Paris in the Spring: Tourist Tips

29Apr12

[FR : Laisse tomber ton plan idiot de visiter à Paris, une ville sans intérêt pour le tourisme, tout comme pour l’habitation.]

I used to live in San Francisco, and moved to Paris in 1999. Ironically, both are leading tourist cities whose attraction and reputation is largely based on bygone times. For example, in San Francisco: the Victorian era, the fifties, the sixties. In Paris: the Middle Ages, the Belle Époque, the fifties. Vestiges of these truly wonderful periods do still exist, as well as modern elements that make these cities interesting for tourism or habitation, coexisting with the many disadvantages and annoyances of modern life (one of which is living in a city overrun with stupid tourists).

But enough philosophizing, let’s get practical.

Planning

For your Internet research before leaving home, use

official Paris tourist office

Time Out Paris

vide-greniers (neighborhood garage sales) (attention: green dots only)

General Tips

Paris has shitty weather, kind of like NY or Boston, although pleasant surprises can happen. Don’t forget your umbrella. Dress nice: there is no such thing as being overdressed in Paris. English is almost universally spoken in tourist situations (hotels, restaurants, museums), but it’s nice to ask first “Pardon me, do you speak English?” (or much better, “Excusez-moi, parlez-vous anglais ?”) Like everywhere, a few basic words like “merci” et “s’il vous plaît” are appreciated!

Transport

Getting around Paris on public transportation is easy, and there is no reason at all to have a car in town. Ask for a Métro/bus system (RATP) map (“plan de réseau”) in any station. Most buses run until about 11pm, the Métro runs until about 12:30am. The Métro runs 1 hour later on Friday and Saturday night. There is a system of (less-convenient) buses all night (Noctilien). A Métro pass “Paris Visite” for zones 1-3 (good also for the bus and most importantly for the funicular of Montmartre) for the period of your visit is a good idea and saves having to worry about tickets. At http://www.ratp.fr click the British flag. There is also the one-week Carte Orange, which starts on Mondays no matter when you buy it. At the worst, you may need to pay for a few cab rides, but they are not too expensive. When you get here you should buy a proper street map with all the streets (about 5-10 euros at a newsstand, booklet form is best. I like “Paris facile A-Z”). The free maps are good up to a point, but do not show all the streets. You can get from the airports to central Paris on public transport. If you are alone this is more economical (about 10 euros) but if you are two or more, or with a lot of baggage, consider taking a cab (minimum 30 euros), except if you are in the middle of rush hour when traffic will affect the cab fare and driving time.

Telephone

Paris numbers start with 01. Portable phones start with 06. You would dial my old home number (no longer in service) 01 48 04 72 84 from the USA as 011 33 1 48 04 72 84. Tobacco is sold only (officially) in tobacco shops, which have a red “tabac” sign. Most bars have some under the counter. To make phone calls here in pay phones (increasingly rare) you will need a phone card (Télécarte) which is sold at tobacco shops. Get ONLY a Télécarte, not any other card; there are all kinds of other sleazy ones. You can buy a small one, 50 unités. Some pay phones take credit cards too. Much less complicated: your American portable phone may work in Europe if it is GSM (digital) tri-band. Check into it before you travel. Do not expect to find free WiFi everywhere like you have back home. There is free WiFi in some Paris parks.

Meals

Breakfast is an espresso and a croissant, or a tartine beurée (bread and butter), perhaps at the counter of a bar (where there may be a basket of croissants already so you can grab one). Do not attempt to get complicated with the coffee, this is not Starbucks. As you have an American accent, you will be asked if you want a “little coffee.” Answer in the affirmative, this should get you an espresso. Otherwise, your coffee will be diluted with lots of hot water since it appears that Americans like it that way. If you choose to sit at a table in a café (and especially outside), the prices may be higher than at the bar, but you have bought the right to sit at the table for a long time and read your book, look at chicks (don’t forget your sunglasses), etc.

Lunch can be a sandwich bought at a boulangerie (bakery) if you are on the run or economizing (but don’t forget to take a little piece of pie too). Look for a nearby park to eat in. Theoretically it is prohibited to drink alcohol in the park, so be discrete, and be polite if the guard busts you. Otherwise, have a nice meal at a restaurant or brasserie. Many places have a menu (a set of particular dishes, often entrée-plat-dessert) at a good price (10-14 E) at lunchtime, which by the way begins between 12:30 and 1:30pm; noon is a little early. Attention: Americans call an entrée an “appetizer” and a plat a “main course”. British call an entrée a “starter”. If the weather is nice, be sure to take advantage of tables on the terrasse (sidewalk).

At the end of the afternoon is a nice time to have an apéro (cocktail), particularly on another terrasse or in a bar where the tables have a view of the street so you can look at chicks. But here, it is considered exotic to drink “cocktails” in the American sense of a mixed drink (Sex on the Beach, etc.). Very popular are: beer, wine (by the glass), anisette (Ricard, etc.: add 5 volumes of water), cooked wines (Martini, etc.). You can have a coffee if you like. The big brands of French beer are atrocious just like in the USA (Kronenbourg, 1664, etc.) but you can often find a Belgian brand on tap (à pression).

Dinner should be in a nice restaurant so you can profit from being in Paris. Dinnertime starts at 8pm, although you can go later if you like. Any restaurant will serve until 10pm, most later. Most places offer wine by the glass, pitcher, or bottle. A pitcher of 25 cl is a good start for one person, 50 cl for two. The wine selection in pitchers is often more limited and more basic than what you can get in bottles, suit yourself. There are menus available in some restaurants in the evening as well. If there are specialties indicated at a restaurant, give them a try. A meal lasts at least one hour, a proper meal two hours. If you are in a rush, you are in the wrong place!

Do not assume that ethnic restaurants that would be good at home in the US (and especially in SF) are good here. In particular, Chinese and Mexican food is often atrocious in France. On the other hand, small restaurants run by people from former French colonies (North Africa, Viet Nam, Italy) may be worth a try.[1]

Activities

There are tons of things to do in Paris. A short visit will leave you disappointed to have missed many things. Five to seven days will give you enough time to see a bunch of stuff, and leave you eager to come back. There are hundreds of museums and expositions of art and photography. (Attention, the “Éspace Dali” is a rip off!) As soon as you arrive, you should buy a guide like:

L’Officiel des Spectacles

Pariscope

These are cheap weekly magazines with all the listings. They are not on the Internet because then they would not sell any more magazines. They come out on Wednesday, which is the day when all cinemas change their programs. There are kiosks (newsstands) all over.

Neighborhoods and walks

If you have decent weather, walk around, and then take a break on a nice terrasse. Take a walk along the Canal St-Martin (quai de Valmy, pause at Point Éphemère, quai de la Seine, or if you’re feeling energetic, all the way to la Villette); square du Temple to Marché des Enfants rouges to rue Veille du Temple to rue des Rosiers and rue des Francs Bourgeois to place des Vosges; in the Bastille neighborhood along rue de la Roquette and rue Keller; rue Tiquetone and rue Montorgueil; rue d’Orsel and rue des Abbesses and rue Lepic; starting at place du Tertre (hyper touristy) and then following your nose on small streets around Montmartre; Île St-Louis; les quais de la Seine from approximately Île St-Louis to pont des Arts; rue de Seine to rue de Buci to boulevard St-Germain to rue Danton then follow your nose; rue de la Montagne St-Genviève to le Panthéon to rue Mouffetard; Jardin du Luxembourg; Jardin des Plantes; la Coulée verte (promenade plantée) (elevated railway track converted to park); buttes Chaumont; Parc Floral; Jardin des Tuileries; etc. The Marché d’Aligre (open-air produce market), place d’Aligre, daily 7am-1pm except Monday, or go at 5am to drink a coffee on a terrasse and see the merchants setting up the stands. Enough? While walking around, look for Space Invaders (see photo).

Picnic Spots

Western tip of Île St-Louis (go down stairs). Canal St-Martin. Buttes Chaumont. Parc Floral during concerts. Parc de la Villette.

Music

Paris is great for jazz. The big shows are expensive, but especially during the week you can find jam sessions for free where you just have to buy a beer now and then (for example Caveau des Oubliettes 5e). On the other hand, Paris is terrible for rock, and you (and I) will be lucky if there is a decent show during your stay. Check this site, and the posters and flyers at Born Bad Record Shop, 17 rue Keller 11e (noon-8pm except Sunday), and then buy some records from my friends there. The main punk place at the moment is the Mécanique ondulatoire, 8 passage Thiéré 11e (near Bastille).

Money

As you know, the currency is the Euro, which used to have a value somewhat close to a dollar. You can take out money from ATM machines (distributeurs) all over Paris; you are never far from one. Watch your back when using the machine, just like back home. Be sure to verify before your departure with your US bank that your card is OK for international withdrawals. Then there is no need at all to have travelers’ checks or other stuff. There is no need to all to go to a “change” place, except that if you have a moment before leaving the USA to get a few Euros in your pocket; that will take the pressure off you to find an ATM right away at the airport, that’s all.

Booty

You have the right to bring back two 75 cl bottles of alcohol per person to the USA. One or two extra will probably not land you in jail. With current regulations about liquids, you will be forced to put them in your checked luggage, so pack them extremely well and pray. For shopping, there is of course a lot of fashion and cosmetics here, if you are into that. There are flea markets on the weekend (Sat-Sun) porte de Clignancourt, porte de Montreuil and porte de Vanves, which have become increasingly professional and decreasingly interesting. The equivalent of the Salvation Army is called Emmaüs, but probably not worth your time unless you travel outside of Paris. Stores are basically all closed Sunday and some are closed Monday.

“I want a good bakery!”

There are many; here are a few of different types, in no particular order. (There are bad ones too, sorry about that.)

1. Manon, 87 rue St-Antoine 4e, closed Mondays

2. Landemaine, 130 rue de la Roquette, 11e, closed Mondays

3. Du Pain et des idées, 34 rue Yves-Toudic, 10e, closed Saturdays and Sundays

4. Les Délices de Parmentier, 142 av Parmentier, 11e, closed Sundays

5. Durand (L’Autre boulange), 43 rue de Montreuil, 12e, closed Sundays and Mondays

6. Pichard, 88 rue Cambronne, 15e, closed Mondays and Tuesdays

[1] However, the Italian restaurants in my neighborhood are mainly run by Turks and Egyptians. Let the buyer beware!

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