Cafés, rats and French classes: What it's really like living in Paris

Emma Pearson
Emma Pearson - [email protected]
Cafés, rats and French classes: What it's really like living in Paris
Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP

Paris is one of the world's most romanticised cities, which can mean that people who move here expecting a dream life can get a rude awakening. This is what living in the French capital is really like.


The French capital is undoubtedly beautiful and historic and interesting - but anglophone popular culture persistently presents it as a kind of paradise. From Emily in Paris to Owen Wilson's character in Midnight in Paris, the experience of fictional people moving to Paris is a lot smoother than the real thing. 

And it's not uncommon to hear 'horror stories' from foreigners whose move has gone wrong, usually because they were poorly prepared for the real Paris.


There's even a name - Paris Syndrome - for the feeling of disillusionment when foreigners find out that it is in fact a modern capital city - with crime, graffiti and poverty just like every other capital.

So here's a look at what to realistically expect from life in Paris. We'll start with the slightly less good stuff, before moving on to the positives - because there are a lot of those as well.

Your apartment will be small (and expensive)

Film characters in Paris all seem to live in huge, beautiful apartments that overlook the Eiffel Tower. Unless you are actually a millionaire/oligarch/royalty it's best to forget about this.

In reality Paris has a severe housing shortage which means that even small apartments are very expensive and difficult to find. The average apartment size in Paris is 46 square metres and for that you can expect to pay around €2,000 a month. If that's not within your budget, expect to end up in a one-bedroom apartment (roughly 35 square metres) or a studio (25 square metres or less). It's illegal to rent out an apartment of less than 12 metres square, but the housing shortage means that plenty of landlords do this, and desperate tenants pay.

In fact, Paris in general is an expensive city - it regularly comes out near the top of international lists of 'most expensive cities'.

It will be unlikely to have air conditioning or an elevator

One for Americans, but air-conditioning and elevators are not standard in Paris apartment buildings - so if an advert doesn't specifically mention them, assume that they don't have them.

If you have mobility issues, it is therefore wise to look at only ground floor (rez de chaussée) apartments. Likewise with air conditioning, you may be able to find cooled apartments, but don't assume that this comes as standard.


If you are renting then you should also not expect a fully equipped kitchen. Technically, to be considered meublé (furnished), an apartment must have either an oven or a microwave. For smaller apartments, you should not be surprised if you are met with two makeshift hot plates instead of a four-burner stove. Non-furnished apartments on the other hand are completely sparse - don't expect there to be a refrigerator or washing machine.

On the bright side, climbing four flights of stairs every day will help you stay in shape, ditching the air-con will help the planet, and washing your dishes by hand offers a great time to reflect on life or listen to that podcast you missed (hint: The Local France's "Talking France" podcast). 

You will need to do paperwork 

If you're moving to France from a non-EU country, you need to expect paperwork. From your pre-arrival visa, to getting and renewing residency permits once you are here, registering for healthcare and setting up a bank account there is a lot of admin involved in moving countries.

While French bureaucracy has an international reputation, it is getting slightly easier as more processes move online (and France is not alone in demanding a lot of admin from immigrants).

If you have marvelled at Emily in Paris, remember that at least initially Emily has 'posted worker' status, which means she does much less paperwork than the average foreign arrival.


Administrative processes, naturally, are in French.

READ ALSO From dossier to notaire - French bureaucracy explained

People speak French 

Which brings us to the next point - language. While many Parisians do in fact speak English well, you can't assume that everyone you meet will be able or willing to converse in your native language.

While many people arrive in France with only beginner-level French, if you want to truly settle and enjoy your life here it's strongly advised to learn the language. Even if you are only starting out, making at least an effort to begin interactions in French will likely get you a better response.

How easy is it to move to France if you don't speak French?

When you first move here, you might need to dedicate quite a lot of time and money to French classes.

You might be lonely  

Moving to a new city is always hard, but Paris can be a lonely city for new arrivals. It's not that Parisians are particularly unfriendly (despite their international reputation for rudeness) it's more that most natives already have their own lives and friends, and won't go out of their way to welcome you to the city. 

READ ALSO How to make friends with families in France

Parisians also tend to have a different way of socialising than what you might be accustomed to in anglophone countries, privileging sitting at a bar or café and chatting for several hours, or visiting an exhibition together.

If you were hoping to join a neighbourhood volleyball team or book club to meet people and make some new friends, that will be harder to come by in Paris. Taking part in sport in France would likely mean joining a gym or going to a dedicated fitness class, which might be a way to meet people, but is not guaranteed. Most attendees are there with a personal exercise goal, rather than in hopes of meeting new people. 

In small French towns or villages it's quite normal for your neighbours to invite you round for dinner or drinks when you move in, but that would be unusual in Paris (and in fact in many other capital cities), particularly due to the fact that apartments are quite small and not conducive to large gatherings.


If you want to make friends you are going to have to work at it, and at first it's likely that your friends will be other foreigners. 

There's also the general challenge of emigrating - moving to a new country is hard. Homesickness and stress are common among people who move and it's a rare person who hasn't ended up in tears at least once over the challenges of adapting to French life. It's easier to cope with if you have a realistic attitude and don't expect every day to be perfect.

One benefit is that it is not at all strange or socially unacceptable to sit alone in a café, sipping a coffee and reading your book. 

It's dirty

Many people are shocked to find that the city they expected to be shining and immaculate is, in fact, quite dirty. From dog excrement left haphazardly on the sidewalk for the next unlucky passerby to step in to cigarette butts lining street corners and the acidic smell of urine every couple of metres, Paris is not a clean city. 

The city has made attempts to tidy things up in recent years - like in 2016 when the town hall invested almost €9.5 million to drain and clean the Canal Saint-Martin that had become a graveyard for old bicycles, scooters, and soda cans. 


There is also a rat problem (as in most major cities across the globe). That being said, residents of the 17th arrondisement can signal the real time presence of rats in public spaces with an interactive website called "Signalerunrat.Paris", and the city itself engages in frequent 'deratisation' campaigns to keep the rat population under control.

On a vaguely related note - protests are common in Paris. Although most are much less dramatic than they look on the news, you will become blasé about witnessing police baton charges and small fires (as our main image suggests).


OK, so that's the bad stuff. But hopefully it doesn't sound too negative, because there are a lot of positives to living in Paris, and you will enjoy them all the more if you have a realistic attitude to the practicalities of life.

Beauty and culture

One cliché that is entirely true is that central Paris is a beautiful city with a fascinating history, and it really never gets old wandering down the picturesque streets and discovering new things.

READ MORE: The ten Paris streets you just have to walk down

It's also a world capital of culture - there are 130 museums and as many galleries so you could visit a new cultural attraction or tourist site every day for a year before you started to repeat yourself. And that's before we get into the theatres, music venues, tourist sites and exhibitions.


Cafés are another crucial part of Paris culture. One of the great joys to spending time in France's capital is being able to relax at a café and leisurely sip some wine or coffee. If you move here, you'll certainly find yourself spending a lot of time in cafés - from dating to work meetings and socialising to taking a break for a few hours to relax.

Beware though - you may not be able to take your laptop out.



Paris is an extremely compact and well-connected capital - you can walk right across it in just over two hours, there's an ever increasing network of cycle lanes and the Metro is fast and convenient.

This means that nowhere in the city is out of reach, and even if you end up living in the suburbs for financial reasons, it's still easy to access all that the city has to offer. 

Paris is also very conveniently located for being able to get to other parts of France and other European countries. You can hop on a train at Paris' Gare de Lyon and reach the southern Mediterranean city of Marseille in a little over three hours.

With the Eurostar, you can reach London in about two hours. The high-speed train from Paris to Amsterdam takes a little over three hours. You can also go directly to Milan, Italy in about seven hours of train travel, passing through spectacular views of the Alps. 

READ MORE: 6 European cities less than seven hours from France by train


Another cliché that is true is that Paris is a great city for foodies. There is an estimated 12,000 restaurants, taking in fine dining, French classics and a burgeoning foreign food scene.

For home cooks, there really are markets everywhere selling amazing fresh produce as well as thousands of independent shops selling bread, pastries, cheese, wine and much more.

The convenient presence of both outdoor and indoor markets makes it easy to find fresh food in the city centre, and you can locate a nearby market nearly every day of the week in Paris by using the town hall's interactive map HERE. According to a 2016 survey, one hundred new markets are born every year in France with communities using them to revitalise city centres. 

READ MORE: All you need to know about shopping at French food markets

There's a wide variety

Most people know that Paris is divided up into arrondissements (city districts) but you might now know how different these are in terms of lifestyle. It means that if you find yourself in an area that you don't love, there is always the option to move somewhere else and find a very different type of neighbourhood.

From the classic wealth of the 16th to the scruffy but lively 10th or the family-friendly 20th, there really is somewhere for everyone. 

In addition to the variety offered in Paris' arrondisements, there is also a large age-range in the city. While in New York or London, you might see people of child-rearing ages start to move out to the countryside, many stick around in Paris, making it a city that has a wide range - from young people, families, and older generations all mixed together.

Though trends have been beginning to change, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic and as the city becomes better connected to its close-by suburbs, many families still choose to keep Paris their home.

READ MORE: 19 of the best child-friendly days out in and around Paris

There's a social safety net

France is a big state country - which means lots of paperwork and high taxes. The flip side of this is the strong 'social contract' - what that means in practice is that the government will pay for most of your healthcare costs and education for your children.

There's subsidies on things like public transport, if you lose your job you can be fairly sure that there will be help available (and it will be hard for your boss to sack you in the first place) and rent increases on your apartment are regulated by law. There's also a host of government-funded programmes available offering help with the cost of everything from French classes to a new bike.

The team at The Local France comprises Ben McPartland, who has lived in Paris since 2011, and Genevieve Mansfield and Emma Pearson who have both lived here since 2019. 


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