France is the dream destination for many people! It has history and culture. It has famous landmarks and other monuments not so well-known, it has tasty food… It has Mediterranean beaches, high mountains, and snow … It has everything we need to have a fabulous trip and more!
For this reason, we visit a few countries more often than France… We traveled to France by plane, car, bus, and train. We know a good share of the country, but we would never say that we know it entirely as it’s so large and diverse. Yet, there are general characteristics and travel tips that are valid for the whole country, and we want to share them with you.
So, let’s present the 50 things you need to know before traveling to France, looking at the people, the tourism industry, the best travel destinations, the best ways to travel, the costs, the food, and much more…
France and the French People
# 1 France is a vast country with an immense and glorious history. It is mainly located in Western Europe, but it also includes some other overseas territories and regions on other continents. This article mainly focuses on European France, leaving extra-European regions for different posts.
# 2 France is the largest country in the European Union and the third-largest in Europe, behind Russia and Ukraine. Known as “the Hexagon” due to the shape of the continental European territory, France borders Belgium and Luxembourg to the north, Germany to the northeast, Switzerland and Italy to the east, and Spain to the south. It is also bordered by tiny Monaco and Andorra.
Finally, France also has the North Sea to the north, the English Channel to the northwest, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the Mediterranean to the southeast.
# 3 Even excluding the overseas territories, the French territory has incredible geographical diversity. From long plains to the green and undulating landscapes of Brittany to the Mediterranean beaches and even to the mountain peaks of the Alps and the Pyrenees. For those traveling to France, Paris is a must and a destination not to be missed, but France is much more than Paris.
The French people
# 4 With almost 70 million inhabitants, France is the second-most populated country in the EU (behind Germany) and the third in Europe. It is a very urbanized country with populous cities. Paris is the capital and the largest city, with Marseille and Lyon having more than 500 000 inhabitants too.
# 5 Naturally, French is the official language, and the entire population speaks it. However, we often do not remember that there are also several regional languages such as Breton, Basque, Corsican, and Catalan.
For a long time, French was considered the lingua franca in Europe and the most used in diplomacy, science, and literature. However, as English grew in popularity, it lost that status.
# 6 Perhaps due to this loss of international importance, the French do not like it at all when people presume that they speak English, so they avoid doing so. Our experience says that they often speak it (some better than others), but they don’t want to. It is almost a matter of national pride.
Rather than having difficulty with languages, the French detest the arrogance that some tourists have in assuming that they are the locals who have to speak another language and adapt – which is an understandable posture. Kindness, empathy, a good attitude, and education make a huge difference in France.
# 7 If you are not fluent in French, you should at least learn a few words and make an effort to speak French. The treatment you’ll receive is usually different, and often they will try to speak your language or at least speak in English to make it easier for you. Even if it’s only the most basic, learn at the very least:
- Bonjour (Hello / Good morning);
- S’il vous plait (Please)
- Pardon (sorry)
- L’addition s’il vous plait (the check please)
- Merci (Thank you)
- Au Revoir (Goodbye).
Thus, a little bit of french is one of the main things to know before traveling to France.
# 8 But being 100% honest, the French are not the friendliest people in the world (though Israelis are much worse), especially in the tourist areas and Paris in particular.
However, we must also mention that it is not as bad as it is often said. Many times, it has more to do with cultural misunderstandings or when we do not understand French etiquette and way of being.
# 9 One of these usual faux pas is speaking loudly or making a lot of noise. The French typically hate people who are too loud and who attract all the attention to themselves.
Another is not saying “bonjour / Bonsoir” whenever you start a conversation; many French people attribute great importance to this kind of delicacy.
# 10 One of the most curious peculiarities of the French is that they love protests and strikes. Whether it is teachers, doctors, truck drivers, trains, or buses, all sectors of the French economy enjoy the occasional strike and protest.
Remember, even the national football team went on strike during a World Cup. This can be very important when traveling in France as it won’t be surprising if you get a public transports strike, roads blocked, or even closed tourist attractions.
# 11 Speaking of things being closed, another thing to know before visiting France is that everything closes on Sundays in France. The country practically shuts down, so it’s best to plan your vacation around that, or you may have some unpleasant surprises. Except for some supermarkets that are open in the morning (but not all) and some tourist places, there is nothing available on Sunday.
Climate in France
# 12 Due to its size and geographical diversity, the climate in France is not homogeneous, however, in general, it is temperate and pleasant, and we can define some general rules.
Winter is colder and rainier, while Summer is warmer and drier. The north of France is colder than the south, while the Atlantic areas are more humid and rainy than the Mediterranean. So we have four major zones:
- West: Oceanic climate with high rainfall and limited temperature variation;
- Center and east (inland): Continental climate with cold winters and hot summers;
- South and East: Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers, ample sunshine throughout the year, but with light rains between October and April;
- Mountains above 800 meters: high rainfall and snow in winter.
When to travel to France?
# 13 Like most Western European countries, the peak season is in the summer, and especially in July and August during school holidays. During this time of year, millions of people are on vacation, foreign and French, so all the famous landmarks are crowded.
We suggest avoiding the peak of the high season and traveling to France in May / June and late September. At this time of year, the most well-known monuments still have many people, but much fewer than in the high season, and the lesser-known destinations won’t be crowded. On the other hand, the weather is still quite pleasant, with high temperatures and little rain.
Is it safe to travel to France?
# 14 In a word, yes! France is a very safe country to travel to. You will hardly see any crime, let alone violent crime. There are some districts and problematic areas (in Paris and Marseille, for example), but it is unlikely that you will go there as a tourist or by mistake. Avoid any demonstration or public unrest, so famous in France.
As in every other country, we must be careful with pickpocketers, scam schemes in tourist areas, and public transport, but you will hardly have problems using common sense and attention. Statistically, France appears to be slightly worse than the average for other EU countries, but we have never experienced any security problems.
Note: there is also the problem of terrorist attacks that France has suffered, but in our opinion, it is not an issue, as it is more likely to suffer a road accident (for example) than to be present in a terrorist attack.
Traveling in France
# 15 With about 90 million tourists (in 2019), France is the most visited country worldwide, while Paris is the third most visited city globally.
This alone tells us that you will hardly have places to yourself, even the lesser-known ones. Therefore, we always have to prepare ourselves for the possibility of finding crowds, even outside the high season. And during the high season, we need to be very patient.
UNESCO heritage in France
# 16 France has 45 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 39 are cultural heritage sites, 5 are Natural Heritage Sites, and one is mixed. These locations are spread across the territory (including overseas) and are immensely diverse.
Obviously, we will not name all the sites here, but these include worlds wonders like Mont Saint Michel, several Gothic cathedrals (like Chartes and Reims), Roman ruins (Arles and Pont du Gard, for example), prehistoric sites, or Mont-Perdu in the Pyrenees.
Where to go in France?
# 17 A country that receives so many tourists must offer many activities attracting all kinds of people. In fact, the diversity of things to do and visit in France is impressive. Whatever you are searching for, France has it for.
- Are you looking for outstanding and famous monuments? Eiffel Tower, Mont Saint-Michel, cathedrals, Loire castles …
- Want to go to the beach? The Mediterranean coast and Corsica have spectacular beaches.
- Do you want to immerse yourself in culture and history? Few countries have a culture as vibrant and striking as France.
- Are you looking for religious tourism? France has incredible churches and cathedrals.
- Do you want to do trails and hikes? The Alps and the Pyrenees are waiting for you.
- Do you want to visit cities full of history and architecture? In addition to Paris, we have Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Nice …
- Do you want parties and nightlife? We have the French Riviera;
As we said, there is an extraordinary variety and abundance of tourist destinations. Let’s talk a little more about some of them.
# 18 Let’s start with Paris, the French capital and the second most touristic city in the world in 2019 (Mastercard ranking). We believe there is no need to explain why Paris is an unmissable destination.
Yet, it is worth mentioning that sometimes the expectations about Paris are so high that some people feel disappointed even when we are talking about a city that has some of the most famous monuments and museums in France and the world, like:
- Eiffel Tower
- Arc de Triomphe
- Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre
- Louvre Museum
- Musée d’ Orsay
- Center Pompidou
- Palace of Versailles (already well outside the center but still within the area of influence of Paris)
# 19 The French Riviera is France’s second most popular area, especially in the summer. This area is part of the Provence region and is known for the many hours of sunshine, the km of beaches, parties, and wealth in general. Nice, Cannes, Saint Tropez, and Antibes are probably the most well-known cities and those that receive the most tourists.
If you like lively beaches and nightlife, this is your destination in France. However, don’t be overwhelmed by the crowds you will find…
# 20 The rest of the Provence region is also trendy and one of our favorites. With its markets and fresh produce, Provence is a destination for foodies. Still, it also has some of the most beautiful places in France, such as the Calanques National Park, which has gorgeous small natural beaches, and the Verdon gorge.
Finally, Provence also has dozens of spectacular historical and cultural destinations, such as the Pont du Gard, Arles’s Roman ruins, and Avignon’s papal palace. Without forgetting, of course, the capital Marseille, which is often underestimated.
# 21 Another tourist destination known for its architectural heritage is the Loire Valley, with its magnificent Châteaux (Castles) and some interesting and historic cities. Although some were affected and plundered in the French Revolution and again during the Second World War, they still retain much of their beauty.
There are dozens of castles in the Loire Valley, so it is impossible to visit them all. The best chateaux in Loire Valley and the ones you shouldn’t miss are Chambord and Chenonceau, and if you have more time, Châteaux d’Amboise, D’Ussé, de Villandry, and Montsoreau. Angers and Orléans are probably the most well-known cities with impressive cathedrals.
# 22 An utterly different destination is the Alps, as it is, above all, a top-rated winter destination, with its spectacular ski resorts and après ski activities. However, even if you are not a big snow sports fan, the Alps are stunningly beautiful. Both in winter and summer, when you can go for incredible walks or mountain biking trails.
Among the many beautiful hikes in the Alps, we must highlight the stunning, multi-day tour du mont blanc.
# 23 Although not as popular as others, we need to mention the region of Brittany is one of our favorites, with charming little towns and cities. Saint-Malo, in particular, is a destination we love, as it has an excellent mix of culture, history, and even the beach (despite the freezing water).
Very close to Brittany (and we are talking about less than a km from the regional border), we have one of the most visited and best-known monuments in the world, Mont de Saint-Michel. This Abbey and sanctuary were built on a rocky island and look incredible.
# 24 Corsica is the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean and yet another excellent cultural and natural tourist destination. It has beautiful, interesting cities like Porto-Vecchio, Sartène, and the Corsican nature park.
The island brings together the best of both worlds, with a long coastline, over 200 beaches, and a fantastic mountainous interior with forests occupying more than 20% of the island. The Calanques de Piana and the Scandola Nature Reserve are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
# 25 One of the things to know when traveling to France is to be aware of the attraction timetables. Sometimes they are not as long as one might expect, and more importantly, things close exactly at the indicated time – that is, if it is until 5 pm, it is open until 5 pm. It is not the last entry at 5 pm.
Important note: Often, tickets are only sold until one hour before closing time, and the closing time is when the last tourist leaves.
Eating and drinking in France
# 26 French cuisine is the queen of world cuisine. The influence of the dishes, sauces, and culinary techniques invented or developed in France is incredible. They have spread in such a way that they have become customary worldwide.
In fact, sometimes we eat dishes of French origin, and we don’t even know or even remember its origin – from the croissant to the crepe, from the duck with orange to the ratatouille, and even the mother culinary sauces (béchamel, Espagnole, hollandaise, tomato, and veloute).
PS: Of course, a dish name of French origin is usually a good symptom… 🙂
Restaurants in France
# 27 On the other hand, eating in restaurants in France tends to be expensive. Although we have visited France many times, we almost always find it challenging to eat out without planning ahead.
A significant exception is the weekend markets, where you can find divine delicacies at acceptable prices. We are thinking of the Provence markets in particular.
# 28 For this reason, we often come to the very curious situation that eating good French dishes outside France is easier and cheaper than in France, at least without going bankrupt. It is not that there aren’t excellent restaurants that serve spectacular dishes (obviously); the problem is that they are usually not close to the places where we are going to visit and/or are very expensive.
Our tip is that if you want to try a dish or immerse yourself in French cuisine, you must plan for that. It will hardly happen naturally.
# 30 Another thing you need to know when visiting France is that you should have your lunch/dinner schedule. In France, lunch and dinner times are not very flexible. Trying to have lunch outside of the time between 12 noon and 2 pm can be a problem, as well as going to dinner before 7: 30-8 pm.
It is not a severe problem, but it should be kept in mind when planning each day, as many times when traveling, the eating schedule is overlooked. This can go wrong as you may find most eating options closed.
# 31 Tipping in France is complicated… It depends a lot on the situation. In luxury restaurants, it is customary to tip up to 10% of the bill. In other restaurants and cafes, tipping is usually given to reward good service, but it does not need to be very high.
France is unlike the US, and tipping is more of a premium or an extra than part of the employee’s salary.
What to eat in France
# 32 As mentioned, there are plenty of dishes to try when traveling in France. From the most popular to some mainly regional dishes, others hardly appear in other countries. We created a shortlist of some famous dishes in French cuisine:
- Duck a l’Orange – one of the best-known French dishes.
- Foie Gras – Very typical at Christmas, it is basically goose or duck liver that was forcibly fed to exhaustion.
- Ratatouille – delicious vegetable dish. Very typical in Provence.
- Tartar steak – the famous raw minced meat dish.
- Boeuf bourguignon – Beef stewed in red wine. From the Burgundy region
- Oysters – French people love raw oysters. In Cancale, Brittany, eating on the street at very affordable prices is possible.
- Cassoulet – a kind of beans stew with duck and pork. Typical of the south of France, it is perhaps the heaviest food on this list.
- Niçoise salad – typical of Nice, this is a tuna, green beans, anchovies, and vegetable salad.
Of course, we cannot forget the famous baguette, preferably freshly made and very crispy. Note that the baguette in France is an institution, so it is usually delicious.
# 33 If the main dishes (and the baguette) of French origin are well-known and, above all, divine, what can we say about the sweets and desserts?
We believe many of them have stopped being only French and become world heritage (crepes, croissants, mousses, flan pudding) available everywhere. But of course, trying them out at their place of origin is always special. Check below some of our favorite French desserts and pastries:
- Macaroons – everyone knows it, right? Light, crispy, smooth, and colorful. They are great with coffee in the late afternoon.
- Crepes – You can find them literally everywhere, but they are special in Brittany (their place of origin).
- Crème brûlée – very similar to our cream milk.
- Tarte Tatin – caramelized fruit pie with butter and sugar. Originally from Paris.
- Kouign Amann – delicious Breton butter cake. Difficult to find outside Brittany, but if you do, they are well worth it;
Money and travel costs in France
Currency, ATMs, and payments
# 34 France is one of the founding members of the Eurozone, so if you come from another Euro country, you won’t have to worry about currency exchanges.
You also do not need to worry about fees and exchange costs; you can withdraw money from ATMs and make payments without commissions for using foreign currency.
# 35 Note that although there are no foreign currency commissions, there may be withdrawal commissions at ATMs, depending on the ATM. However, there are no costs if you want to make payments directly with a debit card. With credit cards, there can be.
So our suggestion to save on commissions is to use a Eurozone debit card for payments whenever possible. When you have to withdraw money, look for the withdrawal costs and withdraw a high amount if it’s free.
Costs of traveling in France
# 36 Traveling in France is expensive, much more expensive than Portugal or Spain, but cheaper than Austria, Israel, or the Nordic countries. The cost of living in France is higher than in many countries, so many day-to-day and travel expenses are relatively expensive.
It is difficult to predict the amount you will spend per day, as it depends a lot on the type of traveler you are. We usually travel in France with around 60 Euros per day, per person, and we are backpackers and cost-conscious. It is easy to reach 150-200 Euros daily without wasting money, as prices explode in most tourist places and during high season.
# 37 Accommodation is one of the highest costs of any trip. In France, a room for two in a cheap hotel will cost 50-100 Euros, an average hotel can cost 100-200 Euros, and a luxury hotel will hardly cost less than 200 Euros. In high season these prices may be even higher.
In France, we suggest you use booking.com to book accommodation as it has numerous hotels, guest houses, hostels, and even local accommodations.
# 38 There are also low-cost hotels, especially useful for those traveling by car. These are usually located in non-tourist areas and are, therefore, cheap. Even so, prices should be around 50 Euros.
These are hotels with relatively poor quality but great for those who want to sleep and continue the journey in the morning while saving a few (quite a few) euros.
Some of the brands of these hotels are Formule 1, Ibis Budget, and Premiere Hotels. They are usually in industrial and commercial areas on the outskirts of cities, close to main roads. There are a few closer to the city centers, though.
# 39 One of our favorite ways to save a few euros is to have only one restaurant meal, opting for fast food (not necessarily pizza or hamburger), street or supermarket food on the other meal. It is a 3 in 1 win; you save money, you spend less time, and you can go to the supermarkets to see what the French usually buy.
# 40 As we said earlier, one of France’s most fantastic attractions is its famous and historical museums and monuments. However, nearly all of these attractions are paid for, and tickets are not cheap. In addition, they accumulate, and at the end of the week, they weigh on the budget.
Obviously, we are not suggesting that you do not visit them. If you are going to a destination, it is to see the attractions, but you must consider this when budgeting your trip.
How to travel in France
Public transport in France
# 41 One of the advantages of traveling to France is that there are many low-cost flights from all over Europe. These destinations vary over time but are spread across the country and are quite diverse. They usually include larger cities like Paris, Marseille, and Saint-Ettienne / Lyon and some medium-sized cities like Nantes, Toulouse and Bordeaux.
France has a vast network of airports, and even relatively small cities sometimes have direct flights, such as Carcassonne, Brest, or La Rochelle. It’s great for 3 or 4-day getaways.
Even internal flights can be a quick and inexpensive option.
# 42 The best way to travel in France entirely depends on your trip. In Paris, it is a bad idea to drive, but in Brittany, Normandy, or the countryside of Provence, it is unquestionably the best option. Usually, we like the freedom to move because it allows us to go to places outside most tourist areas.
However, the public transport network in France is excellent (when they are not on strike). Trains reach many destinations, and the TGV is a great option for long and fast journeys. Urban transport works quite well in virtually every city and is relatively cheap (or at least much cheaper than any other option).
So, when planning your trip, ask yourself if you really need to rent a car and see any good alternatives. If you are planning a more urban trip, the most certain thing is that a car is unnecessary, even a problem and a source of costs.
Traveling by Car in France
# 43 When you decide to travel by car, note that costs can quickly escalate. If you aren’t traveling in your car you have to:
- Renting a car – count on a minimum of 150 to 200 Euros per week;
- Mandatory Insurance – you can’t avoid this;
- Paying for fuel – which is expensive in France;
- Paying tolls – Virtually all motorways in France have tolls paid. See here how much your trip costs (fuel costs and tolls);
- Parking – Besides being very difficult to park in large cities and historical centers, it is quite expensive. Do not overlook this cost.
# 44 In general, driving rules in France are very similar to those in other Western countries, and it’s not a big problem. You drive on the right; most driver’s licenses are valid in France. The right priority rule also exists in France. At roundabouts, the priority is for those driving at the roundabout, but this is practically always signed.
Regarding driving, we would say that anyone can drive in France. The French are not the most orderly people to drive, but isn’t it too bad either. It seems that driving is much worse in big cities and that they drive better in the north than in the south.
# 45 Finally, two fundamental questions to consider when traveling by car are traffic jams and fines. There is a lot of traffic in the bigger cities, so avoid driving there as much as possible. Even on some highways, particularly in the south of France, there are often terrible traffic jams, where a few hours are wasted. Avoid driving during rush hour.
There are many speed cameras in France; unfortunately, many people are getting fined without realizing it. The fines appear later at home, with the obligation to pay them. If you don’t, you can have serious problems when returning to France, or even without going.
Furthermore, note that the speed limit on national roads has dropped from 90 to 80km/h since 2018 and that using a mobile phone while driving leads to immediate suspension of the license.
Moreover, there are many fixed cameras, and now there are also mobile cameras installed in some vehicles (both stationary and mobile).
Other tips for those traveling to France
Internet in France
# 46 As a rule, all accommodations you book will have free WIFI access, so this should not be a big concern, but we always advise you to check the comments on its quality.
If you want to use mobile data, you can use the data card of any European country and pay the same amount you spend in the country of origin. So, if you have data in Portugal, you have data in France and the rest of the EU.
Cleaning / Pollution in France
# 47 We have to be realistic, France is not the cleanest country in the world or the EU. Cities like Paris and Marseille are not the best examples of smells, trash, air pollution, etc … This is clearly a point to be improved, although it is not as bad as it is sometimes seen in the news.
On the other hand, we have to mention that in rural areas and national parks, the scenario changes completely, and it is much cleaner, above average even. So don’t be scared; you won’t find garbage scattered everywhere.
# 48 The electricity inputs in France are of type C and E, with a voltage of 230V and a frequency of 50 Hz, similar to the rest of Western Europe. If you need an adaptor, we suggest this (click on the image).
Documentation for traveling to France
# 49 Given that France is part of the Schengen area, other Schengen citizens do not need any special documents to travel to France. You only need an identification document, a citizen’s card or passport, and a driving license if you want to drive.
Otherwise, click here for more information on how to enter France and the Schengen Zone and which nationalities need a Visa.
France Travel Guide
# 50 If you want to buy a travel guide with this and all the information you need to travel in France, we suggest the travel guide … You can buy it by clicking here or in the image below.
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