American and British tourists returning from France often have mixed experiences, but the worst stories are predictable – language difficulties, the French weren’t friendly, the whole country was one big tourist trap. Don’t let your first trip to France turn out like this. If you plan ahead and consider exploring outside the principal tourist destinations, you’re sure to have a great time.
Pick a Region and Stick with It
France is shaped roughly like a hexagon, with Paris in the north-central portion, Normandy and Brittany in the northwest, Bordeaux in the southwest, Provence and what most people think of as the “south of France” in the southeast, the French Alps in the east, and Alsace and Lorraine in the northeast. Any of these regions – and some of the more neglected ones in the middle – can make for a great holiday, but don’t overdo it.
It’s a proven fact that travel is more fun if you don’t overextend yourself, and if you want to “do it all” in a few weeks, you’ll quickly get tired of trains. A train trip from Paris to the Mediterranean can easy run upwards of a hundred and fifty Euros, but short trips within a region are much, much cheaper. Research the different areas, decide what you most want to do and see, and plan your trip around that region.
Consider Small Towns
The French countryside is peppered with lovely towns and villages of varying size. Though you may want to spend at least some of your time in a larger city, consider a day or two in a smaller town, especially if you can find an affordable bed and breakfast. Though you’re more likely to need to practice your French here, folks who are less accustomed to English-speaking tourists are also more likely to be friendly and sympathetic. Keep in mind that the complaint that the French “aren’t friendly” varies drastically with how much a tourist tried to use the language.
If your destination is the South of France, consider the Languedoc or southwest part – both are gorgeous, have great food and wine, and plenty to do, but are less overrun than Nice and Marseilles. Check online for the times of local festivals and markets, which are a great way to experience the countryside – just don’t forget to book accommodation in advance if you’re coming for a festival!
Beef up on Your French, and Your Cultural Vocabulary
Learn some key phrases before you go, especially if you have particular dietary or accommodation needs. Print out hotel confirmations if the reservation was made online to avoid confusion at check in. “Excusez-moi” and “merci” will also go a long way.
Keep some cultural differences in mind so you won’t be shocked when you arrive. In a restaurant, keep the volume down to a level that only your companions can hear – this is probably the most common faux pas, and one of the most annoying to the French. If you’re a woman, keep in mind that eye contact and smiles in a bar may be interpreted as an invitation. Don’t be afraid to say “non, merci” in a firm voice. If you get an inexpensive room, keep in mind that the toilet may be shared by multiple guests, and may not come with a shower – ask if you’re concerned. Finally, keep in mind that the pace of life, especially in the south, may be slower than what you’re used to at home. Embrace it! Business owners often take a very long lunch and close up shop. Turn that into a positive by taking a long lunch yourself. Unless it is very, very busy, a café will never shoo you out the door once you’ve finished your meal. Take advantage of that.