10 Essential Travel Tips for Visiting France 

by | April 24, 2018 | Travel | 4 comments

Are you off to France for a holiday? If you are, I’ll slip into your suitcase if you don’t mind! ;-) And even if you can’t take me, don’t forget to tuck my 10 Essential Travel Tips for Visiting France into your luggage. They’re my best tips from our experiences living in and visiting France. It’s amazing how small tidbits of cultural knowledge can make such a difference in our travel experiences, but trust me, these will go a long way in making your time abroad more relaxed. 

10 Essential Travel Tips for Visiting France

1- Not everyone speaks English (and even if they do, they may not tell you).

I speak some French; Dreamy does not. Yes, we lived there in 2015, and he knows some basics, but the time he got a metal shaving in his eye when living in Normandy, it was up to me to explain the situation to the doctor. When we rented a car, had to change train tickets or buy shoes, French was required.

A short stay won’t likely require that level of engagement, but you get the idea – communication helps. Traveling to other countries and assuming everyone there will speak fluent English is nescient. In Paris, you get by OK, but once you’re out of the city, fewer and fewer folks speak English. My hairdresser in Normandy spoke zero English. That was interesting. :-)

We’ve visited Alsace several times and very little English is spoken there. Sometimes you run into someone who understands and speaks some English, but they might not be willing to use it. My recommendation is to learn basic greetings, a few foods that you normally enjoy eating (and how to recognize them on menus), how to express food allergies and foods you cannot eat and other essential words and phrases. Be sure to know sans gluten for gluten-free. In tourist areas, menus are often written in French and English, or there is a separate English menu, so always ask.

2- Stores do not stay open like in the USA.

Don’t expect 24-hour anything. Supermarkets (Carrefour, Monoprix, etc.) open until 9, 10 or even 11PM in Paris, but once out of the city, don’t be surprised if they close by 7PM. Search online for a grocery near where you’re staying, then check their store hours. As for other stores like clothing shops, even well-known names like Zara close around 8 or 9PM. The Zara in our town in Normandy closed at 7PM. Sephora on the Champs-Elysees stays open until 11:30PM some nights, but in other areas of Paris they close at 8PM. In other regions of the country I’ve seen them close as early as 6 or 7PM.

Another noteworthy point about shopping in France: Many shops open in the morning and close from 12-2PM for the lunch break, then reopen at 2PM. This the case in villages and towns more than in the large cities.  In very small towns in Normandy grocery stores close for the lunch break.

10 Essential Travel Tips for Visiting France 

3- Sundays most shops are closed or have abbreviated hours.

Don’t take for granted Sundays and Mondays will be like the rest of the week with all shops open. There are laws in France about Sunday shopping. The laws are fairly detailed, but generally, Sunday trading is not permitted except grocery stores are allowed to open until 1PM and some other types of stores in tourist towns (as declared by French law) are allowed to open across the country. In December, the laws regarding Sunday shopping are more relaxed due the holiday. Also be sure to check on public holidays in France that may occur during your travels. Holidays can mean anywhere from one to four days closures, so it pays to check before you travel.

4 – Restaurants and museums are not open every day.

Yes, in Paris you will find a restaurant that offers daily service, but outside of Paris, many restaurants are closed Mondays (as well as Sundays). Some restaurants take another day of the week off, and some only open on certain days for dinner. It is at the discretion of the proprietor, so always check the hours, which are usually posted on the menu board outside.

Museums and other attractions close on certain weekdays. For the Louvre, it’s Tuesday. You can read more about visiting the Louvre here.

Centre Pompidou, Musee National de l’Orangerie, Musee Picasso and several others are closed on Tuesadays as well. Mondays, the Orsay, Rodin museum and several others shut down. Search the museum you are interested in visiting online for hours. It makes planning so much easier, and your visit more pleasant.

5- Not every place you go will accept a credit or debit card.

You will be able to use your credit or debit card in the city as long as it has a chip, but don’t count on American Express being readily accepted. Visa is accepted everywhere and in some shops, the only card accepted. Once you get out of Paris, you should have some Euros with you, as many shops simply do not take la carte (the card). In a recent visit to Alsace, we found payment accepted by cash only quite common in many of the wine shops we visited, and even in one restaurant.

6- Exact change is important when paying with cash.

The French appreciate correct change. This is especially true when paying in a small town or paying at the marché (outdoor market). Often the vendors do not have enough change if you pay with a large note. When we take off for the marché, we make sure we have plenty of coins in 1 and 2 Euro denominations. (Side note about the marché: don’t touch the food or produce.) Unlike in America, the French have absolutely no problem if you stand there to count out correct change for them. They appreciate it.

10 Essential Travel Tips for Visiting France 

7- A greeting is always expected.

When you enter a shop, always say Bonjour, Madame or Monsieur before stating your business there. It is customary, it is expected and it is polite. The French greet, always. In fact, even when entering a doctor’s office or a city office, there is a general Bonjour to the entire waiting area. When you leave, the same is true. Say Au revoir. I’ve seen this often on trains as people enter to find their seat and also when everyone is departing the train.

8- A shopping bag (un sac) is an essential take-along everywhere you go.

Don’t expect there to be free bags for your groceries in the supermarket, small grocery or at the marché. The grocery stores will sell you a bag and at the marché, you’re on your own. In large department stores, bags for purchases are provided, but otherwise, you need to be sure to take one everywhere you go. Our first few visits to the grocery store after moving to France trained us. We had to buy a bag or two each time we went. After that, take our bags along became habit. I still keep a compact roll-up French grocery bag in my purse. They come in so handy! When we go back to France and visit the market, we often hear from the vendor Je n’ai pas de sac (I don’t have a bag) and we reply, pas de probleme, on a un sac! (we have a bag).

10 Essential Travel Tips for Visiting France 

9- Public transportation is easy and inexpensive.

Living in France, we bought a car; however, for a short stay, a month or less, we rely on public transportation. It is efficient and inexpensive. The metro makes getting around Paris fairly simple, but do plan on 30-45 minutes from point to point as a general rule. Paris is larger than many realize and while walking in Paris is my favorite way to get about, the metro or bus is essential. We average 12 miles per day walking every day we are there, and that includes using the metro once or twice each day.

Buy tickets in the station (underground and clearly marked with lovely Metro signs on posts) in singles or as a carnet (a 10-pack of tickets) for about $13. There are ticket windows, but if you do not want to practice your French with an agent (or if the agent is absent, which is often), there are automated machines where you can use a bank card. You can select your language, as well, so you will be able to use English if needed to make your transaction.

10- Accept that you will wait on line.

There really isn’t the rush and sense of urgency in France that you find in the USA. That’s one of our favorite parts of being in Europe – it is more relaxed. In Atlanta, life is fast-paced. That causes unnecessary stress. In France, expect to wait on line no matter where you are. The bonus is when it’s your turn, you get all the time you need. At the marché, this is so nice because when you have a turn, the vendor will spend as much time as you like discussing their produce and how to best use it and when. This is especially true when you are out of Paris, but still, I find it to be true in Paris as well. While you’re waiting on line, look around, listen to the sounds and breathe in all that is around you. You’ll find yourself relaxing and enjoying the pause.

Have you traveled to France?

What tips would you share with first-time travelers there?

4 Comments

  1. Joan

    Great tips…. I would add the importance of composting your train ticket at the station BEFORE you enter the train… the same goes for the bus/tram (if you’re in the South)… otherwise the fines are steep (currently 60€ pp) and they DO control the trains/busses/trams! Bon voyage!

    Reply


    • Gigi Stewart

      Hi, Joan. Great tip! The “control” tends to be erratic at times, less now than in years past, from my experience. I’ve had tickets checked repeatedly, and other times, I never had an ask for my tickets. I used the train often traveling from my home in Rouen to Paris and those were the trips most often unchecked. But still, this is best practice to avoid a fine and hassle. xo

      Reply


  2. Sandy

    What a great list! So much of what you mentioned here reminds me of the same in Italy (shops, museums, limited English, don’t touch the produce, etc). It really was a nice departure from the American culture. We’re heading to Paris for the first time next year in December. I’ll have to book mark this list (and get out my Rosetta Stone)! Thanks so much.

    Reply


    • Gigi Stewart

      Hi, Sandy. Thanks so much! I’m glad the list is useful. If you’re GF, there are some tips for around Paris in my Travel section. We go often, heading back very soon; it’s where I feel most at home in the world. And yes, it is similar to Italy and other W. European countries. We lean more Euro than American in our daily living, so we prefer the culture there. xo

      Reply


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