1. France in a nutshell
France is located in the centre of Europe. The west coast of France meets the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Biscay, while the warm south kisses the Mediterranean Sea. The Pyrénées mountain range is along the Spanish border. In the south east you’ll find the Alps near the Italian and Swiss borders with the Mont Blanc as western Europe's highest point (15,781 ft / 4,810 m).
France has the most visitors worldwide. And for a reason! It offers a large variety of things you like to see on your holidays: a wonderful city like Paris, good beaches, more castles than any other country, lovely nature and incredible mountain scenery.
France is also well known for its ‘haute cuisine’, its excellent wines, its long history and the ‘joie de vivre’ (joy of living) mentality. You’ll not only find this in Paris, but in the numerous nice towns and pleasant small villages throughout France. No wonder why so many French people want to spend their holidays in their own country!
- The French cheek kiss to greet each other between family, friends and even between men. The number of kisses varies according to the region, from 1 (e.g. in the tip of Brittany) to 4 (e.g. Paris and most of the North), and occasionally up to 5 in Corsica.
- In spite of foreign stereotypes, many French people can speak at least one foreign language, and English is the most widely spoken at 34%.
- More tourists visit France each year than any other country in the world, with 67 million annual tourist arrivals (more than the country’s population).
- Wines from the North of France (e.g. Alsace) are usually made from a single variety of grape (e.g. Pinot Noir), whereas wines further south are typically blends of varietals (e.g. Carbernet Sauvignon + Merlot), which is why they do not mention them on the label like in Australia, California, Chile or South Africa.
- French was the official language of England for over 300 years (from 1066 until the early 15th century). It is still the official language of 30 countries worldwide.
You can also view our Flickr photo album about France.
- Travel documents: Canadians and Americans only need a valid passport.
- Driver's license and registration: For none EU-members a valid national driver's license is sufficient. An international driver's license is not required. There are mainly 3 types of roads in France:
- Autoroutes (marked with an ‘A’): Express highways with tolls to be paid
- Routes Nationales (marked with an ‘N’): toll free motorways
- Routes Departementales (marked with a ‘D’): smaller scenic routes
- Medical passport: If you are using medication, ask your doctor for a ‘medical passport’, which details your affliction and what medicines you need to use. This prevents possible trouble with customs. You need a special license to bring in medicines that count as ‘controlled substances’.
- Insurance documents (travel/health)
- Tickets and reservations
- Money and credit cards
Like in most of Europe France has the euro as it’s currency. The seven euro notes come in denominations of € 500, € 200, € 100, € 50, € 20, € 10 and € 5. The eight euro coins are in denominations of € 2 and € 1, and 50, 20, 10, five, two and one cents. Currency exchange can be made in most banks (look for a sign indicating Change) and post offices as well as in some large stores, train stations, airports and exchange offices near major tourist sites.
Visa (but also Mastercard) credit cards are widely accepted in larger places, hotels, car hire etc. You will find that you cannot use your debit card in stores or restaurants, just in ATM machines. Many smaller places (and taxis) deal in cash only.
Traveller's cheques in Euros, although secure, are not universally accepted. You can not exchange them at banks, or most hotels, so you will probably need a trip to a post office to cash them. American Express now has a fee-free cashing arrangement at most post offices, but a commission of 3% is not uncommon.
Tipping in France
In France the law demands that the service/cover charge must be included in all prices displayed in bars and restaurants. It does not indicate that tipping is not welcome or expected in return for good service. As long as service has been good, you should generally leave a little extra by rounding up the bill. If you are in a bar, it would be appropriate to round the bill to the next euro and in a restaurant a little more, up to 10% if you're feeling generous - but it always depends what value for money you felt you got and how good the service was.
There are a variety of medical services available to you in France. Consultations and examinations by GPs, specialists, dentists etc, as well as emergency room facilities, will be provided at any hospital or health centre. You can also make an appointment for surgery or have a doctor visit you at your hotel. Doctors are either registered with the Department of Health (their fees are fixed) or are in a private practice (their fees will be more expensive).
There is always a doctor on call, but please be aware that home visits and consultations on Sundays and public holidays are always more expensive. To find out the addresses and telephone numbers of local doctors, ask at the police station or dial 15 (SAMU – medical emergencies). There is a wide network of pharmacies in most towns. Although their hours of business are usually the same as for stores (9am to 7pm/8pm), there is always a pharmacy open at night, Sundays and on public holidays.
4. Public transport
Public transport (transport public) services in France vary considerably according to where you live. They’re generally excellent in French cities, most of which have efficient local bus and rail services, many supplemented by underground railway and/or tram networks. French railways provide an excellent and fast rail service, particularly between cities served by the TGV, one of the world’s fastest trains. However, bus and rail services are sometimes poor or non-existent in rural areas. The best place to enquire about bus services is at a tourist office or railway station. A city bus is generally called an autobus and a country bus a car or autocar.
Train service in France is efficient, punctual and comfortable. It is one of the most popular ways to get around, allowing travellers to view the countryside in a swift, but leisurely manner. Language is not a problem, as at the stations signs are usually in English as well as French or easy-to-understand pictograms are used.
France's extensive railway network (SNCF, http://www.sncf.com/en_EN/flash/) connects large cities and towns throughout the country. This can be done through:
- Regional Trains (TER or, in Paris and suburbs, RER): medium distance within administrative region
- Corail trains: InterCity type trains throughout France, seat reservation compulsory
- TGV/iDTGV (high-speed train): high speed long distance trains, reservations are required. This high-speed network also includes European routes (i.e. Eurostar or Thalys).
In order to get cheaper ticket rates, you can book in advance at SNCF (see above). Also try to avoid peak departures, such as Friday/Sunday evenings and Monday mornings. It is essential to validate (composter) tickets bought in France by using the orange automatic date-stamping machine at the platform entrance.
Smaller towns without train stations are generally linked by bus service to the nearest station. Paris has an extensive bus network and it is a great way to see some Paris sights, but you can be stuck in traffic a lot. All buses run from Monday morning to Saturday evening and many run on Sundays and public holidays. Buses run from 5.30am until 8.30pm and many go on until 0.30am. At night the special ‘noctilien’ lines (night buses) take over.
Metro & RER
The Paris metro (underground) is extensive and the fastest way to get around the city. The metro line is identified by a number and runs from around 5am to 1.15am (plus one additional hour on Saturday night). The RER Commuter Train (underground & overground) travels not only in the city, but also to the suburbs. It has 5 train lines identified by letters A, B, C, D, E. It runs from around 5am to 1.30am. Metro maps will normally include both Metro and RER routes. Transport in and around Paris is operated by the RATP (http://www.ratp.fr/en/ratp/c_21879/tourists/). This organization provides a fully integrated bus, rail and underground metro network for the capital.
Taxis are only allowed to pick up from taxi ranks ("station de taxi" indicated by a square sign with "Taxi" in white on a blue background) or you can hail one in the street (if it is available, that is the "Taxi" sign on the roof should be fully lit, and the small lights under the sign should be switched off). The fare depends on the price and on the pick-up and the price per km. Check with the driver before starting if your ride takes you out of town and for transfers from airports. Normally there are extra fees for baggage, animals or a fourth person. Note that when called to pick up passengers, taxis add the cost of that journey to the fare. Tipping is customary but completely at your discretion. In general, taxi drivers are tipped 10-15% of the meter fare.
Just like most countries in Europe, France is safe to travel. Still, in order to have a hassle-free holiday in France you should take the usual precautions to protect yourself, your passport and other valuables when out and about. Try to utilize hotel safe facilities and if driving, do not leave valuables in the vehicle. In crowded areas like airports or train stations be aware of pickpockets and bag snatchers.
112 - General Emergency Number
15 - Ambulance
17 - Police
18 - Fire Department
- Bring an adapter for the 220Volts/AC system to charge your phone, computer, etc. (European - two round pins, 220Volts/50 Hz.)
- France is in the Central European time zone (Greenwich +1h)
- The international access code for France is +33. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). All numbers must be preceded by 0, whether originating in France or out, unless calling a mobile phone.
- National holidays in France: 1 January (New Year’s Day or Saint Sylvestre), Good Friday (Alsace and Lorraine only), Easter Sunday and Monday, 25 April (Liberation Day), 1 May (Labour Day), 8 May (WWII Victory Day), Ascension Day, Pentecost, 14 July (Bastille Day), 15 August (Assumption Day), 1 November (All Saints’ Day), 11 November (Armistice Day, end of WWI), 25 December (Christmas) and 26 December (Boxing Day, Alsace and Lorraine only)
- Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
- Georges Bizet (1838-1875)
- Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
- Erik Satie (1866-1925)
- Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
- Edith Piaf (1915-1963)
- Gilbert Bécaud (1927-2001)
- Johnny Halliday (1943)
- Julien Clerc (1947)
- France Gall (1947)
- Bouillabaisse (seafood soup with various fish and vegetables)
- Baguette (long, thin loaf of French bread)
- Ratatouille (provincial stewed vegetable dish)
- Coq au Vin (braise of chicken cooked with wine, lardons and mushrooms)
- Crème Brûlée (dessert: rich custard base topped with caramel layer)
- Jeanne d’Arc (1412-1431), national hero
- Samuel de Champlain (1570-1635), explorer, geographer, cartographer
- Voltaire (1694-1778), writer, historian, philosopher
- Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), sculptor
- Jean Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997), explorer, ecologist, film maker etc.
- Bernard Hinault (1954), cyclist and 5 time Tour de France winner
- Michel Platini (1955), former football player and president of UEFA
- Sébastian Loeb (1974), rally driver
- Mary Pierce (1975), Canadian-born French tennis player
- Alain Bernard (1983), swimmer
- Coco Chanel (1883-1971)
- Christian Dior (1905-1957)
- Hubert de Givenchy (1927)
- Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008)
- Jean-Paul Gaultier (1952)