Few tourists travel explicitly to see a city’s or country’s mode of transportation, but I dare say that besides transport nerds such as myself, there are examples which qualify as must-see, including Japan’s Shinkansen high-speed train, Lisbon’s old tram system, and the streetcars of New Orleans, among others.
While Paris is most recently known for imposing a car ban due to pollution, partly due to an over-reliance on diesel vehicles as well as a lack of reliable alternatives for commuters (such as the creaking RER commuter trains), it is at the vanguard of transportation experiments including new tramways, Les Berges, and of course Vélib.
As Paris enters August, the French flee, tourists swarm the city, and all the shops close. So should you find yourself in Paris in August, or another time, consider experiencing Paris through these Top 10 Transport Sights (in reverse order):
(10) The Cité metro station: While certain metro stations should be avoided at all costs (looking at you Châtelet and Montparnasse), the Cité metro station on Île de la Cité is in my mind the most beautiful metro station in Paris, and is one of the few stops with an Art Nouveau entrance, first opened in 1910, and is right by Notre Dame, though most forget about this stop. Tip: If you are heading north in Paris, plan to get on at Cité so you get to experience the atmosphere of the only metro stop in the Seine itself.
(9) Free RER on weekends: During summer months, the local transit agency (RATP) lets you travel zone-free on the commuter/express train (RER) on weekends and holidays (July 13-August 18). Usually, nothing good can be said for it, except that it’s the best way to get to the airport and Versailles, but if you get a Navigo transit pass, you can explore greater Paris, which is a lot greener and wilder then the “museum city” might have you believe. Tip: Take train to Parc de Sceaux and enjoy strolling around the fountains and greenery, forgetting entirely about the hustle of Paris. Bring bike and/or picnic basket.
(8) Trains-on-cars: Bercy train station isn’t known for much except as a quick escape to Burgundy over the weekend, but the train station has other appeal: trains here let you hitch your car to the train, so you can your vehicle can travel together down to Nice, making that Provence road trip a lot easier. Tip: While it may not last forever, the French train company SNCF lets EVs travel for free.
(7) Paris-by-boat: A main-stay of visitors, taking the boat up-and-down the Seine is a great way to see the city, but also a tranquil way to get from one sight to another. Tip: Take the boat to/from the Eiffel Tower to/from Jardin des Plantes (botanical gardens) for a nice way to see the city, and also avoid the metro in the summer.
(6) Lil’ Vélib: This might be the cutest and most recent entrant to Paris’ transport scene. While Vélib continues to be the world’s most popular bike-sharing program, it has now been extended to include children. Colorful helmets will be provided at all locations, and while the program won’t be city-wide, it will be at some strategic locations including along the Seine. Tip: Use this as an excuse to explore the oft-forgotten Canal de l’Ourcq, Canal St Martin’s upstream cousin.
(5) Bus 67: Since most Parisians and tourists take the metro, few remember that there actually is a bus system in Paris. I can’t say it’s entirely reliable either, but there are some routes which are not only convenient and less populous, they also allow you to see Paris in a way that often costs a lot less than a guided tour equivalent. Tip: Take line 67 from the Museum of Natural History in the Latin Quarter to Pigalle in Montmartre. You’ll see the best of Paris without the hassle of the metro or tour groups.
(4) Autolib: Probably the most publicized transport solution, but Paris’ all-electric car sharing scheme is pretty interesting. Try it out, and you get to quietly drive around the Paris with the benefit of knowing you’ll have a dedicated parking spot at the end. You can pick up one of the over 1,700 cars in central Paris and enjoy the ride. Tip: You can use Autolib as long as you have driver’s license, from anywhere! Registration takes less than 15 minutes at a number of booths around the city.
(3) Thalys train: Where once Eurostar was the marvel of international train transport, it is the Thalys train which has upped the ante for international train travel. While Eurostar sometimes feels rather antiquated, Thalys plies routes to Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany, in a less claustrophobic setting, with a lot more modern-looking trains. Tip: Spring for 1st class to Amsterdam. You get a couple of Belgium beers, a full meal, and a free WiFi. It’s a bargain compared to the equivalent to London.
(2) Train station dining: Now most of you might think eating at an Amtrak station sounds unappetizing, and with few exceptions, that’s true. However, at Le Train Bleu you can enjoy a sumptuous meal, while enjoying the splendor of Gare de Lyon, maybe the most beautiful train station in Paris – as seen in the movie “Hugo” – with its iconic clock tower hovering over the city. The atmosphere is great, especially with palm trees, indicating where the trains go (Côte d’Azur). Tip: Book a train somewhere warm and pencil in a meal at Le Train Bleu beforehand. Update: Le Train Bleu is currently closed for renovation. Look forward to returning once open. h/t to @Paris_by_Elodie for pointing that out.
(1) The original High Line: While New Yorkers are gushing about their rails-to-trails project, it was Paris that inspired New York’s “High Line” by converting an old train line into its “Promenade Plantée” or “tree-lined walkway” back in 1993. It’s a beautiful, lush escape from the city, good for joggers and flâneurs alike. Tip: Take metro line 8 to Reuilly-Diderot, and walk the Promenade to Bastille.