There are a lot of wonderful ways to experience a city, and it seems like more ways pop up every year. You can ride segways or open top buses. If a city has a river, you can usually see it by boat. You can use a city’s Tube/Subway/Metro system to jet around catching as many highlights as possible. You can walk a city on your own two feet, exploring it in slow motion.
Or you can travel around a city on a bike.
One of the trends I am really enjoying in Europe is that cities are becoming more bike-friendly, and I think biking is a happy medium between walking and taking the bus. It’s much faster than being on foot, but you can still pause whenever you like. Also, there is nothing like the feeling of accomplishment you get from navigating a new city on a bicycle.
This year I have biked several times in both London and Paris, and riding bikes along the Thames River or the River Seine certainly factor into my summer travel highlights, so I thought it would be fun to provide a little comparison of biking in these two very different cities.
Both cities have loads of options for bicycle rentals and all kinds of tours. And both cities allow bikers on their city streets and have a network of lanes and park trails for those who prefer a bike ride that does not involve cycling right next to a bus.
24 Hour City Bike Tickets
The cheapest available biking option is to use the city bikes. You can buy an inexpensive (1,70 euros for Paris and 2 pounds for London) 24 hour ticket that allows you to access the city bikes that are conveniently spaced all over town. London has over 8000 cycles and 570 docking stations, and Paris has 20000 bikes with over 1450 stations.
Both systems have apps available for your smartphone, which prove to be very handy, especially when you are looking for a station to drop your bike off. If you keep your rides under 30 minutes, then the original 24 hour ticket fee is all you will be charged. However, it can be tricky to keep your rides that short. Still, even if you go over, you are just charged a few more euros/pounds for the next 30 minutes.
Paris by Bike
In Paris, when you buy a ticket, you receive an actual paper ticket with a code on it. You assign a PIN number to that code (that you need to remember), and the code is good for one bicycle. So when you want to check out a bicycle, you punch in the code at a station, enter your PIN number and choose a bike. You have to have a ticket with a code for each bike that you want to check out, which is not a problem unless you are biking with a group of people, in which case, a lot of the 30 minute time limit will be eaten up with punching in codes.
We had four people biking in Paris and we would start a 25 minute timer as soon as we pulled out the first bike, so that when it went off we could start looking for a docking station for the first bike that was checked out. We got more adept with this system as time passed, but at first we were frantically looking for biking stations after about ten minutes of riding.
The bikes in Paris are sort of a grey metal colour, and the stations are off the beaten path a bit, so it can be hard to spot them. At first, you really need the app to find a station, and the app also tells you how many parking spots are available at each one. Before we figured this out, we arrived at several stations only to discover that all the spaces were full, which is a bit discouraging. Alternatively, if a station is completely empty, you can ride right past it without even noticing because you are watching for bikes.
Also, in Paris, on several occasions we checked out bikes that were broken. We got better at checking for things like flat tires or broken gears, but we once overlooked a missing chain and another time got a bike with a broken pedal, and once you have checked a bike out you have to wait a bit before you can check out another one, even if you return it immediately. We learned our lesson and really sized our bikes up before we pulled them out.
Even with all the little hiccups, riding bikes in Paris was so much fun. One morning we rode up the Champs-Elysee all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, but our favourite ride was a lazy one along the Seine.
London by Bike
The blue Barclay bikes in London are a lot easier to spot than the grey bikes in Paris, but it is still a good idea to have the app in order to find your closest station. When you buy your 24 hour ticket in London, you can purchase up to four bikes at one time. When you want to get a bike, you put the card in the machine that you bought your ticket with and they ask you how many bikes you want to check out. (Note: For both cities you need a card with a chip in it in order to purchase a ticket.) If you want to check out four bikes, the machine spits out four bike codes at once that are only good for the next few minutes. So each rider takes one of the codes over to a bike, punches it in and releases a bike. You can all get your bikes and take off at the same time.
Again, I would always set a timer on my phone for 25 minutes, so I would have time to find a station after the timer went off.
In London, if you arrive at a station that is full, you can go to the machine and request fifteen more minutes to find another docking station before you are charged for more time. After being in Paris, we thought this was a really kind feature. Also, maybe because there are fewer to take care of, the bikes in London were so much more well maintained than those in Paris.
Our favourite London ride was to the Columbia Road Flower Market!
The very best time of the day to ride a bike in either Paris or London is early in the morning. In fact, if we bought a 24 hour ticket during the day, I would always be sure to get up and go for a morning ride even if no one else wanted to go, just enjoy the empty streets and to get one more use out of my ticket.
Sometimes we would just get on bikes and take off, getting lost and enjoying the ride. But usually I would get biking directions on my phone and listen to them with a headphone in one ear. On Google Maps, you can select bike routes, and we took lots of roads we would not have noticed ourselves if we had not had this option. But the apps themselves also have some great suggestions for rides.
On the bigger streets, I would often find another biker to follow, especially if I could spot someone who seemed familiar with the area. (Usually someone who was riding their own bike.)
We still got honked at by a bus or two. And once or twice my daughter shouted from behind that it felt like we were going in circles. (I was lost.) But for the most part, we were pretty giddy to be on bicycles.
As soon as I start pumping those pedals, I feel like I am about ten years old and on my way to somewhere special. And even if I am sharing the road with giant double decker buses, riding over the Tower Bridge in London makes me feel like I’m on top of the world.