Mini Travel Guide: France

Traveling to France? Read this mini travel guide to France from Kim. This is one of many Mini Travel Guides in which we ask locals and expats to share their favorite stuff and we get all excited about international puddle jumping.

mini travel guide to france
Bonjour! I’m Kim and I blog from Arkansas at The Made Thing.  I studied in Montpellier for a year and, at the end of my studies, rented a car and cavorted around the country. I’m dying to go back to my spiritual home!
France is a wonderful country, full of gracious people, amazing sights, and heavenly food. While almost everyone that visits simply goes to Paris, France and does the cliche France things, it’s a very diverse country with many different cultural traditions. Did you know that prior to the French Revolution, there were many more languages than just French? You can still see vestiges of these traditions today if you travel outside of Paris. And did I mention that there are so many varieties cheeses you could eat a different one everyday for a year?
Must go while in France

Must Go in France

Paris

Ah, Paris, the City of Light. If you can only do one thing, this is the place you need to check off your list. While we all know the traditional tourist sights, be sure to walk around the city or rent a bike from a kiosk and explore your surroundings. You can also see the underbelly of Paris by visiting the catacombs, which I highly recommend for a really interesting experience. Indulge your dreams and people watch at a cafe, peruse small food boutiques that sell only the best specialty items, and sip on wine while watching the Eiffel Tour light up from the Champs-de-Mars. Don’t forget the world class museums!

Venture outside Paris

France is not just Paris! For instance, Le Midi, or the coastal area in the south, is completely different one end from the other. You can travel from Nice and Italian-like glitzy culture, to cowboys (yes, really!) in the Camargue, to the Spanish influenced areas near Perpignan where torros roam. Before you travel, pick at least one region that you’d like to visit outside of Paris and explore!
Must do while in France

Must Do in France

Attend a Festival

Almost any time of year, there are festivals in every little town and hamlet in France. Plan your trip accordingly and you could attend some of the biggest ones that draw international attendees or small town celebrations that focus on the community and traditional dances, music, and food.

Watch or participate in a Greve

A Greve, or a strike, is a quintessential part of French culture. It’s how they communicate with their government and other people what they want to change or stay the same. While I was studying, my university went on strike for almost the whole second semester, complete with piles of chairs blocking building doorways, marches across town, and sit-ins in the town square! Marches and demonstrations are typically docile affairs, sometimes even children with pots and pans are in attendance, but do be wary because (very, very rarely) things can turn badly. More likely than not, your travel plans will be effected by transportation strikes. Don’t sweat it, enjoy the experience, and see it as an occasion to learn about French culture.

Tour a chateau

All over France there are staggeringly beautiful homes and castles open to the public. While the Chateaux in the Loire Valley take the cake and reveal some really interesting stories about French history, almost every major town has at least a small one to the public. Venture into buildings where kings and queens once entertained, barons and maids had affairs, and people were kept prisoner during the Revolution. There are certain days (Journees de Patrimoine) where almost all publicly held buildings and museums are open to the public for free, including areas normally closed to the public like the French President’s residence!
Must eat in France

Must Eat in France

Eat and drink and generally be a glutton

France is famous for its food for a good reason, so indulge yourself in all the iconic French foods you can humanly muster. France is a country that loves when people do one thing very very well so there are shops specifically dedicated to certain types of food and they’re usually grouped together in towns. Take advantage of shopkeepers’ knowledge on their chosen profession and ask questions. And don’t worry about mind boggling menus because even people who are fluent in French don’t understand it all! The French love food so much they’ve developed words specific to certain dishes.

Controversial and unusual foods

Foie Gras, Escargot, Tripe, Boudin Noir, and the like are foods that quickly turn up the noses of many visitors. But you’ll be missing out on some of the most traditional French delicacies if you do. Just close your eyes, take a bite, and relish in how surprisingly delicious it tastes! If you’re not that adventurous, try duck confit, duck that’s marinated in fat for a few days and the slowly cooked. It looks appealing and tastes amazing.

Petit Suisse

Petit Suisses are small yogurt like cheeses that have a smooth velvety texture with a slight astringent taste. Add a dash of sugar and maybe a couple of raspberries on the top for a bit of crunch and you’ve got a traditional after-school snack. You can find them near the yogurts at the grocery store in small packs of four or six.
Cultural Tips for Traveling in France


Cultural Tips for Traveling in France

Just minimal skills of saying hello (bonjour!) and thank you (merci!) will get you a long way. French people get a somewhat undeserved reputation for being rude to tourists. They’re not super open to outsiders at first and can be easy to ruffle, but if you make moves to be polite and thankful, they’ll be thrilled you’re there.When shopping, it is polite to say “Bonjour!” to the shopkeeper when you enter and “Bonne Journee!” (have a good day) when you leave. Try the best you can to speak in French, even if you suck at it. They’ll think you’re cute and they LOVE to help you learn their beloved language. On the same vein, French people have no trouble telling you they think what you are doing is strange or wrong with just a series of looks. Don’t take it personally but consider if what you are doing is disturbing others.
Wine is a huge part of French culture and you can drink in public spaces like parks. However, doing so in the middle of the day in a non-tourist area is going to make you look very gauche and get some demeaning looks from more conservative French people.
In Paris, be sure to watch out for shady dealers around the big tourist attractions. Buying knock-off designer labels is a crime in France and can get you into trouble. As well, be wary of anyone tying a “friendship bracelet” around your hand! This is a technique to extort money from tourists so keep your hands in your pockets if you see a ton of strange people milling around staring at tourists.
Cheap travel in France

Travel on the Cheap in France

If you’re under 26, there’s all kinds of ways for you to save so be sure to ask if there’s a student discount. You don’t necessarily have to even be a student! Try registering for Eurorail cards that can give you discounts.
Train travel is relatively fast and can be cheap, if you buy at the right times. Planning your trip in advance will really help and you can score seats for as little at 14E. Buses are sometimes cheaper but can take forever so check prices and where the stations are to see if they’re worth the hassle it can be to get to them. Planes are typically the worst way to travel cheaply, even if you do use a cut-rate carrier, because most airports are usually far outside of cities.
Inside of cities, subways and trams can add up quickly so see if you can rent a bike pass for the time you’re staying or just walk. Most bigger towns have bike rental kiosks where you swipe a card and it gives you either a key to a bike or unlocks one for you to use. France is very bike friendly but be sure to obey rules and use bike lanes and never ride in the middle of a sidewalk. Walking really is the best way to get around because you’ll stumble into all kinds of things you’d miss otherwise.
Thanks so much for sharing, Kim!  I’m sure you guys have tons of great French travel tips to share!

photos one and three by kim //  photo two by vitanostra, for sale here // photo four by browntrout // photo five by leilah jouyanadeh // photo six by julien haler

20 Comments

Meli

I just got back from a trip to Marseille last weekend. Good tips!! Too bad I couldn't read them before I left..

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Kim Herrington

Marseille was one city I never really quite visited. I always passed through to get to other places and wandered around the area by the train station while waiting but never explored much. Wish I had!

My advice, however, is to try not to leave anything in a vehicle if you're renting a car in Marseille or at least keep it quite hidden. My best friend did so before returning to the US and lost everything, including her passport! Marseille is kind of notorious for things like that but keeping your wits about will keep you and your stuff safe, really!

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Sarah M

I actually loved Marseille more than Paris, but of course Paris is just such an experience….
I would add that the Paris metro was overrun with pickpockets when I traveled there. We were only in Paris for about 5 days before going elsewhere, but every time we got on the metro, (every time!) we found someone trying to pickpocket us–mostly teenagers.
France is seriously one of the places I've been to where the magic and whimsy of what you think it is–actually IS like that when you visit. Everything about it is lovely.
(haha, okay, except the Greve we experienced–the trash collectors were on strike! yikes!)
Sarah M

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Anonymous

you're right unfortunately Sarah about Paris and pickpocket (they come from east countries and since the opening of the Europe frontiers, they come from Roumania). But Marseille is also dangerous !! All the days, in the french newspapers, there is a man is shot in Marseille with a gun. It is not fluent in Paris. At 19 o'clock, the streets aroung "la cannebière" in Marseille are no more safe. Sorry for my bad english.
If you are interested to hear some french songs, go on YOUTUBE to see LES PIERRES PERCEES with their song UN REGARD DE TOI (karaoké)
Big kisses from France,
Jean

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jean poulain

you're right unfortunately Sarah about Paris and pickpocket (they come from east countries and since the opening of the Europe frontiers, they come from Roumania). But Marseille is also dangerous !! All the days, in the french newspapers, there is a man is shot in Marseille with a gun. It is not fluent in Paris. At 19 o'clock, the streets aroung "la cannebière" in Marseille are no more safe. Sorry for my bad english.
If you are interested to hear some french songs, go on YOUTUBE to see LES PIERRES PERCEES with their song UN REGARD DE TOI (karaoké)
Big kisses from France,
Jean

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jean poulain

you're right unfortunately Sarah about Paris and pickpocket (they come from east countries and since the opening of the Europe frontiers, they come from Roumania). But Marseille is also dangerous !! All the days, in the french newspapers, there is a man is shot in Marseille with a gun. It is not fluent in Paris. At 19 o'clock, the streets aroung "la cannebière" in Marseille are no more safe. Sorry for my bad english.
If you are interested to hear some french songs, go on YOUTUBE to see LES PIERRES PERCEES with their song UN REGARD DE TOI (karaoké)
Big kisses from France,
Jean

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Amy

Oh yay! I'm heading to Paris this summer and now I'm super-psyched! I actually spent two weeks every summer in Northern France with a friend during my early teens and it is just the most amazing place – sadly, the wine was off-limits to my 13 year old self and I was more conservative with my food tastes than I am now! Looking forward to indulging myself in August – thanks for sharing your tips 🙂 xx

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Kim Herrington

How exciting, Amy! I'm very jealous. I'm trying to plan a trip to France soon, now that I'm a full-time blogger and work at home (I used to work in government which doesn't really bode well for galavanting to France as I choose!).

If you have any questions about Paris, let me know. I'd be more than happy to help. Must sees for me are the catacombs and the Rodin museum!

And as for eating with gusto, just think "C'est la France! C'est pas grave!" It means "It's France! Nothing's wrong/bad/grave/everything is going good!" When I lived in France and times got rough or I felt out of my normal comfort boundaries, I'd use this to remind myself that I had worked hard to get to France after studying French for pretty much my whole life and that it was a once in a lifetime event. Eating tripe was totally gross but super memorable!

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anobion

Wonderful guide! I want to plan a trip right now! The only tip I would add is don't touch the fruit and vegetables at the market stands. I think that was the only thing I did that resulted in some very unhappy looks (and almost a hand slap). Otherwise, people were lovely and so helpful. I certainly agree that it is wonderful to get outside of Paris if you can. So much to see.

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Kim Herrington

Ha! I think that depends on region because I certainly touched produce when selecting some for myself. Though I guess if you're just browsing French people might see it as rude.

Makes me think of a phrase that means mind your own business: "a tes onions!"

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auroralapetite

I spent a couple of weeks in the Alps in Haute Savoie every summer when I was in university. I used to be there for the start of the hiking/ mountain biking season, and I have such great memories from it.

The locals really appreciated as well when I tried speaking French to them and of course, it helped me and my friends out to be able to speak French when we came across small cafes in hamlets when we were out biking.

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Kim Herrington

It certainly helps! My mom, who came with me, can't speak French for her life but always got great service and lots of smiles at her attempts. They thought it was pretty cute that she couldn't say Blois, the name of the town we stayed in for one part of our travels.

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iris

Looks lovely! I'll be in Paris for a week at the end of the month!

…small quibble. Isn't the plural of 'chateau', 'chateaux'?

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Kim Herrington

As I said on the other comment, to be correct in French, you need to make it agree. However, since this is in English, I anglicized the words to make sense to English speakers.
But thanks for the quip!

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Kim Herrington

Thanks! Sarah pulled some of these photos from other places but the first shot and the one of the strikes are mine from my travels in France!

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Rachael

I want to eat my way around France and I don't care how filthy that sounds; it's going to be a gluttonous vacation that would make Bacchus himself blush! Great post!

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