Visiting Paris? A little planning will go a long way. Here are some tips on what neighbourhoods to stay in, how to get around and where to get all the travel info you need.
Have you ever popped out of a Paris metro station, suitcase in hand, wondering what to do next? I have. Of course those were my I’m-a-free-spirit-and-don’t-need-to-plan days of travel. Since then, I’ve learned that when every hotel is ‘complet’ and jet lag is punching my eyeballs from the back of my brain, my free spirit wilts like a Monet waterlily in a drought.
As much as I still cherish the independent traveller within, I now know the value of planning, especially when visiting Paris, the most popular city for visitors in Europe.
Who is this guide for?
Whether you’re a wide-eyed first-timer, a veteran traveller in need of a refresher, or a young ingenue like Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, this quick and easy travel guide is for you. It’s not an exhaustive list – you’d need a full guidebook for that – but it’s how I like to tackle Paris, the amazing city of lights.
Getting to Paris from the airport
There are various options for airport transfers such as shuttles, private cars and trains. Here are a few:
Train: If you’re flying into Charles de Gaulle Aeroport (CDG), it’s probably easiest (other than a taxi) to take the suburban train called the RER B (Blue line) from the airport in the direction of Paris. Stops include the Gare du Nord, St Michel/Notre Dame (good for the Latin Quarter) Luxembourg, Denfert-Rochereau and Cité Universitaire. You can buy a train ticket right at the airport.
Bus: From Orly you can take the Orly bus to the Denfert-Rochereau Metro Station. From Charles de Gaulle you can take the The Roissy bus from Paris Opera. As well, Air France runs buses to both airports.
Taxi: Currently, there is a flat rate of 50 € from Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport to destinations on the Right Bank, and 55 € to the Left Bank. From Paris-Orly the price is 35 € to the Right Bank and 30 €. Uber is popular in Paris, too.
Getting around Paris
The Paris Metro is convenient, connects directly to the RER and is moderately easy (At least most people say easy, but I still get mixed up.) You can buy a single ticket at the station, a carnet of 10 or a travel pass. Hold on to your ticket as you’ll need it to exit the station.
The Paris RER, as opposed to the metro or subway, are commuter lines that travel into Paris. In central Paris the RER works much like the metro but the lines extend out farther to places like Versailles and Disneyland Paris.
For day trips to places such as Giverny, you’ll need to take the train proper. The main train stations in Paris are the Gare du Nord, Gare de l’Est, Gare de Lyon (if you go, don’t miss the most beautiful train station restaurant in the world, Le Train Bleu, Gare d’Austerlitz, Gare Saint Lazare and Gare Montparnasse.
Finding tourist information in Paris
A popular option for visiting Paris is to wander the streets aimlessly. You’ll want to do plenty of that, but between sitting in cafes and soulful walks along the Seine, you might actually want to see some of the sights that make Paris so beloved.
I usually pick up a copy of Time Out magazine to find out what’s on and get a rundown on museums and top sights. It’s in English and you can get one at any newsstand.
For maps, reservations, transportation advice and information on attractions and day trips from Paris, you’ll find official tourist information points at:
- The Pyramides Welcome Centre at 25, rue des Pyramides
- The Gare du Nord Welcome Centre at the Gare du Nord train station 18, rue de Dunkerque Paris
- A Paris Tourist Office partner can be found at the Reception du Carrousel du Louvre at 99, rue de Rivoli
New! The Welcome Point at Galeries Lafayette Paris Haussmann
Your best bet for personalized service might be the new welcome station at Galeries Lafayette Paris Haussmann, a full-service Welcome Point established by the iconic Galeries Lafayette Department Store and the Regional Tourism Committee for Paris Île-de-France.
Located in the Opéra district on the ground floor of L’Homme, one of the three Galeries Lafayette buildings on Boulevard Haussmann at Place Diaghilev, the Welcome Point is a one stop shop for everything from hotel reservations and booking tickets to advice on where to find the most romantic views of Paris, the best glass of vintage champagne or the quickest way to get to Disneyland Paris.
About Galeries Lafayette Haussmann
You’ll want to visit Galeries Lafayette Paris Haussmann anyway. Why? Their flagship main building might be the most beautiful department store in the world. With its magnificent Art Nouveau glass-and-steel coupole, world-famous window displays (especially at Christmas), rooftop bar and style-salivating displays of French and international designers, it’s the epitome of Paris style and I still regret not buying that Chloé moto jacket, its coral-coloured leather soft as a rose petal.
Best Neighbourhoods in Paris to stay in
Now that you know how to get around in Paris the essential question is where are you going to go? Perhaps even more importantly is the question of what neighbourhood to stay in.
How to choose your area
There are twenty different neighbourhoods, or arrondissements, in Paris and where you stay can define your trip – making it the difference between a dramatic Delacroix painting and a whirl-of-dancers Renoir. So before you look for a hotel or apartment, decide what side of the river you want to stay on (the Left Bank is south of the Seine and the Right is north.) Traditionally, the Left is more artsy, but as communities evolve, it’s hard to hold on to that stereotype.
While many people opt for staying farther out to save on hotel prices, I like to be able to step outside my hotel and be exactly where I want to be without having to get on a metro. That said, I also like to be near a metro for when I need it. Here is a quick reference guide for some of my top neighbourhood picks to stay in.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés – Sophistication on the Left Bank
The small streets around Saint-Germain-des-Prés ooze taste and soft elegance. More about atmosphere than blockbuster sights, this Left Bank neighbourhood offers alluring cafés such as the historic Café de Flore, bustling boulangeries that will haunt you with their scent of fresh baguettes as well as exquisite art galleries and antique shops, their treasures displayed like jewels.
While Saint Germain is many people’s favourite area to stay in in Paris, especially those with class and culture in their genes, it’s not my number one choice. (Let’s be clear, though. If someone offered me a hotel here I wouldn’t turn it down.) The Paris that suits me the best has more pomp, flash and glam, which just goes to show how shallow I am.
Rue de Rivoli– Right Bank Luxury
This brings us to my neighbourhood of choice and whenever I’m visiting Paris I look for hotels here first. Situated on the Right Bank, with the Louvre Museum as a centrepiece, the 1st arrondissement is Paris at its most grand. I love the arcaded street of the rue de Rivoli (which admittedly has too many souvenir shops), having the Louvre at my doorstep and the intimate lounges of the Hôtel de Crillon, Le Meurice and the Ritz Paris within high-heeled walking distance. The fact that it’s near the swanky shopping street Rue St.-Honoré and sights such as the Musée de l’Orangerie doesn’t hurt either.
The Marais – Funky chic on the Right Bank
If you move east on the Right Bank, Le Marais is gay-friendly, indie and chic, with forward-thinking boutiques and vintage shops sprinkled through the streets and foodie-hip restaurants that range from ethnic Vietnamese to classic bistros and Jewish cuisine. While it’s tourist friendly, the Marais isn’t polished beyond perfection and has a feel of authenticity, You’ll find as many locals sipping their café crème here as travellers.
Le Marais is home to the lovely Place des Vosges, one of the oldest squares in Paris, though my top memory of the neighbourhood is staying for two weeks in a hotel on Bad Boy Street, the rue des Mauvais Garçons, which has to be the best street name ever.
Montparnasse, a Left Bank locale with an outrageous past
Many travellers choose to stay in Montparnasse because, while it’s not quite as central as Saint-Germain-des-Prés, there are hotel deals to be had. It’s an ever-changing mix of haute and shady. The historic cafes of Montparnasse have the most deliciously-decadent past imaginable that includes the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and the irrepressible Kiki de Montparnasse drinking themselves silly (or into despair). You’ve heard of Gertrude Stein’s Lost Generation? I’d say they ‘found’ themselves here.
Also, the Montparnasse Tower is an eyesore, but offers one of the best views in Paris.
Latin Quarter – Affordability on the Left Bank
I’ll round up this list of Paris neighbourhoods with a mention of the Latin Quarter, mainly because this was where my first trip to Paris began. Affordable, lively and central, the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank is a magnet for budget hotel seekers, first timers to Paris and students. On the downside, there are also rows of touristy Greek restaurants, crowds and – I’m sorry to insult you, Paris – a lot of its character has been stripped away.
Nonetheless, it gives you quick access to some wonderful Paris attractions such as the Musée de Cluny, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, and Notre-Dame Cathedral, and if you’re visiting Paris for the first time, these should be high on your list.
Other areas to stay in in Paris
Of course there are so many other Parisian neighbourhoods to choose from.
- Trendy and night-clubby is the area around République and Oberkampf, but it’s a bit too far out and chic-gritty for me, and then there is the bohemian Canal St Martin district.
- You could stay in Montmarte, which has a tourist saturated fun village atmosphere and captivating past as a turn-of-the-century artist hotspot, but it looms high over Paris central and you need to take a funicular or a bus up.
- We can’t forget the mythical Champs-Élysées, that wide beautiful boulevard that stretches from the Place de Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe, but which is drowning under tourist trap restaurants and chain stores. (Of course, it’s near the fabulous luxury shopping street Avenue Montaigne, which is always a people watching pleasure.)
- There is the slightly bland but gentile area around the Eiffel Tower, where you’ll find a number of apartment rentals so it’s a popular choice for a long term stay.
- Another area I find a bit blah (don’t hate me!) is the Opéra district but it’s great for visiting the opulent Opéra Garnier or hitting the department stores.
What to consider when planning your trip to Paris
To make your final plans for visiting Paris, think of the atmosphere you want to wake up to, the sights you want to see, the budget you have and how much time you have to spend in the city. With a little preplanning, Paris can be – as Hemingway so famously said – “a moveable feast.”
(He also said it’s “the only city in the world where starving to death is still considered an art” but don’t take that literally, the food is too good for that.)