This scruffy port city won't win any awards as a dreamy beach town, but then, the island of Tahiti as a whole won't win any medals either. Head for Moorea, Bora Bora or one of a dozen or more nearby islands — there are 118 to choose from — to find the French Polynesia you've dreamed about.
But if you're here for a day or two making airline connections, don't stay in the hotel, because there's great shopping and plenty to see. Here's a starter list:
Papeete market: The Marché de Papeete is one of my favorite stops here. Just off the main city thoroughfare, Boulevard Pomare, it covers an entire block between Rue du 22 Septembre and Rue Francois Cardella. If you're looking for black pearls or colorful pareos, you'll find great deals here.
Or just stroll through the two-story structure to get a look at the craftsmen selling their wares, the fishermen hawking seafood fresh from the lagoon, the farmers with unusual fruit and vegetables. Stop at one of the stands for pizza, ice cream or a pastry. When you're done, explore the shops nearby, where you can find wonderful tropical fabrics.
Les roulottes: Food trucks, or roulottes, have been part of Papeete's culture for decades and rank with many visitors as the No. 1 thing to see here. Stroll the waterfront at Place Vaiete, where you may see cruise ships bound for ports around the Pacific. Then pick up dinner at the trucks, which open around 6 p.m. and continue serving through the early-morning hours. You'll find crepes, Chinese food, pizza and steaks, all at bargain prices.
Notre Dame Cathedral: Churches rank high on the list of places to see in French Polynesia, especially on Sundays, when choirs are singing and the town's churchgoers arrive in their best clothing and colorful hats. But this buttercup yellow Catholic cathedral is nice to visit anytime, especially on a hot day, when it offers a cool escape from the city. It's just a block behind the market.