Even though I was born and raised in France and despite having travelled to Paris dozens of times, I had a few unanswered questions before our trip to the French capital. It had been a while since our last visit and I haven’t had the chance to be an eager tourist in Paris that often.
My French friends in Ottawa were as clueless as me. “It may have changed…” was the motto. So, this is what I discovered after a few days in Paris—just keep in mind my own experience is very anecdotal!
“Is Paris expensive?”
Renting an apartment is both expensive and difficult, buying real estate is a goal even well-paid professionals can’t achieve. In such tight market, a large chunk of a trip-to-Paris budget is devoted to temporary accommodation—hostels, hotels, short-term rentals, etc. We ended up booking with Expedia. Most apartments on Airbnb were in the same price range, sometime with added cleaning fees and many with questionable reviews.
Other than that, we visited Paris on the cheap—we grabbed food from bakeries and supermarkets, we took the express train from the airport and the subway within Paris, we didn’t buy anything and the only paid attraction we did was the Grande roue.
Our hotel room was small but renovated and super clean, it’s probably the most comfortable stay in Paris I’ve ever had—and a functional place does make a difference, because…
“Is Paris dirty?”
“Dirtiness” is a very subjective concept, but there are cities where I’m desperate to take a shower at the end of the day—Valparaíso feels dirtier than Santiago, Rio feels dirtier than Floripa, Hong Kong feels dirtier than Beijing and yes, Paris feels dirtier than Nantes.
The lack of clean, public bathrooms doesn’t help—if only I could wash my hands properly once in a while when I’m out and about all day! But French are super weird with bathrooms, it’s like they never feel the urge to pee or poo. Malls or chain restaurants don’t always public bathrooms and when they do, you may need a code, you can be asked to pay a fee and good luck finding soap and toilet paper.
Bring hand sanitizer, do expect dirty sidewalks in some districts and plan your bathroom/hand-washing breaks strategically.
“Is Paris safe?”
One day, I’ll dress like a madame or a respectable 36-year-old woman but for now I wear jeans and t-shirts or shorts and cropped tops—perk of being a freelancer, I don’t have a dress code. I’ve never had major issues so far anywhere in the world, but I wondered if I’d be okay in Paris given the alarming reports of street harassment on social media. I’m happy to report it was just fine and that I didn’t stand out. Parisians are stylish but they show skin as well when it’s hot.
On another note, I didn’t find people super paranoid about terrorism. It’s only been four years since the last two major attacks after all, but Parisians still take the subway, gather in public places, party, etc. I only saw extra security around the Palais de l’Élysée (police forces, blocked streets, etc.) and the Eiffel Tower (with the new bulletproof wall).
The biggest safety threat I’ve seen? People riding these damn electric scooters on the sidewalk!
“Are Parisians rude?”
There are dozens of jokes about rude Parisian waiters on international travel forums, and even the rest of France doesn’t find Parisians a happy, welcoming bunch.
French can look rude to foreigners because they don’t smile politely and customer service is… ahem, not exactly a priority. That said, it’s often a cultural misunderstanding. French people don’t do small talks with strangers but they are loyal to their relatives and friends. They are also used to Kafkaesque red-tape issues North Americans, for instance, wouldn’t tolerate (“I’m gonna sue!”).
I was pleasantly surprised this time. I found the atmosphere pretty relaxed in Paris, probably because it’s hard to be in a bad mood on a sunny week of July just after Bastille Day and also possibly because there were more tourists than locals. Still, I met plenty of very friendly Parisians—they don’t all hate foreigners who mispronounced subway stations and street names.
“Is Paris gimmicky and full of tourists?”
You probably won’t eat the best meal of your life in the Latin Quarter or Montmartre and chances are, someone will photobomb your first few shots of the Eiffel Tower. Oh, and if you want to buy a Vuitton bag, well good luck beating rich Chinese tourists to the latest model.
Predictably, very popular spots like the Eiffel Tower, the Sacré-cœur and several bridges across the Seine River are crowded. It’s actually funny to see some cultures seem to favour specific landmarks—Russians on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Chinese around the Arc de Triomphe and at Lafayette Haussman, British along the Seine River and Italians at the Louvre Museum.
It’s hard to go completely “off the beaten track” in Paris—it’s pretty compact, after all—but it’s easy to escape to less sought-after areas. Similarly, if you want a more “French experience,” avoid restaurants right around a landmark. They are hundreds of cheaper, better and quieter eateries in Paris.
Also, if you really hate crowds, note many spots in Paris are just busy hubs—Les Halles, the big train stations, etc.
Four final tips
- The hotel room was our largest expense. Food was cheap enough, we grabbed snacks and dinner from bakeries (sandwiches, savoury pies, etc.). There are also plenty of “city” (i.e. smaller) version of the main supermarket chains where you can buy bread, salads and simple meals to eat cold or to warm up.
- The Grande roue was a great splurge to see Paris from the top. If you want to avoid the lineups at the Eiffel Tower and simply want to see Paris from above, consider it!
- Skip the subway, walk. Not only you will save money but you will probably discover spots you would have missed riding the métro from point A to point B.
- Beware summer construction delays! Subway service can be suspended for weeks on some lines and access can be difficult. In such cases, look for the (free!) shuttle bus replacing subway service.