The City of Light, with its world-leading culture, art fashion, haute cuisine, and of course, romance attracts tourists by the millions every year. The French capital certainly has a lot to offer visitors, but first-timers beware, there is definitely a right and wrong way of doing things in Paris.
Here are a few tips, written by our locally based expert, to help you avoid any Parisian faux pas and make the most of your next trip to this beguiling city.
1) Metro life
While most of our readers will probably be meandering the city by taxi or private chauffeur driven car, the metro is your best option when you need to get somewhere fast. Although you will be far more comfortable in a cab, it’s the best way of avoiding rush hour traffic (despite the Parisian metro’s reputation for frequent delays). It’s grimy and it’s often packed, but aside from its practical prowess of getting you from A to B, it’s also the best place to get to know the average Paris, the real Paris.
Paris Metro sign, source: Flickr Pedro Ribeiro Simões
However, this also means that you leave yourself open to glassy stares and snarls if you don’t stand aside to let passengers off the train before you get on, if you don’t stand up to make room for others when sitting on a fold-down chair, or if you dare to speak English in a loud jovial tone while everyone else is cursing their day. And one last thing: never, ever stop walking. Parisians’ pet hate is, (and you will know it from the loud tutting in your direction) when anyone stops in the middle of a walking crowd.
In France a coffee is an espresso shot, straight up. No milk, no water. You have it first thing in the morning and at the end of a meal. If you want an espresso with a drop of milk, then ask for a noisette (literally translated as a hazelnut). If you’d like a milky coffee then ask for a café au lait (the ‘t’ of lait is silent). Also, if you need a quick coffee fix and you only have a few minutes, have your coffee at the counter. Not only will it will cost you half as much as sitting at a table but also you’ll get to experience the real Parisian bistro atmosphere.
An immovable event in a Parisian’s weekly, if not daily, life is the sacred apéro. Short for aperitif, it can be a drink before dinner but only if eating out at a restaurant or when invited to someone’s home for dinner. On all other occasions, apéro will simply mean several drinks after work at a bar or someone’s home. A variation on the expression is apéro dinatoire but actually both mean the same thing. There will be alcohol (always bring a bottle – no screw tops, even for a picnic) and picky bits to eat. Most people will end up heading home in time to catch the last metro (midnight in the week and Sundays and 1.30am on Fridays and Saturdays).
4) Remember that Paris sleeps (and brunches) on Sundays
Don’t get caught out on a Sunday by trying to go shopping. In France shops close on Sundays. While there is an ongoing debate about making the day of rest into one of work, for now shoppers will have to satisfy their urges with the handful of shops that stay open on the Champs Elysées and in the Marais neighbourhood. There are no set rules here so just make sure you haven’t left that all-important birthday present to the Sunday. One rule that you can abide by however, is brunch. Popular only in the last couple of years due to a young and hip new generation of restaurateurs that have travelled far and wide, when the people of Paris can’t shop on Sundays they brunch. And as it’s a real trend in the city, tables are scarce so book at least a week in advance.
Paris on a Sunday, source: Flickr Alan Hochberg
5) Book your table in advance
In Paris you’re not really a local until you have understood the general trends. People go to an ‘afterwork’ (a bar for happy hour after work) on week nights, they leave Paris on Thursday or Friday night after work for a countryside stint. For those that stay behind at the weekend, there’s apéro or going to a good restaurant on Friday and Saturday and brunch or Saturday and/or Sunday. This means that every inch of table space in the city is taken by 8pm on Thursday through to Tuesday (most restaurants close on Mondays) so book as far in advance as possible, a week to be sure.
6) Don’t be offended if the waiter/ess looks like he or she couldn’t care less about you
A common problem in Paris that is often underlined in jokes about Paris is restaurant staff’s outright rudeness. In most countries the customer is king, however, in Paris it’s often the other way around. However, that is not to say that some places have very honourable service, but unless you know where to go, the chances of finding it are very slim. This sort of waiter is often found in traditional bistros or cafés scattered across Paris. More contemporary establishments generally have better service, but there is still room for improvement. Unlike in America or the UK, waiters won’t expect a tip at the end of the meal so don’t feel obliged to leave anything.
7) Don’t take it personally if people talk back to you in English when you try to speak French
While most people in the world will appreciate it beyond words when you make the slightest effort to say a few words in their language, many Parisians will prefer to put you out of your misery – and theirs – by speaking back to you in English. No matter how good your French is, if you have even a slight foreign accent, then expect to be spoken to in English. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that rather than struggle for your personal pleasure of being able to communicate in the language of Molière and Racine, they prefer to cut the chase because they have things to do, places to be, people to see, and no time to be giving you language lessons while you order a noisette at your nearest bistro.
Parisian café culture, source: Flickr Moyan Brenn
8) A word of advice for gentlemen wanting to meet Parisiennes
Parisian women are renowned for being the paragon of class and sensual chic, but unless you want to end up wearing your drink over your head, gentlemen must remember to approach them with extra care. A Parisienne is a difficult creature to tame because she will 1) outright ignore you if you speak to her, and 2) will shoo you away if you suggest buying her a drink. With those obstacles firmly in place it’s hard to even get a ‘bonjour’. Don’t jump right in and don’t look like you care too much when you finally work up the courage to greet her.
9) Ladies, a word on how to dress
There is an unspoken rule when it comes to attire in Paris. In the winter, everyone wears black and might push it by wearing grey, but anything beyond is a rarity. It’s one of those in-crowd rules of Paris chic, just like the length of women’s skirts. While in some countries it is perfectly acceptable to wear a skirt as short as you like, in Paris it’s another story. Wearing a skirt that’s higher than halfway up your thigh will result in attracting looks from every passer-by, male or female. You will most probably get disapproving looks from women, and as short skirts aren’t common in Paris, the rare sighting of too much leg (even if wearing tights) may drive some men mad, literally. Expect occasional howling or gasping as you pass.
Working woman in Paris, source: Flickr ParisSharing
10) Mind your step
Paris might be the capital of a developed country but the cleanliness of its streets is often more on par with medieval times. Dog excrement often dots the pavements throughout the city. People are only just starting to pick up after their dogs when they walk them, but a lot still don’t. Also, something else visitors should be prepared for is men relieving their urges to pee out on the street, thus adding to the problem of cleanliness. So as tempting as it might be to check your phone and get those late messages sent while you walk to your next destination, keep your eyes peeled at all times if you want to keep your shoes clean.