France has it all: vibrant, exciting cities; picturesque countryside; storybook villages; wide, sandy beaches; and a rich history. Work through this guide to plan your trip and learn some basics about the culture, major regions and attractions, local cuisine, currency, and more. Also find tips below on when to go, getting around, and budgeting for your adventure abroad.
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: The spring and summer months are generally ideal; the weather is mild and warm, while the landscapes and parks are in full bloom.
- Language: French is the country's official language and is spoken throughout its regions. Most people speak some English, but younger people tend to be more fluent. We recommend learning some basic travel words and polite expressions in French to prepare for your trip.
- Currency: The Euro (€) is the official currency of France.
- Getting Around: France has an extensive and efficient rail system that connects cities including Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux, Nice, and Strasbourg in just hours through high-speed (TGV) trains. Local train lines offer convenient and affordable connections within major regions throughout the country, and Paris boasts a sophisticated Metro/subway system. Some may prefer to rent a car when visiting France, but make sure you fully acquaint yourself with local driving rules and regulations.
- Travel Tip: Before booking your trip, decide how much time you have and how many French regions you can comfortably, realistically visit. Trying to do too much in too short period of time isn't something we advise. It's better to spend three full, rich days in Paris—and maybe take a day trip to Versailles—than try to hop around the whole country in just a few days.
Things to Do
France is a diverse and rich nation, with attractions to suit all tastes and interests. Each region has its own unique highlights: Paris is full of glamorous avenues and quaint café terraces; the French Riviera boasts azure waters and sandy beaches; and Burgundy, the Loire, and the southwest are home to rolling vineyards. Meanwhile, the mountain landscapes of the Alps and Pyrenees and the rugged coastlines of Brittany and Basque Country attract travelers with the promise of outdoor adventures.
While there's a wealth of things to do, here are three "star" attractions we recommend on a first trip to France:
- Spend at least 48 hours in Paris and explore some of the city's vibrant neighborhoods, including hilly Montmartre and the old-world Latin Quarter. Take a sightseeing cruise of the Seine River at sunset and see why Paris is called the "City of Light."
- Visit Provence and take in its stunning landscapes, from the lavender fields of the Luberon to the beaches of the Côte d'Azur. Taste local specialties such as saffron, seafood, candied fruit, and other treats at a typical Provençal market. See some of the region's picturesque old chateaux and dramatic Roman ruins.
- If you're interested in recent French history, visit Normandy's D-Day beaches and see stirring World War II memorial sites firsthand. While in the region, reserve a day to see the Mont St-Michel Abbey and Bay, a breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage site whose dramatic tidal systems and centuries-old Abbey attract visitors from around the world.
Explore more things to see and do by consulting our guide to the top 30 tourist attractions in Paris, the 20 most popular cities for international visitors, and the top 10 things to do on the French Riviera.
What to Eat and Drink
France's world-renowned food and wine culture awaits no matter what regions you plan to visit. The country boasts more culinary delights than most, from crusty baguettes to creamy, local cheeses; artful pastries; traditional regional dishes; and inventive fusion cooking.
Every region offers its own distinctive cuisine, markets, and restaurant scene. Paris counts an unusual number of Michelin-starred restaurants, but it's also a great place for inexpensive street food and mouthwatering baked goods. Provence is renowned for its seafood and markets heaped with fresh, colorful produce. The southwest draws crowds for its truffles, duck and goose specialities, and distinctive cheeses. Brittany and Normandy produce some of the country's freshest oysters and shellfish, as well as creamy butter, regional cakes, and salted caramel.
Meanwhile, visits to regions such as Burgundy, Champagne, the Loire and Bordeaux offer curious travelers numerous opportunities for wine-tasting and wine tours. Normandy and Brittany are well-known for excellent ciders and apple liqueurs.
Where to Stay
The possibilities for lodging in France range from traditional hotels to B&Bs, rental apartments, and even unusual accommodations such as castles, campsites, and lighthouse hotels. Choosing the accommodations that are right for you will depend on several factors, including your budget, tastes, desired atmosphere, and willingness to cook/self-cater.
Generally speaking, we recommend staying in traditional hotels or self-catered apartments when visiting major cities such as Paris, Nice, Bordeaux or Strasbourg. You'll want to be close to the city center and their main attractions, as well as have easy access to public transport. In the Alps and the Pyrenees, consider renting a rustic mountain chalet or staying in a chalet-style hotel.
In Provence and the Loire Valley, renting a country cottage, old Provençal house, or "apartment" within an authentic chateau can be a memorable experience. If you're staying in a coastal region such as the French Riviera or Brittany, a private beach cottage could be ideal if you plan to cook for yourself, but a hotel with sea views may be more your speed.
Most major U.S. airports offer flights to Paris, some with non-stop service, and Roissy-Charles de Gaulle in Paris is France's busiest airport. Orly Airport is a useful hub for international flights from other European countries.
Some airlines also fly into other major French cities, such as Lyon, Nice, Bordeaux, and Strasbourg. It takes around seven hours to fly to France from New York City.
Air France, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic/Delta, and American Airlines are among the companies offering flights to France. If flying from within Europe, consider low- carriers including EasyJet and Ryanair, particularly if you're on a tight budget.
Taking the train can also be a convenient and relaxing way to get to (and around) France, especially from other major European cities. The Eurostar carries passengers from London to Paris in just under two and a half hours. The Thalys connects Paris with Amsterdam, Brussels, Rotterdam, and other cities.
Finally, if you plan to visit French cities that are far apart (say Strasbourg and Carcassonne), you might want to fly from one destination to the next. It's relatively cheap, and can save you hours of train travel.
Culture and Customs
See our guide to avoid looking like a clueless tourist in France, and learn why these stereotypes about French people are generally far from accurate. Then study some key facts about France before your trip.
- Consider going in low season (roughly mid-October to mid-March) to save on airfare, hotel rates, and tours. It can be a lot cheaper to travel at these times than during peak season.
- If you're staying in a big- to medium-sized French city, buy a transport pass rather than individual tickets for metro trains, buses, and trams. The Paris Visite Pass is one example; it allows for unlimited travel on Paris' transport network as well as discounted entry to top city attractions. Bordeaux has a similar scheme.
- Also consider staying in a smaller town rather than a big city, where the cost of lodging, restaurants, and other amenities tends to be less expensive. These are some of France's most beautiful small towns and villages.
- Get a rail pass. You'll likely save a significant amount on train travel between cities and regions if you invest in one.
- Before you go, ask your bank about how much you'll be charged for ATM withdrawals, card payments, and other transactions while abroad. Also check with different credit card companies and compare rates.
- Learn more about how to save money during your trip in our full guides to planning budget vacations to France and Paris.