I was always scared of going to Paris. I had heard so much about it. People loved it, were raving about it, were infatuated by it. But somehow, instead of making me want to go there myself, it always just put me off.
What if I didn’t like it? I couldn’t tell anybody that… Better not risk it.
Then – out of nowhere – an opportunity arose, to speak at a conference in the city of love. I suddenly had a reason to go and all the pressure fell away.
And you know what? I LOVED it! I loved the sounds and smells. The colorful houses and high rising buildings. The fact, that sitting in a cafe at 4pm with a glass of rose was somehow OK. And the baguettes – oh the baguettes!
Yet, I can imagine that Paris can be overwhelming and feel a little bit like a tourist trap, especially if you don’t visit for a (work-related) purpose, or get to stay with local friends who can give you the ins and outs of the city. I was lucky enough to have both, and thought I’d share my top tips for seeing Paris like a local.
Now, this is easier said than done – I was fortunate enough to stay with my friend and former Travelettes contributor Marie, but what if you don’t know anyone in Paris who could host you?
Couchsurfing and Airbnb will be your best friends! Not only will your hosts be able to give you insider tips for where to go and where to eat, you will also most likely stay in a residential area as opposed to a hotel in a touristy part of town.
What I liked most about staying like a local was the opportunity to also shop like a local. Quickly I made my way to the neighboring fruit and veg shops, found a boulangerie and bought everything I needed for a home-made snack. Don’t forget, having access to a kitchen also saves you lots of money! As a vegan I was dependent on this and loved how I could bring sandwiches for lunch on the go.
As much as I love the excitement of traveling to new places, I also love the feeling of having a routine wherever I go. Staying local, shopping amongst locals and following a “normal” daily routine like everybody else around me, makes me feel much more immersed in the local culture.
Sightseeing with Locals
Even though I stayed with my friend, I knew she would not have an awful lot of time to show me around. So I found myself another local with the Showaround app. Anybody can sign up for Showaround and offer their services as local tour guide to visitors. I chose a tour with Julia, a photographer originally from the Ukraine, because I was interested in what it’s like to live in Paris as a freelancer and wanted a guide who understands that I need to take my time to get the best photos.
Our route was pretty basic sightseeing: we met at the Grand Palais, walked across to the Louvre, made our way to the Opera and up to the free rooftop terrace of Galeries Lafayette and finally walked all the way up through Pigalle and Montmartre to Sacre Coeur; on the way she pointed out loads of street art and gave me tips for places to eat and drink in – Paris 101. The benefit of touring with a local however though, was that I also learned a lot about moving to Paris, what flats look like and how to find them, and what it’s like to find French friends. I got Julia’s personal perspective on Paris and life in Paris, and no self-guided walking tour could ever give me that!
Local Favorites in Paris
When asking Julia and my friend who I was staying with for their top sightseeing tips, I barely recognized any of them. Forget the Louvre, Sacre Coeur or the Eiffel Tower (not really though…) – make your way to these lesser known sights:
Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac features art and artefacts from indigenous cultures in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania. It is located next to the Eiffel Tower and is quickly becoming a favorite among visitors, even though it only opened in 2006. I found the art to be exhibited in a very respectful manner and it appears that the museum also works with indigenous tribes to collaboratively bring special collections into the museum. The architecture of the museum itself is spectacular, and when you visit you should definitely check out the massive garden wall facing the Seine. – I got this tip from Sophie from Ooh My World.
Musee d’Orsay is Julia’s favorite museum, but sadly I did not manage to visit it myself – this time. It lies right on the Seine, across the river from Tuileries Garden in an old railway station. It holds the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art in the world and features masterpieces by Monet, Manet, Cezanne and Van Gogh.
I was recommended Musee de la vie Romantique by Marie. The museum is largely dedicated to the romantic literary figure George Sand, but also featured other pieces of art of the Romantic period. It is located in a beautiful little house in the 9th arrondissement and is a great refuge from the busy streets of Montmartre.
On my last day I decided to follow my friend Marie’s advice and visit Jardin du Luxembourg – the Luxemburg Gardens. The sun was finally out, after a few days of heavy rain, and the park was bustling with life, despite it being a Monday. Kids were playing with their rented electric boats in the pond, young and old people were sitting in the sun, getting tan or reading a book, and it seems even business meetings were relocated to take place in the beautiful garden surroundings.
Similarly beautiful, but much wilder was Jardin des Plantes – the Botanical Garden behind the University Sorbonne Nouvelle. As I spent most of my time in Paris at the university for the conference, I visited the botanical garden one day after the talks were over. Unfortunately, the greenhouse was already shut, but the garden was still open to wander and explore.
Eat & drink in Paris like a local
One thing I realized in Paris is that people eat dinner a bit later than where I’m from. It’s not as crazy as Spain or Greece, where you often have to wait until 10pm, but I found many locals eat dinner around 8pm and that’s when restaurants get busier. During the weekend, definitely make sure to reserve a table – especially at smaller restaurants – and be aware that many places are closed on Sunday and/or Monday.
I have written more about my for experience in Paris as a vegan here, and that’s where you’ll find my favorite restaurant picks.
My favorite way to end an evening (or an afternoon indeed) was to sit down in a traditional Parisian bistro – the ones with the tables on the pavement with chairs facing the street – and order a glass of wine, or two. People watching is what it’s all about, and I felt slightly more Parisian doing it myself!
For cool events look out for the SOUQ Festival, which I sadly had to miss while I was in Paris, but is a local favorite!
Walk, walk walk
The best way to get a feel for the city is to walk as much as you can. Paris is one of the world’s most famous cities, and yet, I was surprised to find that it is fairly small and totally walkable! If you don’t believe me, check out this post!
Cycling is another very local mode of transport, but it can be quite intimidating, because local traffic is slightly crazy…
If you need the metro to get around or simply want the convenience of it, I’d suggest to get a batch of 10 tickets in one go – especially you stay for a few days or have a friend to share them with, as the price per ticket is cheaper that way!
With these tips in mind, I hope you spend a fantastic holiday in the city of love and get experience Paris like a local.
What’s your top tip for Paris?
All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.