The River Seine divides Paris into rive droite (right bank, on the north side) and rive gauche (left bank)—which only somewhat live up to their respective reputations as the swanky and bohemian parts of town. The city is further divided into 20 numbered neighborhoods known as arrondissements; these begin at the center of the city and swirl out in a clockwise pattern. Most visitors spend the bulk of their time in the first through eighth arrondissements, but the whole of central Paris is remarkably well preserved, with nearly all the skyscrapers and suburban sameness kept safely beyond the ring road.
WHEN TO GO
Spring in Paris may be the stuff of romantic legend, but the most delicious time of year to visit is the fall, especially September and October. This autumn season is called "La Rentrée" (as in return to work from the customary whole-month-of-August vacation), and the city bristles with energy as new shops, clubs, and restaurants open, a cultural season begins, and everyone catches up after the summer holidays. Or consider winter: It's usually mild, and December, January, and February are the trough of the annual tourist calendar, so you'll be getting Paris at its most Parisian (except for the outdoor cafe part).
HOW TO GET THERE
Paris is served by most of the world's major airlines at its two major airports. Roissy Charles de Gaulle, often abbreviated to CDG, is 15 miles north of the city, and is primarily used for international flights. Orly, ten miles south of the city, is divided between Orly Sud (mainly international flights) and Orly Ouest (domestic flights and service to London and Madrid). Taxi fares average $60 to $80 from CDG and $50 from Orly to central Paris, depending on traffic. Both airports are served by the RER commuter trains as well as reasonably comfortable bus service (www.ratp.fr).
Paris has seven main railroad stations (gares). The Gare du Nord is the Paris terminus for Eurostar service to London, and also the high-speed Thalys train route to Belgium and Holland; trains to northern French cities such as Lille and Amiens also leave from this station. The Gare de l'Est serves eastern France and Germany, the Gare St-Lazare is the place for Normandy and Île-de-France trains, the Gare d'Austerlitz is the station for Spanish arrivals and departures, the Gare de Lyon covers southern France, Switzerland, and Italy, the Gare Montparnasse services Brittany, the Loire Valley, and much of southwestern France, and the Gare de Bercy services the Burgundy region and Italy (www.sncf.com/indexe.htm). (Got all that?) All train stations are connected to the Paris Métro (subway) system. Eurolines (www.eurolines.com), the major trans-European bus line, has its main station just outside of the Porte de Bagnolet metro stop (28 Avenue du Genéral de Gaule).
Paris has an outstanding mass transit system, the RATP, which includes the Métro (subway) system and buses, with several new tramways currently under construction. Tickets can be purchased at Métro stations, tourist offices, on buses, and also at tabacs (newsstands that sell cigarettes). Individual tickets cost €1.40 (about $1.85), while a carnet, or book of ten, goes for a discounted €11. If you're going to be around for a while, a Carte Orange unlimited weekly pass on all buses and trains in zones 1 and 2 (central Paris) goes for €16, and a monthly pass costs €53. Note that the weekly pass is a better buy than the heavily promoted Paris Visite pass. The Métro is open from 5:30 a.m. to 12:40 a.m. daily. Buses run from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., with some routes continuing to offer service until 12:30 a.m. After 12:30 a.m., the only transportation available in central Paris aside from taxis—look for them at cab stands or hail one on the street when the sign on its roof is lit to indicate that it's available—is the Noctilien, which originates in Châtelet. The RATP also operates a Batobus (www.batobus.com) boat service on the Seine from April to October; it's convenient, but also a very pleasant way to get from one sightseeing attraction (Notre-Dame, for example) to another (like the Tour Eiffel).
Scooters with small gasoline engines are increasingly common and a fun way to get around town for anyone who's already accustomed to navigating urban traffic; rent a Vespa from Freescoot (63 Quai de la Tournelle; 33-1-44-07-06-72; www.freescoot.com).
More and more Parisians are also biking around the city streets; rent your wheels from Roue Libre (1 Passage Mondétour; 33-8-1044-1534; www.rouelibre.fr) or Paris Vélo (2 Rue du Fer-à-Moulin; 33-1-43-37-59-22; www.paris-velo-rent-a-bike.fr). Cool-dude types might also want to see Paris from a Segway; check out www.citysegwaytours.com/paris for touring possibilities on one of these upright big-wheeled scooters. Since parking is very restrictive and expensive, and traffic is often terrible, renting a car while visiting Paris is a bad idea.
Paris Tourist Office
25 Rue des Pyramides
Tel: 33 8 92 68 30 00 (Calling costs an obnoxious 50 cents a minute.)
Branch offices are at 11 Rue Scribe, the Gare du Nord, and the Gare de Lyon. The French government tourist office's Web site, www.franceguide.com, also has a lot of current information about what's on in Paris.View France Factsheet