Introduction to France
France is a country of diverse cultures, breathtaking landscapes, and tantalizing cuisines. For many, Paris is all they know of France. While Paris is a city of incredible sights, sounds, food, and drink, the rest of France also has much to offer. Whether it’s the wind-whipped coasts of Brittany, the sun-drenched sandy beaches of the Riviera, or the snow-capped Alps, France has something that is sure to suit your fancy.
France’s reputation for gastronomy and wine is derived from the specialties of its varied agricultural regions. A wine map of France will show you where to find the delicate reds of Burgundy, the crisp whites of Saone, the champagnes of Champagne (where else?), and the hearty reds of the Languedoc. Markets in most towns and cities of any size will feature fresh local produce, meats, and fish.
Passports & Visas
Passports are required to enter and leave France (unless you are entering or leaving from another European Union country.) Visas are not required for US citizens for visits of less than 90 days. For longer visits, contact the nearest French embassy.
For more passport related information contact:
Consulate General of France
4101 Reservoir Rd. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20007
Obtaining a US passport
The US Government Website is where to start.
For local consulates, look under Consulates on the Website
US Embassy in France
2, avenue Gabriel
75382 Paris Cedex 08
Switchboard: +33 1 43 12 22 22
Fax: +33 1 42 66 97 83
France Tourist Information
Culture and History
We think this is an excellent overview of the culture and history of France.
France’s currency is the Euro. Travelers checks are not as accepted by French vendors as they were in the past. They are a hassle and usually have a terrible exchange rate and/or service fee.
Practically every town in France has an ATM machine; usually they are connected to a bank. There are some in the Charles de Gaulle airport, so you can get cash immediately after you land in France. Check the logos on the back of your card and try to find an ATM with the same logo to ensure low/no service charge. Before leaving on your trip, make sure to alert your bank to the fact that you will be traveling overseas so that they do not put a hold on your card once they see the first few European transactions go through.
Credit cards are also a convenience for hotels, restaurants, and souvenirs. The taxis will even take credit cards. Be prepared, credit card companies often assess a service charge or transaction percentage as well as deducting for the exchange rate they think is appropriate.
Be sure to keep your credit card information (card number and telephone number to call) in a safe place (not with you) when you are walking about. (We keep ours in the room or hotel safe along with our passports and airline tickets.) That way, if your card is stolen you can report it easily. If you are a couple traveling together, by each of you carrying a different card, you will have at least one valid card if one gets lost or stolen.
Since 2007, travelers carrying more than the equivalent of 10,000 Euros in cash or traveler’s checks into or out of the EU must declare the funds with customs officials, as part of anti-terrorism and money laundering controls.
Driving in France
Driving in France is not difficult. What we would call “turnpikes” or “freeways” are known as “autoroutes” or “autoroutes à péage” if a toll is charged. There are also national and departmental roads (see below).
Rental cars are readily available in cities and many larger towns from both international and domestic companies.
The minimum driving age is 18 for cars and 15 for motorcycles under 125cc. Speed limits are posted along the side of the road. All passengers must wear seat belts. Emergency breakdown service: Tel: 17 (from roadside boxes).
Electricity in France
France is on a 220-volt system. You can buy converters to bring with you so many of your 120-volt appliances will work in Europe. These typically cost around $30-40 if they are universal converters that work in several European countries. Be sure to check that your appliance is the type that works well with a particular converter.
Most computers work on both 120 and 220 volts. When shopping for other appliances (hair dryer, curling iron, etc,) look to see that they are for use on both voltage systems (many are). Then you just need to turn a lever on your dryer or curling iron to convert it or it might do it automatically. You will still need to bring along the two-prong adapter so it will plug into the France-style outlet. Adapters are very inexpensive (just a few dollars). Remember, the small adapter will not convert the voltage so be sure your appliance is OK for 220 volts before plugging it in, or you’ll see the sparks fly.
Dial: 15 for medical assistance, 17 for police, and 18 for fire or accident.
if you are calling from a mobile phone you should dial the Single European emergency call number of 112.
Etiquette in France
A handshake is a common form of greeting throughout most of France. However, friends often greet each other by lightly kissing on the cheeks, once on the left cheek and once on the right cheek (or more, depending on the region). In general, the French tend to be more formal when first meeting someone than most Americans would be. Always use “madame,” “mademoiselle,” or “monsieur” followed by the person’s last name. First names are typically reserved for family and close friends. You are expected to say “bonjour” or “bonsoir” (good morning and good evening) followed by “monsieur or “madame” when entering a shop and ‘au revoir’ (good-bye) when leaving. Avoid eye contact when passing people on the street or on public transportation, such as the Metro.
Public Hours in France
In Paris and in most of northern France, banks are typically open from 9:00am to 4:30pm-5:00pm, Monday to Friday. Certain banks close from 1pm to 3pm, and some are open Saturday mornings. Banks in small towns are usually open from 10am to 1pm and from 3pm to 4:30pm, Tuesday to Saturday.
Post offices are usually open from 8:00am or 8:30am to 5pm or 6pm in the cities on weekdays, and Saturdays from 8am until noon or so. In smaller towns, opening hours are often later, around 9am, with a two-hour break for lunch and closing times range between 4:00 and 5:00pm.
The usual opening hours for shops are 9:00 or 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, Tuesday through Saturday. Outside of Paris, most businesses close between 1pm to 3pm, although it is becoming more common for shops and supermarkets in larger towns and cities to stay open during this time. Most shops are closed on Sunday, although outdoor markets are typically in full swing, and some supermarkets are open in the morning.
Most museums are closed on either Monday or Tuesday, and many museums close for lunch and hours change with the seasons. The majority are closed on national holidays. However, some of the larger ones, the Louvre, for example, are open nights during the week.
Violent crime is relatively rare in most parts of France. However, the crime rate against tourists (mostly theft) has increased slightly, so it is important for travelers to take responsibility for their own safety. Always keep your wallet concealed and be aware of your surroundings. Distracted tourists make ideal targets!
It is useful to know that:
Criminals commonly target vehicles with non-local license plates.
They also frequent places where tourists are likely to be found, such as airports, train stations and trains, beaches, hotels, subways, restaurants, museums, and monuments. The metro is one of the prime locations for pick-pocketing.
Keep an eye on your bags, carry-on luggage, purses and wallets at all times. It is a good idea to keep photocopies of travel documents and credit cards with you, but make sure they are always kept separate from the originals.
Leave all valuable items (jewelry, travelers checks, credit cards, airplane tickets, etc) in a hotel safe or security box at the place you are staying.
Beware of people on the street offering you flowers, bracelets, etc. They will force it into your hand and then force you to pay for it (and make a scene if you refuse). Another common trick is for one thief to distract a tourist in some way, by asking for directions or accidentally bumping into someone, while an accomplice steals a backpack, wallet or purse.
France is in the Central European Time (CET) zone. (GMT + 1 hour).
Tipping in France
Bills in bars and restaurants are required by French law to include service, however it is customary to round out your bill with some small change for the wait staff. In expensive restaurants, it’s common to leave an additional 5% of the bill on the table if you are extremely satisfied with your experience.
Taxi drivers and hairdressers typically receive tips that total about 10% of the bill. In some theaters, restaurants and hotels, cloakroom attendants may expect nothing (pay attention to signs that say “Pourboire Interdit” — tipping forbidden); otherwise, give them €0.75. Washroom attendants usually get €0.30, and this sum is often posted. Train and airport porters get a fixed sum (€0.90 – €1.50) per bag. Museum guides should get €1.50 – €3 after a guided tour. It is standard practice to tip bus drivers about €1.50 after an excursion.
If you stay more than two or three days in a hotel, it is suggested that you leave about €1.50 per day for the maid. However, if she does some pressing or laundering for you, give her €0.75 – €1.50 on top of the bill. If the hotel’s concierge has given you quite a bit of assistance during your stay, it is recommended that leave a tip of €8 – €16, depending on the type of hotel and the level of service you received.
Weather in France
France has four distinct climates. On the west coast, you will find a temperate maritime climate, where winters are mild (7 deg C/45 deg F in January), summers are cool (16 deg C/61 deg F in July), and rainfall is frequent (800 mm/32 in) for 180 days of the year.
In the inner regions, expect to experience a mid-latitude continental climate, with hotter summers (average July temperature of 18 deg C/64 deg F in PARIS) and colder winters (average January temperature of 2 deg C/36 deg F in Paris).
France is home to the Pyrenees and the Alps, so expect to find a mountain climate in the areas where temperatures are influenced mainly by altitude, and winters are generally long and cold. Precipitation increases with elevation, manifesting as snow in winter; many villages in the high valleys receiving more than 50 days of snow each year. Most villages in the Alps have an average temperature of -2 deg C (28 deg F) in January, and 17 deg C (63 deg F) in July; annual precipitation averages 587 mm (23 in).
Along the Mediterranean coast, you can expect hot, dry summers, mild and humid winters, and a small number of rainy days during the year. The average temperature is 7 deg C (45 deg F) in January and 23 deg C (73 deg F) in July.
Main Sights in France
Each region of France offers fascinating sites, steeped in history. Here is a brief overview of some of the most famous.
The Eiffel Tower was built by a renowned French engineer, Gustave Eiffel, in honor of the centenary of French Revolution in 1889. The Eiffel Tower is constructed from 18, 038 pieces of iron, rises to over 300 meters above the ground and weighs around 7, 000 tons. The top levels of the tower provide breath-taking views of Paris. The Louvre Museum is the largest art museum in the world, displaying art from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and western art from the Middle Ages to 1848. The world-famous Mona Lisa is the most popular attraction of the Louvre Museum. Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Its construction was started in 1163 during the reign of Louis VII and was completed roughly 200 years later in approximately 1345. Notre Dame was the first cathedral in France to be built on a truly monumental scale, and it became a prototype for future cathedrals built throughout France. This 2 km long and 70 meters (235ft) wide, tree-lined Avenue des Champs-Élysées has many cinemas, cafes, car showrooms, and luxury shops. Built in an old train station, the Musée d’Orsay houses a rich collection of art from second half of 19th century to early 20th century. The museum showcases many famous Impressionist and Post-impressionist works.
Normandy (north of Paris):
Giverny is the former home of the greatest Impressionist, Claude Monet. This is also the location of the American art museum, devoted to the American impressionists and Post-impressionists. The Normandy Beaches – the site of the D-Day Landings in World War 2 – includes Juno Beach, Utah Beach and the others. The landings are commemorated by museums and the war graves of the thousands who died there.
The Loire Valley:
Orleans is the regional capital; a historic city on the banks of the Loire River. Blois is a historic town on the northern bank of the Loire; home to a magnificent Renaissance castle. Tours is the largest city in the region, and boasts a beautiful historic center with old half-timbered houses, St Gatien’s cathedral, and a castle.
Provence (the south of France):
Cannes is a Riviera city famous for its festivals and business conventions, and particularly for its annual Film Festival. Saint Paul de Vence is a small medieval walled village not far from Nice. For years, it has been popular with artists and musicians and, as a result, is home to many galleries and museums. Saint Tropez is a chic coastal resort, popular with film stars and TV personalities.
Getting Around in France
Most international flights arrive at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris. The main airline connecting towns and cities within France is Air France.
Boats and Ferries
There are thousands of miles of navigable waterways in France. Canals and rivers thread through the entire country. Boats up to 15 meters in length can be chartered for self-skippering without a special license. Hotel boats accommodating from four to hundreds cruise the rivers and canals
Car ferries connect the larger islands on the Atlantic coast with the mainland as well as the island of Corsica.
French Railways (SNCF) (tel: (0) 825 888 088 or 3635 from within France; ) operates a nationwide network with 34,200km (21,250 miles) of line, over 12,000km (7,500 miles) of which has been electrified. The TGV (train à grande vitesse) runs from Paris to Brittany and southwest France at 300kph (186mph), to Lyon and the southeast at 270kph (168mph) and to Strasbourg and the east at 320kph (199mph).
Transport in and around Paris is operated by the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (RATP) (tel: (0) 892 687 714 or 3246) from within France. This organization provides an integrated bus, rail and underground métro network for the capital city. Motorail car sleeper services are operated from Boulogne, Calais, Dieppe and Paris to all main vacation areas in both summer and winter.
Motorail information and booking is available from Rail Europe – tel: 0844 848 4064, in the UK.
InterRail One-Country Pass: offers travel for three, four, six or eight days in one month within France. Travel is not allowed in the passenger’s country of residence. Travelers under 26 years receive a reduction. Children’s tickets (for children up to the age of 11) are reduced by about 50%. Supplements are required for some high-speed services, seat reservations and couchettes. Discounts are offered on Eurostar and some ferry routes. Available from Rail Europe
Cheap Fares: It is possible to buy various kinds of tickets in France (including Family and Young Person’s Tickets), including reduced fares. In general, the fares charged will depend on what day of the week and what time of the day one is traveling; timetables giving further details are available from SNCF offices.
Note: It is essential to validate (composter) tickets bought in France by using the orange automatic date-stamping machine at the platform entrance.
Driving in France
As in the US, traffic drives on the right. Motorways (autoroutes) are marked with an ‘A’; some are free while others are toll roads (autoroutes à péage). National roads (routes nationales) are marked ‘N’. Minor roads are maintained by the départements (departments) rather than by the government and are classed as ‘D’ roads.
Car Rentals: Available from international and domestic companies. It is recommended that you book a rental car from your home country.
Regulations: The minimum age to drive a car in France is 18 and 15 for a motorcycle under 125cc. The minimum age for hiring a car in France ranges from 21 to 25.
Speed limits are 50kph (31mph) in built-up areas, 90kph (56mph) outside built-up areas, 110kph (68mph) on dual carriageways separated by a central reservation, and 130kph (81mph) on motorways. Visitors who have held a driving license for less than two years may not travel faster than 80kph (56mph) on normal roads, 100kph (62mph) on dual carriageways and 110kph (68mph) on motorways.
Random breath tests for drinking and driving are common. The maximum legal alcohol to blood ratio is 0.5g (against 0.8g in the UK). All passengers must wear seat belts. Under-10s may not travel in the front seat. Drivers must carry a red warning triangle for use in the event of a breakdown. UK drivers must adjust all headlamp beams for rightside driving by use of beam deflectors or (on some cars) by tilting the headlamp bulbholder.
Emergency breakdown service: Tel: 17 (from roadside boxes).
Documentation: A national driving license is acceptable. An international sign, distinguishing your country of origin (eg GB sticker or plate), should be positioned clearly on the vehicle. EU nationals taking their own cars to France are strongly advised to obtain a Green Card. The car’s registration document must also be carried. UK registered vehicles displaying Euro plates (circle of 12 stars above the national identifier on a blue background) no longer need a GB sticker when driving in EU countries.
Urban public transport is excellent. There are comprehensive public transport systems in all the larger towns and cities.
Paris: RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens) controls the subway (métro), rail (RER) and city bus services in and around Paris. The public transport network is split into several different fare zones and a single ticket will allow travel on any of the systems within that zone (although interchange is only permitted on the métro and RER, and not on buses).
Other useful transport links provided by the RATP include Orlybus and Roissybus (special airport buses), Orlyval (rail service linking RER stations of Antony and Orly airport) and Montmartre funicular (special railway connecting the foot of Montmartre to the top, near the Sacré-Coeur church). For the Orlybus and Roissybus, travellers need a special ticket which is on sale on buses and airport terminals. The Metro was built during the Paris Exhibition in 1900. Its dense network of 14 lines in the central area makes the métro the ideal way to get about in Paris. The RER (fast suburban services) operate five main lines connecting most areas of the capital. There is also an extensive network of conventional suburban services run by French Railways (SNCF), with fare structure and ticketing integrated with the other modes of public transport. A comprehensive bus network operates within the city and taxis are reliable, yet expensive.
Other cities: There are tramways, trolleybuses and an underground in Marseille; trolleybuses, an underground and a funicular in Lyon; and a tramway and automated driverless trains in Lille. There are tramway services in St Etienne, Nantes and Grenoble and trolleybuses in Limoges and Nancy. The systems are easy to use, with pre-purchase tickets and passes. Good publicity material and maps are usually available.
No permit is required to carry medication in your luggage. However, you should pack your medication in its original container and/or have your doctor’s prescription with you. Customs officials will have to be satisfied that you are not importing more than would be necessary for your personal use, taking into account the drug type and length of stay (for no more than three months).
Lodging in France
France offers every type of lodging from couchsurfing, to hostels and agritourism , to 5-Star resorts.
This guide tells you about the Paris neighborhoods (arrondissements) to help you decide where to stay. Our Favorite Luxury Hotels,
4-Star Hotels, 3-Star and Budget Hotels
Hotel Recommendations for the rest of France
Check out EuropeUpClose.com’s city guides for our hotel recommendations.
Public Holidays in France
The French celebrate 12 national jours feriés (holidays) each year. During the month of May, there is a holiday practically every week, so be prepared for stores, banks and museums to be closed for several days at a time. Moreover, the months of July and August are typically when the French go on vacation. Therefore, the less touristy parts of France are quiet during these months, whereas coastal resorts, especially in the south, are very crowded. If there is a place you really want to visit during your stay and you will be in France in May, July or August, it is a good idea to call in advance to make sure the location will be open.
1 January – New Year’s Day (Jour de l’an)
1 May – Labor Day (Fête du premier mai)
8 May – WWII Victory Day (Fête de la Victoire 1945; Fête du huitième mai)
14 July – Bastille Day (Fête nationale)
15 August – Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Assomption)
1 November – All Saints Day (La Toussaint)
11 November – Armistice Day (Jour d’armistice)
25 December – Christmas Day (Noël)
26 December – 2nd Day of Christmas (in Alsace and Lorraine only)
Easter Monday (April)
Ascension (40 days after Easter)
Telephones in France
Useful Country Codes:
USA and Canada 1
Returning to the US
Customs,VAT & Duty Free
When you return to the U.S., you’ll need to declare everything you bringing back that you did not take with you. If you are traveling by air or sea, you may be asked to fill out a Customs Declaration Form provided by the airline or cruise ship. Keep your sales slips. Try to pack the things you’ll need to declare separately. Read the signs in the Customs area; they contain helpful information about how to clear Customs.
For complete information on Customs, look at the U.S. Government Customs Website
Value Added Tax (VAT or IVA) Refund Information
We have found it such a hassle to try to reclaim the VAT tax that we simply do not bother. If however, you will be spending a great deal of money, it might be worth the many steps you will need to go through.
Travelers to France from outside the EU are entitled to a reimbursement of the 16 % V.A.T. (Value Added Tax, IVA in France) they pay on all purchases as long as the purchases add up to no less than 90 Euros in the same store and on the same day. The vendor must provide the purchaser with a duly filled out invoice which shows the price of each good included in the paid V.A.T. , as well as the identification (name and address) for both vendor and purchaser. The goods must be brought out of the European Union within three months from the date of purchase.
At the time of departure from France and final departure from the European Union territory, and before checking in your baggage, you must bring your invoice(s) and the merchandise purchased to the France Customs office in order for them to process your V.A.T. refund claim (there is a specific booth for this purpose just prior to the entrance to the international area at the international port, gate or airport).
U.S. and Canadian citizens may bring goods into or from France and the rest of the European Union up to a certain value before having to pay custom duties, excise taxes, or VAT (Value-Added Tax). You should keep the following in mind:
U.S. and Canadian citizens aged 15 and over and traveling by air or sea may bring articles totaling 430 Euros (approx.$545) into France duty and tax-free. Land and inland waterway travelers can bring duty-free goods worth 300 Euros (approx. $380) in their personal luggage
Individuals over 17 may also purchase and import certain duty-free items from France up to a certain limit. This includes tobacco and alcoholic beverages, motor fuel, and medications. Fragrances, coffee, and tea may now be imported into the EU with no restriction on amounts, as long as the value does not exceed the monetary limits listed above. Limits for other items are (be sure to check and make sure these limits are still the same before you leave):
Cigarettes: 200 units
Cigarillos: 100 units (max. 3 grams each)
Cigars: 50 units
Still wines: 4 liters
Beer: 16 liters
Spirits over 22 degrees volume: 1 liter
Fortified wines, 22 degrees volume or less: 2 liters
Medications: Varies according to traveler’s health requirements
Motor fuel: Quantities equal to that found in a normal full fuel tank, or in an emergency can, not exceeding 10 liters.
Duty and tax exemptions are strictly individual. You cannot apply them to a group. Items worth more than the maximum exempt amount will be subject to duties and taxes.
You can bring personal items such as guitars or bicycles to France and not be charged any taxes or fees as long as the items are clearly for personal use. You may not sell or dispose of these while in France. All personal items declared to customs upon entry into France must be transported back with you.