Following 2015’s tragic terrorist attacks in the French capital-– and others around France since– many travellers are anxiously wondering “Is it still safe to travel to Paris?” A cursory look at Google’s search statistics easily confirms that the question is one many tourists’ minds.
And it’s an understandable and entirely human one. But as I detail at length in my piece on why you shouldn’t fear coming to the city since the attacks, there have been exaggerated accounts in some media outlets about the dangers tourists face when visiting Paris. Moreover, in a modern world where there are many complex risks to weigh and negotiate all the time, it’s important to put those risks into some real perspective. It’s not about discounting or underestimating the horror and human tragedy of the attacks. It’s about recognizing that life must go on– and that living in fear shrinks your world and its possibilities.
So before you cancel your trip or decide on another destination out of fear that you may be the victim of a terrorist attack or some other form of violent crime, read through my advice below. As I’ve said elsewhere, Paris depends greatly on tourism to thrive– and it would be tragic to see too many people eschew all the city has to offer out of a disproportionate sense of fear.
The Reality: Statistically Speaking, Paris Remains Quite Safe
While Paris has admittedly taken a significant knockdown in world city safety ratings due to recent terrorist attacks, violent crime here is still generally uncommon. OSAC, the US Bureau of Diplomatic Security, notes that tourists are generally safe in the city, and that street crime such as pickpocketing remains the primary concern.
To break it down a bit: The violent crime rate in France is roughly on par with Canada’s, and is three times lower than rates in the US. And according to French government statistics, even when taking into account deaths from terrorist attacks, the homicide rate in Paris per 1,000 inhabitants between 2015 and 2017 was only 0.019 (0.014 if you exclude the attacks).
You get my drift. Violent crime, and especially the sort that threatens lives, is uncommon in Paris. Gun violence there is astronomically lower than it is in comparably sized cities in the US. And while the US State Department website advises that tourists remain aware of their surroundings and exercise caution due to potential terrorist threats, take note: they don’t recommend cancelling your trip or avoiding the city.
My conclusion? Yes, there are some risks that can’t be denied. Most large metropolitan cities, including London and New York, carry similar risks in our globalized world. Should you avoid setting foot in these places altogether? Everyone has to make choices that they feel comfortable with, but from my perspective, you’d be greatly overestimating the dangers you face by doing so.
Pickpocketing is the Most Common Crime Affecting Tourists
I’ve talked about the unlikelihood of tourists becoming victims of violent crime in Paris. However, this doesn’t mean that you don’t risk being targeted for petty street crimes that can still make your trip a nightmare. Pickpocketing is by far the biggest threat to visitors, so you should learn how thieves operate and take all the precautions necessary to avoid being targeted.
How to Avoid Pickpockets in Paris?
Pickpockets operate in predictable and often highly organized ways, targeting tourists in crowded and popular areas. Often, they get away with your wallet or purse so quickly that you barely feel a thing. To keep this from happening, take these steps:
- In any crowded place (busy lines, congested metro cars, open spaces full of tourists snapping photos), take extra care with your belongings. It’s best to carry a bag or purse that you can wear crisscrossed around your chest, with pockets and valuables hugged to your front and in plain view. If you wear a backpack, don’t leave wallets, cash, passports or other valuable items in the front compartments.
- Only bring as much cash as you’ll likely need for the day, and maybe even less. 100 Euros or so is a good limit to aim for. Traveler’s checks can easily be exchanged for Euros at the American Express office on Rue Scribe (Metro: Opera).
- If you must carry larger amounts of cash, consider wearing a money belt.
- It’s always preferable to leave passports, large amounts of cash and other valuables in a hotel safe, if possible.
- Never leave your bags or suitcases unguarded, even for a minute or two. Not only do you run the risk of them being swiped up by thieves between two blinks of an eye: they can also be legally confiscated and destroyed by security forces, under current safety regulations in public spaces.
What About ATM Thefts and Other Scams?
In addition to pickpockets, tourists are often targeted by scammers and thieves in other ways. ATMs/cashpoints are particularly vulnerable spots. Never allow anyone to linger nearby when you take out cash, and guard against prying eyes. Never let anyone “help” you with a transaction at an ATM, or otherwise interfere with it. Ask the intrusive person to back off, and if they refuse, find another place to take out cash.
Around popular tourist attractions including the Sacre Coeur, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, merchants operating illegally are known to aggressively “persuade” tourists to buy their wares. This often involves putting an object or trinket in your hand or inviting you to “try on” a bracelet. Once you give in, a demand for payment often follows. Avoid this by refusing all advances from such “vendors” and not allowing them to place any items in or on your hand.
Protecting Your Health While in Paris
No one intends to get sick or suffer from an accident while traveling, but preparing for such unfortunate events will give you peace of mind and save you from outlandish medical costs. Buying trustworthy travel insurance is essential. Many international policies cover up to millions of dollars in medical costs and liabilities, and are reasonably priced (about the cost of a nice meal out for one, or even less, depending on your age and pre-existing conditions). You can compare and purchase trusted travel insurance policies here (via World Nomads).
Emergency Numbers to Keep With You:
If you run into a medical or other emergency, call one of the toll-free numbers below from any phone, and contact your embassy. It’s wise to print out these numbers and keep them with you at all times:
- Medical Emergencies & Accidents: 15
- Fire brigade: 18
- Police: 17
- SOS Médecins (on-call doctors): 01 47 07 77 77
- SOS Dentaire (dentists): 01 43 37 51 00
- SOS burns: 01 58 41 41 41
Note that in most cases, calling “15” is the best thing to do in a medical emergency. If you have been the victim of a violent crime or other crime, it will be necessary to both inform the French police and to file a report with your embassy.
If you need a pharmacy in Paris, they can be identified by their green flashing crosses. Most neighborhoods in the city have at least one pharmacy in a few blocks’ radius. These pharmacies are open late or 24 hours a day, in case you need to seek advice from a pharmacist or purchase medical supplies late at night.
Safety for Pedestrians in Paris
While Paris is generally a very pedestrian-friendly city– the local government has been working to increase the number of car-free zones around the capital in recent years– drivers can be aggressive, posing a danger to walkers. Take a defensive approach when crossing streets and busy intersections, checking for cars even when the light is green and/or when you have the right of way. In areas that appear to be pedestrian-only, watch out for cars and aggressive motorcylists: some areas that are “car-“free” still allow motorcyclists, service vehicles and cyclists.
What About Driving?
I strongly advise against trying to drive in Paris. Parisian drivers can be aggressive and unpredictable (by many standards), and traffic conditions are often congested and unpleasant. If you have to drive, your international driver’s license and insurance must be up to date. Also make sure you understand the local rules of the road. Avoid, at all costs, driving around nightmarish traffic circles such as the one at the Place de l’Etoile on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées.
Why to Register & Keep in Touch With Your Embassy:
It’s always wise to register with your embassy ahead of your trip and to keep their contact details with you at all times. In the event that your passport is lost or stolen, you experience a medical emergency or a crime, or are in the city at the time of a dangerous event, registering will ensure that you’ll be able to get in touch more quickly with your embassy and to receive help from them. This is a good list of world embassies and their contact details.
Once at your embassy’s site, read through any relevant travel advisories for Paris and France and find out how to register as a citizen traveling abroad before your trip.
Are There Dangerous Places in the Capital to Avoid?
I wish I could argue that Paris is entirely safe and all corners, but sadly, there are a few places that you’d probably be best off avoiding at night, especially for women and solo travelers. Gangs are known to operate in some of these areas, and hate crimes have been reported around them in the past.
Take special caution late at night around the following metro stops and surrounding areas (and perhaps avoid when traveling alone): Chatelet les Halles, Les Halles, Pigalle, Couronnes, Belleville, Place des Fetes, Porte de St Ouen, Porte de Clichy, Gare du Nord, Stalingrad, Jaures, Crimee. Please note that this is not a definitive list: you should probably be cautious in all areas of the city after nightfall, or when crowds disperse. Also note that this is NOT a list of so-called “no-go” zones in Paris. From my perspective (and it’s one shared by most), these simply don’t exist within the city limits.
Advice For Women, LGBT and Minority Travelers
Women, especially when traveling alone or in small groups, should take extra care at night, especially when alone. Avoid places with poor lighting and few people around.
Also, be aware that French men sometimes read smiles or extended eye contact as permission to flirt or make sexual advances. With strangers, it’s best to assume a neutral stance that clearly says “‘I’m not interested”. If a man makes unwelcome or aggressive advances in the street or in other public places, firmly say “non”, refrain from smiling, and walk away. Call the police if you are followed or the harassment continues, and retreat to a public cafe or other crowded place if necessary.
People of color generally have nothing to fear in Paris, a city with remarkable ethnic diversity. Nevertheless, hate crimes are not out of the question. If you are a victim of an attack that you feel is racially motivated, report it to the police, your embassy, and if necessary to French watchdog SOS Racisme: + 33 (0)1 40 35 36 55
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and non-binary visitors are generally safe and welcomed in Paris, a city with a large and vibrant LGBT community. That said, there have been scattered reports of homophobic attacks in the capital over the past years. Read my guide on homophobia in Paris over at TripSavvy for tips on staying safe, including for LGBT couples. If you are attacked, report it to the police and to your embassy, and state clearly if you believe the attack was a hate crime.
Jewish visitors may have read that Paris has become unsafe for them. It can’t be denied that antisemitic attacks have been on the rise in recent years, with targets including synagogues, places of business and Jewish individuals.
These attacks have been met with increased police protection of Jewish schools, places of worship and other sites important to the Jewish community. While safety concerns are warranted, I want to stress that Paris has one of the largest Jewish communities in the world: one with a deep history that’s very much part of the cultural fabric of the city. The vibe is generally welcoming and you shouldn’t fear visiting the city. It’s also important to know that there have been no recent reports of attacks against tourists of Jewish faith. Nevertheless, take precautions, particularly in the areas I mention above. Sadly, it may be best, late at night and in quiet areas, to remove visibly religious symbols and clothing items. Always report it to the police and to your embassy if you are a victim of an antisemitic attack. SOS Racisme can also help.
Muslim visitors may also fear attacks from Islamophobic individuals. Since 2015, there has been, according to numerous organizations, a sharp rise in attacks on Muslim places of worship and individuals. Tourists of Muslim faith should not fear visiting the capital– again, there is a large community here and most people are welcoming– but if you experience harassment or violence, make sure to report it to the police, your embassy, and perhaps to SOS Racisme. While attacks on tourists are exceedingly rare, it is important for victims to have their experiences accounted for, and to seek the help they need.
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