorky, but effective: if Paris has one of those double-decker tourist buses that goes around the city and hits all the hot spots, splurge on a day pass. I did this in Granada, Spain, and found it a great way to get around to see the things I wanted to see, efficiently. The buses make a circuit every hour, you don't need to get back on the same bus that brought you, so if you want to sepnd a few hours somewhere, just catch the next one to the next destination. I found the audio tour interesting, but you could turn it off and listen to music or whatever while you're in transit. I did this on my first day there---figuring out local transit is part of the fun of travel, but for a first day, it's kind of nice to get the lay of the land in a more controlled setting. After the overview, you can get a better sense of where you'd like to spend more time.

I found the Paris Metro very straightforward (this was 15 years ago, mind you) and now they have metro bikes that you can rent.
posted by elizeh at 7:14 PM on November 13, 2011

Visit the Eiffel Tower at night . . . it's magical.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 7:18 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry to thread-sit, but wanted to respond that neither of us have been to Paris (or France) before.

We're not necessarily in need of suggestions for what to do while we're there (though we will happily look into any that are suggested in this thread - I'm putting them all into a google map so we'll have options when we get there). I'm more in need of suggestions like "You can't get into this awesome place without a reservation, so book one fast!" or "Don't forget xyz, it is well worth the space in your suitcase!"

Thanks everyone!
posted by Terriniski at 7:19 PM on November 13, 2011

The answer to that question is... nothing. There's so much to do, you'll never be short of something completely awesome to do with or without reservations. Paris is a fully modern city with all the amenities a 1st world traveler might expect. If the airline loses your luggage you can go to the H&M and pick up some disposable clothing to wear for a few days. Etc. Everyone speaks English, so you will be hard pressed to run into a language barrier.. that said, you will occasionally get better service if you attempt mangled Francsois than not. If someone can't understand your English, it's probably because they're messing with you.

So, the advice you get will naturally be about what to do.

Do buy a bottle of wine at a wine shop along with a Tire-bouchon. Grab your glasses from your hotel room and find a spot along the Sein to enjoy it at dusk.

There are hundreds of museums in Paris, you aren't legally obligated to go to the Louvre. D'Orsay is equally world class and Le Center Pompadu is fantastic for modern art.

Also, the metro system is fantastic, there's no need for a rental car.

You will love it, everyone does.
posted by j03 at 8:00 PM on November 13, 2011

Dress a bit better than you would as an ordinary tourist. When you enter a shop, know enough French to address the person "Boujour, Madame", etc. Makes a big difference. Don't avoid the big dept. stores--they all have various cool stuff--I'm a big fan of BHV which has a hardware section.
LE MUSéE CARNAVALET is the museum of the history of the city of Paris and my favorite.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:04 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Even if you're not fluent, knowing a few phrases can really help. Most French people actually want to practice their English with you, but they will snub you unless you attempt French. Just a few things like "Bonjour," "Je voudrais___," "Ou est la toilette," etc.
posted by radioamy at 8:06 PM on November 13, 2011

I had my first trip to Paris in early October. There are plenty of museums and other attractions to keep you busy for weeks, but for me part of the charm was to slow down and just enjoy the atmosphere, either at a cafe or a picnic along the Seine.

I had the museum pass, and skipping lines was nice. If you choose not to use the pass, use the underground entrance to the Louvre from the Carrousel du Louvre shopping center (not the Pyramid), lines will be much less. I went on a Wednesday evening when they are open later than usual, it wasn't very crowded.

I'm not sure when you're going or if the weather will be favorable, but I really enjoyed the Fat Tire Bike Tour I took. They meet at the south leg of the Eiffel Tower (you don't need a reservation), and then bike around to a lot of the major sites.

Even though the line is usually long to go up the towers at Notre Dame (the museum pass doesn't let you skip due to security reasons), the wait is worth it. The Arc De Triomphe, on the other hand was not worth climbing up the stairs as a lot of the exhibits and views were closed for renovation when I went. It is still pretty neat to go and walk around the outside of it (an underground walkway will get you close without worrying about the traffic circle.)

Agree with previous posters that a little French (even just s'il vous plait and merci) will go a long way with the locals.

Have fun!
posted by weathergal at 8:45 PM on November 13, 2011

No, no, go to the Eiffel Tower before sunset, that way you get to see the view in daylight and at night. I'd also recommend going there after you've been around the city a bit because it's more fun to find the places you've been.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:52 PM on November 13, 2011

The only advice I have is, bring comfortable shoes and thick, comfortable socks, because walking around in Paris in November means getting sore feet that are also very cold.

Bring a good coat and scarves too, or buy the scarves once in Paris. (I understand ladies especially love Parisien scarves.)
posted by derMax at 11:55 PM on November 13, 2011

I just came back from a honeymoon in Paris, Barcelona, and Madrid.

- Plan your schedule with the museum hours in mind. We didn't do that and missed out on the Orsay. We were also a bit let-down by the Louvre (no signs in English, argh!). We greatly preferred the art museums in Madrid.

- The Eiffel tower at night really is that spectacular. If the weather's good during the day, go both in the day and night.

- If you miss Pere Lachaise, don't sweat it too much. It's OK, but not that mind-blowing, and it's relatively faraway out of the city.

- Many people say that there's plenty to do just in Paris, but I think we sort of regret not making the daytrip out to Versailles.

- For both of us, our favorite things by far were just going to the regular supermarkets and boulangeries and eating normal everyday food. Yeah, yeah, we saw the Mona Lisa, but my wife cannot stop talking about this one mind-bogglingly delicious baguette we had one day. Cheap sparkling wine every day! Seeing fifty different kinds of cheeses that I'd never had before and regretting I only had the time to try a few. Super cheap Perrier!

- You can check out L'As du Fallafel. It was pretty good and a very good deal, but it seems to be turning into a bit of a tourist trap. Interesting neighborhood.
posted by alidarbac at 11:56 PM on November 13, 2011

The Louvre is closed Tuesday! EVERY Tuesday. Don't plan to go there on Tuesday!
posted by jujulalia at 2:00 AM on November 14, 2011

Oh! And Paris Walks are excellent. As said before walking in Paris is the best. Tours run every day, but they're different each day. So depending on your tastes/interests it'll pay to look at options at the beginning of your trip.

Buy a "carnet" book of ten metro tickets when you do take the metro. You'll use them all.
posted by jujulalia at 2:05 AM on November 14, 2011

I live in Paris and I host and help plan for lots of tourists through CS. You have done all the planning you NEED to do. My last step would be to make a list of the things I wanted to see and plot them out on a map along with their hours. This is NOT a plan, but just to help you get a feel for where to go.

As others have recommended, I want to strongly recommend the Museum Pass for the reason you mentioned - you can go in to so many places just on a whim, even if you decide not to stay for the whole thing. The carnet of tickets is so useful! If you want to do Paris by bicycle, check out the Velib site to make a week-long account online. But as others have said, Paris is best on foot.

If you want to go to the Eiffel Tower or to Versailles, and especially the Eiffel Tower, you should buy your ticket ONLINE to avoid the 2-3 hour wait. If you buy and print the online ticket you have a reservation and you will walk right in.
posted by whatzit at 3:04 AM on November 14, 2011

- Are you planning to take the subway? If yes, as a first thing, get a small subway map at the RATP counter (they're free). Also plan upfront what kind of ticket you're going to buy.
- Le Louvre has several entrances, some of which may have shorter queues (Carrousel in particular), altough this may not be a problem in the winter.
- Don't wear rain jackets. Take an umbrella.
posted by rom1 at 4:30 AM on November 14, 2011

Buy a "carnet" book of ten metro tickets when you do take the metro. You'll use them all.
We bought these in lieu of a pass, and found that we didn't use them all as quickly as we thought as we walked everywhere. I'd recommend packing some plasters and nail-clippers - two things we had to buy when there because of this!

We didn't get chance to go to any museums and we still had loads to do. My advice would be to pick an area that looks interesting or is near something you absolutely want to do/see, and explore there. I knew I wanted to go to Deyrolle and one of the large cemeteries, and my SO wanted to check out the boardgame stores, so we headed that way and then discovered a few things accidentally.

(And if either of you are into embroidery, I can point you to some very interesting stores...)
posted by mippy at 8:08 AM on November 14, 2011

Something that might come up: France now uses credit and debit cards that have all their data stored on a chip embedded in the card. Some stores and ATMS will only read this sort of card and don't have the foggiest idea of what to do with an American magnetic strip card; the shopkeeper will shrug and hand the card back to you, the ATM will spit it out. Paris should be fairly easy since they're so international, but it still might happen here or there, especially with smaller shops and cafes. Try to look for ATMs that have "CHANGE" posted above them, otherwise stock up on Euros at the airport or exchange bureau so you've got money to cover the bill if you run into a card reader that can't read your card.

This will hopefully save you several hours of extreme panic as you try to figure out why your bank account was apparently shut down.
posted by castlebravo at 8:42 AM on November 14, 2011

Metro pass (Paris Visite, meant for tourists), and what castlebravo says about ATMs. I would carry as much cash as you're comfortable with to avoid weirdness with credit/debit cards. I did not find Paris to be unsafe at all and I'm a petite woman who was travelling alone.
posted by desjardins at 9:31 AM on November 14, 2011

Greet people in french when you walk into a shop. A simple "Bonjour madame/monsieur" goes a really long way. Make even the worst attempts at speaking French, most people in hotels and shops speak some English, but you will generally get better treatment if you even speak the worst French.

Go to Notre Dame as early as possible in the morning, if you can. it's more amazing when it's empty! If you want to see the Palais Garnier, and are under 28, get a rush ticket on the day of a performance for 5-10 euros. It's a fun way to see the opera house.
posted by inertia at 10:45 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

And don't count on people speaking English past what they need for their jobs. You can ask a hotel clerk about taxis or local restaurants, but don't expect to have a conversation about politics.

Also also, people dress a lot nicer and you will be treated much more politely if you don't wear jeans/shorts/sweatpants/athletic shoes.
posted by desjardins at 10:57 AM on November 14, 2011

When you get there, be aware that the transport maps sometimes show only the surface rail/RER system, and sometimes only the Metro. Don't get caught out reading the wrong one!

I would say that while you can work out many things when you get there, if you're interested in any popular restaurants you should try to make more reservations now. Also consider turning up on day one and asking for a reservation later in your stay -- lunchtimes are a good bet.

Major banks, train stations, etc., handled ATM cards without chip and pin fine in my very recent experience. It's worth phoning your bank now and asking if they have partnerships with any French banks that would reduce transaction charges for you. For instance, I found out that if I used BNP Paribas ATMs I would save some charges. However, it's worth noting that you may come across more places that expect you to pay cash than in the USA.

(iOS users: since the OP mentioned Google Maps, don't fall foul of the error I did recently and take only an iOS mobile device to view the personalised "my places" kind of maps. They don't work fully on iOS -- you can't add to them or modify them, so if you discover new things while you're there that you want to check out later, you're out of luck, and similarly, you can't edit or delete existing items.)
posted by galaksit at 11:42 AM on November 14, 2011

nthing what people say about speaking as much French as you can to shop keepers etc, as well as dressing well. If you wear a fanny pack pick-pockets will stock you across the city. Also the advice to get cash, although if you have a VISA debit card it will work at any ATM (or any one that I encountered).

Beware the girls (mostly girls) who will attempt to get you to donate to UNESCO causes around the touristy sites. They're trying to scam you. People are pushier in Paris than you'd ever expect in non-romance nations. They don't understand personal space at all, and will follow you and harass you if they think they can get something out of you. Pick-pockets really are all over. Keep your hand on your money at all times when walking about, and be firm with your NONs. "Laissez-moi tout seul" is not a bad phrase to know to say. Actually, this is a general rule about Paris: if someone approaches you and you don't know them, they probably want something from you that you don't want to give. Keep strangers at a distance (which is also how the Parisians will treat you.)

You'll be surprised (or at least, I was) with how small Paris is. The metro was kind of a mystery to me, since you can walk from one end of the city to another in less than an hour. Walking is the best way to discover the city, too, since nothing is dull in between destinations. I usually would only take the metro to get back to the place I was staying if I was too tired out from a day full of walking.

If you're going this time of year things will be less crowded but still very crowded. Expect to wait in line to get into any major attraction, even if you show up an hour before it opens. Paris is kind of like a theme-park that way (although less so than Prague).

Paris is can be somewhat dangerous late at night, especially in the northern arrondissements. Of course, compared to an American "bad part of town" it's still pretty tame, but its one of the more dangerous major cities in Europe. The metro is only marginally safer than the street after 1am or so.
posted by dis_integration at 12:52 PM on November 14, 2011

Paper maps are a must, even just as a backup. If you're walking around and your phone goes dead, you will be LOST. The streets make no sense.
posted by desjardins at 1:46 PM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

inertia: "Greet people in french when you walk into a shop. A simple "Bonjour madame/monsieur" goes a really long way. Make even the worst attempts at speaking French, most people in hotels and shops speak some English, but you will generally get better treatment if you even speak the worst French. "

A thousand times this. My french is bloody awful, but I got on better in Paris than my sister (who spent several years studying French in schools), because I made an effort to know/use all of the small pleasantries, and knew enough to order food and such.

And, really, I've found the popular maxim about the French being rude and hostile to tourists to be simply untrue; in my experience, France (and Paris in particular) is a very friendly place. Also, don't forget that Paris is an extremely international city; you're hardly the only foreigners there.

If you can speak two lines of French, it's usually enough for most Parisians to respect you, and they'll either be able to speak a bit of English to help you out, or dumb their French down enough so that I could understand it.

Some other pointers
  • Don't cross the street to get to the Arc de Triomphe. You'll die. There's an underpass.
  • The one place where I did get leered at for not speaking perfect French? The RATP ticket booth, which I believe is the only place to buy a day pass. Go figure. You'll manage, but every time I've done it, it's been a frustrating experience.
  • If you want to use Vélib', Paris's bikesharing system, you will need an American Express Card, or a Visa/MC with a Chip&Pin.
  • Most places will still accept chip-less cards if you explain this fact to them in advance, although they will be very confused by this. For this reason, you may want to stick to ATMs and cash.
  • I'd go to the Musée d'Orsay before the Louvre. Don't get me wrong -- I loved the Louvre, and would have stayed there for days if my friends had allowed me to. However, I was genuinely blown away by the Musée d'Orsay... it's easily one of the best museums I've ever been to.

posted by schmod at 7:24 AM on November 15, 2011

To report back, we had a great trip!

- The Museum Pass was infinitely awesome. We dropped into a lot of places and didn't worry so much about whether the admission price was worth what we were going to see or how long we had to spend there. For example, on our last afternoon, we popped into Saint Chapelle just as they were closing down the line. We were in the area, we had another hour or so before things shut down, and it was on the pass. It was a really neat place, but not 12 euro worth. We definitely got our money's worth, and it worked out well to buy it at one of the museums.

- We walked A LOT. We came prepared with good shoes and socks, but even so our feet hurt. (In a good rewarding way. My fitbit readings ranged from 9-10.5 miles each day.) The streets made no sense, as mentioned. We had the Paris2Go app which was very helpful, but sometimes the GPS readings weren't great so we did rely on a paper map. But when the GPS was working nicely, it was great to be able to look at a phone and look less like a tourist.

- The sight-seeing was amazing, but my personal favorite experience was popping into a local patisserie every morning (and sometimes on the way home). Our first day there, we had lunch with some distant relatives, and they set out a plate of delicious cheeses. I wish we'd found a fromagerie or good market as well.

- The only time we really ran into a problem with the credit cards with chips was buying train/metro tickets. We pulled out cash from an ATM at the airport, and then headed down to the train station to get into the city. The machines down there wouldn't take cash bills (only coins) and required a credit card with a chip. Luckily, there was a machine for change nearby, so we could get coins for the machine, but we had a little bit of panic before we saw that. The machines for metro tickets took both bills and coins, so we were fine most of the time, but for the train ride back the machine at the station was also coins only (or chip), so I'm glad I'd set aside the appropriate amount in coins.
posted by Terriniski at 5:15 AM on November 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

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