Paris leaves an impression on everyone, from students perfecting their langue française to tourists who wonder why the French don’t pronounce half the consonants in each word. This city has been home to countless films, revolutions, and kings named Louis, and, in case you hadn’t heard, it’s a really big deal. Nearly everyone in the world idealizes Paris, whether it’s for the Eiffel Tower, the grand boulevards, or the fact that there are more miles in the Louvre than in many towns. Even the most world-weary of travelers will find that Paris pulls through with spectacularly sensory experiences around every corner—the sweet tastes to be found in a patisserie, the resonating bells of Notre Dame, the springtime greens in the Jardin des Tuileries. There’s a reason the City of Light remains one of the most-visited destinations in the world.
The Seine River flows from east to west through the heart of Paris, splitting the city into Rive Gauche (Left Bank) to the south and Rive Droite (Right Bank) to the north.
Two islands in the Seine, Île de la Cité and neighboring Île Saint-Louis, are in the center of the city. Central Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements (districts) that spiral clockwise outward from the centre-ville—a bit like the shell of an escargot. Each arrondissement is referred to by its number (e.g. the 3rd, the 16th). In French, “third” is said troisième (trwaz-yem) and abbreviated “3ème”; “sixteenth” is seizième (sez-yem) and abbreviated “16ème.” The same goes for every arrondissement except the first, which is said premier (prem-yay) and abbreviated “1er.”
Sometimes it’s helpful to orient yourself around central Paris’s major monuments: on Rive Gauche, the Jardin du Luxembourg lies in the southeast, and the Eiffel Tower stands in the southwest. As you move clockwise and cross the Seine to Rive Droite, the Champs-Élysées and Arc de Triomphe occupy the northwest, and the Sacré-Coeur stands high in the northeast.
From Notre Dame on Île de la Cité to the Père Lachaise Cemetery in the 20ème, the City of Light brims with history and splendor. Many sights in Paris are either free or reasonably priced, so anyone can get a gorgeous eyeful and still splurge on a fancy Parisian dinner. Expect many of the more popular sights to be particularly crowded in the summer and know that the Eiffel Tower is always mobbed, no matter what time of year (buy a Skip-the-Line ticket to save serious time). Most sights are open daily, but many have alternative weekend hours during French school holidays.
You could spend years in Paris and still not see everything this incredible city has to offer (trust us, we’ve tried). We’ve narrowed it down to the essentials to help you make the most of your time in Paris. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Most restaurants offer a menu à prix fixe (fixed-price meal) that costs less than ordering à la carte. Menus vary, but may include an appetizer, plat principal, fromage (cheese), and dessert. The formula is a cheaper, two-course version. L’eau gazeuse (sparkling water) or l’eau plate (flat mineral water) are always offered first; for a free pitcher of tap water, ask for une carafe d’eau. If the stubborn wait-staff still brings you water you have to pay for, adding a “du robinet” (from the tap) should do the trick. When “boisson comprise” is written on the menu, you are entitled to a free drink (usually wine) with the meal. Be sure to polish off your dining experience with un café (coffee). Vegetarians will have the best luck at crêperies, ethnic restaurants, and establishments catering to a younger crowd. Beware: an aversion to meat will sometimes be taken as culinary sacrilege.
It’s easy to assemble inexpensive meals yourself with a ration of cheese, pâté, bread, and wine. Start with bread from the boulangerie, and then proceed to the charcuterie (delicatessen) for pâté, saucisson (hard salami), or jambon (ham), or buy a freshly roasted chicken from the boucherie(butcher shop). Charcuteries also tend to offer a surprising selection of side dishes, both vegetarian and not; tabouli, a North African couscous dish, is a popular option. If you want someone else to do the work, boulangeries often sell fresh sandwiches. Pâtisseries (cake shops) will satisfy nearly any sweet tooth with treats ranging from the decadent, layered mille-feuille (or Napoleon) to the can’t-miss pain au chocolat.
Cafes on a major boulevard can be more expensive than smaller establishments down a side street. Prices in cafes are two-tiered: cheaper au comptoir (at the counter) than en salle (in the seating area). Seating à la terrasse (outside, on the terrace) may cost even more. Beer and pastis are the staple café drinks, while coffee, citron pressé (lemonade), and diabolo menthe (peppermint soda) are popular non-alcoholic choices. If you order café, you’ll get espresso; for coffee with milk, order café au lait. Coffee with cream is café crème. Bière à la pression, or draft beer, is 660mL of either blonde (pale) or brune (dark) lager; for something smaller, ask for un demi (330mL).
Le vin (wine) is an integral component of French culture. Though consumption is slowing as the French keep pace with the sobriety of modern life, this national treasure continues to play a major role in social occasions. France produces an astoundingly diverse array of reds, whites, and rosés; each varies according to the grape, region, and method of production. French vintners place great importance on the concept of terroir, the combination of soil composition, sunlight, and rain unique to each hectare of carefully cultivated land. The Bordeaux region, along the Dordogne and Garonne rivers of the southwest, is famous for its bold, full-bodied reds and sweet white Sauternes. Connoisseurs prize the reds and whites of Burgundy, the region centered on Dijon and Beaune, for their subtle refinement. Farther south, the region of Côtes du Rhône turns out richly flavored reds, while the even warmer Côtes de Provence region is known for its rosés. The whites of the Loire Valley tend to be delicate and aromatic, while those of Alsace, along the border with Germany, are fruitier. The sparkling whites of Champagne are synonymous with celebration worldwide. By law, only wines produced in this region may bear its illustrious name.
Though French wines are expensive in the US, quality wine is much more affordable in France. Budget travelers can pick up high-quality, affordable bottles of table wine in supermarkets; those looking to splurge should head to the shops of cavistes (wine merchants), where knowledgeable staff can point out quality bottles for connoisseurs.
“Capital of the World” may not be one of Paris’s many nicknames, but the city does owe its current structure to Napoleon III’s vision to make it just that. From 1852 to 1870,Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann plowed long, straight boulevards through the tangled clutter and narrow alleys of medieval Paris. The wide avenues not only supported the city’s famous cafe culture but also impeded insurrection by giving the French army the room to march down the boulevards and quell revolts. In the late 19th century, engineering entered the architectural scene when Gustave Eiffel created the star entry of the International Exhibition of 1889. The Eiffel Tower was first decried by Parisians as hideous and unstable—novelist Guy de Maupassant famously claimed to eat in the tower’s restaurant daily because it was the one place in Paris without a view of the 986-foot eyesore—but it has since become the symbol of French culture. At the same time, Art Nouveau emerged as a leading decorative style, seen today in the swirling lines of Paris Métro stations where Hector Guimard’s vine-like signs sprout from the ground.
In contrast to the decorative whimsy of Art Nouveau, the prolific Swiss architect, painter, and writer known as Le Corbusier brought Modernism to France with his geometric use of concrete in individual homes, housing projects, commercial buildings, and even a mushroom-like chapel commemorating WWII at Ronchamp. In the post-war years, HLMs(habitations à loyer modéré; housing projects) were originally intended as affordable housing but are now associated with unemployment, racism, and the plight of poor immigrants. In the 1980s, President François Mitterrand’s ₣15 billion endeavor known as the Grands Projets heralded the construction of such icons as the Parc de la Villette, the Opéra at the Bastille, and IM Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre. Parisian skyscrapers built in the 1980s and 1990s are confined to the business suburb of La Défense.
Paris, having regained its position as the hub of European music in the 19th century, welcomed influential foreign composers, including notables like Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, and Felix Mendelssohn. Grand opera merged with the simpler opéra comique to produce the Romantic lyric opera, an exotic amalgam of soaring arias and tragic death best exemplified by Georges Bizet’s Carmen in 1875. The 20th century began a new period of intense, abstract, and at times bizarre invention, heralding the impressionist Claude Débussy and avant-garde Erik Satie, whose works include the 1912 Chilled Pieces and Dribbling Prelude (for a Dog). Maurice Ravel’s Basque origins surfaced in the Spanish rhythms of his famed Boléro (1928), and the violently dissonant sounds of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring provoked a monstrous riot at its 1913 premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
Though a thoroughly American musical form, jazz found a welcoming second home in France during its formative years. Jazz crooner Josephine Baker left the US for Paris in 1925 and found France more accepting than her segregated home. She showed her appreciation by joining the resistance movement during WWII. In the years following the war, a stream of American jazz musicians—including a young Miles Davis—flowed onto the Paris music scene. The hundreds of jazz clubs in Paris and throughout France today are a testament to the enduring popularity of this American tradition. Cabaret, which came to prominence around the same time as jazz, brought song, dance, comedy, and theater to smoky nightclubs across the country. Édith Piaf’s iconic voice popularized cabaret music with such sultry ballads as “La Vie en Rose” in 1946 and the unforgettable “Je Ne Regrette Rien” in 1960.
In the second half of the 20th century, French music was dominated by two opposing ambitions: to emulate the sound of American pop and to maintain a distinctly French musical tradition. The French love for rock and roll inspired yé-yé, a genre whose sound was borrowed from American styles. Parisian Jean-Philippe Smet Americanized his name to Johnny Hallyday before bursting into the pop scene as a teen idol in the 1960s, gyrating his hips to Elvis-inspired tunes. Meanwhile, 16-year-old France Gall cultivated a Lolita-esque appeal with hits like “Laisse Tomber Les Filles” (1964). The same decade also produced the guitar-strumming Georges Brassens, who sang lyrically complex and often subversive ballads, but gained more notice for his bristly moustache and ever-present pipe. Songwriter Jacques Brel performed songs of love and despair that have since been covered in more than a dozen languages. The era’s undisputed bad boy, Serge Gainsbourg, shocked and delighted audiences with his crass lyrics and pleasure-seeking nihilism. The simulated orgasm at the climax of Gainsbourg’s biggest hit, “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus” (“I Love You… Me Neither”), even got the pope’s attention—the Vatican condemned the song for obscenity in 1969.
Style and fashion are important in France, and dressing well is never taken lightly. The more of an effort you make to blend in, the more authentic your experience in France will be. The French are known for their conservative stylishness: go for dressy sandals or closed-toe shoes, dark jeans or khakis, and stylish shirts rather than Tevas and baggy pants. The French rarely wear shorts; if you choose to sport them, leave those daisy dukes at home and opt for Bermudas instead. For women, skirts or dresses (knee-length or longer) are generally most appropriate. Sneakers, athletic T-shirts, baseball caps, or any kind of sloppy clothing will mark you as a tourist immediately. Conservative and respectful clothing (including covered shoulders for women) is mandatory when visiting places of worship. Rule of thumb: Keep it classy.
The French adore their dogs. Don’t be surprised to find a pampered pet in your hotel, on your train, or even sitting under the table next to you in a restaurant. Perhaps because they are so well traveled, most French pooches are also generally well behaved. However, this civility has not yet translated to toilet training, so watch your step.
The French call the ground floor the rez-de-chaussée and start numbering with the first floor above it (le premier étage). The button labeled “R” (not “1”) is typically the ground floor. The sous-sol is the basement.
Most restaurants open for lunch at noon and close in the afternoon before reopening for dinner. For those craving a light meal at 3pm, some bistros and cafes remain open all day. Small businesses, banks, and post offices close daily noon-2pm. Many establishments shut down on Sundays and take half-days on Wednesdays, while most museums are closed on Mondays.
The French are extremely proud of their language. When English words began sneaking in—le jogging, par exemple—the government took action, creating a law for the protection of the French language in 1994. Even as English has become the international language of business, English speakers are still often met with scorn. If your French is anything but fluent, waiters and salespeople who detect the slightest accent will often immediately respond in English. But, if you continue to speak in French, more often than not, the waiter or salesperson will respond in French. Those without knowledge of the most beautiful language in the world—according to the French— will fare well with English in most parts of the country; in rural and less touristed areas, such as the Massif Central or Flanders, working knowledge of French is an asset. Believe it or not, French is not France’s only language; while regional dialects such as Basque, Corsican, and Breton are in steep decline, they’re hanging on, infusing their regions with a proud linguistic tradition and culture.
The French put a premium on polite pleasantries. Always say “bonjour Madame/Monsieur” (salut is so 70s) when entering a business, restaurant, or hotel and “au revoir” or “bonne journée” (“good day”) when leaving. If you bump into someone, drop him or her a quick “pardon.” When meeting someone for the first time, a handshake is appropriate. However, friends and acquaintances—except two men, who often stick to a handshake—greet each other with bisoux, an airy kiss on each cheek.
French public toilets are worth the money they require, as the newer models of these machines magically self-clean after each use. Older public toilets are often dirty or broken. Toilets in train stations and public gardens are tended by gardiens and generally cost €0.40-0.60, often in exact change. Public toilets can sometimes prove elusive, but private establishments do not look kindly on being used solely for their facilities; in an urgent situation, you may have to buy a drink or snack first. In rural areas, public toilets often consist of a very basic shack sans toilet paper; consider packing an extra roll of TP and a bottle of hand sanitizer.
In restaurants and cafes, the tip is almost always included in the tab, as indicated by the words “service compris” on the check. To acknowledge particularly good service, the French leave a euro or two in change on the table. Cab drivers should be tipped 15% of their fare. It’s considerate to tip museum tour guides €1 after a free tour and guides for official tour companies 20%.