The second busiest subway system in the world (after Moscow), Paris' Metro system is an extremely useful, organised and efficient way to get around the city. With 303 stations, 62 lines and 214km of track, you're bound to find yourself using it if you want to make the most of your time there, but it's also worth a trip just for the sake of the experience.
No tacky plastic signs invite you down, but in true Parisian chic style, there are striking Art Nouveau signs to mark the metro entrances.
Buying a ticket in a foreign country can often feel like a daunting prospect. I've often stopped to help tourists travelling on the London underground, but in Paris the system seemed reasonably straightforward. The machines let you choose a language, which helps lessen the alienation to start with. There are occasional prompts to point out what you might need to know for obvious tourist destinations, which is really helpful. The key thing to bear in mind is that basic tickets are time-limited as much as journey limited, within the zone. So, a basic ticket will give you transfers over a 90 minute period from first use on certain bus and Metro combinations. Heavily subsidised, tickets cost just a fraction of London prices, and are cheaper if you buy a book (carnet) of 10. You can also use the 'Navigo' system, which is a time-limited pass, reducing the need to bother with individual tickets.
Grand stations like Châtelet – Les Halles have shopping malls attached, above ground, but the majority of stations are too small for this to be necessary. You do, however, find a good range of snack machines on the platforms, which aren't as extortionately marked up in price as you might find in other cities. Water, other soft drinks, crisps and chocolates are all available to keep you going on your journey.
A further facility is free wifi! You can pay more for an upgrade, but a basic service has been available since 2012, helping keep you connected above and below ground.
The sixteen lines are all clearly numbered and colour-coded, which makes finding your way around a station really easy, even if you don't speak French. One further set of signs shows you exactly what buses etc will be leaving from the different exits, which makes planning your onward journey much simpler. Gone is the wandering around clutching a guide book and looking vulnerable as you search frantically for the right connections, and instead you can just follow the signs and feel comfortable you know what you're doing.
In order to help you plan your journey, the stations routinely had a map of the immediate area, which help you locate your precise position and work out where to go next. Châtelet – Les Halles is the largest Metro station in the world, so large that it is in essence two stations sandwiched together. It's busy too, acting as a major interchange, but also standing within walking distance of the Louvre. As with any complex system, you may find it more useful to get off and walk between nearby stations, and this one is a good stopping point for many major Paris attractions.
You will obviously want to see how all the lines map onto the city as a whole, so there are plenty of overall maps showing this. It can be awkward to piece together particular journeys, switching between the many different lines, but it's usually easy and quick to do so. Trains run frequently (every couple of minutes during the day) so although it's busy, trips are manageable.
For a full collection of maps, timings and tickets, the website has a full English language version. Why not try travelling the length of a line, or deliberately getting off at stations you've never heard of? You never know what you might discover!