Salt & Wind Travel

Essential Tips To Know Before Traveling To France For The First Time

If you’ve ever dreamt of devouring a handmade crepe while admiring the Eiffel Tower, we’re with you.

The landscapes, museums, and cuisine combine to make France one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. 

Should I Travel to France? 

The answer is a resounding yes. Because, no matter what kind of traveler you are — history buff, foodie, wine lover, outdoorsy — there is something for you. 

Of course, for us, we love it because France is the cultural capital of the world. From stunning architecture and delectable pastries to unique fashion and silky wines, there’s no shortage of things to enjoy. If you need help deciding where to go, contact us and we’ll help you out. 

Top Tips To Know About France

Before you hop on a plane and head for Paris, Biarritz, or Nice, take a minute to prepare by reading through our list of essential tips for visiting France.

The French Are Fiercely Proud Of Being French

For the French, their national pride pretty much comes above all else. The combination of their culture, history, and commitment to democracy (and the battle it fought to win that freedom) makes for a nation that is unapologetically proud. That can rub some people the wrong way, as some take it to be snobby or haughty, but we remind our US friends that the same thing can be said of Americans!

Paris Is Not The Whole Culture

While Paris is one of the great cities in the world it’s important to note that France shouldn’t be summed up as that one city. Because nearly one-quarter of the country’s population lives in the greater Paris metro area (at over 14 million people, it’s actually the largest urban area in the E.U.), it would be easy to use the Paris culture as a shortcut to the country. But that would be like summing up the U.S.A. based on New York City— not totally inaccurate but really only one piece of the puzzle. 

Regionality Plays A Big Part

Along those lines, there is major cultural diversity across the country’s 18 regions (and 101 departments, which are similar to counties in the U.S.). You’ll find varying weather, history, food, song, dance, and ways of life across the country.

As you travel the country, you’ll see that the life of someone from Brittany or Strasbourg (where it’s more continental European) is vastly different from someone living in the south of France (where things feel more Mediterranean).

The Weather Varies Vastly

Likewise, the weather varies greatly. When it may be cold and wet up in Normandy or snowy in the French alps, it may be warm or outright hot in Burgundy or down in Provence.  This is especially evident in spring and fall when temperatures in Northern and Southern France might vary by as much as 20°F. 

Of course, you’ll want to head to the Alps in the winter if you’re focus is skiing. But, aside from that we generally feel the best time to travel there is spring and fall with April and October being a few of our favorite months.

Learn Some French Phrases

Along with that national pride comes a strong commitment to the French language. Proof of that commitment? There was a law introduced in the mid-1990s (that has since been altered) that required radios to have at least 40% of the songs played to be in the French language. 

While more and more people in bigger cities speak English, visitors will do well to learn a few bits of French. At the very least, you should know how to say hello (bonjour), goodbye (au revoir), please (s’il Vous plaît), and thank you (merci). And, if you have specific dietary or medical needs, have handy phrases written down or easily accessible. 

But Know That French Accents Vary

If you’re following the conversation in the Loire Valley, but can’t seem to understand anyone in L’Occitane, it’s likely due to their accent. Depending on how and where you studied French, you may be more accustomed to one accent than another. 

The French Aren’t Rude

Okay, sure, we can’t speak for every French person on the planet and there are bound to be a few jerks. But, there is definitely a misconception that French people (especially Parisians) are rude. One of our French friends explains that Americans often want French people to act like them but that’s unfair when they’re the ones visiting France.

Also, it should be said that the French don’t put on a fake air when talking to you and it takes a long time to make true friends in the culture. All of that can add up to come across as cold to Americans but then the French often think we’re over-the-top with our friendliness. Bottom line: it’s all relative. 

Err on the quiet side

One major way Americans stick out in France? We tend to be really loud. In France, you’ll notice that people truly have inside voices and that it may be as quiet as a library when you ride the metro or are in an office building.

Of course, the French aren’t always quiet – go to a Bastille Day celebration, a soccer match, or a live concert for proof that they do in fact get boisterous.  

Master Your Air Kissing

The French are famous for their “bisous” (aka “bises) or kiss greetings. The baseline is two kisses (one on each cheek), but, depending on where you are in the country and how well people know each other, it may be four or more!

While women do “bisous” with friends and strangers alike, men usually only do so with close friends and shake friends of strangers. 

Get To Know The Different Shops

One of the things that confuse first-time travelers to France is how specific the different kinds of food spots can be. Like, that say, a bistro and a brasserie are different levels of service.

Or that you go to specific shops like a boulangerie for bread; a patisserie for pastries; a Boucherie for meat; and so on. Adding to it is regionality, which explains why you might see a baguette everywhere but only see a rustic boule or a pain de Campagne in certain spots. 

Book A Reservation For Restaurants

While we always recommend that you book a reservation for dinner when you travel, that is especially key in France where it’s the norm. We’re finding that in response to the pandemic, a lot of restaurants will only take people with reservations and they may even ask for a credit card guarantee for the reservation.

French Food Isn’t All You Should Eat

While we encourage you to drink classics like a cafe au creme at a cafe, or snails at a brasserie, know that there’s so much more to modern French dining than classic French food. Thanks to the immigrant patterns and the diversity of the bigger cities, you’ll find everything from Turkish to African, Middle Eastern, Chines, and Vietnamese at restaurants and sold by street vendors in the larger metro areas.

Tipping Isn’t Mandatory

Here in the United States, we’re major tippers but that’s generally not the case across Europe, including in France. For good service, you’ll often leave 10% to 15% at most restaurants, whereas you’ll leave a few coins and call it a day for something smaller like a coffee or sandwich. There are a lot of restaurants that include service so check for it so you don’t double tip.

Plan To Use Public Transportation

Perhaps one of the best travel tips to know when planning a trip to France is that the country has excellent public transport services. Between the underground railway systems (or metros) in Rennes, Marseille, Lille, and Paris, bus services in all major cities and towns (generally the cheapest option), and long-distance coach services between major cities, it’s not too hard to get from one place to another. 

If you’re planning on visiting different regions across France, or perhaps even crossing the borders, then the train is the way to go. Most trains are operated by the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (SNCF). To save time, see if you can take the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), a high-speed train that connects to most major cities in France. 

Strikes Are A Real Issue

The bad news is that strikes and demonstrations are pretty common in France. The good news is that they’re usually announced in advance and don’t tend to last longer than a few days. Transportation strikes are the most common type of strike that interrupts travelers to France, so be on the lookout for them by checking up on the news or asking your concierge for updates prior to your travels.

Petty Crimes Happen

One of the most important things to know before visiting France: pickpocketing is a legit issue. Be smart, and alert, and don’t be too showy or walk around with your valuables. Take heed of the locals and keep a constant watch on your belongings.

If you have a crossbody bag, use the strap to place it across your body, then keep your hand on the strap where it meets the bag, and keep it tucked under your arm. 

Sunday Is A Day Of Rest

Finally keep in mind that like so many places we travel from Italy to Mexico, Sundays are a day of rest in France. This is a sacred time often spent with family or friends and, as a result, a lot of businesses may be closed. If you’re heading to a smaller town, be prepared for this or you may find yourself hungry or needing to go to a pharmacy when they’re not open. 

Contact Our Travel Planning Services Today! 

Many people dream of visiting France, but not everyone gets the chance to go. If you’re one of those lucky travelers, you want to make the most of it. Our travel planning services are here to help you achieve the ideal vacation.

After discussing your preferences during a short consultation, we’ll plan your perfect itinerary. Whether you’re looking for custom travel planning or a small group trip, the Salt & Wind team is here to help. Contact us today to learn more!


Photo Credit: Anya Berkut

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