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The Eiffel Tower was built in 1889 to serve as the entrance to the World's Fair. (Photograph by Hasbi Jien, My Shot)
TravelTraveler Magazine

Know Before You Go: Paris

If Paris is a croissant, crafted with immeasurable pride, kneaded by the hands of many, some visitors only get a taste of the flaky exterior. Whether you’re traveling for a long weekend or coming back for more, here’s a quick primer on getting to, from, and around this iconic city with ease.

Know Before You Go: Paris

>> When to go:

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The metro is a way of life in Paris. Embrace it. (Photograph by Simon Gilberg, Your Shot)

Spring: As Audrey Hepburn famously remarked, “Paris is always a good idea.” But spring — the time when cafés start dismantling their tented patios and the cobbled banks of the Seine transform into a canvas of picnickers, joggers, and bookworms — is the time when the city snaps awake. It’s no wonder why; after a cold and dreary winter, Parisians are drawn to the sun like flowers. Summers can be pleasant too, save for long lines and les vacances, when locals shut up shop en masse in favor of more temperate climes. Can’t make it in the spring? Fall’s your next best bet.

>> Getting there:

Two airports lie just beyond the Périphérique. International passengers touch down at Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to the northeast, while Orly (ORY) to the south typically plays host to a more regional stream of traffic. Be warned that while some sites advertise Beauvais Tillé Airport (BVA) as an alternative aeronautical gateway to Paris, the airstrip lies more than an hour away in the Picardy countryside. Though buses and trains serve all three, only an impossibly cheap fare warrants the pilgrimage to or from Beauvais.

Speaking of trains, France boasts one of the best rail networks in the world, with the renowned TGV as its centerpiece. Six major stations (seven if you count the Bercy annex at Gare de Lyon), facilitate travel in and out of Paris to and from neighboring cities and countries, including the U.K. (yes, the train goes underwater). Show up early to listen to the unmistakable clack of the departure board, then grab an all-appeasing pain au chocolat once on board. You’re already there.

>> Getting around once you’re there:

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A view of Rive Gauche and Rive Droite from above. (Photograph by Ivete Basso, My Shot)

Go underground. Locals use the phrase “métro, boulot, dodo” – subway, work, sleep – to describe their daily routine, and for good reason. The metro is an integral part of Parisian life. Though trains are often rickety and unkempt, the system’s convenience is unrivaled. Nearly 150 miles of track snake through subterranean Paris, linking hundreds of stations across town. Hours vary, so consult the RATP site before you ride. (For a glimpse at the Paris metro of the future, take a ride on Line 1.)

The RER, Paris’s commuter rail service, is also hard at work underground. After chugging along through les banlieues (outskirts), trains dip below street level for stops at major points like Châtelet, Port Royal, and Musée D’Orsay. Because the RER skips smaller stops, it’s considered an express. Gritty trains and labyrinthine stations can make for an unpleasant voyage, but the RER definitely has its perks.

Hit the ground. Lace up your shoes, because long walks seem a lot shorter when there are street markets, an eternal waft of doughy air, and the gentle bonjours of the bouquinistes to enjoy along the way. In many areas — Rue des Rosiers, Mouffetard, Buci, Montorgueil, and Ile Saint Louis, to name a few — sidewalk and street become indistinguishable with cafés and shops spilling out onto the blacktop. Plus, Paris pioneered bike sharing. The Vélib’ network is one of the largest in the world. Unfortunately for Americans, there’s a snag: the automated kiosks often reject U.S. credit cards (cards with embedded chips are preferred throughout the city).

Taxi? Non. The Parisian taxi business is as beleaguered as Napoleon was at Waterloo. A perpetual bureaucratic licensing battle caps the number of cabs at 16,000. In a city with more than two million residents (with eight million more in the metro area) and a continual influx of tourists, the math just doesn’t add up. As coveted drivers have no problem refusing service for want of a better fare, it’s best to save taxi-queue stress for the times when it’s absolutely necessary. Otherwise, you can always follow the lead of students and young professionals who know how to beat the system by reveling until the metro reopens in the morning.

Three essential tips >>

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The Sacre Coeur is in the 18th arrondissement. (Photograph by Rebecca Taylor, My Shot)

Choose a side. The Seine splits Paris, leaving two distinct districts — Rive Droite and Rive Gauche — in its wake. As the city evolves, the disparities become less evident. Historically, the Right Bank is the Paris of wide avenues, imposing monuments, luxe hotels, and Haussmann-inspired facades, while the Left Bank exudes a quaint bohemian confidence derived from the artists and students who frequent it. Here you’ll find many of Hemingway’s haunts, as well as the Sorbonne and Sciences Po. More than anything, Rive Gauche and Rive Droite endure as a mindset. Remember this when choosing where to stay.

Rendezvous with the arrondissements. The 20 administrative subdivisions that form the Parisian quilt are a product of city hall politicking, but they’ve taken on a life of their own. Locals treat them like mini municipalities with a parlance to match. For instance: “I live in the fifth but work in the seventh.” New visitors, fear not. Just look up. Street signs throughout Paris will tell you which arrondissement you’re in at any given moment. Zip codes are also useful indicators. The last two digits correspond with the arrondissement number (from 75001 to 75020). Though arrondissements 1-8 spiral out in succession to form the city’s inner circle, each district has its charms. Find your favorite.

Français, s’il vous plaît. To put it gently, the French love French, and in Paris, life revolves around the language. Simple interactions carry a heavier weight in Paris than they do in other parts of the world. Salutations are nearly sacrosanct. Never walk into a shop without saying bonjour and always offer an au revoir when leaving. It’s more than a matter of linguistics. From imperial conquests to a modern immigration debate, language has long been the Republic’s preoccupation of choice. Look no further than the Académie Française, a governing body that quite literally legislates the language. Respect the tradition and learn a few key phrases before you go, d’accord? 

Alex Markoff, an editorial intern on National Geographic Traveler‘s digital teamprovided reporting for Know Before You Go: Paris. 

Do you have Know Before You Go tips for Paris (or any city for that matter)? Share them in the comment section below or use the #B4UGO hashtag and shout out @NatGeoTraveler on Twitter.