Walking around Paris, and despite the advent of Google Maps and free travel apps for smartphones, it isn't uncommon to still see visitors struggling to unfold or decrypt enormous and cumbersome maps designed for tourists. Suspecting that these visitors are among those who for whatever reason don't want to rely on digital maps, one is tempted to approach them and point out the following: "Hey, did you know you can buy a much more portable city guide to Paris that will rid you of your folding woes forever?" But if you were to explain that these pocket-sized maps--fitting into most coat pockets-- were mostly in French, you'd likely meet with skepticism.
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But here's the truth: you don't actually need to know a word of French to use these old-fashioned maps. Once you get the hang of looking up streets and navigating to the appropriate Paris neighborhood, or arrondissement, all you need are average spatial reasoning skills to find your destination. And one additional benefit of using these maps? You'll look less like an "obvious tourist" and more like a savvy local (but make sure to ditch the fanny pack along with the giant folding map to blend in.) Here's how to use them, step-by-step:
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1. Get yourself a copy of a typical compact Paris street map.
You can find one at any newsstand, train station, or bookstore around the city, or at the airport.
The most popular version is called Paris Pratique Par Arrondissement (Paris by District), but any compact edition will do the trick.
You can ask a clerk or bookseller for a plan de Paris (plahn de Pah-ree) or a plan des arrondissements (plahn dez ahrone-dees-mahn).
The first page usually has an index of color symbols used throughout the book. There are English translations, too!
The next pages usually feature complete Metro, RER, and Bus maps.
An alphabetical index to street names comes next. Each street's corresponding arrondissement number and grid location is marked to the left.
Following the index are individual arrondissement maps, marked by the district's number in red.
2. Decide where you need to go.
If you need to get to a general area but don't have a street name, find out what the area's nearest metro, commuter train or "RER", and bus stops are, and use one of the maps at the front of the guide to figure out what line/s you will need to take.
If you have an exact address in mind, turn to the alphabetical street index, called the "Repertoire des Rues" in the index on the first page. Again, let me reassure you: you don't need to know any French here. As long as you know the name of the street (and how to spell it), all you have to do is look it up alphabetically.
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3. Locate your street in the alphabetical index.
Look up the street you need by the first letter of its name. Note that the name of the street is what comes after "Rue de", "Avenue de", or "Boulevard de". Make sure to exclude "de" or "des" from your street name.
For instance, if you need to find "Avenue des Champs Elysées, look for "Champs Elysées" under "C".
Other parts of a street name to drop when looking up a name in the index are "Square", "Place", "Porte", "Quai du", and "Quai de la."
Be as precise as possible when looking up a street name; and also make sure you've got a real match. It is common in Paris to find the same street name repeated across squares, boulevards, avenues, impasses, and rues.
When you look up "Champs Elysées", you'll see both "Champs Elysées P. des" and "Champs Elysées Av. des". If you're looking for "Avenue des Champs Elysées", only the second listing is right.
To find out what arrondissement your street is in and where it can be found on the individual arrondissement's map, look to the left of the street name.
The number furthest to the left is the arrondissement where the street can be found. For "Champs Elysées Av. des", that number is 8.
The street is in the 8th arrondissement.
The letters and numbers directly to the right of the street name correspond to where the street can be found on the arrondissement map grid. Write these down.
4. Find the individual arrondissement map corresponding to the street you're looking for.
Avenue des Champs Elysées is in the 8th arrondissement.
Turn to the individual arrondissement map labeled "8" in all four corners (usually in red.)
You'll see that the map for the 8th arrondissement shows Metro stations and key buildings and monuments.
You'll also notice that the map is laid out in a grid. On this page, numbers run horizontally and letters vertically.
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5. Locate your street on the map.
The grid coordinates for Avenue des Champs Elysées are G12 to I15. I know, then, that I'll be able to find the street and nearest metro stops by looking at the area of the "8" map corresponding to these coordinates.
Be careful: some arrondissements are especially large and correspond to two pages of maps. If you don't see the numbers and letters of your coordinates on a map, turn back or forward a page. Your street is probably in a large district.
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Also keep in mind:
You'll need to consult the back of the guide if you're looking for a street or place in one of Paris' surrounding districts, such as La Défense, Bois de Vincennes, or Bois de Boulogne. Because these places aren't technically part of Paris proper, they have a separate index and area maps in the guide.
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Certain arrondissement maps, including the 15th and the 18th districts, have grids that are laid out with the numbers running vertically and the letters running horizontally.
Surrounding arrondissements are marked, usually in red, around each individual area map.
Congratulations! You've found your street. You can also use the map to:
- Reorient yourself when you already know what arrondissement you're in.
- See what else there is of interest in an area where you've seen some of the sights already.
- Find out where the nearest post office, police station, park, or church is.
What about apps?
If you have a smartphone or tablet, you may prefer to invest in a good app that includes maps of all the Paris districts as well as a metro map. See this page for a list of some decent ones.