If you (like I did) thought that Paris welcomes you with the soft sound of accordion music and the smell of fresh croissants, think again!
Yes, Paris is a charming and unique city with world-renowned monuments, historic paintings and intimate little restaurants, but at the same time it is a jumble of tourists, pedlars and souvenir shops. Because it is also the home of one of the most-visited monuments in the world, it is extremely important that you know your stuff when you visit Paris.
I recently had the privilege to spend three freezing days in the city of lights and love after a work visit to the United Nations in Switzerland. I was alone, uninformed and somewhat nervous.
After my visit I compiled a short list of dos and don’ts that will assist a bit when you find yourself in Paris one day (something you definitely must try to do).
1. Do: Master the Metro.
On my first day in Paris I spent an hour at the Metro station because I had no idea where to buy tickets, where to get on or in what direction the train is going (there is no information desk – I looked for it for 20 minutes). After about 30 times of pleading “parlez-vous Anglais” a small group of high school girls agreed to help me and explain to me how the train works.
Yes, taxis are very convenient. But their little meters run faster than Usain Bolt and before you realise, you have parted with a lovely meal’s euros for a 2-km taxi ride.
Paris’s mole train, or Metro, is the cheapest and fastest way to travel through the city. Although the Metro’s map looks like a toddler scribbled on it with crayons, it is actually very easy to understand.
The system doesn’t use wind directions to indicate the directions of the routes, but rather the first and last destination of each line.
If for example you are on line 8 (the light purple line), you will either go in the direction of Crétell Préfecture or in the direction of Balard. These two destinations will therefore be on the directory boards at the stations. You will then go in the direction of Crétell if you want to for example go from the station at Bastille to the station at Ledru-Rollin.
2. Don’t…: fall for street pedlars’ tricks.
There are thousands of pedlars in the streets of Paris who sell cheap souvenirs and tourists are their prey. Your accent therefore determines the price you will pay. Deter pedlars quickly by saying in your best broken French “Non, merci,” rather than “No, thank you,”. When you look disinterested or sound as if you speak a little French, they will leave you alone instantly.
3. Do: Book your visit to monuments or museums beforehand.
I was lucky enough to be in Paris on the first Sunday of a new month which meant that some museums such as the Musée d’Orsay offers free entrance, but I had to stand in the queue for about an hour to get in (-2 °C can’t keep art lovers away!).
If you can, pre-book your visit to all the famous monuments and museums such as the Louvre, Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe on the internet. This way you ensure that you will have access and the queues for pre-booked tickets are of course much shorter. Tickets vary between 9 and 15 euro.
4. Don’t…: Take photos, but not take in the moment.
“A picture is worth a thousand words. Or a thousand likes.”
Because social media obliges us to share every aspect of one’s travels, it is extremely important that you take a moment to enjoy the experience. Yes, everyone wants the perfect photo in front of the Eiffel Tower or the Mona Lisa, but the experience is nevertheless what you forked out thousands of rands
Because I travelled alone, I had to swallow my pride daily and take selfies. (Where there was a friendly Asian tour group, I could ask someone to take a photo of me every now and then.) But no selfie can capture the smell of fresh crêpes, the sound of Notre Dame’s church bells or the shiny brushstrokes of Van Gogh. So, take your photo and put away your phone; believe me, it’s worth it.
5. Do: Walk, walk and walk.
The Metro stations are conveniently close to each other, but where you can (and have the energy) – walk. I walked between 10 and 15 km daily and thanks to that I saw places and met people I otherwise would’ve missed with a train trip.
People such as the middle-aged woman who played everything from La Vie en Rose to the Star Wars theme song on her saxophone outside the Musée d’Orsay. Places such as the no-name little bistro near Notre Dame where the words “Wi-Fi, Pizza and Coffee” (three of the things any tourist without an international data plan wants on a cold day) beckons. Shops such as Shakespeare and Company in la Bûcherie Street close to Place Saint-Michel, that sells new, second-hand and antique books and on top of that even offers a sleeping place for homeless people at night.
These are but a few of the gems you can encounter if you are willing to take to the streets.
This journey was however a childhood dream come true (my room looks like a shrine to the Eiffel Tower) and I was determined to make the most of my experience. So, despite the freezing weather, poor rand and my inexperience, I wouldn’t trade this adventure for anything.
One thing is certain: The travel bug definitely bit me and although I am currently dead beat and broke, I am already saving up for my next trip.