Paris by Bicycle: You Are One of Them Now

Who Doesn’t Love the Streets of Paris?

Yes, you may even ride Velib at night

Yes, you may even ride Velib at night.

One of the joys of a vibrant old European city is the street life. Paris certainly sits near the top of the list in this category. You can throw a dart at a map of Paris and hit a lovely neighborhood to enjoy shops, restaurants and people.

One of the challenges, though, is getting around. Nobody really wants to rent a car to explore Paris because the driving habits are different, the road markings are alien and there is generally nowhere to park.

So, most visitors to Paris do what we do: pick a well-situated hotel and work outward from there. First, you explore the walking-distance around the hotel. If you’ve picked well, you have a wonderful day or two within a few blocks.

But then you get restless. Should we go to the Louvre? To the Eiffel Tower? Montmartre? That famous old bike shop in a neighborhood tourists don’t frequent? Or should we get to a train station and explore a neighboring city?

I know most visitors to Paris pride themselves on their familiarity with the Metro. You can get to all of the notable places on the train. But its drawback is having to climb down into the tunnels to catch a train, only to emerge across town in another neighborhood. You miss a lot when you miss the surface streets you are riding beneath. So, the other option is to catch a cab. But you can’t always get a cab, and it costs quite a bit more, and while you get to SEE the neighborhoods you pass through, you don’t get to stop and ENJOY them along the way.

The Bicycle-On-Every-Corner Solution…

It's like paying for car parking, but you get a bike

It’s like paying for car parking, but you get a bike.

So here’s what we did: we were staying a few miles and on the other side of the river from the Louvre. On our first day, we asked our concierge to arrange three Velib bike hire accounts.

The Velib stand (a bike rack full of Velib bikes) was about 6 doors from our hotel. It was as simple as the concierge going online to the website and signing us up using our credit card. It took 10 minutes, and we were presented with three account numbers and a password. All we had to do was walk to the Velib bike rack, enter the accounts/password in the kiosk (like paying for parking at the beach) and pull three bikes out. They were ours for 30 minutes for free, and a few dollars an hour after the first 30 minutes. Of course, there are Velib racks every few blocks so you can be canny and return your bikes every 29 minutes and ride all day for free. But we quickly found out that when you ride through Paris, you stop every few minutes to enjoy the street anyway. So sometimes we changed bikes; sometimes we didn’t.

The grand total for three of us, three bikes over a week was $210. That’s about $10/day/person to get around Paris the way we wanted to, on our schedule.

It Takes a Leap of Faith

I’ll admit we panicked the first day on our Velib ride to the Louvre. It was probably a three mile ride. We were nervous (unnecessarily) in Paris traffic and weren’t sure where to park our bikes once we got there. When we got there, we asked a cabbie if he knew where to put our bikes. He kind of waived his arm in a broad arc, and we set off in its range of maybe 30 degrees from Place du Carousel. After a bit of searching we circled around the back, and found one. But it was full. We were frustrated at not being able to get rid of our bikes, knowing that the clock was ticking both on our bikes but also on our window of opportunity in the museum. We waited 5 minutes and nobody opened a bike parking spot, let alone three. Of course, we realized, that in the morning there would be a crush at the Louvre. We almost rode back to the hotel to get a cab! But, we finally noticed other Velib bikes cruising past and followed. We discovered, a block and a half away, another Velib station with empty slots. We parked our bikes. And all of a sudden we saw another. And another. They are everywhere; about a knight’s chess move from each other. You can almost see one from the other, if you know where to look. We just weren’t looking before.

So we explored the Louvre.

It's a busy place, and riding a bike there primes your body and mind for exploration.

It’s a busy place, and riding a bike there primes your body and mind for exploration.

And when it was time to go, we simply went to the closer, full Velib station to pick some bikes for the ride back to the other side of the river

And at the end of that first adventure, we realized there is simply no other way to travel in Paris. You start when you want, stop where you want, and it costs almost nothing.

You Are One of Them Now…

And man-oh-man do you get to experience the streets of Paris like you never have before. All those French people you see on bikes, pedaling around, stopping here for a baguette, here for a coffee, here for some groceries and a bottle of wine, here to chat with a friend or a shopkeeper, here for a glass of wine, here to watch the sunset from a bridge over the Seine and even here for dinner? You are not one of the out-of-towners at the mercy of the cabbies, or crawling out of the tunnels of the Metro and seeing the same tourist traps you saw last time you were in Paris.

You are experiencing Paris like a local: you are one of them now…

Well, I don't think I looked this good. My wife did, but not I.

Well, I don’t think I looked as elegant as this gentleman. My wife did, but not I.

Enjoy these videos of a short and a longer ride through Paris, one on a street and the second intentionally staying on meandering bike paths. Yes, my son rides through a puddle in the first video:

Again, the Velib website.

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David Huntsman

Husband, father, cyclist, lawyer