Packing For Paris: Overview

posted in: Paris, Travel | 36

Run an internet search on “what to pack for Paris” and your search engine will probably return hundreds of links. Due to its history as the birthplace of modern fashion and reputation for stylish inhabitants, probably no other city provokes such angst for some travelers about what to pack and wear.

On our first two visits to Paris, I overpacked horrendously: heavy garments that needed pressing, pieces that didn’t mix with the rest of what I’d packed, different outfits for every contingency, most of which were never worn, shoes that weren’t comfortable to walk in for more than a few blocks. Our multiple pieces of luggage were large, heavy and unwieldy, and one checked bag went missing and didn’t turn up for a couple of days after our arrival. I’ve since learned to pare down, pack wisely and bring no more than will fit in a carry on bag (at least for the trip over…on the way home I’ll be checking a bag full of skin care and fragrance goodies).

Here are a few of the general guidelines I now follow when planning what to pack:

Start with shoes. No other element of your travel wardrobe can make or break your trip as much as shoes. I bring no more than two or three pair (one of which is worn on the plane) and ALL must be comfortable and supportive enough to walk in for hours. Leave those cute, thin-soled ballet flats at home; you’ll be walking on cobblestones, gravel, or even cold marble or stone floors in some buildings. Unless you’re planning on attending a state dinner at the Embassy or a wedding, you do not need a pair of dressy heels. Leave the bulky “trainers” at home too.  I’d also suggest sticking to neutral, dark colors in general, as they’ll be easier to coordinate with your clothing and will be less inclined to show dirt and wear. You’ll see plenty of “sensible” shoes on even the most stylish Parisiennes! I’m partial to low-heeled mary-janes, but nice loafers, ankle boots, or sleek oxfords will work, and knee boots of course during cooler seasons. Whatever you take, be sure they’re well broken in before you go! And if there’s a chance of warm weather, make one of your choices a pair of walking sandals.

Simple and Neutral. Pick one neutral color scheme and a secondary neutral that coordinates with the first (and your shoes). Almost all of your clothing will be selected from these one or two neutrals. First, it makes putting together multiple outfits from fewer pieces of clothing much easier, and second, you’ll find that neutrals with an occasional pop of color dominate the Parisian sartorial landscape, meaning you won’t feel like a walking neon sign. You really don’t need a lot of really dressy clothing; for almost any venue these days “Smart Casual” is perfectly acceptable. And keep styles simple. If you do feel the need to bring it up a notch, it’s much easier to dress up a simple black pencil skirt than one with ruffles and tiers.

Lightweight, Washable Layers. The weather can be changeable, and you’ll want to be able to easily add or remove layers as needed. Best options are knits, and not bulky ones. Being able to do a quick hand wash in the sink, and hang to dry overnight means that you’ll need to bring fewer pieces. I love silk jersey, though it can be pricey, but look for rayon, viscose and even poly blends (which have come a long way from the sweaty, clingy fabrics of our youth). 100% Cotton will be heavy to pack and take forever to dry if you do need to wash it. During cooler months, ponte knits are a wonderful choice for pants, skirts, dresses and jackets.

To Jean or not to Jean? Hardcore “light packers” eschew them for the weight and amount of time they can take to dry if washed or if you get caught in a downpour. But if you live in jeans and can’t imagine life without them, and are willing to either not wash or pay to have them laundered, take one or two pair. My recommendation: dark wash, straight leg, with some poly/lycra in the fabric which will help them hold their shape.

Rehearse. I usually do a “Polyvore On The Floor” with the pieces I intend to bring, just to be sure the colors, styles and textures are compatible. Then I try every top on with every bottom and each pair of shoes. It all has to work together or it doesn’t go. There’s no room for any piece that only works in one ensemble.

Stay In Character. Unless you’re a farmhand or full-time yoga instructor, don’t pack a lot of clothing that diverges vastly in style from what you normally wear. You want to feel stylish, yes, but you want to feel like yourself. 


Relax.  Even in Paris, there are very few venues anymore that require very dressy attire. As long as you’re neat and relatively coordinated, your demeanor and manners will count for a lot more than your attire. Don’t forget to say “Bonjour, madame,” “Bonjour monsieur” and ask in shops before you handle anything and you’ll be fine. There are no Fashion Police waiting on every corner to write you a ticket.

I’ll share some specific packing recommendations in upcoming installments as well as my Polyvore On The Floor once we get closer to departure.
~

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36 Responses

  1. Anonymous
    | Reply

    As a frequent traveler, often to Paris, I cannot agree more with your selections. For jeans, I’ve discovered the J. Peterman Lightweight denim trousers. They back down small, cover a range of temperatures (wore them to the great wall of China in January when it was freezing cold with Wintersilk’s long underwear and they were perfect). They look both casual and dressy. Thanks for the enjoyable posts. Susan

  2. Pam @ over50feeling40
    | Reply

    My dream is that someday I will need this information! It is on my “bucket list” to go to Paris! You always increase the desire.

  3. Zuzu*s Petals
    | Reply

    Excellent list, especially the shoe advice. That’s almost always where I get it wrong, and the thought of walking on cobblestones in thin-soled shoes makes me shudder. Sneakers, though … they simply will not do. For jeans I have a pair from J.Jill that I bought a few years ago (they won’t go out of style unless bootleg does) that weigh less than my chinos or yoga pants.

    I didn’t catch your departure date, but have a glorious time! Paris is one city I have not yet visited, but I intend to one day soon.

  4. Anonymous
    | Reply

    The shoe advice is good if you’re a good walker and under 60, but otherwise I’d suggest that including a pair of very comfortable and high quality sneakers is really important. I wear one pair on the plane and pack one: black leather Rockports (under black jeans they look quite acceptable) and one pair of silver and white Geox (Italian), also sublimely comfortable (with the souls that breathe, wonderful if the weather is warm/hot), good with white cream pants/jeans (in Paris I always stay in apartment with a washing machine). I also take a pair of smart shoes or sandals for more dressy lunches/dinners and/or cocktail parties. The sneakers are good on cobblestones and give you a secure grip on the different walk surfaces in Paris. Important if you are near/over 60 and want to avoid falls. I don’t know why people say sneaakers will not do, perhaps they’re thinking of daggy old basketball sneakers. If you choose the right pair (right colour and style), they’re fine and I’ve seen lots of French wearing them and looking stylish. Also if you are planning to wear super stylish shoes (like Louboutins etc) beware the dog merde, it’s everywhere.

  5. Paula
    | Reply

    I am a sneaker-woman, too! And frankly: I don’t care what others think of me. I mean, it’s my trip and I want to enjoy it! I will fly to Sicily later this week and gore-tex Salomon X-trainers will be my company. I hate it when my feet get wet in the rain so the best shoe for me is a carefree waterproof shoe. A pair of ballerinas for dinner at the hotel compliments the sneakers nicely. Taking in regard that Sicily is not Paris stylewise. :-)

    I decided to pack shirts and blouses instead of T-shirts. Most of them have long sleeves and if the temperatures rise, I can roll up the sleeves. The colour range goes from pink to sky-blue, white is a must.

    The “rehearsal” takes place during ironing and laying out the clothes.
    The worst part about packing: I even consider taking a day off for ironing/selecting/packing. Why does traveling have to become a project?

    When does your plan take off?

    Happy packing! Paula

  6. angie.a
    | Reply

    Good tips for any trip I think! Have a wonderful time..I’m incredibly jealous! Our school French club is there this week. The kids were so excited!

  7. Mardel
    | Reply

    Great tips and pretty much what I do when I am packing for travel almost anywhere. It took me a long time to learn all that though. And I note what I didn’t actually wear, which helps me pare things down for the next trip.

  8. LPC
    | Reply

    Oh I love the idea of wearing my jeans in Paris. I confess I never feel so stylish as the days I put on a good jacket and a pair of jeans. BTW, I am living in my Beautifeels and they do my feet very good service. I’d not be chagrined at all to wear them in Paris.

  9. Judy
    | Reply

    I love your lists!! I will save this for the next time I am lucky enough to go.

    I love to walk, and personally I find that a good,well made and well fitting casual shoe (like Rockports) is more comfortable than a pair of sneakers. But that is just me, to each their own!

  10. RoseAG
    | Reply

    My husband is quite adamant about no sneakers on European trips – this from a man who can wear a shirt inside-out all day. He likes to go and sit at corner cafes and soak up the atmosphere, and you just don’t fit in if you’ve got sneakers on. Take your other comfortable shoes!

    I have to agree with the importance of “Good Morning/Afternoon” when in France. I’ve had clerks admonish me about this. You can get away with hurried communications in New York, Washington or Boston, but in Paris get your good manners out if you want to be treated nicely.

  11. That's Not My Age
    | Reply

    Excellent advice. I always wear jeans and comfy shoes in Paris. Will you be going to see the Marc Jacobs/Louis Vuitton exhibition?

  12. Karena
    | Reply

    Thank you for so much excellent advice. I also used to way, way over pack for Europe. The whole trick is in the mix and match pieces.

    Please do come and join my new Fashion Giveaway from Fresh Produce!

    xoxo
    Karena
    Art by Karena

  13. mette
    | Reply

    I agree with the shoes, walkable shoes. And colors, based on one or two.
    You have gone a long way, I remember your first trips, the amounts of clothes. But that´s in the past. Less is more.
    And even less, means that you might have good reason to buy something ” not planned” ; ).

  14. Splenderosa
    | Reply

    I think you are SO right! I just did a polyvore post at my place about this same subject, only with photos, no words. Well done, my friend !!

  15. Duchesse
    | Reply

    I’d add: don’t expect same-day drycleaning, and it’s expensive. Sneakers are worn by my Parisienne friends for gardening, cycling and other very casual pursuits, not to museums or cafés. They are all over 60 and wear loafers, driving moccasins, Arche flats or boots or oxfords. A defining characteristic of the Parisien is his or her shoe material: leather, except for Converse Chuck Taylors or espadrilles in the South.

    “Bonjour/Bonsoir” is also important for the cabbie, ticket-taker, etc.

  16. K.Line
    | Reply

    In truth, I think shoes define any travel wardrobe. They kick everything off (no pun intended :-)) And I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t travel with jeans?! Even if I’m going somewhere totally warm, I wear jeans on the freezing cold plane. Then, I don’t need to pack them and I have all their benefits. For Paris, particularly, I think they’d be a must! When I was there last August it was so freezing that I could only wear jeans. On that trip (2 weeks), I wore one pair of jeans and brought another.

  17. The Gold Digger
    | Reply

    I was very glad to have long underwear on our trip to Paris in Nov 2010, when it was supposed to be in the 40s but was around freezing instead. My pashmina scarf was also very useful.

    Unfortunately, I looked like a little Michelin woman in my jacket + down vest combo. They were supposed to be worn separately, but I was too cold!

    Outside of clothes – I was happy to have ziplocks as well so I could sneak our wonderful leftovers into a bag. I didn’t know if it was done to ask for a to-go box, so I just casually slipped the rest of that quiche into the bag and into my purse.

    Also – a big binder clip to close the hotel drapes.

    Shoes are the biggest problem. Does there exist a pretty shoe that is also comfortable?

    • Karen
      | Reply

      I love the binder clip idea! Especially when you are struggling with time changes and want to nap during midday. Brilliant!

  18. Aunt Snow
    | Reply

    Perfect timing, this article! We are planning a trip to Europe (Venice and Paris and London!) in June, and I’m thinking about what to pack. Since we’re taking the train between cities, I want only one manageable rolling bag.

    I’ve just ordered a pair of comfortable black sandals – my go-to shoe for summer – so that I’ll have time to break them in this spring. I always stash a pair of flipflops in my bag, just in case. I am trying to decide whether to bring another pair of shoes or just rely on the sandals. My first trip to Paris, for some reason my planned shoes just didn’t work out, and I bought a pair of cheap Chinese cloth ballet flats and walked all over town in them – don’t want to do that again.

    No sneakers, yes, but I have a pair of black Merrells I’m thinking of.

    I have lots of silk or rayon print summer skirts with elastic waists. I have cotton t-shirts and wide-strapped tanks in various colors that match the prints or go well with black. I also have a couple of sleeveless rayon dresses that fold up tightly. I want to go to Chicos and buy a pair of their black – or maybe taupe – ponte knit jeans (I have a pair but it’s the wrong size now).

    Black cardigan with pockets by Exclusively Missook. Black skirt by same. 1 pair of cotton madras drawstring pajama pants, for in-hotel-room comfort.

    Any advice that’s particular to Venice rather than Europe in general? I know comfortable walking is very important.

    I think no jeans for me.

  19. Karen
    | Reply

    I would add one more thing: start your packing with the weather forecast. THEN move right to the shoes.

    It’s just like any other major urban place; neutrals galore. Europeans ALL wear sneakers now as a part of life, but they are stylish and up to the minute sneakers. The sneakers that do stand out on tourists are usually white, and leather. Or, dirty old trainers. Most of us here know that.

    If the Parisians only knew how we agonized over what to wear in their city…I truly get the feeling that clothes are a utility item for them. They throw them on and forget about it. (But they revel in their underwear!)

    Face it, looking nice while travelling will get you very far in restaurants, at airports etc. Appearance plus a pleasant demeanor as Sue has pointed out, are a winning combination. Don’t forget your big American smile and easygoing humor!

  20. The Style Crone
    | Reply

    Great tips that I hope to refer to in the future. ‘You want to feel like yourself’ rings true!

  21. yoga teacher
    | Reply

    Great post! I AM a full-time yoga teacher (and also a woman *of a certain age*), just back from 10 days in Spain with my daughter’s high school group, and I have to disagree a little. As I’ve done in Paris before, I wore nothing but yoga clothes the entire trip and they were perfect. Everything lightweight, washable, easy to dress up or down. Zobha makes some very stylish yoga coverups and coats which do NOT look like exercise clothes. Yoga pants worked with both Merrell clogs (flares) and Geox boots (straight leg, tucked in), both of which handle cobblestone streets quite well. One caution, however: Cheap yoga pants will not go the distance – Get your money’s worth with Lucy, Zobha, or Lululemon.

  22. vicki archer
    | Reply

    The perfect advice… xv

  23. Anonymous
    | Reply

    For those who feel it’s not acceptable to wear sneakers and that somehow Parisians will regard you as some sort of fashion pariah, I can say that I’ve worn smart sneakers for years in Paris, including at galleries, museums, good cafes, bistrots, tea salons, including Carette, Laduree, Angelina and in good boutiques, Le Bon Marche etc, with linen shirts and pants/smart jeans, a Lacroix or Hermes or Ferragamo scarf and maybe a Celine bag and feel perfectly at home and have even been complmented by locals. So for those who need comfort and don’t want to finish up in the Hotel Dieu with a broken ankle or hip, don’t be afraid to wear sneakers. Just make sure they’re good ones in good condition and will work with the colour of your outfit, following the coordination routine above of setting them all out on floor or bed. Enjoy your holiday safely. Of course if you’re 30 or so and have strong legs and feet, you’re lucky to be able to wear whatever heels and shoes you like.

  24. Semi Expat
    | Reply

    Such good advice. My advice would always be layers – so useful and of course I second your “be yourself” !! And sorry, but I would not ever wear a sneaker in Paris. x

  25. Anonymous
    | Reply

    Dear Aunt Snow

    Sandals in Venice in June should be fine as long as they’re really comfortable and worn in. We spent ten days there last year and while walking is delightful, you’re forever going up and down the steps on bridges to cross canals. So high heels for walking don’t make a lot of sense. June is usually warm but a pashmina is useful in case it turns cooler in the evening. Last May-June there were several (sometimes four at a time) cruise boats in port every day or so. This means that the Piazza San Marco is unbearably crowded and you hardly notice what people are wearing because of the scrum. Of course if you’re staying or dining at the Cipriani or the Bauer Grunwald or the Hotel Danieli you’ll feel more comfortable in very chic casual gear. The roof terrace of the Danieli is just beautiful with the most wonderful views, great either for lunch or just a coffee and a gelato or a bellini. If you’ve been to Venice before, it’s best to keep away from the Piazza San Marco and get a bit off the beaten track (lots of wonderful things to see) as the cruise crowds don’t stray too far from San Marco, the Rialto and Accademia bridge areas. As well as off the beaten track in Venice central, it’s lovely to visit Torcello, Burano (go on an early ferry before the big crowds) and Murano. If you don’t want Chinese glass, avoid the Rialto stalls/shops and be careful in many other shops too. If you look at the men unloading the barges you’ll see cartons of glass from China – people buy this and take it home thinking it’s real Murano glass. It upsets a lot of the serious local glass sellers and factories. A very pleasant trattoria with a Venetian owner-chef and his Texan wife is called Al Covo, not far from Arsenale. You can find it on the net. Great local food and unpretentious ambience. Friendly and helpful. Another great thing to do, though expensive, is to hire a water taxi really early in the morning before the crowds and gondolas are about and ask the driver to take you slowly down the Grand Canal and around some of the other canals, including the Giudecca, it’s heavenly.

  26. BigLittleWolf
    | Reply

    Anything that specifies “start with shoes” gets my vote…

    :)

    And I must say, having traveled to Paris during every season for a number of years, the “lightweight washable layers” is so important. You never quite know what you’re going to get, and washable separates has always been the way to go, for me.

  27. Anonymous
    | Reply

    Your suggestions are helping me refine what to pack. We are travelling from Rome to Paris over 5 weeks (late May-early July). Although I normally live in jeans & casual pants, I am packing mostly skirts for the heat.

    I’ll feel better in Mary Janes (MJs) with skirts. I am considering Ecco Clay MJs but wonder if they will be supportive enough? I’ve heard that the curved soles of Clarks Wave.Cruise MJs are great on cobblestones.

    But I find bare feet in shoes (except sandals) are uncomfortable and can cause blisters. So the big puzzle is what SOCKS to wear with MJs when it’s too hot for tights? Knee highs and trendy ankle socks seem inappropriate for me at 60. Can I wear black Nike “no-show” socks in Mary Janes- or will the fashion police arrest me? Please advise.

    • Anonymous
      | Reply

      Dear Mary Jane
      If you’re brave enough to dare the negative comments about sneakers, think of the Italian brand, Geox. Not sure if you can buy them in the US, they’re in all bigger towns in Italy and we’ve bought them even in Vienna. When you get to Rome ask your hotel for the nearest Geox store and try them out (we have no connection with the Geox company, just love their products). My husband loves them too – he has many pairs of Geox in greys, browns, tans etc in suede and other materials that look great with smart casual clothes. The soles are cleverly designed with many small holes that allow the feet to breathe so they’re perfect in warm weather or even when it’s hot if you don’t want to wear sandals. The ones I’ve collected are superbly comfortable with great soles for cobblestones. They come in an amazing variety of types and subtle colours and many are quite stylish and very different from sneakers you’d wear to the gymn or the local shops at home (people whose automatic reaction is negative should examine Geox first and try wearing them – not dismiss out of hand). Much more comfortable than Converse and of course they’re cool in warm weather so you don’t suffer the wet sock phenomenon. No, they’re not French, they’re Italian but Italians are stylish too, just walk along the streets in Milan and you’ll observe great style (and no they’re not all wearing Geox because they live there and they’re not spending nearly all day, every day, walking for miles along the streets of the city as visitors are). Most of us who read this blog are non-French so what does it matter if we don’t look French (or Italian) as long as we have our own personal sense of style and self confidence. In the late afternoons/early evenings if you join the Romans in their passegiata around the Piazza d’Espagna/Via Condotti area, then you might enjoy wearing some dressy sandals or shoes so you’re in good company with the stylish women of Rome. But for exploring during the rest of the day, Geox are brilliant, though personally I prefer them with pants rather than a skirt. Linen pants are quite cool in the heat – of course they wrinkle but that’s part of the linen look. It will almost certainly be very hot in Rome in June. Have a great time!

  28. nina
    | Reply

    Bonjour!

    I packed what I consider the perfect suitcase! A great raincoat thet dries in less than hald hour… drenched as it may be… three pair of flats. black tights, ot leggings.. No jeans. No tennis shoes.. Black ballet slipper like flats. Lots of diffrent scarves and black and colorful turtlenecks and tee-shirst. some short-sleeved, some lomg-sleeved… a bone colored jacket.. pearls, my diamond studs.. Black anklepants… And that was it, besides the obvious pj’s…
    A couple of Longchamps bags in black but different sizes…

    Voila!

    Cécile

  29. Terri
    | Reply

    This sounds like such sensible advice. Having never been to Paris, I wonder if the women one notices on the street are other tourists or native Parisians.

  30. Kathysue
    | Reply

    Great advice looking forward to future post. We are going to Paris IN the Fall so I am really needing some advice. It is my first time in Paris and we will be there for 2 weeks,
    Kathysue

  31. ellen kirkendall
    | Reply

    This is not only good advice for travel wardrobe selections but also for life! Unless you have lots of money and closet space this kind of wardrobe is just what you need.

  32. Thrift Store Mama
    | Reply

    I’m preparing for my first trip to Paris in late June. I’m 38 and it’s been a dream of mine since I was 14, so I’m so looking forward to it.

    So lovely stumbling across your blog – a friend suggested it.

  33. Beth25
    | Reply

    I have developed a wonderful travel wardrobe, by using either a decent looking faux leather jacket or navy blazer(depending on the season) and trench. I always take a non-iron white shirt, black slacks, black trouser style jeans. I bought the green rubber boots from your blog last fall, which are warm, dry and comfortable. A travel umbrella, I also rollup cashmere sweaters, since I travel in the fall and spring I also take a microfleece vest which I layer with white/black long sleeved tees. I take walking shoes, a pair of ballet flats and No Sneakers unless they are black. Wear your jewelry and don’t put any jewelry–even costume in your bag. I also take a dress that I can rollup. I layer it with my vest, I put a cashmere sweater over it to create a skirt and top with a cute belt and I can also add a black cotton turtleneck (j. crew tissue weight are perfect). everything can be washed out in the sink. I travel with a 25inch suitcase and could be gone a month with this wardrobe. A great blog today and the comments were well worth reading.

  34. Ferris Danal
    | Reply

    You are so correct about taking the right shoes. Most important item. My last trip to Paris I had the clothing down just the wrong shoes.Gave me a great excuse to buy a new pair of shoes. I love Paris and cannot wait to return this comming April.

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