I was pretty apprehensive – and slightly indifferent – before visiting Paris for the first time.
But how can this be! I can hear you shouting at your screen, hopefully not whilst in public. It’s Paris, for heaven’s sake! How could you be apprehensive about visiting?!
Well, it’s because there’s an awful lot of myths, misconceptions, and downright lies about Paris, and I was dumb enough to believe them. I don’t know where these myths have come from – maybe unrealistic expectations, or jealousy from other nations because Paris is just that fab – but the fact remains that they were there. I was convinced that I’d spend my trip being verbally abused by Parisians, dodging dog poop and terrorists on a regular basis, and being forced to eat a trembling forkful of snail.
Mais non! Paris blew all of my expectations out of the water, in the very best way possible, and by the end of my trip I was completely and utterly in love with the place.
So I’m going to blow up all those Paris myths, such as “are Parisians rude?”, “are pickpockets a problem in Paris?”, and “am I going to get a massive inferiority complex from all those chic Parisians?” These are the things you need to know before visiting Paris for the first time, with ten myths that are total lies… and one that’s true!
1. Are Parisians are rude and unfriendly?
The myth: Parisians hate tourists. They will be cold, rude, and generally wish you dead. Waiters will glower at you whilst you eat your food, and sneer at your feeble attempt at tipping. You will not find a friendly face during your entire stay in Paris.
The truth: It’s an utter lie.
I suspect that this is the biggest things which puts off prospective first time Paris visitors, and it breaks my heart a little because it’s so completely untrue. It seems that wherever you look online, people complain about Parisians being rude and unfriendly, and I’ll happily admit that it put me off visiting Paris for the first time. But it’s soooo not true!
I like friendly places. I’ve written before about how welcoming the locals in cities like Prague, Budapest, and countries such as Romania are, and I didn’t think there was any chance of Paris rivaling them for friendliness – it’s a big city, after all. But I was so wrong!
The people of Paris are utterly lovely – I didn’t have one single encounter with a Parisian where they weren’t completely charming. From my hotel staff, to waiters, to museum workers (particular shout-out to the cloakroom attendant and upstairs gift shop folks at the Musee D’Orsay, who were both incredibly sweet) – everyone was so nice! I even had an exchanged smile and a joke with the security staff at Charles De Gaulle airport. When was the last time you had a friendly security guy at an airport?
It certainly helps if you at least attempt a bit of French when greeting people – even if you have to switch to English afterwards, they appreciate the effort. But even that aside, I was incredibly touched by how friendly and welcoming every single Parisian I interacted with was. There’s definitely no need to be nervous of the Parisians!
2. Is Paris expensive?
The myth: Paris will bankrupt you. You’ll have to stay in a shoebox on the street, and go without food for the duration of your stay, unless you want to do some unsightly wrestling with a pigeon for a scrap of dropped croissant. You won’t be able to afford to see any of the sights, so you might as well stay at home and stare glumly at a photo of the Eiffel Tower.
The truth: It’s actually pretty easy to keep to a budget!
Okay, so Paris isn’t the cheapest destination in the world, but you don’t have to spend big to have a brilliant time in Paris! There’s plenty of free things to do, ways to save money, and see all those Paris landmarks.
First off, let’s look at the free things to do. There’s loads!! Paris has some of the most beautiful churches in the world, and most of them (including the gorgeous Sacre Coeur) don’t charge any entry fee. Plus most of those iconic sights cost nothing to see, unless you’re keen to ascend them – you can get wonderful views of the Eiffel Tower from just about anywhere in town, and the Arc de Triomphe is completely free to stand beneath.
Want some easy tips for saving money in Paris? Get a hotel up near the Gare du Nord, where nightly costs are much cheaper than in the city center. Don’t eat out in a restaurant every night – I bought some seriously delicious baguettes from Merci Jerome!, who have a few branches (which are beloved of the locals) throughout the city, and they were inexpensive and filling! And you don’t even have to buy water; the tap water in Paris is perfectly drinkable.
If you want to do Paris museums for cheap, look into the Paris Pass. This gives you free entry into 60 attractions (the top ones, too!), access to the very good hop-on hop-off Big Buses, and use of Paris public transport within zones 1, 2, and 3. All for a very reasonable price, giving you a MASSIVE saving. I’m sometimes a little cynical about these city cards, but this one is genuinely outstanding value, and a great boon if you’re visiting Paris for the first time!
3. Is Paris safe?
The myth: Terror attacks have occurred in Paris; this means that the city is dangerous, and you shouldn’t visit – and definitely not if you’re on your own.
The truth: Paris is absolutely safe to visit, and you’re fine to visit solo!
We all remember the tragic terror attacks which occurred in November 2015, as well as incidents such as the Charlie Hebdo attack, but there’s no reason to let this discourage you from visiting Paris for the first time.
In fact, Paris is statistically one of the safest cities in Europe – and that was definitely my experience. I was a little nervous of visiting Paris, mostly because I’m a bit of a country mouse and big cities sometimes make me a little edgy, but I honestly felt completely safe there. But, I felt considerably safer than I do in London, and safer than I do in my boyfriend’s home town (an English seaside resort of 180,000 people). I was walking around the streets at night with no problems.
Obviously, you’ve just got to be careful (ie don’t go skipping down dark alleys in some of the rougher neighborhoods such as Chatelet les Halles, Les Halles, Pigalle or around the Gare du Nord), but you’ll be absolutely fine in the city center. Follow all the usual travel tips you’d usually take into account for visiting any big city, and you’ll be fine.
In fact, the biggest issue you’re likely to encounter is pickpockets, so keep a special eye on your valuables outside Sacre Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, and on the Metro.
4. Is Paris dirty?
The myth:Rubbish overflows on the streets. You won’t be able to move your feet without them being coated in litter and dog poop. You will literally drown in rats, except that they’re not cute like that one in Ratatouille.
The truth: Paris is a big city with big city problems, but it’s generally extremely clean!
I’m not sure where this myth about Paris being dirty has come from. I live in the UK, and I pass through London quite a bit – Paris is considerably cleaner than London. And it’s not even as if London is super-terrible; it’s just not as clean as other places I’ve visited in Europe. I don’t even remember seeing any significant litter on the streets of Paris, aside from a fair number of mattresses on some of the back streets – sadly, this is more of an indication of the large number of homeless migrants on the outskirts of the city, rather than a litter problem.
I didn’t see any dog poop either, so I suspect that’s something of an outdated stereotype. There are, however, lots of very cute and happy Parisian dogs!
As for the rats, it’s true that there is a bit of an ongoing rat battle (which is very different to a rap battle), but the Paris authorities are taking steps to combat it. I visited a small park near Notre Dame, and there were signs up warning that littering – and therefore encouraging rats – would be met with a very heavy fine. Consequently, Paris is increasingly clean, and the only rat I saw was one which had had an unfortunate meeting with a car.
5. Do you need to speak fluent French in Paris?
The myth: You need to be fluent in the finest, most accurate French, or the locals will stubbornly refuse to acknowledge you. You’ll be scorned, derided, and laughed at. In French.
The truth: Making an effort in French is definitely appreciated, but nearly everyone speaks good English.
French is a major language, and you should be able to speak at least a little bit of it. But it’s not a major emergency if you’re not fluent – in my experience, the vast majority of people you’ll meet when visiting Paris for the first time will know enough English to handle your query or issue. In fact, the vast majority of Parisians I met spoke absolutely flawless English; definitely much better than my rusty schoolgirl French.
Even if whoever you’re dealing with is struggling with English, you’ll often have a friendly local step in to help. I saw someone trying to order a baguette minus onions in English, and two French ladies swooped in to translate for the baker. You won’t have to be scared to talk to the locals!
You should – at the very least – greet people with bonjour, and end with a merci madame/monsieur, and an au revoir. It’s just easy politeness, and it’ll be most appreciated that you at least made an effort, even if you’re not fluent!
However, if you do want to learn French – which I highly recommend, because it’s a beautiful language and it adds so much to your experience (as well as a warm fuzzy feeling of pride) – check out Babbel! I learnt Italian for years using their app, and it really does work a treat; much better than anything you’ll get from a free app. I also used it to refresh my French before I left on my Paris trip, and it’s excellent for teaching you the basics of conversation very quickly! Give it a go!
6. Do you need skip the line tickets for all the Paris museums?
The myth: You’re not setting one single foot inside any of the Paris museums without buying a skip the line ticket. Nuh-uh. No way no how. You’ll die in that queue, most likely of old age.
The truth: You can turn up on the day, and not have a terrible queue – but it depends on the season.
Now, I think I was pretty lucky with this, because I was visiting Paris for the first time during the autumn. If I’d been there in the summer, then it might’ve been a very different experience, but I was finding that I didn’t have to queue for much more than half an hour.
You can expect to queue at any of the Paris attractions – the elevator up the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, or Notre Dame once it’s reopened. It’s one of the most-visited cities in the world, after all! But there’s definitely ways to reduce the need to buy loads of skip the line tickets and tours, whilst still making the most of your sweet Paris time.
Firstly, visit out of season. Autumn and winter see less visitors to Paris than in the spring and summer, so these are your prime opportunities to see the sights without a massive queue!
Secondly, get there as early as you can. I got to the Louvre at around 10am and practically strolled into the building, but still had to queue inside for half an hour to see the Mona Lisa. Similarly, the Musee D’Orsay queue is much more bearable earlier in the morning.
But what if you’re visiting in the summer, and you’re located too far from the city center in order to get there early? In that case, you’ll most likely need those skip the line tickets, and if you’re planning on seeing a few different museums, the Paris Museum Pass is your best bet. You get skip the line access to 60 museums and attractions; it’s much better to get this than buy them separately!
7. Is French food overrated?
The myth: French food isn’t nearly as good as everyone makes out. Also, it’s terribly snobby – the waiters look at you like you’re a piece of dirt, unless you order the finest snails and frog’s legs. You peasant.
The truth: French food is really good, and not snobby at all! Plus you’ve got loads of choices!
One of the things which puts a lot of people off their first trip to Paris is a case of food anxiety. Everyone’s experienced it at some point – are you going to find food you like? What if you can’t afford it? Is it possible to live off macarons for a week?
Paris tends to get this in particular, because of French cuisine’s reputation for being a little bit exclusive. It’s full of terms which might not be familiar to everyone, and it’s associated with being the preserve of the rich. But think of it this way – do you think that everyone is Paris is rich? Non! That means that there’s plenty of options for us mere mortals, and not everything is going to be dripping in caviar. Move a little bit away from the most heavily-touristed areas, and you’ll find plenty of restaurants which are affordable, and decidedly non-snobby. I particularly liked Cafe Le Copernic, which was right by the Arc de Triomphe, but reasonably priced with excellent food!
If you’re visiting Paris for the first time and have nightmares about snails and frogs – don’t worry. French food isn’t really that outlandish: although you’ll find snails on the menu, there’ll be plenty of other options which are much more familiar. You’ll see steaks, pasta, and even burgers in most restaurants!
It’s good food, cooked with care and that special French touch of genius – if anything, French food is massively underrated!
8. Is Paris difficult to get around?
The myth: Driving in Paris is a nightmare, and you won’t ever be able to cross any roads in the city for fear of being turned into a crepe. You’ll spend your trip in your hotel room, shivering in fear.
The truth: Driving in Paris isn’t advisable, but public transport is excellent and you won’t need a car.
Internal Paris travel is a mixed bag of a subject, because driving is almost always a spectacularly bad idea – but you’re absolutely fine to walk around the city, or take public transport!
Firstly, let’s take driving. Like pretty much any major city in the world, it’s just not a great idea to rent a car and drive around the city, unless you’re planning to drive to your hotel and then pootle around the French countryside. It’s hella busy, especially around the areas you’re likely to want to visit. Did you know that there’s a total of twelve roads which branch off from the Arc de Triomphe? And that French insurance companies have a separate clause for accidents incurred when driving around it? And that most Parisians aspire to owning a scooter instead? It’s just not worth it!
Instead, take full advantage of the Paris public transport system! The Paris Metro is simple to use, and covers practically every corner of the city. There’s also an extensive bus system, not to mention an excellent hop-on hop-off bus company which will take care of delivering you to any Paris landmarks you may want to visit. You can even take a Batobus up the Seine!
Also, don’t be worried about walking everywhere when visiting Paris for the first time. It’s a great way to get yourself orientated within the city, and it’s perfectly safe crossing the roads! The drivers aren’t nearly as kamikaze as they are in other European cities (hi, Rome!) – just make sure to use the zebra crossings, and wait for the lights to turn green.
There’s one exception, however – do NOT attempt to cross over the road into the center of the Arc de Triomphe! Use the subway provided, unless you want to end up looking like something from the nearby pizza restaurant on the Champs-Élysées.
9. Is the Mona Lisa overrated?
The myth: There’s no point spending your time and money seeing the Mona Lisa. It’s the size of a postage stamp, and you can’t see anything through the crowds.
The truth: Although you’re definitely going to encounter crowds, the Mona Lisa is just one of those things you have to see.
Let’s face it: there’s certain things in the city that you just need to see, especially if you’re visiting Paris for the first time – the Eiffel Tower, the Arch de Triomphe, some innocent person wearing a beret. And your trip to Paris just isn’t complete unless you see the Mona Lisa.
Yes, you’re going to hit crowds as soon as you get to the Louvre, and you can bet that just about everyone there wants to go and see Paris’ most famous lady. Yes, you may well only see her from a distance. But there’s just something about that painting, that fame and mystique, that makes her totally worth seeing.
I was a little bit lucky – when I visited, the Mona Lisa had been moved to the Richelieu wing, with a queuing system which meant that you actually managed to get pretty close to the painting itself. I don’t know if this will continue when she gets moved back to her usual home in the Denon wing, but you’ll be surprised that she’s actually a little bit bigger than most people describe. You can see her from a fair distance, and still soak in the majesty of it.
The other factor to consider is that you may as well go and see the Mona Lisa, purely because the Louvre is so amazing that you’ll want to see the other artworks anyway. See fellow Denon Wing residents The Raft of the Medusa and Liberty Leading the People, or the world-famous Venus de Milo in the Sully Wing.
10. Is everyone in Paris super-fashionable?
The myth: Everyone in Paris is extremely young and fashionable, and you’ll look like an absolute shambles in comparison. You need to dress up to the nines at all times.
The truth: Although Paris has its fair share of chic people, Parisians also dress as casually as everyone else.
I’m going to tell you the truth, which is totally going to sound like a humble-brag: I got mistaken by the locals for a Frenchwoman multiple times on my trip.
Am I a glamorous, wafting dress-wearing trendsetter with a cigarette casually hanging between my fingers? Do I wear lots of t-shirts bearing phrases in French?
Nope, I was just wearing the same thing that most people in Paris were wearing – a fairly unglamorous, practical puffer jacket (this one, to be precise! Though I do have a French surname, so perhaps there was some genetics going on there too). The French do have an excellent sense of style as a rule, but that doesn’t mean that they’re glammed up twenty-four hours a day. If you wander around Paris wearing your everyday clothes, you’re not going to stand out and have people pointing and laughing.
In fact, it was the people dressed up in their Instagrammable finery who really stood out as tourists. If you want to do the same, you’re bound to get some beautiful photos – but be aware that it does make you more of a target to pickpockets and hawkers.
11. Is Paris is the most beautiful city in the world?
The myth: Paris is unquestionably the most beautiful city in the world. You’ll fall in love with it, and be one of those tiresome people who are obsessed with Paris.
The truth: IT’S COMPLETELY TRUE.
Yes, it’s true – Paris really is that beautiful. My previous title of “Most Beautiful City I’ve Visited” went to Vienna, but boy, Paris shot straight up to the top of the list.
Add the friendly locals, the excellent food, the fantastic shopping, the best museums and galleries in the world, and all those beautiful French accents… why would you ever consider not visiting Paris?
Go! Go to Paris now! Allez!
I hope that this guide has quashed any worries and misconceptions you might’ve had about visiting Paris! It’s one of those places where you’ll look around, and think “why on Earth didn’t I visit sooner?”
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