Paris Do’s and Don’ts: 9 Unwritten Rules That Every Parisian Knows
If you want to fit in with Paris locals on your next trip, there are certain unbreakable, unspoken codes that are essential to follow. No one knows this better than Emily Monaco, who relocated to France from the United States in 2007, and who has since made Paris her permanent home.
Emily is a journalist, tour guide, cheese lover, and host of Navigating the French, a podcast that dives deep into one French word per episode to demystify French culture. She’s an expert on all the social cues and mores that make Parisians tick, in other words—some of which she had to learn the hard way. Take advantage of her expertise, and learn all the beginner-friendly tips you’ll need to experience Paris with minimal friction.
Do say “bonjour”
Greetings go a long way.
The most important word any Paris traveler needs is “bonjour,” Emily counsels. No matter which other French words you know, this one is tantamount. “Any interaction with anyone—be it your bus driver, your waiter, or a shopkeeper—should always begin with ‘bonjour.’ ‘Bonjour’ doesn't just mean hello: it primes the other person for a conversation or a request. You should say ‘bonjour,’ wait for the other person to say ‘bonjour’ back, and then proceed with your request. (If you don’t speak French, the next words out of your mouth will likely be ‘Parlez-vous anglais?’ ‘Do you speak English?’).”
But don’t think of bonjour as a fusty obligation—really, it’s a key to unlocking conversations with locals. “[It] shows respect and makes the other person far more likely to go the extra mile for you,” Emily says.
Don’t eat on the go
Paris is not a place in a rush.
If you’re visiting Paris from a country that prizes efficient desk meals over 3-course lunches, slow your roll—time works a little differently in Paris, especially around mealtimes. Eating on public transportation is particularly frowned upon (“I once saw some backpackers make Camembert sandwiches on the Paris Métro, and you could feel the judgment in the air,” Emily says), but even munching a sandwich as you stroll is a faux pas.
“When I was first living in Paris as a student, I was chomping down on a sandwich on the way to class, and an older man passive aggressively muttered bon appétit, mademoiselle,” says Emily. “People generally take the time to sit, even if only for a few minutes, and enjoy their lunch. If you’re on the go between two museums, you can at least find a bench or a public park!”
Do keep your voice down
Indoor voice? Maybe make it your outdoor voice too.
“Fellow Americans: keep your voice down; we tend to yell,” says Emily. Sure, it’s a bit of tough love, but it helps to practice your inside voice before you hop on that flight overseas. In Paris, speaking loudly in restaurants, on trains, and in other public spaces isn’t just seen as rude—as a visitor, it’s also the fastest way to stick out like a sore thumb. Instead, think of turning down the volume a notch or two as a sign of respect for those around you. “I would say keep your voice down on public transport, and try not to take phone calls,” Emily adds.
Don’t forget to ask for the check
Parisians are unlikely to hurry you out of the door.
In the United States, many servers drop the check on your table before you’re even done with dessert. Not so in Paris, where that kind of hustle and bustle would amount to a culinary capital offense. Lingering with loved ones over leisurely, multi-course meals is pretty much a national sport here, and most waiters don’t want to disturb your flow.
“No one is going to drop the check unless you ask for it, and you may feel like an air traffic controller while trying to hail the person down,” Emily says. “Remember that your waiter isn’t ignoring you; they’re trying to let you enjoy your meal unhindered. If you know you’re going to be in a rush, you can always ask for the check when the waiter delivers the last course, or you can go up to the bar.”
Do serve others around you first
Common courtesy is key.
Speaking of leisurely meals with loved ones—be sure to keep those loved ones in mind as you sip and pour at the dinner table. “Always serve other people water or wine at the table before serving yourself,” Emily counsels. It’s a small piece of dining etiquette, but a detail that is sure to win your companions’ approval. The same rule also applies if you find yourself enjoying an apéro or meal at a local’s home. “Don’t help yourself to more drinks at someone’s house; wait to be served,” Emily says.
Trying too hard is very passé.
Paris is an unabashedly fashionable city famed for its well-heeled residents; no wonder visitors fret about the best way to “dress Parisian” before a big trip. For starters: there’s no pressure or obligation to overhaul your wardrobe before your getaway. That said, if you want a look that fits in with the city’s vibe, think simple—staple pieces, minimalist accessories, artfully tousled hair, maybe a quick swipe of red lipstick. If you’ve reached Emily in Paris levels of color and maximalism, you’ve gone several steps too far, despite what Netflix would have you think.
Related: 8 Emily in Paris Filming Locations to Add to Your Paris Itinerary
Do explore beyond the Left Bank
There’s much more of Paris to enjoy.
Paris’ Left Bank lives large in the imaginations of visitors, all Café de Flore and Boulevard Saint-Germain; Jardin du Luxembourg and Quartier Latin; Shakespeare & Company and Sorbonne. And while no Paris trip is complete without exploring the area’s highlights, you’d be remiss not to spend time getting to know the locals-frequented neighborhoods of the Right Bank, from the boutique-and-gallery-filled streets of the Marais to the street-art-bedecked Belleville and the too-cool-for-school Canal Saint-Martin area.
Don’t plan on a big Sunday shopping trip
There’ll be little to nothing open.
Whether you’re looking to stock up your Airbnb with groceries or browse Paris’ charming boutiques, it’s best to avoid planning that big shopping trip for Sunday. As a holdover from longstanding social custom, many shops are open for only a brief window of time on Sunday, or even shuttered entirely. And while recent modernization has seen some changes to the Sunday shopping laws, don’t expect that you’ll be able to access all the amenities and offerings you normally would (nor certain restaurants, museums, and other venues).
Do order the cheese course
How could you not?
You simply can’t visit Paris without trying some cheese—France is home to hundreds of different varieties, after all. Follow in cheese-loving Emily’s footsteps, then, and do some sampling during your trip (brush up on some of her recent favorites here). It’s worth visiting a local fromagerie to try everything from pungent washed-rind cheeses and piquant blues to creamy goat cheeses and grassy Alpine varieties. (Just remember that, if you’re ordering a cheese plate in a restaurant, it’s traditionally served between the main course and dessert.)