Paris, both the capital of France and of the historic Île de France region, is located in northern central France. Dubbed the “City of Light”, Paris is known internationally as the most romantic city in the world – which some say is fast becoming a cliché.
Paris stimulates the senses, demanding to be seen, heard, touched, tasted and smelled. From romance along the Seine to landscapes on bus-sized canvases to the pick-an-ism types in cafes monologuing on the use of garlic or the finer points of Jerry Lewis, Paris is the essence of all things French.
The Paris basin lies midway between Brittany and Alsace, and is affected by the climates of both. The Île de France region records the nation's lowest annual precipitation, but rainfall patterns are erratic; you're just as likely to be caught in a heavy spring shower or an autumn downpour as in a sudden summer cloudburst. Paris' average yearly temperature is 12°C (54°F) (3°C/37°F in January, 19°C/66°F in July), but the mercury sometimes drops below zero in winter and can climb to the mid-30s °C (high-80s/low-90s °F) or higher in the middle of summer.
As the old song says, Paris is at its best in springtime, even if it is sometimes a little wet. In winter Paris has all sorts of cultural events going on, while in summer the weather is warm and lazy - sometimes sizzling. In August, when Parisians flee for the beaches to the west and south, many restaurateurs lock up and leave town too, but this is changing rapidly and you'll find considerably more places open in summer than even a decade ago. Things can get a bit hectic around Bastille Day and towards the end of the year so reservations at this time are a good idea.
In general, Paris is a safe city and rarely experiences random street assaults or the sort of violent confrontations witnessed during the riots that flared in October 2005. The so-called Ville Lumière (City of Light) is generally well lit, and there's no reason not to use the metro before it stops running at some time between 00:30 and just past 01:00.
Metro stations that are probably best avoided late at night include: Châtelet-Les Halles and its seemingly endless corridors; Château Rouge in Montmartre; Gare du Nord; Strasbourg St-Denis; Réaumur Sébastopol; and Montparnasse Bienvenüe. Bornes d'alarme (alarm boxes) are located in the centre of each metro/RER platform and in some station corridors.
Nonviolent crime such as pickpocketing and thefts from handbags and packs is a problem wherever there are crowds, especially packs of tourists. Places to be particularly careful include Montmartre (especially around Sacré Cœur); Pigalle; the areas around Forum des Halles and the Centre Pompidou; the Latin Quarter (especially the rectangle bounded by rue St-Jacques, blvd St-Germain, blvd St-Michel and quai St-Michel); below the Eiffel Tower; and on the metro during rush hour. Take the usual (and obvious) precautions: don't carry more money than you need, and keep your credit cards, passport and other documents in a concealed pouch, a hotel safe or a safe-deposit box.
Paris is not particularly well equipped for les handicapés (disabled people): kerb ramps are few and far between, older public facilities and bottom-end hotels usually lack lifts, and the metro, most of it built decades ago, is inaccessible for those in a wheelchair (fauteuil roulant). But disabled people who would like to visit Paris can overcome these problems. Most hotels with two or more stars are equipped with lifts, and Michelin's Guide Rouge indicates hotels with lifts and facilities for disabled people. For details of sites that provide facilities for the handicapped, go to en.parisinfo.com.
Nationals of the EU, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel do not need visas to visit France as tourists for up to three months. Except for the citizens of a handful of other European countries, everyone else must have a visa.
To apply, you'll need a passport (valid for a period of three months beyond your departure date from France), a ticket in and out of France, proof of money and possibly of accommodations, two passport-sized photos and the visa fee in cash.
Tourist visas cannot be extended except in emergencies (eg medical problems). You might try contacting the Préfecture de Police (www.prefecture-police-paris.interieur.gouv.fr) for guidance.
Many of Paris' significant sights are strung along its river, and its quartiers each have their own distinct personalities, so you can experience a lot without covering much ground. The museums, monuments and the two islands are a magnet for visitors but it can be just as rewarding to wander.
Arc de Triomphe
Tel: 01 55 37 73 77 (info)
The Arc de Triomphe is the world's largest traffic roundabout and the meeting point of 12 avenues. From the viewing platform at the top (284 steps up), you can see the avenues - many named after illustrious generals - radiating toward every part of Paris. Tickets to the platform are sold in the underground passageway - the only sane way to reach the base of the arch - that surfaces on the even-numbered side of Ave des Champs-Élysées. France's national remembrance service is held here annually on Nov 11th.
Basilique du Sacré Cœur
Tel: 01 53 41 89 00 (info)
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart, perched at the very top of Butte de Montmartre (Montmartre Hill), was built from contributions pledged by Parisian Catholics as an act of contrition after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Construction began in 1873, but the basilica was not consecrated until 1919. A 234-step climb up narrow spiral staircases takes you to the dome, which affords one of Paris' most spectacular panoramas. It is, however, outside on the steps where the action takes place - lovers, buskers, locals and foreigners all converge to take in the vistas and each other.
Tel: 01 42 25 96 10 (info) / 01 40 76 99 99 (booking)
Bateaux Mouches runs the biggest tour boat company on the Seine. Cruises depart from and return to the Pont de l'Alma and pass the Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower in the west, and Île St-Louis in the east. The night time spectacle of Paris shimmering off the Seine on a summer evening is an unforgettable experience.
Catacombes de Paris
Tel: 01 43 22 47 63 (info)
In 1785, Paris decided to solve the problem of its overflowing cemeteries by exhuming the bones of the buried and relocating them to the tunnels of several disused quarries, leading to the creation of the Catacombes. Visitors to this disturbing 'attraction' will find themselves 20m (65ft) underground, working their way along corridors stacked with bones. During WWII, the tunnels were used as a headquarters by the Resistance. People over 60 can get in for free, which says a lot about the French sense of humour.
Tel: 01 44 78 12 33 (info)
The Pompidou Centre, also known simply as Beaubourg, is all about modern and contemporary 20th-century art. Thanks in part to its vigorous schedule of temporary exhibitions, it's the most visited cultural site in Paris. Two floors are dedicated to some of the 40000-plus works of the Musée Nationale d'Art Moderne, the country's collection of 20th-century art.
Tel: 01 44 11 23 23 (info)
Built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World Fair), held to commemorate the centennial of the Revolution, the Tour Eiffel was the world's tallest structure at 320m (1050ft) until Manhattan's Chrysler Building was completed. Initially opposed by the city's artistic and literary elite the tower was almost torn down in 1909.
Musée du Louvre
Tel: 01 40 20 51 51 (info) / 01 40 20 53 17 (booking)
The Louvre may be the world's greatest art museum - but it's also the one most avoided by visitors to Paris. Daunted by its size and overwhelming richness, many people head to smaller galleries. But if you have even the merest interest in the fruits of human civilisation from antiquity to the 19th century, then visit you must.
Tel: 01 44 18 61 10 (info)
When he died, the renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1907) left his magnificent 18th-century residence and a huge body of work to the state in lieu of rent. One of the most tranquil spots in the city, the Musée Rodin is also many visitors' favourite Paris museum.
Tel: 01 53 40 60 80 (info)
The most exquisite of Paris' Gothic gems, Sainte Chapelle is tucked away within the walls of the Palais de Justice. The chapel is illuminated by a veritable curtain of luminous 13th-century stained glass (the oldest and finest in Paris). Consecrated in 1248, Sainte Chapelle was built to house what was believed to be Jesus' crown of thorns and other relics purchased by King Louis IX. The chapel's exterior can be viewed from across the street, the law courts' magnificently gilded 18th-century gate, which faces Rue de Lutèce.
On an airy summer's day get onto the cool of the water - float down the Seine (or the Marne, the Oise or any of the city's canals) in a canal boat. Rentals are available year-round.
Paris has a thing for skating - hire some inlines and join the crowds in the city's parks. In winter the Patinoire du Parvis de la Défense and Patinoire de l'Hôtel de Ville bring ice skating into the public arena.
One of the best bowling alleys in Paris, Bowling de Paris, can be found in the Bois de Boulogne.
Yes, the work-out craze has hit even tobacco-stained Parisians; there's now a gaggle of gyms in every neighbourhood.
Public swimming pools abound in Paris - for large-scale splashing check out the Aquaboulevard water park.
Every restaurant with a fistful of Michelin stars inevitably seems to have a Parisian chef with a Gallic temper and a way with jus. Eating well in this city isn't an option - it's a duty, usually policed by the aforementioned chef. Overeating is not de rigueur - an amuse-gueule will do just fine.
Paris is a sublime place to shop, whether you're someone who can afford Lacroix or just an impecunious lèche-vitrine (window licker). Many quartiers still specialise, and the myriad boutiques are often worth a visit in themselves. The lively flea markets are full of bargains.
Whatever your tastes, you'll never be bored in Paris. Music lovers can bounce from grand opera to smoky little jazz clubs to cabaret and end the night with some uplifting house or salsa. The cinema and theatre options are boundless, and the exhausted can recover in a series of stylish bars.
There's a huge variety of accommodation in Paris, ranging from sumptuous palaces and converted 17th-century townhouses to poky little holes where you wouldn't tether your dog. Make the effort to look around - if you dig you'll find character and charm without bankrupting yourself. And book early!
France's Aéroport Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport is a sleek introduction to the country; it's a major international hub, so you can take your pick of flights in and out. The train system is also impressive, and will whip you quickly to most places in France; there are TGV services to Amsterdam and Brussels. You can get to Britain (and Ireland) by ferry, but Eurostar is perhaps the most chilled and luxurious way to get to Paris, and you can pop your car on board as well. Buses are fine for travel between Paris and other countries, but for the rest of France they're not so hot.
Euroline buses run from Paris to cities all over Europe. Long-haul bus travel within France isn't really an option, however.
With the Eurotunnel service, you can now drive from London to Paris, with your car neatly on the shuttle train. If driving from elsewhere in Europe, once you're in France modern autoroutes will get you to Paris quickly, if rather expensively.
Charles de Gaulle international airport is 27km (17mi) north of Paris. It's a major transport hub, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding a flight, regardless of where you're flying. Flights run daily to all parts of the country, but the high-speed TGV (train à grande vitesse) train services are usually more convenient. Departure tax is built into the ticket price and varies according to the destination. There are lots of ways from Charles de Gaulle to the city, from shuttle trains to an assortment of poky public buses, private shuttles and taxis. The city's second main airport, Aéroport d'Orly, is 16km (10mi) south of central Paris. A bus runs between d'Orly and Charles de Gaulle. Beauvais is a smaller airport that handles Ryanair and charter flights.
There are six major train stations in Paris, each of which handles traffic to different parts of France and the rest of Europe. The most spectacular route is via the Channel Tunnel (or Chunnel); the Eurostar passenger service takes only three hours. TGV (train à grande vitesse) services also link Paris with Amsterdam and Brussels. France's superb domestic rail network can take you to almost every part of the country.
Hoverspeed runs bus-boat-bus combos from London, but with the convenience of the Channel Tunnel routes you'd have to be pretty hard-pressed to consider it. There are also ferries and hovercraft between Britain, Ireland and France.
The most satisfying way to get around Paris is on foot - just watch out for the pedestrian crossings, which cars tend not to respect - or on its famous, lovely and efficient Métro. Unfortunately, you're not allowed to take bikes on the Métro, and the city in general is none too friendly to cyclists. If you're in a hurry to get somewhere, don't take the river shuttles that ply the Seine - they are more meandering, sight-seeing affairs than A to B propositions - or the bus system, which is horrendously inefficient. However, there are night buses, which is handy when the Métro closes down.
Parisians don't much like to share the road, and cycling in this city is no joy. To make matters worse, bikes aren't allowed on the metro.
The public bus system covers everywhere, but its hours are laughable; don't even try it on Sunday or a holiday. The Noctambus network takes over in the heavily trafficked areas once both the underground and the day buses go to sleep.
In case you hadn't guessed it, driving around Paris is a job best reserved for the terminally aggressive - if you don't have lots of time to kill, you're better off taking public transport, which is generally well-maintained and supremely convenient.
Say what you will about driving around Paris, but the city's public transportation is world class. The most charming of Paris' public transport options, the underground Métropolitain (and its sister system, the RER), is a simply massive network. No matter where you are, chances are there's a metro station within a few blocks. Choose travel passes carefully - depending on how many trips you make, daily passes aren't necessarily good value for money. The weekly (also monthly) Carte Orange travel pass can be a better deal, even if you're staying less than a week.
Paris is surprisingly pedestrian-friendly: it's compact and there are few hills. Watch out on pedestrian crossings, though - cars tend not to stop.
There are river shuttles along the Seine, but these cater more to tourists wanting to slowly soak up the sights along the way than to commuters trying to get somewhere.
French law requires that restaurant, cafe and hotel bills include a service charge (usually 12% to 15%); however, many Parisians leave a few coins on the table in a restaurant, unless the service was particularly bad. They rarely tip in cafes and bars when they've just had a coffee or a drink. In taxis, the usual tipping procedure is to simply round up to the nearest €0.50 or €1.00 no matter what the fare.
GMT/UTC +1 (Central European Time)
Daylight Saving Start: Last Sunday in March
Daylight Saving End: Last Sunday in October
Local Area Code: 01
Copyright © 2008 Lonely Planet Publications