Hi France Travel Planners! Many of the questions in the France Travel Planning Facebook group are first time visitors asking for advice. Advice on what to wear, where to go, facts about France, planning a Paris itinerary, how to get around Paris, you name it, we get asked it. In this post I’ve gathered together some of the best advice for first time visitors to France, with particular attention on advice for first time visitors to Paris. The text in quotation marks is real advice given by real members of the group (just tidied up so they read better off Facebook). If you aren’t a member of my France Travel Planning Facebook group you can click here join.
Itinerary planning advice for first time visitors to France
Don’t try to pack too much into your itinerary. Be realistic.
Before you leave have an idea of what & where you want to go & do. Then look at a real map and decide if the travel distances are workable. Do not try to see everything.
Obviously many people have a list of places, experiences and foods they want to try, but it is very important to be realistic. Travelling to France is expensive and you will obviously want to maximise your time, but don’t race around from one place to another just to tick them off your list. You will just end up tired and everything will be a blur. Even though Paris is reasonably compact for most visitors, do allow plenty of time to get from one activity to another and for security and bag checks. But also allow time for things not on your list that catch your eye.
You will never be able to do everything on your list but that’s why you will keep coming back.
You can get some ideas on how to plan your trip here in my Europe itinerary planning post >>
Visit other regions even if only a day trip. Remember that France is so much more than just Paris.
There are so many day trips from Paris, that unless you are only staying a short time it is worth scheduling some time to visit somewhere special. With excellent transport links via the ultra fast TGV trains you can travel to most of France as a day trip if you are keen and organised. France is a big country, and each region has a different landscape and culture, so if you are short on time, a day trip is a perfect way to explore.
You can get some great ideas for Paris day trips here on my blog post >>
Book things in advance that you really want to see. You never know how many people have the same idea on the same day.
This holds true for tourist sites, popular restaurants and attractions in Paris and throughout France. Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world, and many places, including the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre restrict daily visitor numbers to maintain visitor experience and the safety and wellbeing of staff. Book time entry entry tickets or consider a Paris Museum Pass if you are planning on visiting a number of museums and monuments in Paris. Apart from anything else, standing in long lines just to buy a ticket is a waste of your precious holiday time.
Similarly popular restaurants and Seine Dinner Cruises book out well in advance. For example, if eating dinner at the Eiffel Tower is in your plans, make sure you book at least 3 months in advance – even earlier if you want a window table. Other restaurants with Eiffel Tower views can also book out quickly. Even some Paris afternoon tea reservations need to be made well in advance (one of my favorite Paris afternoon teas at Le Meurice should be booked at least 6-8 weeks in advance).
You can decide if a Paris Museum Pass is a good value for you in this blog post >>
French etiquette advice
When entering an establishment always say “Bonjour”.
When you leave, always say “Merci. Au revoir.”
When you enter a shop you always say “bonjour madam or monsieur”. When you leave it is “Merci, au revoir”. It is considered rude not to greet someone when you enter or leave a shop.
I’ve repeated this information because it is the French etiquette advice that group members give the most. It doesn’t matter whether you are at a market stall, in a tabac or the fanciest boutique imaginable, please say hello and good bye.
Even if you don’t have an ear for languages and don’t want to learn French, it is very important to learn a few key phrases. You will find you get much better service and will find salespeople and restaurant staff more eager to please. And don’t worry, in most big cities they will reply in English most of the time.
You can learn some very basic, but practical, French phrases in this post >>
You can learn more about what to expect in a French shop in my French shopping etiquette post here >>
Don’t speak loudly anywhere but especially on the metro and in restaurants.
One of the things that is quite noticeable when you visit Europe is how far anglophone voices seem to carry. It doesn’t matter how busy and buzzy a restaurant or the metro is, there’s always that person – speaking English just soooo loudly. Don’t be that person. Moderate your voice.
Be courteous! The French are real sticklers for manners.
French language advice for first time visitors to France
Don’t worry if your French is not the best. I found most French people speak at least some basic English. And if all else fails, have Google translate on your phone.
It’s the fact that you try to speak French & just don’t assume that they will speak English, that is important & appreciated.
Try to learn a few words/ phrases in French. It will make them feel good that you made an effort to learn their language. Even if the rest of the conversation is in English, they will appreciate your effort.
I speak French well, so always speak French first when I’m in France, even if the person I’m speaking to replies to me in English. What always strikes me in the group though is the consistency of the advice above. No matter where in the world you come from and how bad your French is, it seems that French people do genuinely appreciate visitors, no matter how nervous or bad their accent, trying to speak French. It wasn’t always that way – when I first visited France in the 1980s, speaking French badly was considered almost a crime against all French people. But the world has moved on, and now any effort you make will be welcomed.
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Packing for France: advice for first time visitors on what to wear in France
If the need to speak French is the most asked question, then how to dress and what to wear in France is the next most asked. French people, and French women particularly, are notoriously chic and I think that intimidates many first time travelers to France.
Personally, I do think it is worth trying to fit in – even though I know I look nothing like a French woman. For me it is a safety and security thing. I don’t want to draw attention to myself and make it obvious I am a visitor. It seems a number of our group members feel the same:
Please don’t dress like a tourist. Or at least like the typical American vacationer at Disney World. It’s not appreciated in Europe.
It’s not a snob thing, it’s important for safety, especially if you are travelling alone.
(Tourists can) stick out like sore thumbs for every pickpocket and con artist. Go on the down low. Look like a native for many reasons.
How much should you pack for a trip to France? Obviously it depends very much on where you are travelling, for how long and what you are doing, but it is wise to only pack a suitcase that you can manage yourself. This is especially true if you are planning on using public transport, including the long distance train. You need to be able to wrangle your bags on stairs and onto luggage racks.
I counsel only having suitcases you are capable of wrangling yourself.
What clothes should you pack for France?
Solid colors, trousers that are the appropriate weight for the season, comfortable walking shoes (not runners unless they are all black and inconspicuous). Skirts or casual dresses are good if those are your “thing” but make sure the shoes that go with them are good for walking.
There are always videos or pics on YouTube or pinterest about “what Parisian women wear”. I’m by no means thin, or a fashionista but find that if I implement those same basic principles I don’t stand out too badly.
Flip flops, shorts and yoga clothes set you out as a tourist immediately and are not considered appropriate street wear. Nor are team shirts and ball caps. Looking like a tourist is what will get you targeted by pickpockets.
Flip flops are OK at the beach, but not for street wear. Apart from anything else they are not great for walking on cobblestones or using the stairs. Young girls can get away with shorts, and kids and men are fine in them, but women are better with a casual skirt or dress.
To give your outfit an instant French lift, wear a scarf. Even if you are a man and even if it’s summer, a scarf in a season appropriate fabric is a cheap and easy way to bring a little France to your wardrobe. If you want to buy one without spending too much money while you are in France check out Monoprix or look at the in-house label at Galeries Lafayettes.
Wearing a scarf is a good tip if you want to look local. However, you need to wear it in the right way — check out YouTube for instructions. Virtually every French person I know wears a scarf, even in summer sometimes …
The best shoes to wear in France is another question we get asked a lot. Once upon a time I never, ever recommended wearing sneakers in Europe, but now white sneakers, or good quality coloured leather sneakers are absolutely fine. And they are comfortable. That is the most important choice you should make. Just leave the gym shoes at home.
Take a good pair of walking shoes as by foot you get to explore and enjoy so much more.
Take 1 pair of “I could walk 100 miles in these” shoes, and 1 pair of black flats to wear out to dinner.
Comfortable yet fashionable shoes. I didn’t have the right shoes my first trip and I was in agony.
So what are good shoes choices? Apart from sneakers, depending on the time of year I take ankle boots, espadrilles, or walking sandals. As a general principle, you need shoes with a good thick cushioned sole. Try brands such as Ecco, Merrell, Rockport, Skechers or Teva. It is worth investing in the right pair of shoes.
I have a number of posts on packing lists that are suitable for France. They will all fit into one carry on bag:
Advice for eating out in France
Take your time when drinking and dining. Savour the moment.
The evening meal (dinner or supper depending on where you’re from) doesn’t start until around 7pm. You’ll get looked at funny if you try to make reservations for 5:30 – thats Apero time! (Happy hour).
Simple cafés and brasseries will often serve meals continuously once they open, but don’t expect more formal restaurants to open before 7pm at the earliest. The fancier the restaurant, the later it will likely be to open.
Service in French eateries is different to what you might be used to at home. Unless you have just ordered a drink in a casual café or brasserie it is highly unlikely your bill will be brought immediately without you asking. Similarly, your waiter will not hover, checking you are enjoying your meal constantly:
Mealtime is sacred and meant to be enjoyed slowly and celebrated. People don’t scarf down their meal and bolt. You will need to ask for the bill when you’re ready to leave.
There are some tricks for the first time visitor in dealing with wait staff. In France, like most of Europe, wait staff are paid a living wage, and in fancier restaurants, are very highly trained professionals. They do not rely on tips for the bulk of their income. It is common in France for your bill to be marked “service compris”. This means a service charge is included, so there is no obligation to tip. In other cases, you might find a 10-12% service charge included. I know it can be very confronting for US travellers, but you do not need to tip 20% in France like you do at home, whether service is included or not. Rounding up to the nearest Euro for a drink, or giving a few Euros for good service is all that is necessary.
Your waiter’s job is to take your order, answer questions about the menu (although occasionally not very happily) and bring your food. He/she will not hover and ask you “how’s your first bite?” etc etc. They know the food is good. If it’s not, they assume you will motion for them to come over.
Don’t yell “Garcon!”.
Never, ever call garçon or click your fingers to get your waiter’s attention. It is the number one way to get the archetypal snarly French waiter service you don’t want. If you need to get your waiter’s attention to ask for your bill, or to request more bread, drinks etc, you just need to catch the waiter’s eye and beckon gently.
Don’t zigzag all over the place because you have a list of places to visit and restaurants to eat at that you’ve compiled at home without any real understanding of the geography and distances. Don’t book restaurants before you leave home unless you have one really special one you want to eat at — no more than that though. Give the 1000s of restaurants that don’t appear in the guidebooks, or even on TripAdvisor, a chance.
If you have been paying attention, you will notice we never recommend TripAdvisor for restaurants in the Facebook group. TripAdvisor is fine if you want to eat with other tourists because that is who mainly posts on it. I have two alternatives that are far more reliable. Firstly, in the files section of the Facebook France Travel Planning group we have a list of member recommended restaurants by arrondissement. Yes, we are all visitors too, but our list is eclectic and the recommendations are genuine. The other thing I always recommend is that you download The Fork app. Unlike TripAdvisor, The Fork reviews are mainly by locals. You can sort by cuisine type, location and get an idea of menus. Many places will also allow you to book via the app.
General advice for first time visitors to Paris & France
Walk to soak up the atmosphere.
Walk as much as possible. You can really soak up the vibe.
Wander the side streets and stop at different sidewalk cafés when you get tired and have a coffee or a glass of wine, its the best way to get the vibe of Paris living.
Walk and see what secrets there are in the busiest or the quietest spots.
I think you get the general idea. Paris is a city designed for walking (which is why you need good walking shoes). You need to head down little alleyways and get lost. Finding your own special part of Paris is one of the joys of visiting.
Don’t feel like you have to do everything. It will give you a reason to come back.
Be sure to take in the city of Paris for itself. It’s magical. Busyness can leave you little time to relax and enjoy the true vibe of this amazing city.
We were walking past a lake in the gardens and my boys decided to join in the fun with the boats. It’s something they would never have done at home, but because we were just wandering they just joined in with what the locals kids were doing. Amazing memories you could never plan.
Pace is a topic that comes up frequently. When it’s your first visit it is tempting to try and organise every second of your visit, but do try and resist the temptation. You are on vacation after all, so relax and enjoy yourself. Take pleasure and the time at places that catch your eye – even if they aren’t in your plan.
The number 69 city bus was fantastic! We saw things we didn’t even know we wanted to see and we got all over town for the price of a bus ticket.
Don’t be afraid of the metro. It’s really useful for travel around the city.
Download the metro map before arriving and watch videos of how to use it.
Even though you might not be used to using public transport at home, do give it a try in France. Riding the metro (carefully) is a quintessential Paris experience. You will also save a fortune on taxis and Ubers if you can master the metro. If you want to see more of Paris as you travel from one location to another, the bus is definitely the way to go.
Last advice for first time visitors to France
Relax and enjoy.
Balance photo taking and being in the moment.
Relax! It may be a different country, but there are more similarities than we are led to believe.
Plan your trip to France
Not sure where to stay in Paris? My Paris arrondissement guide will help you find the perfect neighbourhood for your visit. Get more info here >>
Once you’ve found the perfect neighbourhood, find the perfect hotel here >>
If your own French pied à terre is more your style, get information on French apartments at VRBO and Plum Guide:
A good guidebook is key (as is being a member of my France Travel Planning group – you can sign up here if you aren’t a member). My post on recommended France guidebooks is here >>
For tours throughout France I recommend Get Your Guide, and for private tours I recommend With Locals: