The City of Paris

Paris Panorama from Eiffel Tower 1

Paris Panorama from Eiffel Tower 1

Q:  How do you say Paris in French?
A:  The Parisians themselves (and other people who speak French) pronounce the name of the city as /paʁi/ (like “pah-ree” if you aren’t familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet).
Q:  How big is Paris?
A:  There are about eleven million people living in the Paris metropolitan area, and something over two million living within the city proper (which is confined to the area within the boulevard périphérique, the expressway that completely encircles the city). This means that Paris has roughly the same population as Los Angeles. Paris is the largest city on the Continent and the second largest city in Europe (London is somewhat larger). Although Paris is similar to Los Angeles in terms of population, it is smaller in terms of area, especially when you look at the city proper, which is only a few kilometres wide. Paris was built before the era of automobiles, so everything had to be within walking distance, and this is why the city itself is so compact today (everything is still within walking distance). The suburbs, however, have expanded in the same sprawling way that one sees in Los Angeles.

Q:  When is the best time to visit Paris?
A:  The best time to visit is in spring or fall. Paris has traditionally had an extremely temperate climate, and it never gets very hot or cold—although global warming has changed this dramatically over the past fifteen years or so. Anyway, the best weather in the city may be enjoyed during the long spring and fall. The spring season runs from roughly April to May; the fall season runs from roughly September to October. The normal weather is the same in both seasons, generally cool and sunny, with occasional clouds and occasional brief showers. Prior to April, the weather is usually a bit chilly, and after October, it tends to become a bit gray and rainy. Winter in Paris is not extremely cold (temperatures rarely drop significantly below freezing), but it can be dreary. Summer in Paris can be uncomfortably warm. If you are interested in the weather at this particular moment, CNN has a nice weather page on the city that is continuously updated.

The spring season is the most popular with tourists. The fall season has many of the same advantages, but without the tourists. Few people visit the city in winter, so if you come then, you‘ll encounter mostly natives. In July and especially August, many Parisians go on summer vacation, and the city is very quiet, with mostly only other tourists walking around in the summer heat.

The above all presumes that the weather will be “normal,” in the sense of being the way it has always been. However, global warming is changing Paris weather so dramatically that you might want to consult the separate question on Paris climate.

Q:  What type of climate does Paris have?
A:  This is a tricky question, because it has two answers: one concerns the traditional climate of Paris, and the other concerns the increasingly different climate of the past decade and a half, with changes that presumably result from global warming.

Traditionally, Paris has been a very temperate city, with mild winters and mild summers, and long periods of beautiful weather during the spring and fall. Year-round, about every other day involved some measurable rain, on average, although in reality this meant several rainy days, followed by several sunny days, followed by several rainy days, etc. The rain was usually a light, misty rain, not a driving downpour. Thunderstorms were rare. Snow was also rare, but a total of around 15 days a year had measurable snowfall, usually in January and February but sometimes as early as November or as late as April. The lowest temperatures in January were just slightly below freezing (at night); the highest were around 76° Fahrenheit on the hottest days of July and August.

That was the way it used to be. It’s different now.

The past fifteen years have seen a rather alarming change in Paris weather, with constantly increasing heat, and constantly decreasing rain. The changes in Paris have been an order of magnitude greater than the changes worldwide due to global warming—for some reason the changes in Paris and France have been more extreme. Snow is almost unheard of now, even in the dead of winter. Every season in Paris has become warmer, with an increasing number of protracted heat waves that can drive temperatures 30 degrees above normal. One such heat wave killed 10,000 people (yes, you read correctly) in August of 2003, with temperatures of up to 110° F or so in some spots. Rain is increasingly rare in Paris, causing some concerns about the adequacy of the water supply over the long term. Air conditioning—once a waste of time and money in Paris—is now a necessity during an increasingly long period each year.

There’s no telling whether or not Paris weather will ever return to its historical norm. In the meantime, the weather is much hotter and drier than anyone would have thought possible a few decades ago. What this means for you if you are a visitor is that it’s really important to get a hotel with air conditioning if you are visiting between April and November, and you should also plan your trip a bit earlier in the spring, or a bit later in the fall, in order to avoid the worst of the heat. The good news (at least for visitors) is that it is raining a lot less. There are more windstorms and thunderstorms, though (but these remain comparatively rare).

Most tourist books are behind the times in their description of the climate. As a general rule, you can assume that it will be warmer and drier in Paris than the tourist books claim. There are still occasional cold and rainy snaps, but heat and dryness are becoming the rule.

Q:  Is Paris a safe city?
A:  Paris is much safer than American cities of comparable size. Crime rates are low overall, and violent crime is very rare. Crime in general has also declined sharply in the past two years or so, mainly due to increased police activity.

The above notwithstanding, if you are visiting the city as a tourist, you are more at risk than are residents of the city, so you should be extra careful. Paris isn‘t any more dangerous than any other city in itself, but as a tourist, you are more vulnerable to what little danger there is. Obviously, a tourist—with lots of money, no familiarity with his surroundings, and his attention diverted by the dazzling glamour and romance of a large city like Paris—is a much more tempting mark for, say, a pickpocket than a resident of the city would be. Put succinctly, the risk is in being a tourist, not in being in Paris.

Q:  Aren‘t there all sorts of terrorists in Paris?
A:  No. You know, I could well ask the same question of Oklahoma City, based on what I see on TV. More people died from one bomb in that city than have been killed by all terrorist acts put together in Paris. Does that mean that Oklahoma City is a hotbed of terrorism? I don‘t think so.

If you enjoy fostering your own paranoia, you can find lots of information on travel precautions right here on the Web. Good advice, but don‘t let it spook you.

Q:  Are Parisians rude towards Americans?
A:  Not in my experience.

Parisians have a rather curt style and cynical attitude, but this is pretty typical of the residents of any large city. Parisians are the French equivalent of New Yorkers in the U.S. If you find New Yorkers to be rude, you‘ll probably feel the same way about Parisians.

Keep in mind that, in touristy areas, the locals deal all day with tourists, and tourists can be really, really stupid. It‘s exasperating at times, and patience can wear thin on both sides. Some people working in these areas can‘t handle it, and become pretty rude after a while. Just ignore it. What you see in touristy spots isn‘t typical of the city as a whole.

One other thing: Watch your own behavior. In my opinion (and I see lots and lots of tourists, so I know), tourists are often a thousand times more boorish than the natives, no matter who the tourists are, and no matter what country they are in. American tourists are some of the worst offenders, sadly.

In the specific case of Paris, you‘ll find that speaking French—any French at all—will endear you to the natives. How well you can speak it isn‘t nearly as important as the sincerity of your effort to speak it. Outside of tourist areas, few French people speak English, and your efforts will be appreciated.
Q:  Where is the Left Bank?
A:  The Left Bank is the part of the city that is on the south side of the Seine River. It is called the Left Bank simply because it is on your left if you are in a boat floating down the river (which flows from east to west through the city). The northern side of the river is called the Right Bank.

Q:  Where is the Latin Quarter?
A:  The Latin Quarter is at the eastern end of the Left Bank (that is, the southern side of the river). It is so called because it is an area filled with university students, and in the olden days all the students learned Latin. It is one of the most charming areas of Paris, particularly the area just south of the Seine River and Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Q:  Can you recommend any good hotels or restaurants?
A:  I‘m afraid not. There are thousands of hotels and restaurants in Paris, and I haven‘t tried them all. Anyone who claims to be an expert on hotels and restaurants is lying, unless he evaluates such establishments for a living (the only way he could ever get enough experience to qualify as an expert).

I‘ve always been puzzled in particular by people who ask residents of a city for advice on hotels. A resident is just about the last person to ask about hotels in the city, since he usually has a place of his own and has never stayed in any of the city‘s hotels. Asking about restaurants isn‘t quite as bizarre, but still, most residents have just a few favorite restaurants, and have never even tried 99.999% of the restaurants available. So asking Parisians about Paris hotels (or, to a lesser extent, restaurants) is often a waste of time.

Q:  Is there a place that can burn a CD with my digital photos in Paris?
A:  Most photo labs in Paris can burn CDs from digital camera memory cards (such as Compact Flash cards), for a fee. The Photo Service chain of labs is the one I prefer, and they offer quite a variety of services for digital photographers.

Q:  How can I live and work in Paris?
A:  You need to have lots of patience, and you need to wade through a great deal of red tape. Moving to Paris is like moving to another city in your own country, only about a hundred times more difficult. It can be done, of course, but it‘s not the sort of thing that you undertake on a whim. Even in the best circumstances, it might take a year or two to arrange, and sometimes it can take much longer.

Your best and safest bet is to go to work for a large, multinational company, and then gradually work your way internally towards a transfer to Paris. Of course, you‘ll need some sort of skill that the company needs in Paris; janitors and mail-room clerks are rarely sent overseas. Anyway, if you manage this, the company will handle most of the red tape, and you‘ll probably be well paid (believe it or not, many employees have to be persuaded to accept an assignment in a city like Paris, and this is usually accomplished with money).

If you don‘t wish to go the route above, you‘ll at least need to make sure you have a job waiting for you in Paris before you leave your home country. Obviously, this isn‘t easy, but if you‘re very highly qualified or very clever, you might succeed.

Books have been written about overseas work. Go down to your local bookstore, or Web-surf to a place like, and buy a couple. There isn‘t any way I can cover anything useful here in just a few paragraphs.

Q:  Is it expensive to live in Paris?
A:  Unfortunately, yes, it is. There are few disadvantages to living in Paris, but by far the number one disadvantage (at least in my opinion) is the cost of living. Paris is one of the most expensive cities in the world (although several large U.S. cities surpass it, and so does London), and, worse yet, Parisian salaries do not adequately take the cost of living into account, alas! In addition, income tax and sales tax rates are ruinous, especially for single people (and most people in Paris are single, because almost no one can afford to raise a family within the city itself).

To give you some idea of the cost of living, consider that an ordinary audio CD costs about $19 in a French record store, and a cup of coffee on the famous Champs-Élysées may cost $12. The greatest expense is housing: even a parking place (just the parking spot marked on the ground, not a garage or anything) can cost $26,000, and a decent apartment might sell for $275,000!

After adjusting for taxes and COL, salaries in Paris are about 1/3 of what they would be in the U.S., for the same work.

I keep hoping that this will change in the future, but it hasn‘t thus far.

Q:  Is the Métro dangerous?
A:  No, the Métro (the Paris subway system) is not dangerous. It is true that you‘re more likely to encounter trouble in the subway than, say, sitting at a café, but that‘s a relative risk; in absolute terms, the risk is still quite small.

Consider this: Each year, about 6000 people are assaulted in the subway in Paris. This sounds like a lot, until you realize that over two billion people take the subway each year. The risk of being assaulted in some way is thus about one in 365,000. In addition, most assaults occur under conditions that most people would consider risky to begin with: in deserted suburban stations late at night, etc.

Pickpockets are the main risk for tourists. Watch your purse and wallet on crowded platforms and in crowded subway cars.

Q:  How do you get around in Paris?
A:  I walk, unless I‘m in a hurry, in which case I take the Métro. I also take the subway if I have something heavy to carry. I don‘t normally use a car in town, unless I need to transport something too large to carry (a chair or something like that). Driving in Paris isn‘t difficult, but the traffic is horrendous, all the time (except at three in the morning on Sundays in August).

Q:  What is Disneyland® Paris like?
A:  Disneyland Paris is like a scaled-down version of Walt Disney World®. Disneyland Paris includes a Magic Kingdom theme park in the usual style, although it has fewer attractions than its U.S. counterparts (although some of the ones it has are quite impressive, such as the “new-and-improved” Space Mountain. It also includes a small village near the entrance to the theme park with shops, restaurants, a movie theater (not dedicated to Disney movies, alas!), a Wild West Show, an aquatic circus, a Planet Hollywood, and so on. Nearby within the resort are several superb but rather expensive hotels (however, you get what you pay for), including the largest hotel in Europe, the Newport Bay Club. Each hotel has a theme, and all the themes are well-executed. There is also a golf course in the resort. Other attractions are planned, but I don’t believe that any of them have been built yet.

The operating hours of the theme park are much more restricted than those of its peers in the U.S., especially during the off-season (any time other than summer, primarily), so beware. Many attractions, restaurants, etc., within the park are closed outside of high season.

Disneyland Paris is not 100% owned by Disney, and unfortunately its other owners apparently do not feel compelled to maintain the superlative standards to which true Disneyphiles like myself are accustomed (the local management seems a bit too willing to cut corners on maintenance and operations). However, the park is still distinctly a Disney park, and it is lightyears ahead of anything else in Europe. It is well worth a visit, if you are visiting Paris with children, or if you just like Disney theme parks.

Q:  Where can I get fast food in Paris, just in case?
A:  Fast-food restaurants are thick on the ground in Paris, so you should have no problem.

Because of the importance of this vital question, I‘ve now split the response to it into a separate essay, under Paris Fast Food.

Q:  Does the City of Paris have an official Web site?
A:  Yes,

Q:  Do you speak French?
A:  Yes. It‘s the national language of France, and you cannot hold down most decent jobs without it. I like French, so speaking it is not really that much of a burden for me, although I‘m far from being as fluent as I might like.
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