Paris’ Vélib’ bike-sharing system is cheap, easy and the best way to hit the sights without missing any street life.

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I had three days in Paris and I was freaking out.

My husband and I had shoehorned in a quick trip before a wedding in neighboring Belgium, just so I could get my first glimpse of the City of Light. I needed to move fast, but didn’t want to be stuck underground in subways, missing all of the street life.

I had heard that Paris had started a new public bicycle system, Vélib’, but first-hand stories about using it were scarce online. I found the official website and, for just 1.70 euros, I could have a bike all day. It seemed like the best way to cover the most ground without missing any street life. I pre-booked two bikes for our second day in town and crossed my fingers.

The logistics

The bikes are spread around the city center (imagine a more robust — and used — Pronto system). You can buy a ticket online in advance and plug in a code, or use a credit card at a machine located near the bike racks. English-language instructions are available for either method.

The bikes are comfy three-speeders, which is all that’s needed on Paris’ flat streets. You can choose any bike in the rack, and all come with cushy seats and baskets for your purchases. There are not helmets available and no one wears them (more on that later).

Women ride Vélib’ bikes along the Seine River, a great place to ride away from car traffic.
Women ride Vélib’ bikes along the Seine River, a great place to ride away from car traffic.

The bikes need to be dropped at a rack (any one will do) within 30 minutes or there is an additional charge. Stations are abundant and located next to major sights and metro stations, but watching the time is a bit distracting. The next half-hour is only 1 euro, though, so it’s not a major stressor.

An international data plan is extremely helpful for finding stations. Download the Vélib’ app for an interactive map that shows station locations and the number of bikes available.

The results

The bikes were an amazingly safe and efficient way to travel along the Seine and around the Eiffel Tower without missing a gorgeous building, bridge or Parisian. They also helped burn off the morning’s croissants to make room for wine and escargot at lunch.

The city recently converted a highway along the Left Bank of the Seine into a fantastic pedestrian (and bike) area. The same is planned for the Right Bank from the Bastille to the Eiffel Tower. This was the best area for biking, with no traffic to contend with or fears about going sans bike helmet.

The city streets around the Eiffel Tower are also calm, with little car traffic during the day. This is in stark contrast to the major boulevards. We stayed on Boulevard Saint-Germain, and riding in the designated bike lane toward home meant sharing space with buses and cabs — a harrowing experience I don’t recommend.

Vélib’ stations are abundant in the city center, and English-language menus are available on the machines.
Vélib’ stations are abundant in the city center, and English-language menus are available on the machines.

The route

We walked from our Airbnb flat to the Vélib’ station in the converted pedestrian area behind the d’Orsay Museum. Inputting our codes, popping the bikes out of the racks and adjusting our seats took mere minutes.

We headed west, taking in the Pont Alexandre III, Esplanade des Invalides and exterior of the Quai Branly Museum before our first 30 minutes expired. We dropped our bikes at a station near the Eiffel Tower and spent some time on foot before coming across another station and hoping back on the bikes.

We rode through the quiet streets of the 7th arrondissement — something we would have bypassed with a subway ride if not for the bikes — finding a locals-only café that was one of our favorite meals of the trip. Another 30-minute stretch and we were at the Rodin Museum without a blister between us.

We headed home, on that traffic-heavy stretch, until I spotted a station a few extra blocks from our flat and cried uncle.

The next day, we split up to take in museums particular to our tastes. As I exited the d’Orsay to meet up with him near The Centre Pompidou, I considered making the half-hour walk. Then I headed to the Vélib’ station, picked up a bike and got there with enough time for a little extra shopping.