Paris Travel Tips

7 June 2011
Paris Vélib

It’s that time of year again. Paris vacationers are infiltrating the city in search of cultural indulgence and a needed respite from their frenetic, stressful daily lives. This also means I’ve been getting more inquiries about what a first, second or tenth-time visitor to Paris must see, do and eat to make their experience memorable.

But where do you go and what do you do once you’ve covered the basics? How can you see more of the ‘locals’ Paris?

1. Bike it or walk it 

The public transportation system in Paris is arguably one of the most efficient and reliable in the world, even with recurrent strikes. But the city is also one of the most accessible by foot and bike. During the warmer months, swap the scorching metro cars for a vélib or bike rental. Keep in mind that to use the Vélib bike-share system, you must have a credit card with a chip which exempts most Americans from taking part. Fortunately, there are many companies that offer affordable rentals that can have you soaring through Paris with ease in no time. Both means of visiting allow you to meander little passageways and hidden streets which always make for an adventure.

If biking really isn’t your thing, walking the city is not only feasible but practical for frequent stops (photo opportunities, people watching, crêpe breaks, etc.). Of course, if you want to mix biking and walking with the occasional public transport ride, opt for the bus. You’ll still take in the view all the while exposed to more air circulation than the underground alternative. One of my favorite ways to see Paris is by jumping on any bus and seeing where it leads me.

UPDATE: Vélib now offers online reservations without the need for a micro-chip credit card! More info HERE:

Helpful links:

How does Vélib work?
Cheap bike rentals in Paris

2. Take your meals to the park

Whenever I travel, I quickly reach a saturation point with restaurants. Dining out is certainly crucial to the Paris experience but when each meal is consumed seated for a good several hours, likely with wine, my stomach (and waistline) starts to fuss. Packing a meal and picnicking in one of Paris’ many parks and gardens allows you to control how much you eat, keeps you outdoors and might even have you mingling with locals.

What to pack? Any local supermarket or open-air market is a great starting place for picnic basics – fruit, veggies, deli meats, cheese, etc. – but a trip to a bakery will be necessary for fresh bread to accompany your meal (seriously, don’t even think about buying bread in the supermarket, it’s sacrilegious).

Inexpensive but suitable wine from the supermarket will accompany any picnic nicely but for expert advice, head to one of the thousands of wine shops and cellars (cave à vin) that pepper the city streets. Nicolas is a decent chain but for more pointed recommendations seek out an independent caviste – a reader suggested Chapitre20 in the 4th, I often shop at the Cave du Daron (also a wine bar) and Le Verre Volé on rue Oberkampf for natural wines; both are in my neighborhood. Or if you’d rather grab tasty take-out before sprawling out on a picnic blanket, Pink Flamingo (who will even deliver directly to your picnic spot along the Canal St. Martin), Al Taglio, Nanashi, Cojean, Soli or even a corner bakery, make for excellent picnic fare.

Helpful links:

Parks and Gardens in Paris 
Paris Open-Air Markets
Find a Nicolas shop in Paris

Picnic by the Seine

3. Aim small with museums

There is no shame in admitting that you’re not particularly keen spending your vacation hours in a museum, regardless of how famous, breathtaking or culturally enriching it may be. I’ll be the first to admit that when I visit a city, I experience it by walking, observing and eating and then, if there is an exhibit that strikes my interest, I’ll add it to the to-do list, but it isn’t a must for me.

The Louvre, though astounding and historically important, is overwhelming, particularly for those with only a mild interest in art. I enjoyed my first few trips through the different sections of the museum but I was always impatient to get back outside and explore. That said, I much preferred my visits to smaller museums that easily fit into my packed travel schedule. If you’re like me (and many Parisians) and still want the cultural experience but on a smaller, less intimidating scale, there are many excellent museums to choose from:

  • Musée du Parfum: Fragrance museum, free tour available
  • Musée Marmottan Monet: collection of over 300 impressionist and post-impressionist works by Monet, Degas, Manet, Sisley, Renoir, and others. 
  • Rodin Museum: beautiful gardens, stunning location, can be done in a couple of hours. 
  • Carnavalet Museum: works dedicated to the history of Paris; conveniently located in the Marais 
  • L’Orangerie: art gallery of impressionist and post-impressionist art in an old orangery on the Place de la Concorde side of the Tuileries Gardens

4. Visit the supermarket 

Perhaps one of the best ways to understand a culture, after people-watching and café hopping, is to make a visit to a local supermarket. That might seem strange initially but markets are actually prime locations for informal ethnographic research. How do Parisians eat? What don’t they eat? How much do they buy at once?  What do they wear while food shopping?

Of course if you’re mostly interested in bringing home something delicious, all the more reason to  head to the market.  Though significantly impacted by globalization, many supermarkets still continue to carry local delicacies in addition to an array of packaged treats which still remain part of French cultural heritage today.

For a more upscale experience, you can’t leave without stopping at the Bon Marché‘s gourmet grocer. Paris’ premier specialty market, La Grande Epicerie carries over 33,000 products from all over the world, features world famous pastries and desserts (including cupcakes) and boasts a large section of prepared foods which will come in handy for picnics. Keep in mind, however, your wallet might take a beating.

Any additional ideas? Leave them in the comments section for others to consult.

**Thanks to Easy Jet Holidays for naming this post of the month! See the others HERE**