Top Paris Trip Planning Tips For First-Time Visitors: Know Before You Go

Last Updated on February 19, 2024

The covered passageways of Paris, also referred to as "galeries" or "arcades", offer old-world elegance. Image: Marmontel/Creative Commons 2.0 license
Galerie Vivienne in Paris /Marmontel/Creative Commons 2.0 license

For whatever reason, many first-time visitors to the French capital find themselves feeling a bit nervous during the trip-planning stage. Paris has certainly gained a reputation for being an intimidating place, even though it also happens to be the world’s single-most-visited city.

Whatever the reasons for the nerves it tends to provoke in travelers (especially for those unaccustomed to going abroad or unfamiliar with French culture), the good news is that they can be remedied. If you’re feeling a bit jittery while planning a trip to Paris, keep reading.

Our expert travel tips will give you all the grounding you need to do so confidently. Here are a few simple steps you can take before and during your stay to get around like a pro and enjoy your time to the fullest.

1. Book Your Trip Well in Advance

paris travel tips- plan your trip well in advance

One of the biggest mistakes I see travelers making (and I myself have fallen into this trap) is booking a trip to Paris at the last minute, somehow thinking they’ll snag better deals by waiting it out. Some also put off planning because it can be genuinely overwhelming at first: there are so many choices and decisions to make, and sometimes it can feel a bit like flying blind.

But in reality, planning well on advance is the wiser way to go about it. You’re more likely to be able to find better deals on flights, trains and/or hotels, and will have the time to carefully consider your budget, interests, mobility/accessibility issues, and other factors. (See more on some of these points by scrolling down).

So when is the best time to book?

According to the air travel expert Benet Wilson, many people find the best deals for flights roughly 120 days before a scheduled trip (when flying to Europe from North America). This is especially the case for France’s high season (roughly late March to late September).

But not everyone will be flying from North America, of course. If you’re flying or taking the train to France from within Europe, for instance, you can sometimes lock in great deals closer to your travel dates, especially in low season.

Operators like Eurostar, for example, often put on “flash sales”, and low-cost airlines do offer good fares between European cities, sometimes at the last minute.

My bottom line? I advise that you start planning your trip at least six to eight months in advance– and booking flights from overseas well ahead of your trip. But if traveling within Europe, you might consider signing up for newsletters or other “deal alerts” for trains and flights.

Ready to book? You can find train/Eurostar tickets and discount rail passes here (via Rail Europe) and search for discounts on flights to and around France here (via Skyscanner).

Give yourself plenty of time to look for hotels or other accommodations that suit your budget. You can look for hotels and furnished apartments in Paris at Booking.com, and find deals on accommodations at Expedia.

Consider travel insurance

You may also want to consider whether taking out an international travel insurance policy is something that you and your fellow travelers need. Remember that health care is not free for visitors to France, even though landing in the hospital won’t likely plunge you into debt.

To ensure you get the coverage you need, make sure to read the fine print for any policy you consider– and shop around for the best rates.

2. Pick a Season That Matches Your Interests (But Above All Your Budget)

Our top Paris travel tips: figuring out when to book is a highly personal decision.

While many people assume that Paris is “best experienced” in spring or summer, this is simply untrue. In fact, anyone with tight budgets, intolerance for hot, crowded conditions, and a desire for quieter travel experiences will likely actively dislike visiting the capital between April and mid-to-late September.

As I explain in our full guide to deciding when to book your trip to Paris, every season has its clear perks and charms as well as obnoxious downsides. It’s crucial to carefully consider your budget, the sorts of activities and attractions that interest you the most, tolerance for heat, rain or cold, and other factors before reaching a verdict around when to go.

So if you’re wondering when the “best” time is, I’m afraid you’ll have to figure that one out for yourself. It’s simply too personal for a cookie-cutter answer.

3. Choose Your Lodgings Very Carefully

Paris travel tips for first time visitors: choose a hotel very carefully. Hotel Bleu de Grenelle/courtesy of same
When planning a trip to Paris, make sure to choose a hotel or apartment carefully. Image: Hotel Bleu de Grenelle

As I document in this piece on avoiding bad hotels in Paris, they are very numerous in the capital. I’d venture to say, based on some of my recent disappointing experiences in overpriced, cramped, shabby hotel rooms, that the city has a very poor track record for offering good value for money when it comes to lodging.

This is a shame– and it’s also something you should keep very much in mind before hitting the “book” button on a hotel that looks great in promotional pictures on Booking.com or elsewhere.

Follow these tips to choose your lodgings wisely, and avoid disappointment and stress.

Don’t go too cheap.

In the aforementioned piece on avoiding horrid hotels in the capital, I advise allocating a good amount of your budget to hotels so you can stay in three-star properties, at the minimum.

One and two-star hotels can be shockingly shabby and even unsafe at times, and while there are notable exceptions to this rule, staying clear of them is probably best unless you’ve gotten word-of-mouth recommendations from someone.

Consider self-catered apartments.

While booking a self-catered apartment instead of a hotel isn’t always less expensive (judging from recent listings I’ve seen, they can be equally expensive), you might save money and hassle by having access to a kitchen and other amenities such as washing machines.

When it comes to using Air b n’ B in Paris, I advise extreme caution, having experienced some truly nightmarish places in recent times. I even recommend using the “Superhost” filter on this platform when considering options, to ensure you only make a selection from hosts who have received consistently excellent ratings.

I also advise against booking a catered apartment with few or no ratings from fellow travelers. You need assurance that you’ll be staying somewhere clean, safe and that matches the description.

Avoid the sticker shock of hotel taxes.

Many visitors are unaware of the fact that the city of Paris charges each traveler a per-night tourist tax, on top of the rates charged by hotels and presumably paid in advance. This can lead to unpleasant sticker-shock.

As this goes to press, you’ll be charged roughly 5 Euros per person per night for your stay in hotels or self-catered lodgings (excluding children). Make sure to factor this into your hotel and lodgings budget.

Give yourself plenty of time to look for hotels or other accommodations that suit your budget. You can look for hotels and furnished apartments in Paris at Booking.com, and find deals on accommodations at Expedia.

Need more help? See our full guide to deciding where to stay in Paris for even more helpful travel tips.

4. Buy a Paris Transport Card in Advance (With Options for City Discounts)

getting around in Paris

One of the best things you can do to save a bit of time and hassle when you first arrive in Paris? Buy a transport pass or card in advance of your stay, so you can just hop on the metro, bus or tramway as soon as you need to, rather than having to wait in long lines at metro stations and figuring out which pass to buy.

One thing to know is that individual paper tickets and “carnets” (packs of 10 metro tickets) are currently being phased out by local transport company RATP, which means that you won’t be able to buy them anymore from most stations. They’re instead being replaced by digital passes/travelcards that you can purchase from many metro stations and local tabacs (tobacco shops). You can still use paper tickets and travel passes that you may have bought on past trips, though– not to worry.

Why to Consider the Paris Visite Pass for Transport?

For visitors, I strongly recommend purchasing the Paris Visite Pass, a travelcard that gives you unlimited trips on the Metro, RER (commuter-line trains), buses and tramways. Available for 1, 2, 3 or 5 days, the pass also offers discounted entry/access to numerous popular attractions, including the Chateau de Versailles, Musée Grévin Wax Museum, and many others.

You can choose passes that extend up to 5 travel zones, which means that if you choose access to zones 1-5, you can travel for free to destinations such as Versailles and Disneyland Paris– potentially saving you money and hassle.

See more about getting around Paris and choosing tickets/travelcards and passes at the RATP site (in English). There’s also a very handy itinerary finder there that’s invaluable for plotting your course from one point to the next.

5. Don’t Try to See Everything in Just a Couple of Days

The Louvre and its Pyramid. Cody/Some rights reserved under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

One way to guarantee exhaustion and even a form of travel-induced “burnout” during your trip? Trying to see everything in just a few days. FOMO– or “fear of missing out”, tends to drive a lot of this behavior.

I get it– you have a “bucket list”. You want to cross off every item. Don’t attempt it. Making short, superficial pilgrimages to popular spots and taking perfunctory selfies in front of them never led to a fulfilling travel experience– I’d be willing to bet a lot on that, no matter the beaming smiles you might see on heavily filtered social media posts.

Still, we understand that you’d like to get a good overview of the city. One excellent way to do that (and something I’ve been recommending for as long as I’ve written about France) is taking a sightseeing cruise of Paris on your first or second day.

Boat tours of the Seine: a wonderful way to get oriented and in touch with Parisian history. Guilhem Vellut/Creative Commons
Guilhem Vellut/Creative Commons

These commented, 1-hour cruises show you many of the city’s biggest attractions– from Notre-Dame to the Eiffel Tower and the Tuileries– from the waterside. Sure, it’s just a glimpse, but it can help orient you, and give you a better sense of what you’d like to prioritize during your stay.

And for a real treat, consider a lunch or dinner cruise– one way to add a bit of fun and romance (however cliché) to the picture.

See our full guide to Paris sightseeing cruises and boat tours here, including info on how to book.

6. See the “Big-Ticket Attractions”– But Also Head Off the Beaten Track

Street art on Rue Denoyez in Belleville, where many artists' studios are situated. Image credit: @DrGarcia/Creative Commons 2.0
Street art on Rue Denoyez in Belleville, where many artists’ studios are situated. Image credit: @DrGarcia/Creative Commons 2.0

While it’s more than desirable to see big-ticket Parisian sights and attractions such as the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay and Arc de Triomphe, especially during a first trip, I recommend that you take care not to spend your whole sojourn in done-to-death territory.

If you do (and this is related to what I’ve already said above) you risk getting an overly superficial and caricatural picture of the city, and not really understanding much of local life. It’s important to explore at least a few areas and places that are less commonly swarmed by tourists.

Start by exploring our Paris neighborhood guides and consider taking some time roaming in areas like Belleville: not exactly postcard-pretty, but full of rich history, street art, and fantastic food from around the world.

Next, carve out a morning or afternoon for one or more of these strange and unusual museums in Paris, or at these small, under-appreciated collections.

You can also watch this short video about off-the-beaten-track places in the capital to get a little inspiration and direct your feet.

6. Make Time to Just Meander & Explore (Don’t Over-plan Every Day)

On a related note from the last point, one of the things I think have suffered the most in the age of Instagram, Tik-Tok and endless free online travel guides like this one is that travelers often make “bucket lists” that end up dictating how they spend most of their time in a place.

But this sort of overplanning can really rob you of the possibility for spontaneous discovery and inspiring stumbling-upons. While I do recommend figuring out what you’re most interested in seeing and reserving adequate time for those things, I do encourage you to avoid the mistake of getting so caught up in ticking off items on your bucket list that you fail to really discover things on your own.

A balance is definitely in order, in other words. Take time to just meander, and you might just end up happening on places that will linger in your memory far more than your pilgrimages to pretty places you saw on Instagram will. When you make a city your own in this way, it increases the joy of looking back on the experiences gained through travel– at least in my humble experience.

Familiarize Yourself With Paris’ 20 Arrondissements

To make the task more manageable, I suggest picking a general area of Paris you’re interested in seeing, familiarizing yourself roughly with its main attractions, then heading to the area and letting yourself go into “semi-random wander” mode.

You can of course still plan to see several key places in the area in question, but also set aside time to head up quiet little paths, poke into a neighborhood café that looks charming, or venture into a quiet square you’d never heard of (like the one pictured above, just blocks from popular sights like the Centre Georges Pompidou).

See our guide to the 20 arrondissements (districts) of Paris and what to see and do in each for ideas on where to head. Then go explore.

7. Take a Walking Tour or Two (Including Free Ones)

Leo Goldstein, the creator of the Eating Europe Paris tour, is affable and knowledgeable.
Leo Goldstein, the creator of the Eating Europe Paris tour, is affable and eager to share his knowledge of the city. Image: Courtney Traub/All rights reserved

One of the best ways to get acquainted with Paris’ dizzyingly rich neighborhoods (other than exploring them freely; see #6 just above) is to take one or more walking tours. Whether you’re interested in city history, architecture, food and wine, shopping or something else, there are multitudes of great tours out there– many of which are free.

I suggest starting with the free walking tours from Discover Walks, a company that offers 90-minute tours with knowledgable guides (these are tip-supported tours, so do please consider offering a reasonable tip at the end). The company currently offers free tours of Montmartre, the Left Bank/Latin Quarter, the Marais and a Paris “hidden gems” walk.

Meanwhile, a team of volunteer “greeters” from the Paris Tourist office also offers numerous guided walks around the capital. See more info at this page.

For city history and architecture tours, I strongly recommend (and have experienced) ones from Context Travel and Entree to Black Paris/Discover Paris.

For food and pastry tours, meanwhile, Paris by Mouth offers some excellent guided walks of patisseries, bakeries, cheese shops and other gourmet stops, while Eating Europe offers in-depth gourmet walks that bring together delicious tastings with observations on architecture and history.

GetyourGuide also boasts a variety of intriguing options, from pastry & chocolate tours to walks themed around the artists and writers of St-Germain. You can browse and book tours with them here.

8. Watch Out For Tourist Traps & Common Scams

Crowds around Sacré Coeur, Montmartre/Chakra Kweeo. Tourists in the area are often targeted by scammers.

Next up, it’s always a good idea to learn about some of the most common tourist traps and scams to avoid in Paris, from terrible and overpriced restaurants to taxi rip-offs and ATM dangers

Avoiding these will not only make your trip more pleasant– it’ll also help keep you safe from common (non-violent) crimes and ensure you don’t see your hard-earned travel budget unexpectedly drained.

First, read our full, frequently updated safety tips for Paris, paying particular attention to sections on avoiding pickpocekts, ATM scammers and other common dangers for tourists.

Then read our top tips on how to avoid tourist traps and scammers in the French capital. It includes our full advice on steering clear of restaurants and other establishments that attempt to lure tourists in, but typically offer terrible and overly expensive fare.

And finally, if you’re taking a cab to or from the airport, learn how to avoid overcharging by unofficial taxis. It can be so tempting (especially after a long flight) to just hop in the first one that pulls up to the curb. But trust us: you don’t want to do that.

9. Familiarize Yourself With French Restaurant Types- & Book a Few Good Tables

A common source of jitters (or at least timid feelings) for many travelers is not quite understanding how to navigate many situations in French restaurants. Depending on the format- a casual bistro versus a high-end “gastronomic” restaurant, for instance– the rules around ordering, seating, paying and even etiquette can differ.

It can also be mind-boggling to understand how various restaurant types offer wildly different opening times, menu options, ambiences and dining styles.

Before traveling, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the most common French restaurant types– from brasseries to bistros and “bouchons”– and learning more about what to expect in each.

Another piece of advice I have is to avoid randomly booking too many meals out. Do some research (at this site and even more food-centric sites like Paris by Mouth) to choose a few places you’d really like to try for lunch or dinner.

{Related: Some of Paris’ Finest Traditional French Brasseries}

Then, if you can, book well in advance to avoid disappointment. Trendy places like Septime have months-long waiting lists (I would know as I still haven’t managed to snag a table there…)

10. Save Money on Eating Out & Sightseeing

Where to taste some of the best falafel in Paris? We've got it covered.
Fresh falafel sandwiches are one example of cheap, delicious street food to try in the capital. “Paris02” by rjbreese is licensed under CC BY 2.0

For most of us, budgeting is going to be one of the biggest concerns before and during a stay in Paris (and anywhere, for that matter). I can’t lie: the French capital is a relatively expensive city, and things can really add up if you’re not carefully watching your budget.

{Avoid These Mistakes When Planning a Trip to France}

Your budget can quickly be eviscerated by eating out in formal restaurants too often. In addition to considering staying in a self-catered apartment (see point #3), I recommend aiming to make every second or third meal out more casual.

To make sure you stay in the black and avoid the stress of a rapidly depleting bank balance mid-trip, do these things:

Eat out on the cheap.

Start by noshing on some delicious street food. From scrumptious falafel sandwiches to savory and sweet crepes, Vietnamese-style banh mi, burgers and sweet treats, there’s no shortage of fantastic, inexpensive fare to enjoy from local vendors and takeout places.

See our full guide to the best street food in Paris for where to head (and avoid the bad stuff).

In the warmer months, assemble a typical Parisian picnic composed of fresh baguette, cheeses, fruit from the market and perhaps a bottle of sparkling wine (if you indulge).

picnic on the seine riverbank in Paris, France
Riverside picnics and long nights: some of the charms of summer in the French capital. Image: Nicolas Vigier/Some rights reserved under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

You can pick up some incredibly fresh and delicious, inexpensive components for a déjeuner sur l’herbe (lunch on the grass) by stocking up at a local bakery, supermarket, and/or from farmer’s markets like the marvelous Marché d’Aligre.

Finally, see our complete guide to eating out on a tight budget for more tips on how to slash your food spending while in Paris.

Save money on popular attractions.

Next, if you know you want to see more than a few popular museums, monuments and other attractions during your stay, it can make sense to buy a discount card such as the Paris Pass, which offers access to over 75 attractions and tours in the capital, and is available for 2, 3, 4 or 6 days.

If you love museums and want to see more than 3 or 4 of them, meanwhile, the Paris Museum Pass can offer good value.

{Buy the 2 or 4-day Paris Museum Pass in advance with Viator}

A word of warning about these passes, though: they may not be worthwhile if you don’t use them a lot. So think carefully about whether you’ll take full advantage of them before purchasing.

Meanwhile, all of the museums in Paris operated by the city offer free access for all to permanent exhibitions, so make sure to check out our guide to free museums in Paris. And of course, there are countless free things to do in the capital, from gorgeous parks and gardens to riverside strolls and medieval churches.

See my guide (at TripSavvy) to free activities, sights and attractions in the city.

11. Think About Your Mobility (& Plan Accordingly)

The Paris metro/Dmitriy Nushtaev/Unsplash

I’ve had friends and family from pedestrian-centric cities like New York comment on how exhausting Paris can be. They’ve noted that it demands an almost athletic level of mobility to comfortably use the metro, walk around for hours at a time and navigate cramped sidewalks and cobblestoned streets.

I can’t lie: it can be a challenge for anyone who isn’t accustomed to walking around everywhere, or for those with disabilities or mobility issues of any kind.

Before you go, think carefully about how you plan to get around. Will you primarily use the Metro to get from place to place? Will you stay in the city center so you can easily get to most of the places on your list by foot? Will you take the bus to avoid stairs as much as possible?

Paris is famously not the most accessible city, and despite recent efforts to address problems like an absence of ramps in too many public places, curbs that make wheelchair use difficult when crossing streets, and mostly inaccessible metro stations, change is slow to come.

However, many people who require accessible access to public transportation are pleasantly surprised to find that, once mastered, Paris’ extensive network of city buses offers a great way to zip around the city. Tramways are also accessible, but skirt around the outskirts of the capital rather than serving the center.

Meanwhile, taking guided bus tours and even commented boat tours can be a great way to cover lots of ground while giving your tired feed a rest.

The bottom line is that you can avoid feeling burned out (or frustrated) during your trip by thinking through mobility issues and transport options before you go.

See more about visiting Paris with disabilities or limited mobility in our full guide.

12. If You’re Traveling Solo or With Kids, Read This

A young admirer checks out a Christmas window display at Galeries Lafayette in Paris, 2018.
A young admirer checks out a Christmas window display at Galeries Lafayette in 2018. Image: Courtney Traub/All rights reserved

If you’re traveling alone or as a family with kids in tow, your needs (and limitations) are likely to be pretty specific. For instance, if you’re flying solo you may well not want to walk around by yourself after dark, or eat dinner in restaurants that are too quiet (it can feel a bit like there’s a spotlight on you.) Women and other more vulnerable solo visitors will also need to take special care to read up on safety tips for Paris.

If you’re contemplating heading to the French capital on your own (or are already there), read our full tips on solo travel to Paris.

Meanwhile, if you’re visiting with young kids (or even teenagers), you may find that the usual advice on how to get around, what to see and tips for eating out go out the window in the face of picky eaters, tired little feet and even a frustrating lack of changing tables.

You’ll need to pace yourself accordingly, and find plenty of ways to keep little ones stimulated and happy.

To start, see our advice above on mobility and accessibility, to decide on whether getting around by bus, tramway or taxi might be the best way to go, at least some of the time.

Read my full guide to visiting Paris with babies and toddlers— including sections on where to stay, what to do, and where to find baby changing tables in the capital (with a clickable map).

Next, read up on some of the best museums for kids— family-friendly collections that should keep adults and younger family members interested. Then peruse our guide to the most beautiful parks and gardens in the capital-– many boasting bright and stimulating playgrounds, puppet theatres and other activities for young travelers.

Read my guide (at TripSavvy) to eating out with picky young eaters in the capital, and see this guide to the best things to do with kids in Paris (at Time Out).

13. Learn About French Etiquette (& Some Basic Travel Expressions)

Cafe in Paris, France
Learning basic etiquette rules and common travel expressions in French can go a long way in making your interactions more comfortable.

One of the things that makes first-time travelers to Paris bite their nails is the worry that they won’t be able to communicate effectively with locals, and won’t understand or be able to use proper French etiquette.

While I want to reassure you that people tend to be a lot more relaxed these days than they perhaps once were about formalities, it’s true that observing a few basic rules of politesse (polite etiquette) can go a long way in smoothing your interactions– and perhaps even make you a friend or two.

Read our French Etiquette 101 guide for everything you need to know, including polite greetings and questions in French, eating out and table manners, interacting with servers and others who might assist you, and meeting new people.

Also see our piece on some of the most enduring French stereotypes— and why to ditch them before your trip so you can engage in more meaningful ways with the people you meet and interact with.

14. Take a Day Trip or Two

Monet's gardens at Giverny: one of the 5 best day trips from Paris by train.

Last but certainly not least, if you have more than three or four days at your disposal, I highly recommend taking a day trip (or two) outside the city. Like any major metropolis, Paris can be noisy, crowded and occasionally overwhelming, especially if you stay in more crowded arrondissements closer to the center. Not to mention that France’s diversity is too alluring to limit yourself to the capital. Burgundy, Champagne, and the edge of Normandy are all just an hour or two away.

(Book tickets & tours for popular Paris attractions & day trips here (via Tiqets.com)

If you’re worried about the expense and hassle of renting a car, not to fret: there are numerous superb destinations easily accessible by train and/or shuttle, from Monet’s Gardens at Giverny to the Champagne region and Chartres Cathedral.

See our suggestions for easy day trips from Paris by train here— and go take in some fresh air and new scenery.

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Read our top Paris travel tips, from choosing lodgings & deciding when to book to saving money on your trip.

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