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Admired the world over for its impeccable taste and effortless style, France celebrates beauty, sophistication and style. From elegant chateaux and grand boulevards to immaculately manicured country roads and charming villages; fairytale castles, thousand-year-old cathedrals, and even older vineyards. This is the country that taught the world about joie de vivre and savoir-faire, about high culture and haute couture. France has everything a discerning traveler could wish for.
The largest country in Europe and, culturally and historically, one of the most influential in the world, France has a reputation that precedes her. Before even visiting, you already know about the famous boulevards, the gourmet cuisine, the fabulous fashions and stylish cafes. You may have heard the stereotypes, about haughty French waiters, pervasive cigarette smoking and smelly cheese. To put the record straight: the waiters are formal rather than friendly, smoking is on the decline, and strong cheeses are decidedly optional. France is a country of complexities. To truly understand its allure, you have to visit.
Centuries of history have shaped France’s rich heritage, and the buildings speak volumes: from the medieval city of Carcassonne to the Renaissance chateaux of the Loire Valley, and the magnificent 19th century Haussmann boulevards in Paris. You can imagine scenes of the Belle Epoque at the Moulin Rouge as vividly as World War II battles at Omaha Beach in Normandy. Despite its weighty past, France is a thoroughly modern nation. Alongside the ancient castles and cathedrals are emphatically 21st century innovations: from the 300 kilometers-per-hour TGV rail service, to the Pompidou Center of Modern Art in Paris and a stadium-sized underground cathedral in Lourdes.
France is defined by its diverse topography. The spectacular landscape ranges from the poppy-strewn plains of Picardy to the rolling hills of Champagne, the snowy peaks of the Alps to the serene shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Each region has its own unique character. People have different accents all over the country, and the gastronomy varies as much as the scenery. President Charles de Gaulle once lamented about the difficulty of governing a nation with over 300 types of cheese – but for visitors, the variety of culture and cuisine is something to relish!
With its majestic monuments, elegant sidewalk cafes and chic shopping districts, Paris has the finest of everything – from gourmet cuisine to fabulous fashions. You could spend a whole day shopping for designer silk scarves or handmade chocolates, or wandering around the city’s perfectly manicured parks. At the center of Paris, the Notre-Dame Cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, resplendent with flying buttresses, fearsome gargoyles, and soaring spires. The phenomenal Louvre Museum, located in the former palace of the Kings of France, is the world’s most visited art museum – renowned for masterworks such as Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ and Eugene Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’. The world’s most important collection of Impressionist art is housed on the opposite bank of the Seine at the Musee d’Orsay, where you can drift between Monet’s water lilies, Cezanne’s rolling fields, Renoir’s bustling sidewalks, and van Gogh’s starry skies. No description of Paris would be complete without a mention of the lattice-work marvel of the Eiffel Tower – the iconic 324-meter tower that holds of the distinction of being the most visited paid monument in the world.
The food in Paris is justifiably legendary, from the exquisite patisserie shops and sophisticated salon de the to celebrated cafes such as Les Deux Magots in Saint-Germain des Pres – once the haunt of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Expect the waiters to be brusque and the people-watching to be captivating. The ‘City of Lights’ lives up to its name with a vibrant nightlife, from chic nightclubs to risque cabaret shows, traditional ballet to modern jazz. Paris is also famous for its lively street performances, and every June 21st the city stays up all night for a fiesta of free concerts known as La Fete de la Musique.
Just a short train ride out of Paris is one of France’s top tourist attractions, the magnificent Chateau de Versailles. Filled with precious artworks and surrounded by exquisite formal gardens, this extravagant palace stands as testimony to the glory of King Louis XIV’s reign – otherwise known as the Grand Siecle. The chateau was also the residence of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette, who were overthrown during the French Revolution. The most famous room is the Hall of Mirrors, which is literally dripping in chandeliers, gold leaf and fine tapestries. Seeing the opulence of Versailles helps you understand why, in 1789, the chateau was stormed by a mob of angry Parisians who could not even afford bread. Another awe-inspiring historical site near Paris is the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and arguably the most breathtaking Gothic cathedral in France.
Brittany and Normandy
Brittany in northwest France is alive with ancient history, including the historic seaside town of Saint Malo and the famous medieval abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, perched on a hilltop that becomes an island at high tide. Surrounded by rugged coastline, Normandy is full of historic towns that are associated with Impressionist paintings: the lovely seaside town of Honfleur, Rouen with its famous cathedral painted by Monet, the bustling port of Le Havre, and the coastal resort of Deauville. Another evocative attraction is the Normandy Landing Beaches, where visitors can experience the momentous events of ‘D Day’ on June 6th 1944 – when 150,000 American, British and Canadian troops landed along this coast in what would become a major turning-point in World War II.
Glorious Renaissance chateaux and fairytale castles dot the lush valleys and historic towns along the Loire River in central France, where France’s royal families built their homes and hunting lodges between the 15th and 17th centuries. The immense Chateau de Chambord was built for King Francois I and encompasses a hunting estate roughly the size of the Paris metropolitan area. The largest of the Loire chateaux, the magnificent Cheverny Castle was a gift to the mistress of King Henri II. The most unique and graceful, the Chateau de Chenonceau is known as the ‘Castle of Ladies’ because it was designed and built for Katherine Briconnet and Diane de Poitiers. Each chateau has a fascinating heritage, and the tales of visionary architectural projects, grand hunts, spectacular parties, and aristocratic trysts always make for an absorbing visit.
Amid the rolling, vineyard-cloaked hills of this iconic region, you’ll find two ancient and spectacular World Heritage Sites: the medieval ‘fair town’ of Provins and the gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral of Reims. Of course, Champagne connoisseurs will also want to visit the prestigious maisons de Champagne, such as Maison Veuve Clicquot and Maison Perrier-Jouet, to sample the legendary ‘bubbly’ of this famous region.
Burgundy was once a powerful medieval duchy and, among its idyllic farmlands and lush vineyards, you’ll still find fortresses, castles, abbeys and villages from the Middle Ages. The attractive city of Beaune is the heart of the region’s famous wine trade, while Dijon is a pleasant historic city, known for its gourmet mustard production. Wine connoisseurs will delight in the region’s fine Beaujolais, Chablis and Cote d’Or varieties, and private tours can be arranged at most of the prestigious wineries. Burgundy is equally famous for its hearty country cuisine, with classic French specialties like escargot, chicken in mustard sauce, and beef stew.
Only two hours from Paris by high-speed train and an hour from the Alps, Lyon is France’s second largest city: more “French” than Paris, and with sunnier weather. The city boasts interesting Gallo-Roman archaeological sites and has an impressive Musee des Beaux Arts. Lyon is also well-known for its gastronomic excellence, with several top chefs running restaurants here, including the acclaimed Paul Bocuse and Anne-Sophie Pic – the only female French chef to be awarded three Michelin stars.
The region of Alsace on the German border has a different flavor from the rest of the country. People here speak Alsatian, a Germanic language with a bit of French influence, and the cuisine also reflects the region’s location, with specialties including sausages, sauerkraut and kugelhopf (a rich almond cake). The capital, Strasbourg, is a charming city with quaint half-timbered houses and an ornate Gothic cathedral. From Strasbourg, it’s an easy day trip to the Black Forest.
The Alps and Pyrenees
France’s two mountain ranges offer spectacular scenery, complete with snowcapped mountains, rushing waterfalls and sparkling streams. Both regions have pristine national parks with well-groomed trails ideal for hiking and mountain-biking. There are quaint villages and tiny churches to discover in remote areas, and local bars and cafes serving delicious hearty cuisine. Fondue is a specialty of the Alps, while the cheese-based dish, raclette, is enjoyed in the Pyrenees.
The sun-soaked center of southern France, Provence has a deep-rooted Roman heritage that is clearly visible in its dialect and cuisine. The beautiful Mediterranean landscape inspired Impressionist painters such as Cezanne to create vibrant works of art. The city of Arles is dominated by the ruins of a giant amphitheater dating back to the 1st century BC. Throughout the countryside, you’ll find hilltop medieval villages full of charm and character. The beautiful medieval city of Avignon is dominated by the UNESCO-listed Palais de Papes, a monumental 14th century papal palace.
Also known as the French Riviera, the Cote d’Azur attracts beach lovers, socialites, celebrities – and of course, the paparazzi. One glimpse of the alluring blue waters and astounding ocean views, and you’ll understand why the Cote d’Azur is a world-famous ‘glitterati’ destination. You can soak up the sun at upscale beach resorts or go for pleasant hikes along the sparkling Mediterranean foreshore. Attractions include the chic principality of Monaco, the picturesque seaside village of Eze, the gorgeous Rothschild Villa on Cap Ferrat, the superb art museums of Nice, and the exclusive seafront promenade in Cannes.
Gascony and Dordogne
Two of the most ancient regions of France, Gascony and Dordogne boast rugged scenery and fascinating history. Gascony is famous for its medieval heritage, its rich foods (including foie gras and Armagnac brandy), and as the original home of the Three Musketeers. Dordogne is renowned for its significant Roman ruins and the prehistoric caves of the Vezere Valley, which house rock paintings dating back 12,000 years.
The Basque Country is a distinct region of southwest France, bordering the Atlantic Ocean, with its own language, culture and cuisine. The seaside resort of Biarritz was made fashionable by the wife of Napoleon III, the Empress Eugenie. Her private residence is now the Hotel du Palais, an extravagant hotel with ocean views and an exquisite Michelin-starred restaurant.
Romantically situated on a crescent-shaped bend of the Garonne River, Bordeaux is a stunning World Heritage City with a wealth of historic monuments. The city displays its landmarks like an open-air museum – from its Roman-era amphitheater to a splendid medieval cathedral and elegant 18th century boulevards. Bordeaux also has statements of modernity, like its surreal Water Mirror reflecting the Place de la Bourse along the river. In the surrounding vineyards and wine chateaux, the region produces some of the best Grand Cru wines in France.
- Take a guided tour of the Louvre, the world’s greatest art museum, and marvel at its masterpieces of European art. From the enigmatic smile of the ‘Mona Lisa’ and the sensual curves of ‘Venus de Milo’, to legendary works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Caravaggio and countless others, the Louvre holds some of the world’s most dazzling and valuable art treasures. Among more than 30,000 artworks are incredible collections of antiquities from ancient Rome, Greece and the Middle East, as well as one of the world’s most important collections of ancient Egyptian art.
- Immerse yourself in the singular beauty of Impressionism at the Musee d’Orsay, home of Degas’ ballerinas, Gaugin’s Tahitian ladies, Toulouse-Lautrec’s cabaret dancers, and Renoir’s joyous Belle Epoque parties. Afterwards, sated on the world’s finest art, treat yourself to lunch at the museum’s exquisite restaurant – itself designated an historic monument.
- Take in the best views of Paris from the Eiffel Tower, once the tallest structure in the world and without doubt the most enduring symbol of the ‘City of Light’. After soaking up the spectacular sights, there is no more civilized way to end your visit than by savoring the stunning Michelin-starred cuisine of Alain Ducasse at the Le Jules Vernes restaurant on the tower’s second level.
- Experience the Parisian joie de vivre at lovely parks and legendary cafes, from the manicured lawns of the Champ de Mars next to the Eiffel Tower to the stunning botanical gardens of the Jardin du Luxembourg, close to the Latin Quarter. Pull up a chair at the Jardin de Tuileries, an elegant garden in the formal French style, where you can stop for a crepe or a light lunch at the La Terrasse de Pomone. Or soak up the inimitable atmosphere of the Germain des Pres, where you can people-watch in style on the terraces of the Cafe du Flore or Cafe Les Deux Magots.
- Absorb the medieval charms of Marais, where you can wander through narrow cobblestone streets lined with cafes and boutiques, admire aristocratic palaces abandoned during the Revolution, or relax in the courtyard of the Place de Vosges – one of Paris’s most elegant squares.
- Be inspired by magnificent Gothic cathedrals that reflect France’s rich spiritual heritage. Attend a Catholic mass at the Notre-Dame de Paris to soak up the heavenly aura of this immense cathedral, featuring an ornate 13th century choir area and sanctuary. Bask in the spectacular stained-glass chapel of Eglise de Saint-Chapelle, or take the train south to Chartres, where the huge vaulted ceilings, ancient stained glass, and exquisite sculptures of Chartres Cathedral are celebrated by many as the most beautiful place of worship in France.
- Walk in the footsteps of pampered royalty through some of the world’s most opulent and magnificent homes – from the extravagance of the Chateau de Versailles, where France’s last monarchs lived in Paris, to the storybook splendor of the Loire Valley castles, set amid expansive estates and evergreen forests.
- Discover tales of bravery and tragedy on the beaches of Normandy, where, on a single day in June 1944, 150,000 troops landed in 7,000 vessels on five beaches – in what remains the greatest seaborne invasion in modern military history. Today, the events of ‘D Day’ are commemorated through a series of informative museums and memorials, and a moving daily flag-lowering ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.
- Learn about the centuries-old French tradition of viticulture while sampling fine wines and hearty cuisine at some of the world’s oldest and most renowned vineyard estates. From sparkling wines and gorgeous chateaux in Champagne to the classic red wines and sprawling estates of Bordeaux, and the ancient castles and legendary Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays of Burgundy, no other country offers so much for wine-lovers.
- Soak up the country charm and the evocative past of Provence, where you can thrill in the history of the 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater at Arles or walk in hallowed footsteps at the towering 14th century papal palace in Avignon. Sunbathe at stylish French Riviera beach resorts, swim in the Mediterranean Sea, or tour the iconic perfume factories of Grasse – surrounded by the fields of flowers used to make their aromatic essential oils.
- Savor the Basque Country’s distinctive cuisine and culture, from the picturesque ancient village of Espelette, renowned for its piquant red peppers, to the fashionable seaside resort of Biarritz, and the exquisite old-world charms and new-world spa treatments of Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
- Delight in the quaint villages and postcard-perfect views of Alsace, from the lovely half-timbered houses along the river in Strasbourg to the tranquil woodlands and idyllic hamlets of the Black Forest. During the holiday season, visit the festive Christmas markets to shop for artisan products while sipping on spiced hot apple cider.
- Head off the beaten track in some of Europe’s most pristine and beautiful mountains, from the spectacular lakes and hiking trails of the French Alps, to the dramatic forests and mountain-bike trails of the Pyrenees, and the starkly beautiful limestone cliffs and inlets of the Calanques – France’s newest national park.
As Ella Fitzgerald’s “I love Paris” eloquently explains, you can appreciate France at any time of the year! The spring offers mild weather, longer days and flowering gardens. Summertime is a lively season with a more lighthearted mood, as the French get ready for their annual vacations. In August, Paris tends to be hot and humid, and many Parisians vacate the city. You won’t see the typical Parisian atmosphere in August, but you may enjoy the slower pace. Expect the French Riviera and Biarritz resorts to be extremely crowded in July and August. If you prefer a more relaxing vacation at this time of year, visit the countryside, such as Provence, le Vars or the Pyrenees Mountains. In autumn, especially September in Paris and October on the French Riviera, you can enjoy great weather and fewer crowds. The holiday season is a festive time to see the Christmas markets and decorations.
Most international flights arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, the largest in France. Other international flight hubs are the Bordeaux airport in southwest France and Lyon Saint Exupery airport in the Rhone-Alpes region. If your vacation is based in the French Riviera, you can fly into Nice, although this usually requires a layover in another European city such as Frankfurt or Amsterdam.
France has an excellent system of public transportation. Within Paris, you can rely almost exclusively on the metro subway to get to any point in the city. The state railway system covers every major city and many towns throughout the country. There are also high-speed trains known as TGV (Trains a Grande Vitesse) that travel at 300 kilometers per hour. You can take the TGV from Paris to Marseille on the Mediterranean Sea in three hours or in just two hours arrive in Lyon, which is close to many excellent ski areas in the Alps. From Paris to Arles in Provence takes about three hours and from Paris to Nice on the French Riviera takes five hours. Most visitors only need a rental car to visit smaller villages and nature sites that are not accessible by train.
France offers a wide range of accommodation to suit every budget and taste, from high-end luxury establishments like the Ritz to simple hotels with basic amenities. The French tourism authorities have a well-defined rating system, from one to four stars, which categorizes hotels based on their level of facilities. For instance, a one-star hotel probably will not have an elevator and may not have common areas, whereas a four-star hotel will have an elevator, concierge, lounge areas, restaurant and amenities such as WiFi access, cable TV and laundry services. However, the rating system does not take into account subjective criteria like a welcoming staff or the style of decor.
In France, there are many smaller hotels in charming historic buildings. For a really special experience, the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group provides distinctive luxury accommodation, usually in splendid renovated castles, farmhouses or old monasteries, and often in beautiful natural settings. Whatever your criteria and travel preferences, your Zicasso agent will help you to select the hotels that suit you best for each location on your trip.
Visas and Passport Requirements
Most non-European Union nationals require a visa for a tourist stay of 90 days or more. If you plan to stay longer than 90 days, you will need to submit a short-stay visa application at a French Consulate or Embassy before your arrival in France.
There are no health precautions for visiting France. The Center for Disease Control recommends that you are up to date on routine vaccines and your yearly flu shot. If a medical issue arises when you’re in France, you can visit a local pharmacy for medical advice. The pharmacy can contact a doctor to provide a “house call” at your hotel room. France has one of the world’s best healthcare systems, and medical fees for most services are reasonable enough to pay out of pocket. You should still consider travel health insurance, to cover the costs in the rare chance of a serious medical emergency. Before your trip, you should also check to see if your health insurance plan will cover any medical costs incurred while traveling overseas.
Although France is a very safe country, you should take precautions as with any travel experience. Be aware of pickpockets, especially in big cities like Paris and Marseille. Pay attention to your surroundings in crowded areas like the metro and train stations. Keep your passport and cash in a secure place such as a hotel safe or by wearing a money-belt. Always bring copies of credit card information, so that you can contact your credit card company in the case of theft. Before your trip, be sure to get travel insurance that covers theft and lost baggage.
Single women sometimes experience the culture shock of forward French men when traveling alone in France. Usually this is a mere inconvenience rather than a safety threat. Single women travelers should take the same precautions in France that they would elsewhere: be aware of your surroundings and avoid areas that are desolate or not well-lit at night.
France is a country steeped in customs and the tradition of good manners. The English word for “etiquette” comes from the antiquated French word “estiquette”, which means “ticket.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, the nobility were presented with tickets that prescribed specific codes of behavior permitted at the King’s court. Although manners today are less codified, they are generally more formal in France than in America. In contemporary French society, children are taught from a young age the importance of “politesse”, and you will see how French people value treating others in a polite way. The French also tend to speak at a lower volume than Americans – and you will fit in better if you lower the decibel level of your voice.
Address women as “madame” (or “mademoiselle” for a young woman) and men as “monsieur” – the equivalent of “ma’am” and “sir”. When entering a store, restaurant or other public venue, use the greeting “bonjour, madame/monsieur” or “bonsoir, madame/monsieur”. Do not call waiters “garcon” as this is considered rude. The French address strangers by their last name until the acquaintance becomes more familiar. The French language has built-in formalities; the word for “you” differs depending on how well you know the person. Use “tu” for close friends and to address someone younger, and “vous” for acquaintances and to show respect to elders. The two most essential French phrases are “s’il vous plait” and “merci” (“please” and “thank you”). Whenever you use these expressions of politesse, you will be met with appreciation and politeness.
French is the official language in France, spoken by 100% of the population. The French language is also a matter of national pride, and France has enforced the use of the French language by law. The government added an article to the constitution in 1992, stating: “The language of the Republic is French.” In 1994, France passed the Toubon law, declaring that all public notices, broadcast media and advertising must provide a translation of foreign words. In addition, France has several regional languages: Alsatian, Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Flemish and Provencal. The Basque country proudly retains its language and culture; about a third of the local population is bilingual. Schools teach both Basque and French, and road signs are written in Basque as well as French.
Except in small towns, in rural areas and among the older generation, most French people speak English reasonably well. The younger generation is often fluent in English and enjoys American movies and music. As a visitor, it is not necessary to speak French: English is widely spoken at tourist locations. However, you will enjoy a much warmer reception if you attempt a few basic French phrases. You can begin by asking “Parlez vous anglais?” (“Do you speak English?”) and most often the answer will be “yes”.
In France, all restaurants include the waiter’s service fee in the bill. Including a tip is optional. Most French customers either do not leave a tip or they leave spare change. You may want to tip the staff at your hotel or your guides if you feel that they’ve provided excellent service, although this is up to your discretion. In French stores, the prices that you see are not negotiable and it is not considered good form to bargain.
With Zicasso’s customized tours, travelers are presented with hassle-free convenience of pre-packaged group tours and the flexibility of planned independent travel so there are greater options to choose from.
Whether you’re interested in learning about French gastronomy and wines from an expert or wanted to travel along the French Riviera on a customized romantic getaway, you will appreciate a variety of unique and authentic experiences meaningful to you. Your trip will be carefully crafted to ensure hassle-free logistics and the selection of the perfect accommodation arrangements.
Begin by telling us about your dream trip by filling out a Trip Request. We’ll then match you with 2 – 3 France travel specialists to design a trip just for you.