- Cathy Neubauer
What to Know When Traveling to France
Updated: Mar 7, 2021
How can I begin to describe France? It has always been one of my favorite places in the world, one of those places that I knew I would love without even needing to see it firsthand. Images of colorful pastries, impressionist art, cheese, fashion and art nouveau style are all reminiscent of everything French. There aren't enough ways to describe the love I have for French culture and everything about it, it's sort of a feeling you need to experience for yourself.
If you're planning a trip to this beautiful country and want some starters and 'things to know' before going then read on. Some of these tips are things I learned firsthand while others are tips that are strongly recommended. As always, when traveling anywhere and especially to a foreign country, the best travel tip I can give is to be polite and respectful of another culture and to use your best judgment. Without further ado here are some tips and tricks to know when traveling to France.
This is one of the best tips I can give for a trip to France (and to any country really) but knowing a few phrases in the native tongue is not only appreciated but goes a long way. One thing I continually hear from people who are French (and in my own experience), is that it is absolutely essential that when entering a store, shop or greeting a waiter you first say something like bonjour (hello). It can be very easy (and when flustered about being in a new country) to just blurt out a request or question; however, this is somewhat off-putting; therefore, when you say hello, how are you or something like that it immediately makes the other person more receptive.
Other useful phrases to know and use:
Bonjour (hello): use when meeting or entering a shop
Excusez-moi, madame/monsieur (excuse me ma'am/sir): use when beginning a request for something
Parlez-Vous Anglais? (Do you speak English?): Use after saying hello or excuse me to then begin speaking in English if you can
Au Revoir (goodbye): use when leaving
Merci (thank you): use when receiving something or again upon leaving
Je voudrais xxx, s’il vous plait (I would like xxx please): use when ordering or requesting something
2) Don't expect fast service:
This was a tip I sort of knew about but only really understood once I got to France. The first meal I had was at the legendary Les Deux Magots cafe right after landing in Paris from a 9 hr. flight. I was so exhausted and jet-lagged but excited to get to exploring the city that I was in a rush. In actually I should have been excited to spend time savoring this cafe I had dreamed of going to for so many years but I wanted to eat, check it off my list and get going. The service was great but they were 'slow' according to American standards. Generally, servers will not bother you by coming back repeatedly to check on you (they consider it an invasion and want to let you enjoy your meal), so don't expect that kind of service. There are plenty of faster-food type places but the genuine cafes and brasseries you will want to experience in France will consist of a slow-paced meal that allows you to savor your food, wine and company, which to be honest is something I think we all need to do more.
3) Table manners mater:
Table manners matter no matter where you're traveling to but especially in France. Here are a few things to know:
1) Don't ever fill a wine glass to the top. Fill it about half-way
2) Serve others before serving yourself
3) Do not cut the bread, break it into small pieces and place it next to your plate not on it
4) Coffee is usually only had at breakfast or after the dessert course
5) My favorite and most interesting thing I learned: when slicing cheese try to slice it along the length of the cheese (from the center to rind). The tip or 'nose' of the cheese is usually the ripest and is best to share.
When meeting someone new whether personally or professionally, a handshake is customary. On the other hand there are more intimate greetings which consist of 2 light kisses on each cheek. Note: usually you just touch cheeks lightly rather than actually kiss the cheek with your lips.
5) Be conscious of how fashionable and stylish the French Culture is:
Part of me hates to write this because, although I consider myself fashionable and somewhat stylish, I like to do my own thing and not worry about whether I'm wearing the right thing. Don't get me wrong, I'm usually put together and look nice but comfort then style is usually my priority. With that said, it's best to pack clothes that are not only versatile (which is always best for traveling) but also somewhat nicer or more put together. Usually, French style is simple and effortless, the saying "less is more" certainly applies here. One accessory that goes a long way here is the good old scarf. The French know how to use scarves to their benefit styling them in a number of ways to add simple elegance. Additionally, in any old European city cobblestones are not your friend, wear comfortable shoes for those long walking days. With that said, you may be looked at or analyzed not because you don't look nice but in general because the French people are probably more curious about what you're wearing or how your outfit is styled. To make a long story short, it's best to leave your t-shirt, shorts, sandals combination at home this time :)
6) Appreciate local cuisine:
One of the many things I love about the French is their appreciation for their delicious cuisine. An interesting thing about French food is that it varies by region (the same goes for French wine). Of course there are the staples like cheese plates, hearty stews and the dizzying array of pastries. Each of these staples were developed in specific regions of France of which they're very proud. For example, if traveling to Normandy the apple-pear brandy known as calvados is a must try. The same goes for the area of Marseille where bouillabaisse (seafood stew) was created. Typically, you can find these dishes almost anywhere in France but each region will have their own special take on them. For more details about French food check out my other post on the subject. Finally, if unsure what to order at a restaurant the Prix Fixe (price fix) menu is your best bet and will include several dishes including the appetizer, main dish and dessert which have been selected by the chef.
7) Know the important French holidays:
When traveling to any country, it's always good to know what is going on at that time of year. This could be great if you're looking to add more to your itinerary but it can also be a pain if you want a calm, relaxing trip. In France La Fete Nationale (aka Bastille Day) is France's independence day and is one of the most well-celebrated holidays in the country. It's July 14th and is a grand party full of fireworks, shows and other festivities complete with an after party at the Eiffel Tower! If you're looking for a great party then plan your trip for that time of year but if not avoid booking in July.
8) Explore beyond the Louvre:
I'm a museum lover through and through and love exploring museums anywhere I go. With that said if you can only go to France once then certainly go to the Louvre (and buy tickets online to avoid the line) but if you have more time then I would recommend exploring the nearby Musée d’Orsay that is housed in an old train station and has numerous Impressionist paintings by Monet. Also, the Centre Pompidou features contemporary and more interactive art if that is your liking. Both are great and have much shorter lines than at the Louvre.
9) If on a budget pack a picnic:
This is a great tip even if you're not on a budget. France boasts some of the best open air markets (aka marché en plein air) and small-shops around with vendors who sell everything from wine, to produce to cheese. If you want to save some money or just want to relax at one of the many parks then shop around and get supplies for your own picnic. Find a great spot and enjoy your beautiful surroundings. Note: check hours as some markets are only open on certain days.
10) Overall: Enjoy the beauty of the country and every precious moment you have:
Planning a trip anywhere includes a lot of time and effort but it's important (and this is something I constantly remind myself of) to remember to savor the moment. Don't worry if you can't get everything checked off your list and appreciate the value that the French people put on savoring their time, food, friendships and life. I have to say that France is one of the most beautiful places probably because of the immense pride the people have in making life beautiful and of course living it to the fullest.
These are just a few tips and tricks I learned but would love to hear any more advice or recommendations.