After living like a local for 2 weeks in Paris, I discovered that if you are truly trying to have an authentic experience in your destination of choosing, especially with respect to foreign countries, there are certain things you can do to not be a tourist. This list is specifically for Paris, but the tips can be applied to almost any travel experience.
1. Stay in a Local Neighborhood
Use AirBNB or another service to rent a room or small apartment in a neighborhood. Do your research online to find which neighborhood works best for you. I chose district 20 because it was artsy, had lots of shops and restaurants, and the apartment was very close to the metro line.
2. Download the Visit Paris by Metro app
This app is a lifesaver and you can find it in the Apple App Store. Skip having pull out maps in public. Plan your route ahead of time. You don’t need network access to pull up your recent search. My first couple days in Paris, I only did this going one way, and then I kicked myself when I had to guess my way home. I wised up and started doing reverse routes in the app before I left my apartment. Worked like a charm, and was a handy backup while I learned the metro. The app also has a downloadable map you can access offline.
3. Be Present and Observant, Watch Before You Act
I Googled how to use the Paris metro ticket machines so I wouldn’t be confused when I got there or have to stand in the long information window line. It helped so much. I would not have known that the language preferences on the machines could be changed. Nor would I have known that they can’t read American VISA cards. Their metro is incredibly easy to understand and well marked once you ride it once or twice, but you have to pay attention. For example, I noticed the doors on some the trains don’t open automatically. You have to pull up and handle on the door when you want to get on or off at your stop.
4. The Google Translate App is Your New Best Friend
Seriously, download this free app. There are a handful of phrases you should have at easy access at all time. Translate them when you have wireless internet access, and then pull them up as saved translations when you need them on the go. Common phrases/questions:
- Do you speak English? I don’t speak French.
- Where is the nearest metro?
- Does this train/bus go to….?
- Hello, how are you?
- Where is your restroom?
- Have a good day!
- I don’t know.
- Thank you.
- Not for me, thank you.
I was so nervous to break out my rusty French from way back in my college days. I became more comfortable as time passed and as I was using the tips I’ve outlined here. Especially if you are in a non-tourist area, its a nice gesture to at least greet someone in their language. As an added tip, translate menu items you do like, as well as anything you might be allergic to. This will help tremendously when dining out or ordering in.
5. Play it Smart with Your Belongings
I’ve heard a lot about pick pocketing on crowded trains, but never saw anything myself (even in the more touristy areas). If you can, ladies, where a purse that has a flap. Or, keep your valuables (wallet, etc) stored in the inner zipper pocket of your purse. Always have one hand on your purse while on a crowded bus/train or in a crowded area. If you want, carry money in a second location on your person.
6. Confirm Your Location and Travel Agenda Like A Local
Be discrete and if you must, load that info on a phone or tablet before hand. Know some basic exchanges of words in French, like hello, how are you, excuse me, where is the metro, have a good day. These simple greetings and gestures go a long way. They are small and generally do not create a full on conversation. Note, if I didn’t want to speak or be bothered while walking and riding the train, I put my headphones on. I wasn’t even listening to music as I wanted to pay attention to my new, ever changing surroundings, but once I did that I blended in completely. So much so that someone even asked me for directions!
7. Realize You Can’t Do it All
A huge lesson I’ve learned from traveling is to stop trying to fit it all in. It’s stressful, and then you worry so much about schedules and time that you forget to relax and enjoy yourself in the process. Paris has a ton of attractions. No way could I see it all in 2 weeks, I wouldn’t even want to. I’m amazed at those who try to do it in less time. Pick a couple things to do/see each day, leave room for magic, and leave the rest up to fate. Paris is perfect for wanderers and explorers. Additionally, it has many opportunities for you to stop and just be, whether you’re sitting at a park, strolling through a garden, or having a glass of wine while people watching at a local bistro. Do just that… Be.
8. Just Sit Down
Especially in the morning and during the lunch hour, in most places with outdoor seating, you don’t need to go in and ask to be seated. Just sit down. They will come to you. I love that a lot of the restaurants have outdoor seating that faces the sidewalks and streets. It’s almost theater style, with rows of chairs and small tables. In this sense, people watching is the show. Most servers will ask if you are there to eat or drink. That’s because it’s customary to sit anywhere at anytime of the day, and just want an espresso or a glass of wine. Also note, it’s not customary to tip in Paris. Even when you try most servers will hand it back to you as change.
9. Get Off the Beaten Path
Now yes, it’s totally okay to build a couple touristy and shopping days into your time in Paris. But download the Like A Local app, or while you’re at home check out their website, and head off the main strip. So many quaint neighborhoods and cobblestone streets await. It will be authentic and a unique memory.
Another great tip is to walk a couple blocks in. After visiting a museum or tourist attraction, you’re probably ready to sit down for a bite or a drink. If you’re not dining at the museum cafe and you didn’t pick a place before hand, leave the attraction and go about 2-3 blocks into the neighborhood. You’ll find an assortment of restaurants that may not have revealed themselves to you otherwise.
10. Trust Your Instincts
If you are going off the beaten path or traveling alone, use your common sense and best judgement always. You are in control of your story. Play it smart and listen to all your senses. I use websites like CouchSurfing.com and Meetup.com to connect with locals who can make good recommendations or help to create a unique experience. On both those sites I can see who the person is, and read reviews/feedback about them. I also reach out to my friends to ask for connections in the places where I’m traveling. It’s because I travel alone that I take calculated risks and an always acutely aware of my surroundings. This is how I guarantee my comfort in new surroundings, and ensure a good time.
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