It should come as no surprise that, if you ask 100 different people why they recommend a trip to France, you'll likely get 100 different answers. Yes, those who know little but the basics will spout off the names of countless unmistakable Parisian landmarks, but let's broaden our horizons a little, hmm? Beyond the castle-dotted vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux and Champagne; beyond the sun drenched beaches of the French Riviera and the Ile de Ré; beyond the film festival at Cannes, the rolling pastures of Auvergne, and the trademark bouchons of Lyon - just what is it about this European republic that makes it the single most visited country on Earth? Two words, friends: A lot.
Culture lovers rejoice! You're in a land that was first settled by the Greeks, where Louis XIV demonstrated uncanny solar prowess and from which one of the world's greatest military generals nearly conquered the entire Eurasian continent! Needless to say, there are thousands of years of art, history and tradition at your fingertips. Paris alone houses well over 100 museums, including the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou (the most important modern art museum in Europe), but history abounds in all forms here. Take the traboules of Lyon, for example: covered 4th century textile passageways that played an important role in foiling German occupation during WWII. News to you, right? Everywhere you go there are these kinds of experiences; a culture steeped in incredibly historic significance.
But in case you're getting the impression that this is a country bent on basking in the glories of yesteryear, just head to a bar in Toulouse (France's Silicon Valley) during a Stade Toulousain rugby match. You see, while it might be kitschy to think of France as a land of stuffy, baguette-carrying cigarette smokers, the stereotype does no justice to the reality. Not only is France equipped with all the tech and high-speed transport a millennial traveler could want, but its geography is ripe with adventure possibilities that too often go overlooked. There's world class surfing just west of Bordeaux, Mediterranean diving off the southern coast, limestone climbing at the Gorges du Verdon and, of course, Olympic-class skiing and boarding in the beautiful French Alps. The list could go on indefinitely, but hopefully we've made our point. Because once the food has been tasted and the wine drunk, there's no shortage of reasons to explore the France that exists beyond the overwhelming cliches. It's your move.
US citizens, as well as citizens from most American and European nations and those holding a Schengen (or "C") Visa, can enter France with naught but a valid passport for visits of up to 90 days. If you're still not sure where you stand, check out the official government site for info on obtaining a visa, or the French consulate to see if your country makes the cleared list.
A founding member state of the European Union, France has utilized the Euro as its official currency since 2002. One of these bad boys will set you back approximately: 1.35 USD, .85 GBP, 8.26 CNY. For up to the minute exchange rates, click here.
France is a democratic, social Republic comprised of 22 administrative regions that perform important legal functions of their own. The president and his/her appointed prime minister head up the executive branch of government, while Parliament (the National Assembly and the Senate) and an independent judiciary round out the trio. The country is currently in its 5th Republic, the first of which was established in 1792 amidst the goings on of a certain French Revolution.
When it comes to other languages, the French are a tricky bunch to nail down. On the one hand, they hold their native tongue close to their hearts. There's even an official academy (L'Academie Francaise) dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of this beautiful, complex idiom. On the other, this is the 21st century, and the fact that the country's percentage of English speakers is increasing with each passing generation shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. Nevertheless, should you insist on speaking English (or any other foreign language), expect more than a little difficulty getting around in all but the most touristy places. It's France, after all. Like it or not, if you're looking to mingle with the locals, you'll be expected to converse in French. Looks like it's time to brush up on the basics.
France is by and large a safe country to visit, with a stable government, reliable economy and national police force composed of La Police Nationale and the military-based National Gendarmerie. Large urban centers such as Paris and (in particular) Marseille suffer from crime rates similar to other comparably-sized cities around the world, the majority of them involving nonviolent pickpockets anc other such relatively petty thefts. While it's true that public demonstrations can be a fairly regular occurrence nationwide, these events rarely amount to anything more violent than the occasional street scuffle and traffic jam. Overall, travelers to France are encouraged to follow common sense guidelines such as avoiding public transportation alone at night, keeping passports and wallets well secured and being aware of their surroundings in order to have a hassle free stay in the country.
Being a modernized European nation, France is pretty much accessible by whichever means suit you best. Most common, however, is the SNCF - the country's highly developed train system consisting of both regular and high speed lines. Travelers also have access to an American-style network of highways (bus/car), a well-supplied arsenal of national/international airports and over 8,000 km of navigable waterways (for those who prefer a more leisurely pace).
In terms of urban public transportation, you’ll be relieved to know that just about every major city in France is equipped with a metro or tramway network. This includes Paris (although, surprisingly, it doesn’t run 24 hrs/day), Marseille, Lyon, Bordeaux and Tolouse. For most travelers, this constitutes the most accessible and affordable means of getting around town, although taxis are plentiful and the nearly ubiquitous public bike-shares are a blast in warmer months. And at the risk of sounding like your mother, even in trusty France it’s always good to exercise caution when using public transit alone or late at night.
Due to its variety of mountainous and coastal regions, the weather in France can vary greatly depending on your location. In general, however, you can divide the country into 5 climate zones: Oceanic, Semi-Oceanic, Mountainous, Continental and Mediterranean. Northern and western France experience relatively mild temperatures year round thanks to the Atlantic, a trend that diminishes as you work your way towards the center of the country. Mountainous areas around the Alps, Jura and Pyrenees ranges have cooler and wetter annual weather, while eastern landlocked France has more drastic extremes in temperature from season to season. If you’re coming for sun, however, your best bet will absolutely be the Mediterranean south, with plenty of UV rays and lots of warmth to cheer up the forlorn adventurer. Here’s a little handy visual aid to help make sense of things.
Regardless of what you’re accustomed to at home, tipping in France is not the local norm by any stretch. Why? Because a service fee is always included on the bill at restaurants and bars. If you’re feeling particularly generous, go ahead and leave an extra 5% by way of a euro or two in the tray, but we reiterate that this is viewed as a kindness and in no way an obligation. The same rule applies for taxis as well. Typical dinner time in the land of the Louvre rarely starts before 7:30 pm, which is a good guide to go by for most western European nations. And if you happen to be dining out in the city, you’ll be hard pressed to find a restaurant serving dinner much earlier than 8.
If you want to purchase alcohol legally in France, 18 and up is the age to do it. Because hefty fines can be levied against establishments that serve to minors, underage visitors will have a fairly difficult time trying to get into many bars and clubs, especially in larger cities. As for WHAT you’ll be drinking, well, the answer to that is fairly simple; while levels of beer, liquor and cidre consumption here are nothing to scoff at, France’s claim to fame is undoubtedly its celebrated selection of world-class wines. Indulge in some of planet Earth’s finest varieties from regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne. You’ll find the price to quality ratio is tilted pleasantly in your favor.
Should you manage to get yourself a little wined-out during your stay, consider sampling another native French offering: authentic Cognac. Named after the eponymous southwest town in which it’s produced, this traditional digestif is best enjoyed after an incredible meal (which shouldn’t be hard to come by).
Peak season:Mid June - August
Religion:Predominantly Roman Catholic
Festival of Lights
Lyon, Dec. 8th. A celebration in honor of the Christian Virgin Mary, Lyon's Festival of Lights is composed of a brilliant display of electric illumination emanating from street parades and windows across the city. Especially noteworthy are the lights at both Notre-Dame de Fourvière and Terreaux Square.
Bordeaux Wine Festival
Bordeaux, Late June. This is wine drinking sans raised pinky. A celebration of the city's infamous intoxicant, as well as all things Bordeaux, the Wine Festival pairs over 80 regional wine vendors with great music and an all out festive atmosphere. Often held in conjunction with other lively festivals.
July 14th. Marking the storming of the Bastille Prison and the start of the French Revolution, Bastille Day is France's most important national holiday.
Cannes Film Festival
Cannes, Mid-May. A party that needs no introduction, the Cannes Film Festival has become the world's most recognized celebration of art cinema. If you have money to blow, come live it up with the titans of the film industry and be the first in your circle to take in diverse flicks from around the globe.