France Travel Guide: Overview
France, Western Europe's largest country by area and third largest by population, is situated at the continent’s western edge like a gateway between the Old World and the New. It’s the most visited country in the world, attracting over 80 million tourists each year.
Long considered a global center of art, science, philosophy and sophistication, France boasts incredible diversity in its offerings to travelers: from modern, bustling city centers, such as Paris, Lyon and Marseille, to small villages nearly unchanged since the Revolution; from the bracing beauty of the North Atlantic coast to the inviting Mediterranean climate in the south; from the rich delicacies in the north and west to the lighter, colorful fare of the southeast.
Much of modern history was written in France, and even traces of prehistory, in the form of cave drawings and paintings, can be seen in many of Southern France's limestone grottes. Early in written history, a Celtic tribe called the Gauls, who later fell under Roman rule, occupied the country. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the Franks became the dominant people, and they adopted Christianity from the declining Gallo-Roman culture.
After many years as a fragmented nation of various minor kingdoms, France was united under Charlemagne during his reign from 800–814. Political divisions remained, however, and questions of legitimacy in royal lineage led to friction with England. This was especially true after William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, became the island's king after the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
In 1337, tensions eventually escalated into the Hundred Years' War, a long and bloody conflict that continually altered the French borders but eventually left the country, more or less, with the territory it occupies today.
Between the 15th and 17th centuries, the French Renaissance brought huge advances in art, science and culture. Royal power was heavily consolidated, and French culture began to dominate Europe. As time wore on, though, public opinion of the royalty waned, and the monarchy became detached from the populace. The French Revolution (1789–1799) led to its overthrow and the creation of the First Republic.
At the end of the Revolution, Napoléon Bonaparte seized power and proceeded to defend France from incursions by various opportunistic European monarchies. Napoléon's military ambition led to France's domination of most of Western Europe—but also to his eventual downfall in 1815.
France was a primary combatant in World War I, which was catastrophic for the country. Its years-long deadlock with Germany, along an enormous front, led to incredible losses of life for both countries. While victorious in the end, France was left war weary and dispirited. In 1939, when Germany attacked again in the early days of World War II, the French quickly capitulated. The Germans occupied Northern and Western France, and a collaborative government was established in Vichy, which was part of the "free zone." A French Resistance remained active for the remainder of the war.
France has remained a European and global power since the end of World War II. It’s a major participant in NATO and the European Union and is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Today, France’s tourism industry is thriving, and it enjoys its position as the most visited country in the world (by annual visitors).
French culture is rich and iconic. The image of a Frenchman sporting a mariner shirt and beret and cycling along with wine, cheese and a baguette in his basket is perhaps one of the most recognizable cultural images of the 20th century.
There’s a great appreciation for aesthetics among the French; they have a rating system for the visual beauty of towns and cities, which incentivizes them to maintain decorations, landscaping and gardens, and you'd never spot a local outside the house in overly casual attire.
Soccer (football), rugby and cycling are all extremely popular, and you're likely to see one of the three on television in a café or bar anywhere you go. Pétanque, a type of boules game, is also very popular, and locals can be seen playing it in gravel lots and parks nearly anywhere in the country. This is especially prevalent in the southeast.
The French tend to be proud, and they deeply appreciate social protocol, but they're typically very warm with those who follow it. They have a strong appreciation for good food and make time for socializing. The arts are also highly respected in France, and the government has long maintained protections for them.
Good to Know
France uses the Euro, and other forms of currency are universally not accepted, with the rare exception of major international hotels in large cities. There are money exchanges at airports and tourist hot spots, but these often apply high fees or use relatively unfavorable exchange rates. You're better off exchanging your cash at a bank or simply withdrawing from an ATM, which are numerous and whose fees are reasonable.
Credit cards are widely accepted in France, though not as widely as in the United States, and unless you have a good travel card, you'll likely pay an international transaction fee every time you use it. It's best to be prepared with backup cash, especially when traveling outside bigger cities.
It’s not customary to tip for meals in France, but if you choose to leave one for excellent service, you can add €1–2 per person in cash. For taxis and hairdressers, a tip of 10 percent is customary, and €10–20 for a helpful concierge is appreciated at the end of a hotel stay. Porterage costs are typically fixed and can be paid with hotel bills, and small amounts (in the €1–5 range) are acceptable for tour guides and bus drivers.
Acceptable public conduct is a common quibble between the French and foreign tourists. In France, it’s important to begin an interaction with a greeting and to receive a response before proceeding with business. This applies whether it's buying bread at a corner bakery, paying for groceries or ordering food at a restaurant. In fact, it’s common when entering a boutique or bakery to greet everyone inside with one hearty "bonjour!"
Meal etiquette is especially important in France as meals are seen as personal or social time. It’s proper manners to wish fellow diners "bon appétit" at the beginning of a meal, and it’s discourteous to discuss work at the table. To avoid making you feel as if you're being rushed out of a restaurant, a server will never bring you a bill for your meal until you don't request it. Be prepared to ask for it when you're ready, or ask in advance if you're in a rush.
The French are very appreciative of efforts to speak their language. Employing the basics, such as bonjour, s'il vous plaît, merci and au revoir, goes a long way, even if your collocutor switches immediately to English.
They also take heed of fashion and tend to frown on someone who leaves the house in clothes that could be seen as "sloppy." When out in France, it's best to dress neatly.
Some items of small talk that are common in the United States don’t go over well in France—especially asking what someone does for a living. Stick to less personal topics to start.
France uses the standard ungrounded European socket (type C) and the standard grounded European socket (usually type E), but you’ll rarely see type F, as well. (Ungrounded European adapters fit both.) The electricity throughout France is 220 volt. If a US-made laptop doesn’t have dual voltage, a converter will be necessary.
Public bathrooms are common in urban centers and are usually fairly clean. These freestanding toilettes, or WCs, are usually free, but you might occasionally find a pay-to-use installation. This is never more than €1. Public bathrooms in smaller towns are harder to find, are spottier when it comes to upkeep and are rarely stocked with soap or toilet paper, so be prepared to furnish your own hygienic items.
It’s common practice to step into a café or bar and ask politely (after the requisite greeting) to use the bathroom. You should, however, be prepared to pay up to €1 or to buy an espresso (typically less than €2) in case they enforce the ubiquitous "customers-only" rule. Bathrooms in train stations are typically pay-to-use turnstile affairs. Be prepared to hand the attendant approximately €1 and to receive all your change in small coins if you pay with a bill!
Tap water is uniformly safe to drink in France, despite the cultural habit of drinking bottled water with meals. In many towns, there are public fountains and faucets that are also safe to drink. Just keep an eye out for an “eau non potable” (non-potable water) sign to warn you away from those that aren't safe.
When To Visit France
Generally speaking, the weather in France is relatively mild and temperate all year round. That being said, the weather can vary by large degrees across such a large and diverse country. The middle of the summer is your best chance for sunny and warm weather in the mountainous regions, while spring and fall bring a bit of relief from the summer heat on the Mediterranean Coast. Fall is also a delightful time to visit the south of France as the vineyards begin to brighten with fall colors. If you’re planning on visiting for a specific event—the Paris motor show, for example, which takes place over the first two weeks of October every even-numbered year—make sure you book everything well in advance. Hotel rooms can definitely fill up fast!
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- During France’s empiric reign, it controlled about 8 percent of the world’s land.
- If you’re driving within Paris limits, you’ll only encounter one solitary stop sign throughout the entire city.
- France allows posthumous matrimony, meaning you can legally marry someone who’s deceased—if you can prove that person had the intention of wedding you while alive.
- One French coffee shop obviously values manners. If you greet your barista and say “please” after ordering, it’s less expensive than simply coming to the counter and demanding “un café.”
- When you’re wandering the art-filled halls of the Louvre, consider this. It was actually built in 1190, not as a museum, but as a point of defense against Viking raids.
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Regions and Cities
Île de France
The center of northern France, also known as the Parisian Region, Île de France contains Paris and its sprawling suburbs. It’s the country’s smallest administrative region, but it contains nearly 20 percent of its population.
Neatly cut through by the Seine River, the City of Love is instantly recognizable thanks to its many iconic landmarks. The national hub of arts and culture, Paris contains some of the world’s finest dining and best museums, and it takes little effort to find the city's bountiful gems.
Read our Paris Travel Guide
Brittany and Normandy make up the northwestern coast and hinterlands of France, which are known for galettes (savory crêpes), rich butter, succulent cider and the remains of military installments dating from the Hundred Years' War through World War II.
Beautiful and rugged, the walled port town of St. Malo in Brittany is known for its extreme tidal changes that create a variety of dramatic coastal views.
The Grand Est
The Grand Est is home to three regions: Champagne, known for its eponymous sparkling wine, as well as Alsace and Lorraine, both known for their blend of French and German cultures.
This city epitomizes the region’s Franco-German hybridization. Covered in iconic timber-framed buildings, Strasbourg is an impressive combination of the modern and medieval.
The Centre region encapsulates the Loire Valley, which served as the playground of the French aristocracy for centuries after a long period of conflict with the English. Thanks to its royal and military history, it’s absolutely littered with impressive châteaux.
Burgundy is one of France’s premier wine regions, typically producing lighter reds than Bordeaux due to its heavy focus on the Pinot Noir grape. Between vineyards, mustard fields and medieval villages, it contains some of France’s most beautiful countryside.
Burgundy’s capital and home of the famous and eponymous mustard, Dijon is also well known as a major center of gastronomy. It’s also where the popular drink kir originated.
This eastern region of France borders Switzerland and northern Italy and contains the greatest and highest section of the French Alps. The region offers plentiful diversions for lovers of the outdoors.
France’s third-largest city (after Paris and Marseille), Lyon has long been a major hub of commerce and industry. Also a center of culture and gastronomy, the city has much to offer travelers.
One of the oldest French ski resort towns, Chamonix sits at the base of Mont Blanc and is full of dramatic vistas, as well as skiing, hiking and mountaineering opportunities.
Long fought over by the French and English, France’s southwest is a region of rich culture and history. It boasts world-class water sports on its coast, world-class wine in the Bordeaux region and world-class gastronomy farther inland, toward its rolling countryside.
The center of one of the world’s most renowned wine regions, Bordeaux is also the largest urban area on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.
Acquiring its name from its status as a major Roman province, Provence is a region of stunning natural beauty. Picturesque villages dot many of its bountiful hills, and the region is a cycling mecca, as well as home to France’s most Mediterranean cuisine.
For the better part of a century, Avignon replaced Rome as the center of the Roman Catholic world, and the resulting architectural remains create a stunningly beautiful city.
Closely associated with images of the glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties, the French Riviera has been a vacation destination for the rich and famous since well before the 20th century. The Mediterranean climate and beautiful views are just a couple of reasons people continue to flock here.
France’s oldest and second-largest city, Marseille is extremely diverse. Despite its reputation as one of the country’s grittiest cities, it remains one of France’s most visited. It’s known for its huge, picturesque Old Port.
The quintessential place to see and be seen, St. Tropez is an old fishing village turned decadent hot spot. It’s a beautiful seaside town where impressive yachts and speedboats (sure to evoke images of James Bond) fill the famous Old Port.
Home to the famous Cannes Film Festival, this Riviera city is a center of luxury.
Worth a Visit
Beaches of Normandy: Even if you’re not a history buff, visiting the beaches of Normandy can be a profound and powerful experience. Walk the actual D-Day landing sites and visit the various war memorials and museums to make real the facts and figures studied in high school textbooks.
Cliffs of Étretat: Chalky cliffs and dramatic coastal scenery frame the quaint and delightful Étretat. While many tourists think to visit the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, this quiet but striking site is also well worth the stop.
Mont Saint-Michel: Aided by the dramatic tides, Mont Saint-Michel remains one of France’s most enduring and iconic images. Whether you glimpse the spires and ramparts emerging from the water itself or looming over tide-exposed sands, the abbey inevitably harkens visitors back to the era of the Middle Ages.
Palace of Versailles: Opulent, ostentatious and immeasurably gorgeous, the Palace of Versailles is the former residence of the French monarchy and a current-day UNESCO World Heritage site. Coming in at over 721,000 square feet, the palace contains approximately 700 rooms and more than 2,000 windows—out of which you can gaze at the stunning grounds and gardens.
Things to See and to Do
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How to Get to France
France is part of the Schengen Zone and, thus, shares visa entry and exit rules with most of the rest of Europe. For citizens of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Mexico and several other countries, a tourist visa is free and automatic upon entry into the zone. This visa is good for up to 90 days in each 180-day period, so travelers from these countries should have no problem, as long as they don't plan to stay longer than three months in Europe within a six-month period.
- Charles de Gaulle (CDG), Paris: France's largest international airport is conveniently connected to the TGV, allowing easy access to much of the country.
- Paris Orly (ORY): This was France's primary international airport before CDG’s construction. It still handles some international traffic and many of France's domestic flights.
- Marseille Provence Airport (MRS): This international airport is in a great location for travelers making their way to destinations in Provence or the French Riviera.
- Lyon Saint-Exupéry (LYS): Serving the southeast, Lyon's airport is convenient to the French Alps, as well as Switzerland and northern Italy.
- Toulouse-Blagnac (TLS): Located far to the southwest, Toulouse-Blagnac is a good destination for travelers interested in accessing the Pyrenees or France's western Mediterranean coast.
- Bordeaux-Mérignac (BOD): Bordeaux's airport is a convenient arrival point for anyone visiting the famous wine region, the Atlantic coast or the Basque Country.
France is known for having a smooth and reliable train system. Its famous high-speed train, the TGV, connects much of the country, and you can almost certainly use regional trains and an integrated bus system to get where it doesn't go. All these transport options can be booked on www.oui.sncf.
Taxis are also plentiful, but unless you're in a large city or major airport, it's easiest to schedule one ahead of time. Hotel concierges are very helpful for this.
French is a beautiful language but often very challenging for anglophones to pick up. Its pronunciation is not very phonetic, and it uses sounds and grammar rules not found in English. Thankfully, it tends to be easy to find English-speaking French folks in major cities and in the tourism, hospitality and food industries.
Backroads Pro Tip
The French will warm up to you much more quickly if you attempt to speak their language, but don't draw it out if you're struggling to be understood. Starting with "bonjour, monsieur/madame" ("hello, sir/madam”) is polite and expected. Ending with "merci, au revoir" (“thank you, good-bye”) is appreciated. Whatever language you’re using, always greet someone and wait for a response before making a request or discussing business.
The following are some useful phrases when making your way through France:
- Hello: Bonjour
- Good-bye: Au revoir
- Yes: Oui
- No: Non
- Please: S'il vous plaît; pronounced SEE VOO PLAY
- Thank you (very much): Merci (beaucoup); pronounced MARE SEE (BOW COO)
- How’s it going? (when used as a question), or It’s going well (when used as a statement): Ça va; pronounced SAH VAH
- Pleased to meet you: Enchanté; pronounced ON SHON TAY
- Where is the bathroom?: Où est la toilette?; pronounced OO AY LAH TWA LET
Food and Drink
France is known for some of the world’s best (and richest) cuisine, and no France travel experience would be complete without delving into their various food and drink options. The French take mealtime very seriously, and you can expect every business in town to shut down when the restaurants open for lunch at noon. Every part of the country has its own regional specialties, including local cheeses and cured meats. Here are just a few:
- Quiche: Originating in the Grand Est, quiche is a savory open tart made of pastry crust baked with eggs, cream and various fillings. Quiche Lorraine, made with ham, is a classic.
- Crêpes/Galettes: Crêpes are France's famous wheat flour pancakes usually made with sweet fillings, while galettes are made of buckwheat and savory fillings. Both are delicious and originated in the northwest.
- Coq au Vin: Literally "rooster in wine," coq au vin is a rich dish made of chicken braised with wine (usually a Burgundy), ham and mushrooms. Julia Child popularized the dish outside of France, and it’s one of the country’s oldest specialties.
- Foie Gras: A rich pâté made of fattened duck or goose liver, it’s a delicacy that’s best appreciated at room temperature and simply spread on warm toast.
- Cassoulet: From the area around Toulouse, cassoulet is a slow-cooked casserole made of meat (usually sausage), pork skin and white beans.
- Poulet Provençale: The cuisine of Provence is heavy in vegetables and herbs, and poulet provençale is no different. It’s made with white wine, herbs, tomatoes and bell peppers.
Food in France: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
France, by and large, is a safe place to travel, but common-sense safety and security suggestions should be heeded. This includes keeping your passport, credit card and cash on your person or in a hotel safe; not being too showy with valuables; locking any vehicle when you exit; not leaving valuables visible inside vehicles and keeping an eye on your pockets and bags whenever you're in a crowd. Tourist hot spots attract pickpockets anywhere in the world, and France is no different. The same goes for wealthy cities, such as Paris, Cannes and Nice.
Anywhere in Paris is generally safe in daylight, and there are only a few spots authorities recommend tourists avoid at night, including Les Halles, St. Denis, Bois de Boulogne, Boulevard de Clichy and Barbès-Rochechouart.
Provence, in general, is a region where it pays to be particularly vigilant. Pickpocketing at tourist destinations and theft from vehicles are more common there.
Any French travel guide should note that Marseille, while beloved by those who live there and know it, can be a rougher city for tourists. When visiting here, take extra precautions. Keep your valuables secured and out of sight, avoid empty alleyways, and try not to walk alone, in less peopled areas or around Boulevard Michelet at night. Avoid staying in the northern neighborhoods, and if you’re driving a vehicle, make sure to lock the doors.
If you need emergency services while in France, the first number to try is 112. If you need a specific service, use the appropriate number below:
- Fire: 18
- Police: 17
- Ambulance: 15
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great France adventure!