Driving in Paris: Would You Do It?

Driving in Paris

On our most recent visit to Paris, we decided to rent a car for a visit to Giverny and the D-Day beaches in Normandy. But when making our plans, I had read a lot of warnings about driving in Paris, even having people question my sanity on message boards for stating my confidence in driving in Paris. So how did my experience of driving in Paris go? Well, it had its ups and downs with a few lessons learned.

Our visit to France had its beginning and ending in Paris, with a few days spent in Normandy visiting Monet’s home in Giverny and the D-Day battlefields of Normandy. We could’ve taken a train to get to Giverny as many day-trippers do. But to get to Normandy and be able to experience the landing beaches and other World War II sites, we really would need a car unless we planned to book a guided tour. I wanted to do this tour myself, so a car would be a necessity.

Driving in Paris

Riding in from London to Paris on the Eurostar.

Our plan was to arrive in Paris early on a Monday morning on the Eurostar train from London. Paris Gare du Nord is the station where the Eurostar makes its Paris stop. The station is near the center of Paris, but its close enough to the ring road around the city that hiring a car at the station seemed to make a lot of sense.

Driving in Paris

And when we picked up the car around lunchtime on a Monday, getting to the ring road was easy. I’m a very confident driver, but this was my first time behind the wheel outside of the United States. I found the streets easy to navigate, the red lights not too confusing and the direct path to the ring road was easy.

Speaking of the ring road, when I was doing my trip research, I visited the travel forums on the Rick Steves website. I posted a simple question, asking about driving from the train station out of Paris. I was shocked at the posters who seemed to feel they had the worst horror stories of driving in Paris. They were shocked that I would want to drive in Paris, even though I would be driving nowhere near the notorious roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe. To me, driving on the ring road would be just like any other big-city interstate in the United States.

And you know what? I was 100 percent correct. If you don’t panic every time a motorcycle comes flying up the lane dividing line, you’ll be fine. And of course that does happen often, but if you just don’t panic when it does happen there is nothing to worry about.

Driving in Paris

Our drive out into Normandy was peaceful and no different than driving on an American interstate.

Where I discovered the horror, though, was on our way back into Paris. Before driving back to the train station to return the car on Wednesday evening, we visited Versailles. According to the mileage, we should’ve only been about a 30-minute drive from the train station to return the car. Only I kept us at Versailles too late, meaning we were stuck in rush-hour traffic at about 6 p.m.

Driving in Paris

OK, fine, I deal with rush-hour traffic daily at home. It was stop-and-go traffic on the ring road, nothing unusual for an after-work period. But where the trouble began is when we exited the road, and had just a couple of miles to go on city streets.

That’s where the deadlock began. And the waiting began. And continued. And dragged on. And just about blew my mind.

I still can’t completely explain why the streets of northern Paris were so packed around 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, but there was a holiday the next day. And I’ve heard since our visit that a lot of Parisians were probably in a hurry to get out of the city to enjoy the long weekend.

Whether it was the holiday or rush-hour traffic, I had found myself in a perfect storm. It took us nearly three hours to drive about 20 miles from Versailles to the Gare du Nord train station.

Driving in Paris

This is where the faint of heart might need to either not hire a car, or possibly take a few anxiety meds. The traffic was horrendous. The motorcycles trying to squeeze through spots that didn’t exist was interesting.

Driving in Paris

I could only laugh at cars disregarding red lights, making the situation even worse. And even pedestrians joining the fray … just wow.

Driving in Paris

The whole ordeal actually caused me pain. We had a Volkswagen that would shut down the second the car would start idling. I had a shin splint in my right leg from the constant up-and-down motion of my foot going between the gas and brake pedals.

Looking back now I can only laugh. But when we arrived at our apartment at nearly 9 p.m. when I was expecting it to be closer to 7 p.m. with a hungry 5-year-old, well, it was stressful. Thankfully the cab was able to quickly get us to our apartment, where there was a pizza restaurant nearby. That glass of wine couldn’t have tasted better after my stressful driving situation.

Final Verdict

So would I rent a car again in Paris? You bet. Driving in France was just as easy as at home. I did look over French street signs online before we left home, and had even printed a copy of the more common ones. So I would advise anyone driving in a foreign country to be prepared with the common street signs.

Another word of advice is to be prepared for the unknown with your rental car. Our car had everything programmed in Greek, so it took me the longest time to figure out the car’s gauges. In fact, I couldn’t figure out how to start the car. That’s a long story, but let’s just say when you drive a 10-year-old car at home like I do, newer technology in automobiles might be a bit more foreign to you than is normal.

18 thoughts on “Driving in Paris: Would You Do It?

  1. You were courageous to take that on. When we were in Paris, we cracked up on how people parked. As you probably noted, practically everyone drives a tiny car. We watched a few cars parallel park and we just stood on the sidewalk laughing. Bump the car in front, bump the car in back. Bump the car in front, bump the car in back until you squeeze in. It seemed to be the norm!
    Patti recently posted…When Mother’s Day Rolls Around ~My Profile

  2. Wow, I cannot believe that gridlock. Those photos are crazy! We rented a car in Paris go to the Loire Valley and see the castles. Getting out was a nightmare for us. We somehow got lost and ended up going around and around in a roundabout not sure which one to take. Now it’s hilarious and makes a good story, but at the time, not so much. Outside the city, driving was fine and just like home.
    Adelina recently posted…Slovenia: I Love You (and Why You Should Too)My Profile

  3. I’ve never encountered gridlock like I did trying to drive into Paris that evening. But other than the stop and go, there wasn’t much to it. Just sitting in traffic, going five feet, stopping and repeat 1,000 times. It really killed my right leg to do all of that up down motion from the gas to the break. I honestly did have a shin splint on my right leg for the remainder of the trip.

  4. Patti, I think that’s what bumpers are for, right? With our massive vehicles it’s harder for Americans to understand why anyone would want a small car. Spend some time driving in Europe, especially in its cities, and you’ll never want a large car again.

  5. Wow! That does sound stressful indeed. You are much braver than I am. I have rented cars in the States but would never in Europe…certainly not Paris.

    That definitely takes courage. I don’t think I would attempt the parking or the traffic jams.

    At least you made it -even 2 hours late. 🙂

  6. Seriously, except for our drive back into the city it was no different than driving in a U.S. city. I understand that not everyone drives, and certainly not in major cities. I think if you are confident in your driving abilities than driving in Paris is fine, especially if you stick to the outer areas of the city. But even the core of the city is doable. Just study street signs before you go.

  7. Leah, I do think driving in European cities is no different for people used to driving in American cities. Obviously roundabouts in big intersections can get tricky. And out in the countryside those one-lane roads can be stressful when someone is coming at you. But the cars are much smaller than those big SUV boats we drive over here.

  8. On this trip we had the car in France for our time in Normandy. After spending a week in Paris, we flew to Edinburgh where we spent a couple of days before renting a car on our way out of town to drive to Glasgow, into the Highlands and then down into England. I didn’t drive in London proper, but did drive in the outskirts. It’s a necessary evil that I would gladly repeat.

  9. Jo, I had no problem driving on the other side of the road in the U.K. And the parking thing wasn’t an issue for me because our driving in Paris was basically getting the car at the train station and leaving the city, and then returning the car to the parking garage at the train station. No worries.

  10. One time I decided to go hiking in Tennessee over Thanksgiving. I left work at 5 p.m. and it took me over 3 hours to get out of the city. It was brutal, but I can imagine that type of traffic would even be worse on vacation in Paris when trying to return the car. At least you have a great story to tell.
    Traveling Ted recently posted…Completing the Big Bend Outer Mountain LoopMy Profile

  11. Fiona, it’s a big reason we rented the car. We could have done a day trip from Paris, but since we also wanted to visit the D-Day beaches, it really made a lot of sense to hire a car. My main advice to people who don’t want to drive near the city center is to get a train to the outskirts and hire a car from an outer office.

  12. So, I’ve never driven in Europe, but I’ll be doing a lot of it this summer! Not sure we’ll get through Paris, but I’m interested to see if my experience matches yours in other cities.

    Good for you for renting the car. That’s half the battle! (plus, you survived! 😉 )
    Erin at The World Wanderer recently posted…Music Monday: Yo Te Lo Dije.My Profile

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge