Guidebooks, Hollywood films and starry-eyed stories from friends who visited Paris once or twice are all great ways to get some ideas about France, but there are some important things they might be leaving out. So we took the liberty to provide 10 things you should know about Paris France before visiting!
If you’ve never been to Paris, France but are planning to visit or move here sometime in the future, here are 10 things to know that will help alleviate the initial culture shock and guide you on your French journey.
Things to know about Paris before Visiting: The Parisian métro stinks
That’s not to say that subway stations all over the world are more pristine and impeccably kept, but one thing I’ve heard many visitors (and myself) complain of is the odious stench of the Parisian métro. This is mostly due to homeless men setting up house (especially during the winter months) behind the métro waiting chairs. Also, don’t be surprised if you see them peeing in random corners or scrounging through the garbage cans for scraps of food. There are many who get on the trains as well to beg for money. They often begin by announcing their personal story and proceed to walk down the train asking for restaurant tickets, small change or cigarettes. There are maybe three homeless people I’ve seen regularly throughout the past six years, always on the same métro line. It’s sad, but unfortunately some of them never find a way out of their situation. You can give money if you’re feeling particularly charitable, but by no means are you obliged.
Visiting Paris: You don’t have to tip, but it’s still appreciated
Ok, let me clear this one up once and for all. Tipping is not required in French restaurants. The servers make a normal hourly wage and don’t depend on tips to make a living (like many do in the US). That being said, tips are still always appreciated. Depending on the place, they could be making minimum wage and have to participate in a tip share. One or two euros is enough to show your appreciation for truly good service. Five if it was out of this world. I’ve even left an extra euro for a 2-euro espresso, when the server had been particularly kind, funny, talkative or just looked like he/she worked hard at his job. Having been in the service industry for most of my adult life, I know how stressful and difficult it can be. Any kind gesture counts.
Visiting Paris: Water isn’t free, unless you ask for the right kind
Don’t order the Perrier or the Evian—unless you don’t mind paying 4 or 5 euros for a half-liter bottle. The tap water in France is generally perfectly fine to drink and doesn’t taste bad (in my opinion). You could get a whole other glass of wine in place of bottled water (sometimes it’s even cheaper). I would say the only exception I make is when I’m treating myself to a nice dinner or in the mood to splurge with a date/friend. But really, it’s not necessary. Just order “une carafe d’eau,” and they will bring you a water carafe or pitcher. You might need to adjust to it being room temperature, but trust me, it’ll be okay. Not to mention it’s the only drink that is available for free refills (no soda fountain machines here!).
Things you should know about Visiting Paris: Always say hello and goodbye
The polite thing to do upon entering any commercial establishment, administrative building or even personal space of another person is to greet whomever is within ear’s and eye’s reach. Especially, when you go into a store, the salesperson will likely be the first to say hello, and it would obviously be impolite to ignore them (as it would be just about anywhere else). But you also should take care to say goodbye. It might not be 100% absolutely necessary, but it’s the formule de politesse or the proper way to behave in France. Administrative people can be really daunting and severe, but if you start by addressing them with a hello, they’ll already be more accommodating than if you just walk up and start explaining your situation. And as for the personal space thing, yes, you can say bonjour to unfamiliar neighbors in your building or colleagues at the office. On the street, however, it’s not necessary—though don’t be surprised if French men throw it your way on the regular.
Order une baguette tradition at the boulangerie
Sure, it’s like 25 cents more expensive than a regular old baguette, but the taste and quality is noticeably better. A regular ancienne is doughier and tastes more industrial. It’s not held to as high of standards as a tradition, which is required by French law to be mixed and kneaded by hand, baked in house and free of any additives. That last requirement explains why you should only plan on being able to keep a baguette for a day at most—maybe two, if you reheat it in the oven or nuke it in the microwave to slightly soften it back up. There are only four ingredients allowed: flour, water, salt and baker’s yeast. To me, it’s much more reassuring to be able to recognize all the ingredients in the foods I’m eating, especially when there are few, which means you don’t need that much to make something taste exceptional. And I’m telling you, nothing beats the taste of a crusty, crunchy, golden baguette that’s still warm from the boulangerie. I can never resist taking a bite or two before I even make it home!
While Visiting Paris France: Sometimes, it’s okay to refuse the cheese
If you ever get invited to a French dinner, I hope you’re not a picky eater. It’s considered quite rude to refuse food at these kinds of social gatherings, and that includes amuse-bouches (little bite-size appetizers like Gougères or savory puff-pastry morsels), the appetizer (known as entrée in French), the main course, cheese plate and dessert. You can, however, pass up the cheese plate. It’s the only acceptable course to skip without offending the host because sometimes you get so stuffed on the savory part of the meal, but you’re still eyeing the fruit tart or moelleux au chocolat sitting in the middle of the table. Although, if you’re more into salty and sweet like I am, then by all means dig into that fromage because French cheese is heaven (in my opinion). I’d take a pungent Camembert over a crème brûlée any day.
Things to know about Paris France: Coffee is cheaper at the counter
Paris, along with other towns in France I presume, is full of little budget “cheats” that make it easier to live here without completely depleting your resources. One of which is to drink your café at the comptoir (counter or bar). You can find places that offer it at just 1-euro, which leaves you enough to indulge in the pastry basket while you’re at it. Also, you should know that prices can vary depending on where you’re seated at a café or brasserie. There’s usually a slight upcharge on your meal or drinks when you sit on the terrace instead of inside.
Things to know about Visiting Paris: If you like your meat cooked well, say so
This one shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The French like their meat cooked properly, and to them that means medium-rare or sometimes not even cooked at all (steak tartare, for example). Though with all the tourists in Paris, most places will ask you how you want your meat cooked, but if not, expect it to come out nice and pink. If that’s not your thing, then you need to say you want your meat bien cuite (bee-on qweet aka well-done). For medium to medium-rare: à point (ah pwont); bloody or rare: saignant (sen-yant).
While visiting Paris: Wine is not always an appropriate gift
While in the US, gifting the host with wine or other alcoholic beverages might be welcomed with open arms, in France it’s considered a slap in the face. The host likely will have gotten excellent wine for the dinner or party they’ve organized and will take it as an insult to their taste if you bring something to add to the mix. This isn’t necessarily true for those parties you might attend while studying abroad or casual gatherings when you’re asked to BYOB, but just keep in mind that if you ever start dating a French man and he brings you home to maman and papa, try flowers or baked goods instead.
Things to know about Paris France: Kiss, don’t hug for everyday greetings:
Since living in France after all these years, I’ve come to realize that hugging is a really American thing. When I go home and see close friends and family, the first thing we do is bear hug each other like there’s no tomorrow. Even when I’m there for extended periods of time, and I’ve seen everyone on a regular basis, the standard greeting is an excited embrace. In France, this is not so. You do a quick air kiss or light peck on each other’s cheeks, and you’re done. The French do hug, but it’s usually more in the form of couples caressing each other or when you haven’t seen someone in ages. And you pretty much have to do la bise with everyone you see at a party, even if you’ve never laid eyes on them before. Can you imagine hugging everyone goodbye at the end of the night in the States? Yeah, not so much.
Bonne chance! // Good luck!