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While the City of Light is known the world over for its many iconic and picturesque sights — the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Élysées, Nôtre Dame Cathdral, the Louvre and Montmartre just to name a few — and tastes (Nutella-filled crêpes fresh off the street, anyone?), there are also a few things you might not have known about this enchanting city, and as a former Paris resident, I’m here to help. Here are five things to keep in mind during your next trip.
1. You Don’t Have to Only Eat French Food in Paris
French cuisine is obviously a highlight of any trip to France, but the other options on offer in Paris — like Michelin-starred Asian restaurants and some of the best Lebanese and Moroccan food this side of the Mediterranean — are not to be missed either. French chef Adeline Grattard oversees the kitchen at the Michelin-starred Restaurant Yam’Tcha, a Franco-Chinese dim-sum house that’s absolutely amazing. There’s also the Shang Palace, the only Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant in France — Yam’Tcha is considered to be fusion, hence the title held by the Shang. Delicious Moroccan tagines and couscous are readily available across the city, as is tasty Lebanese cuisine. For a quite bite, swing into Noura, a Lebanese chain where you can sit down and enjoy a meal or grab a tasty shawarma to go.
2. When in Doubt, Head to the Nearest Café
One of my favorite pastimes in Paris is to take a seat at a little sidewalk café, order a coffee and just watch the city pass me by. Many visitors with the same idea will plop themselves down at a table and ask for a café au lait — absolutment pas! (Absolutely not!) This is a great way to get gawked at and peg yourself as a tourist, degrading what is already often shoddy service from infamously terse waiters. In Paris, one asks for a café crème, or just simply un crème, and starting off this way will show off a little local know-how and ingratiate yourself to French waiters, who are a feisty bunch at the best of times.
3. Take a Ride Around Town With the Vélib Bike-Share Network
If you were to think of a city in Europe where everyone gets around by bike, Amsterdam and Copenhagen are probably the first to jump to mind. But the City of Light is now as bike-friendly as it ever was, so leave le Métro behind and see it by bike instead. Paris has the largest — and speaking from personal experience, the easiest to use — bike-share system in Europe, called Vélib. You can set the whole thing up on your phone before you go and use the app to find the nearest stations to pick up and return your bike. The rates are incredibly affordable, too, running only 1.70 euros (~$2) for 24 hours or 8 euros (~$8) for a whole week! Just create your own pin, enter it at each station and off you go! French novelist and Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano famously said of Paris, “At that time, Paris was a city that matched my heartbeat. My life couldn’t have written itself anywhere else than in her streets. It was enough to walk alone, at random, in Paris and I was happy.” If you’d rather see the city on two wheels than with your own two feet, this is the perfect way to do just that!
4. Resist the Urge to Bring Home Soft Cheeses
Given the recent terror attacks in Europe, it’s not all that shocking to see airport security reacting accordingly (thankfully). What gets me, though, is the strict interpretation of what counts as liquids, gels and creams, which somehow includes foie gras and soft cheeses like brie or camembert. When you’re clearing security, the French definition of things that must be placed in a plastic bag and kept under 100mls is “liquids, crèmes, gels et pâtes” or “liquids, creams, gels and pastes. That last one — pastes — can be widely interpreted in French, and I once lost a fabulous wheel of Camembert au Calvados because of this. If you plan on bringing home any cheese, foie gras or other soft foods that could be seen as being “creamy” or “pasty” as souvenirs, make sure you don’t buy them until you’ve cleared security! Otherwise, they will be taken away and likely consumed by the security staff. To avoid this dilemma, there’s a great gourmet shop in Duty Free at CDG that makes an easy alternative if you’re leaving from terminal 2E, although there’s definitely an uptick in price at the airport, so be consider yourself warned about that, too.
5. There Are a Ton of Train Stations — Don’t Mix Them Up!
For first timers, arriving in Paris by air is challenging enough. You’ll likely fly into Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), but there’s also Paris Orly Airport (ORY) and if you’re coming in on Ryanair or another low-cost carrier, you may well end up at Beauvais–Tillé Airport (BVA). But if you think keeping three airports straight is complicated, just wait until you try to catch a train! Paris boasts no less than SIX major train stations, and where you’re coming from or going to will determine which one you’ll be using. Here’s a quick cheat sheet to help you keep track of them all:
Gare du Nord: Thalys and Eurostar service, TGV trains to northern France
Gare de L’Est: ICE service to Germany, TGV service to Luxembourg and other points east, some regional service and night-trains to Munich, Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow.
Gare de Lyon: TGV service south of Paris, including trains to Lyon, Provence and the Côte D’Azure, Italy, Spain and Switzerland
Gare d’Austerlitz: Most night trains leave from here, also some intercity service
Gare Montparnasse: TGV service to Brittany, Burgundy, Normandy and trains to western France
Gare St. Lazare: Mostly regional service, as well as some intercity service to the Normandy region
Best of luck and bon voyage!
What are some of your favorite things to do in Paris? Tell us about them, below.
Featured image courtesy of PhotoPlus Magazine via Getty Images.
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