7 Insider Tips you should know before your First Trip to France

7 insider tips you should know before your first trip to France

If there’s one country that can win your heart from the moment you step foot in it and keep on surprising you time and time and again, it’s France. From the cosmopolitan streets of Paris to the careless elegance of the South, there’s something in France for every tourist. Whether you love arts, architecture, fashion, food, culture, designer jewelry stores or breathtaking natural landscapes, France has it all. And yet, visiting France for the first time can be a lot to take in, and you may have a bit of a culture shock, especially if you’re not European. The French have their tiny quirks when it comes to eating, shopping, and interacting with strangers, and knowing a bit about these quirks will help you make the most out of your vacation and avoid embarrassing situations.

Here are seven essential etiquette tips to keep in mind.

1. Take dining etiquette seriously.

French cuisine is one of the best in the world, so it really doesn’t come as a surprise that the French take their table manners seriously. Whether a French person invites you into their home or you’re simply dining out in a restaurant, you should know that French meals are typically a two-hour affair involving three or four courses. You should never fill your wine glass all the way up, nor bring a bottle of wine to a house party (it’s considered a sign of disrespect to the guest). Keep your elbows off the table, break your bread with your hands, not with a knife, don’t ask for leftovers to-go, and don’t talk about business during meals. Also, when eating out, keep in mind that most restaurants don’t usually modify menu items if you ask them to, so if you have allergies or specific dietary preferences, shop from health food stores instead.

2. You’ll get by easier if you know at least basic French.

The French have a deep sense of national pride, and even though many do speak English, they’ll appreciate it if you know at least a few basic French expressions and give you better service. If you speak in English, speak slowly because locals might not understand your accent. It’s a sign of respect to start conversations with Bonjour and Parlez-vous Anglais, and say Merci, not Thank you, when someone helps you. If you travel to Paris and other big cities, you’ll get by in English, but if you go to the countryside, they mostly speak French there, so you’ll save yourself a lot of stress if you learn some basic French grammar and expressions. It might also be a good idea to research regional accents. The French spoken in Paris is different from the one spoken in the South, so it will be easier to understand what people are saying if you listen to audio of native speakers – including slang, which is often left out of conventional French classes.

3. Clients are expected to greet first in shops.

In the US, retail is customer-oriented, and shop assistants are always the first to say hi and ask how they can help as soon as you open the door. In France, things are a bit different. You can still expect a polite greeting and high-quality service, but shopkeepers will give you space to browse and they expect you to approach them first if you need help. So, don’t leave stores bad reviews because the shop assistant didn’t immediately rush to help you – they’re simply letting you decide first.

4. The French don’t like small talk.

If you’re waiting in line to buy pain au chocolat or baguettes from a local boulangerie, you may be tempted to do some small talk with the person standing next to you in line. After all, this is considered polite in many countries. In France, however, they might not like it so much. While the French are always up for a healthy debate, especially if it involves topics like arts, architecture, and food, they’re not too fond of talking to strangers, especially tourists.

5. Slow down

You should always slow down and be more relaxed on vacation, but all the more so if you’re visiting France. The French love taking their time, and even in Paris, which has a faster rhythm than the rest of the country, things can be pretty slow. You’ll notice this when ordering food (the waiter will give you a good few minutes to decide on your order), when going out to lunch (which takes up to two hours), and the Southern down you go, the less punctual people will be. Oh, and never order coffee to go unless you’re in a Starbucks. Nothing is so urgent that you can’t sit down and enjoy a good espresso!  

6. August is crowded in the South and emptier in big cities.

August can be a great or a terrible time to visit France, depending on what you want to see. It’s common for French people to take the month off, so if you’re going to a big city, you may notice that the streets are emptier than usual and many small businesses are closed till September. For some, this is a good thing because the queues for museums and other attractions are smaller and the cities are more peaceful. For others, this is a turnoff because they see mostly tourists and can’t get a sense of what life is like for the locals. However, the hustle and bustle moves to the South, so if you want to go there in August, you should book your stay a few months in advance.

7. Avoid the “visitor exuberance.”

While the French aren’t exactly quiet and introverted, they do hate it when tourists get too loud – they call this “visitor exuberance.” If you’re in a public space such as a restaurant, cinema, or museum, try to keep your voice down. Talking or laughing too hard will get you some raised eyebrows and disapproving looks from the locals – it’s their way of saying that you’re disrupting their normal life and that you should be more considerate.


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