From world-class ski resorts and and picturesque mountain villages to trendy beach getaways and centuries-old vineyards, France is the quintessential European vacation destination. This diverse country has myriad attractions that appeal to even the most discerning traveler. However, with over 85 million tourists traveling to France each year, it can be challenging to find genuine spots beloved by locals and visitors alike. This Insider’s Guide to France will help you plan a vacation and navigate the country like a true local.
Located in Western Europe, France is the largest of the European Union member states. It shares borders with the English Channel to the northwest, the North Sea to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the southeast, and the Atlantic Ocean tothe west. It also borders Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Andorra, Monaco, and Italy. France has a number of overseas territories dotted across the globe.
Weather and When to Go
France has three major climate zones. The proximity of the Atlantic Ocean means that western coastal regions of the country have an oceanic climate. The temperature in these areas is generally mild, with rainfall throughout the year. The eastern and central regions experience hot summers and cool winters, with snowfall at higher elevations. Southern France enjoys a Mediterranean climate with mild winters, hot summers, and limited rainfall.
Peak travel season runs from June through August. If you travel during this time, be sure to pack light, breathable clothing. The weather in southern France remains warm throughout the spring and fall, but is wise to pack a sweater or jacket to throw on at night.
French is the official language in France, and the French are fiercely proud and protective of their language. It is estimated that between 300 to 500 million people throughout the world speak French as a first or second language.
When traveling to France (especially Paris), it is extremely beneficial to learn a few key phrases. While many locals do know or understand some English, Parisians will warm up much faster to tourists who are willing to make the extra effort to converse in their language. At the very least, use “Bonjour” (hello), “S’il vous plait” (please), and “Merci” (thank you). Try starting your conversations with “Parlez-vous l’anglais?” (“Do you speak English?”).
The official currency of France is the Euro (€). Most establishments will accept debit and credit cards. However, it is wise to have some cash on hand. To avoid fees, the best way to obtain Euros is through an ATM affiliated with your own bank (for example, Bank of America has an alliance with BNP Paribas). Be wary of currency exchange kiosks, or “bureaux de change,” in airports or other popular tourist spots. They often charge substantial fees or offer poor exchange rates. Stay educated on the current exchange rate and inform your bank of your travel plans.
While tipping in France isn’t mandatory, it is generally expected for exceptional service. Restaurants add a service charge to most bills, but tipping your server is an appreciated gesture. There are no exact rules for tipping, but adding a euro or so for every 20 euros spent is fine. You can tip more at fine-dining establishments.
For taxi drivers, simply round up the final fare or offer 5% for exceptional service and help with luggage. Similarly, in hotels, tip bellmen one or two euros per bag and housekeeping one or two euros per day. For exceptional help, service and planning, tip the concierge a bit more.
France is the most visited country in the world, and internationally regarded as an important center of philosophy, art and science. It is home to approximately 1,200 museums, visited by over 50 million people per year. It also boasts numerous stunning chateaus (castles) and grand churches, which are (mostly) run and protected by the state.
The Ministry of Culture has promoted French culture since 1959, supporting artists and protecting historic monuments throughout the country. France boasts 41 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Christianity is the largest religion, but freedom of thought and religion is an extremely important concept in France.
France is considered a leader in global cuisine, wine, art and fashion, and French people pride themselves on etiquette and elegance. When greeting a stranger, a handshake is proper. Expect a kiss on both cheeks from close friends and family. When dining at a restaurant, order more than one dish and never ask for a to-go bag. Do try everything on the plate, and try not to let too much go to waste. If you are not yet finished eating, cross your knife over your fork on the plate.
At dinner parties, punctuality is important. If you are going to be more than 10 minutes late, be sure to call and explain your tardiness. Wine and flowers are usually given as hostess gifts, but you should only gift high-quality wine.
French haute cuisine is famous for its meticulous preparation and presentation, and it is usually accompanied by fine wine. Everyday French cuisine varies by region and season. However, cheese and wine are important components of meals throughout the country.
In summer, dishes include an abundance of fruits and salads, including the popular salade nicoise in the Provence region. At the end of summer, mushrooms—including truffles and chantarelles—begin to appear in stews. During the fall and winter hunting seasons, wild game pops up on menus. Oysters are popular specialties in the spring. Locally grown vegetables are available year-round.
The French meal structure is similar to that of the United States. French meals include breakfast (petit dejeuner), lunch (le dejeuner), and dinner (le diner). Breakfast may consist of a croissant and coffee, and lunch is often a salad or sandwich. Dinner is the largest meal of the day and comprises three courses, including an hors d’oeuvre, plat principal (main course), and fromage (cheese) or dessert. It is usually accompanied by wine, bread, and mineral water.
Though France is no stranger to terrorist attacks, the threat of violent crimes is relatively low. The French government has taken numerous steps to increase security throughout the country. The majority of crimes committed against tourists are non-violent. There is a risk of pick-pocketing and theft, so be attentive of your surroundings and do not leave belongings unattended. Hold on to your drinks in restaurants and bars.
France is split into 18 regions, including 13 metropolitan areas and five overseas territories. During your travels, however, you can break it down into the following six general regions:
Northwest France consists of Brittany and Normandy. Brittany contains one-third of the country’s coastline, but it sees far fewer visitors than southern France. A major agriculture center, Brittany is also home to rugged cliffs, winding rivers, and green valleys. Normandy is home to Mont Saint Michel—France’s most visited monument located outside of Paris.
Alsace and Champagne are located in this quiet area of France. Historically, Alsace was a German-speaking region, and the area still boasts unique architecture and culture. The city of Strasbourg is home to a world-famous Christmas market during the holiday season. Champagne, like its name suggests, is known for its Champagne-producing vineyards.
Central France consists of the greater Paris metropolitan area, the Loire Valley, and Burgundy. Paris is the third-most visited city in the world and offers countless attractions, including grand architecture, Michelin-starred restaurants, major fashion houses, and of course, the Louvre. Versailles is located just southwest of Paris.
The Loire Valley is famous for its over 300 “chateaus”. From 10th-century fortifications to Renaissance-era castles, these magnificent structures are located throughout this region and boast pristine landscaped gardens and incomparable architecture. Nearby Burgundy is renowned for its wine.
Located along the Atlantic Ocean, southwest France enjoys a mild and warm climate along its sparkling coastline. The Midi-Pyrenees area boasts medieval towns and ski resorts located near the Spanish border. The city of Bordeaux is also located in this region of France.
Situated in central-eastern France, the mountain region is made up of the Western Massif Central, the Eastern Massif Central, the Alps and the Jura. Mount Blanc is located in the Alps and is the highest point in Western Europe. The French Alps are also home to the largest ski area in the world. However, many ski resorts cater to summer visitors, as well.
Outside of Paris, southern France is the most popular tourist region in the country. La Cote d’Azur, or the French Riviera, consists of the popular, trendy cities of St. Tropez, Nice and Cannes. This area is known for its extravagant nightlife, bustling beaches, and five-star resorts. The city of Marseille is also located nearby.
For a more relaxed vacation in southern France, head further inland in Provence during the last week of June or first week of July to see the lavender fields in full bloom by the Luberon.
Think it’s time for a France vacation? Start planning your trip today!