This was my first trip to Europe, so I had a lot to learn! While it’s still fresh, I’ll pass along these notes to my future self (for the next trip) or to anyone else going to Paris for the first time …
- TOUR: Rick Steves Best of Paris in 7 Days
This was the first tour experience for both of us, and it turned out to be an ideal way to jump into European travel and explore a new city. We learned a lot from our guide and fellow travelers, had a richer experience, and covered more ground than we would have on our own. Even if you don’t take a tour, check his guidebooks, podcasts, and audio tours for useful information.
Best of Paris in 7 Days Tour
- TOUR GUIDE: Our lead guide was Arnaud Servignat, and I would recommend him without hesitation. Arnaud is a Parisian who generously shares his enthusiasm and knowledge about the art and history of Paris, has a wonderful sense of humor, somehow manages to keep a large group of tourists on time and organized, and made the tour experience really enjoyable throughout the week. We also had a fantastic guide named Joelle for the Orangerie Museum – I’m looking into whether she provides private tours.
- HOTEL: Hotel de Londres Eiffel, 1 Rue Augereau, 75007 Paris. Highly recommended: staying at Hotel de Londres Eiffel made the 10 days a wonderful experience. The lovely rooms are clean and cozy, and every day started with a delicious breakfast of coffee, croissants, and other treats. The staff was friendly and incredibly helpful with everything – including making restaurant recommendations, helping us navigate the city, and teaching me how to use the laundromat across the street. They were gracious and helpful hosts at every opportunity. The location near the Eiffel Tower, Rue Cler and Rue Saint-Dominique is a wonderful home base – it was quiet off of the main street, but close to plenty of cafes, cheese shops, bakeries, and resources (grocery store, pharmacy, bank, laundromat). One of our tour friends even got an adorable hair cut next door. I would stay here again, or check out Montmartre – I fell in love with that area.
- PACKING: I used Rick Steves’ packing list as a guide, and packed fairly light in one bag + a small backpack, but could have gotten by with just one sweater, because the weather was warmer than forecast. Two pairs of shoes, two pants, one skirt, and a variety of short and long-sleeved shirts were perfect. I brought a rain jacket and umbrella, but only used the jacket for the Eiffel Tower tour, because it was windy. Tip: public transportation can be gross – bring plenty of hand-sanitizers/wipes.
- SHOES: SKECHERS Performance Go Walk shoes with a yoga mat cushion inside held up really well, and we walked about 8 miles each day. They look more stylish than sneakers, but with all the time on my feet and cobblestone streets, I’ll admit to missing my super-comfortable running shoes and gym socks some days. I had some Keen Mary Janes as my second pair.
- JET LAG: It’s real, man. Our tour officially started on Sunday at 3 p.m., and I am very glad that we arrived on Saturday afternoon. I didn’t sleep on the airplane in either direction, so it took a couple of days to re-adjust.
- STAYING CONNECTED: I signed up for the 30-day AT&T Passport addition to my mobile plan, and was glad that I did. When we were out and about, I used Google Maps a lot, some apps for navigating the Paris metro and bus routes. The plan also included unlimited texts, so I felt connected to home and friends. Remember to: add a passcode to voicemail before you travel, it’s not possible to check voicemail without it, or add the code after you are outside the U.S.
- LEARNING THE LANGUAGE: I used Fluenz and DuoLingo to brush up my French, but it seemed to fly out the window – sometimes with hilarious results – as soon as I encountered a French person. Of course they are speaking quickly, so it was much more difficult than following along with the stock phrases I heard in my practice. Fortunately, most of the Parisians we encountered were very kind and patient (tolerant of bumbling tourists). Well, not at the Post Office, but what do you expect? I did all right interacting in restaurants – the basics are greetings, please, thank you, asking for an English menu, ordering water, coffee, wine, requesting the bill (they won’t bring it until you ask). Areas to focus on next time: vocabulary about navigating, transportation, getting help and information about tickets, closures, delays, directions. Google Translate app can help with signs/written material, but it has its limitations.
- NAVIGATION: I don’t have a strong sense of direction, and we got lost or turned around a few times. Along with relying on Google Maps and Compass apps, I discovered two apps just for Paris that were helpful – Paris Metro Map and Route Planner, and Visit Paris by Metro – RATP. Sometimes the problem is actually finding the Metro or bus stop – and I think there’s an app for that too! Low-tech tip: write down directions / key intersections / bus stops on a piece of paper ahead of time, then there’s no need to constantly consult your phone.
- CASH/ATM MACHINES: I followed Rick Steves’ advice about getting money from an ATM after we arrived. Unfortunately, the only cash machines I saw in the Paris CDG airport were Travelex ATMs – which he says to avoid – and which apparently charges about $40 extra to “convert” the transaction into dollars. If you have to use a Travelex, be sure to respond NO to that helpful extra service they offer at the end of the transaction. Fortunately, getting cash during the rest of the trip went very smoothly — I just found ATM machines inside banks, and it was no problem to get as much cash as we needed at the correct conversion rate. I only carried what we needed for that day, keeping the rest in the hotel safe. The last couple of days of our trip, I started planning my ATM withdrawals more carefully so I wouldn’t have too much extra currency left over.
- CONVERSION RATE: Euros were very close to dollars; I used the XE Currency App when I wanted to buy something in Iceland and had no clue what 3,500 Icelandic Krona was in dollars ($28). 😳
- FOREIGN TRANSACTION FEES: Many credit cards charge an extra 1%-3% for a foreign transaction fee, every time you use your card. Before your trip, check your credit card agreement, and search online for “cards with no transaction fees” to find a new card.
- SAFETY: We received many warnings about pickpockets, theft and scams, so I got a Pacsafe anti-theft purse – the CitySafe 50 was the perfect size to carry around, and all my stuff was locked in and secure. The only times I felt hassled was when we were lost and I was studying my phone or map – I later learned the tip about writing down directions ahead of time, which doesn’t look so obvious (“I’m a lost tourist!”) and is more safe and convenient than pulling out your phone.
- U.S. CUSTOMS: I had no clue about declaring purchases at U.S. Customs when we returned home, and they didn’t give us any forms on the airplane. Here is a Rick Steves article about clearing customs that I wish I had read ahead of time.
- ICELAND AIR has good fares on flights from Portland to Iceland (KEF) to Paris (CDG), or with a quick stop in Seattle, depending on the time of year you are going. Plan to bring your own food and water on the plane – they do offer complimentary beverages, but it takes a while to get around to everyone, especially on a full flight. In Reykjavík, before going to your connecting gate, you first have to get your passport stamped at Passport Control – this was true both coming and going, and a little stressful when we had a total of 20 minutes to make our connection. On the flight home, we seemed to disembark right into the gift shop! All the signs will remind you of shopping at Ikea.
- PARIS CDG AIRPORT: after you pick up your bags, the terminal seems like circle with no way out. Just keep following the “taxi” signs until you get to Exit #24, where the licensed taxis (like G7) are parked. Airport helpers at the end of the queue will point you to a car and driver, and you’ll be in Paris in no time – for a flat fee of €55.
- WISH I WOULD HAVE TAKEN MORE TIME TO … write in my journal, just hang out in some Hemingway cafes and people-watch, go see the Eiffel Tower one more time at night. I was so happy and tired at the end of each day, sleep kept winning!
Notes for Future Trips: Paris Tips From Friends
- I STILL WANT TO SEE … the Eiffel Tower from the Tracadero, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Monet’s Gardens at Giverny, the inside of Musée du quai Branly, the Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Pompidou, the creepy underground Catacombs of Paris. See 36 Hours on the Left Bank (NY Times).
- Paris by Mouth walking tours, recommendation from my foodie friend Kimberly. “We did the tour of St-Germain and it was one of our all-time favorite travel experiences. Definitely worth the price. We used it as an introduction to the city on the day we arrived in France (I would recommend going the day after for jet lag reasons but we still loved it). I just can’t rave about it enough. Pick a tour and do one!”
- Fat Tire Bike Tours; we also saw bikes you can rent like a Car2Go, all around the city.