Traveling light in the City of Light
If you explore one magical corner of Paris every hour, you would have to stay in the City of Light for decades to get through the most basic "must-see" list. Iconic Parisian experiences range from Saint Germaine cafes to world-famous museums like the Louvre, itself worth a few weeks of your undivided attention. Hop-on-hop-off buses and boats can help get you where you want to go without a fuss, but you'll still need a few tips to navigate this gorgeous city with grace and delight.
Getting around Paris
The first, best tip for adventuring in Paris: get a geographical sense of the place before you begin. It's a big, complex city, but organized in an easy to understand grid. The heart of the city is sliced by the river Seine into the northern Rive Droite (Right Bank) and the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) to the south.
Paris has 20 arrondissements that are municipal districts referred to numerically from the 1st to the 20th arrondissement. The 1st arrondissement is in the very center of the city and includes the Louvre, then the others spiral out clockwise. Each has its own personality and famous elements. The cathedral Notre Dame is in the 4th, the Sorbonne and student quarter in the 5th, the Eiffel Tower in the 7th, the Champs-Elysees in the 8th. Study a map until you get the hang of how it works and you'll have a much easier time finding your way around.
The second all-star tip for getting around Paris is called the Metro. Paris has one of the oldest and most efficient municipal railway systems in the world with over 300 stops on color-coded lines. Master the Metro and you have the city at your fingertips. The RER is a special Metro line that travels within the city but also outside its boundaries. RER trains will take you in from – or out to – the airports for a very reasonable fee.
The Seine makes a big loop in downtown Paris, and many of the top tourist sites are centered in this area. So taking the Bateaux Mouches (or Batobus) is another way to get around. These boats circle the Seine and let you get on and off at will. For example, you can get on at Notre Dame, disembark at the Orsay Museum, reboard a few hours later and get off at the Eiffel Tower. You'll also find buses and trams that offer hop-on-hop-off features.
Hopping on, Hopping Off
Even in the City of Light, the concept of the hop-on-hop-off bus remains the same. You buy a ticket, then choose all day long where to get on and where to get off. The buses whisk you from one exciting stop to another, each worth hopping for, like the Champs de Mars, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Champs-Elysees.
One interesting option is to pop for a Paris Pass. It gives you a hop-on-hop-off day on the Big Bus plus free tickets and fast-track entry to top attractions including the Louvre, the Pompidou Center and the Opera Garnier. You get other advantages too, like free rides on the metro and buses all day long.
You can, instead, buy only a Big Bus ticket for a hop-on-hop-off experience, or opt for a competitor, such as Foxity or Paris L'Open Hop-on-Hop-off. L'Open, like the Big Bus, offers buses with open-air upper decks. Booking online saves you from standing in lines. Obviously, the lines, as well as the buses, will be more crowded in summer when locals pour out and tourists pour into Paris.
Pedal and leg power
Lots of people prefer to explore Paris on foot. And designing your own walking tour has a lot of advantages and much less stress.
Another way to get around Paris these days is by bike. The Velib bike rental company offers cool, sexy bikes at various sites around the city. You buy a ticket, then pick up a bike at any site and return it to the same or a different site within 30 minutes. You can continue 30-minute rentals all day long.
Popular Paris and high/low seasons
Paris is the most visited city in the world, with some 27 million tourists arriving every year. Avoiding crowds is just not possible. But, July and August are the worst choices since Parisians flee the stifling city, while American tourists fill Paris streets.
Spring and fall offer pleasant, cool, sunny weather and lighter crowds. Winter means snow and colder weather, but the holidays can be magical with Christmas lights everywhere.
Buying a ticket to ride
Whenever possible, buy your tickets in advance. That means transportation tickets within Paris, tickets to the museums and Bateaux Mouch tickets too. With millions of visitors from all countries touring the city, the fewer lines you have to stand in, the better. Many tickets are available online, and your hotel may be able to get you those that aren't.