If you’re heading to France soon for your very first French vacation, here are my top France tips first-time travelers need to know. With a little cultural knowledge, you’ll be perfectly prepared for an amazing trip. Let’s get into it!
10 France tips first-time travelers need to know
1. The French take their time. Life isn’t all about rushing to fit as much into the day as possible so you may be caught off guard by the pace of life — especially during the summer months. Not every person everywhere operates at a slow pace, but you’ll see the French sitting down to enjoy leisurely meals and not rushing to get onto the next thing. It’s built into the culture, so store hours might be shorter than what you’re used to and are closed at lunchtime and Sundays too. The French work to live and not the other way around. Be sure to check attractions’ operating hours and calendar before going, as there are public holidays and sometimes closures for maintenance, etc.
2. Learn a few key French phrases. Outside of the hospitality and tourism industries, the vast majority of French people do not speak English (even more true in smaller towns). As I always say, no one expects tourists to speak even conversational French, but learning a few key phrases will go a long way toward respecting French norms and making a good first impression.
Be sure to learn bonjour, merci, s’il vous plait, and au revoir at a bare minimum and use them often. Don’t stress about your pronunciation. The effort is what counts. I have an entire French travel phrases guide with audio that can help you out further.
3. Say bonjour before anything else. Out of all my France tips, this one might be the most important! Once you perfect your French phrases, be sure to keep bonjour on the tip of your tongue. This simple greeting is a magic word and it needs to be said before any interaction with another person. Don’t just approach someone with your food order or just walk up to someone and ask a question. Say bonjour first. It’s the #1 rule you need to remember while in France. I wrote all about why bonjour is a magic word here.
4. Avoid being a target for pickpockets. Like many major cities, Paris and other big cities in France are hotspots for pickpockets and scammers. In Paris, be especially alert around major tourist attractions like the Louvre, along the Champs-Élysées, Notre Dame, the Sacré-Cœur, and the Eiffel Tower.
It’s easy to get caught up in the sights, but don’t let anyone approach you trying to get you to sign a petition, put a bracelet on your wrist, or give you a ring they “found” on the ground. They’re all scams!
Also, never leave your cell phone on a cafe or restaurant table even if it’s just a few inches away from your hand. Thieves are fast and are masters at distracting you so they can grab your phone in the blink of an eye! My favorite brand of anti-theft backpacks, purses, and more is Pacsafe. I’ve used their products all over the world for years and they’ve never let me down.
5. Get out of big cities. If your schedule allows for it, get out of Paris and other big cities to experience the countryside and the magic of small-town France. There are some easy day trips from Paris, with my favorite being le Mont St-Michel. If you have a few days, why not rent a car and go on a road trip you’ll never forget.
6. The French are friendly and polite. Despite what you may have heard, the French are not rude monsters who hate Americans! Sure you can catch someone on a bad day, but generally the French are friendly and happy to help out a lost tourist. That said, don’t approach someone directly in English or without saying bonjour, as mentioned above. Cultural differences, not understanding French norms, and unrealistic expectations can lead to tourists having a less-than-ideal experience in France.
7. There’s no dress code. Yes, the French wear sneakers and shorts. No, not everyone is a fashion maven. For everyday sightseeing, wear what you’re comfortable and confident wearing. No one is secretly judging you for your fashion choices. If you want to come off as more French and blend in better, think casual sneakers instead of athletic shoes, muted, neutral colors and slightly dressier clothing options than maybe you’d wear at home. But there’s no rule on this. Here’s my favorite t-shirt for travel and multiway travel dress (both are sustainably made).
8. The food and wine will be a highlight of your trip, so try everything! When it comes to top France tips, this may be the tastiest one. 😉 From the wine to the cheese to the bread and pastries to all the local specialties and more, France is a foodie’s dream. Hit up the farmers’ markets, restaurants who source fare locally, specialty shops and anything else that catches your eye. If you visit in the spring or early summer, the strawberries and cherries are incredible!
9. The emergency phone number is 112. In Europe, 112 is the equivalent of 911, so commit it to memory. It works from a cell phone, landline, and public payphone. Specific to France, you’d dial 15 for a medical emergency, 17 for the police, and 18 for the fire department.
10. Experience France and all things French without judgment. We need to be respectful of the people and country we’re visiting, but I know it can be a snap reaction to dismiss cultural differences as stupid or wrong. If these thoughts cross your mind — we’re only human after all — keep the cultural judgments to yourself and don’t audibly express them in earshot of others. Yes, I’ve heard people who do exactly that time and time again. Whether we feel something makes sense or not is neither here nor there; it’s France and things are done the French way, so try to keep an open mind and go with the French flow.
Enjoy your trip! Seasoned travelers, tell me, what France tips do you have for first-time travelers? Share with me below!
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