How to eat, drive, and spend just like a local.
Whether you’re planning on whiling away the hours in the shops and cafés of Paris, dining at the temples of gastronomy in Lyon, or lounging on the glitzy beaches of the Riviera, a trip to France can mean a lot of things. It’s a big country, with several distinct regions, cultures, and landscapes, but no matter where you’re going, here are a few tips that will help your trip go as smoothly as possible.
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Don’t Expect to See the Whole Country in One Trip
France is roughly the same size as Texas, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that you can’t make the 550-mile drive from Paris to Cannes in two hours. Before you start planning your itinerary, it’s helpful to learn the country’s geography and make some decisions. Luckily, it’s definitely possible to visit several towns and cities, and even multiple regions, on the same trip. To the northwest lies historic Normandy and to west Brittany and some of the world’s best oysters. Many visitors choose to visit these two regions, along with a trip to Paris.
In the south, between Italy and Spain, you have the iconic French Riviera beaches that stretch into Provence along the Mediterranean Sea; many tourists choose to take a trip that combines the two regions. The Pyrenees Mountains tower above the south while in the southeast the French Alps and Mont Blanc dominate; a trip that combines these mountain regions with Lyon is common. Even if you wanted to visit the wine regions, it would be difficult with Champagne in the northeast, the Loire Valley to the west, Burgundy in the east, Bordeaux to the southwest, Rhone in the southeast, and Languedoc and Provence both in the south. A trip that hits up every major wine region is quite ambitious; it’s best to stick with one region and enjoy it as much as you can.
Learn the Rules for Dining Out
Table manners are important in France, but there are still more pressing issues to learn when it comes to eating out here. Most restaurants are open for lunch (from noon to 2) and dinner (starting 7:30 pm), but in the south, lunches tend to linger. If dining at 6 pm is a must, brasseries and eateries in touristy areas tend to serve nonstop throughout the day. “Le Happy Hour” runs somewhere between 5 and 7 and leads to the non-negotiable predinner apéro—drinks and snacks with friends—at 7. Second, forget the picky eating culture at home; yes, that means abandoning your no wheat, no dairy, no fat diet, and no ordering off the menu. You can ask for dairy-free sauce, but regardless of what the server says, you’ll most likely be served the same sauce from the same saucepan as everyone else. This can be a serious issue for those with severe food allergies; even if you’re able to articulate your issue in French, not all places take allergies as seriously as they do in the United States. People with severe food allergies are better off preparing their meals at their lodging or eating at vegan or organic shops and bakeries as these eateries tend to be more upfront with their ingredients, and their staff are more in tune with health concerns. Earn brownie points by ordering the plat du jour and break off an extra piece of bread to wipe the plate clean (but never butter your bread!)
And eat slowly—there are only two services for dinner, so there’s lots of time—and don’t be embarrassed to order tap water (une carafe d’eau) instead of forking out for the bottled stuff. Also, and this is a biggie, don’t do work or touch documents when you’re eating a meal or you’ll be the recipient of many gasps. To really blend in, make sure you order your tea or coffee after your dessert. Tipping is usually included and not an incentive to serve you better. Feel free to leave an extra 5%–10% if the service was excellent. But here’s the biggest tip: dress nicely, and if you are with your kids, don’t let them run wild.
Learn to Speak a Little French, Especially in Rural Areas
The French are big on ceremony, whether it’s a kiss on each cheek when greeting someone (yes, even a stranger) or saying Mesdames, Messieurs (ladies and gentlemen) when they walk into a store. As a tourist, you’ll be fine with the basics, especially in big cities. Stick with bonjour when you enter a shop or boulangerie. Say merci every time someone serves you a coffee or brings you change. The French will generally appreciate you trying, even if you can’t keep the conversation going.
But be prepared for some attitude, because no matter how nice you are or how much you try to speak French un peu, the French are notoriously surly, especially those you’ll come across working in retail and restaurants. In more rural areas, you’ll find fewer people who speak English, even in hotels. It can be helpful to bring along a vocab book or brush up on the most common phrases before you go.
Understand the Magic of the August Holiday
Even Paris is far from a 24/7 city, so planning your days in France beforehand can save you some aggravation upon finding things are closed. Museums are typically closed one day a week (usually Monday or Tuesday), but most stay open late at least one night each week, which is also the least crowded time to visit. Store hours are generally 9:30 or 10 am to 7 or 8 pm, Monday through Saturday, though the post office, banks, and smaller shops may close for several hours during the afternoon. In France, summertime (particularly August) is when many businesses shut down for their month-long fermeture annuelle, or annual holiday, and escape to the country. This means that in the north (including Paris), museums, monuments, and attractions operate as usual, but will be much less crowded; certain restaurants and shops, however, might be closed entirely. And if you’re traveling to the south during this time, be prepared for way more crowds than usual. If you haven’t booked your reservations way in advance, you’re most likely out of luck.
Get the Low-Down on Café Culture
Along with air, water, and wine, the café remains one of the basic necessities of life in France. You may prefer a posh perch at a renowned Paris spot such as Deux Magots on Boulevard St-Germain or opt for a tiny café du coin (corner café) in Lyon or Marseilles, where you can have a quick cup of coffee at the counter. Those on Paris’s major boulevards will almost always be the most expensive and the least interesting. In effect, the more modest establishments (look for nonchalant locals) are the places to really get a feel for French café culture.
And we do mean culture: you’ll observe not only the practical rituals of the experience (perusing the posted menu, choosing a table, unwrapping your sugar cube), but the intellectual aspects as well. You’ll see businesspeople, students, and pensive types pulling out notebooks for intent scribblings. In fact, some Paris landmarks like the Café de Flore host readings, while several years ago a trend for cafés philos (philosophy cafés) took off. The best way to experience the French café life is through people-watching. So get ready to settle in, sip your pastis, and pretend your travel notebook is a Hemingway story in the making.
France does not move at the same pace as the United States. Flânerie—the act of strolling depicted in 19th-century Paris, meaning “the man of leisure or the connoisseur of the street”—is a favorite Sunday pastime for locals. But you’re on vacation, so you can be a flâneur any day of the week. Don’t get frustrated when the waiter doesn’t come immediately to take your order and don’t throw down your bill as soon as you’ve finished a three-course meal. Dial that frustration level down to low when you’re waiting at a checkout line; take a look around you and you’ll see no one else has their credit card in hand, ready to hurry the payment process along. Ditto when the Wi-Fi in your 17th-century hotel isn’t as speedy as you expect. Slow down and take it all in. You’re on vacation.
France Is Safe, but Be Prepared for Protests
Practice caution like you would in any other European country, but be prepared for extra security. These days you’ll see a triangular sign labeled “Vigipirate” (France’s antiterrorism system), which means extra vigilance may cause delays at the border or at major tourist attractions, for residents and tourists alike.
France’s big cities are generally safe, but you should always be streetwise and alert, especially in Marseille. Across the country, scarcely a week goes by without some kind of demonstration; the current weekend gilets jaunes (yellow vests) are protesting against the economic policies of President Emmanuel Macron and although most are peaceful, it’s best to avoid them. The CRS (French riot police) carefully guard all major public gatherings, directing traffic and preventing violence. However, they are armed and use tear gas when and if they see fit. With shields in tow, it can be pretty startling the first time you see them, just like witnessing armed police onboard French trains checking for illegal migrants, which is also happening at a more alarming frequency. During peak holidays, you’ll also notice an increased number of security forces on the streets, hands on their machine gun.
Pickpocketing does happen, especially in cities, so just always be aware of your surroundings and don’t flash your valuables, especially at night. The French are not known for their friendliness, so if someone approaches you asking for something or offering something, it’s most likely a scam (one of the most common involves asking if you’ve lost a gold ring; when you say no, they’ll offer it to you anyway, but will pester you for some money in return).
There Are Many Ways to Save Money Here
France has a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous, and while you can certainly spend a small fortune on a trip here, there are ways to visit modestly. Many French tourism websites have a section that lists free stuff (concerts, exhibits, and food) while greeters are locals who give free tours (tips recommended). Most museums are free on the first Sunday of the month, and often one afternoon or evening a week. City tourism cards, like the French Riviera Pass, can save you money if you’re planning on serious sightseeing (and might allow you to bypass the lines) and also offer public transport options. For the cheapest rail fares, book online at least 90 days in advance.
Take advantage of France’s wonderful outdoor markets and shops, and eat picnic-style indoors or out. For more space and a kitchen (which means you can grocery-shop and eat at home), consider a furnished rental—a great bet for families.
Get Familiar With the Different Types of French Eateries
The choice of restaurants in France is a feast in itself. Of course, at least once during your trip, you’ll want to indulge in a luxurious meal at a great haute-cuisine restaurant. But to save your wallet, intimate, family-owned bistros serve classic French home-style dishes and wine, usually with different lunch and dinner menus. On the other hand, named after the word brewery in French, brasseries are more casual and closer to a pub, serving beers with only a few wines, and the same dishes across the day like steak and frites, andouillette, and stews. At a café, you can grab a quick bite or lunch like a croissant, croque monsieur, or salad while a salon de thé is more formal, and serves quiches, salads, cakes, pastries, and a selection of tea. Crêperies serve, well, crêpes, but often salads and other quick lunch items as well. If you just want to eat on the go (although that’s generally a no-no here) stop at a boulangerie (bread shop) or patisserie (bakery). Bars rarely sell food, but some wine bars offer a few plates at lunch or dinner.
Renting a Car Can Be a Great Idea
Driving is the best option if you want to explore all those picturesque villages, but a few pointers go a long way. First, forget the SUV and rent a small car that’s easy to maneuver and parallel park along tiny cobblestone streets. Make sure your car has GPS, especially if you’re planning to travel off the main highways (and be sure to enter the full name of your destinations: for instance, use “St-Paul-de-Vence” and not just St-Paul). Speaking of highways, France’s tolls on the autoroutes can add up quickly: Paris to Nice is nearly €160 one-way. If you have the time, stick to the National (RN) or District (RD) roads.
Generally driving here isn’t much different than driving in the States (yes, they drive on the same side of the road as us). But there’s no turning right on a red light, a triangle with an X means to yield to the right at the next junction (that’s the opposite in the United States), and when entering a roundabout, priority is to the left.