What you need to know about France
For a country that’s just 27 miles across the Channel from the UK, France couldn’t feel more different and special. Everything about it is so distinctively, delightfully French, from the magnificent Paris boulevards to the charming bistros and pavement cafes of the local villages.
France offers enormous variety and contrast - in just a few days you can explore the museums and galleries of Paris, the white sand beaches of the Riviera, the lavender fields of Provence or the snow-capped mountains of the Alps.
Eighty million visitors head to France every year; some looking for sunshine, others for fine wines, many for shopping or mountain adventures. But most are simply hoping to capture a little of that wonderfully gentle rhythm of French life.
Food and drink
Good food is hugely important to the French, more so than anywhere else in Europe. Food is not simply something you buy from the local shop – it’s carefully chosen according to its provenance and quality, and meals are savoured and enjoyed, whether you’re dining in a neighbourhood bistro or a temple of haute cuisine.
France has plenty of both, and it’s a truly wonderful country to experience the flavours and techniques that have defined how the rest of the world cooks. Every region has its own cooking style and wonderful local specialities, and French wine is the finest in the world – try hearty Cassoulet with a glass of Bordeaux in the south of France, tender chicken with Calvados in Normandy and rich Coq Au Vin with a glass of Burgundy in the Auvergne.
And of course Champagne, which you can drink any time you like. Salut!
Shopping in France is delightful, from the bustling high streets to the hidden boutiques and the vibrant local markets. Paris shopping is legendary and people travel from all over the world to browse the designer stores, luxury jewellers and stylish boutiques.
But there’s plenty to explore in the smaller cities and towns too – Nice has some charming stores along the seafront, whilst the villages and towns of Provence have wonderful local crafts and handmade goods.
Food is a constant distraction when you’re shopping in France – the variety is extraordinary, and you may decide to forgo that stylish new wardrobe in favour of a suitcase full of regional cheeses, saucisson and wine instead!
The best place to shop for local foods is the local outdoor markets – it’s a way of life in France, and every town (and many villages) will have a regular market, usually two or three times a week.
Nowhere does world-class art and architecture quite like France – it’s a country full of extraordinary culture and heritage, from ancient roman temples to magnificent palaces, charming châteaux and cutting edge modern sculpture.
France has produced some of the finest artists and writers in history, and museums and galleries all over the country showcase the masterpieces of Monet, Renoir and Matisse. Writers like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir have defined France’s café culture – it’s not just a place to drink coffee and stare at your phone, it’s a place to socialise and philosophise and change the world.
But this is just the beginning of what’s unique and special about France’s culture - at the heart is the simple rituals of the French lifestyle, the deeply rooted traditions and values, and the unwavering commitment to the art de vivre – the French art of living well.
France has some of the world’s fastest trains (the TGV); these link 50 of France’s cities so it’s easy to get anywhere in the country within hours. Most of the major cities have excellent metro and bus services covering the whole city area, and many of the smaller cities and towns are easy to explore on foot or by bike.
Public transport in rural France is less comprehensive, so it’s worth hiring a car to explore areas like the vineyards of Bordeaux, rural Provence or the Loire Valley. Car hire in France is very good value, but you may want to keep your eyes peeled for crazy French drivers!
France has 20,000km of cycle routes, so it’s a wonderful country for a cycle tour – you can even follow in the footsteps of the world’s most famous cycle race, the Tour De France.
Things to watch out for
For such a cosmopolitan country, France has retained a mystifying affection for hole-in-the-ground squat toilets – whilst they are considerably less common than they used to be, you’ll still find them in cafes, rest stops and public conveniences across rural France. The French claim they are more hygienic because there is no germ-covered seat, but using them does take practice, particularly for women!