With the exception of the odd haggle at the market, little bargaining goes on in France.
Dangers & Annoyances
France is generally a safe place, despite a rise in crime and terrorism in recent years.
- Never leave baggage unattended, especially at airports or train stations.
- At museums and monuments, bags are routinely checked on entry.
- Sporadic train strikes and striking taxi drivers can disrupt travel.
- France's hunting season is September to February: if you see signs reading 'chasseurs' or 'chasse gardée' tacked to trees, don't enter the area.
- In the Alps and Pyrenees, check the day's avalanche report and stick to groomed pistes. Summer thunderstorms can be sudden and violent.
- On the Atlantic Coast watch for powerful tides and undertows; only swim on beaches with lifeguards.
Discount cards yield fantastic benefits and easily pay for themselves. As well as the card fee, you'll often need a passport-sized photo and some form of ID with proof of age (eg passport or birth certificate).
People over 60 or 65 are entitled to discounts on things like public transport, museum admission fees and theatres.
Discount card options:
- Camping Card International (www.campingcardinternational.com; €10) Used as ID for checking into campsites; the annual card includes third-party liability insurance and covers up to 11 people in a party; it usually yields up to 20% discount. Available at automobile associations, camping federations and campgrounds.
- European Youth Card (www.eyca.org; €10) Wide range of discounts for under 26 year olds. Available online.
- International Student Identity Card (www.isic.org; €13) Discounts on travel, shopping, attractions and entertainment for full-time students. Available at ISIC points listed online.
- International Teacher Identity Card (www.isic.org; €18) Travel, shopping, entertainment and sightseeing discounts for full-time teachers.
- International Youth Travel Card (www.isic.org; €13) Discounts on travel, tickets and so forth for under 31 year olds.
Embassies & Consulates
All foreign embassies are in Paris.
- Many countries – including Canada, Japan, the UK, USA and most European countries – also have consulates in other major cities such as Bordeaux, Lyon, Nice, Marseille and Strasbourg.
- To find a consulate or an embassy, visit www.embassiesabroad.com or look up 'ambassade' in the super user-friendly Pages Jaunes (www.pagesjaunes.fr).
Embassies & Consulates in France
Emergency & Important Numbers
|France country code||33|
|International access code||00|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Entering France from other parts of the EU is usually a breeze – no border checkpoints and no customs – thanks to the Schengen Agreement, signed by all of France's neighbours except the UK, the Channel Islands and Andorra. For these three entities, old-fashioned document and customs checks are still the norm, at least when exiting France (when entering France in the case of Andorra).
Goods brought in and out of countries within the EU incur no additional taxes provided duty has been paid somewhere within the EU and the goods are for personal consumption. Duty-free shopping is available only if you are leaving the EU.
Duty-free allowances (for adults) coming from non-EU countries (including the Channel Islands):
- 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250g tobacco
- 1L spirits or 2L of sparkling wine/other alcoholic drinks less than 22% alcohol
- 4L still wine
- 16L beer
- other goods up to the value of €300/430 when entering by land/air or sea (€150 for under 15 year olds)
Higher limits apply if you are coming from Andorra; anything over these limits must be declared. For further details, see www.douane.gouv.fr (partly in English).
Generally not required for stays of up to 90 days (or at all for EU nationals); some nationalities need a Schengen visa.
- For up-to-date details on visa requirements, see the website of the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères and click 'Coming to France'.
- EU nationals and citizens of Iceland, Norway and Switzerland need only a passport or a national identity card to enter France and stay in the country, even for stays of more than 90 days. However, citizens of new EU member states may be subject to various limitations on living and working in France.
- Citizens of Australia, the USA, Canada, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and many Latin American countries do not need visas to visit France as tourists for up to 90 days. For long stays of more than 90 days, contact your nearest French embassy or consulate and begin your application well in advance, as it can take months.
- Other people wishing to come to France as tourists have to apply for a Schengen Visa, named after the agreements that have abolished passport controls between 26 European countries. It allows unlimited travel throughout the entire zone for a 90-day period. Apply to the consulate of the country you are entering first, or your main destination. Among other things, you need travel and repatriation insurance and to be able to show that you have sufficient funds to support yourself.
- Tourist visas cannot be changed into student visas after arrival. However, short-term visas are available for students sitting university-entrance exams in France.
- Tourist visas cannot be extended except in emergencies (such as medical problems). When your visa expires you'll need to leave and reapply from outside France.
Carte de Séjour
- EU passport holders and citizens of Switzerland, Iceland and Norway do not need a carte de séjour (residence permit) to reside or work in France.
- Nationals of other countries with long-stay visas must contact the local mairie (city hall) or préfecture (prefecture) to apply for a carte de séjour. Usually, you are required to do so within eight days of arrival in France. Make sure you have all the necessary documents before you arrive.
- Students of all nationalities studying in France need a carte de séjour.
Working Holiday Visa
Citizens of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and a handful of others aged between 18 and 30 (35 for Canadians) are eligible for a 12-month, multiple-entry Working Holiday Visa (Permis Vacances-Travail), allowing combined tourism and employment in France.
- Apply to the embassy or consulate in your home country. Do this early as there are annual quotas.
- You must be applying for a Working Holiday Visa for France for the first time.
- You will need comprehensive travel insurance for the duration of your stay.
- You must meet all health and character requirements.
- You will need a return plane ticket and proof of sufficient funds (usually around €3800) to get you through the start of your stay.
- Once you have arrived in France and have found a job, you must apply for an autorisation provisoire de travail (temporary work permit), which will only be valid for the duration of the employment offered. The permit can be renewed under the same conditions up to the limit of the authorised length of stay.
- You can also study or do training programs but the visa cannot be extended, nor can it be turned into a student visa.
- After one year you must go home.
- Conversation Use the formal vous when speaking to anyone unknown or older than you; the informal tu is reserved for close friends, family and children.
- Churches Dress modestly (cover shoulders).
- Drinks Asking for une carafe d'eau (free jug of tap water) in restaurants is acceptable. Never end a meal with a cappuccino or cup of tea. Play French and order un café (espresso).
- French kissing Exchange bisous (cheek-skimming kisses) – at least two, but in some parts of France it can be up to four – with casual acquaintances and friends.
Gay & Lesbian Travellers
The rainbow flag flies high in France, a country that left its closet long before many of its European neighbours. Laissez-faire perfectly sums up France's liberal attitude towards homosexuality and people's private lives in general; in part because of a long tradition of public tolerance towards unconventional lifestyles.
- Paris has been a thriving gay and lesbian centre since the late 1970s, and most major organisations are based there today.
- Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Montpellier, Toulouse and many other towns also have an active queer scene.
- Attitudes towards homosexuality tend to be more conservative in the countryside and villages.
- France's lesbian scene is less public than its gay male counterpart and is centred mainly on women's cafes and bars.
- Same-sex marriage has been legal in France since May 2013.
- Gay Pride marches are held in major French cities mid-May to early July.
- Damron (www.damron.com) Has published English-language travel guides since the 1960s, including Damron Women's Traveller for lesbians and Damron Men's Travel Guide for gays.
- Spartacus International Gay Guide (www.spartacusworld.com) A male-only guide to just about every country in the world, with more than 70 pages devoted to France, almost half of which cover Paris. There's a smartphone app too.
- Gaipied (www.gayvox.com/guide3) Online travel guide to France, with listings by region, by Gayvox.
- Gay Travel & Life in France (www.gay-france.net) Insider tips on gay life in France.
- Tasse de Thé (www.tassedethe.com) A webzine lesbien with lots of useful links.
- Comprehensive travel insurance to cover theft, loss and medical problems is highly recommended.
- Some policies specifically exclude dangerous activities such as scuba diving, motorcycling, skiing and even trekking: read the fine print.
- Check that the policy covers ambulances or an emergency flight home.
- Find out in advance if your insurance plan will make payments directly to providers or reimburse you later for overseas health expenditures.
- If you have to claim later, make sure you keep all documentation.
- Paying for your airline ticket with a credit card often provides limited travel accident insurance – ask your credit card company what it is prepared to cover.
- Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
- Wi-fi (pronounced ‘wee-fee’ in French) is available at major airports, in most hotels, and at many cafes, restaurants, museums and tourist offices.
- In cities free wi-fi is available in hundreds of public places, including parks, libraries and municipal buildings. In Paris look for a purple ‘Zone Wi-Fi’ sign. To connect, select the 'PARIS_WI-FI_' network. Sessions are limited to two hours (renewable). For complete details and a map of hot spots, see www.paris.fr/wifi.
- To search for free wi-fi hot spots in France, visit www.hotspot-locations.com.
- Tourist offices is some larger cities, including Lyon and Bordeaux, rent out pocket-sized mobile wi-fi devices that you carry around with you, ensuring a fast wi-fi connection while roaming the city.
- Alternatively, rent a mobile wi-fi device online before leaving home and arrange for it to be delivered by post to your hotel in France through HipPocketWifi (http://hippocketwifi.com), Travel WiFi (http://travel-wifi.com) or My Webspot (http://my-webspot.com).
- Co-working cafes providing unlimited, fast internet access are increasingly rife; at least one can usually be tracked down in cities. Expect to pay about €5 per hour for a desk, plug and unlimited hot drinks and snacks.
Feature: What the Icon Means
Only accommodation providers that have an actual computer that guests can use to access the internet are flagged with a computer icon. The wi-fi icon indicates anywhere with wi-fi access. Where this icon appears, assume the wi-fi is free unless otherwise specified.
- French police have wide powers of search and seizure and can ask you to prove your identity at any time – whether or not there is 'probable cause'.
- Foreigners must be able to prove their legal status in France (eg with a passport, visa or residency permit) without delay.
- If the police stop you for any reason, be polite and remain calm. Verbally (and of course physically) abusing a police officer can lead to a hefty fine, and even imprisonment.
- You may refuse to sign a police statement, and have the right to ask for a copy.
- People who are arrested are considered innocent until proven guilty, but can be held in custody until trial.
Drugs & Alcohol
- French law does not distinguish between 'hard' and 'soft' drugs.
- The penalty for any personal use of stupéfiants (including cannabis, amphetamines, ecstasy and heroin) can be a one-year jail sentence and a €3750 fine but, depending on the circumstances, it might be anything from a stern word to a compulsory rehab program.
- Importing, possessing, selling or buying drugs can get you up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to €500,000.
- Police have been known to search chartered coaches, cars and train passengers for drugs just because they're coming from Amsterdam.
- Ivresse (drunkenness) in public is punishable by a fine.
- Newspapers and magazines Locals read their news in centre-left Le Monde (www.lemonde.fr), right-leaning Le Figaro (www.lefigaro.fr) or left-leaning Libération (www.liberation.fr).
- Radio For news, tune in to the French-language France Info (105.5MHz; www.franceinfo.fr) and multilanguage RFI (738kHz or 89MHz in Paris; www.rfi.fr). Popular national FM music stations include NRJ (www.nrj.fr), Virgin (www.virginradio.fr), La Radio Plus (www.laradioplus.com) and Nostalgie (www.nostalgie.fr).
ATMs at every airport, most train stations and on every second street corner in towns and cities. Visa, MasterCard and Amex widely accepted.
Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) – known as distributeurs automatiques de billets (DAB) or points d'argent in French – are the cheapest and most convenient way to get money. ATMs connected to international networks are situated in all cities and towns and usually offer an excellent exchange rate.
You always get a better exchange rate in-country but it is a good idea to arrive in France with enough euros to take a taxi to a hotel if you have to.
Credit & Debit Cards
- Credit and debit cards, accepted almost everywhere in France, are convenient, relatively secure and usually offer a better exchange rate than travellers cheques or cash exchanges.
- Credit cards issued in France have embedded chips – you have to type in a PIN to make a purchase.
- Visa, MasterCard and Amex can be used in shops and supermarkets and for train travel, car hire and motorway tolls.
- Don't assume that you can pay for a meal or a budget hotel with a credit card – enquire first.
- Cash advances are a supremely convenient way to stay stocked up with euros, but getting cash with a credit card involves both fees (sometimes US$10 or more) and interest – ask your credit-card issuer for details. Debit-card fees are usually much less.
For lost cards, these numbers operate 24 hours:
Amex 01 47 77 72 00
MasterCard 08 00 90 13 87
Visa 08 00 90 11 79
For current exchange rates see www.xe.com.
- Commercial banks charge up to €5 per foreign-currency transaction – if they even bother to offer exchange services any more.
- In Paris and major cities, bureaux de change (exchange bureaus) are faster and easier, open longer hours and often give better rates than banks.
- Hotels €1 to €2 per bag is standard; gratuity for cleaning staff completely at your discretion.
- Bars No tips for drinks served at bar; round to nearest euro for drinks served at table.
- Restaurants For decent service 10%.
- Pubic toilets For super-clean, sparkling toilets with music, €0.50 at most.
- Tours For excellent guides, €1 to €2 per person.
Travellers cheques, a 20th-century relic, cannot be used to pay French merchants directly – change them into euro banknotes at banks, exchange bureaux or post offices.
Americans, Take Note
US-issued 'smart' credit/debit cards with embedded chips (a technology pioneered in France in the 1980s) and PINs work virtually everywhere in France, including autoroute toll plazas, but cards with a chip but no PIN may occasionally leave you unable to pay – for instance, at unstaffed, 24/7 petrol (gas) stations with self-pay pumps. If your credit card is of the old type, ie with a magnetic strip but no chip, ask your issuer to send you a new, chip-equipped card – they're usually happy to oblige as the new technology is much more secure.
Opening hours vary throughout the year. We list high-season opening hours, but remember these longer summer hours often decrease in shoulder and low seasons.
Banks 9am–noon and 2pm–5pm Monday to Friday or Tuesday to Saturday
Clubs 10pm–3am, 4am or 5am Thursday to Saturday
Restaurants Noon–2.30pm and 7pm–11pm six days a week
Shops 10am–noon and 2pm–7pm Monday to Saturday; longer, and including Sunday, for shops in defined ZTIs (international tourist zones)
French business hours are regulated by a maze of government regulations, including the 35-hour working week.
- The midday break is uncommon in Paris but common elsewhere; in general, the break gets longer the further south you go.
- French law requires that most businesses close on Sunday; exceptions include grocery stores, boulangeries (bakeries), florists and businesses catering to the tourist trade.
- In many towns and villages, shops close on Monday.
- Many service stations open 24 hours a day and stock basic groceries.
- Restaurants generally close one or two days of the week, chosen according to the owner's whim. Opening days/hours are only specified if the restaurant isn't open for both lunch and dinner daily.
- Most (but not all) national museums are closed on Tuesday; most local museums are closed on Monday, though in summer some open daily. Many museums close at lunchtime.
French post offices are flagged with a yellow or brown sign reading ‘La Poste’. Since La Poste (www.laposte.fr) also has banking, finance and bill-paying functions, queues can be long but automatic machines dispense postage stamps.
The following jours fériés (public holidays) are observed in France:
New Year's Day (Jour de l'An) 1 January
Easter Sunday & Monday (Pâques & Lundi de Pâques) Late March/April
May Day (Fête du Travail) 1 May
Victoire 1945 8 May
Ascension Thursday (Ascension) May; on the 40th day after Easter
Pentecost/Whit Sunday & Whit Monday (Pentecôte & Lundi de Pentecôte) Mid-May to mid-June; on the seventh Sunday after Easter
Bastille Day/National Day (Fête Nationale) 14 July
Assumption Day (Assomption) 15 August
All Saints' Day (Toussaint) 1 November
Remembrance Day (L'onze Novembre) 11 November
Christmas (Noël) 25 December
The following are not public holidays in France: Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras; the first day of Lent); Maundy (or Holy) Thursday and Good Friday, just before Easter; and Boxing Day (26 December).
Note: Good Friday and Boxing Day are public holidays in Alsace.
Smoking is illegal in all indoor public spaces, including restaurants and pubs (though, of course, smokers still light up on the terraces outside).
Taxes & Refunds
The standard value-added tax (VAT) rate of 20% is levied on most goods and services in France. Restaurants and hotels must always include 10% VAT in their prices.
Non-EU residents can claim a VAT refund on same-day purchases over €175, providing the goods are for personal consumption and are being personally transported home; retailers have details.
European and Australian phones work, but only American cells with 900 and 1800 MHz networks are compatible; check with your provider before leaving home. Use a French SIM card to call with a cheaper French number.
- French mobile phone numbers begin with 06 or 07.
- France uses GSM 900/1800, which is compatible with the rest of Europe and Australia but not with the North American GSM 1900 or the totally different system in Japan (though some North Americans have tri-band phones that work here).
- Check with your service provider about roaming charges – dialling a mobile phone from a fixed-line phone or another mobile can be incredibly expensive.
- It is usually cheaper to buy a local SIM card from a French provider such as Orange, SFR, Bouygues or Free Mobile, which gives you a local phone number. To do this, ensure your phone is unlocked.
- If you already have a compatible phone, you can slip in a SIM card and rev it up with prepaid credit, though this is likely to run out fast as domestic prepaid calls cost about €0.50 per minute.
- Recharge cards are sold at most tabacs (tobacconist-newsagents), supermarkets and online through websites such as Topengo (www.topengo.fr) or Sim-OK (https://recharge.sim-ok.com).
Carrying your own charger and cable is the only sure way of ensuring you don't run out of juice. Don't be shy to ask in cafes and restaurants if you can plug in and charge – if you ask nicely, most will oblige. In Paris the odd cafe lends cables to customers, savvy taxi drivers stock a selection of smartphone-compatible cables and chargers for passengers to use, and newer RATP bus stops are equipped with USB ports (bring your own cable).
On TGV trains, all 1st-class carriages (and occasionally 2nd-class depending on how new the train is) have plugs. On every TGV irrespective of age, there is at least one 'office' space between carriages with mini-desk and double plug. Otherwise, upon arrival, an increasing number of SNCF train stations have charging stations: in Paris, Gare de Nord, Gare de Montparnasse and Gare de St-Lazare all have pedal-powered charging stations, as do several other stations countrywide including Lille, Lyon, Strasbourg and Avignon TGV.
Calling France from abroad Dial your country's international access code, then 33 (France's country code), then the 10-digit local number without the initial zero.
Calling internationally from France Dial 00 (the international access code), the indicatif (country code), the area code (without the initial zero if there is one) and the local number. Some country codes are posted in public telephones.
Directory inquiries For national service des renseignements (directory inquiries) dial 11 87 12 or use the service for free online at www.118712.fr.
International directory inquiries For numbers outside France, dial 11 87 00.
- Public phones still exist, but are hard to find. Phones accept calling cards or credit cards.
- Emergency numbers can be dialled from public phones without a card.
- Prepaid calling cards with codes (tickets téléphones), sold at tabacs (tobacconists), are the cheapest way to call. When purchasing, tabacs can tell you which type is best for the country you want to call. Or buy online at www.topengo.fr (click on cartes appels internationaux and select the ticket téléphone for the geographic zone you'll call).
- Using calling cards from a home phone is much cheaper than using them from public phones or mobile phones.
- Hotels, gîtes, hostels and chambres d'hôte are free to meter their calls as they like. The surcharge is usually around €0.30 per minute but can be higher.
France uses the 24-hour clock and is on Central European Time, which is one hour ahead of GMT/UTC. During daylight-saving time, which runs from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October, France is two hours ahead of GMT/UTC.
The following times do not take daylight saving into account:
Public toilets, signposted WC or toilettes, are not always plentiful in France, especially outside the big cities.
Love them (as a sci-fi geek) or loathe them (as a claustrophobe), France's 24-hour self-cleaning toilets are here to stay. Outside Paris these mechanical WCs are free, but in Paris they cost around €0.50 a go. Don't even think about nipping in after someone else to avoid paying unless you fancy a douche (shower) with disinfectant. There is no time for dawdling either: you have precisely 15 minutes before being (ooh-la-la!) exposed to passers-by. Green means libre (vacant) and red means occupé (occupied).
Some older establishments and motorway stops still have the hole-in-the-floor toilettes à la turque (squat toilets). Provided you hover, these are actually very hygienic, but take care not to get soaked by the flush.
Keep some loose change handy for tipping toilet attendants, who keep a hawk-like eye on many of France's public toilets.
The French are completely blasé about unisex toilets, so save your blushes when tiptoeing past the urinals to reach the ladies' loo.
Almost every city, town and village has an office de tourisme (a tourist office run by some unit of local government) or syndicat d'initiative (a tourist office run by an organisation of local merchants). Both are excellent resources and can supply you with local maps as well as details on accommodation, restaurants and activities. If you have a special interest such as walking, cycling, architecture or wine sampling, ask about it.
- Many tourist offices make local hotel and B&B reservations, sometimes for a nominal fee.
- Comités régionaux de tourisme (CRTs; regional tourist boards), their départemental analogues (CDTs) and their websites are a superb source of information and hyperlinks.
- French government tourist offices (usually called Maisons de la France) provide every imaginable sort of tourist information on France.
Useful websites include:
French Government Tourist Office (www.france.fr/en) The low-down on sights, activities, transport and special-interest holidays in all of France's regions.
French Tourist Offices (www.tourisme.fr) Website of tourist offices in France, with mountains of inspirational information organised by theme and region.
Travel with Children
Be it the kid-friendly extraordinaire capital or rural hinterland, France spoils families with its rich mix of cultural sights, activities and entertainment – some paid for, some free. To get the most out of travelling en famille, plan ahead.
Best Regions for Kids
Interactive museums, choice dining for every taste and budget, and beautiful green parks seemingly at every turn make the French capital a top choice for families.
Beaches, boats and some great stuff for history-mad kids and teens give this northern region plenty of family lure.
More beaches, boats, pirate-perfect islands and bags of good old-fashioned outdoor fun. Enough said.
- French Alps & the Jura Mountains
Winter in this mountainous region in eastern France translates as one giant outdoor (snowy) playground – for all ages.
- French Riviera & Monaco
A vibrant arts scene, a vivacious cafe culture and a beach-laced shore riddled with seafaring activities keeps kids of all ages on their toes.
Sailing, kayaking, walking, biking, or simply dipping your toes or snorkel mask in clear turquoise waters: life on this island is fairy-tale belle (beautiful).
France for Kids
Savvy parents can find kid-appeal in almost every sight in France, must-sees included. Skip the formal guided tour of Mont St-Michel, for example, and hook up with a walking guide to lead you and the children barefoot across the sand to the abbey; trade the daytime queues at the Eiffel Tower for a tour after dark with teens; don't dismiss wine tasting in Provence or Burgundy outright – rent bicycles and turn it into a family bike ride instead. The opportunities are endless.
Museums & Monuments
Many Paris museums organise creative ateliers (workshops) for children, parent-accompanied or solo. Workshops are themed, require booking, last 1½ to two hours, and cost €5 to €20 per child. French children have no school Wednesday afternoon, so most workshops happen Wednesday afternoon, weekends and daily during school holidays. Most cater for kids aged seven to 14 years, although in Paris art activities at the Louvre start at four years and at the Musée d'Orsay, five years.
Countrywide, when buying tickets at museums and monuments, ask about children's activity sheets – most have something to hook kids. Another winner is to arm your gadget-mad child (from six years) with an audioguide. Older children can check out what apps a museum or monument might have for smartphones and tablets.
Once the kids are out of nappies, skiing in the French Alps is the obvious family choice. Ski school École du Ski Français (www.esf.net) initiates kids in the art of snow plough (group or private lessons, half or full day) from four years old, and many resorts open fun-driven jardins de neige (snow gardens) to children from three years old. Families with kids aged under 10 will find smaller resorts including Les Gets, Avoriaz (car-free), La Clusaz, Chamrousse and Le Grand Bornand easier to navigate and better value than larger ski stations. Then, of course, there is all the fun of the fair off-piste: ice skating, sledging, snowshoeing, mushing, indoor swimming pools…
The French Alps and Pyrenees are prime walking areas. Tourist offices have information on easy, well-signposted family walks – or get in touch with a local guide. In Chamonix, the cable-car ride and two-hour hike to Lac Blanc followed by a dip in the Alpine lake is a DIY family favourite; as are the mountain-discovery half-days for ages three to seven, and outdoor-adventure days for ages eight to 12 run by Cham' Aventure. As with skiing, smaller places such as the Parc Naturel Régional du Massif des Bauges cater much better to young families than the big names everyone knows.
White-water sports and canoeing are doable for children aged seven and older; the French Alps, Provence and Massif Central are key areas. Mountain biking is an outdoor thrill that teens can share – try Morzine. Or dip into some gentle sea kayaking around calanques (deep rocky inlets), below cliffs and into caves in the Mediterranean, a family activity suitable for kids aged four and upwards. Marseille in Provence and Bonifacio on Corsica are hot spots to rent the gear and get afloat.
Tourist offices can tell you what's on – and the repertoire is impressive: puppet shows alfresco, children's theatres, children's films at cinemas Wednesday afternoon and weekends, street buskers, illuminated monuments after dark, an abundance of music festivals and so on. Sure winners are the son et lumière (sound-and-light) shows projected on some Renaissance châteaux in the Loire Valley; the papal palace in Avignon; and cathedral façades in Rouen, Chartres and Amiens. Outstanding after-dark illuminations that never fail to enchant include Paris' Eiffel Tower and Marseille's MuCEM.
French children, accustomed to three-course lunches at school, expect a starter (entrée), main course (plat) and dessert as their main meal of the day. They know the difference between Brie and Camembert, and eat lettuce, grated carrot and other salads no problem. Main meals tend to be meat 'n' veg or pasta, followed by dessert and/or a slice of cheese. Classic French mains loved by children include gratin dauphinois (sliced potatoes oven-baked in cream), escalope de veau (breaded pan-fried veal) and boeuf bourguignon. Fondue and raclette (melted cheese served with potatoes and cold meats) become favourites from about five years, and moules frites (mussels and fries) a couple of years later.
Children's menus (fixed meals at a set price) are common, although anyone in France for more than a few days will soon tire of the ubiquitous spaghetti bolognaise or saucisse (sausage), or steak haché (beef burger) and frites (fries) followed by ice cream that most feature. Don't be shy in asking for a half-portion of an adult main – restaurants generally oblige. Ditto in budget and midrange places to ask for a plate of pâtes au beurre (pasta with butter) for fussy or very young eaters.
Bread, specifically slices of baguette, accompanies every meal and in restaurants is brought to the table before or immediately after you've ordered – to the glee of children who wolf it down while they wait. Watch for the fight to ensue over who gets the quignon (the knobbly end bit, a hit with teething babies!).
It is perfectly acceptable to dine en famille after dark providing the kids don't run wild. Few restaurants open their doors, however, before 7.30pm or 8pm, making brasseries and cafes – many serve food continuously from 7am or 8am until midnight – more appealing for families with younger children. Some restaurants have high chairs and supply paper and pens for children to draw with while waiting for their meal.
France is fabulous snack-attack terrain. Parisian pavements are rife with crêpe stands and wintertime stalls selling hot chestnuts. Savoury galettes (pancakes) make for an easy light lunch, as does France's signature croque monsieur (toasted cheese and ham sandwich) served by most cafes and brasseries. Goûter (afternoon snack), devoured after school around 4.30pm, is golden for every French child and salons de thé (tearooms) serve a mouth-watering array of cakes, pastries and biscuits. Or go local: buy a baguette, rip off a chunk and pop a chunk of chocolate inside.
Baby requirements are easily met. The choice of infant formula, soy and cow's milk, nappies (diapers) and jars of baby food in supermarkets and pharmacies is similar to any developed country, although opening hours are more limited (few shops open Sunday). Organic (bio) baby food is harder to find.
Buy a fizzy drink for every child sitting at the table and the bill soars. Opt instead for a free carafe d'eau (jug of tap water) with meals and un sirop (flavoured fruit syrup) in between – jazzed up with des glaçons (some ice cubes) and une paille (a straw). Every self-respecting cafe and bar in France has dozens of syrup flavours to choose from: pomegranate-fuelled grenadine and pea-green menthe (mint) are French-kid favourites, but there are peach, raspberry, cherry, lemon and a rainbow of others too. Syrup is served diluted with water and, best up, costs a good €2 less than a coke. Expect to pay around €1.50 a glass.
- Ladurée, Paris Cakes too beautiful to eat over afternoon tea at this historic tearoom.
- Berthillon, Paris Ice cream in dozens of different crazy flavours; regional master ice-cream makers include Geronimi and Raugi in Corsica; La Maison du Glacier in Bordeaux; La Martinière in St-Martin de Ré.
- Meert, Lille Waffles with sweet vanilla cream, served since the 18th century.
- La Cité du Vin, Bordeaux Grape-juice tasting; parents taste the alcoholic equivalent.
- La Bicyclette Bleue, La Dombes Frogs' legs and a lakeside bike ride.
- Moutarderie Fallot, Beaune Hand-mill mustard seeds with stone at this mustard factory.
- Musée du Champignon, Saumur Get acquainted with fabulous fungi at the mushroom farm in a cave.
- L'Atelier du Chocolat, Bayonne Watch chocolate being made in this Basque chocolate factory and museum.
- La Société, Roquefort Tasting 'mouldy' cheese after a visit to the cheese-maturing cellars dug into the Languedoc hillside.
- French Alps and the Pyrenees Skiing, snowboarding, sledging and dog-mushing (from four years).
- Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix Glide up this mountain peak by gondola and cross glaciers into Italy (from four years).
- Île de RéandÎle de Porquerolles Explore an island by bike (over five years) or parent-pulled bike trailer (over one year).
- Gorges du Verdon,Gorges du Tarnand Gorges de l'Ardèche White-water sports (over seven years).
- Pont du Gard, Nîmes Canoe (over seven years) beneath a Roman aquaduct, or along the Dordogne River around La Roque Gageac.
- Parc National des Cévennes, Languedoc Donkey trek (over 10 years) like Robert Louis Stevenson.
- Camargue, Provence Ride horses with cowboys.
- Acrobastille, Grenoble Zip between trees on wires (from five years).
- Val Thorens, French Alps Fly along the world's highest zip wire (from eight years).
- Domaine du Rayol, Corniche des Maures Embark on a snorkelling safari on the French Riviera or snorkel off island shores on Porquerolles, Port-Cros and Corsica (from six years).
Best Free Stuff
- Fort St-Jean, Marseille Crazy about castles? No fortress is finer to explore.
- Route des Vins d'Alsace, Alsace Watch fairy tales come to life before your eyes in half-timbered, castle-topped villages.
- Miroir d'Eau, Bordeaux Frolicking bare-foot in the world's largest reflecting pool. Fountain frolicking is also big in Lyon (place des Terreaux), Dijon (place de la Libération) and Paris (place de la République).
- Dune du Pilat, Atlantic Coast Run wild on the largest 'sandcastle' any child is ever likely to see.
- Festival Off, Avignon World-class freebie festival that kids love; Lyon's Fête des Lumières and the Carnaval de Nice are other memorable favourites.
- Maison Natale de Pierre Fermat, Toulouse Area Learn about the life and works of 17th-century mathematician Pierre de Fermat through puzzles and games at this fun house museum.
- Pointe du Hourdel, Baie de Somme Admire colonies of sandbank-lounging seals in northern France.
- Parc National de la Vanoise, French Alps Come face-to-face with ibex, chamois and cuddly, kid-pleasing marmots.
- Parc Polaire, Jura Close encounters with scampering chamois, Greenland huskies, horned stags, yaks and wild horses.
- Parc National du Mercantour, Parc Animalier des Monts de Guéretand Parc du Gévaudan Wolves.
- Réserve Ornithologique du Teich, near Arcachon Observe storks and kingfishers.
- NaturOparC, Hunawihr Discover the springtime joy of hatchling storks in Alsace.
- Réserve de Bisons d’Europe, Mende Watch European bison at close quarters.
- Parc des Oiseaux, La Dombes Marvel at hundreds of local and exotic birds at this well-organised bird park near Lyon.
- Maison des Vautours, Haut-Languedoc Watch vultures soar through mountain skies in the wild Grands Causses; the Parc National des Pyrénées and the Gorges du Verdon in Provence are other spots vultures love.
- Musée des Égouts, Paris Romp through sewage tunnels with rats.
- Musée Océanographique de Monaco Stunning museum with aquarium dating to 1910.
- Le Petit Musée Fantastique de Guignol, Lyon Immerse yourself in the enchanting world of puppetry.
- Aquarium La Rochelle This Atlantic Coast aquarium is among France's finest; find others in Paris, Boulogne-sur-Mer, St-Malo, Montpellier, Brest, Lyon and Biarritz.
- Les Catacombes, Paris Ogle at thousands upon thousands of skulls (from 14 years).
- Aven Armand, Languedoc Discover the world's largest collection of stalactites.
- Vézère Valley, Dordogne Play cavemen in caves riddled with prehistoric art.
- Cité de l'Océan, Biarritz Delve into the depths of the ocean in southwest France.
- Micropolis, near Millau Inspect insects, lots of insects, in Languedoc.
- Musée du Bonbon Haribo, Uzès Sweeter than sweet, sweet museum.
- Le Train Jaune, Pyrenees Watch spectacular Pyrenean scenery unfold aboard this mythical mountain train.
- Citadelle de Besançon, Besançon Far more than a fabulous set of rambling ancient walls: insect house and zoo too.
- Les Machines de I’Île de Nantes Fly on a heron or ride a house-sized mechanical elephant at this fantastical workshop like no other.
- Cité des Sciences, Paris Sign up for a hands-on science workshop at the capital's leading science museum (from three years).
- Palais de la Découverte, Paris The other key address for budding young scientists (from 10 years) in the capital.
- Le Vaisseau, Strasbourg Science is never boring at this interactive science and technology museum in northern France.
- Jean Luc Lagardère Airbus factory, Toulouse Learn how planes are built (from six years).
- Cité de l'Automobile and Cité du Train, Mulhouse Enter wannabe-mechanic heaven.
- Funiculaire du Capucin, Massif Central This 100-year old funicular is one mighty cool way to climb the mountain of Le Mont-Dore.
- L'Aventure Michelin, Clermont-Ferrand Map-making, shiny cars, flashy TV screens and lots of interactive displays geared towards kids.
Hands-On History & Culture
- Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris Time-travel to 1920s Paris: chase vintage sailboats with a stick like Parisian kids did a century ago.
- MuséoParc Alésia, Burgundy Relive the battle between Julius Caesar and Vercingétorix at Alésia in 52 BC at this first-class museum.
- Grasse, Provence Become acquainted with the fine art of perfume in Grasse; kids aged four to 10 can create their own perfume at a Molinard workshop.
- Chantier Médiéval de Guédelon, Burgundy Play medieval builders for real at this medieval construction site.
- Ludo, Pont du Gard Go Roman (over five years) near Nîmes in Provence.
- Romagne '14-'18, Lorraine Learn about WWI on battlefields near Verdun with an excellent guided walk for kids.
- Cité des Machines du Moyen Age, Larressingle Watch medieval siege machines in action.
- Château de Chambord, Loire Valley Search for virtual golden coins on a HistoPad (tablet computer) treasure hunt.
- Ecomusée d’Alsace Fascinating excursion into Alsatian country life and its time-honoured crafts.
- Cité de l'Espace, Toulouse Explore the depths of outer space and discover what life is like as an astronaut.
- Disneyland, Paris Throw yourself into the magical world of Disney, with its five themed lands and bonanza of a-thrill-a-minute rides and shows.
- Vulcania, Massif Central Thrills, spills and highly educative stuff too about Auvergne's long-extinct volcanoes.
- Futuroscope, Poitiers Space-age cinematic experiences for all ages at this huge, film-themed fun park.
- Parc des Dinosaures, Languedoc-Roussillon Take a stroll in the woods but be warned, life-size dinosaur models lurk where you least expect them.
- Fort Bayard, La Rochelle Sail or sea kayak around France's most incredible island fortress.
- Burgundy and Languedoc Canal boating between Bourgogne vineyards or along Languedoc's mythical Canal du Midi, a Unesco World Heritage site to boot.
- Les Calanques, Marseille Sea-kayaking in France's most spectacular coastal national park.
- Bonifacio, Corsica Sail around caves and pearly-white cliffs.
- Gorges du Verdon, Provence White-water rafting along pea-green waters in southern France's iconic high-drama gorges.
- Château d'If, Marseille Fun ferry trips from port city Marseille.
- Gouffre de Padirac, Lot Valley Underground river tours.
- Sète Croisières, Sète Lagoon tour around oyster and mussel beds.
- La Roque Gageac, Dordogne Valley River boating aboard a flat-bottomed gabarre.
When to Go
Consider the season and what you want to do/see: teen travel is a year-round affair (there's always something to entertain, regardless of the weather), but parents with younger kids will find the dry, pleasantly warm days of spring and early summer best suited to kidding around the park – every town has at least one terrain de jeux (playground).
France's festival repertoire is another planning consideration.
In Paris and larger towns and cities, serviced apartments equipped with washing machine and kitchen are suited to families with younger children. Countrywide, hotels with family or four-person rooms can be hard to find and need booking in advance. Functional, if soulless, chain hotels such as Formule 1, found on the outskirts of most large towns, always have a generous quota of family rooms and make convenient overnight stops for motorists driving from continental Europe or the UK (Troyes is a popular stopover for Brits en route to the Alps). Parents with just one child and/or a baby in tow will have no problem finding hotel accommodation – most midrange hotels have baby cots and are happy to put a child's bed in a double room for a minimal extra cost.
In rural France, family-friendly B&Bs and fermes auberges (farmstays) are convenient. For older children, tree houses decked out with bunk beds and Mongolian yurts create a real family adventure.
Camping is huge with French families: check into a self-catering mobile home, wooden chalet or tent; sit back on the verandah with glass of wine in hand and watch as your kids – wonderfully oblivious to any barriers language might pose – run around with new-found French friends.
What to Pack
Babies & Toddlers
- Sling France's cobbled streets, metro stairs and hilltop villages were not built with pushchairs (strollers) in mind. Several must-see museums, notably Château de Versailles, don't let pushchairs in.
- Portable changing mat, handwash gel etc Baby-changing facilities are a rarity.
- Canvas screw-on seat for toddlers Only some restaurants have high chairs.
- Car seat Rental companies rent them but at proportionately extortionate rates. In France children under 10 years or less than 1.40m in height must, by law, be strapped in an appropriate car seat.
Six to 12 Years
- Binoculars For young explorers to zoom in on wildlife, sculpted cathedral facades, etc.
- Pocket video camera Inject fun into 'boring' adult activities.
- Activities Books, sketchpad and pens, travel journal and kid-sized day pack.
- Water bottle Always handy (and great fun to fill up at water fountains found all over France, marked 'eau potable')
- Fold-away microscooter and/or rollerblades
- Kite For beaches in Brittany, Normandy and on the Atlantic Coast with strong winds.
- France-related apps
- French phrasebook
- Mask, snorkel and flippers To dive in from a multitude of magnificent beaches on the Atlantic Coast and Med; only two or three marked trails countrywide rent the gear.
Feature: Admission Prices
There is no rule on how much and from what age children pay – many museums and monuments are free to under 18 years. In general, under fives don't pay (a noteworthy exception is Paris' must-do Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie which costs from two years). Some museums offer money-saving family tickets, worth buying once you count two adults and two children or more.
Feature: Top Websites
- Familiscope (www.familiscope.fr) Definitive family-holiday planner: endless activity, outing and entertainment listings.
- Tots to Travel (http://totstotravel.co.uk) Self-catering properties vetted by a team of trained mums.
- Baby-friendly Boltholes (www.babyfriendlyboltholes.co.uk) This London-based enterprise specialises in sourcing charming and unique family accommodation.
- Baby Goes 2 (www.babygoes2.com) Why, where, how-to travel guide aimed squarely at families.
Travellers with Disabilities
While France presents evident challenges for visiteurs handicapés (disabled visitors) – cobblestones, cafe-lined streets that are a nightmare to navigate in a wheelchair (fauteuil roulant), a lack of kerb ramps, older public facilities and many budget hotels without lifts – don't let that stop you from visiting. Efforts are being made to improve the situation and with a little careful planning, a hassle-free accessible stay is possible.
- Paris' tourist office runs the excellent ‘Tourisme & Handicap’ initiative whereby museums, cultural attractions, hotels and restaurants that provide access or special assistance or facilities for those with physical, mental, visual and/or hearing disabilities display a special logo at their entrances. For a list of qualifying places, go to www.parisinfo.com and click on ‘Practical Paris’.
- Paris metro, most of it built decades ago, is hopeless. Line 14 of the metro was built to be wheelchair-accessible, although in reality it remains extremely challenging to navigate in a wheelchair – unlike Paris buses which are 100% accessible.
- Parisian taxi company Horizon, part of Taxis G7 (www.taxisg7.fr), has cars especially adapted to carry wheelchairs and drivers trained in helping passengers with disabilities.
- Countrywide, many SNCF train carriages are accessible to people with disabilities. A traveller in a wheelchair can travel in both the TGV and in the 1st-class carriage with a 2nd-class ticket on mainline trains provided they make a reservation by phone or at a train station at least a few hours before departure. Details are available in the SNCF booklet Le Mémento du Voyageur Handicapé (Handicapped Traveller Summary) available at all train stations.
Accès Plus The SNCF assistance service for rail travellers with disabilities. Can advise on station accessibility and arrange a fauteuil roulant or help getting on or off a train.
Access Travel Specialised UK-based agency for accessible travel.
Infomobi.com Has comprehensive information on accessible travel in Paris and the surrounding Île de France area.
Mobile en Ville Association that works hard to make independent travel within Paris easier for people in wheelchairs. Among other things it organises some great family randonnées (walks) in and around Paris.
Tourisme et Handicaps Issues the 'Tourisme et Handicap' label to tourist sites, restaurants and hotels that comply with strict accessibility and usability standards. Different symbols indicate the sort of access afforded to people with physical, mental, hearing and/or visual disabilities.
- SNCF's French-language booklet Guide des Voyageurs Handicapés et à Mobilité Réduite, available at train stations, gives details of rail access for people with disabilities.
- Michelin's Guide Rouge uses icons to indicate hotels with lifts (elevators) and facilities that make them at least partly accessible to people with disabilities.
- Jaccede.com (www.jaccede.com) is an excellent interactive accessibility guide; before arrival download the smartphone app to search for accessible hotels, cinemas and so on.
- Gîtes de France (www.gites-de-france-var.fr) can provide details of accessible gîtes ruraux (self-contained holiday cottages) and chambres d'hôte (B&Bs); search the website with the term 'disabled access'.
- The French Government Tourist Office website (www.france.fr) has lots of info for travellers with disabilities.
- Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
Online resources like Go Abroad (www.goabroad.com) and Transitions Abroad (www.transitionsabroad.com) throw up a colourful selection of volunteering opportunities in France: helping out on a family farm in the Alps, restoring an historic monument in Provence or participating in a summertime archaeological excavation are but some of the golden opportunities awaiting those keen to volunteer their skills and services.
Some interesting volunteer organisations:
- Club du Vieux Manoir (www.clubduvieuxmanoir.fr) Restore a medieval fortress, an abbey or a historic château at a summer work camp.
- GeoVisions (www.geovisions.org) Volunteer 15 hours a week to teach a French family English in exchange for room and board.
- Rempart (www.rempart.com) Brings together 170 organisations countrywide committed to preserving France's religious, military, civil, industrial and natural heritage.
- Volunteers For Peace (www.vfp.org) US-based nonprofit organisation. Can link you up with a voluntary service project dealing with social work, the environment, education or the arts.
- World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF; www.wwoof.org) Work on a small farm or other organic venture (harvesting chestnuts, renovating an abandoned olive farm near Nice etc).
Weights & Measures
- Weights and measures France uses the metric system.
- EU nationals have an automatic right to work in France.
- Most others will need a hard-to-get work permit, issued at the request of your employer, who will have to show that no one in France – or the entire European Economic Area – can do your job.
- Exceptions may be made for artists, computer engineers and translation specialists.
- Some travellers aged between 18 and 30 may be eligible for a 12-month, multiple-entry Working Holiday Visa, which allows combined tourism and employment in France.
- Working 'in the black' (that is, without documents) is difficult and risky for non-EU nationals.
- The only instance in which the government might turn a blind eye to workers without documents is during fruit harvests (mid-May to November) and the vendange (grape harvest; mid-September to mid- or late October). Though, of course, undocumented workers harvest at their own risk.
- Au pair work is also very popular and can be done legally even by non-EU citizens. To apply, contact a placement agency at least three months in advance.