How to Spend a Layover in Paris

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Is it worth going into Paris for an eight-hour layover at Charles de Gaulle Airport? A friend of mine recently asked me this question, so I thought I’d turn it into a post for all of you!

The short answer? Hell yes! Eight hours is enough time to get a brief taste of Paris before you catch your flight to your next destination. But you need to plan it carefully — this is not a time to just wing it.

Do You Have Enough Time?

I wouldn’t attempt going into Paris unless you had a minimum of a five-hour layover, and even then your time in Paris would be very brief. Don’t attempt a trip into Paris if you have less than that.

So, Kate, my layover is four and a half hours — would that be okay?

No! I meant what I said! I wouldn’t attempt it on less than five hours.

A five-hour layover doesn’t mean that you’ll have five hours to explore Paris — it means you have five hours minus the time it takes to go through immigration, possibly check your luggage into storage, wait for a train, take the train into Paris, take the train back to the airport, and go through security again for your next flight. And even then, it could mean you’d be spending less time in Paris than at the airport.

Things to Consider

1) What’s your luggage situation? If you booked a single flight that routed you through Paris (say, if you booked an Air France flight from Boston to Rome via Paris), you don’t have to retrieve your checked luggage. It will be checked all the way through to your final destination.

If you booked two flights separately, though — say, an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Paris and an EasyJet flight from Paris to Prague, and you booked them in two separate transactions, you will have to retrieve your luggage in between and check it in once again

Whatever luggage you are taking as carry-on, whether it’s just a small bag or all of your luggage, will stay with you for the duration of your layover in Paris.

However, there is luggage storage at Charles de Gaulle Airport. It’s located in Terminal 2, across from the RER station. It’s open from 6:00 AM until 9:30 PM. Each piece of luggage is six euros ($6.50) for up to six hours and 10 euros ($11) for up to 12 hours.

2) Where are you flying to and from? If you’re flying from outside Europe, it’s obviously an international flight, and if you’re flying on to Nice, it’s obviously a domestic flight — but some flights within Europe are treated like domestic flights due to the Schengen Area.

Most countries in Western Europe (Ireland and the UK excluded) are part of the Schengen Area, which has open borders. This means that flights from Paris to cities like Stockholm, Warsaw, Florence, Barcelona, and Munich are treated like domestic flights, not international flights. You will go through security, of course, but there is no immigration between Schengen countries.

The blue countries are part of the Schengen area:

Why do I mention this? Because it can save you a bit of time. You don’t need to allow time to get through immigration if you are flying from Paris to somewhere in Italy, for example. Security, yes, but not immigration. This could save you around 30 minutes or so.

3) Which terminals do your flights arrive to and leave from? There are three terminals at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Terminals 1 and 3 are close together and share an RER train station; Terminal 2 is further away and has its own RER train station.

Write down the terminals from which your first flight arrives and your second flight leaves — this will make your life so much easier.

4) Are you arriving on a red eye? If you don’t sleep well on planes, you may be exhausted when you arrive. My advice? Have some coffee and get out there! You’re in Paris, darling! (Ask for un café for an espresso, un café crème for a latte, or un café americain for a regular coffee.

5) Do you have euros? If not, no problem — just go to one of the many ATMs at the airport and make a withdrawal. Don’t exchange money at the airport, you’ll pay terrible rates compared to what the ATM will give you.

Just be sure that you call your bank before your trip and let them know where you’ll be traveling so they don’t flag your card for fraud. Also, double-check how much you’re charged for ATM transactions and whether you’re charged a foreign transaction fee for credit card purchases.

(If you’re American and travel often, I highly recommend banking with Charles Schwab. They refund all of your ATM fees at the end of the month, even foreign ATM fees (!), and they don’t charge foreign transaction fees.)

6) Finally, how much time do you really have? Add in the time expected to go through immigration (30 minutes is a good estimate but it could be longer or shorter), walk to the train, take the train, take the train back, and go through security and/or immigration again. This will help you plan your day.

How to Get Into Paris

The easiest way to get into Paris from Charles de Gaulle Airport is to take the RER B train, which goes straight into the heart of Paris.

There are both express and local trains on the RER B. I recommend taking the express; it doesn’t cost extra. It’s about 35 minutes to the Châtelet stop, which is close to the geographical center of Paris. One-way tickets cost 10 euros ($11) per adult and 7 euros ($7.50) per child.

Alternatively, you could take a taxi from the airport, which costs 50-60 euros ($54-65) and takes 35 minutes to an hour depending on traffic.

Personally, I recommend the RER B train. It takes roughly the same amount of time, it’s cheaper, and it’s more reliable.

(It’s very unusual to have a layover at Orly Airport, as most long-haul flights are via Charles de Gaulle, so I won’t be covering it here — but there are RER trains from Orly that will take you into the heart of Paris as well.)

What To Do on a Paris Layover

With only a few hours in Paris, you can’t do a lot — but if you concentrate on one small area with several attractions, you can feel like you’ve seen a lot of Paris.

My recommendation: take the RER B to the “St. Michel/Notre Dame” stop, which is right by Notre Dame and some of the prettiest neighborhoods in Paris. This journey will take roughly 40 minutes on the express train. Once you arrive in the station, follow the signs for Notre-Dame.

Visit the cathedral of Notre-Dame. This gothic cathedral is one of the most recognizable symbols of Paris — and it’s a solemn, overwhelming place, even without the presence of Quasimodo.

The views from the towers are spectacular, with the gargoyles looking over the city and the Eiffel Tower, but the lines can be very long. Find out how long the line is before you commit to waiting. Notre-Dame is free to visit but going into the towers costs 10 euros ($11).

Check out the kiosks on the left bank of the Seine. These iconic green kiosks sell books, art, and souvenirs. It feels so Parisian to peruse them!

Walk over to Ile St-Louis and have ice cream at Berthillon. There are two small islands in the Seine: Ile de la Cité and Ile St-Louis. Notre-Dame is on Ile de la Cité and Ile St-Louis is directly to the east. I love Ile St-Louis because there are far fewer tourists and it feels like a village in the heart of the city. Rue St-Louis, the main street, is filled with lots of cool shops.

Berthillon is famous for having some of the best ice cream in Paris with many unusual flavors that you won’t find at home.

Browse books at Shakespeare and Company. It may seem strange to browse an English-language bookstore in Paris, but trust me — Shakespeare and Company is a legendary business and one of my favorite bookstores in the world. It has a rich history, writers still live in the shop, and there are some cute cats. Have them stamp your book at checkout.

Walk over to Rue de Buci in St. Germain-des-Pres. This is one of my favorite areas in Paris, with lots of cool shops and cafes. From here on, just wander the streets at your leisure. One of the true pleasures of Paris is strolling aimlessly and seeing what you find.

Spend time in at least one cafe. It’s the most Parisian thing to do at all. Cafes are perfect for whatever you’re in the mood for. A coffee? A glass of wine or champagne? Some French onion soup dripping with cheese? A crepe? A salad with roasted duck? (One very notable exception: working on a laptop. Not like I found out about that the hard way or anything.)

Sit outside if the weather is nice. Even in the winter, most cafes have heating lamps.

If You Have More Time…

I didn’t want to plan an overly ambitious itinerary because it’s easy to end up miserable if you rush your trip too much. But if you have some extra time, you could add a few of these (not all of these!) if they catch your interest.

Visit Sainte-Chappelle. This cathedral is home to some of the most intricate stained glass designs in Europe. It’s located close to Notre-Dame on Ile de la Cité.

Visit the Pont des Arts. This is the bridge that began the love locks trend around the world. These days the locks are removed regularly, but there are nice views from the bridge.

Visit St. Etienne du Mont. This is better known as the Midnight in Paris church! If you love the movie, it’s great for photos.

Have a coffee or meal at Les Deux Magots or Cafe de Flore. These two cafes, close to each other on Boulevard St. Germain, were the hangouts of Hemingway, Sartre, Fitzgerald, Picasso, and all those

Visit the Luxembourg Gardens. Head further south into St. Germain-des-Pres and you’ll end up in these are some of the most beautiful and famous gardens in Paris. Stroll around, watch the kids with boats in the fountains, and pretend you’re in a movie.

Note: if you finish your visit here, you’ll be closer to the Luxembourg stop, which is also on the RER B line back to the airport.

What Not to Do

Please, please, please don’t try to pack too much in. I know how tempting it is to see everything — but you can’t see the best of Paris in just a few hours. Hell, you can’t see the best of Paris in two weeks.

I’m fairly certain that one of the secrets to travel happiness is making peace with the fact that you won’t see everything you want to see.

Don’t go to Disneyland Paris or Versailles. Both are outside the city — I’m sorry, but there’s just no time to visit on a brief layover.

Tips for a Paris Layover

Bring an umbrella. Paris doesn’t have great weather; it often rains. Or choose to risk it — you can always buy one in a shop.

Don’t dress like a slob. You may have flown overnight, but don’t schlep around Paris in yoga pants and a hoodie — you will stick out like a sore thumb in a city where locals look neat and put together. Trade your leggings for slim jeans, your sweatshirt for a nice sweater, jacket and scarf.

Wear comfortable flats. Sneakers immediately label you as a tourist. Literally all the shoes I own come from The Walking Company — their Abeo flats have FANTASTIC arch support, which I need for my bad feet, and they’re chic enough for Paris.

Download a Paris map app to your phone. It’s the easiest way to keep track of where you are, rather than using a paper map. If you plan on taking the metro, there are lots of free metro apps as well.

Be conscious of pickpockets. Pickpockets target tourists in Paris. To minimize your risk, I recommend using a crossbody purse that zips shut and you hold in front of you, or a backpack that locks like my Pacsafe backpack. Consider getting a Speakeasy Travel Scarf — they have a secret zippered pocket no pickpocket can get into.

Make sure you have travel insurance for your whole trip. If the worst happens — if you’re pickpocketed, or if you trip and break your ankle and need to visit a hospital, travel insurance will protect your finances and reimburse you. I never travel without it. I use and recommend World Nomads.

GET BACK IN TIME FOR YOUR FLIGHT!!!!

The most important tip of all. Everything here is meaningless if you end up missing your flight to your next destination!

I like to give myself a nice, comfy cushion of time so I won’t be stressed. (Ask anyone who has ever traveled with me and has seen me freak out when we’ve cut a deadline too close.)

Get back to Charles de Gaulle at least two hours before your onward flight departs. I like to give myself two and a half. It may seem a bit excessive, but when you consider the alternative — missing your flight, being stranded, possibly fucking up your return flight as well — this is one place where caution reigns supreme.

Save This Map For Your Trip

Here are all the locations mentioned. As you can see, they’re all close together!

Have a fabulous trip!


READ NEXT: 100 Travel Tips for Paris


Have you been to Paris? What would you recommend doing on a short layover?

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