Off to the City of Light? Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat, reveals how to take in the sights — the non-tourist way
I am well-versed in the variations on “I am going to Paris, can you recommend…?” Mostly people want to know which places to eat, shop, or see. Well, if you have never been to Paris, by all means sign up at your hotel for one of the efficient highlight bus tours and check off the top ten must-sees in a morning or day. But that’s not really visiting or experiencing Paris to me. So, with that in mind, here are some behaviors and insights that I offer to get by and make the most of a visit to the City of Light.
1. Practice saying hello, which is “bonjour” in French, no matter who you are dealing with. It is the custom. Walk into any shop and say “Bonjour.” Without this magical word, you won’t be treated as nicely. Add “merci” (thanks) and “au revoir” (good-bye) to your vocabulary, too, for good effect. Anyone can learn these three words, and if you have a little background in French, you might gain a good effect by saying, “Je m’excuse de vous déranger” (Excuse me, I don’t want to bother you). Bureaucrats like that … and France is a country of bureaucrats both little and big. These little words have real power. If you are meeting people you know, or who know people you know, be prepared to do the bisous, one air kiss on each cheek.
2. Two essentials you must have when visiting Paris are a small umbrella almost all the time and good walking shoes all the time. Paris is a great, great city for walking — perhaps the best — so be prepared to discover and experience it by foot. When you are heading to a distant destination and want to take a taxi, remember that you do not hail taxis like in New York; you go to a taxi station. At major corner intersections you can usually find a sign with taxis waiting. They head there when empty. Lots of taxis are also on radio call, and you can call (or have your hotel call for you) to get picked up, though you will see when you get into the taxi that you have already been charged for the distance to your pick-up. Paris has a very good bus system, but it is a slow method of transport (though an okay means of street-seeing); and the city’s once-great subway system is now just-okay. At least it is quiet compared with New York, as the métro car wheels are rubber, not metal.
3. Dial down the noise levels you create. Be discreet in public places, at least as far as voice and noise levels are concerned. (But kissing is okay, and plenty of it — another French paradox! — even in public places like in a train, restaurant, or the terrace of a café.) In public places, though, French people, do not care to hear neighboring conversation or loud laughter, whereas Anglo Saxons tend to speak and laugh loudly. Creating “noise” (including phone rings) is particularly rude in an upscale restaurant where every table aims to maintain a sense of privacy and intimacy. Sure, people pick up a line of conversation here and there, but it is unintentional. Also, as un-American as it might be, please don’t talk to diners at the next table, as respect for privacy is high. People will respond as a courtesy, but they don’t like it. Take no offense; it’s cultural.
4. Many restaurants now start serving dinner reluctantly at 7:30 p.m. or earlier, but most French don’t come in until 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. Many French restaurants that are not eyeing foreign visitors do not accept reservations before 8:30 p.m. So, if you want to experience dining in Paris among Parisians, have a late lunch so you can hold out for dinner à la française. When in Rome…
5. Eat and shop where the French do: in small neighborhood cafés, bistrots, boutiques. Every arrondissement (district) has plenty of small shops with unique lines. Pick a small neighborhood hotel (and change arrondissement on your next visit … the Latin Quarter once, then perhaps the Marais, then the 1st or 8th, then perhaps one of the outer neighborhoods) as a function of your interests. When in a neighborhood, don’t be afraid to ask the locals for advice. Most people, Parisians included, like to help people with things they know, like the name of a good hairdresser, restaurant, shop that sells sweaters, and the like.
6. Let’s face it. Some of the top tourist sites, including museum exhibitions, are crowded to the point of being unpleasant experiences. Some are frankly over-rated, so do not think you must see them. If you are keen on them, do like the French and try to avoid the tourist groups. Pick a time during lunch or late afternoon/early evening when both the locals and tourists are doing something else. Also, pick something a little different (read: small and unique) apart from the usual tourist sites as your destination, such as a cemetery (Montparnasse rather than Père Lachaise), a passage (Vérot-Dodat or Verdeau), or a flower market (Place Louis Lépine).
7. Seek out panoramic views. Okay, if it’s your first visit to Paris, you may want to go to the Eiffel Tower where the view is awesome (an apt word), but where the crowd and the noise can be daunting. There are other choices with different views, though, not automatically less beautiful. For instance, consider the sweeping sunset views of Paris roofs from the Centre Pompidou on the 6th floor behind the blue pipes. It is a favorite spot for romantics, artists, and beauty lovers. You can also combine viewing with other pursuits, like shopping (visit the 9th floor panoramic terrace of the Printemps department store), eating (Restaurant Maison Blanche in the 8th has a view of the Eiffel Tower and much more), or church-going (at Notre Dame Cathedral’s towers, there is a magnificent view of the Seine and beyond).
8. Small is beautiful. Paris is filled with big gardens and parks, but when the weather is nice, they can be overwhelming (read: super crowded). Opt for small gems like squares that abound in every arrondissement. Two of my favorites are square Gabriel Pierné down rue de Seine facing the Institut de France or square Jean XXIII along Notre-Dame and the Seine.
9. Be prepared for the once over. Remember people watching is a national pastime in Paris. You can sit and participate at a sidewalk café and nurse a drink for hours. You’ll get a look from the waiter when you either need to pay more rent for your chair or leave. (Hint: you can also smuggle in a pastry or two from your favorite patîsserie.) And when Parisians look you up and down, just accept it and perhaps return the compliment. It is another one of those cultural things.
10. Walking is, indeed, the best way to see Paris, thus the need for good shoes. Everyone strolls along the Seine — I never tire of doing it — and almost any side street off of it has a story to tell. Then there is the Champs-Elysées and the elite shopping rue du Faubourg St. Honoré. But I recommend you walk in a less crowded area. Wander the streets, or look up one of the many recommended neighborhood walking tours. Those street walks reveal history and lessons behind the most casual of doors, and are a great way to experience Paris viscerally. You can also augment your walks with a bike ride by visiting a Vélib’ station; it beats the métro in views and often time. But remember, walking is about “wasting” time ever so pleasantly.
Editor’s Note: Mireille Guiliano is the internationally bestselling author of French Women Don’t Get Fat. Her latest book isThe French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook. Born in France, she now divides her time between New York City, Paris and Provence. She can be reached at mireilleguiliano.comand frenchwomendontgetfat.com.