Central Paris, with a population of 2.1 million people (2005 statistics), has a very small area of just under 100 square kilometers. No corner is farther than six miles from the square in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral. Therefore, it is possible to cover Paris completely by foot, if desired. The most visited city in the world has a fascinating, romantic 2,000 year history; no wonder every visitor finds something that resonates deeply within them.
Paris has an excellent, reliable, inexpensive, user-friendly and safe public transportation system. Driving a car or motorbike or scooter for tourists is definitely not recommended, unless you have an unfulfilled desire to be a NASCAR racer and are willing to take on all the risks that come with that! In Paris, drivers zip crazily around the city, motorcycles and scooters weave at top speed between cars, driving rules are sketchy and parking is extremely difficult. Visitors usually never have the need to venture outside of Central Paris to the banlieue (suburbs), with a population of over 10 million, however, transportation is plentiful should the need arise.
The currency in France is the Euro, indicated by the € symbol (for example, 10 €), and all prices on goods, services and at restaurants include taxes. What you see for anything is what you pay. Tips at cafés and restaurants are almost always included, although a small amount of a few euros could be left, if desired, for excellent service. Check your currency exchange rate before you arrive.
Paris is a modern, bustling city, with up-to-date and high-tech systems, yet is filled with medieval charm and ways that are steeped in rich history. Some laws and practices date back centuries, therefore some quirky things about Paris and how it operates are puzzling to newcomers; indeed, to the French also!
Paris was at one time a walled city and is comprised of 20 arrondissements that spiral out from the centre (see the map here). The escargot-shaped Paris is split into the Right Bank (Rive Droit) and Left Bank (Rive Gauche) by the River Seine. It is easy to recognize which arrondissement an address is located in by the postal code, which consists of five numbers and starts with ’75.’ For example, an address in 75018 is in the 18th arrondissement, 75005 is in the 5th and so on. Each of these districts is vastly unique and has a different ‘feel’ to them, giving the city one of its nicknames – City of a Hundred Villages.
Paris has retained many of its mom and pop shops, and therefore is sprinkled with small bakeries, cheese, chocolate, wine, meat, fish and vegetable shops, and dozens of street markets happening on any given day of the week, such as the Bastille and Poncelet markets. For this reason, Paris shops, stores and markets have bizarre and varied opening and closing times. Many stores/restaurants still observe old-world customs by closing for two or three hours around lunchtime.
Paris is a multi-cultural city with a strong North African/Arabic influence, which sprinkles￼delightfully throughout the markets, restaurants/food, fashion and other cultural endeavors. Parisians can be seen dining on exotic fare such as cous-cous and tagine, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, African and all kinds of cuisine from around the world. Asian gastronomy abounds in the 13th arrondissement and Belleville; Jewish in the Marais; African and the West Indies in Chateau-Rouge; Moroccan in Ménilmontant; and Indian in the area around Passage Brady.
Generally speaking, European cities are safer than North American ones, and this holds true for Paris. Despite the media’s highly blown-out-of-proportion publicity about riots, these events mainly take place outside of central Paris in the poor suburbs, where few tourists venture. Paris’ leaders have built huge, wide avenues for groups to march down, as well as massive monuments to gather at. So, the French march and protest and go on strike and probably always will. These manifs are considered normal and everyone joins in. They are for the most part, peaceful.
The main differences between European cities and American ones can be generalized as follows: in Central Paris there is generally speaking very little ‘gang’ mentality (the French are highly individualistic people); no groups of troubled youth riding around in cars looking for trouble (they don’t have cars), no guns being toted by individuals, illegal drug-usage is much lower and there is very little property crime (it is very difficult to penetrate most Parisian buildings which were built like impenetrable fortresses)! Most windows in apartments and hotels have heavy shutters that close completely over them, keeping out noise and intruders!
Pick-pocketing is the most common crime occurrence in Paris, and is very easy to shield yourself from. This means carrying an over-the-shoulder bag; no wallets in back or easy to get into pockets; no flagrant flashing of money while paying for things; no fumbling for metro tickets with wide-open purses. Don’t place your phone or Palm on table tops while at cafés or dining. Don’t hang your purse over the back of a chair. Use common sense and simply don’t give pick-pocketers opportunities to snitch your phone, wallet or purse.
Women may have to ward off the persistent attentions of ‘drageurs,’ local men who profess their undying love to foreigners. These men are more annoying than they are a danger. The best way to deal with them is to simply ignore them, don’t talk to them or look at them. Pretend they don’t exist and they’ll soon move onto greener pastures.
Excerpted and adapted from the ebook “Insider Paris Guide for Practical Paris: Everything You Need to Know About Paris But Didn’t Know to Ask!” by Karen Henrich.