My friend Sally is going to Paris for the first time at Christmas. Despite being very well travelled, she’s a bit anxious and has asked me for some advice. It got me thinking about what I wish I had known on my first trip to Paris.
1. French waiters and sales staff are not rude, just misunderstood.
Unlike in some Anglophone countries, French waiters and salespeople are not there to be your friend. To get good service in a restaurant or café attempt some basic French and don’t be afraid to ask for help with the menu. Do it confidently and the waiter will respect you for it. In shops, make sure you greet the salesperson – a cheery ‘bonjour Madame/Monsieur’ will do the trick. In French shops it is also polite to ask before handling the goods. A friendly ‘au revoir’ as you leave will also stand you in good stead.
2. Parisian department stores are brilliant for both shopping and eating.
They are also good if the thought of a French waiter or snooty sales assistant terrifies you. Le Bon Marche on the Left Bank has the best foodhall in Paris (called La Grande Epicerie, in a separate building opposite the main store) but the least approachable sales staff. Au Printemps and Galeries Lafayettes side by side on the Right Bank both have great eating options at keen prices and are better set up for nervous tourists. They are also far more crowded and can be unbearably busy.
3. Don’t buy one of those transport cards for the Metro before you leave.
They are expensive and you rarely get good value from them. Instead buy a carnet (10 tickets, can be shared between your group) from a vending machine at any Metro station – usually take coins only, English screen instructions available.
4. Never underestimate the length of a queue at a popular tourist site.
France is the most visited country in the world. Because of this it is possible to wait for hours at the popular sites in Paris. There are two ways to avoid this: buy a Musée Pass which will enable you to use the (usually) much shorter queue reserved for Pass holders at the museums that accept them. For other sites (such as the Eiffel Tower) it is best to go either first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon.
5. The best cheap tour around Paris is the number 69 bus.
Running from the Eiffel Tower, the Invalides, past the Musées Rodin, Orsay and Louvre, then up to Père Lachaise Cemetery all for the price of a bus ticket (around 1.30 euros one way). A great and cheap way to orientate yourself to Paris!
6. Bonjour, merci and au revoir said with a smile and with confidence can take you a long way in Paris.
If you can manage a few more words you will get great service, have an enjoyable experience and never be scared of a French waiter again!