Before you visit France, learn a bit about the history, religion, geography, climate, and local traditions so you can be fully prepared for your journey abroad. Within this article, we provide the best overview of France plus some first-hand travel tips along the way!
Welcome aboard to our Globally Educated Series where we focus on one nation at a time to give you the most comprehensive overview of each country before embarking on your journey. We look forward to helping you prepare for your trip to France - so, let's get started!
Imagine it: A country that has played some mighty roles throughout the course of history, France is full of culture, charming nature, and rich experiences in Western Europe. Breathe in the Mediterranean Sea from the luxurious French Riviera, unwind in picturesque wine regions, or experience the life of a Parisian in Paris. There’s a good reason why France is the world’s most visited country.
Brief History of France
France is one of those countries with a deep and wide history, conquering lands and making an impact around the world. As such, let’s get globally educated on France’s history… but don’t worry, we’ll keep it quick and simple.
In about 900 BC, people called Celts or Gauls migrated to France. The territory of France was known as Gaul or Gallia, deriving from Latin Francia, meaning "country of the Franks."
The Romans arrived in Southern France in 121 BC, building roads, settlements, and networks. The Gauls slowly adopted the Roman way of life, and Christianity arrived in France as early as the first century.
Germanic people raided the territory in the 3rd century, and Romans were unable to stop them. Despite this, many Germanic people adopted the life of the Romans but later formed their own territories as the Roman Empire began to fall.
France in the Middle Ages
After being tossed around and battled by various monarchs, France eventually emerged from what was called the Carolingian empire. This happened when Hugh Capet became King of West Francia in 987.
Early French wars were fought over land with English monarchs. French royal power reached its peak with the reign of Louis XIV (1642–1715), and at this point, French culture dominated Europe.
France in the 1920s
France lost 1,322,000 men in World War I. The country had a labor shortage in both cities and farmlands. However, by 1924, France was enjoying the beginnings of economic recovery. Its capital, Paris, was attracting people from around the globe. Students, teachers, artists, and tourists were arriving, spending money, and becoming a valuable source of income for the nation. This time became known as the Années Folles; the dazzling decade of the 1920s. This nickname was coined to describe the diverse social, artistic, and cultural collaborations during this time in France – particularly in Paris.
Modern Day France
Today, France is a prosperous and successful country, ranking high economically. The country also stands in the top 10 among countries with the highest quality of life. People come from all around the world to see France – from its dazzling capital city to its lush rolling wine regions.
Aslo, the county has French territories in several parts of the world, including islands in the Caribbean Sea, Indian, and Pacific Oceans.
Languages in France
Bonjour! As you might have guessed, French is the official language in France. Spoken by over 280 million people worldwide, French is the 5th most spoken language in the world and the most used language in France. Particularly, it is the primary form of communication used by the government and the education system.
However, France is also home to 25 regional languages including Occitan, a Gallo-Romance language that can be heard throughout the southern region of the country. It was commonly used in 10th-century poetry and is spoken by some 610,000 people today.
As for English, recent surveys show that just 39% of the French population can speak some degree of the English language. So, while in Paris you’ll be fine speaking English but you may run into language barrier issues in smaller cities and villages.Some of the best things to know before visiting France are a few essential French words and phrases:
- Hello - Bonjour (bowhn-zhoor)
- The check, please - L’addition, s’il vous plaît (Lih-ah-dih-see-ohn, see-voo-play)
- Thank you very much - Merci beaucoup (mehr-see, bow-koo)
Do you speak English? Parlez vous anglais? (parlay-voo, awn-glay)
Here are some more French words to know before visiting France.
Demographics of France
France has a current population of over 65.5 million, making it the fourth largest country in Europe. As such, the largest concentration of people live in the metropolitan area of Paris (over 2.1 million). This is followed by Marseille in the south with around 800,000 residents.
Oddly enough, French law makes it illegal for the government to collect data on the ancestry and ethnicity of the citizens. However, Italians account for the largest demographic outside of native French inhabitants. Furthermore, it is estimated that some 51 million are white – accounting for 85% of the total French population. This is followed by around eight million French people of African (including Arabs from North Africa) descent accounting for 10% of the total population, and about one million of the population are of Asian origin.
In 2018, there were 6.5 million immigrants living in France — equating to 9.7% of the total population. The largest immigrant and expat communities are in and around Paris. Smaller hubs include cities like Nice, Toulouse, Lyon, and Marseille.
Cities in France
From the chicness of Paris to the style of Lyon, French cities can be very mesmerizing! Combining the sophistication of French culture with historic relics, aromatic bakeries, beautiful streets, winding rivers, and perhaps even a nearby beach or vineyard. Here are some of the cities to know before you visit France.
The City of Love; the City of Lights; Le Dame de Fer, Paris has many nicknames. The capital, and largest city in France, Paris is one of the world’s most influential cities. Prominent throughout history, Paris really gained its reputation during Les Années Folles (The Crazy Years) in the 1920s when painters, poets, writers, and the wealthy from around the world found themselves in Paris, writing about Paris, talking about Paris, and living la vie in this wondrous city.
Paris is one of the best places to visit in France. But when people visit, they usually decide one of two things: they love it, or they hate it. Go with an open mind, say “Bonjour” and “Merci”, don’t stress yourself out with seeing all the sights, sip coffee from an outdoor cafe, and you might just fall in love with Paris.
Head to the south of France, particularly the French Riviera, and you’ll find some truly spectacular cities. Marseille is the second-largest city in the country and is actually the oldest. It was founded around 600 BC by Greek settlers from Phocaea, where it became a crossroads for immigration and trade.
Nowadays, it is a melting pot of culture. You’ll find its lively Old Port along with excellent restaurants, shopping, nightlife, and so much more. Plus, its Mediterranean weather isn’t so bad either.
In the southeast of France, close to the Switzerland border, you’ll find one of France’s most beautiful cities. Lyon is split by the Rhone River and boasts more than 2,000 years of history. Discover the Roman Amphithéâtre des Trois Gaules, medieval and Renaissance architecture in Vieux (Lyon’s Old Town), and the Magnificent Fourvière Basilica. In fact, 10% of Lyon has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Pronounced as "Niece" and founded by the Greeks, Nice is one of the most popular places to visit in the south of France — and for good reason! It’s located in the glamorous French Riviera, boasts ideal weather, famous beaches, yacht culture, and world-class museums and cuisine. Beyond that, the city of Nice is lovely with Belle Epoque and Baroque-influenced buildings.
It’s known as a place to relax with its parks, beaches, and slower pace; and as a place to just let loose and have fun under the Mediterranean sun.
Geography of France
France is the largest country in Western Europe. It’s bordered by the Atlantic Ocean toward the north and west; Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium in the northeast; Switzerland and Italy to the southeast; and Andorra and Spain to the south.
The geography of France consists of a terrain that is mostly flat. There are fertile plains or rolling hills in the north and west, along with mountainous regions in the south – being the Pyrennes and the Alps.
As one of the largest coasts in Europe, France has a lot of it – 2,129 miles (3,427 km) to be exact! You’ll find rocky cliff lines, sandy and pebble beaches, and ports along the coast of France.
The snow-covered Mont Blanc (pictured below) is France’s impressive highest peak, and it is actually the highest peak in all of the Alps. Standing at 15,774 feet (4,808 m), it is even the 11th most prominent mountain summit in the world.
What is the climate like in France?
To put it simply, France generally has cool winters and mild summers except along the Mediterranean Coast where mild winters and hot summers are typical.
Then, Paris has cool and fairly rainy winters, and summers in the city are usually hot. The hottest areas in France are generally the Provence and Languedoc regions, characterized by calm winters and toasty, hot summers.
Let’s look at Paris’s temperature averages.
Summer in Paris has average daily highs of around 77°F (25°C), accompanied by brisk nights of around 55°F (13°C). However, the humidity is generally high, making long walks on the hottest days a bit uncomfortable.
Winter in Paris on the other hand, has an average daily minimum of 33°F (1°C) and a maximum of 44°F (7°C). Rain is common, and sometimes there is snow.
Religion in France
France is one for privacy and the country does not collect a lot of data about its citizens. As such, France holds a strong tradition of secularism and has not officially collected data on religious affiliation since the 1972 national census.
Nonetheless, about 65% of the population are Christian – mainly belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. Despite the high percentage, only a minority practices regularly. After Christianity, no affiliation accounts for about 25.5% of the population, followed by 8% Muslims, and the remaining 2% is categorized as 'other'.
The French people might not be very religious, but there are many places of worship throughout the country. Many are among the most famous places in France – think Notre Dame in Paris.
Economy & Major Exports in France
France is among the world’s most modern countries – despite all of its historic architecture, cobbled streets, and ancient monuments. With that, it is a leader in the European Union and ranks among countries like the US, Japan, UK, Germany, and Italy. In fact, France has the world’s 7th largest economy.
Agriculture accounts for a low amount of France’s labor force, roughly 3%, yet the country is an agricultural powerhouse in Europe. This is highly thanks to its fertile soil in the north and plentiful rain.
France’s main exports include primarily modern amenities like computers, vehicles, pharmaceuticals, aircraft, and plastics. Some of its other top exports are wine, liquor, and vinegar; perfumes and cosmetics; and iron and steel.
What is France known for?
There is a lot that might come to mind when you think about France - the Eiffel Tower, Champagne, French pastries, fashion and more! A lot of things are quintessentially French, so let’s take a look at what France is known for so you can be wise before you even arrive!
The Eiffel Tower
A symbol of France, the Eiffel Tower is iconic. Constructed to commemorate the French Revolution, with construction kicking off in January of 1887, the tower stands proudly at 1,083 feet.
The twinkling lights, a must-see attraction during the night in Paris, these lights weren’t added until 1985. As the lights are considered a work of art, under EU copyright laws, it is technically illegal to snap photos of the lights and publish them online.
The Louvre (pictured above) is arguably the most famous museum in the world, housing the Mona Lisa and flaunting its iconic glass pyramid outside. It first opened its doors on August 10, 1793, and now gets around 10 million visitors annually. It is one of the best things to do when you visit Paris and easily one of the most famous places in France.
If you find yourself in the south of France, lavender is a big deal. People come from around the world to frolic through the region’s lush lavender fields – particularly from mid-June to mid-August – and take home lavender-scented anything.
Champagne & Wine
France is home to some of the world’s best wines, and the country means business when it comes to producing fine, high-quality wines. Particularly, France is known for divine countryside vineyards with Champagne, Burgundy, and Bordeaux being the three most popular wine regions. Sip bubbly Champagne or a dark, rich Bordeaux and soak up the countryside charm when you visit France.
Cannes Film Festival
A prestigious event for film aficionados, actors, directors, and the likes, the Cannes Film Festival happens every year in the Mediterranean seaside town of Cannes. It’s full of celebrities, luxury events, extraordinary films, and receiving an award from the festival is considered a great honor.
Food in France
French food is simple, timeless, and sophisticated – much like the style of the people and their culture. There is no visiting France without indulging in one of its many notable dishes. Here are some of the best foods to try in France.
Croissants & baguettes
These are two of France’s most famous bakery foods! Plus, one of the best things to do in Paris – or France in general – is to visit a local bakery or sit at a sidewalk cafe and enjoy a morning croissant and coffee. France is well-known for its buttery croissants and the ambiance of enjoying it in a typical French cafe.
The sweet crêpe comes from the northwestern region of Brittany. Traditionally, this pancake-like treat is served with sugar and salted butter, modern recipes can pile on berries, Nutella, chocolate, and other goodies.
Yep! The French love to indulge in snails. Typically served in butter, parsley, and garlic, the texture is a bit rubbery but with that melt-in-your-mouth element. Pop over to L'Escargot Montorgueil in Paris to try some high-quality snails!
Simple ingredients can make for greatness, and France knows this all too well. Hailing from Provence, this savory dish involves shallow-fried vegetables layered in a casserole dish before being baked in an oven with herbs and love.
Paris & France Travel Tips
You’ve got the globally educated know-how, now let’s get into some last minute travel tips for France.
- France uses the euro (€) and the majority of places accept payment by card. However, cash is still king in France, so it’s good to use an ATM to take out euros once you’ve arrived in the city.
- Be aware of pickpockets on public transport and in crowded places, especially in Paris.
- Pack comfortable shoes for walking on cobbled streets.
- The French are quite well dressed, preferring simple patterns and neutral tones. If you want to fit in, try to dress like the French.
- A bit of French goes a long way, even just saying bonjour and merci.
- France is well-connected with metros, trains, and buses going to all parts of the country (and other countries!).
- In Paris, you can get a Paris Visite travel pass for the metro, which is an affordable way to move around Paris. Otherwise, use the Paris city bikes!
- Call 112 in case of an emergency.
- As a general rule, tip 10% of the bill in restaurants.