This Paris travel guide will offer tips for making the most of your vacation to the City of Lights, including things to do in Paris, transportation suggestions, where to eat, hotel options, and more. Paris is a world capital of culture: everything from art to food to fashion to architecture, and much more, Paris does exceedingly well. Every day spent in Paris can feel like a poetic journey, and Hemingway’s description of Paris as a moveable feast is strikingly apt.
In case it’s not already obvious, Paris is one of my favorite cities in the world. That might seem like the type of meaningless fluff that gets thrown into any guide about a place to make you feel better about visiting it. That’s not the case here. Not that you care, but my three favorite cities in the world are Paris, Kyoto, and Los Angeles. Of those, I go back and forth on whether Paris or Kyoto is #1. (Los Angeles is #3.)
There is so much beauty, charm, and history to Paris that it has an undeniable appeal. Every once in a while, I’ll hear someone say, “I didn’t care for Paris. It reminded me exactly of New York [or London].” In response, I’ll only mutter “okay,” because how else do you respond? I am so befuddled by the preposterousness of this remark; it’s essentially an “opinion” predicated on little more than the fact that both places are large cities.
In actuality, Paris is one of the most unique cities in the world. In all of our travels, I’ve never found anything else like Paris anywhere. I can understand and appreciate the idea that it’s not for everyone, but to draw no distinction between Paris and New York is to fundamentally misunderstand both cities.
But I’ll spare you more of that diatribe, and cut to the chase, assuming you don’t need a further “sales pitch” on Paris, and just want to get into the brass tacks of planning your visit…
When to Visit
Objectively, the best times of the year to visit Paris are the spring and fall, avoiding any major public holidays (such as Easter) that are celebrated in European countries. The upside to these times of year is that school is in session so there are fewer tourists, and the weather is quite pleasant as compared to the rest of the year.
We’ve found that the best months for a good balance of weather and crowds are March and October. If you go before March or after October, there’s the chance it’ll be chilly. If you go after March or before October, expect slightly higher crowds. (Personally, we’ve found the trade-off in crowds perfectly acceptable for later April, as it means nicer weather and flowers in bloom.)
Summer is the absolute worst time to visit, both for the hordes of tourists it brings to Paris and for the weather. As Summer 2017’s sweltering heat wave across Europe demonstrated, heat and humidity can be oppressively bad during the summer months. That, coupled with long lines at popular points of interest and higher room rates make summer undesirable.
My personal pick in terms of the best time to visit Paris is during the holiday season, around mid to late November. For obvious reasons, Paris does not celebrate American Thanksgiving, meaning that Christmas season tends to start earlier there. Parisian department stores unveil their elaborate (and sometimes puzzling) window display and put up trees by mid-November, and the Champ-Elysees is decked out for Christmas around the same time.
I love the energy and heightened sense of romanticism during Christmas-time in Paris, and the displays are also pretty neat. A potential downside is the weather, which is on the chillier side (it can snow in Paris). This does not bother me in the slightest, but reasonable minds may differ on that. We have a separate post about Christmas in Paris that will give you an idea of the city’s beauty during the holiday season.
Generally speaking, tourism to Paris has seen a strong rebound in 2017, and we expect this to only continue in the lead-up to the 2024 Olympics. The best time to visit Paris from a money-saving perspective was last year. Since that’s no longer an option (absent a time machine, which can probably be put to better uses), we’d recommend going sooner rather than later. Prices will likely continue to climb overall, with better deals to be found in the off-season.
How Long to Visit?
As mentioned, we have been to Paris on four separate trips now, and still have not seen everything we’d like to see. Not even close. I’d estimate that we’ve seen less than half of what we’d like to see, but even that’s a moving target. As we dive-deeper into the city, we learn about new things, and add those to our list of future spots to visit. If anything, our list is growing longer, rather than shorter.
This is a roundabout way of saying that you should go for as many days as you can. That probably seems like a glib answer, but there is so much culture that you could spend a lifetime in Paris and never run out of things to do. I would love to spend a summer simply exploring Paris. The reality of things is that vacation time is finite, and travel is costly, so most people probably are looking at maybe one or two weeks on vacation.
My strong advice would be to try and spend 5-7 in Paris for your first visit. If you go for a full week, spend one of those days spent outside the city (our recommendation for that would be Versailles). As Disney fans, we’re also big on Disneyland Paris (see our Disneyland Paris Planning Guide), but obviously, this is not for everyone. If you are not a Disney enthusiast, it’s probably safe to skip the park. If you do go, we’d recommend focusing on Parc Disneyland, and skipping Walt Disney Studios Park, or only spending a few hours there.
Ideally, we would recommend spending 10-14 days in France, with a week of that time in Paris, and the additional time elsewhere in the country. In addition to Versailles, the nearby Loire Valley is an excellent place to visit. Although farther away, Normandy is a great region as well, and a spot we’re always quick to recommend because the rising tide at Mont Saint-Michel is one of the best travel experiences we’ve ever had anywhere.
The temptation when traveling abroad to Europe is to visit multiple countries, but we’d advise against this unless you have 10+ days to travel. One of the biggest mistakes we see people make is trying to do too much. In the process, they only have a superficial or cursory experience in each place and have to deal with the headaches that come with changing cities and hotels. If you only have a week, you probably do not have enough time to do London and Paris, and you certainly don’t have enough time to do three countries.
Remember, even though the countries of Europe are somewhat comparable to states within America spatially, none of these countries are the U.S. equivalent of Iowa or a ‘flyover state.’ Each is jam-packed with culture and amazing things to do. Moreover, as with transit between states, it takes time to travel between the countries of Europe. Expect to lose about a day in ‘commute time’ for each country you visit. An entire day lost on a week-long trip is a pretty steep cost to visit an additional country, especially when each individual place offers so much to see and do.
Getting There & Around
I’m going to assume that anyone reading this is flying to Europe from overseas, not a European driving to France (if you’re driving and looking for advice…try Google Maps, I guess?). I’m also going to assume you’re flying into Charles De Gaulle Airport, which is on the outskirts of Paris. At present, there are some stellar airfare deals from many cities in the United States to Paris. In fact, it’s often cheaper for us to fly from Los Angeles to Paris than it is to fly within the U.S.
As always, we recommend using ITASoftware’s flexible search to find the best deals on airfare, as well as using fare alerts on Airfarewatchdog.com. You can set some parameters for the alerts here (although not as many as I’d like) and receive email updates when they deem prices to be low.
Once you arrive into CDG Airport, the most efficient and least expensive way to get into Paris is by taking the RER B city train leaving from either CDG Terminal 2 or Roissypole. The RER B train line runs north-south through the city-center of Paris, stopping first at Gare du Nord (the main station in Paris which also serves as the London to Paris Eurostar station), as well as a variety of other stations including Saint Michel/Nôtre Dame.
Within Paris, you’re less likely to be using the RER, which is primarily a commuter line that connects the city to the outlying suburbs. Since there are a few stops within Paris on the RER, on occasion it will be your best option, but mostly, you will only use the RER if you’re heading to the airports, Disneyland Paris, or somewhere else outside of the city.
Instead, you’ll primarily be using the Paris Metro. Out of the all of the mass transit systems we’ve used, I think the Paris Metro compares best to the London Underground or New York Subway. This is to say it’s older and feels its age, but is still fairly reliable and mostly safe. If you’re comparing it to the newer and cleaner transportation networks in Asian cities, it might leave something to be desired. The biggest upside to the Paris Metro is that some of the stations are themed. My favorite is Arts et Métiers, which has a Steampunk-inspired design.
The Paris Metro has around 300 stations, and you’re never more than 10 minutes from a station by foot. The Metro operates from around 5 a.m. until after midnight (in our experience, the last train is often packed), and has single use tickets costing around $2 US, as well as 1-day to 5-day Le Paris Viste passes for tourists. There are also unlimited travel passes valid on the Paris Metro and bus network, which require a foreign passport to purchase.
We’ve discovered that on occasion, the ticket readers do not work at the Metro turnstiles. This has happened on enough occasions to warrant mentioning, it was not simply a one-off type of scenario. In those situations, we first tried to find a staff-person to help, but failing that, we just pushed through the gates and kept our ticket should there later be an issue. I’m not sure whether this is technically “good” advice, but we witnessed the same occurring for others, and short of buying another ticket, this was the most common solution.
We do not recommend purchasing the day or unlimited passes, for a simple reason: part of the joy of Paris is walking the city. While the Paris Metro is efficient, over-reliance on it keeps you underground when you should be meandering Paris’ charming avenues and soaking up its romantic atmosphere. Unless you are taking 6 or more trips on the Metro per day (which is too many, in our opinion), these day passes are a losing proposition.
There are also some occasions when the bus will be the fastest form of transportation. We’ve found that this is rarely the case, but the buses in Paris are actually quite nice, so don’t make an effort to avoid them. We’ve never used the taxis in Paris, and likely never will if only because the combination of walking and the Metro has yet to let us down. We see no need to pay extra for a taxi.
Whatever you do, do not rent a car for a trip to Paris. Even if you’re planning on making side-trips from Paris, try to find a way to make these trips via public transit, or rent a car on your way out of the city. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, renting a car from (and renting a car to) the airport is a pain. Lines are unnecessarily long, and move slowly. Second, the parking situation in Paris leaves a lot to be desired, and can be quite stressful.
On one of our trips, Paris was just a stop for a few days on a longer tour of France, Switzerland, and Germany. As such, we had a rental car for the duration of the trip. We had rented an Airbnb in a neighborhood down a quiet side street, and our host indicated that there was plenty of street parking. I’m guessing the host didn’t actually have a car because, while there were parking spaces, there weren’t empty ones.
For the entirety of our stay, we never once saw an empty parking spot anywhere near the building. I suspect France is a nation of Costanzas: once they get the good spot in front of the good building in the good neighborhood, they don’t move for weeks. I can imagine them fighting over a parking space:
Michel: “Salut monsieur! You’re not getting that space. I mean, I’ll sleep in my car if I have to. Hon, Hon, Hon!”
Georges: “I’ll die à l’extérieur! Hon, Hon, Hon!”
Our first night, we spent nearly an hour hunting for a parking spot (accidentally driving through the Arc de Triomphe traffic circle twice), and when we did finally locate one, it was a 20 minute walk from our Airbnb unit. Suffice to say, we never moved the car during the entirety of our stay in Paris that trip. It just sat there, “guarding” our spot.
Learning from our mistake, on the next multi-stop trip, we opted to not pick up our rental car until the end of our stay in Paris. We picked the car up from a huge underground facility at Gare du Nord Station right before we left the city. This was a much better idea, and relatively pain-free experience (aside from having to do three loops of Charles De Gaulle Airport to find the rental car return location!).
Where to Stay
When we visit Paris, we tend to do a split stay between Val d’Europe and the city of Paris itself. Val d’Europe is just outside of Paris, and is adjacent to Disneyland Paris, making it convenient for walking to those theme parks. In Paris itself, we’ve stayed in a variety of arrondissements.
Generally speaking, I prefer locations along the Seine or near the Champs-Élysées. While the entire city is charming and packed with worthwhile points of interest, we generally enjoy the 7th and 8th arrondissements the most. This isn’t to say you should totally disregard all other areas of Paris when looking for a place to stay. Just our specific preference.
We would stay–and have stayed–in other arrondissements as well. Pretty much anything in the city-center is a good option. I would personally avoid places along the perimeter of the city. There are trendy spots in areas like Montmartre, but the problem with that part of Paris is that you’re going to have a considerable commute to most other points of interest in Paris. By contrast, if you’re staying along the Seine, around half of the points of interest you might want to see will be within a 30 minute walk or even shorter RER ride.
If you’re considering a couple of nights at Disneyland Paris, Val d’Europe is a good option. The whole town is relatively new, having been masterplanned in conjunction with Disney. It has a suburbia vibe to it, but with traditional French stylization. While it doesn’t have the same historical allure of the quaint villages in France, it has its own modern charm and is not too cookie cutter. All of this is to say that the hotels of Val d’Europe are solid options if you don’t want to pay the insane prices of Disneyland Paris hotels. Generally, hotels in Val d’Europe can be booked for $75-150/night, which makes them a good budget option if you’re doing both Disneyland Paris and the city of Paris.
Beyond the general location, we’ve stayed in a mix of hotels and Airbnb rentals. On our last trip to France, we did a hotel because the price was depressed due to a decline in tourism. For a couple of years, it was possible to score nice hotels in Paris for under $150/night. In doing a quick search now, prices have risen quite a bit over the course of only a few months, and are back at their “normal” levels.
With hotel prices higher, we highly recommend Airbnb. We have a post on our Disney blog that discusses our Tips for Using Airbnb in case you’re unfamiliar with the service. We’ve used it several times in Europe, including a couple of times in Paris. It’s an inexpensive alternative to a hotel, and nice because it also allows you to live like a local, whether that means doing some laundry halfway through your trip or just going to the market to get fresh produce (and cheese…AND WINE!) to prepare you own meals. (You can use Sarah’s sign-up link for a $35 credit your first time using Airbnb!)
Not to bury the lede, but the biggest upside to using Airbnb is price. The value proposition of renting your own apartment or flat is significantly greater than booking a hotel, and we typically rent apartments on Airbnb for less than half (normally far less) than what we’d pay for a comparable hotel. Our best experience in Paris remains when we rented a flat near Victor Hugo Square, had a wonderful market right below us, and made some of our own meals with wonderful, fresh ingredients. It was just outside of the 7th arrondissement that we favor, but it was perfect.
In terms of hotels, you have a variety of options. Locally-run boutique hotels, major brands like Hilton and Hyatt (the top photo in this section is from our stay at the recently-refurbished Hyatt Regency Paris Étoile), and low-budget hostels. We haven’t stayed at enough of these for me to make any definitive recommendations about which ones are good or bad. Aside from the weird high bathtubs and inexplicable lack of shower doors, we’ve had exceptional experiences at every hotel at which we’ve stayed in Paris. Outside of the city, you’re likely to find hotels that are more on the dated side, but we’ve yet to encounter the Paris equivalent of a shady motel.
Things to Do
Paris has so many things to do that a brief section in a planning guide is simply not going to do the topic justice. Heck, even if this were a 200-page book about Paris, we’d still just be scratching the surface. Instead of trying (and failing) to cover the topic in a comprehensive manner, we are more or less going to defer to a few of our other resources. First, our Top 10 Things to Do in Paris post. That covers our favorites, and also waxes philosophic a bit on how to approach the city.
Second, our Paris Museum Pass: Is It Worth It? post. Spoiler alert: the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes, so the title there is a bit of a misnomer. Rather, that post focuses on how we’ve leveraged that pass for greater value, and also some advantages it offers. The great thing about buying this pass (we recommend purchasing at the airport upon arrival) is that it does a lot of the planning for you, helping narrow down an incredibly long list of points of interest to things on there.
Finally, our posts about Paris. We’ve yet to write about everything we’ve done in Paris, but we’re working on it. Those break-0ut posts offer photos, deeper insight, and strategic tips for particular points of interest. They’re helpful resources if you want a better look at a particular attraction or point of interest that you’re considering.
One thing that I’d caution against is a mentality that you must see it all or do X number of things on your first visit to Paris. This type of approach not only sets yourself up for failure (as it’s literally impossible to see it all), but sort of misses the point of Paris. There are some places where I can get behind the notion that doing as much as possible is a good plan.
Paris, on the other hand, should be sipped like a fine French wine. So much of the experience is simply being there, soaking up the romanticism of the city. What makes Paris a special place is not the fact that it has this museum, that monument, or some shopping mall. What makes Paris special is the culmination of this all. The place oozes culture, and every moment spent savoring the city is a moment well-spent.
Places like the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Sacré-Cœur, Musée d’Orsay, etc., are all great. They’re some of the most interesting and enjoyable places we’ve visited anywhere in the world. However, I would not say that any of these are definitive, make-or-break points of interest. You can skip any–or all–of them and still have an exceptional trip.
The underlying point is to discourage you from approaching Paris checklist-style, trying to do as much as you can. Doing things is great, and you’ll likely do plenty, but if you’re racing around the entire time, you will miss the greatest thing to do in Paris: experience Paris.
Where to Eat
Whatever you’ve heard about the dining scene in Paris, it’s true. All of it. In culinary terms, Paris is the greatest city on earth. Better than New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, etc. Some of the best meals we’ve ever had, we’ve had in Paris.
With that said, I’m far from qualified to offer dining advice for Paris. Typically, we consult a mix of the Eater Guide to Paris and Infatuation’s Where to Eat & Drink in Paris Guide when trying to determine where to eat. These resources are a lot more comprehensive than anything I can offer.
Instead, I’ll offer some random notes and observations. First, dining in Paris is not nearly as expensive as you might expect. To be sure, it can be incredibly expensive, but the price you see on the menu is the price you pay. Tipping is not customary in France (although you can leave a small amount on the table for exceptional service) and a lot of very good meals can be had for less than $25 per person, excluding wine. Naturally, wine brings up the cost considerably…as can coffee or bottled soda.
Speaking of which, ordering tap water in France is not particularly common, and has not become incredibly prevalent until recently. Some servers are still somewhat stubborn about it, but they will bring you water (by the carafe) upon request. We seldom drink alcohol or soda when traveling, and we’ve noticed some servers in Paris are not particularly keen on this. (As a result, we typically avoid restaurants that have a clear emphasis on wine–no reason to feel out of place or be rude to the establishment if they are anticipating every table ordering wine.)
The best restaurant at which we’ve dined in Paris is Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie. I mention this not because I think it’s a must do (although our meal here incredible), but to underscore the point about affordability, and also broach another topic: foie gras.
Foie gras is the specialty of this restaurant, and it’s incorporated into a number of dishes. Foie gras is controversial, and something you’ll seldom encounter in the United States due to that (and local laws). By contrast, it is everywhere in France. Whether you want to partake is a personal question, but you should be aware of its prevalence.
The only other thing I’d recommend is avoiding familiar chains. McDonald’s and Starbucks are all over the place in Paris, and are quite popular. While we often find ourselves stopping in these spots elsewhere when traveling internationally for a quick, cheap meal when necessity dictates, I’d strong advise against this in France. The food is just so good, and you can find plenty of quick, inexpensive local options that are worlds better than American fast food chains.
What to Pack
One thing you will need for any trip to France is a voltage converter. We highly recommend this BESTEK Portable Travel Converter with multiple outlets. You can find cheaper ones, but they will be larger, heavier, and take up valuable real estate in your suitcase.
Another thing we recommend, particularly if you plan on traveling internationally beyond France, is purchasing a pocket MiFi unit. For years, we rented these when traveling, until we did a bit of research and discovered they’re fairly cheap to purchase. I bought this Huawei 4G LTE Mobile Wifi Hotspot and then purchased a cheap (~$40 Orange Holiday) 10 GB SIM card at a Relay store in Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport when we landed.
If you have an unlocked phone, you can just put the SIM card directly into that, but we prefer the MiFi unit so that we can connect multiple devices. We find this to be a more efficient strategy when traveling internationally.
When packing, also keep in mind that Paris has legitimate winters, complete with snow and all. If you’re visiting any time from October through March, you should pack for cooler weather.
In general, we would caution against overpacking. This is especially true if you’re doing more in Europe than just Paris. You will do a lot of walking, riding the rail, etc., and you really don’t want to be encumbered by excess baggage. Don’t pack things “just in case.” Paris is a world city; you can just about anything you might need there. It’s better to under-pack than to overpack in my opinion.
You can read more of our “carry-on philosophy” and which types of bags we use here. Seriously, this is really critical if you’re going to spend time on the rails or walking through Europe. So much easier than dragging around a ton of luggage!
As for visiting other locations in Europe, we recommend consulting a dedicated guide to Europe, such as Rick Steves’ Best of Europe, for planning. For Paris, specifically, we highly recommend Rick Steves’ Paris 2017. We are big fans of his TV show and think he has the best guides on Europe, so wherever you go in Europe, we’d probably recommend picking up one of his guides for that destination.
This is probably the most important section of the guide, despite it being buried at the bottom. Oh well, if you’re making the effort to travel to France, hopefully you’ve also made the effort to read to the bottom of the post.
While Paris is a world city and the vast majority of people you’ll encounter can speak some amount of English, a good practice is to begin any conversation in French by saying, “Je ne parle pas français. Parlez–vous anglais?” (“I do not speak French. Do you speak English?”) Just as many Americans probably might give a pretty rude reply if someone came up to them and asked a question in Mandarin, the French don’t take kindly to visitors who don’t make an effort.
This is evident in another regard: attire. No, you don’t have to look like you just stepped off the runway nor do you have to wear only the trendiest couture. What you should do is avoid looking like you just got done working out or have an outfit that’s sloppily put-together. This can be a pretty significant departure from daily life for a lot of Americans. This is not to say the French aren’t dressed-down quite often, but they always look sharp, even in casual attire.
Here’s a partial list of things you won’t see in Paris (except on tourists): Uggs, Crocs, yoga pants, gym shorts, novelty shirts with ‘clever’ text, cargo shorts, American flag attire, trucker hats, or anything camouflage. You might think it’s superficial for Parisians to judge people based upon what they’re wearing, and you’re certainly entitled to that opinion. It doesn’t change the fact that you’ll be treated better if you look nicer.
In fact, doing these two relatively simple things will typically imbue your interactions with a much warmer quality and make a significant difference in the overall quality of your trip. We hear so many Americans complain that the French are rude, and aside from a few one-off encounters, we’ve never experienced anything remotely like that.
Next, it should come as no surprise that France does not use the US dollar as a currency. While you can order Euros from your bank prior to your trip (which is a good idea as a safety net), the best option is withdrawing Euro directly from an ATM in France. You’ll get the best exchange rate this way, and while you might pay a nominal fee, that’s usually more than offset by the rate.
Whatever you do, avoid currency exchange spots–and this advice goes for any foreign country. Either order currency in advance or use an ATM upon arrival. Just be sure that your debit card will work internationally. It’s also a good idea to call your bank in advance to alert them that you will be traveling internationally, so that your account is not frozen as a potential fraud risk. (This happens often.)
Ideally, having a chipped credit card and paying with that is the best way to go. Chip and signature credit cards are becoming increasing standard in the United States, and these will work throughout Europe. Chip-and-pin credit cards have long been the standard there, but European merchants are becoming increasingly familiar with the chip and signature standard. (On our first trip to France when these cards were first being rolled out, there was a lot of confusion as merchants seemed surprised when a receipt needing a signature printed out.)
Chipped credit cards make international travel a breeze because they largely eliminate the need to deal in cash (besides from street vendors and other “older” retailers that don’t accept cash). We use chipped credit cards for 95% or more of all foreign transactions. As with your debit card, make sure that there’s no foreign transaction fee on your credit card before doing this.
If you’re sensitive to cigarette smoke, Paris might not be for you. Smoking is much more prevalent, and it remains common in places where it wouldn’t be acceptable to smoke in the United States. Moreover, many of these spots lack non-smoking sections. It does seem like the tides are changing in this regard, and smoking is not allowed in some touristy spots, but it’s still quite common. This is most noticeable at restaurants, but on the plus side, many cafes are open air and outdoors, so unless you’re seated adjacent to someone who is smoking, it might not impact you.
If you don’t have an international data plan or a MiFi device, it’s worth knowing where you can find free WiFi. Wireless internet is available in most fast food restaurants–places like Starbucks and McDonald’s. Your hotel or Airbnb will likely offer free WiFi, as well. Don’t expect to find WiFi in cafes or nicer restaurants. It is available in some, but I wouldn’t say it’s widespread.
I know this just begins to scratch the surface of planning for a trip to Paris. My goal was to not make it so long that it’s intimidating…and it’s already pretty long. I update this guide on a regular basis based on things we learn in subsequent visits to France, and other changes that occur, so rest assured that the information here is current.
Have you been to Paris? What did you think? Planning and trip and have questions? If you’re a Parisian or European and you have tips of your own, please add them in the comments. (I might just borrow them for the guide itself.) Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts!