Inviting sidewalk cafes, gleaming boutiques, world-class museums, and a fabled restaurant scene make Paris the runway model of cities — beautiful, fashionable, confident, and inspiring envy at every turn.
But with expectations running so high, Paris can—yes, it's true—occasionally disappoint. When you find yourself elbow to elbow with throngs of tennis shoe-wearing tourists, tucking into yet another overpriced meal, you'll wonder how the Paris that travelers fall in love with has proved so elusive.
Unless, that is, you read and discover how to avoid the top ten mistakes first-timers make in the City of Light.
1. Don't Shop on the Champs-Elysées
The Champs-Elysées may once have been the most beautiful avenue in the world, but its fortunes have risen and fallen many times over the years, and it's currently overrun with global chain stores, auto dealerships, and movie multiplexes. Aside from the über-glam Vuitton flagship, which draws label addicts in droves, you'll find yourself dodging throngs of teens as you trudge past McD's and Sephora, wondering what in God's name all the fuss is about. And whatever you do, don't succumb to hunger on this strip: The cafés prey on tourists, and a local wouldn't be caught dead in one.
INSTEAD: Follow in the well-heeled footsteps of locals.
Die-hard fashionistas should head straight to the designer shops of the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois in the chic Marais neighborhood, while haute-couturistas should point their stilettos in the direction of the Avenue Montaigne, for the likes of Chanel, or the Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré, home of trendsetting concept shop Colette. For old-fashioned ambience, look to Paris's covered passages. Dating back to the 19th century, these were the city's first malls, and beneath their vaulted ceilings of glass and wrought iron, you'll find more unusual wares: French designers, but also antique book dealers, art galleries, quirky toy shops, and more.Galerie Vivienne, just north of the Palais Royal, in the second arrondissement, is the most elegant of the lot.
2. Don't Get Starstruck at Mealtimes
Home to 66 Michelin-starred restaurants, Paris is a foodie's paradise. But a lot of pomp and circumstance—not to mention sky-high prices—accompany most of these traditional fine-dining establishments. (The prix fixe dinner at three-star L'Arpège, for example, will set you back a staggering $480. And that's before wine!) Does the idea of half a dozen waiters hovering buzzardlike around your table sound appealing? Or how about spending as much on dinner as you did on your plane ticket? No, we didn't think so.
Instead: Have your dinner à la mode.
Recently, several Michelin-starred chefs have abandoned the rigid confines of haute-cuisine restaurants to open convivial bistros that serve up simpler (yet still outstanding) meals. And the locals are just crazy about them. Yves Camdeborde's pioneering Le Comptoir du Relais, in the sixth arrondissement, is so popular that it can be hard to get a table. But once you're sampling Camdeborde's famous foie gras terrine for a fraction of what you'd pay elsewhere (the weekday dinner prix fixe is about $68), you'll understand why the place is booked months in advance. If you can't get in at dinner, try arriving by 11:45 am for lunch (reservations are not accepted, so it's first come, first serve). Christian Constant's charming Café Constant, in the seventh, is another popular option that serves impeccably prepared favorites, such as roast chicken, for a mere $20. Still hell-bent on a Michelin-star meal? Try booking at lunchtime, when many restaurants offer excellent-value prix fixe menus.
3. Don't Spend All Day at the Louvre or Musée d'Orsay
The Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay are Paris's most celebrated museums, and yes, they do house some famous works of art. But don't for a second think that they're your only—or, indeed, even your best—options. The lines to get in can be harrowing in high season, the crowds are exhausting, and the sheer quantity of art on display is overwhelming. If the prospect of beating back the hordes seems like it will detract from the experience (and, really, how could it not?), don't despair.
Instead: Get to know Paris's lesser-known museums.
Many of Paris's smaller museums contain equally important and beautiful art—and are often more pleasant, since you won't be elbowed out of the way by a photo-snapping swarm. You'll find Monet's famous Nymphéas (water lily) murals in the Musée de l'Orangerie, at the far end of the Tuileries Gardens. The Musée Marmottan is home to the world's largest collection of Monets. And the Musée Rodin, housed in a luminous villa with a lovely garden, is one of the most romantic places in all of Paris. Not in the mood for an art lesson? There are plenty of museums in Paris that focus on lighter and frothier fare, including fashion, wine, and money. Once you've discovered the pleasures of these intimate galleries, you might be hard-pressed to bother with the Louvre at all.
4. Don't Commit a Fashion Faux Pas
For starters, don't ever, even in the sweltering dog days of summer, think about wearing a pair of shorts in Paris unless you really want to be treated like a hapless tourist. As the French would say, ça ne se fait pas (it simply isn't done). And while you're at it, leave those gleaming white running shoes at home, too. As a general rule, Parisians avoid dressing like they're going to climb Mount Everest, and while you're in their town, so should you. On the other end of the spectrum, don't overdo it just because you're headed to the world's fashion capital.
Instead: Take a crash course in French style.
Parisian style isn't really about dressing to the nines; the French are quite casual these days—they've just mastered the art of the clean, coordinated look. Here are a few tips to keep your attire simple, tidy, and thoughtfully assembled: Black is always a good bet (or gray, if you really want to go nuts); accessorize with a single bold scarf, hat, or jewel (but, please, not all three at once); and make sure things fit the way they should (no sagging or squeezing). Complete your outfit with a fitted jacket and the best shoes in your closet. The final effect should look utterly effortless.
5. Don't Get Around Town in a Cab
Taxis can be hard to come by and can't be flagged down on the street (you need to call ahead for one or find a taxi stand). Cabbing around town also leaves you vulnerable to Paris's famously snarled traffic: Careening to a halt on a narrow one-way street, then watching the meter tick ever upward while you're trapped behind a double-parked car, is a definite buzzkill.
Instead: Take to heart the French word flâner.
While flâner technically means "to stroll," it more generally suggests "to walk the city in order to experience it"—words to live by in the City of Light. The center of Paris is only a couple of miles wide, maps are ubiquitous, and the rewards for taking to the streets on foot include world-class window shopping, observing flirtatious exchanges taking place in sidewalk cafés, and walking off that extra croissant. Worried about dog droppings? Fear not, the city has cleaned up its act. When going longer distances, hop on the Métro. From any given spot in Paris, you're never more than 500 yards from the nearest station; it's cheaper than a cab and often faster, too. So there's really no excuse—unless you've stayed out late (the Métro closes at 2 am on Friday and Saturday nights and 1 am the rest of the week). We wish we could recommend Paris's inexpensive Vélib' bikes (the gray models you see lined up on the street), but the rental program is off-limits to most visitors since a smart chip–enabled credit card is required to access the system.
6. Don't Seek Out Bohemian Ambience on the Left Bank
Sartre and de Beauvoir may have loved Les Deux Magots on the Boulevard St. Germain, but these days, this onetime hangout of intellectuals has all the authenticity of Times Square. You're far more likely to find yourself cheek to jowl with your tourist brethren than eavesdropping on any famous philosophers. You may, however, find yourself delivering a tirade on the immorality of charging $16 for buttered toast and orange juice.
Instead: Find the "real" Paris on the Canal St. Martin
Bobo (short for bourgeois bohemian) hipsters have laid claim to the area around the Canal St. Martin, a once-derelict part of the tenth arrondissement that now buzzes with cafés and hip boutiques, particularly along the Rue Beaurepaire. Settle at a sidewalk table at Chez Prune, the see-and-be-seen ground zero for this trendy Right Bank 'hood (36 Rue Beaurepaire; 33-1-42-41-30-47), sip your café crème, eavesdrop on the locals, and enjoy the views of the picturesque canal—and bask in the smug knowledge that you've found a corner of real Paris.
7. Don't Waste Time at the Eiffel Tower
In 2009, 6.6 million people visited the Eiffel Tower and, like lemmings, embarked on the laborious task of reaching the top. After trudging through one labyrinthine line for tickets and re-queuing for the cattle car–like elevators, you'll start to lose faith in the whole endeavor. And just when you think the ordeal is over, there are the lines to get back to terra firma.
Instead: Enjoy dinner and a view
An infinitely more civilized approach to the whole Eiffel Tower business is to book a table at Les Ombres, the rooftop restaurant of the Musée du Quai Branly. The restaurant's glass latticework ceiling (like a dragonfly's wing) makes the most of its tall neighbor by enabling diners to feast their eyes on the tower in its gorgeous entirety while dining on French classics such as foie gras, oysters, and grilled steak. The view is at its most magical at night, when the tower glows ethereally and bursts into manic sparkling every hour. At dinner, main courses start at $40, but there are excellent deals to be had at lunchtime ($34–$52 for two to three courses). Or you can just head to the adjoining salon de thé to toast your savvy tourist skills with an alfresco flute of champagne.
8. Don't Book the Cheapest Hotel
Finding a decent Paris hotel for a reasonable price can bring even the savviest travelers to the brink of despair. You might find a screaming deal at a big chain hotel and think you've got it made, but once you're sitting in a beige I-could-be-anywhere cube on the outskirts of town, you'll realize that you're missing out on the Parisian atmosphere in the city center.
Instead: Book a furnished apartment
Furnished apartments can be found to suit absolutely every budget and taste. You'll be amazed at how much living space you get for your money—especially if you plan to stay for more than a couple of days—and you don't have to eat out for every meal.
The real estate mantra "location, location, location" definitely applies. When in doubt, opt for an apartment in a single-digit arrondissement and check how close the nearest Métro station is. And if the price seems too good to be true, try to find out what they may be hiding. Do-it-yourself services abound (Airbnb, VRBO), but if you want to leave it to the experts, try a rental agency (Paris Perfect Guest Apartment Services and Haven in Paris are reputable options). Once you're in your private pied-à-terre, glass of wine in hand, listening to the sounds of the neighborhood through the open windows, you'll feel like you've truly arrived.
9. Don't Fill Up on Croissants
We all swoon over those flaky golden crescents. But it would be a big mistake to limit yourself to Paris's best-known pastries and miss out on deluxe confections that aren't as well known, or as easily accessible, across the pond.
Instead: Munch on macarons.
Unlike macaroons, the dense coconut cookies in the United States, French macarons consist of two meringue-like cookies bound together by a delicious ganache. A few patisseries, Ladurée in particular (pictured), have been carrying macarons for ages, but recently these have become the hottest sweet in town. Debate rages among Parisians over which are the city's best; to decide for yourself, sample rose at Pierre Hermé, caramel with sea salt at Ladurée, and orange-ginger at Gérard Mulot.
10. Don't Buy Into Stereotypes
Yes, we've all heard plenty about Parisians' legendary rudeness: The waiters are surly, the salespeople unhelpful, and everyone else is snobby and standoffish. It's true that Parisians are more reserved than most Americans and less apt to break into wide, toothy grins every time they meet someone new. Theirs is not a culture of instant BFFs and "Hi, how can I help you today?" extroversion. But you won't be doing yourself any favors by assuming that the locals don't like you—and then being rude in return.
Instead: Be mindful of your manners.
Try to understand (and imitate) the local customs and you'll no doubt be amply rewarded for your efforts. Do learn a few French words and phrases. Even if it's just a crash course on the flight over, and your delivery is less than perfect, the fact that you're trying will win points. Salespeople in smaller boutiques greet customers and expect to be greeted in return: A simple "Bonjour, Madame" upon entering a shop will do wonders for your status there. And note that French people tend to talk softly—their voices never carry in the streets, on the Métro, or even when they're sitting at the next table. Keep your voice low, too, and some of your neighbors might even venture a smile.