Paris is a city that inspires near-spiritual devotion in even the most jaded international traveler. Your Paris stay can be a string of magical moments: discovering a tiny neighborhood park, people-watching from a sidewalk table with a café and croissant, or being mistaken for a local at a secret cocktail bar.
But you are just as likely to find yourself in lowing herd of tourists waiting in line to view the treasures of the Louvre or climb the Eiffel Tower. Surrounded by 40 million American, Chinese, Japanese and German tourists (2017’s record-breaking total), you may wonder “are there any French people in Paris?”
If you stay in a central hotel and rush from monument to monument you’ll never discover the hidden, local Paris. In order to experience Paris like a Parisian, start by picking a single arrondissement (neighborhood) to learn by heart. Prepare ahead to blend in, and structure your trip around exploration.
Choose your arrondissement
Francophile and National Geographic Traveler of the Year Tracey Friley has been haunting Paris since her early 20s, and now curates trips for teen and adult travelers. “I go for three months at a time,” says Tracey “and last time I went, I was still saying ‘wow, I have never seen that before.’” You can’t take in everything in one trip, so rather than superficially skimming all of Paris do a deep dive into one neighborhood.
Start by researching an arrondissement that feels like you. Go beyond the obvious areas everyone has heard of. The Champs Elysées is stuffed with tourists and far from other attractions, and the Eiffel Tower, also frustratingly distant from the city’s main sites, is located in a staid and quiet neighborhood. Please visit both, but don’t stay there.
Scan articles and blog posts explaining the character of Paris neighborhoods. Some highlights:
- Picturesque, bustling and eccentric, Montmartre (18th Arrondissement), offers quintessential Parisian street-life and people watching (from airbnb.com)
- The chic, high-energy Marais district (3rd-4th Arrondissement), recognizable from “Midnight in Paris,” is Paris’ most LGBT-friendly neighborhood, with the highest concentration of gay clubs (From the saavvybackpacker.com)
- Edgy, cosmopolitan and artistic, Belleville-Ménilmontant, (19th-20th Arrondissement) is home to African and Asian markets, graffiti art and Les Triplettes, one of the hippest bars in Paris. (from theculturetrip.com)
Get Around Paris
The only rule is don’t drive. Aggressive drivers, traffic and parking can all be a nightmare. Within your arrondissement, walking is how to make discoveries and feel part of the street scene. In some neighborhoods you’ll also have the very affordable option of Vélib bicycle rentals (be aware that Vélib has experienced serious issues in the last year, don’t count on it being available). The Paris Métro is fast and convenient, but your view is limited to people watching. If you have the option the bus can be a better choice, because then you can see the city.
Fashion is a national preoccupation in France. When in doubt, wear all black, the uniform of Paris. You can be comfortable and still be chic, but leave the gym, yoga and hiking clothes at home. Before packing, reboot your fashion brain by hitting a few street-style blogs:
- Men’s Spring/Summer Paris Fashion Week Street Style
- Men’s Fall/Winter Paris Fashion Week Street Style
- Women’s Paris Fashion Week Street Style
- Summer Paris packing guide from travelfashiongirl.com
Your goal is to blend in enough that the hot bartender at the local bistro addresses you in French. Do your homework before your trip to make sure you can say a few words in reply. It’s great to take a French conversation class from the local community college. But make some shifts in your daily routine and you’ll pick up phrases faster:
- Listen to world pop music en Francais, including Stromae (Belgium) and Manu Chao (Spain).
- Instead of playing games on your phone, download a French-language app like Babbel
- Turn of the radio in your car (it’s only bad news) and switch to French conversation CDs
Armed with a handful of French phrases and a sleek wardrobe, you are ready to take a deep dive into Parisian culture.
We’ll give the last word to Tracey. “Paris is different for everyone. Every single person. Go out and find what your difference is.”
For this post Matador is indebted to the experience of National Geographic Traveler of the Year Tracey Friley, founder of The Passport Party Project, which helps under-represented teen girls get their first passport and takes those that qualify on their first international trip. Tracey also curates travel experiences at TraceyFrileyTravel.com, including In Search of Josephine, a five-night tour in the spirit of Josephine Baker.