How to get around Paris

A metro station - photo sxc.hu

By Natasha Edwards, your Paris expert

I write for Conde Nast Traveller, Elle .... Read more

Getting around Paris - my advice

Compact, packed full of sights and with an extensive network of public transport, Paris is a pretty easy city to navigate with plenty of famous landmarks to act as reference points.

It helps first of all to orient yourself in the way Parisians do. First, consider whether you are on the Right Bank (Rive Droite), north of the River Seine, or Left Bank (Rive Gauche), south of the river, or possibly on Ile de la Cité or Ile St-Louis between the two. Then try to picture the roughly egg-shaped city and the 20 arrondissements that spiral out clockwise from the 1st arrondissement in the middle around the Louvre to the 20th arrondissement in north eastern Paris. Within these twenty, you'll find famous areas, such as St-Germain-des-Prés (6th arrondissement), the Marais (3rd and 4th), Montparnasse (6th, 14th and 15th), Montmartre (18th), the Latin Quarter (5th) and Champs-Elysées (8th). 

Paris on foot
Public transport overview
Metro and RER
Buses and trams
Taxis
Other ways to get around
Getting to the city

Paris on foot

Paris is a great city to walk around and foot is by far the best way to really discover the city's different quartiers. Most hotels will be able to provide some sort of foldout map, although if you really want to explore, it's worth investing in a small mapbook, such as Paris pratique par arrondissement, published by L'Indispensable.

And beware that Parisian car drivers never stop at zebra crossings.

Public transport overview

Paris has a comprehensive network of buses, metros and RER suburban express trains run by the RATP (www.ratp.fr). Ask for a map of the different lines at any metro station.

Individual tickets cost 1.70 euros but it is usually simplest and most economic to buy a carnet of ten tickets for 12 euros. The standard t+ ticket is valid on buses, metro and tramways, plus the RER within central Paris (zone 1). It allows changes on the metro network or between metro and RER or one change of bus or bus/tram within a period of 90 minutes (but does not allow changes between metro and bus). Tickets should be validated when you get onto the bus or go through the metro barrier. Hold onto your ticket in case of spot inspections and to get out of RER stations.

Separate tickets have to be bought for RER stations outside the central zone and for airport buses (see Paris flights for more on getting to the city).

If you are planning to use the bus or metro a lot, or to take the RER into the suburbs, another option is a one-day Mobilis ticket, priced according to the number of zones. The Paris Visite pass, valid 1, 2, 3 or 5 days, is aimed at tourists, with tickets covering either zones 1-3 or zones 1-6 (not including airports), and discounts on certain tourist attractions, although it often works out more expensive than a carnet or Mobilis pass.

Navigo - if you're staying for a longer time and going to use public transport regularly, you may want to buy a Navigo pass, a magnetic travelcard (photo required) available by the calendar month or weekly (valid Monday - Sunday). Navigo Passe is for residents of Paris and the Ile-de-France, the Navigo Découverte is available to anyone for an initial 5 euros plus the subscription.

Individual tickets, carnets and Navigo recharges can all be bought with cash or credit cards at ticket machines or ticket offices inside metro stations; carnets are also available at some tobacconists. Single-use bus tickets (no changes allowed) can also be bought from the bus driver for 1.80 euros.

Metro and RER

The Paris metro system has 14 colour-coded lines and will take you pretty much anywhere in the city centre. Services run from roughly 5.30am to 12.30am, extended until around 1am on Friday and Saturday nights, with metros every two or three minutes at peak hours and more limited services on Sunday and bank holidays. Services are usually pretty efficient and safe, though beware pickpockets, especially on line 1.

The two busiest lines are line 1, running east-west between Vincennes and La Défense, via the Bastille, the Marais, the Louvre and the Champs-Elysées (it's the oldest line - opened in 1900), and line 4, running north-south via Gare du Nord, Gare de l'Est, Les Halles, Ile de la Cité, the Latin Quarter, St-Germain and Montparnasse.

Line 6 is probably the most scenic with long overhead sections and great views in the west as it goes past the Eiffel Tower near Bir-Hakeim and crosses the river to Passy and in the east as it crosses the river near Bercy. For the best view of Notre Dame, take line 5 from Gare d'Austerlitz to the Bastille. Line 14 is driverless (fun for would-be train drivers if you get to sit at the front), with striking modern stations at Gare de Lyon and Bibliothèque François Mitterrand.

Snappy stations - Tuileries station (line 1) is decorated with montages of people and events marking the 20th century; the copper-covered Arts et Métiers (line 11) stations features engineering achievements from the Musée des Arts et Métiers; Varenne (line 13) has copies of sculptures from the nearby Rodin museum, Louvre-Rivoli (line 1) has exhibits from the Louvre (although for direct entry to the museum you should get out at Palais-Royal).

RER - the five RER suburban express lines go from central Paris far into the Ile-de-France suburbs. Within the city centre it can be useful for speedy journeys: for example Châtelet-Les Halles to Charles de Gaulle-Etoile is only two stops on the RER and seven stops by metro.

Outside town, useful routes include RER B to Aéroport Charles de Gaulle (see Paris flights) and the RER C to Versailles-Rive Gauche for the Château de Versailles, line A to La Défense in the west and Disneyland Paris at Marne-la-Vallée-Chessy east of Paris, lines B and D for the Stade de France. The RER has a slightly complicated system of naming its trains (igly, ugly, egly, ego and so on) according to destination or whether they stop at all stations, so check the overhead panels to see where the train is going.

Buses and trams

Some 50 bus routes criss-cross the city and although at first the bus network seems more complicated than the metro, it is a good way to see the city at ground level – and also a relatively efficient one, as sections of many routes now run in bus lanes. Note that some services stop at around 9pm and not all routes run on Sunday, when many lines are reduced or truncated. Validate the ticket in the machine (or swipe the Navigo card) when getting on and press the stop requested button when you want to get off.

In Montmartre, you can also take the Montmartrobus, capable of navigating the butte's narrow streets, and the Funicular, which climbs up the side of square Villette to Sacré-Coeur. Both take standard RATP tickets or passes.

Night buses - after midnight, 47 Noctilien night bus routes run – at rather long intervals – from central Paris to the suburbs between 12.30am and 5.30am, operating from five principal hubs at Châtelet, Gare St-Lazare, Gare Montparnasse, Gare de l'Est and Gare de Lyon.

The tram - Paris has three modern tramlines. Only line 3, which runs along the boulevards des Amiraux on the Left Bank between Pont du Garigliano and Porte d'Ivry is in Paris itself (currently being extended north of the river). Line1 serves Seine St-Denis in the northeast suburbs, line 2 runs along the Seine in the western suburbs.

Taxis

There are fewer taxis in Paris now than there were in the 1920s, so actually finding a taxi can be a nightmare, especially late at night or when it's raining. Although there are taxi ranks scattered around town, they are often empty as many taxi drivers prefer to hang out at the airports. If hailing a taxi, look for the illuminated white taxi sign on the roof to indicate that it is free (note that taxis won't stop if less than 50 metres from a rank). Since January 2011, some taxis have new more visible lights on the roof, which are green when the taxi is free and red when it is occupied.

The initial pick-up fee is 2.10 euros and the minimum fare is 5.60 euros, with additional pick up fees at stations and airports, as well as supplements for each piece of luggage. Most taxis won't take more than three passengers. Taxi companies include G7 (01 47 39 47 39; switchboard in English 01 41 27 66 99; www.taxisg7.fr) and Taxis Bleus (08 91 70 10 00; www.taxis-bleus.com). Alternatively, try the central call centre (01 45 30 30 30).

Other ways to get around

Paris's municipal bike hire scheme (www.velib.paris.fr) has been a freewheeling success since it was inaugurated in 2007, with thousands of bikes available and Velib stations roughly every 300 metres. The idea is simple: you can take out an Abonnement Courte Durée for one day (1 euro) or seven days (5 euros) on the borne (metal post) at any Vélib station – you need a credit card with a smartchip – and can then make as many journeys as you wish during that period, taking out a bike from one station and leaving it at another. Velib is free for the first 30 minutes, then 1 euro for the next 30 minutes. After that prices go up steeply (2 euros for the next 30 minutes and 4 euros for each 30 minutes after that), charged to your credit card, so be prepared to make lots of short journeys rather than keeping a bike for a whole day. There are a few drawbacks, although the smart metallic unisex bikes are pretty sturdy, a fair number of bikes get vandalised or stolen, people tend to take out bikes at the top of hills and then not ride them back up again, so some stations tend to be always full, others empty, and beware that many cycle lanes are rather scarily shared with buses and taxis.

The most scenic and leisurely form of public transport is probably the Batobus (www.batobus.com) river shuttle on the Seine. The eight stops are close to some of the city's main sights – and without the recorded commentary of the tour cruises. Tickets (one day, 14 euros; two days 18 euros; five days 21 euros; note that the Batobus doesn't run between Jan 3 and Feb 10) are valid all day, allowing you to get on and off when you like, and can be bought at kiosks by the river and at tourist offices. Boats run 10.30am-4.30pm in winter, 10am-9.30pm in summer, with boats every 15-30 minutes.

Paris Open Tour (www.parislopentour.com) is a hop on hop off sightseeing tour by open-topped double-decker bus with four different circuits. Tickets are valid for one (29 euros) or two days (32 euros).

Driving in Paris is not (quite) as hair-raising as it may first appear, if only because dense traffic means that half the time you're likely to be crawling along. There are a few places where priorité à droite (priority to cars entering from the right) still applies – notably place de l'Etoile (the vast square around the Arc de Triomphe), where you can be sure there will always be someone cutting in from your right, and beware speed cameras on the Périphérique ring road and assorted key routes through Paris. In fact your biggest challenge might well be finding a parking space. On-street parking is generally "payant", except on Sunday (and Saturday and during August on some streets, check the machines), with pay and display machines using cards available from tobacconists (from 10 euros) or underground car parks (check to see if your hotel has negotiated special rates).

Getting to the city

For advice on transport to and from the airports, see Paris flights.

For more expert advice on Paris, follow these links: