Many visitors to Europe select to visit France for its wonderful châteaux, wealth of foodie experiences, and of course, its gorgeous cities. And so if you opt to visit the country on your next trip to Western Europe, here are the very best best France travel tips, including everything you need to know before visiting l’Hexagone for the first time!
I’ve travelled through France extensively. From North to South and East to West, I’ve experienced the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower, the crashing waves of Brittany and sipped on the wines of Provence. In the West, the underrated city of Nantes offered a glimpse of what the Kingdom of Brittany would have been like, while the Eastern city of Besançon has been rated one of the ‘greenest cities in France’.
#1 Knowing a little French will go a long way!
There’s a common perception and often told myth that French people can be rude, and this is especially so of Paris. However, much of this stems from simple misunderstanding. Though many people, especially those working in the tourism industry have a good level of English, knowing a few words is only polite and will help you plenty!
After all, there are still plenty of restaurants in Paris where the menu is only in French, and in some rural towns you’ll be hard pressed to get by if you don’t speak any of the local language at all. To help you with basic French phrases, buy a simply French phrasebook like this one.
#2 There’s more to France outside of Paris
Many visitors to Europe make the travel mistake of visiting simply Paris and declaring that they’ve ‘seen France’. However, if I could give you just one France travel tip, it would be to make sure that you leave the city at least once, if only to take a quick side excursion to a nearby town or into the countryside. For more Wanderlust inspiration, check out this complete guide to day trips from Paris.
#3 Pharmacies can be found everywhere (and are easy to spot)
There’s a specific French law which requires pharmacies to be located fairly frequently throughout most towns and cities. As such, finding a pharmacy is never too difficult, with some even open on bank holidays and Sundays. If you have a minor ailment, then pharmacists are often pretty helpful. French Pharmacies also stock a wide array of luxury beauty and healthcare products.
#4 You can get water for free at mealtimes
Tap water is safe to drink and completely free. Save money (and the use of a plastic or glass bottle) by simply ordering a ‘carafe’ when eating out at a restaurant. Many tourists make the France mistake of not doing this and end up wasting precious euros that they could better spend elsewhere.
#5 Many coffee shops and cafés don’t open early
Oftentimes in France, it can be pretty difficult to find anywhere for coffee earlier in the morning. This is especially true of smaller towns and villages where cafés and bistros typically don’t open until at least 10 AM in the morning. As such, if you’re an early riser then don’t expect to get your caffeine fix pre 10!
#6 The train is one of the best ways to experience France
If you’re looking for a fast and efficient way to see the best of France, then taking the train is your best option. Book well enough in advance and you’ll be rewarded by some pretty good deals. High speed trains operate throughout France, meaning that it’s perfect possible to go from Paris to Aix-en-Provence in just a few hours.
The views out the window are often picture perfect, such as those when travelling through the delightful region of Burgundy (or Bourgogne as it is so-called in French). For those who are looking to see the best of Europe, you can even take the Eurostar between Paris and London, with the journey time from city centre to city centre taking just two and a half hours.
#7 Pack comfortable (and easy to walk in) shoes
Many of the largest cities in France (Paris, Bordeaux, Nantes, Montpellier, etc) are all best explored on foot and so comfortable shoes that you can easily walk in are an absolute must. I personally love wearing keds in the Summer months as they pair easily with dresses and then transition to cute boots like these ones in the fall when the temperature drops and it’s time to wrap up warm.
#8 Dress for the seasons!
And since we’re on the subject of fashion and what to wear in France, be sure to dress to blend in with the local style. In France, this generally means a monochrome wardrobe and classic style with few bold prints or colours. I particularly love dresses from this company as they’re fairly neutral in appearance and yet can be dressed up and down as the occasion so requires.
Leave your extra high heels at home as though they may look pretty, France is filled with cobbled lanes and they can be hard to navigate! Otherwise, be sure to wrap up warm in the winters as snow is not uncommon in the North of the country (including in Paris). I personally love this vegan coat!
#9 The best time to visit France is in the shoulder season (Spring or Autumn)
While winter is often pretty cold and summer means that France is packed with tourists, the best time to visit France is either just before or just after peak season, i.e. during the European shoulder seasons. What this typically means is the best of the weather with the fewest crowds and best prices for flights and accommodation. Of all the France travel tips I could give you, visiting in Spring or Fall is one of the best!
#10 Buy a universal travel adapter
If you’re visiting The Netherlands from the USA, UK, Canda, and a plethora of other countries, then you should know that you’ll need to bring along a travel adaptor. The plugs in The Netherlands are C and F. If you want to save money, then purchase this all-in-one travel adaptor that will allow you to use your electronics in over 150 countries!
#11 Sample the local cuisine in whichever region you visit!
One of my all time top France travel tips would be to make sure to sample the local food in whichever French region you opt to visit! For example, while pastries are to be found across l’Hexagone, Normandy is best-known for its ciders, while seaside towns wow visitors with their seafood-inspired menus. Head to Bordeaux, and the sweet canelé is the order of the day, while quiche is a crowd favourite!
#12 Make the most of outdoor markets
Unlike in many countries where the supermarket is your go-to place for foodstuffs, France has a real outdoor market culture, with even the smallest towns hosting typically one produce market a week. There, you can go to pick up the freshest vegetables, fruit, and a variety of mouthwateringly good cheeses.
#13 France is perfect for wine tourism
Of course, apart from all of the fromage (that’s ‘cheese’ in French) and pain (that’s ‘bread in French’), one of the most famous exports from France is that of wine (or ‘vin’ in French). Oenophiles will soon rejoice at the sheer number of types of tipple available in each region.
For example, while Bordeaux is known for its rich reds, Provence is known for rosé wines and Champagne is, of course, world-famous thanks to its sparkling white wine. Another French region worth visiting for its world-famous wine is that of Alsace, which is particularly known for its sweet white wines!
#14 Keep an eye on your belongings (at all times!)
Like every other capital city in Europe (and the rest of the world), Paris and many other large cities in France have no shortage of opportunist pickpocketers who won’t hesitate to pluck that phone or wallet out of your open handbag or from the back pocket of your jeans.
Keep an eye on your stuff, use a crossbody bag rather than a rucksack and make sure everything zips up properly! In other words: be sensible. For more scams to avoid in France, check out this guide to common Paris tourist scams to avoid.
#15 Pack your camera!
From the snow-capped Alps in the east of France to the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean to the West, there’s no shortage of beautiful places to visit in France. And what better way to create souvenirs from your trip than by snapping photos of your travels through France? Looking to get started? Here’s a guide to the best travel photography gear for your European adventures!
#16 Book your accommodation well in advance
In order to ensure the best accommodation during your trip to France, book well in advance (i.e. as soon as you know what dates you’ll be visiting). This is particularly important for those looking to visit at peak season (ie, during the Summer months and during school holidays) and especially true for ever-popular destinations such as Paris, Bordeaux, or Nice. Check out the best accommodation prices here.
Airbnb is also common across France and can often mean a ‘more local experience’ if you’re looking to rent a local property, travel more slowly (I’ve personally booked Airbnbs for several weeks in certain cities, in order to make the most of discounts and have access to a kitchen), and enjoy a unique France travel experience. If you’re not used Airbnb before, sign up with this code to get money off your first stay!
#17 In Europe, the first floor is the ground floor (ground level)
If you’re coming from North America, it may well surprise you that the first floor is actually known as the ground floor. This means that instead of having 1, 2, 3, 4, etc, the floor levels will be ground (sometimes known as 0), 1, 2,3.
#18 Save money by ordering from the ‘prix fixe’ menu
One of the number one France travel mistakes that many visitors to France make is to not make the most of saving a little money at meal times! For example, if you order from the ‘prix fixe’ menu, then you can often get several courses at a much cheaper rate than you would have done had you ordered the dishes separately.
#19 France has some of the best Christmas markets in Europe
After Germany, there’s no denying that some of the best Christmas markets in Europe, and indeed in the world, are to be found in France. For those who are looking for the very best festive cheer that l’Hexagone has to offer, be sure to head to the Alsace.
After all, while Colmar is decked out in decorations for the season, Strasbourg (the largest city in the Eastern French region) is self-proclaimed to be the ‘capital of Christmas’. Meanwhile, there are a couple of dozen smaller Christmas markets in Eastern France which are also well worth exploring. Check here to discover the best Christmas Markets in France.
#20 Be sure to visit some French Châteaux
Of all the France travel tips I could give you, making sure to visit a French Château or two would definitely be among one of the most important. Throughout the European country, there are a myriad of fortresses, Renaissance palaces, and regal abodes well worth exploring. Although some of the most famous are the Palace of Versailles and Château de Chambord, there are many more hidden gems worth exploring, particularly in Normandy, Brittany, the Loire Valley, and in the Alsace.
#21 Learn La Bise Etiquette
In France, it’s common to greet people for the first time with a handshake, and those you’re closer to with ‘la bise’. Although in many Anglophone countries loved ones greet one another with a hug, in France you’re more likely to discover that people will be more comfortable with ‘la bise,’ i.e. touching cheek to cheek while making a ‘kiss sound’.
#22 Make use of the public transport
In larger cities, you’ll soon discover that you certainly don’t need to rent a car to get around. This is particularly true of larger settlements like Paris, Nice, Montpellier, or Lyon, where the public transportation is fantastic and navigating the narrow streets (let alone finding ample parking space) can be much more trouble than it’s worth!
Similarly, in the larger cities there’s no need to hail a taxi (or cab) since you can save much more money by opting for the local bus, train, or tram! It’s also worth noting that ride sharing/ booking apps like Uber and Kapten are becoming increasingly popular in the larger cities.
#23 Say ‘Bonjour’ when entering a shop/ restaurant/ professional establishment
The French continually suffer from a reputation for ‘being rude’ and after spending plenty of time in the country, I’m happy to say that this is certainly not the case! However, one France travel mistake that many visitors to the city make is that they don’t say ‘bonjour’ (i.e. hello) upon entering a store. This is seen as the height of rudeness and you’ll soon be rewarded by much better customer service if you make sure to do this each time you go into a professional establishment.
#24 Service might be slower than you’re used to
If you hail from North America, then you might expect service to be incredibly fast. This is simply not the case in Europe, where people are used to taking their time to enjoy a meal and waiting between dishes and even for the bill (l’addition in French) is taken at a more leisurely pace.
#25 Be sure to head off the beaten path in France
While many tourists are sure to enjoy the sunshine of the French Riviera, the highlights of Paris, and the gastronomy of Bordeaux, fewer still head off the beaten path and visit smaller French towns which are lesser-known but remain, nevertheless, hidden gems. Some of my favourite underrated cities in France include Nantes, Narbonne, and the North Eastern French city of Metz.
#26 Free bathrooms are rare in France
More often than not, public bathroom facilities are to be paid for and so you should always keep some change on you in the eventuality you’ll need to use the WC! While I personally recommend heading to a café and getting an espresso as this will work out at around the same price, public bathrooms in Paris can range from anything to 30 cents and up to €1,50 (such as those in the Jardin des Tuileries).