Visiting France for the First Time? Here’s Everything You Need to Know
France is one of my favorite countries in the world. From the low Normandy beaches to the peak of the French Alps, this country is geographically diverse with an astounding ancient history and vibrant culture. There are a few things you should know before visiting France for the first time so you can have the best trip possible! These tips are especially important when visiting Paris for the first time! I’m covering 10 of the most important things you should know, including basic transportation in France, tipping in France, and France food culture.
It’s really important to mentally prepare yourself before visiting France for the first time as well! Some people who visit Paris with very high expectations set themselves up for disappointment, and in extreme situations, this can lead to a rare (and bizarre) condition called Paris Syndrome.
Geography: French Regions and Landmarks
Paris is the most visited city in France, and it is located in the Ile de France region, which is located in the northern central area of the country. I’ve written a number of guides for Paris, including a guide to Paris nightlife. In addition to the standard landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Louvre Museum (find top tips for visiting the Louvre here), and Montmartre, Ile de France is also home to Versailles and Disneyland Paris.
The Provence Alpes Cote d’Azur region, located in south eastern France, is home to the famous French Riviera (where the Cannes Film Festival is held), the beautiful Verdon Gorge, and the pastoral fields of Provence, where you can visit the historic Les Baux des Provence Village.
To the north, Normandy is home to the stunning Mont Saint Michel and the moving D-Day beaches.
These are just a handful of landmarks from a few of the many regions in France. Throughout the rest of the country, you can find regal castles, areas famous for their wonderful wines, and ancient Roman ruins. Depending on your interests, there’s something in France for you- wonderful parks, glamorous beaches, and world class art and shopping.
Although French is the official language of France, many people speak at least one other language. In Paris (and other large cities), lots of people speak English and are willing to work with you as long as you’re polite! The French used to have a reputation of being cold towards English-speaking tourists, but I did not have that experience once in 6 months living there. Bonus points if you try elementary French- they really appreciate it. I didn’t have any trouble getting by on VERY basic French (and gestures) when traveling to even very small towns in France. You might have the occasional waiter who doesn’t understand English, so make sure to learn the words for anything you’re allergic to ahead of time and keep the important addresses for your hotels in your phone so you can show taxi drivers where you need to go.
Like most European countries, France uses the Euro. If you’re coming from the USA, you can likely ask your bank at home to order some Euros for you ahead of time if you want cash in your pocket when you arrive. If you want to wait to get cash until you arrive, make sure to go to an official bank once you’re in the city. Airport exchanges have terrible rates, and ATMs will likely charge expensive fees. Ask your home bank if they have a partner bank abroad where you can withdraw cash without fees.
Tipping in France
Tipping in France is a little different than it is in the states. At restaurants, the service charge covers what Americans would normally add as a tip, so there is no need to add an additional tip! You’ll notice at some restaurants, there are separate prices for “a sur place” and “emporter.” “A sur place” means you will eat the dish at the restaurant, and it is more expensive than the “emporter” (take away) price because it includes a service charge. At bars and cafes, just a small tip is welcome (think around 10% for good service). For cab drivers, I normally just rounded up as long as it was within a euro or two (French taxi drivers have a reputation for ripping people off, so watch your meter!). Generally, tipping in France is a lot more low-key than it is in the US.
France has a fabulous public transportation system. Public transportation in Paris consists of the metro (underground train), buses, and overground trams. There are lots of metro stops throughout Paris, making it the most convenient travel option within the city. It’s also pretty inexpensive (1.80 euros per ride), and relatively easy to understand once you get a handle on the city.
If you’re traveling outside of Paris, there are lots of trains that can take you all over the country. If you don’t want to take the train, or if you’re looking for a less expensive option, there are lots of low-cost bus companies like OuiBus that can take you around France!
There are also several car rental companies in France if you want to drive yourself. To rent a car in France, you have to be at least 21 and have had your license for at least a year. We drove a lot in France, and we thought the roads were great.
You can take taxis in France, and Uber is still currently operating despite serious opposition from taxi drivers. Cabs can be expensive, and I know tourists have issues getting ripped off by cab drivers, so make sure to ask the price ahead of time if you’re taking a trip that could be expensive (like an airport transfer).
Transportation Strikes in France
One of the biggest shocks that I had when I moved to France was the prevalence of strikes. The transportation workers are some of the most frequent strikers, and their strikes can often impact your travel plans. These strikes are usually planned ahead of time, so just check online ahead of your trip so you know when to expect interruptions. Air traffic controllers regularly strike, causing flight delays and cancellations, so planning ahead and checking is crucial. This is so important when you’re visiting France for the first time.
Airports in Paris
If you’re traveling in or out of the French capital, you’ll probably be going through one of the many airports in Paris. Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport is the main international airport in Paris, and it’s located to the northeast of the city. You can get to the center of Paris from CDG using public transport (the metro), bus, or a taxi. Orly (ORY), another major international airport, is located to the south of Paris, and it is accessible via the RER (a fast public transport train), bus, or taxi. Paris Beauvais Tille (BVA) is the farthest from the city, and it is often frequented by budget airlines. To get to this airport from Paris (or vice versa), you have to either take a somewhat expensive bus or taxi. I preferred flying into CDG because it was the most accessible airport for me, but I know when I lived in Paris, many inexpensive flights from Paris left through BVA.
France Food Culture
France is known for its incredible food and renowned wines, so you’ll probably want to indulge in the French food culture when you’re visiting France for the first time. There are lots of little cultural food rules in France, so for more information, including important French food vocabulary (like the difference between a patisserie and a boulangerie), check out my longer post on French food culture. Keep an open mind when it comes to French food, especially when visiting France for the first time! I wasn’t sure what to expect at first when I moved there, so I just tried everything, and most of the time it was great! Of course, if you have allergies or dietary restrictions, I highly recommend learning how to say “I am allergic to _____” or “I follow a _______ diet” in French so your waiter can accommodate you. One of the most important facets of French food culture is taking the time to fully enjoy every meal, so give yourself time to immerse yourself in every food experience (even if that means spending over an hour at lunch!).
French cuisine changes based on the region you’re in, but there are so many yummy French dishes to try in France! Some classic dishes include moules frites (mussels with fries), duck confit, coq au vin (chicken cooked in wine), crepes, and quiche!
Visas, Safety, and Scams in Paris
If you’re an American, you don’t need a visa to visit France (as long as you’re there for less than 90 days). You just need your USA passport, (that will not expire for at least 6 months)!
I never had any serious safety issues when I traveled through France, and I lived there for 6 months and traveled extensively thought the country. One of the main issues in Paris is theft, so be on high alert for pick pockets. High traffic areas like the metro and tourist areas like Montmartre are prime areas for theft, and once your items are gone, its unlikely you’ll ever see them again. In order to keep your items safe, keep them in zippered pockets close to your body. Do not leave anything in your open pants pockets (especially not the back pockets), and be very aware of you surroundings if you’re carrying a backpack. I put my cross body purse under my long coat during the winter months for extra protection. Also, keep your purse in your lap, not on the back of your chair, at cafes.
Scams to Watch Out for in France
I frequently saw scams taking place in Paris, so it’s certainly something you need to watch out for. Montmartre and Pigalle were the worst areas for scamming in Paris (in my opinion). One common scam is the bracelet scam- someone will come out of no where, tie a string around your wrist that you can’t get off, and demand you pay. It’s pretty much impossible to get the “bracelet” off once it’s on, so don’t even let them get close. You may also come across people holding board asking you to sign to help the blind or orphaned children (or any other charity). Don’t give them money, and keep walking, because this is often a diversion so their friends can pickpocket you while you’re distracted. This diversion and pickpocket trick is very common with different distractions, so be on high alert whenever something seems fishy. Scams in Paris can ruin a trip if they’re successful, so be aware of your surroundings at all times.
Visiting France for the First Time – Ready to Go?
I hope these tips have you feeling excited about visiting France for the first time! As I said at the beginning, France is one of my very favorite countries because it’s home to some of the most beautiful towns and cities in the world. At the Pont du Gard, located near Nimes, you can step back in time to the Roman era and see an amazingly preserved aqueduct from antiquity. In the towns that make up the French Riviera like Nice and St Tropez, you can lounge on the beaches once frequented by the likes of Coco Chanel and Brigitte Bardot. In Giverny, you can walk in the gardens that inspired Monet to paint the famous Waterlilies. These examples are just a few of the beautiful experiences you can have in France, and I hope that you have the chance to explore this country! I hope these tips on France food culture, tipping in France, scams in Paris, and more helped you prepare for your trip! Bon voyage!