Information & Facts
France is the most popular sightseeing destination in the world. With over 82 million visitors in 2007, and as just about as many things to see and do, this beautiful and historic country is a must for every traveller and tourist. Its buildings can be treasures - such as the magnificent Notre-Dame, stately Arc de Triomphe and the palace of Versailles - or containers of treasures, such as the unrivalled collections of the Louvre (home to Mona Lisa) and Museé d'Orsay with its globally respected portfolio of Impressionist art.
As one might expect, the tourist infrastructure is excellent with diverse offerings for every type of traveller. An organised tour is a good option if you have only a week, but for those with longer to indulge, car rental or train travel is the best way to get around. Wherever you go, France reveals its many faces and charms: the busy weekly markets in small towns, the rolling vineyards of the wine country, the sage-scented Mistral winds of Provence, and the luxuriant high life of the Cote d'Azure all form their own enduring impressions in the visitor's mind.
France is a year-round destination, although be sure to book ahead if planning a trip around Christmas or New Year, and during the major US holidays when trans-Atlantic bookings are especially high.
Business etiquette is important in France. A smart, fashionable, sense of dress is common as the nation prides itself on haut couture. Punctuality is not always observed though and the 'fashionably late' tactic may be applied. A handshake is the common form of greeting for men and women upon first introductions. Titles are important and the person is to be referred to as 'monsieur' (Mr.), 'madame' (Mrs.), or 'mademoiselle' (Ms.). Meetings usually occur over lunches, and the French are known to enjoy food. Business hours are generally 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday.
The south of France has a warm Mediterranean climate with hot summers and mild winters. Strong winds, known as 'le Mistral', can occur in the Cote d'Azur, Provence and in the Rhone valley particularly over the winter and spring. Northern France, including Paris, has a temperate climate similar to southern England with warm summers, cold winters and rainfall throughout the year. The western coast, from the Loire valley to the Pyrenees, is milder and summer days are generally very hot. During the second half of July and August most French take their five-week vacation to the coasts and mountains, and empty cities tend to shut down accordingly.
The international access code for France is +33. The outgoing code depends on what network is used to dial out on (e.g. 00 for France Telecom), which is followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). Other codes are used if using different networks. The area code for Paris is (0)1. Most public telephones accept phone cards, which are available in newsagents. Most hotels add a surcharge to calls, which can be very expensive; the cheapest way to call abroad is often with a phone card from a public telephone or at a post office. The local mobile phone operators use GSM networks and have roaming agreements with most international mobile phone companies. Internet cafes are available in towns throughout France.
French culture is of paramount importance to the French and in an increasingly Americanised world they feel duty-bound to protect it. It is appreciated if visitors can speak a few words of French; they do not respond well to being shouted at in English. While the food is second to none, foreigners may find the service in many restaurants sloppy; waiters can appear rude (particularly in Paris) and take their time. This is just the way they are. Traditional games such as pétanque(similar to lawn bowling but played on gravel) are popular in village squares, but the national sports are soccer, rugby and cycling. Smoking in public places is not allowed and will incur heavy fines.
Travellers from non-EU countries over 17 years entering France can bring in the following items duty-free: 200 cigarettes, or 100 cigarillos, or 50 cigars, or 250g tobacco; 1 litre of spirits with alcohol content 22% and over, or 2 litres of dessert wine or sparkling wine not exceeding 22% alcohol volume, and 2 litres of table wine; 50g perfume or 250ml eau de toilette and other goods to the value of EUR175 per adult or EUR90 for children under 15 years.
Electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. European two-pin plugs are standard.
French hospitals and health facilities are first class. British, and visitors from other EU countries, are entitled to heavily discounted medical treatment and medicines on presentation of a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Otherwise doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for health services. Medical insurance is advised. Pharmacies will provide some first aid, but charge for it. Rabies also occurs occasionally. In February 2006, France confirmed its first cases of bird flu; all affected birds have been culled and precautionary measures taken. The risk is low for travellers, but close contact with domestic, wild and caged birds should be avoided, and all poultry and egg dishes well cooked.
French is the official language.
The Euro (EUR) is the official currency in France. Currency can be exchanged at banks, bureaux de change and some large hotels, though you will get a better exchange rate at the ATMs. Major credit cards are widely accepted, as are travellers cheques, particularly in major tourist destinations. Foreign currency is not accepted.
The borderless region known as the Schengen Area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option, and which allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all the aforementioned countries. Additionally, travellers must hold sufficient funds to cover their stay in France, and proof of repatriation (a return or onward ticket, and the necessary travel documentation for their next destination). Note that Schengen visas, if required, are also valid for French Guiana, French West Indies and Reunion, provided that the Schengen visa is endorsed "Also valid for French territories being in observation of the respective French territories".
Following the London and Madrid bombings, security has been heightened particularly in the transport sector. Unattended luggage left in public places will be removed or destroyed by security staff. While generally safe, visitors to France are advised to take precautions against petty theft and to ensure their personal safety. Thieves and pickpockets operate on the metro and around airports. Theft from cars is prevalent, particularly in the south, around Marseilles, and in Corsica. A Corsican nationalist group FLNC have been responsible for a series of bomb attacks on public buildings and holiday homes in Corsica and visitors should take care, particularly in Ajaccio the capital, and other town centres. Several recent cases of burglary have been reported while visitors were asleep in their caravans or motorhomes and motorists are asked to avoid parking in isolated or darkened areas of camping sites or parking lots. Tourists are advised to conceal bags and purses even when driving, and to never leave valuables unattended in the car. Bag snatching is also common, particularly on public transport and in shopping centres, and visitors should also be vigilant of luggage while loading bags into and out of hire cars at airports.
Local time is GMT +1 (GMT +2 between last Sunday in March and last Sunday in October).
Most restaurants and hotels automatically add a 15% service charge so a tip is not necessary, although another 2-3% is customary if the service has been good. If service is not included then 15% is customary. Taxi drivers expect 10-15% of the fare and hairdressers 10%. Hotel staff generally receive EUR1.50 a day and tips of EUR1 are given to washroom and cloakroom attendants and museum tour guides. Tour bus drivers and guides are also tipped.