“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” (Charles de Gaulle)
France is the most-visited country in the world by tourists, and its cities and cultural landmarks are known throughout the world. Its capital, Paris, boasts the most-photographed site: the Eiffel Tower. Staples of its cuisine have become symbolic of the country itself: bread, cheese, and wine. As the largest country in the European Union and a center for fashion, art, food, cinema, and innovation, France is any traveler’s dream.
Unification: 486 AD
Capital city: Paris
Area: 247,368 mi2 (640,679 km2)
Official language: French
Time Zone: Central European Time
Drive on the: Right
WHERE IN THE WORLD
Situated in western Europe, France borders Belgium and Luxembourg in the northeast; Germany, Switzerland, and Italy in the east; and Monaco, Spain, and Andorra in the south. Its western border sits on the Bay of Biscay, or the North Atlantic Ocean, and the northwestern coast touches the English Channel.
For those who know their U.S. states, France is roughly the same size as Texas.
France is made up of either 13 or 22 different regions (depending on who you ask and what year’s regional divisions they decide to abide by). Each region has its own personality and specialty — the small towns in Alsace near the German border are nothing like those on the coast in Aquitaine.
Everyone knows what the Eiffel Tower looks like, but the rest of the country can be a bit of a surprise. France features lavender fields, rugged coasts, lush vineyards, dense forests, valleys dotted with castles, sunny beaches, and even an area with dormant volcanoes.
A BIT OF HISTORY
France’s history actually begins before its founding. Long before the people there were known as “French,” the area was called Gaul and was inhabited by Celtic people. It was then annexed by Rome in 51 AD until, in 486, the Germanic “Franks” conquered the region and formed the Kingdom of France.
About 1,300 years later, France emerged as a major international power during the Hundred Years’ War, then flourished during the time of the Renaissance. The country was rocked by civil wars in the 16th century, then by a revolution in the late 18th century, from which it emerged as one of modern history’s earliest republics. Napoleon came to power in the 19th century, and the wars he led shaped the course of the continent. France was a participant in both world wars, though it fell under German occupation in 1940. After liberation in 1944, a Fourth Republic was established, then dissolved, which led to the Fifth Republic under Charles de Gaulle, which remains today.
France’s rich history has shaped the country it is today — home to 41 UNESCO World-Heritage Sites, a major player in international politics, and a cultural center.
If arriving by air, the three major airports in France are Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris (CDG), Orly Airport in Paris (ORY), and Nice Côte d’Azur Airport (NCE). There are airports in every major city in France, and many smaller cities as well.
The easiest way to travel within France is by train. France’s rail network, SNCF, expands from the country’s capital outward. You can catch both local and international lines, and there are many high-speed options if you’re heading to neighboring countries. Long-distance trains often split at certain stations, so make sure to pay attention to the announcements and switch cars if necessary!
The best option for extensive train travel within France may be a Eurail pass (for non-European citizens) or Interrail pass (for European citizens), depending on the length of your visit. France’s capital, Paris, has several main train stations (Gare du Nord, Gare de Lyon, and Gare de l’Est), which are all in different parts of the city, so keep that in mind when booking accommodations and transport to/from the station.
If you’re sticking to the French capital, the best way to navigate the city is by metro. Paris’ metro system is easy to navigate, and there are plenty of options for ticket bundles. For more information on travel within Paris, check out our Insider’s Guide to Paris.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
If at all possible, avoid traveling to France’s major cities in August. Many French people vacate in lieu of holiday towns, so August sees a shortage of open restaurants, shops, and landmarks. If you can swing it, try visiting in early fall instead.
In France, both lunch and dinner are eaten later in the day than most Americans are used to. It’s not uncommon to see people having dinner at 9, or even 10, at night — especially in major cities. Meals also tend to take longer, as the French prefer separating their courses. If you’re looking for a good restaurant, make sure to choose a spot that features menus without pictures. Those restaurants that want to lure tourists always use misleading pictures of their food.
Speaking of dining, know that tipping is not expected after a meal like it is in the U.S. Servers are paid a normal hourly wage in France, and don’t need tips to make a living. If you received wonderful service though, a tip of 5-10% is always welcomed.
Research your regions ahead of time. Certain regions are known for certain specialties — just like states in the U.S. — so make sure to know what you should be ordering or buying wherever you go. Try the mustards in Dijon, champagne in Champagne, and ciders in Normandy — each region is unique and proud.
Finally, learn some French! Know how to say “hello,” “thank you,” and “please,” how to address your servers, and the words that will help you navigate train and subway stations. Even if you’re not fluent, local French people will appreciate your effort and might be more willing to help you out in a pinch. Check out our Language Lesson feature on the France page for the most important words and phrases to know before you land in France!
Header photo by Sasha Sloan.