You’ve probably heard about the inventive green initiatives in Paris like Nature Capitale. One of the most popular is Vélib’, a citywide bike-rental program. In a city (a country!) where biking is extremely common, everyone in Paris has an opinion about the program. Many will tell you that Vélib’ riders are the No. 1 traffic hazard—and it can take a while to get accustomed to the heavy bikes. Britons, in particular, often ride “the wrong way.”
But if used with care, Vélib’ is a great way to save money while exploring the city. It’s also useful for getting home late at night if you can find a borne (station) that’s not empty. Joining the system requires a deposit of 150 euros; this can be placed on your credit card at any Vélib’ station. When you purchase a subscription—for one day, seven days or one year—you get a code that you use whenever you want to pick up a bike. Subscriptions entitle you to 30 free minutes at a time, with charges accruing only if you exceed that allotment: the first additional half hour is 1 euro; each one thereafter is 2 euros until the third half hour, after which the charge rises to 4 euros.
TIP: If you’re time conscious and the weather cooperates, you can get around Paris almost free with Vélib’. You can monitor your costs (your “account”) on the screen of any borne at any time. The main problem for US travelers is having a compatible credit card: European credit and debit cards are known as smart cards, which are embedded with a puce (chip); most US cards don’t have it, but American Express Blue cards work. There’s a free Vélib’ app you can download, and the Internet is rife with tips on the program in many languages. You can also download a pdf of a map showing special cycle routes closed to traffic on Sundays and holidays.
Paris buses are also a great economical way to view the city while on wheels. Just don’t ride them during rush hour, as the school day ends or when it’s broiling hot. All that’s required to use the system is a metro ticket or pass. You can buy a ticket from the driver (1.70 euros) or in the metro (1.60 euros); tickets bought on the spot are valid only for that journey. To request a stop, press the red button. Several lines are especially useful as bus tours.
TIP: The east-west route of the No. 69 runs between the Eiffel Tower (Champ de Mars) and the Père Lachaise cemetery, via the quai d’Orsay, the Louvre and the Marais. It offers as much sightseeing value as any company.
NIGHT: Under the Noctilien program, the city runs 42 lines of night buses, hourly from 30 minutes after midnight. From Monday to Friday the buses run until 5:30 a.m., and later on weekends. Buses and stops are clearly marked. Spoiler alert: on weekends and hot summer holidays, partygoers flood onto these buses in the wee hours.
For tours, two main companies run hop-on/hop-off bus jaunts. If you’re short on time but want to cram in the sights, or if you have trouble walking, you may want to try one. Be forewarned: these are tourism writ in capital letters and, as such, always a compromise. You may get great snaps or have a memorable encounter. But you may also end up hot, tired and frustrated. Make sure the weather is decent, and remember that during the off-season, buses come by less frequently. Do not expect much enlightenment from the audio commentaries, which are often worn tapes or out of synch with your route. Also don’t expect great service. Operating these buses is one of the most thankless jobs in Paris.
Your best choice is L’Open Tour, which offers four routes. The Paris Grand Tour is the longest and most comprehensive. Tickets are 29 euros per adult for a day, and 32 euros per adult for 2 days; 15 euros for children ages 4–11, for either 1 or 2 days; free for kids under 4. L’Open Tour offers one- and two-day passes that can be delivered in advance to your hotel but not to an apartment; or for a fee you can have the pass(es) sent to you before leaving home. (If you’re shy about riding bright lime-and-yellow buses with people from all over the world, don’t try this tour.)
There’s also Les Cars Rouges. An offshoot of the red bus tours in London, this competitor of L’Open offers a nine-stop pass that is valid for two days. Tickets cost 24 euros per adult, 18 euros for those in groups of 12 and 12 euros for children ages 4–11. Essentially a less expensive, miniversion of L’Open, Les Cars Rouges provides less value for your money.
Editor’s note: For the Girls’ Guide’s handpicked tours of Paris, consult our Book It page.