5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to France for the First Time

I love planning like that moth meme loves lamps. I did nine months of research to prepare for my first trip to Europe, and there are still things I wish I could go back and tell myself. So in a continuation of my First Time in France series, I will pass along some insights that you'll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Learning from a few of my mistakes will help you avoid cultural hangups, and spend more time finding that elusive French boo-thang. They exist, I know they do!

Your phone needs as much preparation as your suitcase.

It's your map, itinerary, restaurant guide, and wing man. Make sure your phone plan has international data at a reasonable speed. Even though my carrier gave me unlimited text and data overseas, the 2G that was included with my plan was not enough to load anything in Paris, so when I had access to Wifi, I had to download the central part of the city on Google Maps. It worked, but it would have been nice to get an Uber when I was stranded at a bus stop in central Paris at 4am.

Apps that saved my booty that trip include:

  • Citymapper - the best app for navigating the metro. Citymapper gives you accurate ETAs, tells you which exit to take, and gives you walking directions from the metro exit to your destination.

  • Mapster - a map that allows you to mark your own points of interest and tag them according to category. I loved this one because it let me organize cool places I saw on Instagram that I would have otherwise forgotten. You can also set up notifications so that when you pass a marked location, the app will let you know.

  • Airbnb - essential for quick and efficient communication with your host.

  • Earworms and Babbel - I like these apps for a last-minute language brush-up on my flight. They train your ear to listen to sentences and conversations in your chosen language, rather than individual words.

  • Audible - download an audiobook for the plane or long train ride. Bonus points if it's in French!

Always budget more time for transportation than you think you need.

This one was my biggest hangup. Paris' metro is the best public transport system I have ever seen, but it is still public transport. A different line was down each day I was there, and this was before the protests began! I used Citymapper to scope out the best route ahead of time, but one morning the app didn't catch a 2-hour delay on the line it suggested. Be sure to mentally budget for travel time each day, or you might find yourself crying in front of the Musée D'Orsay's giant clock window about how you are about to miss the lunch hour.

Know where your nearest boulangerie is.

Don't skip breakfast. It's surprisingly easy to do when you're in a new, exciting city. The Grand Boulevards and hidden courtyard gardens have far more pull than tracking down a cafe with #nodata. I was guilty of this until a locked door and an hours sign denied me Pink Mamma when I wanted it, and I became a hangry diva from the Snickers commercials. Simply grabbing a croissant et café can make the difference between a good morning and a stressful one. Plus, it's a perfect opportunity to practice conversational French with the cute baker boy or girl behind the counter.

French gas stations are amazing.

After my time in Paris, I spent a week road-tripping down the western coast of France, from Reims, to Brittany, to Bordeaux. I stopped at a gas station just outside Reims early one morning, hoping to score some coffee and a stale pastry, and I stepped into Nirvana. French gas stations have everything. Some even have small counter-service bakeries where you can grab your fresh pain au chocolat. They also act as a small grocery store, carrying several kinds of cheese, dried meats, nuts, olives, etc. You could easily put together a passable charcuterie board. My favorite part of the gas stations are the café vending machines that will make your customized espresso or tea drink for around a euro. America, take notes.

The Canal St. Martin is the place to be.

Please don't exhaust all of your time in Paris walking up and down the Seine. Yes, it's iconic, but the real heart of the city has moved slightly north since the 1920's. I made the mistake of saving the Canal St. Martin for my last day in Paris. If I could do it again - which I will - I would spend most of my nights in the 10th arrondissement, drinking pineapple-infused rum in a bohemian wearhouse, surrounded by gorgeous people wearing up-and-coming designers. The Canal itself has been called up-and-coming for about a decade, and baby, it has arrived. This is where you will find fashionable, independent boutiques, quirky art stores, a poppin' nightlife scene, and the epicenter of new-wave French cuisine. Go. I guarantee you'll find a good time - and maybe even that French boo.

Hannah Moseley