Tips for Tourists in Paris: Part 2
You're here! You've officially arrived in Paris.
At the Hotel
French hotels are generally very pleasant places to stay. The staff will work hard to help you, and most staff will speak some English (though maybe not the maids, but the front desk should.) Hotels are different here, though, so it helps to know a few things.
- Rooms are smaller. MUCH smaller. Paris is the geographic size of Fargo, ND, with the population density of 5 TIMES that of New York City. Space is extremely precious here. (If you wanted to buy a tiny one-bedroom apartment, you could pay as much as a half million euros for it [600,000 USD]. Seriously.) The hotel is not trying to rip you off with a small room; this is just the way it is.
Light switches are often outside the room. Not for your bedroom area, but for the bathroom. I think it's stupid (what if someone turned the lights off when you were, um, indisposed?), but that's where they are.
The hotel may offer a breakfast, but it is not an American one--their breakfast is tartines et café, meaning rolls and bread with butter and jam, and a tiny cup of espresso. If you can't handle espresso, ask for either "café Américain" (they will just dilute it with hot water) or "café crème" or "café au lait" (diluted with hot milk.) There likely won't be a coffee maker in your room.
If they have a hair dryer, I'd suggest using theirs. The higher voltage is very hard on American appliances (my friend had her curling iron literally melt when she was in Spain.)
They may ask you to leave the room key at the desk when you go out. This is for your protection, but can be a little unnerving. Just tell them the name and room number when you get back, and you'll have your key. This doesn't mean they are going to steal your stuff (they are professionals, after all) but this will avoid lost or stolen keys.
If you need anything (extra blankets, pillows, forgot your razor), just ask. They want to make your stay pleasant--it's their job!
- Transportation in Paris is great. The Métro, RER (fast train) and Bus all run on the same tickets, and can get you anywhere you want to go very easily and quickly. Have a map with you at all times (the one from Galeries Lafayette given as free in the hotel is a good one.) Sometimes, taking the RER or bus is easier and faster than the Metro (they were designed to fill in the gaps where the metro failed) so check those as well when planning your trip. Asking your hotel staff can help, too (they live here, after all.) You may think that walking all the time will be the best, but you'll probably tire out after a bit, and the metro and bus and RER will be there for you when you need them! They run from early morning until after midnight.
- Tickets: you can buy individual tickets (1.40 right now), a Carnet (10-pack, for 11 euros) or what's known as a "Carte Orange", which is like an unlimited pass. The Carte Orange HEBEDOMAIRE is the weekly one. It starts Monday and goes through Sunday, and if you use it 3 or more days you will likely get your money's worth. It costs about 15 euros. This is the best value, because it is unlimited, so you are not paying a euro or more every trip you take. They also sell a "Paris Visite" pass, but I've found that it's kind of a rip off, if you are mostly staying in Paris proper. If you are going out to some of the other monuments and using public transport to get to CDG airport, then it may be worth it for you. You can buy these at the "Guichet" booth inside the entrance of most metro stations. If it says something about "munis de billets" on a sign over the entrance, there won't be a guichet at that door. Find another entrance.
Riding: the metro and train lines run all over Paris, and the direction is told by the name of the last stop on that line. For example, line 5 runs from Place d'Italie to Bobigny. If I want to go toward the north, I head to the side that reads Bobigny. There are lots of signs when you get in directing you to which platform you need, and it will list all of the stops on the line, so you can be sure that the one you need is there. Once you're in the Metro, you're in, so if you make a mistake, you can just get off and go to the other side and get back on. This also works for transfers--you don't need a new ticket to transfer from one line to another.
Getting On and Off: The doors only open automatically on line 1 and 14, so on the others you'll need to push the button or lift the lever. If it's packed, don't sit on the fold down seats, and keep your stuff and arms and legs close to you. Hold on to the pole--you can get hurt if they stop fast (which they do.)
You'll hear that the french don't smile. This isn't true, they do. But just like in any big city in America, if you smile all the time people will think you are either stupid or really naïve and you will be more of a target for pickpockets. If you laugh or smile to someone who doesn't know you, they will probably assume you are making fun of them, especially if you can't reassure them in perfect Parisian French. You know you're not, but they don't. Their culture is different, and even though you mean no harm, they won't necessarily understand. Smile and laugh with your companions, fine, but don't expect to chat up your neighbor on the train.
Avoid touching your face after being in the train/bus. I am convinced that this is a breeding ground for illness. Wash your hands ASAP!
Watch for pickpockets on the train and platforms, and especially at tourist spots (they LOVE the churches!) Don't bring everything with you, and leave your passport in the hotel safe if you can. Men who can keep their money in a front, inside jacket pocket will be less likely to be picked. Women's purses worn in front of the body with all zippers closed are more secure. Be aware. In front of Sacré Coeur, someone will probably try to tie a string around your wrist, and then make you pay 5 euros for it. Just say "Non, merci." and walk quickly away. Even if you say it in English, they'll understand.
Sortie is the word for Exit. There should be some maps of the area posted near the exits, so you can get your bearings.
If you go to Versailles, you have to have a ticket that goes out to that zone (zone 4), and returns. Buy it at the guichet for the RER, and make sure you say "Bonjour" and "Do you speak English?" before you begin. The clerks can be helpful, but deserve to be treated with respect. The person at the desk will tell you which train to take, if you ask. If they don't tell you, ASK. The French are not known for offering lots of information before you request it--you often have to ask them exactly the right question to get the answer you need. Also (this is really important) you can save 90+ minutes waiting in line by buying your palace tickets with your train tickets at the guichet. Well worth the extra few minutes speaking to the clerk!
See Part 3 for Language, Politeness, and Museum tips.