6 Things to Know Before Going to France

It’s almost impossible to have a bad holiday in France thanks to its fascinating culture, diverse landscapes, and fantastic food and wine. But these six tips can help you make the most of your visit. Find out the best ways to see France and how to plan your time.

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Visitors sit in a grassy park in Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Photo © Getty Images / Owen Franken

Always book ahead for major attractions

Many major indoor attractions in France now require visitors to not just book tickets online but also pick an exact timeslot. Gone are the days of arriving at the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower and wandering inside after buying a ticket.

Yet many visitors are clearly unaware of this change. On a trip to Paris in late 2021, I saw scores of upset foreign visitors standing outside museums trying to buy entry tickets on their phone. I can only imagine how much more annoyed they became when they realized the next available entry timeslot may not be for several hours.

Avoiding such inconvenience requires preparation. In the days before you arrive in France, decide which attractions you want to visit, on which days, and at what exact times. Then go online and pre-book these time-specific tickets.

Self-driving is the best way to explore France

France has a modern rail and motorway network that makes it easy to zoom between its major cities. But that zooming also takes you past one of the highlights of this country – its endless, picturesque towns. I have vivid memories of French villages I never even intended to visit but stumbled across during self-driving holidays, such as Beuvron-en-Auge, a tiny hamlet of old timber buildings in Normandy.

My brother and I found that photogenic town by ignoring the motorway taking us from Paris to the Normandy beaches. We were so taken by the countryside diversion that we delayed our beach visit. Instead, we spent an entire day meandering the back roads past farms, vineyards, and quaint towns. I’ve yet to find a boring or unattractive corner of rural France. So, on your next trip there, try leaving the cities, trains, and highways behind for a day or two.

Charming old half-timber buildings in the village of Beuvron-en-Auge, Normandy, France.
The hamlet of Beuvron-en-Auge. Image credit: Getty Images / brytta

France is a window to the Islamic world

Many travelers land in this European nation with a list laden with cathedrals, museums, and French wine and bistros. Make room, if you can, for another culture which has greatly shaped France over the past century. France is home to six million Muslims, more than any other country in the EU, and this is reflected in many stunning mosques, fascinating Islamic museums, and an array of unique cuisine from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.

Paris is the hub of France’s Muslim community. It’s also home to perhaps the most majestic Islamic building in all of Europe – the Grand Mosque of Paris. Built a century ago by skilled Muslim artisans, this big complex is decorated by a 108ft (33m) minaret, mesmerizing tile mosaics, and a peaceful garden.

Visitors are welcome and there are free tour guides. Travelers beguiled by this Islamic architecture should also visit Paris’ Arab World Institute Museum, which has a huge collection of Islamic art and artefacts.

Speaking even a tiny bit of French will earn smiles and assistance

Perhaps the most enduring and inaccurate stereotype about French people is they’re not warm to foreigners visiting their country. I’ll admit, this was my impression after my first visit to France in my early 20s. It wasn’t until a subsequent trip, during which I found French people much friendlier, that I realized my rookie error.

On that first France holiday, I’d consistently walked into shops and cafes and, in my thick Australian accent, immediately spoken English, assuming I’d be understood. That was ignorant. And it’s a mistake lots of English-speaking visitors make, especially in Paris, where many locals have grown tired of this entitled behavior and respond to it coldly.

On each of my many trips to France since then, I’ve instigated conversations by saying: “Désolé je ne parle pas le français, parlez vous anglais?” My French is awful, but I can pronounce this phrase clearly enough that locals understand I’m saying: “Sorry, I don’t speak French, do you speak English?”.

This is a small concession, yet it shows effort and respect. Consistently, I’ve found it results in a smile or, at the least, good service. You don’t have to learn a long list of French phrases before visiting, but if you can master this one it will improve your holiday and show courtesy to your hosts.

France is much bigger than you might think

Visitors from larger countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, China, and Russia can easily make the mistake of thinking European countries are tiny and easy to traverse. While many of them are, France is the biggest. It’s almost as large as Texas, measuring about 600mi (965km) from north to south and a similar distance from west to east.

So, unless you have ample time, don’t try to criss-cross France or you’ll spend half your trip in cars, buses, and trains. Instead, pick one or two regions and delve deep. Most visitors travel in and out of Paris, so if you’re on a short visit, try pairing a stay in the French capital with a side trip to the beaches and war memorials of Normandy, to the west, or to the north of France, where cities such as Lille display a unique mix of French, Belgian, and Dutch influences.

Flemish-style architecture in a square in Old Town Lille, France .
Flemish-style architecture in Old Town Lille. Image credit: Getty Images / John and Tina Reid

Create your own French masterpiece

Don’t just stare at France’s incredible art, lust after its designer fashion, and sample alluring local perfumes – learn some of the secrets behind making these iconic products. Art classes, handbag-crafting workshops, and perfume-making lessons can be found in many of France’s largest cities. What could be a better memento of your trip, or more memorable gift for a loved one, than a one-off fragrance you mixed yourself in a Parisian parfumerie?

Perfume brand Candora, for example, lets visitors create their own scent by blending several of their 22 essences under the instruction of a perfume industry professional at their Paris showroom. During this two-hour workshop, the expert teaches you about the history and technicalities of perfume blending, before instructing you how to create a delightful scent that only you will own.

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