1 EUR = 1.1257 USD
|Electricity||230 volt / 50 hertz (Europlug, Type E)|
|Emergencies||112, 15 (emergency medical services), 17 (police), 18 (fire department)|
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France, officially the French Republic (French: République française), is a country with which almost every traveller has a relationship. Many dream of its joie de vivre shown by the countless restaurants, picturesque villages and world-famous gastronomy. Some come to follow the trail of France's great philosophers, writers and artists. And others still are drawn to the country's geographical diversity with its long coastlines, massive mountain ranges and beautiful farmland vistas.
France has been the world's most popular tourist destination for over twenty years. It received 83.7 million visitors in 2014, although these figures are highly skewed by the number of people who frequent the country for the weekend, particularly to visit Disneyland Paris, Europe's most popular visitor attraction. 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. 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, long Atlantic beaches, the winter sports resorts of the French Alps, the castles of the Loire Valley, rugged Celtic Brittany and the historian's dream that is Normandy.
France is a country of rich emotions and turbulent politics but also a place of rational thinking and Enlightenment treasures. Above all, it is renowned for its cuisine, culture and history. Whatever you want from a holiday, you're about to find it in France.
"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. For travel purposes, the 12 regions are better understood when grouped into the seven cultural regions below, which are also used by much of the tourist industry. 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 forest.
The region surrounding the French capital, Paris.
|Northern France (Nord-Pas de Calais, Picardy, Normandy)
A region where the world wars have left many scars.
|Northeastern France (Alsace, Lorraine, Champagne-Ardenne, Franche-Comté)
A region where wider European (and especially Germanic) culture has merged with the French, giving rise to interesting results.
|Great West (Brittany, Pays de la Loire)
An agriculture-based oceanic region with a culture greatly influenced by the ancient Celtic peoples.
|Central France (Centre-Val de Loire, Poitou-Charentes, Burgundy, Limousin, Auvergne)
A largely agricultural and viticultural region, featuring river valleys, châteaux and historic towns.
|Southwestern France (Aquitaine, Midi-Pyrenees)
A region of sea and wine, with nice beaches over the Atlantic Ocean and the high Pyrenees mountains close to Spain.
|Southeastern France (Rhône-Alpes, Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Corsica)
The primary tourist region of the country outside of Paris, with a warm climate and azure sea, contrasting with the mountainous French Alps.
Beyond Metropolitan France, also known as l'Hexagone for its shape, there are five overseas départements (départements d'outre-mer - DOMs), each as integral to France as any other department: French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte and Réunion.
In addition to this, 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. Despite being administratively part of France, 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. However, all of Metropolitan France uses Central European Time (UTC+01:00).
France has numerous cities of interest to travellers, below is a list of nine of the most notable:
- Paris — the "City of Light", romance and the Eiffel Tower
- Bordeaux — city of wine, traditional stone mansions and smart terraces
- Nice — the gateway to the French Riviera with a world-famous beach promenade
- Lille — a dynamic northern city known for its handsome centre and active cultural life
- Lyon — France's third city with a history from Roman times to the Resistance
- Marseille — on the Provençale coast sits France's cosmopolitan second city, known for its large harbour, its calanques, and its seafood
- Nantes — the "Greenest City" and according to some the best place to live in Europe
- Strasbourg — famous for its historic centre, and home to many European institutions
- Toulouse — the "Pink City", for its distinctive brick architecture, and for its lively "terroir"
- Camargue — one of Europe's largest river deltas and wetlands, with a strong and well-preserved Provençal culture of bullfighting called course camarguaise.
- Corsica — the birthplace of Napoleon, a unique island with a distinct culture and language (but everybody speaks French too).
- Disneyland Paris — the most visited attraction in Europe. Even has its own TGV stop.
- French Alps — home to the highest mountain in Western Europe, Mont Blanc.
- French Riviera (Côte d'Azur) — Mediterranean coastline of France with plenty of upper class seaside resorts, yachts and golf courses.
- Loire Valley — the world-famous Loire Valley, best known for its wines and châteaux.
- Luberon — the stereotypical Provence of picturesque villages, joie de vivre and wine.
- Mont Saint Michel — the second most-visited site in France, a monastery and town built on a tiny outcrop of rock in the sand, which is cut off from the mainland at high tide.
- Verdon Gorge — a beautiful river canyon of a turquoise-green colour, great for kayaking, hiking, rock-climbing or just driving around the limestone cliffs.
"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
A lot of variety, but temperate winters and mild summers on most of the territory, and especially in Paris and in Normandy. Mild winters and hot summers along the Mediterranean and in the southwest (the latter has lots of rain in winter). Mild winters (with lots of rain) and cool summers in the northwest (Brittany). Cool to cold winters and hot summers along the German border (Alsace). Along the Rhône Valley, occasional strong, cold, dry, north-to-northwesterly wind known as the mistral. Cold winters with lots of the snow in the Mountainous regions: the Alps, Pyrenees and Auvergne. However, sometimes the winters can be mild.
Mostly flat plains or gently rolling hills in the north and west; the remainder is mountainous, especially Pyrenees in the south west, Vosges, Jura and the Alps in the east, and in the Massif Central in the mid south.
French public holidays are influenced by the important Catholic holidays, with the exception of Good Friday which is only observed in the Alsace prefecture. While most of them are movable, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven always falls on August 15, All Saints' Day on November 1, and Christmas on December 25. Other holidays include the New Year (Jan 1), May Day (May 1), Victory Day (May 8), Bastille Day (July 14), and Armistice Day (November 11). It is advisable to plan ahead for your travel arrangements, especially during the French school holidays which typically fall on late October through early November, Christmas, Easter, days in between May Day and Victory Day, and summer. Unlike its big neighbor to the east, France has one date for all the country on which vacations start and end. Naturally on and around this day, streets become crowded and prices for trains and planes skyrocket. If you can avoid travel during these times, do.
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".
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 and 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 and the decumanus of the former Roman camp (especially Paris). The other main legacy is the Catholic Church which can be arguably considered as the only remnants of the civilisation of that time period.
Clovis, who died in 511, is considered to be the first French king, although his Frankish realm did not extent much further than the area of the present Ile de France, around Paris. However, his baptism to (mainline) Christianity 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 and 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 Trouveres, 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 as king of France; he is the root of the royal families who would later govern France. In fact when Louis XVI was forced to take a common name, "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
The making of a modern nation-state
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). 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. France ultimately lost on both fronts (the final defeat coming in the Napoleonic Wars) but French influence is still very visible in Louisiana (where civil law is still based on French, not common law) and parts of Canada.
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 USA. 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 British 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 as 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.
20th and 21st centuries
1905 saw the separation of Church and State, under an initiative known as 'laïcité' ('secularism'). 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. This policy applies to wearing Christian crosses, and has recently 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, laicism and what exactly is meant by it 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. 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), many totalitarian measures were introduced, including the forced deportation of Jews to concentration camps (see Holocaust remembrance). Despite the Vichy regime being officially collaborationist with the Nazis, many ordinary French citizens engaged in both active and passive resistance against the regime. 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 or 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 5-year term. 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 François Hollande. 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 to 230V 50Hz. 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 (Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and most of Europe) outlets.
Plugs Travellers from the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland and other countries using 230V 50Hz which use 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 110V 60Hz may need a voltage converter. However, some laptops, mobile phone chargers and other devices can accept either 110V or 230V so only require a simple plug adaptor. Check the voltage rating plates on your appliances before connecting them.
Minimum validity of travel documents
France is a member of the Schengen Agreement.
There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented the treaty – the European Union (except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. Please see article Travelling around the Schengen Area for more information on how the scheme works and what the requirements are for your nationality.
In autumn 2015 an exceptional number of refugees entering the European Union has prompted some countries to reinstitute border controls within the Schengen area and traffic by some border crossings is much less smooth than normally. Delays may occur in particular in the south-east of the European Union.
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, Macedonia, Mauritius, Monaco, Montenegro, New Zealand, Nicaragua, 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 (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.
Note that French overseas departments and territories are not part of the Schengen Area and operate a separate immigration regime to metropolitan France.
Flights to/from Paris
The main international airport, Roissy - Charles de Gaulle (IATA: CDG), is likely to be your port of entry if you fly into France from outside Europe. CDG is the home of Air France (AF), the national company, for most intercontinental flights. AF and the companies forming the SkyTeam Alliance (KLM, Aeroméxico, Alitalia, Delta Air Lines, Korean Air) 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 (IATA: ORY), 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 (see below) out of CDG airports (some trains 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 northwest of Paris. Buses to Paris are provided by the airlines. Check schedules and fares on their websites.
Flights to/from 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 are also served long-haul from these cities:
- Antananarivo (Madagascar) : Marseille (XL Airways France)
- Dubai (UAE) : Lyon (Emirates), Nice (Emirates)
- Montréal (Canada) : Bordeaux (Air Transat), Marseille (Air Transat), Lyon (Air Canada, Air Transat) Nantes (Air Transat), Nice (Air Canada Rouge, Air Transat), Toulouse (Air Transat)
- New York City (USA) : Nice (Delta Air Lines)
- Punta Cana (Dominican Republic) : Bordeaux (XL Airways France), Lyon (XL Airways France), Marseille (XL Airways France), Nantes (XL Airways France), Toulouse (XL Airways France)
- Toronto (Canada) : Marseille (Air Transat)
France is served by numerous services from England to France:
- 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:
Numerous companies now act as agents for the various ferry companies much like Expedia and Travelocity act as agents for airlines allowing the comparison of various companies and routes. Two well known brands are Ferryonline and AFerry.co.uk.
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 northwest 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, with either a SNCF TGV or a RENFE AVE, and bilingual crew.
- Night trains between Paris, Dijon and Italy are operated by Thello
- Day trains between Marseille and Milan (via Nice) are operated by Thello as well
- Night trains between Moscow and Paris operated by the russian RZD run up to twice weekly, they stop en-route in Belarus (Minsk), Poland (Warsaw, Poznan) and Germany (Berlin, Erfurt) 
- Night trains between Moscow and Nice operated by the russian RZD run weekly, they stop en-route in Belarus (Minsk), Poland (Warsaw, Katowice), Austria (Vienna, Linz, Innsbruck) and Italy 
- Upon reservation, you can take your bike with you in night trains and single-deck TGV's.
Several companies operate between France and the rest of Europe:
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.
- As according to an agreement with the CFL, the Belgian railways are directing all passenger trains to France through Luxembourg (thus causing an extra unnecessary border crossing), it may be useful to cross the border directly, on foot. The terminus of the French railways in Longwy can be reached from the Belgian train station of Halanzy (the line operates only on work days, however), or from the bigger Belgian stations of Arlon or Virton. Between these two stations there's a bus operated by the TEC company which stops at Aubange Place, a good point of departure/arrival for the walking tour. The path leads almost exclusively through inhabited areas in the community of Mont-Saint-Martin (yet partially in a forest if you go to/from Halanzy) and takes some 7 km. The city of Longwy itself is quite steep in some of its parts, so pay attention to this when planning your route.
- There are domestic Belgian trains that terminate in Lille (station Lille-Flanders).
- Between the De Panne terminus of the Belgian railways (and the Coast tram – Kusttram) and the French coastal city of Dunkerque, there is a bus line run by DK'BUS Marine. It may, however, be operating only in certain time of the year. It is also possible to take a DK'BUS bus which goes to the closest possible distance of the border and then cross it on foot by walking on the beach and arriving at a convenient station of the Coast tram, such as Esplanade.
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 aircrafts than Air France
- easyJet, a low-cost airline, has the second biggest domestic network in France
- Ryanair, another low-cost airlines, 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
- Hex'Air operates flights between Paris-Orly and Lourdes, using 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))
- Nice Helicopteres [dead link] (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 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, a fact that derives equally from the preferences of the driving public and the peculiarities of French licensing laws (automatic transmissions are generally only used by the elderly or those with physical disabilities). This extends to vehicle categories that in other countries (read: the US) 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. Note with caution, however, that hitching from a péage, while a common practice, is illegal and 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".
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.
The French national railway network is managed by SNCF Réseaux, a branch of the nationalised company SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français).
Passenger trains are operated by different companies:
- Most of the trains are operated by SNCF
- Some low-cost TGVs between Marne-la-Vallée(Disneyland), Lyon, and Marseille or Montpellier, are operated by Ouigo. This service is modeled after low-cost airlines so watch out for hidden fees. Furthermore, ouigo tends to serve more out if the way stations to lower track and station access charges, which can make the way to your ultimate destination expensive and time-consuming.
- Some other TGVs to and from Paris are operated by iDTGV
- Some trains between Italy and Marseille or Paris are operated by Thello
- International high-speed services connecting to the rest of Europe are operated by several companies, including Eurostar (London), Thalys (Brussels, Amsterdam), Lyria (Switzerland), DB (Germany) and RENFE (Barcelona).
Each company has its own conditions of carriage, and most of them do not accept SNCF reduction cards for international journeys (Ouigo and iDTGV are also distinct from SNCF within France despite being owned by SNCF).
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 and the backbone of the SNCF system. TER are sometimes slower but do serve most stations. Available on Eurail and InterRail passes. As they are owned by each region, SNCF conditions of carriage do not apply and you are not entitled for a refund in case of a delayed train.
- Intercités: As of 2012, the bundling of the former Corail services. Includes trains with compulsory reservation (former Téoz and the Lunéa night trains) and those for which reservations are optional (former Intercités). The reservation-optional trains are what one will often use on passes. Some trains go to regions that the TGV services don't, for example the Auvergne.
- 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) also exist. These include couchettes second class (6 bunk beds in a compartment), first class (4 bunks) and Reclining seats. Wagon-lits (a compartment with 2 real beds) were totally withdrawn from French overnight trains. However, you can ask for a "private room" (in first class). Night trains have been gradually phased out in recent years and only a handful of them still remain in service in 2015.
The SNCF fare system is a bit complex but still easy to understand.
There are many kinds of fares but the two most important are:
- Prem's, early bird fares, non-exchangeable and non-refundable
- Loisir, as well as tickets with a reduction card, are exchangeable and refundable tickets (minus a fee) before the train departs. Tickets are generally cheaper the further in advance they are purchased.
There are three kinds of tickets:
- Billet, classic paper ticket, bought at a ticket office. If you lose it you have to buy another one.
- Billet électronique, which... is not an "electronic ticket" at all. It's also a normal paper ticket, but purchased online. Again, if you lose it you have to buy another one.
- e-Billet, which is an "electronic ticket". Only available on some TGV services, you only need to have a printed e-ticket with you (from your own printer or from a ticket machine). Tickets can be reissued as many times as needed, but are nominative: your name has to match the name on the ticket.
For regional trains (TER) and Intercités without a reservation, tickets purchased at a ticket office are valid for any train within two months... except there are two travel "periods" depending on the departure time of your train:
- Période bleue, the cheapest
- Période blanche, the more expensive
A calendar describes the time and days for each period. You can travel during "période bleue" with a "période blanche" ticket (as it's more expensive), but you cannot do the opposite.
Youths (12-28) and seniors 60+ are eligible for a 25% discount on tickets for TER and Intercités trains if traveling in the Période bleue. There is also a Senior+ Railcard that you can purchase for 60 €/year that gives the holder extra privileges.
If you are younger than 28 and will be doing more than about 2 return journeys in France, getting a "Carte Jeune" will save you money. They cost €50, last a year, and give anywhere from a 25% to 60% discount depending on when you book the ticket and when you travel.
Ouigo only sells tickets online and you have to present the QR-code in a scannable form (printed out or on a screen).
Booking tickets online can be quite a confusing process: the SNCF does not sell tickets online by itself, and it is possible to book the same journey through a number of different travel agencies websites (in different languages and currencies). The fares for journeys inside France are the same with every travel agency.
- Voyages-sncf.com French language booking website by Expedia and 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.
- Captain Train French, English, German 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. This website sells tickets for 19 European countries, including Deutsche Bahn (DB, german rails) tickets for trips in France and Germany, Lyria tickets for trips to Switzerland, Eurostar for trips to the UK, Thalys for trips to Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, and Thello tickets for trips to Italy. For Alleo (SNCF-DB joined operation) journeys between France and Germany, Captain Train automatically compares SNCF and DB fares, and shows you the cheapest of both (although it's for the same train, SNCF and DB have their own fares).
- 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.
To find your train, locate your train number and the departure time on the departures board. There will be a track ("Voie") number next to the train and departure time. Follow signs to that track to board the train. You will have a reserved seat on TGV trains. On other long-distance trains, you can optionally make reservations (at least one day in advance); if you do not have one you may use any unused seat not marked as reserved. To find your reserved seat, first look for the train coach number ("Voit. No"). Pay attention to the possible confusion between track number (Voie) and coach (voiture) number (abbreviated Voit) As you go down the track, the coach number will be displayed on an LCD screen on the car, or maybe just written in the window or right next to the doors.
The reserved seat rules are lax; you are allowed if you switch seats or use another seat (of the same class of course) if it is empty because the TGV is not fully booked or the other person agrees to switch with you. The only requirement is not to continue using a reserved seat if the person holding the reservation claims it.
On the main lines, TGVs often run in twos. There are two possibilities: either the two TGVs are considered as one train with one train number (in this case each coach has a different number); or the two TGVs are considered as separate trains which run together during a part of their journey, with two different train numbers (in this case, the two trains may have two close numbers such as 1527 and 1537), and each train will have its own coach numbering. So be sure you are in the right train (the train number is shown on the LCD screen, with the coach number).
If you are early, there is often a map somewhere on the track that will show how the train and car numbers will line up on the track according to letters that appear either on the ground or on signs above. That way, you can stand by the letter corresponding with your coach number and wait to board the train closest to your coach. You can easily go from one coach to another, so if you are very late, jump in any coach of the same class before the train starts, wait until most people are seated, then walk to your coach and seat number.
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. Older machines are bright orange, newer machines are yellow and gray. The machines are situated at the entrance of all platforms. Failure to punch the ticket may entitle you to a fine even if you are a foreigner with a limited French vocabulary, depending on how the conductor feels, unless you approach the conductor as quickly as possible and request that your ticket be validated. Likewise if you step aboard a train without a ticket, you must find the conductor ("contrôleur") and tell him about your situation before he finds you. However, e-Billet electronic tickets do not have to be punched: in doubt, punch it anyway, you won't be fined for punching an e-Billet.
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.
Troc des trains
As it is cheaper to book and purchase train tickets, especially those with reservations, in advance, there is a relatively lively trading of non-exchangeable and non-reimburseable train tickets on the Internet. See these sites.
Be extremely careful not to buy an "e-billet" or a printed ticket: the seller could cancel the ticket after the transaction, and you would be considered in fraud on board of the train.
- See also: Intercity buses in France
There is no single national bus service. Until recently , buses were limited to local mass transit or departmental/regional service. Following a similar liberalization of the market in Germany, long distance buses are now allowed to run everywhere in France and prices can be quite low, especially when booked in advance. However, journey time and comfort tend to be worse than on the train.
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.
- See also: French phrasebook
French (français) is the official language of France, as well as a number of its neighbours, is a working language of the UN and is the official language of around 270 million people in the world. Any tourist who doesn't put a bit of effort in to speak French 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!
There are slight regional variations in pronunciation and local words. For example, throughout France the word for yes, oui, said "we", but you will often hear the slang form "ouais", said "waay." It's similar to the English language usage of "Yeah" instead of "Yes". The Loire Valley has the reputation of being the region where the best French is spoken, with no regional accent.
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 south, some still speak dialects of the Langue d'Oc (because the word for "yes" is oc): Languedocian, Limousin, Auvergnat, or Provençal. The Langue d'Oc is a Romance language, a very close relative of Italian, Spanish, or Catalan. In the west part of Brittany, a few people, mainly the elderly or scholars, speak Breton; this Celtic language is closer to Welsh than to French. In parts of Aquitaine, 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. In the Provence, Provençal is most likely to be spoken, especially along the Riviera. However, almost everyone speaks French and tourists are unlikely to ever need to speak the regional languages, except to give a "folkloric" flair to things.
Hardly anybody understands imperial units such as gallons or Fahrenheit. Stick to metric units (after all, the French invented this system!).
The French are generally attached to politeness (some might say excessively) and will react coolly to strangers who forget it. You might be surprised to see that you are greeted by other customers when you walk into a restaurant or shop. Return the courtesy and address your hellos/goodbyes to everyone when you enter or leave small shops and cafes. It is, for the French, very impolite to start a conversation with a stranger (even a shopkeeper or client) without at least a polite word like "bonjour". For this reason, starting the conversation with at least a few basic French phrases goes a long way to convince them to try to help you.
- "Excusez-moi Monsieur/Madame": Excuse me (ex-COO-zay-mwah mih-SYOOR/muh-DAM)
- "S'il vous plaît Monsieur/Madame" : Please (SEEL-voo-PLAY)
- "Merci Monsieur/Madame" : Thank you (mare-SEE)
- "Au revoir Monsieur/Madame" : Good Bye (Ore-vwar)
Avoid "Salut" (Hi); it is reserved for friends and relatives, and to use it with people you are not acquainted with is considered a bit impolite.
Note that French spoken with a hard English accent or an American accent can be very difficult for the average French person to understand. In such circumstances, it may be best to write down what you are trying to say. But tales of waiters refusing to serve tourists because their pronunciation doesn't meet French standards are highly exaggerated. A good-faith effort will usually be appreciated, but don't be offended if a waiter responds to your fractured French, or even fluent but accented, in English (If you are a fluent French speaker and the waiter speaks to you in English when you'd prefer to speak French, continue to respond in French and the waiter will usually switch back - this is a common occurrence in the more tourist-oriented areas, especially in Paris).
Please note that some parts of France (such as Paris) are at times overrun by tourists. The locals there may have some blasé feelings about helping foreign tourists who speak in an unintelligible language and ask for directions to the other side of the city for the umpteenth time. Be courteous and understanding.
As France is a very multicultural society with immigrants from all over the world, many African languages, Arabic, Chinese dialects (such as Teochew), Vietnamese or Khmer could be spoken. Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and even Romanian belong to the same language family as French, and therefore it may be possible to communicate basic information through some common vocabulary, particularly when written down.
Although most French people have studied English in school, proficiency is generally poor, with only a very small minority being conversant in it. That being said, major hotels and tourist attractions will often have staff who speak English and other foreign languages. When approaching French people, 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 standard sign language is French Sign Language, locally known by its native initialism LSF. Whenever an interpreter is present for a public event, he or she will use LSF. Users of American Sign Language (also used in Anglophone Canada), Quebec Sign Language, and Irish Sign Language may be able to understand LSF. As those languages were derived from LSF, they share a good deal of vocabulary and syntax with LSF, and also use a one-handed manual alphabet very similar to that of LSF. Users of British Sign Language, Auslan, or New Zealand Sign Language, however, will have great difficulty. Those languages differ markedly in vocabulary and syntax from LSF, and also use a two-handed manual alphabet.
Thinking of France, you might imagine the iconic Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe or the famous smile of Mona Lisa. You might think of drinking coffee in the lively Paris cafés where great intellectuals lingered in past times, or of eating croissants in a local bistro of a sleepy but gorgeous village in the countryside. Probably, images of splendid châteaux will spring to your mind, of lavender fields or perhaps of vineyards as far as the eye can see. Or perhaps, you'd envisage the chic resorts of the Cote d'Azur. And you wouldn't be wrong. However, they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to France's many sights and attractions.
Paris. the "City of Light" and the capital of romance has been a travellers' magnet for centuries and a real must-see. Of course, no visit would be complete without a glance at its world famous landmarks. The Eiffel Tower is hard to miss, especially when it is lit beautifully at night, but the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and Sacré Coeur are all famous and stunning sights too. With no less than 3,800 national monuments in and around Paris, history is literally around every corner. Stroll through the city's spacious green parks, with the Luxembourg Gardens as one of the favourites, and make sure to spend some time on the famous banks of the River Seine. Also, don't miss the magnificent Palace of Versailles, the grandest reminder of the Ancien Régime located just 20 km away from the capital.
Bordeaux is famous for its wine but is also a bustling city with lots of historic sights to discover. It is listed as a World Heritage Site for being "an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble". Lyon, the country's second largest city, is listed too, and boasts a beautiful old centre as well as a number of Roman ruins. Strasbourg, one of the EU headquarters, has a character of its own, with clear German influences. Montpellier is one of the best places in the south, with lots of monumental buildings and nice cafés. In the west there's the beautiful historic city of Nantes, home to the Château des ducs de Bretagne and many other monuments. The Capitole de Toulouse is situated right at the heart that famous university city's street plan. Last but not least, don't overlook Arles, with its World Heritage Listed Roman and Romanesque Monuments.
Provence and French Riviera
There are the magnificent cities of the Côte d'Azur, once the place to be for the rich and famous but now equally popular with a mixed crowd. Its sandy beaches, beautiful bays, rocky cliffs and lovely towns has made it one of the world's premier yachting and cruising areas as well as popular destination for land-bound travellers. There's bustling Nice, where some 4 million tourists a year enjoy the stony beaches and stroll down the Promenade des Anglais. Although Saint-Tropez gets overcrowded in summer, it's a delightful place in any other season. The same goes for Cannes, where the jet-set of the film industry gathers each year for the famous Cannes Film Festival. From there, you can hop on a boat to the much more peaceful Îles de Lérins. Much smaller in size but just as gorgeous (and popular) are the perched villages of Gourdon and Èze, which is located on a 427 meter high cliff, much like an “eagle's nest”. Both offer some stunning panoramic views. From Èze, its a very short trip to the glitter and glamour of Monaco. For the world's millionaires and aristocracy, the green peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is an old time favourite with the impressive Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild full of impressionist art as its main sight. A bit more inland but well-worth a visit are the towns of Grasse, famous for its perfumeries, and Biot, known for its glass blowers.
The Provence, backing a good part of the Côte d'Azur, is one of the most beloved regions. It has a typical Mediterranean atmosphere and is famous for its lavender fields and rosé wines. It's also home to the stunning Verdon Gorge, one of the most beautiful gorges in Europe. The huge city and arts-hub Marseille has plenty of historic sights and nearby are the stunning Calanques, a series of miniature fjords it shares with Cassis. Provence also has famous Gorges du Verdon, reknowned cities like Aix-en-Provence, Arles and Nîmes have strong ancient heritage, andAvignon, with its splendid ramparts and the Palais-des-Papes, was once the seat of popes, and hosts every july the largest theatre festival in the world.
Countryside & villages
You haven't seen the best of France if you haven't had at least a taste of its amazing countryside, dotted with wonderful medieval villages and castles. There are great examples in any part of the country, but some 156 villages have been identified as the most beautiful in France, or "Les Plus Beaux Villages de France". The country's landscapes vary from the snow-covered peaks of the Alps and the Pyrenees with their many winter sports resorts to lush river valleys, dense forests and huge stretches of farmland and vineyards. The rolling riverine landscape of the Loire Valley is home to many great castles, of which Châteaux Amboise, Château de Villandry, Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord and Châteaux du Pin are some of the finest examples. The western region of Brittany reaches far into the Atlantic and boasts many megalithic monuments such as those near Carnac. The beaches of Normandy, also on the Atlantic coast, are famed for the D-Day Allied invasion on June 6, 1944. Although the humbling Normandy American Cemetery and countless museums, memorials and war time 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 form another region famous for its castles, with over 1500 of them on its 9000 km2 area.
As the French have a real taste for art, the country has numerous art galleries and museums. Several of them are widely considered to be among the finest museums in the world of art, art-history, and culture. 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. At just a 15 minute walk from there is the Musée d'Orsay, another world class museum that picks up roughly where the Louvre's collections ends. It's located in an old railway station and houses the national collection of art works from the 1848 to 1914 period. 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 its 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 & natural attractions
Disneyland Resort Paris is by far France's most popular park, visited by families from all over Europe. The country's national parks have quite some visitors too though, due to their splendid scenery and great opportunities for outdoor sports. 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 Parc national des Pyrénées are right on the southern border of France and extend well into Spain, where they are part of the Parc National Ordesa y Monte Perdido 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 of the Languedoc-Roussillon (including the popular Ardèche), Midi-Pyrénées and the 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.
- 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.
- 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
Like neighbouring Germany and Italy, France is also known for having a very strong classical music tradition. French composers who are well-known among classical music circles, and even to many members of the general public, include the likes of Lully, Rameau, Berlioz, Fauré, Gounod, Debussy, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, Massenet, Delibes and Messiaen. Even if you have never heard of these composers, chances are that you are already familiar with their compositions to a certain extent, as some of these pieces have found their way into popular culture, and are commonly heard in advertising and film scores.
France is famous for its ballets, and most of the modern-day terms used by ballerinas originate from French. French composers have, unsurprisingly, contributed many famous ballet scores. To this day, the Paris Opera Ballet remains one of the most famous ballet companies in the world.
Similarly, French opera is also regarded as one of the greatest operatic traditions in Europe. During the Baroque period, while Italian opera which was taking much of Europe by storm, it never gained a strong foothold in France, where the French developed their own unique operatic tradition, partly thanks to the Italian Jean-Baptiste Lully (né Giovanni Battista Lulli), who was hired by Louis XIV for that purpose. The 19th century gave rise to some new French operatic styles such as the grand opera, which combined opera and ballet into a single performance. In fact, even foreign composers such as Rossini, Verdi and Meyerbeer are famous for their contributions to the French operatic stage. Another genre of opera that developed in 19th century France was the operetta, essentially a comedic opera with light-hearted music and subject matter, which was created by the German-born composer Jacques Offenbach. For those who are interested in watching French opera, the Paris Opera remains one of the premier opera companies in the world, though there are also good opera houses in some of the smaller cities.
Without a doubt the most popular spectator team sports in France (though not necessarily in that order) are Rugby Union, Soccer 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.
Many of the French take their vacations in August. As a result, 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. Obviously, 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.
France uses the euro. It is one of several European countries that uses this common currency. All euro banknotes and coins are legal tender within all the countries.
Countries that have the euro as their official currency:
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.
- Banknotes: Euro banknotes have the same design in all the countries.
- Normal coins: All eurozone countries have coins issued with a distinctive national design on one side, and a standard common design on the other side. Coins can be used in any eurozone country, regardless of the design used (e.g. a one-euro coin from Finland can be used in Portugal).
- Commemorative two euro coins: These differ from normal two euro coins only in their "national" side and circulate freely as legal tender. Each country may produce a certain amount of them as part of their normal coin production and sometimes "Europe-wide" two euro coins are produced to commemorate special events (e.g. the anniversary of important treaties).
- Other commemorative coins: Commemorative coins of other amounts (e.g. ten euros or more) are much rarer, and have entirely special designs and often contain non-negligible amounts of gold, silver or platinum. While they are technically legal tender at face value, their material or collector value is usually much higher and, as such, you will most likely not find them in actual circulation.
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 (note, however, that many hotels propose 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, 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. 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.
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.
Note that 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 € 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 located 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.
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. Unfortunately, it can also be quite disappointing; many restaurants serve very ordinary fare, and some in touristy areas are rip-offs. Finding the right restaurant is therefore very important - try asking locals, hotel staff or even browsing restaurant guides for recommendations as simply walking in off the street can be a hit and miss affair.
There are many places to try French food in France, from three-star Michelin restaurants to French "brasseries" or "bistros" that you can find at almost every corner, especially in big cities. These usually offer a relatively consistent and virtually standardised menu of relatively inexpensive cuisine. To obtain a greater variety of dishes, a larger outlay of money is often necessary. 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 located in rural villages rather than in the big cities, and French people often drive to those villages to dine during special occasions. There are also specific local restaurants, like "bouchons lyonnais" in Lyons, "crêperies" in Brittany (or in the Montparnasse area of Paris), etc.
Chinese, Vietnamese, 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 parlors. You will also find North African (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian) as well as Greek and Lebanese food. The ubiquitous hamburger eateries (US original or their French copies) are also available; note that McDonalds is more upmarket in France than in the US.
In France, taxes (7 per cent of the total in restaurants) and service (usually 15 per cent) are always included in the bill, so anything patrons add to the bill amount is an "extra-tip". French people usually leave one or two coins if they were happy with the service.
Fixed price menus seldom include beverages. If you want water, waiters will often try to sell you mineral water (Évian, Thonon) or fizzy water (Badoit, Perrier), 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
- 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 or dinner for two on the "menu" including wine and coffee will cost you (as of 2004) €70 to €100 in a listed restaurant in Paris. The same with beer in a local "bistro" or a "crêperie" around €50. A lunch or dinner for one person in a decent Chinese restaurant in Paris can cost as little as €8 if one looks carefully.
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.
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 resources (game, fish, agriculture, etc.) of the region, the vegetables (cabbage, turnip, endives, etc.) which they grow there. 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 (Rhone-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 (Brittany) : Mussels steamed in cider or wine with cream normally served with crusty bread.
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.
- Frogs' legs 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 appetizer.
- 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, 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?".
Here is a far from exhaustive list of what one can find:
|Bleu des Causses||Livarot||Roquefort||Bleu du Vercors||Morbier||Saint Nectaire||Boulette d'Avesnes||Maroilles||Salers||Brie de Meaux||Munster||Sainte Maure de Touraine|
|Brie de Melun||Murol||Selles-sur-Cher||Broccio||Neufchâtel||Saint Marcellin||Camembert||Ossau-Iraty||Sainte Maure de Touraine||Cantal||Pelardon||Tomme de chèvre|
|Chaource||Pérail||Tomme des Cévennes||Comté||Picodon||Valençay|
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 is still very uncommon and it may be difficult to find vegan eateries.
Breakfast in France isn't the most important meal of the day and is usually very light. The most typical breakfast consists of a coffee and a croissant or some other "viennoiserie", but since it implies going to the boulangerie early in the morning to buy fresh croissants, it's typically reserved for somewhat special occasions. On normal days most people have a beverage (coffee, tea, hot chocolate, orange juice) and either toast ("tartines" made of baguette or toast bread with butter and jam/honey/Nutella) that can be dipped in the hot beverage, or cereals with milk. People who eat healthy may go for fruit and yoghurt. As a general rule, 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. It can be found cheaply just about anywhere. Beer (lager) is also extremely popular, in particular in northern France, where "Bière de Garde" can be found. The alcohol purchase age was recently raised to 18 for all drinks, but this is not always strictly enforced; however, laws against drunk driving are strictly enforced, with stiff penalties.
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 peche (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 5 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 (area of the reception hall, percentage of rooms with en suite bathroom...).
Rates vary according to accommodation, location and sometimes high or low season or special events.
As of 2004, the rate for a *** hotel listed in a reliable guidebook falls between €70 (cheap) and €110 (expensive) for a double room without breakfast.
All hotels, by law, must have their rates posted outside (or visible from outside). Note that these are maximal rates: a hotel can always propose a lower rate in order to fill up its rooms. Bargaining is not the norm but you can always ask for a discount.
Hotels located 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 standardized service but they retain their own atmosphere.
When visiting Paris, it is greatly advised to stay in the city proper; there are cheaper tourism hotels in the suburbs, but these cater to groups in motor coaches; they will be hard to reach by public transportation.
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.
B&Bs and Gîtes
Throughout France, mainly in rural areas but also in towns and cities, you can find B&Bs and gîtes.
B&B's 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. More recently the term has been extended, and can now 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.
Another great resource for booking gîtes and villas in France is Holiday France Direct[www.holidayfrancedirect.co.uk], It enables you to deal directly with the property owners and offers customers discounted ferry travel with Brittany Ferries.
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 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 place 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.
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. Larger more popular campsites can be booked through websites such as Eurocamp, Canvas Holidays and Go Camp France.
France, of course, is the best place to acquire, maintain and develop your French. A number of institutions offer a variety of courses for travellers.
Having been a major world power for much of its history, France is home to many well-regarded universities. The downside for English-only speakers is that degree programmes are generally conducted in French, though some universities may offer the option for postgraduate research students to complete their thesis in English. English is considered to be the international language in academic fields, so many French researchers publish their findings in English. The most prestigious university in France is arguably the École normale supérieure de Paris, which counts many high profile French public figures among its graduates.
The grading system in France is idiosyncratic. In secondary schools and above, points are awarded out of 20, except that a score of 20/20 is not the maximum. As the saying goes, "20 is for God, 19 is for the king, 18 is for the Président de la République" (or variations thereof). To French natives, a "perfect score" would be a 19/20, but grading is competitive and harsh, so 10-15 is passing, and earning a 16 or above is exceptional (A+ level).
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, Croatians, 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. Do note, however, that 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; unemployment has increased in recent years due to the worldwide financial crisis and 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).
France generally has low crime rates and is one of the safest countries in the world, but large cities are plagued with the usual woes. Violent crime against visitors is very rare, but there is pickpocketing and purse-snatching in tourist hot-spots. If the usual precautions against this are taken, your valuables and you will be safe.
The inner city areas and a few select suburbs are usually safe at all hours. In large cities, especially Paris, there are a few areas which are better to avoid. 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 the poorer suburbs is very touchy as it may easily have racist overtones, since many people associate it with working-class youth of North African origin. You should probably not express any opinion on the issue, unless you feel comfortable with the person with whom you're talking.
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" but perhaps equivalent to the American "driving while black.")
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).
Health care in France is of a very high standard.
Pharmacies are denoted by a green cross, usually in flashing neon. 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 is able to help you about various medicines and propose you 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) unless in areas specifically designated for smoking, and there are few of these. There was an exception for restaurants and cafés, but since the 1st January 2008, the smoking ban is also enforced in those locations. 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 €6.
At the restaurant
At French restaurants, as in other parts of Europe, it is considered impolite to have one's elbows on the table, but it is also considered impolite to leave food on your plate or lay one's hand in the lap while eating. When consuming beverages such as Coca-Cola, it is seen as almost outlandish to drink directly from the bottle. In fact, even some of the museum cafeterias provide a plastic cup for you to drink from. If you are given a glass or a cup with your beverage, use it.
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, do note that 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.
It is considered very rude to be loud in a crowded place, such as in a metro car or at a restaurant. Keep in mind that, though you may be enjoying your holiday, most people around you on the métro or in other places are probably going about their daily lives and may be tired and thus will react very coldly to tourists babbling at the top of their lungs.
In many shops in France, you must ask the shopkeeper to take items from the shelf, as opposed to picking them for yourself. This applies in liquor or wine stores, some clothing stores, etc. Failure to respect this policy might result in confused and/or angered reactions from the shopkeeper.
Dress codes are fast disappearing, but if you want to avoid looking like a tourist, then avoid white trainers, baseball caps, tracksuit pants, shorts and flip-flops (except at the beach). Generally speaking, business casual dress code is sufficient in cities and in all but the most formal occasions.
The usual courtesy applies when entering churches, and although you may not be asked to leave, it is better to avoid short pants and halter tops. Men should remove any headgear when inside a church, contrary to when visiting a synagogue or mosque when you may be given a hat or headscarf to wear.
Some restaurants will frown if you come in dressed for trekking but very few will insist upon a jacket and tie. You may be surprised by the number of French twenty-somethings who show up at a grungy bar in jacket and tie, even if obviously from a thrift-shop.
Beaches and swimming pools (in hotels) are used for getting a tan. Taking off your bra will not usually create a stir if you don't mind a bevy of oglers. Taking off the bottom part is reserved to designated nude beaches. People on beaches are usually not offended by a young boy or girl undressed. Most resort cities insist on your wearing a shirt when leaving the beach area. Many pools will not allow baggy or "board" swim trunks, insisting on snug fitting speedo type trunks.
Breastfeeding in public is very rare but nobody will mind if you do.
How to address people ("Tu and vous")
L'anglais et les Français
While most people in France have studied English, they are often unable or unwilling to use it. This is not necessarily linguistic snobbery and politeness is much appreciated from visitors, and you will find the liberal use of Excusez-moi ("Excuse me"), S'il vous plaît ("please") and Merci ("thank you") will go a long way. You should always politely ask the person if they speak English — "Parlez-vous anglais?"'
The French language has two different forms of the pronoun "you" that are used when addressing someone in the second person. "Tu" is the second-person singular and "vous" is nominally the second-person plural. However, in many situations, French speakers will use "vous" for the second-person singular. While one will use "vous" to address a group of people no matter what the circumstances, non-native speakers will invariably have some difficulty when trying to determine whether to address a person with the informal and friendly "tu" or the formal and respectful "vous." The language even has two special verbs reflecting this difference: "tutoyer" (to address a person using "tu"), and "vouvoyer" (to address a person using "vous"), each of them carrying their own connotations and implications. Unfortunately, the rules as to when to use which form can sometimes seem maddeningly opaque to the non-native French speaker.
Generally speaking, one will only use the "tu" form to address someone in an informal situation where there is familiarity or intimacy between the two parties. For example, "tu" is used when addressing a close friend or spouse, or when an adult child is addressing a parent. "Tu" is also used in situations where the other party is very young, such as a parent speaking to a child or a schoolteacher to a student.
In contrast, "vous" is used in situations where the parties are not familiar, or where it is appropriate to convey respect and/or deference. For example, an office worker might use "tu" to address co-workers that he works closely with, but he would probably use "vous" when speaking to the receptionist whom he rarely talks to. He certainly wouldn't use "tu" when speaking with his boss. In that same vein, police officers and other authorities should always be addressed with "vous."
If that's confusing the key thing to remember is that it's all about distance. For example, a bartender is vous up until the moment that he or she gives you a complementary drink, at which point tu becomes more appropriate, and the use of vous would be a bit ungrateful and off-putting.
For foreigners, the best way to deal with the "tu" / "vous" problem is to address people using "vous" until invited to say "tu", or until addressed by your first name. Doing so will look perhaps a shade old fashioned, but always respectful. In most cases, if French is not your native language most French people will overlook any such overly formal and polite language without thinking much about it anyway. Doing the opposite can be pretty rude and embarrassing in some situations, so it's probably best to err on the side of caution.
Simplified: Use vous unless:
- the person is genuinely your friend;
- the person is under 16; or
- you've been explicitly told to use "tu"
If talking to someone you don't know well enough to use tu with, you should always address them initially as Monsieur (for a man) or Madame / Mademoiselle (for a woman) - the issue doesn't arise with children, who are always tu. Bonjour Monsieur (for instance, on entering a shop with a male shopkeeper) is much more polite than just bonjour. But this creates further complications when addressing women. Traditionally, Madame is used to address married women, and Mademoiselle for younger and/or unmarried women. However, many find the practice to be sexist, and unless you know someone prefers to be addressed as Mademoiselle it's better to use Madame. Addressing a waiter as garçon (boy) is very rude (despite what you may have seen in films).
As a general rule, debates, discussions, and friendly arguments are something that the French enjoy, but there are certain topics that should be treated more delicately or indirectly than others:
Politics: French people have a wide variety of opinions about many subjects. Unless you really follow French news closely, you should probably steer clear of discussing internal French politics, especially sensitive issues such as immigration - you may come across as judgmental and uninformed. Reading French newspapers to get a feel for the wide spectrum of political opinions in France – from the revolutionary left to the nationalistic right – may help. That said, don't be discouraged from engaging in political discussions with French people, just be aware of the position that being a foreigner puts you in. Also, it is considered to be quite rude to ask a person point-blank about which candidate he/she voted for in the last election (or will vote for in the next); instead, talk about the issues and take it from there.
Religion: The French seldom advertise their religious feelings and expect you to avoid doing so as well. Doing so might make people feel uneasy. It is also generally considered impolite to inquire about religious or other personal issues.
Money: 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.
City / Rural Differences: While it is true that roughly 1/6th of the country's population lives in the Paris region, don't make the mistake of reducing France to Paris or assuming 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; just as New Yorkers or Londoners might act and feel differently than people from, say, people from Oklahoma or Herefordshire, so might Parisian customs and opinions differ from those found "en province."
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 north west
- 03 for the north east
- 04 for south east
- 05 for south west
- 06 for cellphones
- 07 also for cellphones since 2010.
- 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 66 41 18 will be said as "zéro deux, quarante-sept, soixante-six, quarante et un, dix-huit". 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, six, six, quatre, un, un, huit".
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. They provide service to some legitimate businesses but the ones you see advertised all over the country are usually for adult services.
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
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) so you can easily save on your phone bill. They also work from payphones, though the first minute is surcharged by France Télécom.
To know how to order a landline (ligne fixe) in France you can click on landline providers in France . Another method, if you're staying for a while, is to 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 are available in train or metro stations, bus stops and near tourist attractions, etc. There is at least one phone booth in every village (look on the main square). Due to the widespread use of mobile phones, there are now fewer booths than a few years ago. Most use a card (no coins). France Télécom public phones accept CB/Visa/MasterCard cards but almost always only with a microchip. Otherwise, post offices, café-tabacs (recognizable by a red sign hanging outside), and stores that sell magazines sell phone cards. Ask for a "carte téléphonique"; these come with differing units of credit, so you may want to specify "petite" if you just want to make a short local call or two. If you get the kind with a computer chip in it, you just have to slide it into the phone, listen for the dial tone, and dial. The US-style cards require you to dial a number and then enter a code (but with spoken instructions in French).
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. There are several companies (Orange, SFR, Free, Bouygues Télécom and some others MVNOs like Virgin Mobile) offering 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 technically can, even if you are not one of their customers, thus maximizing your chance of being helped even in areas with spotty service.
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 provider (Orange, SFR and Bouygues Telecom), but they have a very short validity for the card if you don't recharge it.
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. Since 2012, the mobile operator Free offers 2€/month subscription without any minimum subscription time including 120 minutes per month and unlimited national SMSes. 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 (EU, US...) with external SIP access too (the price includes a modem/router/switch with integrated WiFi MiMo access point).
Wifi: You'll also find wifi access (in cities and towns) in a lot of cafés usually those labelled 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, with most homes now wired for the internet, cyber cafés are increasingly hard to find, especially outside the major cities. In Paris, one popular free wifi spot is the Pompidou Centre. There is talk that the city intends to become the first major European capital providing free wifi coverage for the whole city. Public parks and libraries in Paris are also covered. Please note that wifi is prounonced "wee-fee" in France even by English speakers. Asking for "wi-fi" 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.
To set this service up:
- buy a 'mobicarte' (generic prepaid SIM card) at an Orange outlet for €9.90 which comes included with credit of €5
- recharge it with €4 (with a credit card at an Orange outlet or with a €5-euro recharge sold at tobacco kiosks and news stands everywhere).
- turn off mobile data connection and disable all email applications using POP3/IMAP/SMTP at smartphone before inserting SIM card, otherwise it will suck up the credit well before you activate the unlimited data plan
- wait for 24 hours for the SIM card to be activated before you can add packages
- activate the InternetMax data plan with #123#. The menu is in French, refer to the link below for summary in English.
- allow several hours (officially up to 48hrs) for InternetMax to be activated. There's no notification, so check it regularly: surf a bit and check your credit with #123#
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 (Andorra and Monaco included):
- Priority Letter (lettre prioritaire), usually arrives next day. Cost (up to 20g): €0.66
- Green Letter (lettre verte), usually arrives in two days. Cost (up to 20g): €0.61
- Economy Letter (écopli), usually arrives in four days. Cost (up to 20g): €0.59
For international mail, there is only one service:
- Priority Letter (lettre prioritaire), cost (up to 20g): €0.83 (to European Union and Switzerland), €0.98 (all other countries)
Rates correct as of March 2014.
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.