France is a country with which almost every traveller has a relationship. Many dream of its joie de vivre shown by the countless cafés, picturesque villages, and world-famous gastronomy. Some come to follow the trail of France's great philosophers, writers and artists, or to immerse in the beautiful language it gave to the world. Others still are drawn to the country's geographical diversity, with its long coastlines, massive mountain ranges and breathtaking farmland vistas.
France has been the world's most-visited country for over twenty years. It received 89 million visitors in 2018. All these people come to France for many a reason: its cities contain some of the greatest treasures on the continent, its countryside is prosperous and well-tended, and it boasts dozens of major tourist attractions, including Europe's most popular, Disneyland Paris. France is one of the most geographically diverse countries in Europe, containing areas as different from each other as urban chic Paris, the sunny French Riviera, windswept Atlantic beaches, the snowy resorts of the French Alps, the Renaissance châteaux of the Loire Valley, rugged Celtic Brittany and the historian's dream that is Normandy.
A country known for rich emotions, turbulent politics, rational thinking, and Enlightenment treasures; whatever you want from a holiday, you're about to find it in France.
Although primarily thought of as a European country, the French Republic (République française) is made up of several territories around the world.
"Metropolitan France" comprises the 12 administrative regions (French: régions) on the mainland plus Corsica, or in other words all French territory within Europe. These are distinct from the country's overseas territories on other continents, which are talked about below. The 96 departments (départements) are the next level down of administrative division, two-thirds of them being named after a river, and most others taking after another natural feature, such as a mountain or sea.
The home of French skiing, a large volcanic region and France's culinary capital, Lyon.
Tons of medieval history, pleasing natural scenery and Burgundy wine.
Rugged western peninsula, home of Celts, cromlechs, and crêpes
|Centre-Val de Loire |
A largely agricultural and viticultural region, featuring river valleys, châteaux and historic towns along the Loire.
Napoleon's birthplace is an Italian-influenced subtropical island in the Mediterranean.
|Grand Est |
A region where wider European, and especially Germanic, culture has merged with the French, giving rise to interesting results.
A region where the world wars and the rise and fall of heavy industry have left many scars.
The densely-populated metropolis of Paris, and wealthy surrounding countryside.
Some of France's most famed attractions, including Mont Saint-Michel, the D-Day beaches and Claude Monet's home.
The largest French region, defined more by its enchanting contrasts than as a coherent whole.
Due south, where the Pyrenees spill into the Mediterranean Sea.
|Pays de la Loire |
The lower Loire Valley and the Vendée area, on the Atlantic coast.
|Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur |
The unmissable French Riviera, Marseille, Avignon, and the Camargue.
Beyond Metropolitan France, also known as l'Hexagone for its shape, there are five overseas departments (départements d'outre-mer - DOMs), each as integral to France as any other department: French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte, and Réunion.
In addition to these, France has six organised overseas territories (territoires d'outre mer - TOMs) — French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Martin, Saint Pierre and Miquelon and Wallis and Futuna — and some remote, uninhabited islands as nature reserves, including Clipperton Island and the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. Due to having very different climates, cultures, and travel arrangements, these entities are not covered further here, but instead in their own articles.
Due to its many overseas departments and territories scattered around the world, France actually spans twelve time zones — that's more than any other country.
France has numerous cities of interest to travellers; below is a list of nine of the most notable:
- 1 Paris — the "City of Light", romance and the Eiffel Tower.
- 2 Bordeaux — city of wine, traditional stone mansions and smart terraces
- 3 Lille — a dynamic northern city known for its handsome centre and active cultural life
- 4 Lyon — France's gastronomic capital with a history from Roman times to the Resistance
- 5 Marseille — France's cosmopolitan second city, known for its Mediterranean harbour, its calanques, and its seafood
- 6 Nantes — a green and highly livable city known for Jules Verne, seafarers, and Breton culture
- 7 Nice — the heart of the French Riviera with a world-famous beach promenade, and gateway to the tiny nation of Monaco
- 8 Strasbourg — beautiful historic centre ringed by canals, and the home of many European institutions
- 9 Toulouse — the "Pink City" is known for its distinctive brick architecture and its vibrant southern atmosphere
- 1 Camargue — one of Europe's largest river deltas and wetlands, with a strong Provençal culture of bullfighting and cowboys.
- 2 Disneyland Paris — the most visited attraction in Europe, the Magic Kingdom even has its own TGV hub.
- 3 French Alps — home to the highest mountain in Western Europe, Mont Blanc, this is quintessential ski country.
- 4 French Riviera (French: Côte d'Azur "Azure Coast") — Glamorous Mediterranean coastline with upper class seaside resorts, yachts and sunbathing celebrities.
- 5 Loire Valley — the world-famous river valley, best known for its wines and Renaissance châteaux.
- 6 Luberon — the stereotypical Provence of picturesque villages, joie de vivre and wine.
- 7 Mont Saint Michel — a monastery and town built on a tiny outcrop of rock in the sand, which is cut off from the mainland at high tide.
- 8 Verdon Gorge — a beautiful turquoise-green river canyon, great for kayaking, hiking, rock-climbing or just driving around the limestone cliffs.
|Population||67.7 million (2021)|
|Electricity||230 volt / 50 hertz and 400 volt / 50 hertz (Europlug, Type E)|
|Emergencies||112, 15 (emergency medical services), 17 (police), 18 (fire department), 114 (deaf community)|
|edit on Wikidata|
|“||It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.||”|
—Antoine de Saint Exupéry, from The Little Prince
France is known for its long turbulent history, unique flair and lifestyle, and picturesque old towns, châteaux and fortresses. It is also blessed with its landscapes, where the sun shines gold upon the connectedness of nature.
Climate and terrain
A geographically-diverse country, France has surprising variations of climate for its size. Generally, the climate becomes warmer the more south you go, and wetter the more west you go. Most of the country experiences temperate winters and warm and often humid summers, and this is especially true of Paris and the Loire Valley. Mild, wet winters and cool summers persist in the north and north west (Brittany, Normandy, Hauts-de-France) where the whole climate is similar to that of southern England. Along the eastern border (Grand-Est), there is a continental climate with cool to cold winters and hot summers. The Rhone Valley graduates from this to the warmer south, though the whole region experiences a strong, cold, dry, north-to-northwesterly wind known as the mistral. The Mediterranean (Occitanie, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Corsica) enjoys short, mild winters and long, hot summers with high sunshine hours all year round. The south west (Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Occitanie) has similarly hot summers but lots of rain in winter, affected by the Atlantic and mountains. Expect cold winters with lots of the snow in the mountainous regions: the Alps, Pyrenees and Auvergne. However, sometimes the winters can be mild, and business owners who rely on the annual winter sports boom are left staring at the sky hopefully.
The majority of central, western and northern France comprises flat plains or gently rolling hills, punctuated with many long river valleys. This large expanse of arable land, coupled with the near perfect climate, is what makes French agriculture so rich and productive. The remainder of the country is mountainous, with the south-east's Alps and south-west's Pyrenees among western Europe's highest ranges. Smaller ranges include the Vosges and Jura in the east, and the Massif Central in the mid south. The concept of terroir is extremely important to French farmers and winegrowers, and demonstrates how a particular area's climate, soil type and terrain combine to affect the flavour or character of a crop.
You can visit France at any time of the year, and of course some regions lend themselves to certain seasons (e.g. the Alps in winter, Paris in the springtime), but in general terms spring and autumn offer the ideal mix of decent weather throughout most of the country and a quieter tourist season. Summer is warm and sunny throughout most of France, and there are often many events going on to tempt the traveller, whether they be local festivals, outdoor concert seasons or the annual 14 July national holiday. However, travellers are advised to avoid the month of August, as this is when seemingly the entire population of France ups sticks and heads south for les vacances. This is the busiest time of year for transport, with samedi noir (black Saturday; the first of the month) often seeing up to 1000 km of traffic jams across the road network. What's more, you will find many local businesses, particularly in rural areas and regardless of whether there are summer visitors in the area, shut for the entire month. In the locals' absence, hordes of foreign tourists throng the country's major attractions and cities, and Paris especially can see room rates skyrocket.
It is advisable to plan ahead for your travel arrangements, especially during the French school holidays. The whole country's schools break for the summer on the first Friday of July and return the first Monday of September. This increased demand for travel means busier roads and more expensive plane and train fares. Avoid travelling around these dates if you can. There are also school holidays of about two weeks from late October to early November, at Christmas and Easter, and between May Day and Victory Day.
French public holidays are influenced by the important Catholic holidays, although Good Friday is only observed in the Alsace. Most of them fall on different dates depending on the year. This list most significantly includes Easter (Pâques) which has a bank holiday on Sunday and Monday. The Assumption of Mary into Heaven (Assomption) always falls on 15 August, All Saints' Day (Toussaint) on 1 November, and Christmas (Noël) on 25 December. Other holidays include the New Year (Nouvel An / Jour de l'an, 1 Jan), May Day (Fête du Travail, 1 May), Victory Day (8 mai, 8 May), Bastille Day (Fête nationale, 14 July), and Armistice Day (Jour du Souvenir / Jour de l'Armistice, 11 November). Like some of its neighbours (notably Spain and Germany), France has an extensive calendar of local holidays and saint days, but unlike those countries, these generally aren't observed by businesses and government.
France has been populated since the Neolithic period. The Dordogne region is especially rich in prehistoric caves, some used as habitation, while others as temples with remarkable paintings of animals and hunters, such as those found at Lascaux.
Rise and fall of the Roman Empire
Written history began in France with the invasion of the territory by the Romans, between 118 and 50 BC. The territory which is today called France was made a part of the Roman Empire, and the Gauls (a name given to local Celts by the Romans), who lived there before the Roman invasions, became acculturated "Gallo-Romans". Gauls also lived in what is now Northern Italy and as such "Gallia Cisalpina" was the first Gaulish area to come under Roman dominion. Later, the area that is now the Provence came under Roman control under the name "Gallia Transalpina" (Gaul beyond the Alps) and it was as governor of this province that Julius Caesar manipulated local politics between Gaulish tribes in such a way that he fought a "defensive" war (provincial governors were not permitted to launch offensive war on their own initiative) that ended with the conquest of all of Gaul and the defeat and capture of Gallic chieftain and rebel leader Vercingetorix in the battle of Alesia. Caeasar and his confidante Aulus Hirtius (book 8) wrote a collection of books on the war known as De Bello Gallico, the bane of Latin students of all eras ever since, as the propaganda piece is lauded for its clear and concise language and one of very few antique sources where a major historical figure writes about their own actions. Caesar refers to himself in the third person in the book, a trait rarely unmentioned on cultural depictions like the French comic book Astérix, where it's a recurring joke. Caesar's actions were of questionable legality under Roman law, and his famous crossing of the Rubicon was triggered by his fear that he'd face prosecution if he entered Italy without an army. Thus, the conquest of Gaul was instrumental in the chain of events that caused the fall of the Roman Republic.
Emperor Claudius was born on Lugdunum, now Lyon, the most important Gallo-Roman city at this time. Roman rule in Gaul was a time of relative peace and prosperity, but during the crisis of the 3rd century, there were local usurpers who founded a "Gallic Empire" which controlled Gaul and parts of Germania during a time of weak central control. Some buildings built by the Romans in the era are still extant, and their roads remained in widespread use until the advent of the automobile as their quality far exceeded medieval road-building.
With the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, what was left were areas inhabited by the descendants of intermarriages between Gallo-Romans and "barbaric" Easterners (mainly the Franks, but also other tribes like the "Burgondes").
The legacy of the Roman presence is still visible, particularly in the southern part of the country where Roman circuses are still used for bullfights and rock'n'roll concerts. Some of France's main roads still follow the routes originally traced 2,000 years ago, and the urban organisation of many old town centres still transcript the cardo et decumanus typical grid of a Roman camp. The other main legacies of Roman civilisation are the Catholic Church, the codified law system and the French language.
- See also: Franks, Kingdom of France
Clovis, who died in 511, is considered to be the first French king, although his Frankish realm did not extend much further than the area of the present Île-de-France, around Paris. However, his baptism to (Trinitarian) Christianity - as opposed to Arianism then popular with Germanic chieftains - would prove important to the further history of Europe. Charlemagne, who was crowned emperor of the new Western Roman Empire in 800, was the first strong ruler. Under his rule, he united territories which included France as well as parts of modern day Belgium, Germany and Italy. His main residence was Aix-la-Chapelle (now in Germany, known as Aachen). As he was almost constantly on the road and "ruling from the saddle", several places can be considered his "capital" or "residence".
During this period, France was under attack by the Vikings who came from the north and navigated the rivers upstream to plunder cities and abbeys. It was also under attack from the south by the Muslim Saracens who were established in Spain. The Vikings were given a part of the territory (today's Normandy) in 911 and quickly imposed the feudal system of serfdom upon the native peasants. The Saracens were halted in 732 at Poitiers by Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne and a rather rough warrior who was later celebrated as a national hero.
Starting with Charlemagne, a new society was established, based on the system of feudalism. Although generally seen as an era of stagnation, it can be more aptly described as a period of economic and cultural developments (the music and poems of the troubadours and trouvères, the building of the Romanesque and later Gothic cathedrals) being followed by recession due to pandemic disease and wars.
In 987, Hughes Capet was crowned king of France; he is the root of the royal families who would later govern the Kingdom of France. In fact when Louis XVI was forced to take a common name by the French Revolutionaries, "Louis Capet" was chosen in reference to Hughes. In 1154 much of the western part of France came under English rule with the wedding of Eleanor of Aquitaine to the English King Henry II (Count of Anjou, born in the town of Le Mans). Some kings of the Plantagenet dynasty are still buried in France, the most famous being Richard I 'the Lionheart', of Walter Scott fame, and his father Henry II, who lies in the Abbaye de Fontevraud. The struggle between the English and French kings between 1337 and 1435 is known as the Hundred Years' War and its most famous figure is Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc), now considered a French national heroine.
Before you leave you may want to read one or both of French or Foe by Polly Platt or Almost French by Sarah Turnbull — interesting, well written records from English-speaking persons who live in France. For the adult reader interested in Paris' reputation for romance and sensuality, try Sensual Paris: Sex, Seduction and Romance in the Sublime City of Light by Jonathan LeBlanc Roberts
Early modern times
The beginning of the sixteenth century saw the demise of the feudal system and the emergence of France as a 'modern' state with its borders relatively close to the present-day boundaries (although the Alsace, Corsica, Savoy and the Nice region weren't yet French). The "Sun King" Louis XIV, king from 1643 to 1715 (72 years), was probably the most powerful monarch of his day. French influence extended deep into the rest of Europe, even spreading as far as Russia; its language was used in many European courts, becoming the international language of diplomacy, and its culture was exported all over the continent.
That era and the following century also saw the expansion of France's global influence. This colonial expansion sparked a whole series of wars with other colonial empires, mainly England (later Britain) and Spain over control of the Americas and India. Meanwhile, the chief military engineer Vauban supervised the construction of fortifications around the French borders, and 12 of these Fortifications of Vauban have been listed as a world heritage by UNESCO. France ultimately lost on both fronts (the final defeat coming in the Napoleonic Wars) but French influence is still very visible in Louisiana and Quebec (where state/provincial law is still based on French civil law, and not English common law).
Age of Revolutions
- See also: Napoleonic Wars, French Colonial Empire
The French Revolution started in 1789. The king, Louis XVI, and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were arrested and ultimately executed by guillotine, and the first French Republic was established in place of the almost 1000-year-old monarchy. Although this was a bloody period, it was and remains an inspiration for many other liberation struggles around the world. During the revolution, France also signed the first "declaration of human rights" into law, just a few months ahead of its counterpart in the United States. To this day many constitutions include a declaration of rights that bear influence from this document.
Napoleon Bonaparte took power in a coup and ultimately restored France to a monarchical system by having himself crowned emperor in 1804, but his militaristic ambition which made him the ruler of most of western Europe was his downfall. His defeat at the hands of the Royal Navy in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 meant that he never managed to eclipse the British as the world's dominant naval power. In 1815, Napoleon met his final defeat in the Battle of Waterloo (Belgium) by an alliance of British and Prussian forces, and was captured and exiled from Europe. He is still revered in some Eastern European countries as his armies and government brought with them the ideas of French philosophers.
France went back to monarchy (first a Bourbon restoration, then a liberal kingdom under Louis Phillipe starting with a 1830 revolution) until another revolution in 1848 allowed a nephew of Napoleon to be elected president and then become emperor under the name of Napoleon III. The end of the nineteenth century saw the industrialisation of the country and the development of the railways but also the start of the bitter wars with Prussia and later Germany.
The war of 1870, that broke out over a minor disagreement regarding the vacant Spanish throne (a Hohenzollern prince had been suggested as heir and the French government demanded the Prussian government to firmly reject on his behalf), proved to be disastrous for the French. An ill prepared army was caught off-guard when not only Prussia but also Southern German states like Bavaria mobilised, while no one came to the aid of France. To add insult to injury, Napoleon III was captured in an early battle near Sedan and a Third Republic was declared. Not content with this, the Prussians drove on, besieging Paris (forcing its inhabitants to eat zoo animals) and crushing the short lived Paris Commune. When a peace treaty was finally signed, France had to give up Alsace and Lorraine, which had a German-speaking population in parts but more importantly rich iron ore deposits. In addition to that France was forced to pay five billion francs in gold, a sum so enormous that there was still something left over of it when France beat Germany in World War I forty years later.
While the Third Republic was seen as a temporary solution at the time and early in its existence it had a monarchist majority in the National Assembly, squabbling between various monarchist factions and the refusal by their "compromise candidate" to accept the Tricolore flag as precondition to his crowning led to the Republic surviving its tumultuous initial phase. The Republic also survived the Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish colonel was falsely convicted of treason under court martial, and Émile Zola's stinging rebuke of the military (J'accuse), and the ensuing controversy, shook France to its cultural and political core. After the First World War, as elsewhere in Europe, antidemocratic forces were on the rise in the interwar years, requiring a "popular front" government led by Léon Blum that included centrist parties as well as the Communists. The Third Republic only collapsed upon the military defeat of France in the early phase of the Second World War and remains the longest lived regime France has had since deposing Louis XVI in 1792. The current Fifth Republic could only surpass the Third Republic in duration by lasting until 2028 or longer.
20th and 21st centuries
1905 saw the separation of Church and State, under an initiative known as laïcité ('secularism') in response to the Dreyfus affair. This was a traumatic process, especially in rural areas. Since then, France has not had an established religion. Under a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy, the law forbids French students and civil servants from displaying any sign explicitly showing their religion while in their school or place of work. This policy applies to wearing Christian crosses and Jewish kippahs, and has also been applied to the Muslim hijab. In the early 21st century, statistics for Church-going and belief in God were among the lowest in Europe. And while religion plays no role in politics, laïcité - what exactly is meant by it and how far it should go - does.
The First World War (1914 -18) was a traumatic period in France's history. Despite victory being achieved by France and her allies, almost 1.7 million French people were killed and many towns and villages and large tracts of countryside were destroyed. Much of the infamous trench warfare was fought across the eastern half of France. France was close to defeat twice in the war and was only convinced to fight on by the "miraculous" stopping of the 1914 German advance and by Marshal Philippe Pétain rallying the troops for the battle of Verdun in 1916. After the war, France took control of the formerly German areas of Alsace and Lorraine, as well as several of Germany's overseas colonies, and became a leading force in Europe for the next decade.
The Second World War (1939 - 45) saw France occupied for much of the war by Nazi Germany. With northern France under direct German control and the south ruled by a puppet government (known as the Vichy regime, with ageing war hero Marshal Pétain installed as figurehead to present an illusion of continuity), many totalitarian measures were introduced, including the forced deportation of Jews to concentration camps (see Holocaust remembrance). The Vichy regime under Pétain was officially collaborationist with the Nazis, and many ordinary French citizens followed suit, some with more zeal than others. However, as the war went on, supplies of basic provisions ran low, and the fascist excesses of the regime got worse, the numbers of civilians engaging in active and passive resistance increased markedly. In 1944, after Allied landings (including exiled French soldiers and those from France's imperial colonies) in Normandy and on the Mediterranean Coast, France was liberated from German control.
After the end of the Second World War, France went through a period of reconstruction and a new prosperity was achieved with the development of industry, and has since grown into Europe's second largest economy after Germany. France and Germany were among the first members of the treaties which eventually evolved into the European Union. During the post-war period France went through painful decolonialisation processes in Indochina (see Indochina Wars) and Algeria and released almost all of its other possessions into independence. While France had to deal with the fact that their great power status was a thing of the past, some technological advances were made that were at least partially intended to show the world that France was still great. Be it the TGV, the French space programme or the French nuclear programme. On the other hand Franco-British relations, which had been difficult even in times of official alliance in the past became better, notably through projects like the Channel Tunnel and the joint Concorde project. One of the most visible consequences of France's EU membership was the introduction of the euro (€) in 2002. It is now the common currency of sixteen European countries, which together make up the 'Eurozone'.
Today, France is a republic with a President elected for a five-year term (quinquennat). The current constitution of the so called Fifth Republic was written after the collapse of the post war Fourth Republic, mostly according to the wishes of Charles de Gaulle. The incumbent President of the Republic is Emmanuel Macron. Current issues that face the country include the further integration of France into the EU and the adoption of common standards for the economy, defence and other fields.
Electricity is supplied at 220–230 V at 50 Hz. Outlets are CEE7/5 (protruding male earth pin) and accept either CEE 7/5 (Grounded), CEE 7/7 (Grounded) or CEE 7/16 (non-grounded) plugs. Older German-type CEE 7/4 plugs are not compatible as they do not accommodate the earth pin found on this type of outlet. However, most modern European appliances are fitted with the hybrid CEE 7/7 plug which fits both CEE 7/5 (Belgium & France) and CEE 7/4 (most of Europe, including Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Sweden) outlets.
Plugs Travellers from the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland and other countries using 230 V at 50 Hz with different plugs simply require a plug adaptor to use their appliances in France. Plug adaptors for plugs from the U.S. and UK are available from electrical and "do-it-yourself" stores such as Bricorama.
Voltage: Travellers from the US, Canada, Japan and other countries using 110 V at 60 Hz may need a voltage converter or – in some cases – a transformer. However, many laptops, mobile phone chargers and other devices can accept either 110 V or 230 V, requiring only a simple plug adaptor. Check the voltage rating plates on your appliances before connecting them.
- See also: French phrasebook
French (français) is the sole official language of France. The French are very proud of their language, and any visitor who doesn't put even a bit of effort into speaking it is missing out on an important part of the country's identity and culture, and what many consider to be the most beautiful language in the world.
Other languages used in France
In Alsace and part of Lorraine, a dialect of German called Alsatian is spoken, which is almost incomprehensible to speakers of standard High German. In the west of Brittany, some people speak Breton; this Celtic language is a relative of Welsh. In the south, some still speak dialects of Occitan (also called the langue d'Oc because the word for "yes" is òc): Auvergnat, Gascon, Languedocian, Limousin, and Provençal. Occitan is a Romance language, and a very close relative of Catalan and neighbouring Italian dialects. In parts of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Basque is spoken, but not as much as on the Spanish side of the border. In Corsica, the Corsican language has a strong Italian influence.
Without exception, these languages are in decline and in many places only spoken by the elderly and academics. More common, but still in decline to an extent, are regional dialects of French, often referred to locally as patois. If you have an ear for accents, you will also hear variations in pronunciation of standard French as you travel around the country.
All this being said, everyone in France speaks standard French and tourists are unlikely to ever need to speak anything else, though you may wish to learn one or two basic phrases or greetings, to show you recognise the region's heritage.
The following phrases go a long way:
- Excusez-moi, Monsieur/Madame — Excuse me, sir / madam (ehk-SKEW-zay MWAH muh-SYUH/ma-DAHM)
- S'il vous plaît — Please (seel voo PLEH)
- Merci — Thank you (merr-SEE)
- Au revoir — Goodbye (oh ruh-VWAHR)
- Parlez-vous anglais ? — Do you speak English? (par-lay VOO ahng-LEH)
As France is a multicultural society with immigrants from all over the world (particularly from former French colonies), many African languages, Arabic, Chinese dialects (such as Teochew), Vietnamese, Lao, and Khmer are spoken. French is in the Romance family of languages, along with Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Italian and Romanian, so if you speak any of those languages, you will recognise many cognates, particularly in written form.
Although most French people, including virtually everyone born after 1990, have studied English in school, proficiency has historically been poor, with only a small minority being conversant in it. With that said, things have changed dramatically since the late 2000s. You can now expect major hotels and tourist attractions to have staff who speak basic English and other foreign languages (German and Spanish being the most common). Furthermore, the younger generation of French (especially those in larger urban areas) is far more proficient in English than their elders.
When approaching the locals, always be sure to begin the conversation in French, as assuming that a foreign language will be spoken is considered to be very rude. The French understand that their language is a challenging one for foreigners to learn, but generally react well to even clumsy, but sincere, attempts to speak their language, and will feel much more inclined to respond using whatever English they know if they judge you to have made an effort. Any conversation, no matter how short, must start with a greeting such as bonjour (during the day) or bonsoir (in the evening); failing to do so is considered as rude as not saying please or thank you is in English.
Foreign shows and movies usually come in two formats: VF (version française), dubbed in French, and VO (version originale) or VOSTFR (version originale sous-titrée en français), original audio with French subtitles.
The standard sign language is French Sign Language, locally known by its native initialism LSF (langue des signes française). Whenever an interpreter is present at a public event, he or she will use LSF. It's partially mutually intelligible with American Sign Language, Quebec Sign Language, and Irish Sign Language. However, it's not mutually intelligible at all with British Sign Language, Auslan, or New Zealand Sign Language.
Minimum validity of travel documents
France is a member of the Schengen Agreement.
- There are normally no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. This includes most of the European Union and a few other countries.
- There are usually identity checks before boarding international flights or boats. Sometimes there are temporary border controls at land borders.
- A visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty.
- Please see Travelling around the Schengen Area for more information on how the scheme works, which countries are members and what the requirements are for your nationality.
Citizens of Albania, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bahamas, Barbados, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Holy See, Honduras, Israel, Mauritius, Monaco, Montenegro, New Zealand, Nicaragua, North Macedonia, Panama, Paraguay, San Marino, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Seychelles, Taiwan and Uruguay, as well as British Nationals (Overseas), are permitted to work in France without the need to obtain a visa or any further authorisation for the period of their 90 day visa-free stay. All other visa-exempt nationals are exempt from holding a visa for short-term employment if they possess a valid work permit, with limited exceptions. However, this ability to work visa-free does not necessarily extend to other Schengen countries. For more information, visit this webpage of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Foreign nationals who are not visa-exempt (e.g. South Africans) must make a 'declaration of entry' (déclaration d'entrée) at a police station or to border inspection personnel if they arrive in France directly from another country of the Schengen Area (e.g. Italy), unless they hold a long-term visa or residence permit issued by a Schengen member state. Their passports will be endorsed by the authorities to prove that such a declaration has been made. This government webpage[dead link] (in French) provides more information.
If you intend to stay in France for longer than 90 days, regardless of purpose, an advance long-stay visa is always required of non-EEA or non-Swiss citizens. It is almost impossible to switch from a "C" (visitor) entry status to a "D" (long-stay) status from inside France.
As of 2009, certain categories of long-stay visa, such as "visitor" (visiteur), family (vie privée et familiale), "student" (étudiant), "salaried worker" (salarié), and "short-term worker" (travailleur temporaire), do not require persons to obtain a separate residence permit (carte de séjour) for the first year of the stay in France. However, the long-stay visa must be validated by the OFII within three months of entering France. This is done by sending in a form to the OFII received along with the visa with the address of residence in France, completing a medical examination, and attending an introductory meeting to validate the visa. As of 2013, the tax paid to OFII must now be paid at the consulate where the visa is obtained. The validated visa will serve as a residence permit and, likewise, allow travel throughout the other Schengen countries for up to 90 days in a 6 month period. After the first year, however, and for many other visa categories which state carte de séjour à solliciter dès l'arrivée, a carte de séjour is required. Consult the OFII for more information.
French overseas departments and territories are not part of the Schengen Area and operate a separate immigration regime to metropolitan France.
Flights to Paris
The main international airport, Roissy - Charles de Gaulle (CDG IATA), is likely to be your port of entry if you fly into France from outside Europe. CDG is the main intercontinental hub for national airline Air France. AF and the companies forming the SkyTeam Alliance (KLM, Aeroméxico, ITA Airways, Delta Air Lines, Korean Air, Saudia) use Terminal 2, as do Oneworld airlines, while most Star Alliance airlines use Terminal 1. A third terminal is used mainly for charter and some low-costs flights. If transferring through CDG (especially between the various terminals) it is important to leave substantial time between flights. Ensure you have no less than one hour between transfers. Add more if you have to change terminals as you will need to clear through security. For transfers within CDG you can use the free train shuttle linking all terminals, train stations, parking lots and hotels in the airport.
Transfers to another flight in France: AF operates domestic flights from CDG too, but a lot of domestic flights, and also some internal European flights, use Orly (ORY IATA), the second Paris airport. For transfers to Orly there is a bus link operated by AF (free for AF passengers). The two airports are also linked by a local train (RER) which is slightly less expensive, runs faster but is much more cumbersome to use with heavy luggage.
AF, Corsair, Emirates, Qatar Airways have agreements with SNCF, the national rail company, which operates TGVs services, serving CDG airport (some trains even carry flight numbers). The TGV station is in Terminal 2 and is on the route of the free shuttle. For transfers to the city centre of Paris, see Paris.
Some low-cost airlines, including Ryanair and Volare, fly to Beauvais airport situated about 80 km (50 mi) northwest of Paris. Buses to Paris are provided by the airlines. Check schedules and fares on their websites.
Flights to regional airports
Many airports outside Paris have flights to/from international destinations: among the most served are Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Nice, Toulouse, they have flights to cities in western Europe and North Africa; these airports are hubs to smaller airports in France and may be useful to avoid the transfer between the two Paris airports. Two airports, Basel-Mulhouse and Geneva, are shared by France and Switzerland and can allow entry into either country.
Regional airports in France also have long-haul flights from these cities:
- Atlanta: Nice (Delta Air Lines)
- Bahrain: Nice (Gulf Air)
- Dubai: Lyon (Emirates), Nice (Emirates)
- Doha: Nice, Lyon, Toulouse (Qatar Airways)
- Kuwait: Nice (Kuwait Airways)
- Marseille: Addis Ababa (Ethiopian Airlines)
- Montreal: Bordeaux (Air Transat), Marseille (Air Transat), Lyon (Air Canada, Air Transat), Nantes (Air Transat), Nice (Air Canada Rouge, Air Transat), Toulouse (Air Canada, Air Transat)
- Newark: Nice (United)
- New York City: Nice (Delta Air Lines)
- Toronto: Marseille (Air Transat)
France is served by numerous services from England to France:
- P&O Ferries - operate freight and passenger services from Dover to Calais.
- DFDS Seaways - operate freight and passenger services from Dover to Dunkirk. Also Newhaven to Dieppe.
- LD Lines - operate freight and passenger services from Portsmouth to Le Havre.
- Brittany Ferries - operate freight and passenger services from Portsmouth to Caen, Cherbourg, andSt Malo, from Poole to Cherbourg and from Plymouth to Roscoff.
- Condor Ferries - operate freight and passenger services from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, Poole to St Malo and Weymouth to St Malo.
Prices vary considerably depending on which route you choose. Generally the cheapest route is the short sea route across the English Channel which is Dover to Calais, so it is worth comparing prices before you decide which is the most suitable route to France.
Passengers travelling from Dover by ferry to France go through French passport/identity card checks in the UK before boarding, rather than on arrival in France. Passengers travelling from all other UK ports to France go through French passport/identity card checks on arrival in France.
There are also connections from Ireland to France:
- Brittany Ferries - operate ferry services from Cork to Roscoff
- Celtic Link Ferries - operate ferry services from Rosslare to Cherbourg
- Irish Ferries - operate ferry services from Rosslare to Cherbourg and from Rosslare to Roscoff
- See also: Rail travel in France, Rail travel in Europe
The French rail company, SNCF, as well as many other companies (sometimes in cooperation with SNCF), provide direct service from most European countries using regular as well as high speed trains.
- TGVs between Paris, Metz and Luxembourg, as well as TGV between Brussels and France (except Paris) are operated by SNCF
- TGVs between Paris, Lille, Calais and Ebbsfleet, Ashford and London in the UK, through the Channel Tunnel (also called Chunnel by some), are operated by Eurostar
- TGVs between Paris, Lille, Belgium, Netherlands and north-west Germany (Cologne, Essen) are operated by Thalys
- High speed trains between France and South Germany (Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich) are operated by Alleo, with either a SNCF TGV or a Deutsche Bahn ICE, and bilingual crew from both countries.
- TGVs between France and Switzerland are operated by Lyria
- TGVs between France and Italy are operated by TGV France Italie
- TGVs between France and Barcelona/Madrid are operated by Elipsos[dead link], with either a SNCF TGV or a RENFE AVE, and bilingual crew.
- Night trains between Moscow and Paris operated by the Russian RZD used to run weekly, stopping en-route in Belarus (Minsk), Poland (Warsaw, Poznan) and Germany (Berlin, Erfurt). These are probably suspended because of the Russian war on Ukraine.
- Night trains between Moscow and Nice operated by the Russian company RZD used to run weekly, stopping en-route in Belarus (Minsk), Poland (Warsaw, Katowice), Austria (Vienna, Linz, Innsbruck) and Italy. Also these are probably suspended because of the Russian war on Ukraine.
- Upon reservation, you can take your bike with you in night trains and single-deck TGV's.
Two companies operate between France and the rest of Europe:
- BlaBlaCar Bus: Barcelona, London, Belgium, the Netherlands and Northern Italy
- FlixBus: from Germany
Several weekends throughout the year in France are known as 'Black Saturday' (Samedi noir) because of the start or end of school holidays and the coinciding traffic jams on French roads caused by thousands of tourists travelling to and from their holiday destinations. When possible it is wise to avoid these days. For traffic reports, see the website of the French traffic service .
Ridesharing, or carpooling, is very popular in France. Websites such as BlaBlaCar allow drivers with empty seats to safely connect with passengers looking for a ride.
See also: Driving in France.
From the United Kingdom
Drivers from the UK should aware that driving shifts from the left to the right and all road signs use metric units.
The Channel Tunnel provides a rail / road connection between South East England and France. Shuttle trains operated by Eurotunnel carry vehicles from Folkestone in Kent to Calais (Hauts-de-France) in 35 minutes, though you only spend about 20 minutes in the tunnel itself. Passengers remain with their vehicles for the duration, with trips to the toilet allowed. Fares start at £23 one way and can be booked online months in advance, though it is entirely possible to 'turn up and go' without a reservation, at a cost of course! The terminal on the British side is in Cheriton, 3 mi (4.8 km) outside Folkestone, and directly accessible from junction 11a of the M20 motorway, about 70 mi (110 km) from London. Passengers undergo French passport/identity card and customs checks and British exit checks before departure. On arrival at Calais, you can drive straight on to the A16 (E402) motorway which heads towards Paris in one direction and Belgium in the other. Mainland Europe drives on the right and uses the metric system for distance and speed limit measures. In the reverse direction, you will go through British passport control in France before driving onto the train.
See the 'By boat' section above for information on car ferries to France from the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Bicycles may be taken on car ferries and on Eurotunnel shuttle trains. They may also be carried on aeroplanes, though you should consult your airline beforehand: bikes often count as "oversized luggage" and there is sometimes an extra charge to check them in. You may also be asked to partially dismantle your bicycle, but this policy will vary from carrier to carrier. Eurostar allows folding bikes on all its trains, and offers a more restricted service for other bikes, but has quite strict and specific rules that are worth reading up on before you travel.
The adventurous (and fit!) may want to try cycling between two great capitals - London and Paris. The Avenue Verte follows high quality bike trails all the way from the London Eye to Notre Dame, passing through beautiful countryside on both sides of the Channel. Highlights of the 406 km (252 mile) journey include the South Downs' rolling chalk hills, the ferry crossing between Newhaven and Dieppe, and the rich farmland of Normandy. The itinerary is fully signposted all the way, and its accompanying website gives a detailed breakdown of the route, its points of interest and practical information such as places to rest, eat and sleep the night. Count on at least four days in the saddle, depending how fit you are and how you pace yourself. As there is plenty to see and do en route, there's no rush!
The Strasbourg tram system inaugurated a cross-border link to the German town of Kehl in 2017. There is another cross-border link under construction between Basel in Switzerland and Saint Louis in France. While the German-French border imposes no problems, as both countries are EU members, going to/from Switzerland, you are leaving (or entering) the EU and thus crossing a customs border with the limits on imports that implies and there may be customs checks. However, Switzerland is in the Schengen Area so those with no goods to declare shouldn't worry.
While no longer as ubiquitous as before due to ban on flights if a route is reachable by train within 2 1/2 hours, domestic flying remains a bookable option, especially between Paris and southern France, and if offered as a direct connection from or to an international flight.
The following carriers offer domestic flights within France:
- Air France has the biggest domestic network in France
- HOP!, a subsidiary of Air France, operates domestic flights with smaller aircraft
- easyJet, a low-cost airline, has the second biggest domestic network in France
- Ryanair, an Irish low-cost airline, serves mainly secondary airports
- Volotea has a network of domestic flights
- Air Corsica links Corsica with mainland France
- Twin Jet operates domestic flights with 19-seat Beech 1900D aircrafts
- Eastern Airways operates domestic flights between Lyon and Lorient
- Chalair Aviation has a limited network of domestic flights, using mainly 19-seat Beech 1900D aircrafts
- Heli Securite (Cannes (Croisette Heliport), Nice (Cote D'Azur Airport))
See also: Driving in France
France has a well-developed system of highways. Most of the motorway (autoroute) network is made up of toll roads. Some have a single toll station giving you access to a section, others have entrance and exit toll stations at every junction. Upon entering a tolled section of a road, you must collect an entry ticket from a machine which records the point on the road you started at and ensures you only pay for the distance you travel. Be careful not to lose your entrance ticket or you will be charged for the longest possible distance. All toll stations accept major credit cards although they may not accept foreign credit cards. It is also possible to use the automatic booth, but only if your card is equipped with a special chip.
Roads range from the narrow single-carriageway lanes found in the countryside to major highways. Most towns and cities were built before the general availability of the automobile and thus city centres tend to be unwieldy for cars. Keep this in mind when renting: large cars can be very unwieldy. It often makes sense to just park and then use public transportation.
A French driver flashing headlights is asserting right of way and warning you of intentions and presence. Do not use it to mean thanks. Flashing headlights can also mean, "Watch out as there's a police speed-check ahead of you!" Horns should be used only in legitimate emergencies; use of the horn in urban areas outside such circumstances might win you a traffic ticket. Parisian drivers were notorious for honking their horns at anything and everything, though increased enforcement has greatly reduced this practice.
Don't forget that, in France and the rest of continental Europe, they drive on the right!
Renting a car
Once you arrive in France you may need to use car hire services. Most of the leading companies operate from French airports and it is advisable to book car hire in advance. It is a common experience at smaller French airports to not get the type of car you booked online but an alternative model. Sometimes the alternative model is quite different so check carefully before accepting the vehicle and stand your ground if it does not match your booking request and is not suitable to your needs.
Most cars in France are equipped with standard transmissions (voiture à boîte manuelle / mécanique), a fact that derives equally from the preferences of the driving public and the peculiarities of French licensing laws. Automatic transmissions (voiture à boîte automatique) are generally only used by the elderly or those with physical disabilities. This extends to vehicle categories that in other countries (read: the USA) are virtually never equipped with a manual transmission, such as vans and large sedans. Accordingly, virtually all of the vehicles available for rent at the average car hire will be equipped with a manual gearbox. If you do not know how to drive a car with a manual transmission and don't have the time to learn before your trip, be certain to reserve your rental car well in advance and confirm your reservation. Otherwise, you may find yourself in a car that is much larger than you can afford (or with no car at all).
It is a good tip when travelling in numbers to get one member of the party with hand luggage to go straight through to the car hire desk ahead of everybody else, this will avoid the crush once the main luggage is picked up from the conveyor.
France is a good country for hitchhiking. Be patient, prepare yourself for a long wait or walk and in the meantime enjoy the landscape. A ride will come along. People who stop are usually friendly and not dangerous. They will like you more if you speak a little French. They never expect any money for the ride.
Remember that getting out of Paris by thumb is almost impossible. You can try your luck at the portes (city gates), but heavy traffic and limited areas for stopping will try your patience. It's a good idea to take the local train to a nearby suburb as your chance of being picked up will increase dramatically.
Outside Paris, it's advisable to try your luck by roundabouts. As it's illegal to hitchhike on the motorways (autoroutes) and they are well observed by the police, you may try at a motorway junction.
The greatest chance is at toll plazas (stations de péage), some of which require all cars to stop and are thus great places to catch a lift. If you've been waiting for a while with an indication of where to go, drop it and try with your thumb only. You can also try to get a ride to the next good spot in the wrong direction. However, while hitching from a péage is a common practice, it is illegal. French police or highway security, who are normally very tolerant of hitchhikers, may stop and force you to leave. You can get free maps in the toll offices - these also indicate where you can find the "all-stop-Péage".
Between two points of rural France not on the same railway line, hitching 500kms can be as quick as taking four different (and not cheap) trains.
Blablacar has a quasi-monopoly in France, but it is still a convenient, economical and efficient way to see the country. Prices for distances are below the ones of the train and buses, about €8-10 per 100 km. Pay at is handled through the service. The app optimises the location of the passenger at the meeting point and the driver's route. Between the largest cities you will find many options, some starting in the centre, others just going by the highway—checkout the exact meeting point before committing to a booking. BlaBlaCar has a rating system and the rides are very reliable. BlaBlaCar offers insurance to cover the rest of the journey in case of interruption.
Ridygo is a short-distance carpooling app that works in real time on your smartphone and computer. So there's no need to plan your trips in advance. The app also allows you to automatically share the cost of your journey. The service has developed a financial model that allows unemployed people to use carpools for free with "carpool vouchers".
Rezo Pouce is an organised carpooling and hitchhiking service. Riders can mark their routes on a smartphone app, which allows them to arrange rides. Alternatively, they can wait for a ride at a stop marked with the service logo, with a sign with the service logo and the destination of their choice. Drivers registered with the service will have a Rezo Pouce sign on their windscreen and carry an ID card, making the service safer. Passengers also show their membership card or their profile in the app to show that they have registered for the service. Minors can join the service with parental consent. For Rezo Pouce passengers, rides are free, as with hitchhiking, but for longer journeys it is recommended to contribute to the cost.
- Main article: Rail travel in France
Trains are a great way to get around in France. You can get from pretty much anywhere to anywhere else by train. For long distances, use the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, or High-speed train) on which reservations are obligatory. But if you have time, take the slow train and enjoy the scenery. The landscape is part of what makes France one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Like many things in France, the TGV network is focused on Paris to an almost ridiculous degree, and you may be out of luck when searching for a fast connection between secondary cities. Quite often a considerable detour via the Paris region can be faster than the direct train would be. Usually, if you need to change trains, you can do so at one of three out of town TGV stations: Massy, Marne-la-Vallée or Charles de Gaulle Airport, which are on a connection line linking the northern, eastern, south-eastern and south-western high-speed lines, but it is still sometimes necessary to change in central Paris. However, the capital has several terminus stations, which are not linked by mainline rail, so you'll likely have to use the RER or metro to transfer from one train to another. It can be a lot more expensive to travel via Paris, as you pay per kilometre for your detour.
The French national railway network is managed by SNCF Réseaux, a branch of the nationalised company SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français). The SNCF is the butt of jokes about delays and industrial action, but it actually offers a reliable, punctual service when there are no strikes.
For regional trains, schedules can be found at ter.sncf.com (choose your region, then "Carte and horaires" for maps and timetables). Booking is available in two classes: première classe (first class) is less crowded and more comfortable but can also be about 50% more expensive than deuxième classe (second class).
The SNCF website Gares & Connexions provides live train schedules, keeping you informed about platform numbers and delays. This information is also available on smartphones via the free application SNCF.
There are a number of different kinds of high speed and normal trains:
- TER (Train Express Régional): Regional trains form the backbone of the SNCF system. TER are sometimes slower but do serve most stations. Available on Eurail and InterRail passes.
- TGV (Trains à Grande Vitesse): The world-famous French high-speed trains run several times a day from Paris to the south-east Nice (5-6h), Marseille (3h) and Avignon (2.5 h), the east Geneva (3h) or Lausanne, Switzerland and Dijon (1h15), the south-west Bordeaux (3h), the west Rennes (2h), Nantes (2h), Brest (4h) and the north Lille (1h). Eurostar to London (2h15) and Thalys to Brussels (1h20) use almost identical trains. Reservations are compulsory.
- Night train services (Intercités de Nuit) include couchettes second class (6 bunk beds in a compartment), first class (4 bunks) and reclining seats. You can ask for a "private room" (in first class). These mainly run between Paris and southern France cities (i.e. Nice, Toulouse, Lourdes, Biarritz, Perpignan)
Booking tickets online can be quite a confusing process: SNCF only sells tickets online for its low-cost Ouigo services via the website and app, which thankfully include high speed trains (TGV). Other options include:
- SNCF Connect French language booking website by the SNCF. It can get sometimes confusing, and is known to hardly work when you try to buy a ticket from abroad or with a non-French credit card. Be careful: you will need the credit card that has been used for payment to retrieve your tickets from the ticket machines. If you don't have it, your tickets will be lost, and you will need to buy new tickets.
- Trainline French, English, German, Spanish and Italian language booking website. It aims to be as easy to use as possible. Unlike "Voyages SNCF", you don't need your credit card to retrieve the tickets, only the reservation number and the last name entered for reservation. You can pay with Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Paypal. Tickets can be printed or downloaded on your mobile phone or Apple watch or Android watch.
- RailEurope are booking agencies owned by the SNCF. Fares will often be more expensive on these sites than on the "official" sites, but they are generally easier to use than the SNCF sites.
Beware: To avoid any form of fraud, your ticket must be punched by an automatic machine ("composteur") before entering the platform area to be valid. The machines are situated at the entrance of all platforms. However, e-Billet electronic tickets do not have to be punched: in doubt, punch it anyway.
If you start your journey at an unstaffed station with no ticket machine, you can buy a ticket from the inspector on the train, but you must go and find him/her first. If you wait for the inspector to find you, you are liable to be fined. Pretending not to understand French won't help.
French information booths, especially in larger train stations, can be quite unhelpful, especially if you do not understand much French. If something does not seem to make sense, just say "excusez-moi" and they should repeat it.
It is cheaper to book and purchase train tickets, especially those with reservations, in advance.
In railway stations with a ticket vending machine and a ticket office, the price can differ. On 3rd August 2022, the machine at Limoges station sold a ticket to Bergerac (2 trains) for less than 39€ but the person at the counter quoted 44€ as that was the price of the two separate journeys.
France does not have a national bus service. Coach traffic was liberalised in 2015, allowing the emergence of a few long-distance companies. Two well-known ones are BlaBlaCar Bus (previously known as Ouibus) and FlixBus, which quickly expanded in France after the liberalisation.
The coach companies compete with rail on price, which means they usually are somewhat cheaper than trains, sometimes much cheaper, especially if booked in advance. Trains are more comfortable and sometimes much faster. Tourist information centres may recommend the train over the bus; if so, politely insist that you would like information about buses as well as trains.
Local and regional bus services are available throughout France, and travellers can find more details in region and city articles. When using local buses, it's essential to validate your ticket if necessary, especially if using card-like tickets with magnet bands.
France is not a particularly cyclist-friendly country (unlike, say, the Netherlands), but the situation is improving: more cycle paths are being built and about 40 cities have a bike-sharing system.
Beware of bike thieves. If you have to park your bike in the street, make sure to lock it properly, particularly in larger cities and at night. Avoid using the cable-locks that can be cut within seconds, instead use U-shaped locks, chains or folding locks. Lock your bike to a solid fixed support like a U-Rack. Lock the frame (not only the wheels) and make sure that your wheels cannot be removed without a more-determined thief with tools.
G7 app works in 180 cities and towns. Uber and Bolt work in major cities.
If your first thought of France is the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe or the smile on the Mona Lisa, you're thinking of Paris. Paris, the "City of Light" and the capital of romance has been a travellers' magnet for centuries, hosting intellectuals who drank coffee in its lively cafés and dancers and jazz musicians who performed for them in the historic bars and nightclubs of Montmartre. But there is much more to France than Paris. France is full of gorgeous villages in the countryside; there are splendid châteaux, especially in the Loire Valley, and you can also find areas of lavender fields or vineyards as far as the eye can see. It is impossible to cover all of France's sights and attractions, but we present a summary below and more details are in city and region guides.
The French countryside
More than 160 villages have been identified as the most beautiful in France, or Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. Numerous other villages are dotted with medieval cottages, churches and castles.
The Alps and the Pyrenees, with their many winter sports resorts, possess lush river valleys, dense forests and huge stretches of farmland and vineyards.
The western region of Brittany boasts many megalithic monuments such as those near Carnac.
The beaches of Normandy, also on the Atlantic coast, are famed for the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944. Although the humbling cemeteries and countless museums, memorials and wartime remains keep memory of those dark days alive, the region is now a pleasant and popular destination. Its picturesque coastline includes both long stretches of beach and steep limestone cliffs, such as those near Étretat). The region is also home to the splendid and World Heritage-listed Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay.
The lush hills of the Dordogne are pockmarked with caves, many of which house treasure troves of prehistoric art. The area is also famous for its castles, with over 1,500 of them.
The rolling riverine landscape of the Loire Valley is home to many great châteaux, of which Amboise, Villandry, Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord and Chenonceau are some of the finest examples. The Château d'Angers is also important for the fantastic Tapestries of the Apocalypse, the largest and best preserved series of 14th-century tapestries in the world.
There are also châteaux in Île-de-France, including the famous Château de Versailles, the former royal court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and Vaux-le-Vicomte, which it was based on. Chantilly, north of Paris, is home to another château which has an excellent art collection.
Houses of worship
Just north of Paris, Saint-Denis is where the first Gothic cathedral was built, and though its style is now eclectic from later additions, it's still well worth visiting. Other famous cathedrals in France include those at Chartres, Reims, Rouen (famously painted in several kinds of light by Monet), Amiens, Bourges, Strasbourg and Sens, and it's well worth your while to emulate centuries of French pilgrims and visitors by visiting these awe-inspiring houses of worship. Notre Dame de Paris is damaged for now, but you can see the intact Sainte-Chapelle, which though much smaller is comparably lovely. Also worth special note is the tiny town and impressive Romanesque/Gothic cathedral of Vézelay, a traditional point of departure for the Way of St. James to the Spanish Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
Though many of France's most famous houses of worship are Medieval, all intervening styles are also represented, and one highlight in Alpes-Maritimes in the south, just outside the centre of the small city of Vence, is the Chapelle du Rosaire des Dominicaines, which was completely designed by the Modernist artist, Henri Matisse.
The grandeur and fame of the Musée du Louvre in Paris can hardly be matched by any other museum in the world. It boasts a fabulous collection of art from antiquity to the 19th century and is home of the Mona Lisa and many other renowned works.
The Musée d'Orsay is another world class museum that picks up roughly where the Louvre's collections ends. It's in an old railway station and houses the national collection of art works from 1848 to 1914. Its excellent collection includes some of the best French Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Art Nouveau works, including Degas' ballerinas and Monet's water-lilies.
The Musée National d'Art Moderne in Centre Pompidou, still in France's capital, is the largest museum for modern art in Europe.
The Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon has an excellent collection varying from ancient Egypt antiquities to Modern art paintings and sculptures.
In Lille you'll find the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, one of the country's largest museums. Its varied collection is the second largest after the Louvre and boasts everything from antiquities to modern art.
Smaller, but still outstanding, are the collections of the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi and the Picasso Museum in Paris. Marseille has many galleries and the Musée Cantini has a good collection of modern art associated with Marseille as well as several works by Picasso. Fondation Maeght houses modern art too and is situated in Saint-Paul de Vence.
Parks and natural attractions
Disneyland Resort Paris is by far France's most popular park, visited by families from all over the world.
Vanoise National Park is the oldest and one of the largest parks, named after the Vanoise massif. Its highest peak is the Grande Casse at 3,855 m.
The impressive natural landscapes of Pyrénées National Park are right on the southern border of France and extend well into Spain. The whole area is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the French part, the glacial cirques of Gavarnie, Estaubé and Troumouse are some of the best sights, as is the wall of Barroud.
The again mountainous Cévennes National Park covers parts, Occitanie (including the popular Ardèche) and the Auvergene-Rhône-Alpes regions. The park's main offices are in the castle of Florac, but there are towns all over the park. Donkey rides are available and the cave formation of Aven Armand is one of the park's best sights.
Not yet under a protected status, but highly popular, is Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe and attractive for climbing, hiking and skiing. From the French side, it is mostly explored from Chamonix, a well known resort at the foot of the mountain.
There's a plethora of activities for the budding traveller to engage in. Some suggestions include the following:
- Go to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
- Stroll grand Parisian Boulevards
- Climb Montmartre Hill in Paris
- See the Gothic monuments on the Île de la Cité, in particular the Sainte-Chapelle and Notre-Dame
- See some of the world-famous art in the Louvre, or visit the equally stunning Musée d'Orsay, installed in a former railway terminus
- See the modern architecture in the business district of La Defense
- See the Science Museum in Villette Park, and the other odd attractions assembled there
- Stroll an old train viaduct on the Promenade Plantée in Paris
- See the stunning, but crowded, Versailles Palace
- Ride the TGV, the train which holds the speed record for a conventional (wheel-on-rails) train, from Paris to Lyon, Marseille, Strasbourg or Lille.
- See the "D-Day beaches" of Normandy and their museums
- Climb to the top of Mont Saint Michel
- Explore Chartres Cathedral
- See the quaintness of the Alsace
- Sunbathe on the beaches of the French Riviera
- Climb the Dune du Pilat, in Nouvelle-Aquitaine
- See the decorations of Stanislas Square (Place Stanislas) in Nancy
Classical music and dance
France has one of the world's strongest classical music traditions. French composers such as Lully, Rameau, Berlioz, Fauré, Gounod, Debussy, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, Massenet, Delibes and Messiaen are generally well-known among classical music circles, and even to some members of the general public. Even if you have never heard of them, chances are you are already familiar with some of their pieces, which are commonly quoted in advertising, film scores and even modern pop music.
Even though ballet originated during the days of the Italian Renaissance, France played a very important role in the development of the art form, and to this day, many modern-day terms used by ballerinas originate from French. The Paris Opera Ballet is one of the most famous ballet companies in the world, along with the Royal Ballet in London, the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, and the Mariinsky Ballet in Saint Petersburg. Competition for admission into the Opera Ballet is extremely fierce.
French opera is widely revered throughout Europe. Unlike in the rest of Europe, Italian opera never gained a foothold in France, which instead developed its own unique operatic tradition. One such style is the grand opéra, which combines opera and ballet into a single performance. Another style is operetta, developed by Jacques Offenbach, which combines elements of comedy, light-hearted music, and humour. Not only have French composers contributed to the development of French opera, but so have foreign composers such as Gluck, Rossini, Verdi, and Meyerbeer.
Three of the most famous opera houses in the country are the Paris Opera in the beautiful Opéra Garnier building in Paris' Paris/9th arrondissement, which mostly hosts ballets, nowadays; the Opéra Bastille in a larger contemporary building in Paris' 12th; and the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, one of the country's oldest. However, you will see theatres and opera houses throughout the country.
Without a doubt the most popular spectator team sports in France (though not necessarily in that order) are rugby union, football and (European/team/olympic) handball with both strong domestic competition and a national side that has variously won Six Nations, world cups and European championships and is usually to be reckoned with on a global level.
Cycling is another popular sport in France, with many professional races taking place across the country throughout the year. The Tour de France, cycling's most prestigious race, takes place every July over three weeks. The race features a series of 21 full day stages along roads across France and typically covers 3,500 km. Although the Tour always finishes on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, the specific route to get there changes every year. The beginning of the race is known as the Grand Départ, a carnivalesque affair which regions across France and indeed around western Europe vie to host. The Tour is free to watch at all of its stages and is very accessible. It is best viewed at stage towns and at its most thrilling sections: mass sprints at the end of a flat stage, cobbled sections and mountain climbs, where the atmosphere is greatest.
French people have a large number of paid holidays a year (and often contractual overtime is compensated for with extra paid leave) and it is almost compulsory for French people to take time off in summer, with French society divided between those who go on holiday in July (juilletistes) vs the larger number who go on holiday in August (aoûtiens). As a result, large cities become noticeably less busy and large parts of the Paris transport network are often shut down during the summer for planned engineering works. Outside of tourist areas, many of the smaller shops (butcher shops, bakeries...) will be closed during parts of August. This also applies to many corporations as well as physicians. However, in touristy areas, shops will tend to be open when the tourists come, especially July and August. In contrast, many attractions will be awfully crowded during those months, and during the Easter weekend.
Some attractions, especially in rural areas, close or have reduced opening hours outside the tourist season.
Mountainous areas tend to have two tourist seasons: in the winter, for skiing, snowshoeing and other snow-related activities, and in the summer for sightseeing and hiking.
Exchange rates for euros
As of January 2023:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
France uses the euro, like several other European countries. One euro is divided into 100 cents. The official symbol for the euro is €, and its ISO code is EUR. There is no official symbol for the cent.
All banknotes and coins of this common currency are legal tender within all the countries, except that low-denomination coins (one and two cent) are phased out in some of them. The banknotes look the same across countries, while coins have a standard common design on the reverse, expressing the value, and a national country-specific design on the obverse. The obverse is also used for different designs of commemorative coins. The design of the obverse does not affect the coin's acceptability .
Some foreign currencies such as the U.S. dollar and the British pound are occasionally accepted, especially in tourist areas and in higher-end places, but one should not count on it; furthermore, the cashier may charge an unfavourable exchange rate. In general, shops will refuse transactions in foreign currency.
It is compulsory, for the large majority of businesses, to post prices in windows. Hotels and restaurants must have their rates visible from outside (however, many hotels offer lower prices than the posted ones if they feel they will have a hard time filling up their rooms; the posted price is only a maximum).
Almost all stores (except smaller independent stores including some tourist stores and tobacco stores), restaurants and hotels take the CB French debit card, and its foreign affiliations, Visa and MasterCard. American Express tends to be accepted only in high-end shops. Retailers will post by the till if there is a minimum spend required before using the card. Check with your bank for applicable fees (typically, banks apply the wholesale inter-bank exchange rate, which is the best available, but may slap a proportional and/or a fixed fee).
French CB cards (and CB/Visa and CB/MasterCard cards) have a "smart chip" on them allowing PIN authentication of transactions. This system, initiated in France, has now evolved to an international standard and newer British cards are compatible. Some automatic retail machines (such as those vending tickets) may be compatible only with cards with the microchip. In addition, cashiers unaccustomed to foreign cards possibly do not know that foreign Visa or MasterCard cards have to be swiped and a signature obtained, while French customers systematically use PIN and don't sign the transactions. The acceptance of contactless cards is also becoming widespread.
There is practically no way to get a cash advance from a credit card without a PIN in France.
Automatic teller machines (ATM) are by far the best way to get money in France. They all take CB, Visa, MasterCard, Cirrus and Plus and are plentiful throughout France. They may accept other kinds of card; check for the logos on the ATM and on your card (on the back, generally) if at least one matches. It is possible that some machines do not handle 6-digit PIN codes (only 4-digit ones), or that they do not offer the choice between different accounts (defaulting on the checking account). Check with your bank about applicable fees, which may vary greatly (typically, banks apply the wholesale inter-bank exchange rate, which is the best available, but may slap a proportional and/or a fixed fee; because of the fixed fee it is generally better to withdraw money in big chunks rather than €20 at a time). Also, check about applicable maximal withdrawal limits.
Traveller's cheques are difficult to use — most merchants will not accept them, and exchanging them may involve finding a bank that accepts to exchange them and possibly paying a fee.
The postal service doubles as a bank, so often post offices will have an ATM. As a result, even minor towns will have ATMs usable with foreign cards.
Exchange offices (bureaux de change) are now rarer with the advent of the Euro - they will in general only be found in towns with a significant foreign tourist presence, such as Paris. Some banks exchange money, often with high fees. The Bank of France no longer does foreign exchange.
Do Put money into your checking account, carry an ATM card with a Cirrus or Plus logo on it and a 4-digit pin that does not start with '0' and withdraw cash from ATMs. Pay larger transactions (hotel, restaurants...) with Visa or MasterCard. Always carry some euros cash for emergencies.
Don't Carry foreign currency or traveller's cheques, and exchange them on the go, or expect them to be accepted by shops.
Tips are not expected in France since service charges are included in the bill. However, French people usually leave the small change left after paying the bill or one to five euros if they were satisfied with the service quality.
In towns and city centres, you always will find smaller shops, chain grocery stores (Casino) as well as, occasionally, department stores and small shopping malls. Residential areas will often have small supermarkets (such as Carrefour Market or Intermarché). Large supermarkets (hypermarchés such as Auchan, Carrefour, E.Leclerc, Géant Casino) are mostly on the outskirts of towns and are probably not useful unless you have access to a car.
Prices are indicated with all taxes (namely, the TVA, or value-added tax) included. It is possible for non-EU residents to get a partial refund upon departure from certain stores that have a "tax-free shopping" sticker; inquire within. TVA is 20% on most things, but 10% on some things such as books, restaurant meals, and public transport and 5.5% on food purchased from grocery stores (except for sweets!). Alcoholic beverages are always taxed at 20%, regardless of where they're purchased.
- See also: French cuisine
With its international reputation for fine dining, few people would be surprised to hear that French cuisine can certainly be very good. As a testament to this, France is tied with Japan for first place as the country with the most Michelin star restaurants. French cuisine as a whole has been inscribed on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage. Unfortunately, the local food can also be quite disappointing; many restaurants that cater to tourists serve very ordinary fare, and some are rip-offs. Finding the right restaurant and one where French people go to is therefore very important – try asking locals, hotel staff or even browsing restaurant guides or websites for recommendations as simply walking in off the street can be a hit and miss affair. The downside is that outside of the tourist traps, it is very rare to find a restaurant with English-speaking waiters, so be prepared to have to speak some French.
There are many places to try French food in France, from three-star Michelin restaurants to French brasseries or bistrots that you can find on almost every corner, especially in big cities. In general, one should try to eat where the locals do for the best chance of a memorable meal. Most small cities or even villages have local restaurants which are sometimes listed in the most reliable guides. In fact, many fine dining restaurants are in rural villages rather than in the big cities, and French people often drive to those villages to dine during special occasions. Even among cities, Paris is not considered by the French to have the best fine dining scene; that honour goes to Lyon. There are also specific local restaurants, like bouchons lyonnais in Lyon, crêperies in Brittany and in the Montparnasse area of Paris, and baraques à frites in the north. Frites (French fries or chips, depending where you're from) tend to be much better in the north, where they are known as frites flamandes, or Flemish fries. These are traditionally cut from fresh potatoes and fried twice, to be crispy outside and fluffy within.
Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, even Thai eateries are readily available in Paris, either as regular restaurants or traiteurs (fast-food). They are not so common, and are more expensive, in smaller French cities. Many places have "Italian" restaurants though these are often little more than unimaginative pizza and pasta parlours. You will also find Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, as well as Greek and Lebanese food. The ubiquitous hamburger bars - US original or their French copies - are also available.
In France, taxes (7% of the total in restaurants) and service (usually 10%) are always included in the bill, so anything patrons add to the bill amount is an "extra-tip". There should not be any additions to the advertised price, do not hesitate to question such additions. French people usually leave one or two coins if they were happy with the service, but it's not mandatory. Bread and tap water are always free of charge, and no extra price should be applied for the dishes.
Fixed price menus seldom include beverages. If you want water, waiters will often try to sell you mineral water or fizzy water, at a premium; ask for a carafe d'eau for tap water, which is free and safe to drink. Water never comes with ice in it unless so requested, and water with ice may not be available.
As in other countries, restaurants tend to make a large profit off beverages. Expect wine to cost much more than it would in a supermarket.
Ordering is made either from fixed price menus (menu fixe) or à la carte.
A typical fixed price menu will comprise:
- appetiser, called entrées or hors d'œuvres
- main dish, called a plat [principal]
- dessert (dessert) or cheese (fromage)
Sometimes, restaurants offer the option to take only two of the three courses, at a reduced price.
Coffee is always served as a final step, though it may be followed by liquors. Coffee will always be served black unless requested otherwise. For white coffee, ask for café au lait. A request for coffee during the meal will be considered strange.
Not all restaurants are open for both lunch and dinner, nor are they always open all year around. It is therefore advisable to carefully check the opening times and days. A restaurant open for lunch will usually start service at noon and accept patrons until 13:30. Dinner begins at around 19:30 and patrons are accepted until 21:30. Restaurants with longer service hours are usually found only in the larger cities and in town centres. Finding a restaurant open on Saturday and especially Sunday can be a challenge unless you stay close to the tourist areas.
In a reasonable number of restaurants, especially outside tourist areas, a booking is compulsory and people may be turned away without one, even if the restaurant is clearly not filled to capacity. For this reason, it can be worthwhile to research potential eateries in advance and make the necessary reservations to avoid disappointment, especially if the restaurant you're considering is specially advised in guide books.
A lunch of 2-3 courses for two on the menu including wine and coffee will cost you (as of 2018) €30-50 on average. A main course at dinner will cost €15-30 in a typical restaurant, while a typical dinner for two with beverages will cost €50-110. The same with beer in a local bistro or a crêperie around €35-55. You can, or course, spend considerably more.
Outside of Paris and the main cities, prices are not always lower but the menu will often include a fourth course, usually cheese. As with everywhere beware of the tourist traps which are numerous around the heavy travelled spots and may offer a nice view but not much to remember on your plate.
French waiters have a reputation for being rude, but this is largely undeserved. While there are certainly a few bad eggs who will seemingly go to any length to demonstrate their contempt for you as a customer, most perceptions of rudeness are simply down to travellers having certain expectations of service which are different to the French cultural norm.
Important differences from some other countries follow. In France the customer does not come first. You are not always right, your every whim does not have to be indulged, and the amount of money you flash will not entitle you to a superior service to others in the room. The vast majority of restaurants in France are privately-owned independents, with all the proprietary pride that entails; you as the customer are nothing more than a temporary guest in the restaurateur's home. That means you will be treated well, as long as you are polite and follow a few house rules. Humility and a sense of humour when mistakes happen can both go a long way in this game!
Upon arrival at a restaurant, wait at the door to be shown to your table. Seating yourself without being invited to do so is often taken to be presumptuous, and may result in your getting off on the wrong foot before you can even say bonjour. Asking for a dish to be changed for any reason is unusual and can be taken as a criticism of chef's cooking. If you don't like how a particular dish is prepared, or can't eat one of the ingredients, order something else. There is a reason the full menu is posted on every restaurant door, and that is to allow people to get an idea of what is on offer in advance of making a commitment to eat there. While dining, it is considered impolite to have your elbows on the table; ditto for laying your hands in your lap. If you are given a glass or a cup with your beverage, use it.
Waitering is a respected profession in France. In the French psyche, a good waiter is there to make sure you receive your meal and drinks in the proper manner, and then to keep out of your way so you can enjoy yourself in peace. If you need something, you're more than welcome to ask, but don't expect to be approached during your meal, or for your needs to be anticipated in advance. Above all, don't address your waiter as garçon (boy), as this is demeaning and about a century out-of-date etiquette-wise. A simple excusez-moi is more than sufficient to attract the server's attention. One way to ensure good service is to ask the waiter's recommendations for wine or to point out any local specialities on the menu; this shows that you respect their expertise and gives you the opportunity to learn more about the local cuisine.
You can show your appreciation at the end by leaving a small tip. Tipping is neither compulsory nor expected as the serving staff receive a full wage, and many establishments factor a 10% service charge into the price of the food (this is signalled with service compris printed on the bill or menu). Most French people, when deciding to tip, will just round up the bill to the next multiple of five – if a bill comes to €46, call it €50 and everyone's happy.
Bakeries (boulangeries) are something of a French institution and are to be found all over the country from the smallest villages to city streets. All white bread variants keep for only a short time and must be eaten the same day, or else saved for dunking in soup or hot chocolate the following morning. Hence bakers bake at least twice a day.
- The famous baguette: a long, thin loaf;
- Variants of the baguette : la ficelle (even thinner), la flûte, la tradition (a baguette with a generally more delicate taste but also more expensive);
- Pain de campagne or Pain complet: made from whole grain which keeps relatively well.
Pastries are a large part of French cooking. Hotel breakfasts tend to be light, consisting of tartines (pieces of bread with butter or jam) or the famous croissants and pains au chocolat, not dissimilar to a chocolate-filled croissant, but square rather than crescent shaped.
Pastries can be found in a pâtisserie but also in most boulangeries.
Every French region has dishes all its own. These dishes follow the region's local produce from agriculture, hunting and fishing. Here is a small list of regional dishes which you can find easily in France. Generally each region has a unique and widespread dish, usually because it was food for the masses:
- Cassoulet (in the south west) : beans, duck, pork & sausages
- Choucroute, or sauerkraut (in Alsace) : stripped fermented cabbage + pork
- Fondue Savoyarde (central Alps) : melted/hot cheese with white wine
- Fondue Bourguignonne (in Burgundy) : pieces of beef (in boiled oil), usually served with a selection of various sauces.
- Raclette (central Alps) : melted cheese & potatoes/meat
- Pot-au-feu (found all over France) : boiled beef with vegetables
- Boeuf Bourguignon (Burgundy) : slow cooked beef with red wine gravy
- Gratin dauphinois (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes) : oven-roasted slices of potatoes with sour cream and cheese
- Aligot (Aveyron) : melted cheese mixed with a puree of potatoes
- Bouillabaisse (fish + saffron) (Marseille and the French Riviera). Don't be fooled! A real bouillabaisse is a really expensive dish due to the amount of fresh fish it requires. Be prepared to pay at least €30 per person. If you find restaurants claiming to serve bouillabaisse for something like €15 per person, you'll find it to be of a very poor quality.
- Tartiflette (Savoie) : Melted Reblochon cheese, potatoes and pork or bacon.
- Confit de Canard (south west) : Duck Confit, consists of legs and wings bathing in grease. That grease is actually very healthy and, with red wine, is one of the identified sources of the so-called "French Paradox" (eat richly, live long).
- Foie Gras (south west) : The liver of a duck or goose. Although usually quite expensive, foie gras can be found in supermarkets for a lower price (because of their purchasing power) around the Christmas season. It is the time of year when most foie gras is consumed in France. It goes very well with Champagne.
- Moules marinière (found all along the coast, with large regional differences) : Mussels steamed in wine or cider (Brittany and Normandy) with a variety of local produce, e.g. simple shallots and garlic in the north, cream in the west, tomatoes and peppers in the south, etc... Normally served with crusty bread and frites.
Cooking and drinking is a notable part of French culture; take time to eat and discover new dishes.
Contrary to stereotype, snails and frog legs are quite infrequent foods in France, with many French people enjoying neither, or sometimes having never even tasted them. Quality restaurants sometimes have them on their menu: if you're curious about trying new foods, go ahead.
- Frog legs (cuisses de grenouille) have a very fine and delicate taste with flesh that is not unlike chicken. They are often served in a garlic dressing and are no weirder to eat than, say, crab.
- Most of the taste of Burgundy snails (escargots de bourgogne) comes from the generous amount of butter, garlic and parsley in which they are cooked. They have a very particular spongy-leathery texture and, for obvious reasons, a strong garlicky flavour. Catalan-style snails (cargols) are made a completely different way, and taste even weirder!
Let us also cite:
- Rillettes sarthoises also known as Rillettes du Mans. A sort of potted meat, made from finely shredded and spiced pork. A delicious speciality of the Sarthe area in the north of the Pays de la Loire and not to be confused with rillettes from other areas, which are more like a rough pâté.
- Beef bone marrow (os à moelle). Generally served in small quantities, with a large side. So go ahead: if you don't like it, you'll have something else to eat on your plate!
- Veal sweetbread (ris de veau), is a very fine (and generally expensive) delicacy, often served with morels, or in more elaborate dishes like bouchées à la reine.
- Beef bowels (tripes) is served either à la mode de Caen (with a white wine sauce, named after the town in Normandy) or à la catalane (with a slightly spiced tomato sauce)
- Andouillettes are sausages made from tripe, a specialty of Lyon
- Tricandilles are seasoned and grilled pork tripe from the Bordeaux region
- Beef tongue (langue de bœuf) and beef nose (museau) and Veal head (tête de veau) are generally eaten cold (but thoroughly cooked!) as an appetiser.
- Oysters (huîtres) are most commonly served raw in a half shell. They are often graded by size, No1 being the largest (and most expensive).
- Oursins (sea urchins), for those who like concentrated iodine.
- Steak tartare a big patty of ground beef cured in acid as opposed to cooked, frequently served with a raw egg. Good steak tartare will be prepared to order at tableside. A similar dish is boeuf carpaccio, which is thin slices or strips of raw steak drizzled with olive oil and herbs.
- Cervelle (pronounced ser-VELL), lamb brain.
France is certainly the country for cheese (fromage), with nearly 400 different kinds. Indeed, former president General Charles De Gaulle was quoted as saying "How can you govern a country which has 365 varieties of cheese?".
Vegetarianism is not as uncommon as it used to be, especially in larger cities. Still, very few restaurants offer vegetarian menus, thus if you ask for something vegetarian the only things they may have available are salad and vegetable side dishes.
There may still be confusion between vegetarianism and pescetarianism. Vegetarian and organic food restaurants are starting to appear. However, "traditional" French restaurants may not have anything vegetarian on the menu fixe, so you may have to pick something à la carte, which is usually more expensive.
Luckily North African cuisine is very popular in France, couscous is one of the most popular dishes in France (especially in Eastern France) and is widely available.
Veganism, whilst on the rise, is still very uncommon and it may be difficult to find vegan eateries. Nonetheless, the French vegan community made some tools to help find vegan food & restaurants : vegan-mafia.com and vegoresto.fr. Paris has one of the fastest growing vegan communities in Europe, so you should be able to find a vegan restaurant or two.
Pretty much every town has at least one halal restaurant or takeaway, and many also have halal butchers. Kosher (look for signs with kasher, cachère and other similar words) restaurants and shops are less common outside the large cities.
Breakfast in France is usually very light, typically consisting of a coffee and a croissant or some other viennoiserie at special occasions. On normal days most people have a beverage (coffee, tea, hot chocolate, orange juice) and toast of baguette or toast bread with butter and jam/honey/Nutella that can be dipped in the hot beverage, or cereals with milk, or fruit and yoghurt. The French breakfast is mostly sweet, but anything can change and you can have savoury breakfasts everywhere today.
Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, the Loire Valley... France is the home of wine (vin). It can be found cheaply just about anywhere. Beer (bière) is also very popular, in particular in northern France, where "Bière de Garde" can be found. The alcohol purchase age is 18 for all drinks, but this is not always strictly enforced; however, laws against drunk driving are strictly enforced, with stiff penalties.
French wine is classified mainly by the region it comes from. Many wines don't label the varieties of grape that was used, so to know what you're getting, you have to learn what types of wine each region is known for. Wines often use blends of several grapes. Wines are usually labelled with the region (which may be broad or very specific) and a quality level:
- Roughly half of all wines are AOP (Appellation d'origine protégée), or AOC (Appellation d'origine contrôlée) in wines before 2012. For this highest tier, wine must come from designated areas with restrictions on the grape varieties, winemaking methods, and flavour profile.
- Another third of wines are IGP (Indication géographique protégée), or Vin de Pays before 2012. These too are judged to meet the character of a region's wine, but have fewer restrictions than AOP/AOC wines.
- The lowest tier are Vin de France, or Vin de Table before 2010, which are everyday table wines that are not labelled by region.
Wine and spirits may be purchased from supermarkets, or from specialised stores such as the Nicolas chain. Nicolas offers good advice on what to buy (specify the kind of wine and the price range you desire). In general, only French wines are available unless a foreign wine is a "speciality" with no equivalent in France (such as port), and they are classified by region of origin, not by grape.
Etiquette-wise, you shouldn't drink alcoholic beverages (especially red wine or strong alcohol such as cognac) directly from a 70 cl bottle. Such behaviour is generally associated with drunkards (though if you are surrounded by college students, you may be OK). Drinking beer from a 25 to 50cl can or bottle is OK.
Prices of food and beverages will vary on whether they're served to you at the bar or sitting at a table – the same cup of espresso might cost €0.50 more if served at a table than at the bar, and €0.50 more again if served out on the terrace. Really, you're not paying so much for the beverage as for the table spot. Do consider the bar, though – while you will have to stand, café bars are often where a great deal of public discourse and interaction happens. In any event, cafés are required by law to post their prices somewhere in the establishment, usually either in the window or on the wall by the bar.
There are a couple of mixed drinks which seem to be more or less unique to France, and nearby francophone countries.
- Panaché is a mix of beer and lemonade, basically a beer shandy.
- Monaco is a Panaché with some grenadine syrup added.
- Kir is a pleasant aperitif of white wine (in theory, Bourgogne Aligoté) or, less frequently, of champagne (then named kir royal and about twice the price of regular kir) and cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), or pêche (peach), or mûre (blackberry).
- Pastis is an anise-based (licorice-flavored) spirit, similar in taste to Sambuca or Ouzo, that is served with a few lumps of sugar and a small pitcher of cold water to dilute the liquor. It is traditionally enjoyed on very hot days, and as such is more popular in the south of the country but available more or less everywhere.
There is a variety of bottled water, including:
- Évian, Thonon, Contrex, Volvic: mineral water
- Perrier: fizzy water
- Badoit: slightly fizzy and salty water.
France is a diverse and colourful country, and you'll find everything from stunning log chalets in the Alps, châteaux in the countryside and beach front villas on the Riviera...plus everything in between!
Hotels come in five categories from 1 to 5 stars. This is the official rating given by the Ministry of Tourism, and it is posted at the entrance on a blue shield. Stars are awarded according to objective yet somewhat outdated administrative criteria, such as area of the reception hall, or percentage of rooms with en-suite bathroom.
Rates vary according to accommodation, location and sometimes high or low season or special events.
All hotels, by law, must have their maximum rates posted so that they're visible from outside. Bargaining for a cheaper room is not the norm but you can always ask for a discount.
Hotels in city centres or near train stations are often very small (15-30 rooms) which means that you should book ahead. Many newer hotels, business oriented, are found in the outskirts of cities and are sometimes larger structures (100 rooms or more); they may not be easy to reach with public transportation. The newer hotels are often part of national or international chains and have high standards. Many older hotels are now part of chains and provide standardised service but they retain their own atmosphere.
Along the autoroute (motorway) network, and at the entrance of cities, you'll find US-style motels; they are very often reachable only by car. Some motels (e.g. Formule 1) have minimal service, if you come in late you find an ATM-like machine, using credit cards, which will deliver a code in order to reach your assigned room.
In French, the word hôtel doesn't always mean "hotel". It traditionally refers to private townhouses or mansions, as in the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris. The word also crops up in names for municipal offices, such as hôtel de ville (city hall) or hôtel de police (police HQ). If you ask directions to the nearest hotel, people in the street will assume you mean guest accommodation, but signs for various buildings called hôtel won't necessarily be what you're looking for.
B&Bs and Gîtes
Throughout France, mainly in rural areas but also in towns and cities, you can find B&Bs and gîtes.
B&Bs are known in French as "chambres d'hôtes" and are generally available on a night-by-night basis. By law, breakfast MUST be included in the advertised price for a chambre d'hôte. Bear this in mind when comparing prices with hotels, where breakfast is NOT included in the room price.
Gîtes or gîtes ruraux are holiday cottages, and generally rented out as a complete accommodation unit including a kitchen, mostly on a weekly basis. Literally the French word gîte just means a place to spend the night; however it is now mostly used to describe rental cottages or self-catering holiday homes, usually in rural parts of France. There are very few near or in the cities. Finding them requires buying a guide or, for greater choice, using the internet, as you will not find many signposted on the road.
Traditionally, gîtes provided basic good value accommodation, typically adjacent to the owner's household or in a nearby outbuilding. The term can now also be used to describe most country-based self-catering accommodation in France. Hence it includes accommodation as varied as small cottages to villas with private swimming pools.
During peak summer months the best self-catering gîtes require booking several months in advance.
There are thousands of B&Bs and gîtes in France rented out by foreign owners, particularly British and Dutch, and these tend to be listed, sometimes exclusively, with English-language or international organisations and websites that can be found by keying the words "chambres d'hôtes", "gîtes" or "gîtes de france" into any of the major search engines.
There is a large number of organisations and websites offering gîtes.
Gîtes de France
A France-wide cooperative organisation, Gîtes de France groups more than 50,000 rural places of accommodation together and was the first in France to offer a consistent rating system with comprehensive descriptions.
Despite the name, Gîtes de France offers B&B as well as holiday rental (gîte) accommodation.
The Gîtes de France rating system uses wheat stalks called épis (equivalent to a star rating), based on amenities rather than quality - though generally the two go together.
Through its website, bookings can be done directly with owners or through the local Gîtes de France booking agency (no extra fee for the traveller). Although an English language version is available for many of the website pages, for some departments the pages giving details of an individual gîte are only in French.
There is no particular advantage in using Gîtes de France rather than one of the other online gîtes sites, or booking directly with a gîte owner. The procedure is pretty standard for all gîte booking sites, whether French or foreign - with the advantage that the whole booking process can be done in English, which is not always the case with Gîtes de France.
After making a gîte booking you will receive, by post, a contract to sign (for gîtes only). Sign and return one copy. When signing write the words "Read and approved", and the name of your home town, before signing and dating the contract. You will normally be asked to pay a deposit of a quarter to a third of the booking fee. The rest will be required one month before the start of your holiday. When you arrive at the gîte a security deposit, specified in the contact, should be given to the owner in cash. This will be returned at the end of your stay, minus any fuel charges and breakages.
Some other resources for booking gîtes and villas in France are Gitelink or Holiday France Direct, which enable you to deal directly with the property owners.
Another possibility is gîtes d'étape. These are more like overnight stays for hikers, like a mountain hut. They are mostly cheaper than the Gîtes de France but also much more basic.
Short term rentals
Travellers should definitely consider short-term villa/apartment/studio rentals as an alternative to other accommodation options. Short term can be as few as several days up to months at a stretch. Summer rentals are usually from Saturday to Saturday only (July & August). This type accommodation belongs to a private party, and can range from basic to luxurious. A particular advantage, aside from competitive prices, is that the accommodations come with fully fitted kitchens.
Hundreds of agencies offer accommodation for short term rentals on behalf of the owner, and can guide you into finding the best property, at the best price in the most suitable location for you. An internet search for the location and type of property you're looking for will usually return the names of several listing sites, each of which may have hundreds or thousands of properties for you to choose from. There are plenty of sites in both English and French, and the rental properties may be owned by people of any nationality.
Well established holiday rental sites include Gitelink France, Holidaylettings.co.uk, Owners Direct and Alpha Holiday Lettings. If you are looking to stay in just a room or part of the property, Airbnb matches holiday makers with hosts who only rent out part of their homes.
Camping is very common in France. Most camp sites are a little way out of town and virtually all cater not just for tents but also for camper vans and caravans. While all camp sites have the basic facilities of shower and toilet blocks, larger sites tend to offer a range of additional facilities such as bars and restaurants, self-service launderettes, swimming pools or bicycle hire. All camp sites except for very small 'farm camping' establishments must be registered with the authorities, and are officially graded using a system of stars.
In coastal areas, three-star and four-star camp grounds must generally be booked in advance during the months of July and August, and many people book from one year to the next. In rural areas, outside of popular tourist spots, it is usually possible to show up unannounced, and find a place; this is particularly true with the municipal camp sites that can be found in most small towns; though even then it may be advisable to ring up or email in advance to make sure. There are always exceptions.
In France it's forbidden to camp:
- in woods, natural, regional and national parks
- on public roads and streets
- on beaches
- less than 200 metres from watering places used for human consumption
- on natural protected sites
- less than 500 metres from a protected monument
- everywhere where it's forbidden by local laws
- on private properties without the owner's consent.
Having said that, generally, camping in car parks near the beach is not prohibited and is a great way to be near the beach and camp for free. There are some comfy and less busy ones, even sometimes with shade around, especially in the evening after most other visitors have left.
Camping is a great way to explore the local area as it offers you the freedom of being able to travel around at short notice. Small campsites can be discovered on Rural Camping France, while larger campsites can be booked through websites such as Eurocamp, Canvas Holidays, Go Camp France and France Break [formerly dead link].
Education in France is generally of superior quality, and the country is home to many reputed, prestigious universities. A lot of courses are generally conducted in French, though some programmes are offered in English.
Some of the most reputed universities in the country include École normale supérieure de Paris, École Polytechnique, and Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires (INSEAD).
Grades in France are scored from 0 to 20, with 20 being the highest possible grade. Academic grading is noted for being competitive and strict, to the point that the French have various sayings about it. One of the most famous sayings is "20 is for God, 19 is for the king, 18 is for the Président de la République " (or variations thereof).
If you are by law required to obtain a visa or other type of authorisation to work and fail to do so, you risk possible arrest, prosecution, expulsion and prohibition from re-entering France and the Schengen area.
Citizens of EU and EEA countries (save from some Eastern European countries, for a temporary period) and Switzerland can work in France without having to secure a work permit. Most non-EU citizens will need a work permit - however, some non-EU citizens (such as Canadians, New Zealanders etc.) do not require a visa or work permit to work during their 90 day visa-free period of stay in France (see the 'Get in' section above for more information).
If you are an EU citizen or from an EEA country and want to earn money to continue travelling, Interim agencies (e.g. Adecco, Manpower) are a good source of temporary jobs. You can also consider working in bars, restaurants, and/or nightclubs (they are often looking for English-speaking workers, particularly those restaurants in tourist areas - fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's and Quick are also always looking for people).
A lot of 'student jobs', if you happen to be in a big city, are also available for younger travellers, and foreigners are often very welcome. Such example jobs include giving private English lessons, taking care of young children (i.e. au pairing) among other things...check out the buildings of various universities as they often have a lot of advertisements. An easy way to find jobs in France is to use dedicated search engines offered by various employment websites.
Don't forget that being an English speaker is a big advantage when you're looking for a job - French employers really have a problem finding English-speaking workers. However, it will be much easier for you if you know a bit of French, for the same reason (your colleagues are not likely to speak English). However, don't overestimate your chances of finding work; there are often more people applying for jobs than there are vacancies.
The French labour market tends to operate through personal contacts - if you know someone that works somewhere, you can probably figure out quite an easy way to work at that place too. It always helps to know people living in the area you wish to work.
Crime-related emergencies can be reported to the toll-free number 17 or 112 (European emergency telephone number). Law enforcement agencies are the National Police (Police nationale) in urban areas and the Gendarmerie nationale in the countryside, though for minor crimes such as parking and traffic offences some towns and villages also have a municipal police force (Police municipale).
Though France remains among the safest countries in the world, crime and insecurity have become a lot more common in the last few decades. Large metropolitan areas are plagued with the usual woes, but nowadays even small villages can have their share of crime. Violent crime against visitors is generally rare, but pickpocketing, purse-snatching, and muggings are common, and some of these may result in aggravated assaults. If the usual precautions against these are taken, you should be safe.
City centres and some (mostly wealthy) suburbs are usually safe at all hours. In large cities, especially Paris and Marseille, there are a few areas which should be avoided. Parts of the suburbs are hives of youth gang-related activities and drug dealing; however these are almost always far from tourist areas and you should have no reason to visit them. Common sense applies: it is very easy to spot derelict areas. The subject of crime in poorer suburbs and areas is very touchy, as it may easily have racist overtones or interpretations, since many people associate it with working-class youth of Arab and African origins. You should not express an opinion on the issue unless you know who you're talking to.
While it is not compulsory for French citizens to carry identification, they usually do so. Foreigners should carry some kind of official identity document. Although random checks are not the norm, you may be asked for ID in some kinds of situations, for example if you cannot show a valid ticket when using public transportation; not having one in such cases will result in you being taken to a police station for further checks. Even if you feel that law enforcement officers have no right to check your identity (they can do so only in certain circumstances), it is a bad idea to enter a legal discussion with them; it is better to put up with it and show your ID. Again, the subject is sensitive as the police have often been accused of targeting people according to criteria of ethnicity (e.g. délit de sale gueule = literally "crime of a dirty face")
Due to the international threat of terrorism, police with the help of military units, often patrol monuments, the Paris Metro, train stations and airports. Depending on the status of the "Vigipirate" plan (anti terrorist units) it is not uncommon to see armed patrols in those areas. The presence of police should be of help to tourists, as it also deters pickpockets and the like. However, suspicious behaviour, public disturbances etc., may attract police officers' attention for the wrong reasons.
In France, failing to offer assistance to 'a person in danger' is a criminal offence in itself. This means that if you fail to stop upon witnessing a motor accident, fail to report such an accident to emergency services, or ignore appeals for help or urgent assistance, you may be charged. Penalties include suspended prison sentence and fines. The law does not apply in situations where answering an appeal for help might endanger your life or the lives of others.
Carrying or using narcotic substances, from marijuana to hard drugs, is illegal whatever the quantity. The penalty can be severe especially if you are suspected of dealing. Trains and cars coming from countries which have a more lenient attitude (such as the Netherlands) are especially targeted. Police have often been known to stop entire coaches and search every passenger and their bags thoroughly.
France has a liberal policy with respect to alcohol; there are usually no ID checks for purchasing alcohol (unless you look much younger than 18). However, causing problems due to public drunkenness is a misdemeanor and may result in a night spent in the cells of a police station. Drunk driving is a severe offence and may result in heavy fines and jail sentences.
A little etiquette note: while it is common to drink beer straight from the bottle at informal meetings, doing the same with wine is normally only done by tramps (clochards).
Tap water (eau du robinet) is drinkable, except in rare cases such as in rural rest areas and sinks in railway carriage toilets, in which case it will be clearly signposted as eau non potable. Eau potable is drinkable water (you may, however, not like the taste and prefer bottled water).
Tap water is generally acceptable in taste, but mineral water (eau minérale) is generally considered to taste better, except in areas that use mountain water from the Alps for their municipal supply. Volvic and Évian are cheap and available most everywhere, and many locals consider them nothing special. You may find Vittel a more interesting-tasting inexpensive French mineral water, and Badoit, a sparkling water, is quite good.
Health care in France is of a very high standard.
Pharmacies are denoted by a green cross, usually in flashing neon (or LED). They sell medicine, contraceptives, and often beauty and related products (though these can be very expensive). Medicines must be ordered from the counter, even non-prescription medicines. The pharmacist may ask you questions about your symptoms and then can recommend various medicines and suggest generic drugs.
Since drug brand names vary across countries even though the effective ingredients stay the same, it is better to carry prescriptions using the international nomenclature in addition to the commercial brand name. Prescription drugs, including oral contraceptives (aka "the pill"), will only be delivered if a doctor's prescription is shown.
In addition, supermarkets sell condoms (préservatifs) and also often personal lubricant, bandages, disinfectant and other minor medical items. Condom machines are often found in bar toilets, etc.
Medical treatment can be obtained from self-employed physicians, clinics and hospitals. Most general practitioners, specialists (e.g. gynaecologists), and dentists are self-employed; look for signs saying Docteur (médecin généraliste means general practitioner). The normal price for a consultation with a general practitioner is €23, though some physicians charge more (this is the full price and not a co-payment). Physicians may also do home calls, but these are more expensive.
Residents of the European Union are covered by the French social security system, which will reimburse or directly pay for 70% of health expenses (30% co-payment) in general, though many physicians and surgeons apply surcharges. Other travellers are not covered and will be billed the full price, even when at a public hospital; non-EU travellers should have travel insurance covering medical costs.
Hospitals will have an emergency room signposted Urgences.
The following numbers are toll-free:
- 15 Medical emergencies
- 17 Law enforcement emergencies (for e.g. reporting a crime)
- 18 Firefighters
- 112 European standard emergency number.
Operators at these numbers can transfer requests to other services if needed (e.g. some medical emergencies may be answered by firefighter groups).
Smoking is prohibited by law in all enclosed spaces accessible to the public (this includes train and metro cars, and station enclosures, workplaces, restaurants and cafés), except in areas specifically designated for smoking, and there are few of these. There is no longer an exception for restaurants and cafés. You may face a fine of €68 if you are found smoking in these places.
As well as police officers, metro and train conductors can and do enforce the anti-smoking law and will fine you for smoking in non-designated places; if you encounter problems with a smoker in train, you may go find the conductor.
As hotels are not considered public places, some offer smoking and non-smoking rooms.
Only people over the age of 18 may purchase tobacco products. Shopkeepers may request a photo ID. A pack of 20 cigarettes costs around €10.20 (Nov 2020).
French people adhere to a strong set of values. They cherish their culture, history, language and cuisine, which is revered by many around the globe.
The French have an undeserved reputation for being "rude" or "arrogant" by many around the globe, and this stereotype has been perpetuated far too often. Chances are, you might be doing something the locals consider rude.
French people rarely hesitate to state what they think directly. Try not to be upset by this as it is unlikely that they intend to insult or cause offence in any way.
People in France are borderline obsessed with debates, friendly arguments and discussions, and at times, you might feel that they are dissatisfied with everything and anything, including yourself. Don't be fazed or surprised by this; this is simply a matter of culture and this is how the French further connect to the people around them. If you get dragged into a discussion by your French colleagues, try to participate.
Matters of etiquette are taken seriously, and it's not uncommon to be dismissed, ignored, or told off for exhibiting behaviour that is seen as impolite. When conversing with locals, always exchange a simple pleasantry (Excusez-moi, Bonjour, or Bonsoir) and wait for them to reply before getting into something. Greet people as soon you enter an establishment, not when you're ready to start talking. In many shops, it's customary to exchange pleasantries with the staff and have them take items for you.
As is the case in most parts of the world, it is customary to use honorifics with people you are not close to or are senior to you. Use Monsieur for men and Madame for women.
On the Métro
The Métro subway system is a great way to get around Paris (or Lyon, Marseille, et al.), a fact which is readily apparent by the throngs of people that use it to get to work, school, and the like. If you do not ride the train at home, or if you come from a place that doesn't have a subway system, there are certain points of etiquette that you may not be aware of:
- When boarding at the station, let those exiting the train step off onto the platform before boarding, and once aboard move to the centre of the car.
- If you have luggage, move it as far out of the path of others as possible.
- Certain stations have moving walkways to cover the distances between platforms - walk on the left and stand on the right!
- Finally, the doors on French subway cars don't generally open automatically once the train has stopped at the station; rather, most cars have a small button or lever on the doors that opens them. If you should happen to be standing near the door in a crowded car you might hear someone behind you say "la porte, s'il vous plait," which means that person would like to get off the train and is asking you to open the door for him/her. Pop the door open and step aside (or down onto the platform) while that person exits the train - the driver will wait for you to get back on.
The French consider it very rude to be loud in a crowded indoor place, such as a museum or restaurant, and you can expect to be told off for doing so.
Dress codes are fast disappearing, but generally speaking, the French are conservative dressers. To avoid being seen in a negative light, you should avoid white trainers, baseball caps, tracksuits, shorts (except in summer) and flip-flops (except at the beach).
At the beach and at hotel swimming pool, it is normal for women to take off their bikini tops while sunbathing. Taking off your bikini bottom is reserved to designated nude beaches. Most resort cities insist on your wearing a shirt when leaving the beach area.
Everyone at public swimming pools is required by law to wear suitable swimming attire. This means swim caps (even if you're bald) and snug-fitting Lycra-based swimsuits. Baggy or "board" swim shorts are banned, as are T-shirts, UV-protective rash guards, and other cover-ups. If you're unlucky in your choice, then most public pools sell pre-approved swimsuits from vending machines on-site, often for rather inflated prices. Watch also for local prohibitions on sunscreen, which can mess with older pools' filtration systems.
Breastfeeding in public is very rare, but nobody will mind if you do.
Addressing people (tu and vous)
The French language has two variants of the word "you". They are tu, which is used for people you're on familiar terms with or with people much younger than you, and vous, which is used for people much older than you, people you're not on familiar terms with, and/or a group of people. As a general rule, the only time you should use tu with an adult is if that person indicates it's alright to do so, usually by saying "On peut se tutoyer." For more information on tu and vous, see the French phrasebook
- Unless you really follow French news closely, you should steer clear of discussing French politics, especially sensitive issues such as immigration. Be aware of the position that being a foreigner puts you in. It is considered rude to ask a person point-blank about which candidate they voted for in an election; instead, talk about the issues and take it from there.
- It is generally considered impolite to have a conversation about religion with someone you do not know well. The French are fiercely protective of their tradition of secularism (laïcité). For instance, the wearing of religious items of clothing, such as hijabs, kippas or crucifixes, is illegal for public servants when they are at work, and for all students and staff at public schools. It is also illegal to cover your face in public, which effectively outlaws the burqa (and masks, balaclavas etc.) This has been interpreted by some as an anti-Muslim law.
- France remains a majority Roman Catholic country, though due to the culture of secularism, religion plays virtually no role in French public life, and church attendance levels are among the lowest in the world. However, many French people are still proud of their historic churches, and you are still expected to behave in a respectful manner when visiting them.
- You should also avoid presenting yourself through your possessions (house, car, etc.). It is considered to be quite crass to discuss your salary, or to ask someone else directly about theirs. Instead express your enthusiasm about how great are the responsibilities, or how lucky you were to get there, etc.
- While roughly one sixth of the country's population lives in the Paris region, don't treat France as Paris or assume that all French people act like Parisians. Life in Paris can be closer to life in London or New York City than in the rest of France, and Parisian customs and opinions differ from those found en province. Brittany, Corsica and the Basque Country in particular have their own national identities.
To call a French number from abroad, dial: international prefix + 33 + local number without the leading 0. For example: +33 2 47 66 41 18
All French numbers have 10 digits. The first two digits are:
- 01 for the Paris region, 02 for the northwest, 03 for the northeast, 04 for southeast, 05 for southwest,
- 06 and 07 for cellphones
- 08 have special prices that can be deduced from the two following figures: from free - 08 00 - to very costly (as far as €20.40 per hour) - 08 99. Skype numbers also start with 08.
- 09 if they are attached to voice-over IP telephones connected to DSL modems from French DSL providers that integrate such functions.
You cannot drop the first two digits even if your call remains within the same area. The initial '0' may be replaced by some other digit or longer code indicating a choice of long-distance operator. Don't use this unless explicitly told to.
When speaking phone numbers, people will usually group the digits by sets of two. For example, 02 47 76 41 94 will be said as "zéro deux, quarante-sept, soixante-seize, quarante-et-un, quatre-vingt-quatorze". The two-digit pair 00 is said as "zéro zéro", not "double zéro". If you find it too hard to follow, you may ask the person to say the number digit-by-digit ("chiffre par chiffre"). It would then be "zéro, deux, quatre, sept, sept, six, quatre, un, neuf, quatre".
There are few companies that provide toll-free numbers (often starting with 08 00) and there are also numbers which start with 081, for which you pay the cost of a local call regardless of where you are in the country. Numbers starting with 089 carry a premium toll.
Emergency numbers are 15 (medical aid), 17 (police station) and 18 (fire/rescue). You can also use the European emergency number 112 (perhaps a better choice if you don't speak French). These calls are free and accessible from virtually any phone, including locked cellphones. In case of a serious emergency, if you find a code-protected cellphone, enter a random code three times: the phone will lock, but you will be able to dial emergency numbers.
Cheap international calls
To enjoy cheap international calls from France travellers can get a local SIM card online before they leave or use low-cost dial-around services. Dial-around services are directly available from any landline in France. No contract or registration is required. Most dial-around services allows you to call the USA, Canada, Western Europe and many other countries at the local rate (tarif local). They also work from payphones, though the first minute is surcharged by France Télécom.
If you need a landline (ligne fixe) in France, use VoIP over DSL, such as the Livebox or Freebox service (free long distance calls within France and to a number of countries).
Phone booths have been largely removed. You may still find one in some rural areas. Most use a card (no coins). They accept CB, Visa or MasterCard cards but almost always only with a microchip.
France uses the GSM standard of cellular phones (900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands) used in most of the world outside of the U.S. Many companies (e.g., Orange, SFR, Free, Bouygues Télécom, Virgin Mobile) offer wireless service. The country is almost totally covered but you may have difficulties using your mobile phone in rural or mountainous areas. However, for emergency numbers, the three companies are required by law to accept your call if they are able to, even if you are not one of their customers.
If you stay for some time, it may be advisable to buy a pre-paid cell phone card that you can use in any phone that supports the GSM standard on the 900/1800 MHz bands. Then incoming calls and SMSes are free. You can get it from most mobile service providers, but they have a very short validity for the card if you don't recharge it. The SIM has to be activated, usually online. Identification may be needed.
An Orange pre-paid SIM card is called a Mobicarte, costs €9.90 and comes with a credit of €5 included. SMSes within Orange France cost €0.12; to international mobile GSM users €0.28. Other operators (SFR, Bouygues) have similar prices. The mobile operator Free offers €2/month subscription without any minimum subscription time including 120 minutes per month, 50 MB internet, and unlimited national SMSes (as of Oct 2020). This is only available through the web and you need a postal address.
Internet cafés: Internet access is available in cyber cafés all over large and medium-sized cities. Service is usually around €4 per hour.
Residential broadband: In all major cities, there are multiple companies offering residential broadband service. Typical prices are €30 a month for unmetered ADSL (with speeds of up to 24 megabits per second), digital HDTV over DSL and free unlimited voice-over-IP phone calls to land lines within France and about twenty other countries (including the EU, and the U.S.) with external SIP access too (the price includes a modem/router/switch with integrated WiFi MiMo access point).
Wi-Fi: You'll also find wi-fi access (in cities and towns) in a lot of cafés usually those that are a bit trendy. There will be a sign on the door or on the wall. Also look for the @ symbol prominently displayed, which indicates internet availability. However, cyber cafés are increasingly hard to find, especially outside the major cities. Also, check out Carrefour, most of them have free Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is prounonced "wee-fee" in France even by English speakers. Asking for "wye-fie" will generally not be understood.
Short-term SIM cards
(for smartphones and tablets)
Orange has nearly-unlimited Internet 1-month package for €9 called InternetMax. The official limit of 500MB is not enforced. Tethering is not allowed, but this is also not enforced. Email (POP3/SMTP/IMAP) is not covered, and sold as a separate package for €9 per month. P2P, VoIP and USENET are specifically banned, and risk getting your plan cancelled as well as the loss of any call credit remaining on your account.
As the plan is not marketed by Orange, staff at outlets and hotline operators are often completely unaware of it, and Orange website tells very little on it even in French. If your French is poor, detailed third-party instructions can be very helpful.
Post offices ("La Poste") are found in all cities and villages but their opening hours vary. In the main cities the central office may be open during lunchtime; typically the day's opening hours are 09:00 to 18:00. Most offices are only open on Saturday morning and there is only one office in Paris which is open 24 hours and 365 days (on the Rue du Louvre).
Letter boxes are coloured in yellow.
There are three levels of service for French domestic mail, as of May 2019 (Andorra and Monaco included):
- Priority Letter (lettre prioritaire), usually arrives next day. Cost (up to 20g): €1.05
- Green Letter (lettre verte), usually arrives in two days. Cost (up to 20g): €0.88
- Economy Letter (écopli), usually arrives in four days. Cost (up to 20g): €0.86
For international mail, there is only one service:
- Priority Letter (lettre prioritaire), cost (up to 20g): €1.30 (to European Union and Switzerland), €1.30 (all other countries)
International delivery services like FedEx and UPS are available in cities, however you generally have to call them for them to come to you as they have very few physical locations. Another option is to simply use La Poste with a wide network around the country and the same services as its competitors.