My first trip to Paris was eighteen years ago and while I have returned many times since, that first visit is an experience I will never forget. Here are just a few of the tips I wish I knew before that first great visit to the City of Lights.
1. Parisians are awesome – Like most Americans, I was always brought up thinking that the French were, well for lack of a better word, jerks. Perhaps it’s our beginnings as a British colony, but we are constantly poking fun at the French for everything from personal hygiene to a general rotten temperament. Imagine then my shock when arriving in Paris for the first time, I found that the French are actually awesome. Sure, some people are jerks, but you’ll find that everywhere in the world. But on the whole, the French, Parisians as well, are kind and helpful. I’m generally of the belief that stereotypes exist for a reason, but in this case I think it’s completely unjustified. So when you arrive in Paris, make a point to engage as many people as possible.
2. Public transportation is amazing – Granted I wasn’t exactly a big city pro prior to my first visit to Paris, but even on subsequent visits I am still amazed at the Parisian metro system. It satisfies its primary mission of being efficient and extensive and through a system of subway and light rail, you can travel to anywhere in Paris and the surrounding suburbs without hassle or expense. It’s also a beautiful system and in the true French spirit has incorporated unique art and architecture throughout the system. The first thing you notice are the beautiful, art nouveau Metro signs at most entrances. Within many of the stations are exquisite and endlessly fascinating murals and even sculptures. My favorite is the Arts et Métiers station which was inspired by Jules Verne with its rivets, portholes and steam pipes.
3. Be cheesy – I’m all for traveling outside of the travel bubble, but Paris is a great city in which to revel in the touristy and cheesy. There are so many, wonderful experiences that are also very popular and they would be a shame to miss. The Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur and walking alongside the Seine with Notre Dame ahead are all classic, but wonderful, Parisian experiences. One of my favorites is one of the most simple, a picnic. Stop by a local shop for a pre-made sandwich, or visit a grocery to make your own. My favorite is saucisson with brie on a fresh baguette. Grab some wine to go with, and head to the Jardins du Luxembourg. Located in the swanky 6th arrondissement, the park is the largest in Paris and a personal favorite. Sit back with your sandwich, enjoy the scenery and some great people watching. Beret optional.
4. Simple food is some of the best – Yes, I know the foodies may have a problem with this one, but I think some of the best food in Paris is its most simple. Paris is home to some of the best restaurants in the world and for decades have been known as trend-setters in the realm of the culinary arts. That’s fine, I’m sure it’s all very nice, but I would much rather enjoy some street food or, even better, plant myself at a bistro for the evening. Parisian street food is fairly varied, but my absolute favorite is the crepe. At first it may seem like a tourist food, but it is a true art form. I have never wavered from getting a Nutella crepe, but I’m sure that the other fillings as fine too, but you should really get the Nutella. For a more hearty meal, I love to wander around some of my favorite neighborhoods, like the Marais, and find a nice bistro where I can sit and watch the world walk by. Paris is home to some of the best people watching in the world, and why not enjoy a meal while indulging in travel voyeurism.
5. Get out of town – Don’t get me wrong, I love Paris – a lot. But there are a lot of great day trips outside of the city that are easy to do and give you a better feel for the area. One of the most random and fun things I have ever done on my travels is mountain biking in the national forest of Fontainebleau. I am definitely not a mountain biker, so if I can do this and enjoy it anyone can. Formally the royal hunting grounds, the forest itself is gorgeous and huge, encompassing nearly 65 square miles. There are numerous outdoor activities to do besides biking, including some great rock climbing. So rent a bike in Paris and take the 45 minute train ride out to the country for fresh air and a day of communing with nature.