first time in Paris

11 Unconventional Tips for First-Timers in Paris

Before Paris, I had never been in Europe before. I guess I visited London once when I was a kid with nary a nipple hair, but I don’t count that because I just don’t remember anything. My ignorance of French, let alone European, ways and of what existed or didn’t exist in France, along with the stories I’d heard about rude, snooty Parisians, all made me pretty nervous.

You know, stories like how Parisians dress really nice (true); eat cigarettes for breakfast (true…because they smoke a lot, get it?); sometimes refuse to speak English even if they can (somewhat true). Now that I’ve been staying in Paris for a little over a month, I’m slightly less ignorant and have made many observations that would be good for you to know when you’re in Paris.

1. Smoking is EVERYWHERE

Paris is all about sidewalk cafés where you can enjoy your food on tables outside. Outside seating is also a smoker’s haven, so it’s very, very common to be inhaling a lot of second-hand smoke and generally have your clothes smell by the time you leave. If you hate the smell of cigarettes or smoking in general, you’ll have to sit inside, where smoking is banned.

2. Ask the Waiter for a Carafe of Water

Unless you explicitly ask the waiter to bring you “une carafe d’eau,” you will not get any water. The other thing is, if you do ask for water, make it clear that you want tap water. Otherwise, the slimier waiters might upsell you on more expensive sparkling water or fancy bottled water.

3. Takeout Food Is Often Cheaper

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When there’s an option, eating at the restaurant (sur place) can sometimes be more expensive than takeout (emporter). If you’re looking to save a little dough, try takeaway and have a grand ol’ picnic at the Luxembourg Gardens.

4. Buy from the Specialty Food Stores

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In America, we have supermassive supermarkets that simply has everything you’d ever need in one place. There are supermarkets in Paris (Franprix, G20, and Monoprix are major ones), too, but you’ll also find a myriad of local or chain specialty stores, such as bakeries that sell only bread or pâtisseries that sell only pastries. Here’s a quick cheat sheet of what these mean:

  • Boulangerie: Bakery
  • Pâtisserie: Pastry shop
  • Charcuterie: special prepared meats like sausages and ham
  • Fromager: Cheese shop
  • Boucherie: Butcher
  • Fruits & Legumes or Épicerie: Produce market
  • Chocolatier: Chocolate shop
  • Poissonerie: Seafood shop

Not all are created equal obviously, but for the most part, a high-traffic boulangerie is going to have more quality options available than the supermarkets.

5. The Bees!

Imagine sitting outside and enjoying the nice weather and a mayo-laden, overpriced sandwich with a bit of coffee or wine or whatever. All of a sudden, a bumblebee buzzes in and is like, “Hey, whatcha got there?”, and then just never goes away. They’re more likely to come if you’ve got something sweet.

Apparently, this is very normal and common, but since I’ve never been stung before and don’t want to find out if I’m allergic, or have bee shit all over my food, it’s straight up harassment. It’s happened to me before inside a coffee shop. There’s no escaping them. Plus, there’s not much you can do if you’re being bothered by a bee. Just hope and pray it goes away.

6. That’s Not the 1st Floor, Dude

In the United States, we’re accustomed to the ground floor as the 1st floor. In Paris, it’s floor 0. So the first floor above the ground floor is the 1st floor. Yeah, that can get confusing when you’re checking into an Airbnb that’s on the 4th floor. For Americans, that would technically be the 5th floor.

7. Elevators Are Made for Stuart Little

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Many buildings in Paris don’t have an elevator, but when they do they’re the tiniest, cutest things. It comfortably fits one person, two if you really like the other person. If you have huge luggage, good luck. Oh, and remember the earlier tip about counting floors; it’s easy to get that wrong in the elevator.

8. Look At These Fancy Water Fountains

Tap water in Paris is safe to drink, but when you’re out and about you don’t have to spend extra money on buying water from any store. Throughout Paris, you’ll find either green- or blue-colored drinking fountains that you wouldn’t think are actually drinking fountains.

You can normally find them in parks, but sometimes they stand a bit inconspicuously at major crosswalks or rest areas, looking like this:

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Look for this sign:

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It means “water of Paris” and it’s totally safe to drink, but you’ll make your life easier if you used a water bottle.

9. Apps to Help You Figure Out Where You Need to Go

The Metro system in Paris is really convenient, even though the font used at all of the entrances looks like something out of Transylvania or Tales of the Cryptkeeper. All of the Metro lines connect in some way to every part of the city, but if you don’t want to try making heads or tails out of it, use the website RATP to map out how to transfer based on your start and finish inputs. Citymapper is another app that’s helpful in Paris.

10. Watch Out for Dog Shit

Dogs in Paris sure are cute, but the crap they leave behind is a little less so. And it’s straight up just scummy of the owners to not pick up after their dog. As a result, dog shit is everywhere on the streets. Paris is truly an incredible city until you find crap, literally. You’ve been warned.

11. Public Restrooms Are Out in the Wild

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A fair number of people have no shame about going number 1 or number 2 (it’s like San Francisco!) in the middle of the day, right on the street. You, too, can do your business on the streets. In these toilet capsules, of course, located all around the streets of Paris.

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You can find these public restrooms throughout Paris. Cleanliness is not guaranteed. If you’d rather not, you often have to pay to use the restrooms at establishments. It doesn’t hurt to ask, but it’s just a bit of courtesy to be a paying customer of some sort.

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