France Travel Guide, France is a country located in Western Europe. Clockwise from the north, France borders Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany to the northeast, Switzerland to the east, Italy to the south-east and Spain to the south-west, across the Pyrenees mountain range (the small country of Andorra lies in between the two countries). The Mediterranean Sea lies to the south of France, with the Principality of Monaco forming a small enclave. To the west, France has a long Atlantic Ocean coastline, while to the north lies the English Channel, across which lies the last of France’s neighbours, England (part of the United Kingdom).
France has been the world’s most popular tourist destination for over twenty years (83.0 million in 2012) and it’s geographically one of the most diverse countries in Europe. Its cities contain some of the greatest treasures in Europe, its countryside is prosperous and well tended and it boasts dozens of major tourist attractions, like Paris, the French Riviera, the Atlantic beaches, the winter sport resorts of the French Alps, the castles of the Loire Valley, Brittany and Normandy. The country is renowned for its gastronomy (particularly wines and cheeses), history, culture and fashion.
A lot of variety, but temperate winters and mild summers on most of the territory, and especially in Paris. Mild winters and hot summers along the Mediterranean and in the southwest (the latter has lots of rain in winter). Mild winters (with lots of rain) and cool summers in the northwest (Brittany). Cool to cold winters and hot summer along the German border (Alsace). Along the Rhône Valley, there is an occasional strong, cold, dry, north-to-northwesterly wind known as the mistral.
Cold winters with lots of the snow in the Mountainous regions: Alps, Pyrenees, Auvergne.
France has numerous cities of interest to travellers, below is a list of nine of the most notable:
- Paris — the “City of Light”, romance and the Eiffel Tower
- Bordeaux — city of wine, traditional stone mansions and smart terraces
- Bourges — gardens, canals and a cathedral listed as a UNESCO heritage site
- Lille — a dynamic northern city known for its handsome centre and active cultural life
- Lyon — France’s second city with a history from Roman times to the Resistance
- Marseille — Third French city, big harbour and the heart of the Provence, hosting the European Capital of Culture in 2013
- Nantes — the “Greenest City” and according to some the best place to live in Europe
- Strasbourg — famous for its historical centre, and home to many European institutions
- Toulouse — the “Pink City”, for its distinctive brick architecture, main city of Occitania
- Camargue — one of Europe’s largest river deltas and wetlands
- Corsica — the birthplace of Napoleon, a unique island with a distinct culture and language
- Disneyland Paris — the most visited attraction in Europe
- French Alps — home to the highest mountain in Western Europe, the Mont Blanc
- French Riviera (Côte d’Azur) — Mediterranean coastline of France with plenty of upper class seaside resorts, yachts and golf courses
- Loire Valley — the world-famous Loire Valley, best known for its wines and chateaux
- Luberon — the stereotypical Provence of picturesque villages, joie de vivre and wine
- Mont Saint Michel — second most-visited sight in France, a monastery and town built on a tiny outcrop of rock in the sand, which is cut off from the mainland at high tide
- Verdon Gorge — beautiful river canyon in a turquoise-green, great for kayaking, hiking, rock-climbing or just driving around the limestone cliffs
Thinking of France, you might imagine the iconic Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe or the famous smile of Mona Lisa. You might think of drinking coffee in the lively Paris cafés where great intellectuals lingered in past times, or of eating croissants in a local bistro of a sleepy but gorgeous village in the countryside. Probably, images of splendid châteaux will spring to your mind, of lavender fields or perhaps of vineyards as far as the eye can see. Or perhaps, you’d envisage the chic resorts of the Cote D’Azur. And you wouldn’t be wrong. However, they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to France’s many sights and attractions.
Paris. the “City of Light” and the capital of romance has been a travellers’ magnet for centuries and a real must-see. Of course, no visit would be complete without a glance at its world famous landmarks. The Eiffel Tower is hard to miss, especially when it is lit beautifully at night, but the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and Sacré Coeur are both famous and stunning sights too. With no less than 3,800 national monuments in and around Paris, history is literally around every corner. Stroll through the city’s spacious green parks, with the Luxembourg Gardens as one of the favourites, and make sure to spend some time on the famous banks of the river Seine. Also, don’t miss the magnificent Palace of Versailles, the most grand reminder of the Ancient Regime located just 20 km away from the capital.
Bordeaux is famous for its wine but is also a bustling city with lots of historic sights to discover. It is listed as a World Heritage Site for being “an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble”. Lyon, the country’s second largest city, is listed too, and boasts a beautiful old centre as well as a number of Roman ruins. Strasbourg, one of the EU headquarters, has a character of its own, with clear German influences. Montpellier is one of the best places in the south, with lots of monumental buildings and nice cafés. In the west there’s the beautiful historic city of Nantes, home to the Château des ducs de Bretagne and many other monuments. The Capitole de Toulouse is situated right at the heart that famous university city’s street plan. Last but not least, don’t overlook Arles, with its World Heritage Listed Roman and Romanesque Monuments.
And then there are the magnificent cities of the Côte d’Azur, once the place to be for the rich and famous but now equally popular with a general crowd. Its sandy beaches, beautiful bays, rocky cliffs and lovely towns has made it one of the main yachting and cruising areas in the world as well as popular destination for land-bound travellers. There’s bustling Nice, where some 4 million tourists a year enjoy the stony beaches and stroll over the Promenade des Anglais. Avignon with its splendid ramparts and Palais-des-Papes was once the seat of popes. Although Saint-Tropez gets overcrowded in summer, it’s a delightful place in any other season. The same goes for Cannes, where the jet-set of the film industry gathers each year for the famous Cannes Film Festival. From there, you can hop on a boat to the much more peaceful Îles de Lérins.
Much smaller in size but just as gorgeous (and popular) are the perched villages of Gourdon and Èze, which is located on a 427 meter high cliff, much like an “eagle’s nest”. Both offer some stunning panoramic views. From Èze, its a very short trip to the glitter and glamour of Monaco. For the world’s millionaires and aristocracy, the green peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is an old time favourite with the impressive Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild full of impressionist art as its main sight. A bit more inland but well-worth a visit are the towns of Grasse, famous for its perfumeries, and Biot, known for its glass blowers. The huge city and arts-hub Marseille is usually not considered part of the Cote D’Azur, but is very close. It has plenty of historic sights and nearby are the stunning Calanques, a series of miniature fjords it shares with Cassis.
Countryside & villages
You haven’t seen the best of France if you haven’t had at least a taste of its amazing countryside, dotted with wonderful medieval villages and castles. There are great examples in any part of the country, but some 156 small towns have been identified as the most beautiful villages in France. The country’s landscapes vary from the snow-covered peaks of the Alps and the Pyrenees with their many winter sports resorts to lush river valleys, dense forests and huge stretches of farmland and vineyards. The Provence, backing a good part of the Côte d’Azur, is one of the most beloved regions. It has a typical Mediterranean atmosphere and is famous for its lavender fields and rosé wines. It’s also home to the stunning Verdon Gorge, one of the most beautiful gorges in Europe. The rolling riverine landscape of the Loire Valley is home to many great castles, of which Châteaux Amboise, Château de Villandry, Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord and Châteaux du Pin are some of the finest examples. The western region of Brittany reaches far into the Atlantic and boasts many megalith monuments such as those near Carnac. The beaches of Normandy, also on the Atlantic coast, are famed for the D-Day Allied invasion on June 6, 1944. Although the humbling Normandy American Cemetery and countless museums, memorials and war time remains keep memory of those dark days alive, the region is now a pleasant and popular destination. Its picturesque coast line includes both long stretches of beach and steep limestone cliffs, such as those near Étretat). The region is also home to the splendid and World Heritage listed Mont-Saint-Michel and its Bay. The lush hills of the Dordogne form another region famous for its castles, with over 1500 of them on its 9000 km2 area.
As the French have a real taste for art, the country has numerous art galleries and museums. Several of them are widely considered to be among the finest museums in the world of art, art-history, and culture. The grandeur and fame of the Musée du Louvre in Paris can hardly be matched by any other museum in the world. It boasts a fabulous collection of art from antiquity to the 19th century and is home of the Mona Lisa and many other renowned works. At just a 15 minute walk from there is the Musée d’Orsay, another world class museum that picks up roughly where the Louvre’s collections ends. It’s located in an old railway station and houses the national collection of art works from the 1848 to 1914 period. Its excellent collection includes some of the best French Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Art Nouveau works, including Degas’ ballerinas and Monet’s waterlillies. The Musée National d’Art Moderne in Centre Pompidou, still in France’s capital, is the largest museum for modern art in Europe. The Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon has an excellent collection varying from ancient Egypt antiquities to Modern art paintings and sculptures. In Lille you’ll find the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, one of the country’s largest museums. Its varied collection is second in size after the Louvre and boasts anything from antiquities to modern art. Smaller but still outstanding are the collections of the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi and the Picasso Museum in Paris. Marseille has many galleries and its Musée Cantini has a good collection of modern art associated with Marseille as well as several works by Picasso. Fondation Maeght houses modern art too and is situated in Saint-Paul de Vence.
Parks & natural attractions
Disneyland Resort Paris is by far France’s most popular park, visited by families from all over Europe. The country’s national parks have quite some visitors too though, due to their splendid scenery and great opportunities for outdoor sports. Vanoise National Park is the oldest and one of the largest parks, named after the Vanoise massif. Its highest peak is the Grande Casse at 3,855 m. The impressive natural landscapes of Parc national des Pyrénées are right on the southern border of France and extend well into Spain, where they are part of the Parc National Ordesa y Monte Perdido The whole area is listed as UNESCO World Heritage. In the French part, the glacial cirques of Gavarnie, Estaubé and Troumouse are some of the best sights, as is the wall of Barroud. The again mountainous Cévennes National Park covers parts of the Languedoc-Roussillon (including te popular Ardèche), Midi-Pyrénées and the Rhône-Alpes regions. Its headquarters is in the castle of Florac, but there are towns all over the park. Donkey rides are available and the Cave formation of Aven Armand is one of the parks’ best sights.
Not yet under a protective status but highly popular is Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe and attractive for climbing, hiking and skiing. From the French side, it is mostly explored from Chamonix, a well known resort on the foot of the mountain.
- Go to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
- Stroll grand Parisian Boulevards
- Climb Montmartre Hill in Paris
- See a managable amount of art in the Louvre, or see the art in the Orsay Museum, in a former train station
- See the modern architecture in the business district of La Defense
- See the Science Museum in Villette Park, and the other odd attractions assembled there
- Stroll an old train viaduct on the Promenade Plantee in Paris
- See the stunning, but crowded, Versailles Palace
- Ride the TGV, one of the fastest trains in the world, from Paris to Lyon
- See the “D-Day beaches” of Normandy
- Cross the beach at low tide and then climb to the top of Mont Saint Michel
- Explore Chartres Cathedral
- See the quaintness of the Alsace
- Sunbathe on the beaches of the French Riviera
- Ride a bike along a section of Tour De France
Many of the French take their vacations in August. As a result, outside of touristic areas, many of the smaller stores (butcher shops, bakeries…) will be closed in parts of August. This also applies to many corporations as well as physicians. Obviously, in touristy areas, stores will tend to be open when the tourists come, especially July and August. In contrast, many attractions will be awfully crowded during those months, and during Easter week-end.
Some attractions, especially in rural areas, close or have reduced opening hours outside the touristic season.
Mountain areas tend to have two touristic seasons: in the winter, for skiing, snowshoeing and other snow-related activities, and in the summer for sightseeing and hiking.
France has the euro (EUR, €) as its sole currency along with 23 other countries that use this common European money. These 23 countries are: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain (official euro members which are all European Union member states) as well as Andorra, Kosovo, Monaco, Montenegro, San Marino and the Vatican which use it without having a say in eurozone affairs and without being European Union members. Together, these countries have a population of 327 million.
One euro is divided into 100 cents. While each official euro member (as well as Monaco, San Marino and Vatican) issues its own coins with a unique obverse, the reverse, as well as all bank notes, look the same throughout the eurozone. Every coin is legal tender in any of the eurozone countries.
Some foreign currencies such as the US dollar and the British Pound are occasionally accepted, especially in touristic areas and in higher-end places, but one should not count on it; furthermore, the merchant may apply some unfavourable rate. In general, shops will refuse transactions in foreign currency.
It is compulsory, for the large majority of businesses, to post prices in windows. Hotels and restaurants must have their rates visible from outside (note, however, that many hotels propose lower prices than the posted ones if they feel they will have a hard time filling up their rooms; the posted price is only a maximum).
Almost all stores, restaurants and hotels take the CB French debit card, and its foreign affiliations, Visa and Mastercard. American Express tends to be accepted only in high-end shops. Check with your bank for applicable fees (typically, banks apply the wholesale inter-bank exchange rate, which is the best available, but may slap a proportional and/or a fixed fee). If ever the merchant requires a minimum amount before purchasing, then they will post it in writing at the till or the shop’s entrance.
French CB cards (and CB/Visa and CB/Mastercard cards) have a “smart chip” on them allowing PIN authentication of transactions. This system, initiated in France, has now evolved to an international standard and newer British cards are compatible. Some automatic retail machines (such as those vending tickets) may be compatible only with cards with the microchip. In addition, cashiers unaccustomed to foreign cards possibly do not know that foreign Visa or Mastercard cards have to be swiped and a signature obtained, while French customers systematically use PIN and don’t sign the transactions.
There is (practically) no way to get a cash advance from a credit card without a PIN in France.
Automatic teller machines (ATM) are by far the best way to get money in France. They all take CB, Visa, Mastercard, Cirrus and Plus and are plentiful throughout France. They may accept other kinds of card; check for the logos on the ATM and on your card (on the back, generally) if at least one matches. It is possible that some machines do not handle 6-digit PIN codes (only 4-digit ones), or that they do not offer the choice between different accounts (defaulting on the checking account). Check with your bank about applicable fees, which may vary greatly (typically, banks apply the wholesale inter-bank exchange rate, which is the best available, but may slap a proportional and/or a fixed fee; because of the fixed fee it is generally better to withdraw money in big chunks rather than €20 at a time). Also, check about applicable maximal withdrawal limits.
Traveller’s cheques are difficult to use — most merchants will not accept them, and exchanging them may involve finding a bank that accepts to exchange them and possibly paying a fee.
Note that the postal service doubles as a bank, so often post offices will have an ATM. As a result, even minor towns will have ATMs usable with foreign cards.
Exchange offices (bureaux de change) are now rarer with the advent of the Euro – they will in general only be found in towns with a significant foreign tourist presence, such as Paris. Some banks exchange money, often with high fees. The Bank of France no longer does foreign exchange.
Do’s Put money into your checking account, carry an ATM card with a Cirrus or Plus logo on it and a 4-digit pin that does not start with ‘0’ and withdraw cash from ATMs. Pay larger transactions (hotel, restaurants…) with Visa or Mastercard. Always carry some € cash for emergencies.
Don’t’s Carry foreign currency ($, £…) or traveller’s cheques, and exchange them on the go, or expect them to be accepted by shops.
Inside city centre, you will find smaller stores, chain grocery stores (Casino) as well as, occasionally, department stores and small shopping malls. Residential areas will often have small supermarkets (Champion, Intermarché). Large supermarkets (hypermarchés such as Géant Casino or Carrefour) are mostly located on the outskirts of towns and are probably not useful unless you have a car.
Prices are indicated with all taxes (namely, the TVA, or value-added tax) included. It is possible for non-EU residents to get a partial refund upon departure from certain stores that have a “tax-free shopping” sticker; inquire within. TVA is 20.0% (as of January 2014) on most merchandise, but 10.0% on some things such as books, restaurant meals, and public transport and 5.0% on food purchased from grocery stores (except for sweets and candies!). Alcoholic beverages are always taxed at 20%, regardless of where they’re purchased.
With its international reputation for fine dining, few people would be surprised to hear that French cuisine can certainly be very good. Unfortunately, it can also be quite disappointing; many restaurants serve very ordinary fare, and some in touristy areas are rip-offs. Finding the right restaurant is therefore very important – try asking locals, hotel staff or even browsing restaurant guides for recommendations as simply walking in off the street can be a hit and miss affair.
There are many places to try French food in France, from three-star Michelin restaurants to French “brasseries” or “bistros” that you can find at almost every corner, especially in big cities. These usually offer a relatively consistent and virtually standardised menu of relatively inexpensive cuisine. To obtain a greater variety of dishes, a larger outlay of money is often necessary. In general, one should try to eat where the locals do for the best chance of a memorable meal. Most small cities or even villages have local restaurants which are sometimes listed in the most reliable guides. There are also specific local restaurants, like “bouchons lyonnais” in Lyons, “crêperies” in Brittany (or in the Montparnasse area of Paris), etc.
Chinese, Vietnamese, even Thai eateries are readily available in Paris, either as regular restaurants or “traiteurs” (fast-food). They are not so common, and are more expensive, in smaller French cities. Many places have “Italian” restaurants though these are often little more than unimaginative pizza and pasta parlors. You will also find North African (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian) as well as Greek and Lebanese food. The ubiquitous hamburger eateries (US original or their French copies) are also available; note that McDonalds is more upmarket in France than in the US.
In France, taxes (7 per cent of the total in restaurants) and service (usually 15 per cent) are always included in the bill, so anything patrons add to the bill amount is an “extra-tip”. French people usually leave one or two coins if they were happy with the service.
Fixed price menus seldom include beverages. If you want water, waiters will often try to sell you mineral water (Évian, Thonon) or fizzy water (Badoit, Perrier), at a premium; ask for a carafe d’eau for tap water, which is free and safe to drink. Water never comes with ice in it unless so requested (and water with ice may not be available).
As in other countries, restaurants tend to make a large profit off beverages. Expect wine to cost much more than it would in a supermarket.
Ordering is made either from fixed price menus (prix fixe) or à la carte.
A typical fixed price menu will comprise:
- appetizer, called entrées or hors d’œuvres
- main dish, called plat
- dessert (dessert) or cheese (fromage)
Sometimes, restaurants offer the option to take only two of three steps, at a reduced price.
Coffee is always served as a final step (though it may be followed by liquors). A request for coffee during the meal will be considered strange.
Not all restaurants are open for lunch and dinner, nor are they open all year around. It is therefore advisable to check carefully the opening times and days. A restaurant open for lunch will usually start service at noon and accept patrons until 13:30. Dinner begins at around 19:30 and patrons are accepted until 21:30. Restaurants with longer service hours are usually found only in the larger cities and in the downtown area. Finding a restaurant open on Saturday and especially Sunday can be a challenge unless you stay close to the tourist areas.
In a reasonable number of restaurants, especially outside tourist areas, a booking is compulsory and people may be turned away without one, even if the restaurant is clearly not filled to capacity. For this reason, it can be worthwhile to research potential eateries in advance and make the necessary reservations to avoid disappointment, especially if the restaurant you’re considering is specially advised in guide books.
A lunch or dinner for two on the “menu” including wine and coffee will cost you (as of 2004) €70 to €100 in a listed restaurant in Paris. The same with beer in a local “bistro” or a “crêperie” around €50. A lunch or dinner for one person in a decent Chinese restaurant in Paris can cost as little as €8 if one looks carefully.
Outside of Paris and the main cities, prices are not always lower but the menu will include a fourth course, usually cheese. As everywhere beware of the tourist traps which are numerous around the heavy travelled spots and may offer a nice view but not much to remember in your plate.
All white bread variants keep for only a short time and must be eaten the same day. Hence bakers bake at least twice a day.
- The famous baguette: a long, thin loaf
- Variants of the baguette : la ficelle (even thinner), la flûte
- Pain de campagne or Pain complet: made from whole grain which keeps relatively well.
Pastries are a large part of French cooking. Hotel breakfasts tend to be light, consisting of tartines (pieces of bread with butter or jam) or the famous croissants and pains au chocolat, not dissimilar to a chocolate filled croissant (but square rather than crescent shaped).
Pastries can be found in a pâtisserie but also in most boulangeries.
Every French region has dishes all its own. These dishes follow the resources (game, fish, agriculture, etc) of the region, the vegetables (cabbage, turnip, endives, etc) which they grow there. Here is a small list of regional dishes which you can find easily in France. Generally each region has a unique and widespread dish (usually because it was poor people’s food):
- Cassoulet (in south west) : Beans, duck, pork & sausages
- Choucroute, or sauerkraut (in Alsace) : stripped fermented cabbage + pork
- Fondue Savoyarde (central Alps) : Melted/hot cheese with alcohol
- Fondue Bourguignonne (in Burgundy) : Pieces of beef (in boiled oil), usually served with a selection of various sauces.
- Raclette (central Alps) : melted cheese & potatoes/meat
- Pot-au-feu boiled beef with vegetables
- Boeuf Bourguignon (Burgundy) : slow cooked beef with gravy
- Gratin dauphinois (Rhone-Alpes) : oven roasted slices of potatoes
- Aligot (Auvergne) : melted cheese mixed with a puree of potatoes
Bouillabaisse (fish + saffron) (Marseille and French Riviera). Don’t be fooled. A real bouillabaisse is a really expensive dish due to the amount of fresh fish it requires. Be prepared to pay at least €30/persons. If you find restaurants claiming serving bouillabaisse for something like €15/persons, you’ll get a very poor quality.
Tartiflette (Savoie) Reblochon cheese, potatoes and pork or bacon.
Confit de Canard (Landes) : Duck Confit, consists of legs and wings bathing in grease. That grease is actually very healthy and, with red wine, is one of the identified sources of the so-called “French Paradox” (eat richly, live long).
Foie Gras (Landes) : The liver of a duck or goose. Although usually quite expensive, foie gras can be found in supermarkets for a lower price (because of their purchasing power) around the holiday season. It is the time of year when most of foie gras is consumed in France. It goes very well with Champagne.
Cooking and drinking is a notable part of the French culture, take time to eat and discover new dishes..
Contrary to stereotype, snails and frog legs are quite infrequent foods in France, with many French people enjoying neither, or sometimes having never even tasted them. Quality restaurants sometimes have them on their menu: if you’re curious about trying new foods, go ahead.
- Frogs’ legs have a very fine and delicate taste with flesh that is not unlike chicken. They are often served in a garlic dressing and are no weirder to eat than, say, crab.
- Most of the taste of Bourgogne snails (escargots de bourgogne) comes from the generous amount of butter, garlic and parsley in which they are cooked. They have a very particular spongy-leathery texture that is what is liked by people who like snails. Catalan style snails (“cargols”) are made a completely different way, and taste much weirder.
Let us also cite:
- Rillettes sarthoises also known as Rillettes du Mans. A sort of potted meat, made from finely shredded and spiced pork. A delicious speciality of the Sarthe area in the north of the Pays de la Loire and not to be confused with rillettes from other areas, which are more like a rough pate.
- Beef bone marrow (os à moelle). Generally served in small quantities, with a large side. So go ahead: If you don’t like it, you’ll have something else to eat in your plate.
- Veal sweetbread (ris de Veau), is a very fine (and generally expensive) delicacy, often served with morels, or in more elaborates dishes like “bouchees a la reine”.
- Beef bowels (tripes) is served either “A la mode de Caen” (with a white wine sauce, named after the town in Normandy) or “A la catalane” (with a slightly spiced tomato sauce)
- Andouillettes are sausages made from tripe, a specialty of Lyon
- Tricandilles are seasoned and grilled pork tripe from the Bordeaux region
- Beef tongue (langue de bœuf) and beef nose(museau) and Veal head (tête de veau) are generally eaten cold (but thoroughly cooked!) as an appetizer.
- Oysters (Huîtres) are most commonly served raw in a half shell. They are often graded by size, No1 being the largest (and most expensive).
- Oursins (sea urchins) For those who like concentrated iodine.
- Steak tartare a big patty of ground beef cured in acid as opposed to cooked, frequently served with a raw egg. Good steak tartare will be prepared to order at tableside. A similar dish is boeuf carpaccio, which is thin slices or strips of raw steak drizzled with olive oil and herbs.
- Cervelle (pronounced ser-VELL), lamb brain.
Vegetarianism is not as uncommon as it used to be, especially in larger cities. Still, very few restaurants offer vegetarian menus, thus if you ask for something vegetarian the only things they may have available are salad and vegetable side dishes.
There may still be confusions between vegetarianism and pesce/pollotarianism. Vegetarian/organic food restaurants are starting to appear. However, “traditional” French restaurants may not have anything vegetarian on the menu, so you may have to pick something “à la carte”, which is usually more expensive. Veganism is still very uncommon and it may be difficult to find vegan eateries.
Breakfast in France isn’t the most important meal of the day and is usually very light. The most typical breakfast consists of a coffee and a croissant or some other “viennoiserie”, but since it implies going to the baker’s store early in the morning to buy fresh croissant, it’s typically reserved for somewhat special occasions. On normal days most people have a beverage (coffee, tea, hot chocolate, orange juice) and either toasts (“tartines” made of baguette or toast bread with butter and jam/honey/Nutella) that can be dipped in the hot beverage, or cereals with milk. People who eat healthy may go for fruits and yoghurt. As a general rule, the french breakfast is mostly sweet, but everything changes and you can have salty breakfasts everywhere today.
Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, the Loire Valley… France is the home of wine. It can be found cheaply just about anywhere. Beer (lager) is also extremely popular, in particular in northern France, where “Biere de Garde” can be found. The alcohol purchase age was recently raised to 18 for all drinks, but this is not always strictly enforced; however, laws against drunk driving are strictly enforced, with stiff penalties.
Wine and liquors may be purchased from supermarkets, or from specialized stores such as the Nicolas chain. Nicolas offers good advice on what to buy (specify the kind of wine and the price range you desire). In general, only French wines are available unless a foreign wine is a “specialty” with no equivalent in France (such as port), and they are classified by region of origin, not by grape.
Never drink alcoholic beverages (especially red wine or strong alcohol such as cognac) directly from a 70 cl bottle. Such behaviour is generally associated with bums and drunkards (though if you are surrounded by college students, you may be OK). Drinking beer from a 25 to 50cl can or bottle is ok.
Prices of food and beverages will vary on whether they’re served to you at the bar or sitting at a table – the same cup of espresso might cost €0.50 more if served at a table than at the bar, and €0.50 more again if served out on the terrace. Really, you’re not paying so much for the beverage as for the table spot. Do consider the bar, though – while you will have to stand, café bars are often where a great deal of public discourse and interaction happens. In any event, cafés are required by law to post their prices somewhere in the establishment, usually either in the window or on the wall by the bar. Note also that cafés in touristy areas, especially in Paris, tend to serve very expensive food of rather average quality. Unless you are dying of hunger or thirst, avoid the places that have menus in multiple languages or are near heavily-trafficked attractions. Instead, consider buying snacks and beverages from a grocery store and enjoying them in a nearby park.
There are a couple of mixed drinks which seem to be more or less unique to France, and nearby francophone countries.
- Panaché is a mix of beer and lemonade, basically a beer shandy. (Same as “Radler” in Central Europe.)
- Monaco is a Panaché with some grenadine syrup added.
- Kir is a pleasant aperitif of white wine (in theory, Bourgogne Aligoté) or, less frequently, of champagne (then named kir royal and about twice the price of regular kir) and cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), or peche (peach), or mûre (blackberry).
- Pastis is an anise-based (licorice-flavored) spirit, similar in taste to Sambuca or Ouzo, that is served with a few lumps of sugar and a small pitcher of cold water to dilute the liquor. It is traditionally enjoyed on very hot days, and as such is more popular in the south of the country but available more or less everywhere.
There is a variety of bottled water, including:
- Évian, Thonon, Contrex, Volvic: mineral water
- Perrier: fizzy water
- Badoit: slightly fizzy and salty water.
Hotels come in 5 categories from 1 to 5 stars. This is the official rating given by the Ministry of Tourism, and it is posted at the entrance on a blue shield. Stars are awarded according to objective yet somewhat outdated administrative criteria (area of the reception hall, percentage of rooms with ensuite bathroom…).
Rates vary according to accommodation, location and sometimes high or low season or special events.
As of 2004, the rate for a *** hotel listed in a reliable guidebook falls between €70 (cheap) and €110 (expensive) for a double without breakfast.
All hotels, by law, must have their rates posted outside (or visible from outside). Note that these are maximal rates: a hotel can always propose a lower rate in order to fill up its rooms. Bargaining is not the norm but you can always ask for a discount.
Hotels located in city centres or near train stations are often very small (15-30 rooms) which means that you should book ahead. Many newer hotels, business oriented, are found in the outskirts of cities and are sometimes larger structures (100 rooms or more); they may not be easy to reach with public transportation. The newer hotels are often part of national or international chains and have high standards. Many older hotels are now part of chains and provide standardized service but they retain their own atmosphere.
When visiting Paris, it is essential to stay in the city; there are cheaper tourism hotels in the suburbs, but these cater to groups in motor coaches; they will be hard to reach by public transportation.
Along the highways, at the entrance of cities, you find US-like motels ; they are very often reachable only by car. Some motels (e.g. Formule 1) have minimal service, if you come in late you find an ATM-like machine, using credit cards, which will deliver a code in order to reach your assigned room.