Paris syndrome refers to the well-documented crushing disappointment tourists feel when the city fails to meet their sky-high expectations. Having just had perhaps my favorite trip to Paris ever, I’ve narrowed down a few reasons why Paris is so disappointing, and what you can do to avoid this feeling.
Many of the things to do in Paris are not worth the hassle
Though Paris is a stunning and historical city, a lot of the “must-see” sights are truly not that great. And when you’ve worked so hard to do certain things, either by booking tickets far in advance or by standing in line for hours to get in somewhere, you might find that the end result was just not worth that kind of effort. There is nothing memorable or impressive about seeing Paris from behind a grated and cold platform on the Eiffel Tower. The nicest thing in the Paris skyline is the Eiffel Tower, so there is nothing to be gained from going up it.
On this trip, due in part to the fact that it’s February and that Covid has been tearing up France all year, I visited the Catacombs, which I had never seen, and the Louvre, which I hadn’t done since 2011. In both cases, we got tickets online five minutes before our entry time just because we happened to be nearby and wanted to get out of the cold. I only enjoyed them because it was no trouble at all to visit. And under normal circumstances, that’s never the case. Because who wants to spend four hours walking around the exhibits after you’ve already been standing outside for two hours waiting to buy tickets? Truly very few things in this life are worth that kind of suffering.
Vacations that are overplanned are not enjoyable
The most enjoyable thing to do in Paris is sit at a café, have a coffee and a pastry, and not worry about getting anywhere. But if you want to “see all the things,” you have to make a ton of plans, book tickets in advance, and maybe risk having your day ruined if something falls out of schedule, and that is the antithesis of French culture. Then every lunch is stressful, because while other patrons are leisurely having lunch and waiters are working accordingly, you have somewhere to be so you can’t enjoy anything. If the Catacombs are just okay under regular circumstances, you’re going to feel a lot more disappointment walking around in those damp corridors if you’ve just had to scarf down a steak and fries.
When you have everything planned down to a T, you also eliminate the possibility of making better choices at the last minute. So if you only get one day without rain on your visit, but you have wall-to-wall museum tours all day, you’ll miss your only chance to wander along the Seine and take in the city in enjoyable sunny weather. At that point, you’re stuck either throwing away your money and opportunity to see the museum (even though chances are very slim you’re the kind of person who actually cares about art or history), or you’re stuck having to do outdoor sightseeing in stormy weather. Either way, both your choices are shit, and any vacation full of shit choices is not going to turn out to be everything you hoped.
Getting around Paris sucks
I’m a huge advocate of staying in a central location to avoid wasting time and creating hassle getting from one place to the other. But it is impossible to do that in Paris – it’s simply too big, and there are “central” places to visit in many areas of the city. So it’s impossible to stay near all of them. While the Paris Metro is lauded for being one the most efficient transportation systems in the world, using the metro also sucks. It takes at least half an hour (and often at least one connection) to get anywhere.
And while it may be impressive to people who’ve never had access to public transportation or who have to share their commute with rats and sewer water in cities like New York, Paris transport is actually kind of a mess compared to other systems in Europe and Asia. It’s always packed, there are bottlenecks at the turnstiles because they don’t have barrier-free access. Their stupid little paper tickets get demagnetized by just about anything you might have in your pocket or purse. And sometimes you end up walking more underground changing from one line to the other than you would have if you had just skipped public transport altogether.
You’re probably thinking, why bother with public transport then? Why not just take a cab? And the reason is that it can take just as long to travel 2 km in a jerky cab in Paris traffic as it does to walk the same distance. Except that the former costs €20 and makes you want to throw up.
The food is overpriced and often mediocre
Paris is pretty expensive, and while I don’t mind spending money on something worthwhile, it’s a real pisser to spend €100 on a totally mediocre or even bad meal. Or say, €6 on a coffee that was made by pushing a button on a machine. Any restaurant that is good probably requires reservations, and if you don’t have them, what ends up happening is that you eat at the first place that will have you nearby because you’re hungry and tired. And that’s how you end up missing out on the world-class dining Paris is known for.
The alternative is to research good restaurants and make reservations in advance, which is a great way to visit Paris if you don’t have a ton of other plans to begin with. But rushing through a museum you waited an hour to get into so you can run to your dinner reservation across the city is a recipe for disappointment. That’s a great way to enjoy neither the museum nor the meal.
If you’re looking for recommendations on restaurants that are worth a stop (and some that are worth skipping), check out my foodie guide to Paris.
Paris is full of scam artists
Even if you’re the most laid back tourist on earth and you’re in town only to drink and smoke at a sidewalk café, there is one kind of parasite that is bound to make Paris disappointing: the scammers. These lovely men and women stalk the streets of Paris jingling their miniature Eiffel Tower figurines at you or trying to get you to donate money to fake causes. In some cases, they’re aggressive or pushy. Most of the time, they’re just unpleasant. But they seriously deter you from being able to enjoy anything for one second in peace. They tend to congregate around popular tourist destinations (read: anything beautiful and worth seeing).
While Covid and 40 degree weather can shorten lines and make museums easier to visit, it’s no match for the tenacity of these predatory vendors and scammers. It’s just something you have to live with when you visit Paris… like a virus.
Is there any way to actually enjoy Paris?
Yes, absolutely! Paris can be amazing if you approach your trip planning differently and adjust your expectations to the realities mentioned above. Here are some tips on how to do that so that visiting Paris isn’t so disappointing.
1. Prioritize instead of over-plan.
Pick one thing per day at a maximum that you absolutely have to do and book that, whether it’s a museum or a food tour or a river cruise. This will ensure that you do what is important to you without sacrificing the opportunity to act on a whim. Unless you’re visiting Paris for three months, you can’t do and see everything. And trying is an exercise in frustration and failure. So let go of that notion, and pick one or two choice things that will make your trip special.
2. Be honest with yourself about your interests.
If you don’t care about 16th century Italian art in your regular life, what makes you think you’re going to care about it in Paris? Think about your interests and how your visit to Paris can reflect these interests. Maybe you prefer modern art so you’d appreciate the Pompidou more than you would the Louvre. Or maybe you’d actually rather just shop and have drinks, so make that the focus of your trip. Don’t force yourself to put a lot of effort into something you’re truly not interested in anyway just because it’s historical or “must-see.”
3. Give yourself plenty of buffer time between activities.
Getting around can take a while so you might be creating a stressful time for yourself if you plan all your activities back to back. If you’re on a tight schedule, any delay will throw you into a tailspin. Not only that, but there are hundreds of thousands of adorable little galleries and bookshops and cafes that you might want to pop into on the way to something else. And that’s where the charm of Paris lies. So give yourself time to wander at a leisurely pace and actually enjoy those little unexpected pleasures instead of jumping frantically from one overrated tourist thing to another.
4. Be firm with unsolicited attention on the street.
If you can’t avoid areas like Montmartre or the Champ de Mars where a lot of scammers and street vendors prey on the weak, then you have to learn how to handle them. The best thing to do is not engage with them at all. Pretend you didn’t hear them or keep walking. If they’re persistent or they approach you while you’re sitting or standing in place, a firm “no” usually does the trick. Don’t humor anyone walking up to you with a clipboard or a bag of souvenirs. Don’t talk to them just to be nice. They’re counting on you being nice to swindle or rob you. So wave them away and move it along.
5. Do a little bit of research.
If you’re unsure about where to eat or what to see, read some reviews… but not just the good ones. Get a balanced opinion from a variety of sources to decide if something is worthwhile for you or not. How long does it take to see the Louvre? How tiring are those steps up the Arc de Triomphe? Do you need a reservation for that restaurant? Is this meal worth the cost? Read all the worst reviews and imagine how you would feel about a certain activity if you had the exact same bad experience. And then plan accordingly.
6. Consider that the experience of dining out is built into the cost.
Paris is pricey, sometimes in ways that seem unjustifiably so. But you have to remember that dining out in Paris is an experience that is meant to be savored in good company – if you do it right, it’s a way to enjoyably spend a good chunk of your day. Hit-and-run-for-sustenance dining can be disappointing and can result in sticker shock. But a bad meal can still be a good experience. If you’ve been lost in conversation at a café for half the morning watching people walk their dogs and do their shopping across the street, it doesn’t sting quite as much when you realize your coffee was €6. The experience is worth the cost even if the coffee isn’t.
But if you’re worried about paying a lot for bad food, Paris has some of the best restaurants in the world where your money can buy you an unforgettable meal. But it’s not likely that you’ll just stumble on it. If it’s good, it’s probably busy, and you’ll probably need a reservation.
7. Do away with the unrealistic expectations.
The majority of the reason why Paris is so disappointing is that it’s impossible for the city to live up to the expectations people have of it based on movies and TV. Paris is a big city, which means it’s crowded, it’s dirty, and it doesn’t care about you at all. This kind of atmosphere can seem cold, disinterested, and certainly not rosy or romantic the way it’s painted. Sorry, but you are not the main character on the Champs-Elysees (no matter how good you think you look), and your life isn’t going to turn into a romantic comedy the second you land there. It’s just a city – a very beautiful and charming city with all the flaws of a gigantic metropolis. And the sooner you accept that, the less disappointed you’ll be by its busy trains and aloof people.
Being a tourist in Paris is exhausting and if you don’t give yourself the opportunity to rest and relax, you’re going to be miserable and tired the entire time. Some of my favorite experiences in Paris involve buying some really good wine and cheese and enjoying it in a local park or soaking in the tub of the hotel, not seeing anything in particular but just having a good and relaxing vacation. This doesn’t require advance planning, and it takes no effort at all. So build this time into your itinerary, because Paris is sure to disappoint if your game plan is to be on your feet for 14 hours a day “doing stuff.” But I guarantee the wine and cheese will not disappoint.