Nancy Monson finds some surprises in Paris when she returns to the City of Lights after a ten-year hiatus.
I made my first trip to Paris ten years ago this past October and was pleasantly surprised at how well the city of my memory matched the city today. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find some surprises in Paris. After all, great cities are always evolving: That’s how they stay world-class worthy.
If you are a first-timer or haven’t visited the city in quite some time, here are 10 surprises in Paris you should know about before visiting:
Surprises in Paris
1- You’ll get by speaking English
English is widely spoken here—many menus and signs are in French, English, and often, Chinese, too. I even found out that some movies were shown in English with French subtitles. And most locals were happy to help me with the language barrier, particularly if I asked, “S’il vous plait, parlez-vous Anglais?” (Please, do you speak English?) first. This was a nice contrast to previous visits going back to the 1980s, when not knowing French was a hindrance and Parisians were loathe to talk to déclassé Americans!
2- The city is friendly
Parisians are more friendly today than they are given credit for—again, especially if you make an effort to speak a little French. They appreciate the effort you’ve made to talk in their own language and see it as a sign of respect. Apparently, the friendlier vibe is a result of recent terror attacks in Paris, Europe, and America, and in preparation for the 2024 Olympics that will be held there. The government has launched campaigns urging service people to be nicer to visitors as a way to bolster tourism.
3- Watch where you walk
Campaign or not, it doesn’t mean the French won’t be brusque with you on the sidewalks, where Paris is a dog-eat-dog world and they’re taught not to smile at strangers (This can happen in U.S. cities, too.) The sidewalks tend to be narrow and in ill repair with potholes and a mélange of textures from sand to pavement to gravel. It’s a trick not to slip or get knocked off of them as you pass others. Parisians seem blissfully unaware of the risk (or other people) as they talk, smoke and window shop. On the upside, there seems to be less poop on the sidewalks than when I visited before. (I’m told there is a rat problem in parks, but I didn’t see any of these rodents—and, of course, most large cities, including New York, have rodent infestations.)
4- Watch out for bicycles and scooters
Parisians bike and use scooters and motorcycles frequently—and yes, they are aiming straight at you with their vehicles, so watch out and stay out of bike lanes. If you’re brave enough, you can join the natives on bikes and scooters that are available for rent throughout the city.
5- Rooms haven’t gotten larger
Moderately-priced and budget hotel rooms are tiny and minimalist, as they are in most European countries. I stayed in the three-star Timhotel Palais Royal near the Louvre. The room was clean, the bed was comfortable and the Wi-Fi was free. But the bathroom was so small I could sit on the toilet to brush my teeth. And it took some finesse to turn around in the shower. To reach my room, I had to take a small, somewhat rickety elevator to the sixth floor. And the doors and walls were paper thin, so noise came through from the hall.
6- There’s an abundance of good bakeries
There’s a patisserie/boulangerie (bakery) seemingly on every corner, one better than the next, displaying mouth-watering delicacies, desserts and baguette sandwiches. Bakeries are as ubiquitous as Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks in the US. (And yes, there are several Starbucks stores in Paris). If it weren’t for the miles that I walked each day, I would have gained five pounds over my ten-day visit!
7 – Expect lines at restaurants
There are often lines, both at lunch and dinner, for popular restaurants that don’t take reservations. Restaurant space, like hotel space, is at a premium, and many restaurants are tiny hole-in-the-walls with just a few tables. I noticed lines for many Asian restaurants around my hotel and at Frenchie’s Wine Bar in the popular Montmartre area of the city (although you can make reservations for the spectacular five-course meal at the regular Frenchie’s across the street).
8 – You’re likely to blend in
You don’t have to dress up or wear designer clothes to blend in. Except in the high-brow areas on the Right Bank (the Ritz, the George V-Intercontinental) and the Champs-Elysees, most French men and women dress casually the way Americans do. They don’t wear as much color—black is the go-to shade, with pops of bold color in their scarves and hats. I often saw men in jeans, and women wearing leggings/jeggings or short skirts and boots as well as flowy skirts and dresses. Of course, they look effortlessly chic even when dressing down in a way that is hard to emulate.
9 – Small dogs allowed
You can bring small dogs almost anywhere, including restaurants. And many people walk their dogs without a leash. (I was fascinated by one young couple with a baby and a dog. He was pushing a stroller along the impossibly narrow and uneven sidewalk. She was walking beside him smoking a cigarette, while their bulldog walked sans leash in front of them.)
10- Paris isn’t built on a grid
You’ll definitely need a smartphone GPS to get around. The city is built around the Seine River. The funky side where the Sorbonne is located is called the Left Bank. The more upscale side where you’ll find the Louvre and the Champs-Elysees is called the Right Bank. While it’s easy to traverse the river via the many footbridges, getting around once you’ve landed on one bank or the other can be difficult. That’s because most of the streets are set on diagonals and are built around roundabouts (which typically look like lovely courtyards, with sculptures in the middle). So it’s easy to set out in the wrong direction.
*Guest contributor Nancy Monson is a freelance travel coach, writer and artist. Her articles on travel, spas, lifestyle, health, nutrition, crafts, creativity, pets and entertainment have been published in numerous magazines, such as AARP The Magazine, Family Circle, USA Today Go Escape, Woman’s Day and Women’s Health. She is also the author of three books. Follow Nancy on Instagram.
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