How Not to Be a Tourist in Paris

How Not to Be a Tourist in Paris

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Paris as seen from the top of Notre-Dame cathedral. Photo: Pedro Szekely/ Flickr

Last year 40 million tourists visited Paris. How can anyone hope to experience the real Paris hidden behind so many eager visitors? Of course, all of it is real, the history, the culture, the food, the fashion, the monuments, but there is also a parallel world of Paris, fascinating, flawed – and even friendly which you can find simply by doing what you like doing rather than ticking off tourist sites. Here are my 10 tips.

    • Don’t stay in a hotel. Book a studio so that you can shop at the markets and eat in some nights, or just make yourself a cup of tea after a long day. Having your own living space, not just for sleeping, will make you feel ‘at home’ in Paris.
    • Go to the same boulangerie and épicerie each day –  in three days you will have become one of the regulars, recognized and welcomed – a nice feeling in a foreign city.
    • Be honest about what you like. Don’t go to endless art galleries just so you can say you saw the Mona Lisa. If you do actually like art, visit less famous galleries and museums to see specific exhibitions, such as the Musée Jaquemart-André, small enough to not be overwhelming and offering a wide variety of exhibitions each year.
Paris. Photo: André P. Meyer-Vitali/ Flickr
    • If you prefer music, check a ‘What’s on’ site before you go to book concerts or find music clubs. And make sure to visit the Cité de la Musique in the Parc de Villette where there is not just the best display of instruments from around the world, but also musicians playing the instruments. Glorious, and not a tourist to be seen anywhere.
    • If you like facts and science, go to the fascinating Musée des Arts and Metiers where you can see Foucault’s pendulum, or an astrolabe, or one of the first ever cameras, and thousands of other treasures of science.
    • If you are a reader, on a sunny day grab a book and a bottle of water and go to a park, pull up a metal chair and read like a local. Try the quieter parks, the Parc de Butte Chaumont, or the park in the Palais Royal.
    • If you like learning, enroll in a class: cheese-making, singing, local history, French language, creative writing. (A confession, I teach a writing class in Paris). It will connect you to like-minded people and allow you to become an insider instantly. 
    • If you like different perspectives far from the madding crowd, take the tram that travels halfway around the outside edge of Paris. It gives you a little seen view of Paris, looking inwards along the rues and boulevards – and only students and other locals are on it. Get on at Pont du Garigliano, change at Porte de Vincennes and continue to Porte de la Chapelle.
Paris boulangerie. Photo: Spixey/ Flickr
  • Take a bike ride along the Seine – both left and right bank are closed to traffic for several kilometers  – bike stations conveniently located on the riverside. Spin past the most beautiful cityscape in the world, the wind in your hair and your heart as light as a bird. But don’t do it on the weekend – it will be packed with walkers.
  • Go walking along one of the vast parks on either side of Paris, the Bois de Boulogne or the Bois de Vincennes, or along the green corridors such as the elevated garden, La Promenade Plantée, starting near Bastille and going all the way to the périphérique, the motorway around Paris. Walking away from the 40 million other visitors will connect you to the real Paris like nothing else will.

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  1. I would like to suggest an additional, don’t-miss-it sight to see, the French National Air and Space Museum at Le Bourget airfield. It is the largest, best-equiped air museum in Europe covering the history of flight from the Montgolfier brothers through Concorde. There are excellent interactive exhibits for both adults and kids. The web site is very informative and can be accessed in English. Make a day of it and have lunch in the museum at L’Helice (the propeller). This is probably your only opportunity to board Concorde. Take the RER B train to Le Bourget, the museum is a 15-minute walk away or a 5-minute cab ride from the station.

  2. You hit a few of my favourite sweet spots in Paris. We discovered the trams a couple of trips back – easy to access, quiet (compared to the Metro) and a moving window on the everyday life of Parisians. And there is a new extension I believe – T1 to T3a out to Asnieres Genevilliers Les Courtilles, the terminus of Metro line 13. Heartily endorse a visit to the Cite de la Musique – we took a guided tour of that amazing place. The organiser allowed us to join a French language tour, even though we don’t speak French, and we were lucky enough to connect with a German woman who was happy to give us the occasional translation. My fond hope is to one day make a visit to Rungis – the huge market on the southern outskirts of Paris. Agaln, the tour is in French and for safety reasons non-French speakers are not catered to – but where there’s a will……:-)

  3. Comment on how not to be a tourist visiting Paris……….
    Not many people, locals included, know about the “isle de cygnes” that starts at the pont de Bir-Hakeim and ends about a mile later at a replica of the Statue of Liberty……..It is a man made island, a narrow strip of land and indeed I saw some swans there in the Seine. Both sides of the island are planted with exotic trees…..Very interesting and no one in sight, a lovely walk back and forth…….

  4. How does one sign up for the creative writing class? I think that would be lovely. Is it taught in English or just French and can one take a single class of many classes? I would only be in Paris for about 9 days…
    Thanks so much…

  5. Great story Patti. I am interested inn a little French language immersion. A couple of weeks language classes would be fantastic, any recommendations of where is good, please?
    Where do you teach creative writing?

    thanks, cheers, Helen
    Sydney, Australia

  6. Great piece! I’d also recommend Parc de Belleville, inaugurated in 1988 on the hill of Belleville, its 108 metres make it the highest park in Paris. At the summit, a thirty-metre tall terrace provides a panoramic view of the city. You’ll find lush gardens and one of the city’s last remaining vineyards. Cafés with a view are found along the Rue Piat at the top of the hill, but I’d recommend the roads and alleys off Rue des Envierges, a uniquely Parisian tourist free zone! This was the last place I visited in Paris, I could so easily have missed it!

    • Hi Nicholas,
      Thanks for this tip. I just love the way we all discover these little known gems – and share them. I’ve been to Belleville a number of times, but not to this parc.

  7. Have to agree with the general advice. Walking is always the thing to do in Paris. The Promenade Plantée is a good one (and note New Yorkers, it predates the High Line by 13 years!). The full length of the Canal St Martin is another. Pere Lachaise cemetery is a favourite of mine because it is so big I have never seen many people there (as long as it isn’t Jim Morrison’s birthday) and seek out Colette to give you bragging rights when you see the movie. I’ll be taking Ed Cobleigh’s suggestion next visit.

    But here’s the real “secret”: you can walk absolutely anywhere, without any plan, and it will be an experience. For some real ‘discovery’ walks, ie. not in any guidebook and seeing unexpected bits of this endlessly fascinating city, stopping at whatever restaurants or cafes you come across. You don’t have to worry about losing your way or any difficulty in getting back, since there will be a Metro station within at least 500m wherever you are. This blog gives many examples; here’s the latest, in the 15th:

    Last year 40 million tourists visited Paris.

    Yes (though I find 33.8m in 2017). It’s a lot but actually probably not quite the scenario the number conjures in one’s mind. Spread over the year and each visitor apparently only staying on average 2 nights, it works out to be about 190,000 visitors on any given day. With seasonal variation perhaps it can reach double this in summer, though maybe not as there are ‘only’ 116,000 hotel rooms in Paris. The point is when you realize there are 2.3 million Parisians and I’ve read that another million Franciliens (residents of Greater Paris, population 12m) commute into the city each working day, most people you see are Parisians. It is only in particular hotspots that you really are mobbed by tourists and of course that is why the advice in this article makes sense.
    Visitors shouldn’t complain about this crush of Parisians because it is the reason why there are so many restaurants, cafes, bistros, brasseries, boulangeries, luxury stores, grands magasins etc. And generally why it is so good–those are 3 million very demanding Parisians! It is why the transit system is so good, with or without visitors, because it is designed for this permanent flux of Parisians. I believe this is why Paris seems to absorb so many visitors without real stress, compared to many other cities, IMO. Equally it is why in peak summer Paris seems so “empty” despite it being peak tourist season, because half or more of Parisians are on holiday.

  8. Hallo All, I’ve tried to reply individually to various remarks, but my responses don’t seem to have appeared – at least I can’t see them – so I want to say a merci beaucoup to all your great extra suggestions! Some of them I didn’t know about, especially the Air and Space museum. The hive mind is a wonderful thing. Also a couple of people asked about French classes and writing classes – in Paris I enrolled at Alliance Francaise for a couple of weeks – loved it.
    For my creative memoir writing class in Paris in October, see:
    and for the next one in Sydney, starting 1st Feb at the Faber Academy:
    Many Thanks, Patti Miller