9 Common Travel Mistakes to Avoid in Paris, According to a Local
First things first: Even the French — meaning non-Parisians — don't always get it right when visiting the country's capital. Why? Because in southwest France, pain au chocolat is called chocolatine, and in Alsace, they start their bisous (double-kiss greeting) on the left cheek, not the right. That means you likely won't be alone in making a faux pas when visiting. You're a tourist, after all. We know, we know — you want to avoid being pegged as one.
I'd say, leave the fanny pack and sneakers at home — but both are back in style these days, and Paris is known for its trendsetting ways. I learned this the hard way when moving here from New York over six years ago. Since Parisians don't prance around in their gym clothes like Americans, I wore jeans to the studio, only to arrive and realize I left my leggings back at chez moi. Thankfully, this always-be-dressed-to-impress rule has lightened up a bit during the pandemic, but here are a few other steadfast ways that remain.
Here are nine travel mistakes to avoid on your next trip to Paris.
Waiting for Water and the Bill at Restaurants
Let's start with dining out, as eating and drinking in Paris is a favorite pastime and one to be taken seriously. So seriously, in fact, that you won't be rushed out the door upon finishing your meal. Eating is a time to savor both the flavors of the food and the company you keep. This is why the bill won't arrive as soon as your plates have been cleared and you've had your last sip of water. (Speaking of, you'll likely have to ask for water — "une carafe d'eau, s'il vous plait," if you just want tap — unless you're at a super-fancy restaurant.) The bill will only be dropped on the table when you ask for it ("l'addition, s'il vous plait").
Not Saying "Bonjour" Upon Entry or "S'il Vous Plait" and "Merci" Enough
It's one of the first things we're taught in grade school: Mind your Ps and Qs. In Paris, it's also imperative to say "bonjour" or "bonsoir" ("hello" if it's daytime, "hello" if it's nighttime) upon entering a store or restaurant. Eye contact is encouraged, too. Acknowledge your fellow humans. It took me a while to get used to this one, and I'll never forget the time I walked up to someone at a store and launched directly into a question before saying "bonjour." Madame was not happy. When in doubt, simply start with "bonjour."
Forgetting to Book Ahead at Restaurants
Let's get back to dining out. (Did you think we were done? Mais non!) Most reputable restaurants require bookings. For some, that means the night before. For others, it means a week or month ahead. Either way, it's important to put your name on the list. Dining rooms are significantly smaller in Paris, and unlike American cities such as Los Angeles or New York, they're not as interested in turning tables and increasing head count as they are in making something delicious during their set kitchen hours. Generally, this time frame falls between noon and 2:15p.m. for lunch and 7 p.m. and 10:30p.m. for dinner, though there are all-day restaurants and cafés (look for signs that say "service continu"). Not everyone travels to eat, but if you do, plan ahead and make a reservation. Many restaurants have online systems so you don't have to worry whether to use "tu" or "vous" when addressing the person on the other line. (To be safe, always go with "vous.")
Visiting in August or December
If you're traveling to eat at a specific Michelin-starred spot or the new pop-up from a chef you follow on Instagram, avoid visiting in August or December when many restaurants close for vacation. If you're a first-timer or don't care much for croissants and think all baguettes are created equal (see next section), monuments, museums, and parks will all still be open. But, in general, the city does have a quiet, closed-up vibe during these two months. Some love it, while others, like me, thrive on the buzz.
Getting a Coffee at a Corner Café and Buying a Baguette instead of a Tradition
If you haven't already noticed, in France, food is la vie. It may be your dream to visit Paris, sit on one of those wicker chairs facing the street, and order a café crème. It was mine, too. And yes, there is nothing quite like people-watching or reading the likes of Hemingway or Sartre from one of these corner cafés. But if I may, let me remind you of two things: Smoking is still permitted on terraces, so expect whatever you order to come with a side of secondhand smoke. And the coffee at such places is arguably not good. You're better off ordering wine or a beer if all you want to do is imbibe and take in the scene. Quality bean lovers should seek out any number of the newer craft coffee shops that now proliferate Paris for a true filtre (long, black drip coffee) or a crème where the foam isn't the equivalent of overly soapy bath bubbles.
At the bakery, meanwhile, ask for a tradition (tradi if you really want to seem like a local) rather than a baguette. The latter is white inside, leavened with yeast, and often mass-produced, so it's not quite as delicious. A tradi is usually made with sourdough starter by hand on the premises; therefore, it's much tastier. If you're lucky to get one straight out of the oven, I dare you not to devour the entire thing on the way to your destination.
Eating or Drinking On the Go
Speaking of eating or drinking on the go, Parisians don't really do it. Again, food and beverages are meant to be enjoyed and ingested slowly — not in a rush, over your computer, or on the metro. The only thing I've ever seen people eating on the street while walking is a sandwich or baguette (likely because it's hot — and yes you can still call it a baguette colloquially even if you order a tradition). Coffee is rarely ordered to-go or had en route; even eating apples or bananas on the street may cause people to scoff. And while there are certain dos and don'ts at the table, too — like proper ways to cut cheese or pour wine — Parisians are ultimately an international bunch. So, if you want to eat a hamburger or slice of pizza with your hands while they cut theirs with a fork and knife, go ahead.
Touching Anything Without Asking
When it comes to getting handsy, just don't. Or, as the French say, "ne touchez pas!" Now that we're all living in a COVID universe, this should go without saying. But markets have become more strict. In the before times, produce vendors would let shoppers choose their own peaches, plums, and pleurote mushrooms, but it's best to ask first now. The same rule applies at any of the weekend brocantes (flea markets) dotting neighborhood streets. Many of the items for sale are valuable and fragile, so it's better to catch the seller's attention and point rather than caressing the porcelain salt and pepper set like it's already yours.
Buying a Weeklong Pass and Throwing Away Metro Tickets
The citywide transport system is finally phasing out its paper tickets. But they do still exist and many people prefer to buy a handful of tickets rather than upgrade to the new digital card, which currently requires you to talk to a station agent. (After they give you the card, you can top it up at the machines yourself.)
If you plan on sticking with the paper tickets, it's important to keep your used ticket until you exit the station at your destination. You may be tempted to throw it away immediately, but the metro is highly monitored and you will get fined if you don't have a ticket to show that you paid for your ride. That said, you're likely going to walk almost everywhere, so unless you're here for an extended stay or will be commuting to and from a specific place regularly, don't bother buying a weeklong pass. Many popular Parisian sites are so close together that you may want to walk and enjoy the attractions along the way.
Hailing a Taxi in the Middle of the Street
If you're not up for walking or taking the metro, car services are everywhere — and that includes old-school taxis. (Official taxis say "Taxi Parisien" or "G7" on the vehicle.) But you can't hail one in the middle of the street as you would in Manhattan. There are designated taxi stands from which to hop in and go. That said, Uber is widely used, so you can also order one from wherever you are. Fares range depending on the destination, but rates from the airport are always the same: From Charles de Gaulle, it's €50 for a Taxi Parisien or private Uber to the Right Bank and €55 to the Left Bank; from Orly, it's €30 to Left Bank and €35 to Right Bank.