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.
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?
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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!