A Backpacker’s Guide to France

As the world’s most visited nation, France has long captured the imagination of travelers across the globe, and it’s easy to see why. From its magnificent meadows and sprawling mountain ranges to its sun-soaked beaches and epic hiking trails, it’s rare to be able to flit between areas of such beauty and wonder so easily.

Boasting a world-class infrastructure, France is an easy-to-navigate goldmine for visitors, allowing you to experience a huge array of its attractions in just a short period of time. Full of hidden treasures easily missed by the average tourist, we have put together a guide to help you make the most of your trip to France. There are so many ways you can learn French, with countless language companies providing tutoring services. If you’re pressed for time, you can even learn French online with Baby Langes. They offer one-to-one tutoring over Skype, or choose from the many apps and podcasts to help you get to grips with the language.

Facts about France

Population: 66.9 million

Currency: Euro (€)

Time zone: GMT + 1

Largest cities: Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, Nice, Nantes, Strasbourg, Montpellier, Bordeaux, Lille

Average July high temperatures in France: Paris 25°C, Bordeaux 27°C, Strasbourg 25°C, Nice 27°C,

Chamonix 22°C

Average January low temperatures in France: Paris 2°C, Bordeaux 3°C, Strasbourg -2°C, Nice 5°C, Chamonix -6°C.

Languages spoken in France: French is country’s only official language, but some people do speak Alsatian close to the German border, and Breton along the Brittany coast. There is also a small contingent of Basque speakers in the south-west, and Catalan speakers in Pyrénées-Orientales.

General advice when visiting

Language tips

With the majority of French people outside of Paris speaking very little English, it’s worth your while to learn at least a few phrases of French. We have listed some of the most useful below:

Hello – Bonjour

Please – S’il vous plaît

Thanks – Merci

What’s your name? – Comment tu t’appelles?

How are you? – Comment ça va?

Yes – Oui/Si

No – Non

Sorry – Pardon

I am from – Je viens de

Where? – Où?

Good evening – Bonsoir

I would like… – J’aimerais

If you are planning to visit France for an extended period of time, or simply want to communicate beyond a few phrases, it is a good idea to have some French lessons before you depart. Considering that learning just 20% of the language will enable you to get by in most situations, this can seriously enhance your trip.

There are so many ways you can learn French, with countless language companies providing tutoring services. If you’re pressed for time, you can even learn French online with one-to-one tutoring over Skype, or choose from the many apps and podcasts to help you get to grips with the language.

Staying safe in France

While France is a pretty safe place to visit, like anywhere, there’s always the possibility of trouble or danger. Just as you would in any city, watch out for petty theft in the more touristy places, as this is where criminals are more likely to target. One common scam by French criminals involves thieves approaching travelers under the pretense of asking for donations or signatures for charity. While the tourist is distracted, a second individual will then take the opportunity to pickpocket. As such, make sure you are constantly aware of your surroundings and carry valuables in your front pockets to avoid becoming a victim.

If you’re set on doing some trekking, be sure to plan your route, check the weather forecast beforehand to see if a hike is feasible, and walk with at least one other person. You should also plan how to keep your money safe while walking or hiking, as well as taking a headlamp or torch for when it’s dark.

Driving in France

Hiring a car and driving through France can be a great way to explore the country. However, France is pretty regulation-heavy when it comes to motorists, and there are a few things you need to be aware of. One is that wearing a headset—even to answer phone calls—is strictly prohibited, unless you’re a motorcyclist with an integrated headset in your helmet.

You will also need to carry your driving licence, proof of ID (such as a passport), proof of insurance, as well as your registration documents, like a V5C Certificate. Drivers in France are also required by law to carry safety items such as reflective jackets, warning triangle, headlamp beam deflectors, a GB sticker, spare bulbs, snow chains, and a breathalyser or alcohol test. You run the risk of paying a fine if you don’t have these items in your car and you’re pulled over by French police. Remember that the speed limit on France’s motorways is 130km/h, and you’ll need to drive on the right side of the road. 

France’s highways are littered with a number of toll points, but the roads themselves link up the entire country extremely efficiently. There are also a number of national roads, which, while free to use, pass through plenty of the country’s major towns. As a result, this may slow down your journey, so be sure to factor this time into your drives.

Train and Bus Travel in France

The rail system in France is extensive and very efficient, as well as being incredibly comfortable and convenient. Run by the French National Railway Company SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français), the famous super-fast TGVs reach speeds of up to 320 km/h. As such, they can represent a superior method of transport to flying, with travelers able to avoid the rigmarole of checking in and collecting baggage at airports. They can also be used to reach major cities in other European countries. As France is part of the Eurail network, buying single- or multi-country passes can be a useful way of saving money if you’re taking multiple train journeys. Travelers under 25 can also purchase a Carte 12-25 ticket for around €30, entitling them to discounts of up to half-price on ticket prices.

Alternatively, you can use the country’s bus system to travel round. While not as fast as the trains, buses are usually cheaper, and can make more sense for certain journeys. If you can’t decide what mode of transport to take, try Omio, which compares trains, buses (and even flights) to present the tradeoff between cost and travel time.

Accommodation in France

Whether you’re looking for low or high-end accommodation, France has you covered. There are hundreds of hostels throughout the country, meaning you’ll have no problem finding cheap accommodation. However, it’s important to bear in mind that many are actually youth hostels, which are more geared towards school groups. There are also campgrounds all across the country that are suitable for all budgets. From huge family campsites featuring on-site amusement parks and restaurants to small rural campsites offering little more than somewhere to pitch a tent, you’re sure to find somewhere within your price range.

For those wanting slightly more upmarket accommodation, there are thousands of hotels across France. You can even find castles or châteaus willing to put you up for the night should you fancy a bit of luxury. Bear in mind that hotels in the big cities will burn a huge hole in your wallet—the average cost of a night in a decent hotel in Paris is €150, rising to at least €450 if you’re looking for somewhere more high-end.

Of course, like pretty much everywhere else in the world, the advent of Airbnb means you’ll find an abundance of apartments across France. From quaint cottages to cozy farmhouses, this may be the best route to go down if you want to stay somewhere a little more offbeat.

Best parts of France to visit

Paris

You simply can’t visit France without stopping by in Paris. The City of Love is rightfully considered one of the world’s greatest, and there’s far more to do than scaling the Eiffel Tower. The capital features many iconic landmarks, from the Arc de Triomphe and the Palace of Versailles to the Louvre and the Sacré-Cœur, enabling you to effortlessly immerse yourself in the city’s history. It is also home to some of the best cafés and restaurants on earth, making Paris ideal for foodies and coffee lovers alike. In fact, all you really need to do to enjoy this thriving metropolis is walk around—you’re bound to find things to do wherever you look.

The South of France

Also known as le Midi, the South of France refers to the stretch of French coastline that runs between the Spanish and Italian borders. A region as picturesque as any, le Midi encompasses beautiful towns and cities steeped in history like Avignon and Carcassonne, bustling beach hotspots such as Nice and Cannes, and 210,000 km² of mountain ranges, courtesy of the French Alps. So, whether you’re looking for the thrill of an expedition, want to take it easy on the beach for a few days, or are keen to explore the country’s history firsthand, the South of France is the place to go to.

Loire Valley

Spanning 280km along the Loire River, the Loire Valley is a popular tourist region in the center of France. Celebrated for its breathtaking scenery, charming châteaux, historic villages, and delightful vineyards, the central part of the river was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. The region is also home to several lively towns and cities, from the vibrant Nantes to the cathedral town of Saumur, which boasts a 10th-century château originally built as a castle.

Vezelay

If you’re looking to escape the tourist crowds, then the tiny town of Vezelay is perfect. Situated on the edge of the Avallonais in the north of France, the charming hilltop village is surrounded by vineyards and farmland, and is characterized by its impressive medieval architecture. This is best encapsulated by the 11th-century Romanesque Basilica of St Magdalene, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site which supposedly housed the relics of Mary Magdalene in the Middle Ages.

Saint-Malo

Also situated in the north is the port city of Saint-Malo. One of Brittany’s most popular destinations, the city is built on the site of an old piratical port and is noted for the huge granite walls that surround it. Featuring the Fort de la Cité, an ex-WWII German stronghold, Mont Saint Michel, a fortified abbey, and the Cathedrale Saint Vincent, there are plenty of things to do and see in Saint-Malo. With the city’s long stretch of sandy beaches, you’ll also be able to enjoy the perfect respite from all the sightseeing.

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