What to Expect on Your First Visit to Paris

After several canceled trips {thanks COVID}, I wasn't sure if we would ever see Paris. I spent {literally} years planning our trip, not because it's super complicated, but because so much with travel has just been changing and evolving. While travel to Europe used to be very fly by the seat of your pants, it's definitely not like that anymore. Reservations need to be made well in advance for everything from museums to the summit at the Eiffel Tower and a little bit of pre-planning will make your first visit to Paris extremely smooth and successful. Here are a few things I learned on my first visit to Paris!

first trip to paris, know before you go

What to Expect on Your First Visit to Paris


Learn the Language

I started Duolingo about five months before our trip. If you've ever done a Duolingo lesson, you'll understand the joke I often made about only being able to ask for a cup of tea for my horse. Not having studied any kind of language since high school, I was kind of impressed with the lessons and the ability for me to pick it up {no small feat after a traumatic brain injury} and how much of it was actually useful while traveling.

I could understand far more than I could speak and the attempts at using the language were always very much appreciated. I would always attempt to speak in my broken French first and if I was struggling I'd politely ask "parles vous Anglais?"

The French Aren't Rude!

There is this misconception that the French are rude, however, I think some of that stereotype is perpetuated by how incredibly lax we {mostly Americans} have gotten to formality and politeness. I love traveling and seeing the world, but I think one of those mistakes that people make when traveling is that we expect others to bend to our culture instead of embracing their culture. The French are very proud of their language, culture, and their country and they want visitors to embrace that as well. Making attempts at speaking their language and being respectful of their heritage is a good first step.

Learning a few common phrases to start a conversation and understanding some of their cultural traditions will go a long way in helping you see how truly gracious and kind the French are. 

paris first visit

Splurge on the Taxi

I'm not great at public transportation, but traveling in Europe it's important to be open to learning how to use the Metro, train, and the bus. That said, upon arrival at CDG, I went back and forth between taking the train or a taxi to our Airbnb near the Eiffel Tower. Here's where I landed, and I'm glad I did. Take the taxi. They are a flat rate {don't get into one that's not} and easily found at a taxi stand. Have the address of your location ready so you can give it to the driver. It was a splurge {56 or 58 Euros depending on where you are staying}, but not having to deal with buying metro/train tickets as soon as we got there and then hauling our luggage was worth it. We took the train back to CDG when we flew home and after about 10 days of navigating public transportation in Paris, it was the right choice.

Tips for Renting a Car in France

first time guide to paris france

Transportation in Paris

Paris has a pretty comprehensive transportation network that can feel a little complicated. I'm admittedly horrible at using a map but found that using the CityMapper app was a lifesaver. It will help you figure out which Metro lines to take when to transfer, and how long it will take to get from point a to point b.

Here is where it's not helpful. We had limited cell service, so I'd often lose my directions partway through our travels. 

*Tip: Screenshot the directions when you have wifi or decent service in case you lose reception. 

paris france first time guide

Know that the signs will be awful. I'm generally really good at finding signs and following them, however, the signage in France seemed limited. So beware.

*Tip: Have a plan in case you get separated. The metro in particular opens and closes quickly. There is no door sensor, so don't try to wave your hand in the door to have it open up again. It will pinch your hand. Often the next metro is just a few minutes behind, so make a plan to meet at the next stop after you get separated.

*Tip: The doors to the metro don't open automatically. You must use the handle {or sometimes a button} to open them. 

*Tip: Keep your transportation ticket with you until you are finished with your ride AND you leave the station. There are checks often and if you don't have your ticket there is a fine. You can't pull the tourist card on this one. They do not care.


Pack Light

Even if your hotel or Airbnb has an elevator, you will be inevitably schlepping luggage. We carried our luggage up and down hundreds of stairs into and out of the metro and drug it through cobblestone streets for many many blocks. Most of the buildings in Paris are very very old, and the elevators are very very small! We aren't big people, and we generally packed light {we each had a carry-on suitcase and a backpack}, but the two of us and our luggage couldn't fit into a single elevator at the same time! And that was when there was an elevator! Pack light, you will thank me later.

No One Cares What you Wear

Just scroll Instagram hashtags of Paris and you'll see women fully dressed in heels walking the cobblestone streets. Paris is most definitely a fashion-forward city, however, as a tourist covering a lot of ground {mostly walking!}, it's ok to dress down a bit. However, dress down European style, not American style! I wore mostly dresses with a comfortable pair of sneakers. There were very few people I saw walking the streets looking like they were on the way to the gym. Maybe leave your athleisure behind for this trip, but don't feel like you need to look like you are walking the red carpet either!

I actually rented most of the clothing I brought with me from Armoire. It's the perfect way to get clothes you probably won't wear again. When I got home, I just took the dirty clothes, packed them in the self-addressed pre-paid envelope, and sent them back. Easy as that! They take care of all the cleaning. If you want to get 50% off your first month PLUS two bonus items, use this link. You can stop your subscription anytime!


Make Reservations Early

6-12 Months Before Travel

This is the one thing that seemed to evolve as I started planning our trip. Hotels and AirBnB's book quickly, and those that don't see price increases the closer you get to your travel date. It's always a popular time to travel to Paris, and that's often reflected in the price.

30-60 Days Before Travel

Beyond that, unless you want to stand in incredibly long lines to buy tickets for museums and attractions only to find out that the entry is sold out for the day, you'll want to make reservations ahead of time. We had the Paris Museum Pass {a lifesaver that was a Christmas gift in 2019}, and since I had it in my hand, we had the code on the back {many people pick it up upon arrival at the airport}. Again, this pass has evolved and you can now get an electronic version, but my experience was with the paper pass.  

art museum paris

I booked timed museum entry passes at just about every single museum and attraction {Versailles, Monet's home/garden, and the Eiffel Tower}. With the museum pass, you are able to skip the ticket line, however, you still need to stand in line for security. The websites are often very complicated to wade through, but hands down, planning this part of our trip ahead of time left our days running smoothly. And we often didn't have to wait for longer than a few minutes to gain entry into attractions.

Food isn't as important to me, and while I attempted to make reservations at a few of the popular restaurants without success, we decided to wing it. I didn't want to overschedule all the things, but hearing from others, if you don't happen to land the reservation, there is often seating available if you show up early enough at even the most sought-after places.

*Tip: I set an alert on my phone for 60 days prior to travel so that I was first to buy tickets on the website as the tickets became available. The Eiffel Tower releases tickets 60 days in advance and they often sell out. The same is true of most restaurant reservations, so be prepared! 


Accommodations in Paris

Hotels in Europe are generally much smaller than those in North America. We stayed at both an apartment {AirBnb} and a hotel when we were in Paris. Here are some things to note. Breakfast isn't generally included in the price of the hotel. Budget accordingly for that. 

Our apartment and hotel were both the same price per night, however, our apartment had extras you won't find in a hotel like a washer and a dryer, a kitchen, more space, and views! We had a beautiful Eiffel Tower view in the apartment and we'd watch the lights sparkle every night from bed. The hotel was a third the size and didn't have the same amenities and it definitely didn't have a view.

Don't limit yourself with your accomodations. Take some time to explore what is available!

Timed Reservations

Our family doesn't generally like crowds and many of the popular attractions are crowded! Most of our timed entries were for the first available so we arrived at opening. However, a few were for mid-afternoon. I tried to enter BEFORE my timed arrival and was never let in early, however, if you end up having a longer lunch or travel on the metro takes longer than anticipated, arriving AFTER your scheduled time seemed to be totally fine. So don't skip an attraction simply because you think you missed your timed reservation. You'll probably be just fine!

Know When to Eat

This was such an interesting cultural thing we learned while we were in France. In the US, it's common to find a restaurant open all day. That's not the case in France. I still don't think I have it all figured out. The French generally have their biggest meal of the day at lunch. Breakfast rarely has a lot of protein and snacking seems rare. Dinner is generally enjoyed from 7-10 pm and nothing about meals is rushed. Most people pop into a cafe for an afternoon drink and to people watch, but after 2:30, it's difficult to get any food until dinner. And if you wait until after 10 to eat, you might struggle to find a restaurant that's open! 


*Tip: Asking for a carafe d'eau is your key to getting {free} water at your table. When you are finished, you will have to ask the server for "l'addition s'il vous plait" {the check please!} otherwise, you're server will generally ignore you and think you are just enjoying your meal!

*Tip: Pop into a local grocery store or fruit stand if you need a snack. 



There's nothing more Parisian than sitting outside at a cafe. Take note, if you are sensitive to smoke, sitting outside, especially during a popular time, may not be very enjoyable. There is no such thing as a smoking and non-smoking section. We'd often get an ashtray placed on our table before we even said bonjour. There is generally no smoking inside the cafe, but the doors were always open and the smoke wafts in. This made for some uncomfortable dining situations, so be prepared.


Bathrooms and Trash Cans

Two things I generally struggled to find in public. But as a mom with three kids, I generally think if you see a bathroom you should go...just in case! This is definitely true. Public restrooms are few and far between in Paris. There is an app {are you surprised!} that will help you locate toilets in Paris. The public restrooms are these large box-like structures that almost always have a line. They self-clean after every use, so use patience and wait until the restroom is cleaned, don't just walk in right after the person in front of you. Otherwise, you might get a foot spray and a swish you weren't expecting!

*Tip: Paris cafes generally have "toilettes" and are often free for paying customers. They are often down a set of stairs in the basement and are usually clearly marked. If you aren't ordering something, you may be asked to pay a few coins to use the restroom.

Be Street Smart

You'll inevitably hear about the pickpockets of Paris and while I saw a few sus situations, I never felt like my safety was at risk. I would suggest that you keep your belongings close to you {I used a cross body bag} and I held on to my phone {don't have it hanging out your back pocket}. There are a few common scams so pay attention to those people who try to divert your attention, ask for your tickets, or want you to sign something. 

Do Something You Wouldn't Normally Do

Paris is the perfect place to do something you wouldn't normally do. Consider booking a flytographer {local professional photographers} to capture your memories and provide the perfect souvenir for your trip. Hire a private guide. We booked La Petite Frenchie Paris, a sweet little vintage 2CV driven by a local, to show us all the highlights. Take a cooking class or hire a local guide to show you around. 

france tour paris

We spent time venturing out of the city and took a 5-day road trip around Normandy. If you have time, I'd highly recommend it!

road trip normandy

Ultimate 5-Day Normandy Road Trip

Paris is such a magical city. It's such a beautiful place to explore! Have you been? Would you add any tips?

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1 comment

Anonymous said...

Even though I'm Dutch and more familiar with the European culture, your blog about Paris is useful. Thanks.

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