Paris is the cosmopolitan capital of France and - with 2 million people living in the center and some 10 million people in the suburbs (la banlieue) - one of the largest cities in Europe (12 million total). Paris, located in the north of the country on the river Seine, the "City of Light", has the reputation of being one of the most beautiful and romantic of all cities, brimming with historical associations and still vastly influential in the realms of art, fashion, food and design.
Paris started life as the Celto-Roman settlement of Lutetia on the Île de la Cité. It takes its present name from the name of the dominant Gallo-Celtic tribe in the region, the Parisii. At least that's what the Romans called them, when the showed up in 52 BCE and established their city Lutetia on the left bank of the Seine, in what is now called the "Latin Quarter" in the 5th arrondissement.
The Romans held out here for as long as anywhere else in the Western Empire, but by 508 they were gone, replaced Clovis of the Franks, who is considered by the French to be their first king. Clovis' decendants, aka the Carolingians, held on for nearly 500 years though Viking raids and other calamities forced a move by most of the population back to the islands which had been the center of the celtic village. The Capetian duke of Paris was voted to succeed the last of the Carolingians as king of France, insuring the city of its premier position in the medieval world. Over the next several centuries Paris expanded onto the right bank into what was called "the Marais". Quite a few buildings from this time can be seen in the 4th arrondissement.
The medieval period also witnessed the founding of the Sorbonne which as "the University of Paris" became one of if not the most important center for learning in Europe if not the whole world for several hundred years. Most of the institutions which are a part of the University are found in the 5th, and 13th arrondissements.
The Capetian and later the Bourbon kings of France made their mark on Paris with such buildings as the Louvre and the Palais Royal, both in the 1st, but the Paris which most visitors know and love was built long after they were gone in the 19th century when Baron von Hausmann reconstructed adding the long straight avenues, and demolishing many of the medieval houses which had been left until that time.
New wonders arrived during la Belle Époque, as the Parisien golden age of the late 19th century is known. Gustave Eiffel's famouse tower, the first metro lines, most of the parks, and the streetlights which gave the city its epethet "the city of light" all come from this period.
The twentieth century was hard on Paris, but thankfully not as hard as it could have been. Hitler's order to burn the city was thankfully ignored by the german General von Choltitz who was quite possibly convinced by a swedish diplomat that it would be better to surrender and be remembered as the savior of Paris, than to be remembered as its destroyer. Following the war the city recovered slowly at first, and then more quickly in the 1970s and 1980s when Paris began to experience some of the problems faced by big cities everywhere: pollution, housing shortages, and occasionally failed experiments in urban renewal. During this time however Paris enjoyed considerable growth as a multi-cultural city, with new immigrants from all corners of the world, especially francophonie, including most of northern and western Africa as well as Vietnam and Laos. These immigrants brought their foods and music both of which are of prime interest for many travellers.
Immigration and multi-culturalism continues! The 21st century has seen a marked increase in the arrival of people from latin america, especially Mexico, Columbia, and Brazil. In the late 1990's it was hard to find good Mexican food in Paris, for instance, today there are dozens of possibilities from lowly taquerias in the outer arrondissements to nice sit-down restaurants on the boulevards. The chili pepper has arrived. Meanwhile Latin music from Salsa to Samba is all the rage (well, alongside Paris lounge electronica).
The 21st century has also seen vast improvements in the general livibility of Paris, with the Mayor's office concentrating on reducing pollution and improving facilities for soft forms of transportation including a huge network of cycle paths, larger pedestrian districts and newer faster metro lines. Visitors who normally arrive car-less are the benificiaries of these policies as much as the Parisiens themselves are.
Parisians have the reputation (deserved or otherwise) of being more brusque (or even downright rude!!) and business-like than other French people - this is in keeping with the fact that it is a very big city, however, and so perhaps allowances should be made. A few words in French, even to start a conversation, can go a long way to smoothing the feathers of proud Parisians. You'll likely find they quickly revert to English, but appreciate your attempt.
Central Paris is officially divided into 20 districts called arrondissements, numbered from 1 to 20 in a clockwise spiral from the centre of town. Arrondissements are named according to their number. You might, for example, stay in the "5th", which would be written as 5ème (SANK-ee-emm) in French. The 12th and 16th arrondissements include large suburban parks, the Bois de Vincennes, and the Bois de Boulogne respectively. Additionally the newer skyscraper district La Défense is also an official district of Paris.
The very best cheap pocket map you can get for Paris is called "Paris Pratique par Arrondissement" which you can buy at any news stand. It makes navigating the city easy, so much so that one can imagine that the introduction of such map-books might be part of what made the arrondissement concept so popular in the first place.
Each arrondissement has its own unique character and selection of attractions for the traveller:
Beyond central Paris, the outlying suburbs are called la banlieue. They are generally more peaceful than the city, and those to the west of Paris (Neuilly, Boulogne, Saint Cloud, Levallois) have the reputation of being the most desirable.
Several autoroutes link Paris with the rest of France: A1 and A3 to the north, A5 and A6 to the south, A4 to the east and A13 and A10 to the west. Not surprisingly traffic jams are significantly worse during French school holidays. Online visual traffic information is available at http://www.sytadin.equipement.gouv.fr/.
The multi-lane highway around Paris, called the Périphérique, is probably preferable to driving through the center. Another beltway nearing completion La Francilienne loops around Paris about 10 km further out from the Périphérique.
There are several stations serving Paris. You will probably want to know in advance at which station your train is arriving, as so to better choose a hotel and plan for transport within the city.
The SNCF (French national railway authority) operates practically all trains within France excluding the Eurostar to London and the Thalys to Brussels and onward to the Netherlands and Germany. There are also a few local lines of high touristic interest which are privately owned. All SNCF, Eurostar and Thalys tickets can be bought in railway stations, city offices and travel agencies (no surcharge). The SNCF website is very convenient to book and buy tickets up to two months in advance. There are significant discounts if you book early. To get the best rates you should book at least four weeks ahead. Surprisingly, round trip tickets (aller-retour) with a stay over Saturday night can be cheaper than a single one-way ticket (aller simple). A very limited selection of last minute trips are published on the SNCF website every Tuesday, with discounts of more than 50%.
There a a number of different kinds of high speed and normal trains:
Paris is served by three international airports - for more information, including arrival/departure times, check the official sites:
In addition to public transport, Air France operates shuttles between Charles de Gaulle and Paris (10€ - 12€), Orly and Paris (7.5€) and between the two airports (15€).
You should not discount the time it takes you to reach the city itself. For CDG this means roughly an hour via train (RER) to Metro Chatelet; the price is 8.30€. Orly is roughly forty minutes via the OrlyBus, which departs from Metro Denfert-Rochereau; the price is 5.80€.
Walking in Paris is one of the great pleasures of visiting the City of Light. It's possible to cross the entire city in only a few hours, if you can somehow keep yourself from stopping at numerous cafés and shops. In fact within a few years walking combined with biking and the Métro will be the only way to get around the very center of Paris: The Mayor's office has announced plans to declare the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th arrondissements almost totally car-free by 2012.
Paris has an excellent subway train system, known as the Métro. There are 14 lines (lignes) on which trains travel all day at intervals of a few minutes between 5am and 1.30am, stoping at all stations on the line. In addition there are 5 express lines called RER A, B, C, D, E. They can be used within Paris with a regular subway ticket. RER trains run at intervals of about 6 - 7 minutes, and stop at every station within Paris.
A single ticket cost 1.40€; for shorter visits a carnet of ten tickets can be bought for 10.50€ at any station, that will bring the price per ticket down to 1.05€. There are also 1 to 5 day passes, called Paris Visite, available, starting at 8.35€ for one day of unlimited travel within Paris and inner suburbs.
If you're staying a bit longer it might be interesting to get a Carte Orange Hebdomadaire (1 week pass, 15.4€ for Paris and inner suburbs) or Mensuelle (1 month pass). For the Carte Orange you need one small photograph -- you can use a photomat in a larger métro station or photocopy and trim your passport photo. Note that an Hebdomadaire (eb-DOH-ma-DAYR: in French you don't pronounce the H) starts on Mondays and a Mensuelle on the first of the month. There is some confusion about whether tourists are permitted to buy the Carte Orange rather than the more expensive Paris Visite passes. The Carte Orange info has been removed from the English-langage metro (RATP) website but is still on the French version as of April 2005. If one agent turns you down for the Carte Orange try going to a different window.
RATP is responsible for public transport including metro, buses, and the high speed inter-urban trains (RER). Current fares can be found at their website.
The lines are named according to the names of their terminal stations (those at the end of the line). If you ask the locals about directions they will answer something like : take the line toward "end station 1", change at "station", take the line toward "end station 2". The metro system has started implementing signs carrying line numbers, a color code, and N E S W directions. They are apparently ignored by the locals.
Each station displays a detailed map of the surrounding area with a street list and the location of buildings (monuments, schools, places of worship etc.). Maps are located on the platform if the station has several exits or near the exit if there is only one.
Renting a bike is a very good alternative over driving or using public transport. A few years ago Paris wasn't the easiest place to get around by bike. That however has changed dramatically in recent years, starting perhaps with a lengthly bus and Métro strike. The city government has taken a number of steps in strong support of improving the safety and efficiency of the urban cyclist as well, in establishing some separated bike lanes, but even more important a policy of allowing cyclists to share the ample bus lanes on most major boulevards. The Paris bike network now counts over 150km of either unique or shared lanes for the cyclist.
You can find an excellent map of the bike network called Plan des itinéraires cyclables at the information center in the Hôtel de Ville.
Bikes can be rented in from numerous private vendors, but the best deal is available from Roue Libre, a joint project of the Mayor's office and the RATP. In addition to operating a number of bike rental busses, they have some permanent locations, including:
Since the Métro is primarily structured around a "hub and spoke" model, there are some journeys for which it can be quite inefficient, and in these cases it is worth seeing if a direct bus route exists. The Parisian bus system is quite tourist-friendly. It uses the same single-ride tickets and Carte Orange as the Métro, and electronic displays inside each bus tell riders its current position and what stops remain, eliminating a lot of confusion.
These same payment devices are also valid in the Noctambus, the night bus, where tickets normally cost 2.70€. Noctambus routes all begin hourly at Chatelet and run to outlying areas of greater Paris. It pays to know one's Noctambus route ahead of time in case one misses the last Métro home. Women travellers should probably avoid taking the Noctambus on their own.
Taxis are relatively cheap, especially at night, when there are no traffic jams to be expected.
One of the best value and most convenient ways to see the sights of Paris is with the Carte Musées et Monuments , a pre-paid entry card that allows entry into over 70 museums and monuments around Paris and comes in 1-day (€15), 3-day (€30) and 5-day (€45) denominations. The card allows you to jump otherwise sometimes lengthy queues and is available from participating museums, tourist offices, Fnac branches and all the main Métro and RER train stations. You will still need to pay to enter most special exhibitions.
Note that most museums and galleries are closed on either Monday or Tuesday - check ahead to avoid disappointment! - and most ticket counters close 30 - 45 minutes before final closing.
All national museums are open free of charge on the first Sunday of the month.
These listings are just some highlights of things that you really should see if you can during your visit to Paris. The complete listings are found on each individual district page (follow the link in parenthesis).
Museums and galleries
The Cinémas of Paris are (or at least should be) the envy of the movie-going world. Of course, like anywhere else you can see big budget first-run films from France and elsewhere. That though, is just the start. During any given week there are at least half-a-dozen film festivals going on, at which you can see the entire works of a given actor or director. Meanwhile there are some older cult films like say, What's new Pussycat or Casino Royal which you can enjoy pretty much any day you wish.
Many non-French movies are subtitled (called "version originale" or "v/o"). Still it's probably a good idea to be sure of a movie having subtitles if your French is not adequate to follow fast conversations.
There are any number of ways to find out what's playing, but the most commonly used guide is Pariscope, which you can find at newstands for 0.40€. Meanwhile there are innumerable online guides one of which is www.allocine.fr, which has information on "every" cinema in Paris.
It should go without saying that Paris is an excellent place to learn French. Université de Paris IV offers courses for foreigners in French language and culture, which start at various times of year.
Paris also has many universities, where you can learn about anything.
There is also the parallel system of elite Grandes Ecoles, generally only available to those who pass through the gruelling system of concours, or competitive exams, which demand years of preparation.
Dining in Paris can be a real treat, or can be surprisingly ordinary, so it's worth some effort to seek out the former rather than settling for the later. The restaurant trade began in Paris, but for some time now the focus of French cooking has been on little rural restaurants, closer to the farms and with their focus on freshness and regional specialties. Even amongst French cities Paris has long been considered second to Lyon for fine dining. For a complete discussion of French gastronomy see the Eat section of our article on France.
That said the Parisien restaurant trade is very much alive and well, and in fact experiencing a bit of a renaissance after having nearly been eclipsed by certain English-speaking cities such as San Francisco, Sydney, and (the shame of it!) London during the 1990s. Today you can find hundreds of beautiful restaurants with thoughtful (or just trendy) interior design and well-planned and executed cartes and menus offering a creative mélange of French and exotic foreign cuisines. It's safe to say that Paris is once again catching up to if not passing its anglophone rivals.
Of course there are also some really fantastic traditional offerings, and for the budget conscious there are hundreds if not thousands of traditional bistros, with their sidewalk terraces offering a choice fairly simple (usually meat centered) meals for reasonable prices.
Those travelers on a budget will be very please with the range and quality of products offered both at the open air markets (eg. over the Canal St. Martin in the 11th). If your accommodation has cooking facilities you're set, especially for wine which is not taxed: a decent bottle of French wine will set you back all of about 3-5€, while the good stuff starts at around 7€. Some wines in the 2-3€ are worthwhile but others pretty much guarantee a headache, so be careful with wines in that price range unless you are familiar with the particular vineyard.
For seafood lovers, Paris is a great place to try moules frites (steamed mussels and French fries), oysters, sea snails, and other delicacies. Meat specialties include venison (deer), boar, and other game (especially in the fall and winter hunting season), as well as French favorites such as lamb, veal, beef, and pork.
For vegetarians, eating in traditional French restaurants will require some improvisation, though there are lots of Italian, Thai, Indian, and Mezo-american places where you will have little problem. In Rue des Rosiers (4th arrondissement) it is possible to get delicious falafel in the many Jewish restaurants. Another falafel place is at 112 Rue Oberkampf (11th arrondissement). Take away falafel usually goes for 4€ or less.
Morrocan and Algerian cooking is common in Paris - vegetarian cous cous is lovely. Another good option for vegetarians - are traiteurs, particularly around Ledru Rollin (down the road from Bastille) take away food where you can combine a range of different options such as pomme dauphinoise, dolmas, salads, vegetables, nice breads and cheeses and so on.
Tourists and locals
When you are looking for a restaurant in Paris, be a little careful of those where the staff readily speak English. These restaurants are usually - but not always - geared towards tourists. It does make a difference in the staff's service and behaviour whether they expect you to return or not.
Each of Paris' 20 arrondissements has its own fair share of bars, cafés, taverns, but there are a some areas where various aspects of nightlife, or afternoon-life are concentrated.
For individual bar listings see the various Arrondissement pages under Get around.
Of course there are lots of interesting places which are sort of off on their own outside of these clusters, including a few like the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz which are not to be missed in a serious roundup of Parisien drinking, so check out the listings even in those arrondissements we haven't mentioned above.
Generally one should be aware that Paris hotels, almost without regard to category or price, observe high and low seasons. These differ slightly from one hotel to another, but usually the high season roughly corresponds to late spring and summer, and possibly a couple of weeks around the Christmas season.
Be aware that when a hotel is listed in any guide or website this will eventually make it a bit harder to get a room at that hotel. That means that you will probably need to book ahead for anything you read about here, especially in the high season. However, if they don't have a room they sometimes know another place close by that does have a room available.
When with two it can be a much better deal to find a hotel room than to get 2 hostel beds. More privacy for less money.
For individual hotel listings see the various Arrondissement pages under Get around.
For those who are staying for a while renting a furnished apartment might be a more comfortable and money-saving option, especially if you know how to cook. Furnished apartments differ considerably in quality, so it is important to choose carefully. There are a huge number of websites in the business of helping you find one, but most charge a steep commission of 10% or more. There are however a couple of considerably cheaper non-profit options which for whatever reason do not turn up near the top of a Google search:
Paris has 3 main flea-markets, located on the outskirts of the central city. The most famous of these is the Marché aux Puces de St-Ouen (Porte de Clignancourt) (Clignancourt Flea Market) , Métro: Porte de Clignancourt, in the 18th, a haven for lovers of antiques, second-hand goods and retro fashion.
Paris is in general a very safe city, certainly by North American standards; however, there are some areas, like Barbès (18th), where it's better not to hang around alone at night, but they are easily recognizable by their raunchiness. Also some parts of the banlieue are better to avoid. As well as the area in and around The Moulin Rouge.
The metro is relatively safe, but again, pickpockets do work in the stations and on the trains. If you are carrying a bag make sure that it's closed tightly (all zipped up or whatever). If you have a wallet in your pocket keep a hand near it while exiting the trains.