The Ultimate Guide to France

Bienvenue vers la France!

France, with its splendid beauty, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, attracting more than 80 million tourists each year. There are a hundred or more reasons why France attracts travelers from around the world: a city, a mountain range, cathedrals, museums, a French cheese, a chateaux, or simply the charme Francais (French charm). All of these things together creates a country that never ceases to amaze visitors.

Enjoy the view and the scent of the lavender field in Aix-en-Provence
Enjoy the view and the scent of the lavender field in Aix-en-Provence. Photo by GWT

Paris, often called the City of Romance, is the country's capital city, which offers countless attractions from the breathtaking Eiffel Tower to the Notre Dame Cathedral. The Louvre Museum and the Picasso Museums showcase the historical masterpieces of legendary artists Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso. The cities of Lyon and Marseille are equally delightful, with countless world-renowned French architectural masterpieces. On the other hand, Cannes, Nice, and St. Tropez provide some of the most fantastic beaches in the country.Visitors can experience the delightful French countryside as well, with its distinct culture and spectacular scenery- the towering Alpine peak of Mont Blanc to the sea cliffs of the Atlantic coasts. 

France is truly the home of wines and cheeses. The popular Petit Swiss (little swiss cheese) of Gervais are originally from Normandy, France, and not from Switzerland. There are more than 400 varieties of cheese and 450 kinds of wine produced within the nation’s borders. France also produces a good majority of the world's favorite spirits, such as Grand Marnier, Cognac, and Mandarine Napoleon. 

Geography & Demographics

France is the largest country in Western Europe, composed of lush plains, rich mountains, and beautiful coasts. Due to its high- yielding resources, France leads the European Union in food exports. More than half of France is composed of vast plains, and the nation hosts Western Europe’s highest peak in the Alps of Southern France, Mont Blanc. France borders the Atlantic Ocean (Bay of Biscay) and La Manche (the English Channel), situated between Belgium and Spain, and the Mediterranean Sea..

The climate is temperately cold in most of France, except near the mountains or in the northeast, with cool winters and mild summers. Southern France is generally warm, with mild winters and hot summers, making it an ideal place for grape vineyards. French wine is considered to be one of the best tasting wines in the world, hence the reason France is the largest wine producer internationally.

People & Culture

French people are known for good fashion sense and bonne nourriture (good food). They are courteous people, but also frank and usually direct to the point.

Language

French is the official language of France, a language spoken by over 300 million people in the world, an official language in over 40 countries. It is very important for tourists to learn the French language. A tourist needs the skill to speak French to be able to communicate with the local people. Your trip to France will be more productive and enjoyable if you are able to relate to French people. Speaking their language shows respect. French people appreciate foreign visitors who put a lot of effort in speaking the language. It will also be easier for you to understand French culture once you learn to speak their language.

There are lots of ways to learn French. You can get a personal tutor. Many tutorial classes are available in Paris and other cities. One effective measure to learn French is to enroll in a language school.

Etiquette

French people observe formal etiquette. They are very particular with manners and they put this into practice across all situations.

The handshake is commonly used in France when people meet one another for the first time, in both social and business settings. It is also customary to shake hands before leaving as well. Close friends greet each other by kissing each other on the cheeks (la bise). When inside an establishment or in public, people typically greet one another with bonjour (good morning), bonsoir (good afternoon), and "au revoir," (goodbye) when they arrive and when they are leaving. To show respect, always address people with the title Monsieur or Madame when meeting them for the first time or conducting business. 

Social Settings

The French love to drink together and mingle or socialize when they attend parties. Dinner is often accompanied by a glass of wine, which is traditionally filled only about three quarters full. Party guests are expected to bring with them a gift, such as flowers, a cheese dish, or a bottle of wine. Keep in mind that flowers should be given in odd numbers, but never 13 since this is believed to be an unlucky number. There are also some particular kinds of flowers that should not be given to the host or hostess, to avoid offending him or her. Any kind of white flower should only be used during weddings, and white lilies or chrysanthemums are only used during funerals. Additionally, red carnations are believed to symbolize bad will, so they should be avoided completely. When giving wine, guests should choose the best in class, because the French are very selective with their wines. Lastly, during dinner guests are expected to put their arms above the table instead of in their lap.

Business Settings

In business, individuals are expected to maintain eye contact when talking with clients or colleagues, illustrating that full attention is being given to them. Business in France is conducted slowly, and always follows protocols. You must not show impatience, since French see impatience as unprofessional. In general, French people are appreciative of one’s ability to debate, however, individuals should avoid showing a confrontational attitude. Those who display too much of a directive attitude will often cause potential or current clients to back out of business transactions. During business meetings, attire should be extremely professional and elegant. Men and women alike should wear tailored suits, and proper dress pants and skirts are expected as well.

Gestures

It is very important to learn, comprehend, and be mindful of French gestures (Les gestes francais) when traveling to France, in order to prevent uncomfortable miscommunications. The following list of gestures are some basic French gestures that every traveler should know about:

  • Il a un poil dans la main - an expression used to express that someone is being lazy, is done by opening the palm of your hand and acting as if you are pulling something from it.
  • Delicieux! (delicious) - is used to express that you are satisfied and happy with the food. This gesture is done by kissing the tip of your fingers and acting as if you are tossing something into the air.
  • Un, deux, trois - the French way of counting, beginning with the thumb as Un, the index finger as deux, and the middle finger as trois.
  • On a sommeil - an expression used to express that someone is asleep or you are sleepy, done by resting your closed palms against one cheek.
  • Il est cingle - this gesture is done by pointing your index finger to your temple and twisting it, which indicates that someone is crazy.
  • Ca pue- is done by holding your nose to show that something smells bad.
  • Rien - completed by making a circle by placing the tip of your finger against your thumb, to express "nothing."
  • Je le jure - done by French people to express that they are true to their promise, demonstrated by putting your hand on top of your head.
  • C'est fini! - used to express that you are already done with a task, completed by crossing your arms in front of your chest and then moving them out.
  • Parfait - expressed by squeezing your thumb and index finger, to indicate that something is close to perfection.

Food

France is known for its bonne nourriture et bon vin (good food and good wine). French cuisine is considered to be one of the world's most sophisticated cuisines. Each region of France has their own particular style of cooking. Northwest France is known for using butter and cream in their dishes frequently; southeast France uses olive oil and fragrant herbs; eastern France is famous for sausages, sauerkraut, and beer. France is also popular for its many varieties of cheeses and wine.

French people believe that a good dish will lose its flavor if it’s not served with the right wine. A light wine is good with a light dish. A strong wine is perfectly paired with a flavorful dish. Spicy dishes go best with a dry rose or tannic red and white wine. Lastly, dry wine should be served with dessert, however a sweet wine should be drank with pungent desserts.

There are even more wine choices to consider when it comes to meat. Choose a red wine for white meat. Roasts do best with a tannic red wine, and Cahors or a Madiran goes best with pork. Chignon and rabbit stew are perfect together, as well as red Burgundy and beef bourguignon. Finally, Chateaeneuf-de-Pape is great with lamb chops.

For cheeses, white wine should be paired with dry goats cheese. Sauternes is best with roquefort, while gewurztraminer is good with munster. Hard cheeses, like gouda and emmenthal, are perfect with Tokay Pinot gris, while soft cheeses, like camembert, are best with a Bordeaux or a Cotes-du-Rhone.

Religion

France is a secular country. According to law, the church and the state are separated. There are, however, five major religions common in France: Catholicism, which is the traditional religion of France, Protestantism, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. The French government provides complete freedom of religion as a constitutional right.

Festivals and Holidays. France is one of the countries in Europe with the richest festival and holiday traditions. The French observe ten national jours feries, or holidays, annually, on top of numerous local ones.

Sports

Sports in France play an important social role, bringing people together to socialize. Sports like football, cycling, basketball, skiing, swimming, sailing, hockey, and tennis are popular among active locals quite equally; it is estimated that over 10 million individuals in France participate in organized sports regularly. The Tour de France, one of the world’s most well-known cycling races, is hosted in France and entails a three-week long road race around France, and sometimes even to neighboring countries.

Currency Information

The official currency in France is Euro, which was introduced to world’s financial markets in 1999 and replaced the French franc in 2002. You can exchange Euros (EUR) at banks, bureaux de change, and in hotels or airports. Credit cards and travelers cheques are also accepted regularly in France.

Things to Do

Museums

There are over 1, 000 museums in France which welcome an estimated 70 million visitors annually. The Louvre, Chateau de Versailles, and the Musee d'Orsay each easily have over 10 million visitors yearly. These museums are protected by the Ministry of Culture. Many French people enjoy going to museums during weekends, so it is better for visitors to schedule museum visits during weekdays to avoid big crowds.

Parks

French people love the leisure of having a walk in parks, taking a jog, eating their lunch, or simply relaxing with wine and cheese. There are numerous parks and gardens in France to visit, and also meet people at.

Nightlife

French people are fun-loving so the nightlife in France is often the highlight of social life. Some nightclubs and bars will charge entrance fees or require that a minimum amount of money be spent, while others are have free admittance. Casinos are also popular among French people; there are over 100 public casinos in France.

Transportation

Subways

The Paris metro is fast, efficient, inexpensive, and easy to use. You can buy a carnet of 10 tickets, or buy a card which offers unlimited travel on the subway and bus lines for a set number of days. Similar metro conveniences exist in other major cities around France, although there is not a metro in Angers. It is generally much more economical to buy carnets or month-long passes for all transportation, rather than buying individual tickets. 

It is not uncommon for students to try to “sneak” on and off buses and metros without purchasing a ticket or without validating one; individuals dol sometimes get away with this, but BEWARE because there are comptrollers who will often get on a car or wait outside the exit to check every passenger’s ticket. If you do not have a pass or a validated ticket, they will fine you several hundred Euros, and most of the time you are required to pay immediately.

Buses

Most towns in France have bus systems, and Angers is no exception in this case. You can buy individual bus tickets, but if you plan to ride the bus often, it is advisable to buy a bus pass. Bus service is generally very good and runs frequently throughout the day, however at night time it is common for fewer buses to be in service or to quit running altogether. If you depend on a bus to get home late at night, watch your time to make sure you leave early enough or plan to walk, or you’ll have to take a taxi home.

Rail

France has a very extensive and efficient networks of trains, which provide the easiest and most economical way to travel within and outside of France. Most have first and second class, and tariffs are typically reasonable.

Health & Safety

Medical Facilities

Medical standards in France are high and therefore medical facilities are comparable to the United States and other developed countries in Europe.

Culture Shock

Due to cultural differences, it is not uncommon for travelers to experience culture shock in France. This occurs when individuals have a hard time adjusting to a culture totally different from what he or she is used to. Listed below are some practices and customs, which may appear unusual or different to most foreign travelers, in France to help combat culture shock before it happens:

  • French people believe in taking their time. For example, obtaining important documents will probably take longer than what you were used and most French people also take their time in eating.
  • French people mind their own business and they seldom greet strangers they meet on the streets.
  • It is normal for people to walk in front of you to reach for something. French people do not consider it rude to do so.
  • French people are not very observant of street signs and nobody minds.
  • Most French people park their cars wherever there's a space.
  • Driver's licenses in France do not expire and most French people drive fast.
  • "Squat toilets" are common in France. 
  • French people mean what they say most of the time.

Here are some tips to help you properly adapt to French culture:

  • Learn to enjoy your meal. There is no need to hurry. Most French people eat with no hurry.
  • Attempt to learn to speak French.
  • Adapt to the French schedule, which means you should know the usual time French people eat lunch, go to work, go shopping, and take part in other activities. 
  • Avoid leaving a large tip when eating out. 
  • Dress like the French do, casually but elegantly.

Women and Travel

France is generally safe for women travelers. However, a woman who is traveling to France should take the necessary precautions to avoid attracting or encountering dangerous situations. As always, it is unsafe to walk through deserted and dark roads during the night time and individuals are more vulnerable to danger when they travel alone.

LGBT

France is considered one of Western Europe's most unprejudiced country when it comes to LGBT (gay,lesbian, bisexual, transgender) acceptance and understanding. Lesbians, gays, and bisexuals are free to exercise their rights as any other member of society. Trendy gay clubs and bars are available in Les Halles and Le Marais in Paris, which act a the city centers of gay and lesbian communities and activities in France. The Paris Gay Pride Parade and Festival is an LGBT event held every summer. This festive activity is attended by millions of people each year and is the the community's way of expressing their freedom of expression and advocate for gay and lesbian rights.

Passport & Visa

A passport is required to enter France. A visa may be required for foreign visitors to France depending on your nationality, the length of your stay. and the purpose of your trip.

Visit GoAbroad’s Embassy Directory to find a French embassy or consulate in your home country.

Travel Programs in France

To find study abroad programs in France check out GoAbroad’s Study Abroad Directory.

Search through GoAbroad’s Teach Abroad Directory for teaching jobs or the Jobs Abroad Directory for employment positions located in France.

Take the opportunity to learn French through language courses based in France, find a program in GoAbroad’s Language School Directory.

Get internship experience in France, explore placement options in GoAbroad’s Intern Abroad Directory.

Find a volunteer program in France through GoAbroad’s Volunteer Abroad Directory.

Enjoy Adventure Travel in France, Choose a Program in GoAbroad’s Adventure Travel Directory.

Earn a full degree in France, find a program in GoAbroad’s Degrees Abroad Directory.

Take TEFL Certification Courses and earn a TEFL Certificate in France.