Paris has always eluded me, in the fact I’ve been there three times (albeit one of those times was extremely brief) and yet haven’t quite found the words to ever write about it on the blog.
The main reason is that I can’t quite decide how I feel about it, and I can never seem to put my finger on why. It’s like a love/hate relationship with no real explanation – parts of it are pleasant, I adore Notre Dame, but there’s a part of me that views it as any other city; busy, modern and dirty, which isn’t exactly the picture you conjure up in your mind when you think of Paris.
It’s a common question between travellers and travel bloggers – “how do you feel about Paris?” And the answers are always split virtually 50/50 between either loving it, or being disappointed by it, with the occasional person even naming it the worst city they’ve ever visited.
How can one of the most popular cities on the entire planet be so divisive? There are plenty of other cities which appeal to some people more than others – I see plenty of people bash Rome, whereas I loved it. On the flipside, lots of people adore Barcelona, but I wasn’t a huge fan. Venice? A polarising destination if there ever was one – yet it seems most people love it even when they weren’t expecting to (I’m firmly on that side of the camp!). But I’ve never known a single destination to cause such division as Paris.
I’ve therefore always wondered what exactly it is about Paris that instantly elicits strong reactions from people, whether they love it or hate it, and I’ve come up with a few reasons why Paris seems to be the Marmite of cities.
It’s too romanticised and doesn’t live up to it
The main thing, I’ve realised, is the reputation. You know to expect the gritty sides of London and New York City – but Paris? Paris is such a romantic destination! So when you rock up and find that it has its downsides just like every other city, and isn’t actually something out of a fairytale, I can see why people are disappointed.
It’s the expectation of everywhere feeling glamorous, of corner coffee shops where you can watch all the locals ride past on bicycles with baguettes in the baskets, of art nouveau buildings popping up everywhere you turn.
Instead, there are dirty streets, dodgy areas, scammers selling knock-off wares, and roads packed with several lanes of traffic.
Paris is the epitome of why I’m generally not a huge fan of cities – because this is what cities are like! You often have to dig deeper than the surface to realise it’s got much more to offer, and I think that’s what surprises people about Paris – you expect all the grandeur and glamour to hit you in the face the second you arrive, and… it doesn’t.
It’s absolutely massive – and modern
Another thing I feel like people don’t expect is that Paris isn’t all historic theatres and fancy museums. It’s a working, living city that keeps up with the times and everything that comes along with that. It has modern tower blocks and lots of traffic.
It’s not cobblestone streets where everyone cycles and drinks coffee and smokes cigarettes.
It also means you have to choose which areas you’d like to see – after all, you wouldn’t visit London and expect to visit every neighbourhood, let alone the suburbs. And that means you can end up with very different experiences depending on where you go.
It’s often the first place people visit abroad
Paris was the first foreign city I ever visited, and I suspect that’s the same for many people.
Therefore, I visited with zero travel experience, zero real-world experience, and most likely (in fact, definitely) did not “do” Paris properly.
Certainly from the UK, Paris is such an accessible destination that it’s easy to visit in your late teens, with your short-term boyfriend, by which the fleeting and doomed relationship could actually sour your memory of the city anyway. This is, to be fair, exactly what happened with me.
There are areas of Paris I enjoyed – I would love to explore more of Montmartre, but in 2008, it wasn’t a case of finding a blog with all the best Instagram locations that perhaps took you away from the main attractions (and thank goodness – I never wanted to be a shallow traveller anyway, but when you’re 18 it doesn’t always go deeper than that).
It was about hitting all the main spots, walking down Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe, climbing up the Eiffel Tower, and then realising that Notre Dame is far too far to walk from there (I’ve just looked it up – it would take an hour!) and therefore having to work out the confusing metro system.
I feel like this could go either way – perhaps you’re in awe of being in a foreign country and want to lap it all up regardless, or you could be overwhelmed by it not being what you expected (see #1).
I’d be really interested to go back now with countless cities under my belt, to see what I make of Paris now. It helps that I have friends there, and I feel like if I scratch deeper than the surface, it’s quite possible that I would end up appreciating it much more as a city.
“It’s not very friendly”
Note the quotation marks – whether you agree with it or not, it’s quite a common reason people give for not liking Paris.
Once again, Paris suffers from the effect of being a large city vs the rest of the country. In the UK, Londoners have the reputation of being unfriendly. In the USA, New Yorkers have the same reputation. And yes, Paris is exactly the same.
It’s probably not that people are actually unfriendly. It’s that they’re caught up in busy city lives, they’re abrupt, and the automatic reaction to people not giving five minutes to help gets people’s backs up, when actually they’re not there for the tourists.
Given that I have several friends in Paris who are among the nicest people I’ve ever met, I’d definitely take it with a pinch of salt!
I think that’s just something you have to deal with. I’ve always heard the stories of people ordering something in a restaurant and the waiter looking down on them and saying disparagingly, “it’s la, not le“. As an aside, the worst experience we’ve had of this was actually elsewhere in France.
All the tacky tourist sellers & scammers
You get this in most big tourist cities – Rome was particularly bad, and even worse than Paris in my opinion, yet it didn’t sully my experience of Rome as a whole. But Paris was pretty overwhelming for it, especially for my first experience of a large city outside of London.
Again, it doesn’t really help the image of a quaint city with views overlooking some of the most famous structures in the world, when you’ve got hundreds of people next to you yelling at everyone to buy some cheap imported Eiffel Tower keyrings that’ll break before you even get back to your hotel, or offering to draw a shitty caricature to really remind you of your stay.
More people have visited
As with any widespread topics, it’s made more intense by the sample size – and if you’ve been abroad, it seems you’ve most likely been to Paris. The more people who have an opinion, the more likely it is that they’ll differ.
And as with anything, your opinion will be defined by your experience – and your experience really could be anything. I recently had an (unintentional) argument with someone who said she despised Venice because she visited on a cruise – somehow, it’s not unimaginable that descending on a tiny, cramped city at the exact same time as 5,000 other people would be pretty horrendous. Stay a couple of days and experience Venice in the evenings without the crowds, or wander off to the quieter canals? A totally different experience, and probably exactly why I loved it.
So it’s no wonder that people don’t like Paris when they haven’t experienced it “properly” (and I am including myself in this).
The second time I visited was much more relaxed because we’d both been to the tourist areas before and instead just took a wander to a couple of parks, though we did end up enjoying the sun by the Eiffel Tower, too.
Side note: I’ve never visited Paris in the height of summer. I never want to. My visits have been in April or May, and our upcoming one will be September. Paris will always be busy regardless, but I always recommend shoulder season for pretty much anywhere!
It’s exactly why I want to go back, to give the city another chance which I feel it deserves, and to find out why the other 50% do sing its praises.
We’re actually heading back to Paris later this year, as an unintended add-on to our honeymoon, as our flight home offered a connection in Paris that could either be one hour long or nine hours long. I know which one I would rather do – for one thing, an hour isn’t comfortably long enough for the connection!
I’m really looking forward to spending a few hours doing something new and hopefully discovering a different side of Paris that we haven’t experienced before. Hopefully a side of the city that will make us love it.
So stay tuned to find out if we finally get it, or if our love/hate relationship with Paris will continue on forever…