Over the last 16 years I have been to many different corners of France. Here are my biggest tips and takeaways about traveling there. Part 1 covered my love story with the country, what to hit and what to skip on the beaten path, and best ways to discover untouristed, authentic France.
4. There is one BEST way to eat in France
De terroir translates as “of the land.” Firstly, it means local specialty of the region you are visiting: bouillabaisse (seafood stew) in Provence, cassoulet (duck, pork sausage and bean casserole) in Occitanie, galettes (savory buckwheat crepes) in Bretagne.
Secondly, it means that the ingredients are truly locally sourced. Fish that was caught just this morning, game from the nearby forests, cheese and vegetables from the farm next door.
It is impossible to eat badly in France. But ordering from a “de terroir” menu at the restaurant means more than just eating the freshest, most flavorful, seasonal ingredients. It is a chance to get closer to the area that you are visiting. Outside of big cities local economies are closely tied to agriculture. You get a feel what the people of the land really ‘live by,’ their traditions, culture and community – through food.
5. Farmers’ markets are a must
For all the amazing things I have eaten in France, my favorite French meal is picking up some saucisson sec (handmade ‘dry’ pork sausage), crusty fresh country baguette, local cheese, vine tomatoes, strawberries and a bottle of rose at the local outdoor market.
At the market you can see, smell, try and taste more than any restaurant experience can provide. You can stock up for a picnic or a walk around town. You can observe all kinds of social interactions between the sellers – bakers, farmers, fishermen, artisans – and their regulars. And the market is a photographer’s dream, because the French display everything beautifully too.
When shopping for produce in France, look for the AOC designation, which means appellation d’origine controlee, or ‘protected designation of origin.’ Wine, cheese, honey and other products bearing that stamp will be unique to the area, and must be made in a traditional manner with ingredients from specific local producers.
(Supermarkets will carry AOC products but from many different regions. Farmers markets are going to have predominantly local stuff.)
6. Epoisses de Bourgogne is the most delicious cheese in the world.
This ultra-soft cows-milk cheese from Burgundy will stink up a room like weeks-old sweaty socks and sting your mouth like too much unripened pineapple. But, when you take a bite of a hard bread crust smothered in Epoisses’ gooey center – nothing tastes better. The end.
7. Be religious about mealtimes
This is a rule that applies for eating out also in Italy and Spain, but France really is a strict enforcer, particularly in small towns and villages. Your lunch will be between noon and 2:30 in the afternoon, and your dinner will not begin before 7 in the evening. In some places absolutely nothing might be open between those hours. Bakeries will close by noon.
Larger towns and resorts will have cafes that stay open midday through the evening, but they are likely to be serving a limited menu or only drinks during those in-between hours. For example in Bretagne, seaside restaurants will only serve crepes/galettes between lunch and dinner.
If you are road-tripping through France, packing provisions at the market and having a picnic at some picturesque overlook on the side of the road is a way to untie yourself from this strict regimen. But if you want to eat out for all your meals, make a note of the pretty villages you might be passing on your drive – and pull into the next one after the clock strikes 12:00.
“Breakfast places” aren’t really a thing in France as they are throughout the US or in London and Moscow. If you aren’t staying at a hotel, your best bet for a proper breakfast is going to be a Bed & Breakfast nearby for an early meal that will include pastries/bread, jams, coffee, juice and fruit.
Even in big cities good restaurants are often small, so it’s always prudent to make a reservation. And try not to be dead-set on one restaurant at any given place because you might show up and discover it to be randomly closed on that day.
8. There is a festival just around the corner
The French love to celebrate their local culture. Every region is constantly putting on all kinds of events, big and small. Regattas, folk music concerts, Renaissance jousting tournaments, harvest festivals for EVERYTHING, seaside art shows, wine tastings, crafts markets, outdoor circus – one of these things is bound to be happening near you on any given week, especially during warmer months, no matter which part of France you are visiting. The best way to find out which of these festivities might fall across your path is through a regional or municipal tourism site.
But there are also more intimate, under the radar, events taking place in smaller towns and villages. One of the most fun things I experienced in France was stumbling upon an all-town cookout followed by a parade, complete with Breton dancing, traditional costumes and harbor fireworks – it was a party celebrating the firemen of Camaret-sur-Mer. A small restaurant in the Pyrenees offered free Catalan dancing lessons after Saturday dinners. Colmar hosts Alsatian folk music concerts every Tuesday from May to September.
Any B&B or local pub can fill you in on the happenings; they will probably even have fliers with upcoming events. You don’t need to know the language to enjoy music, dance, food and art – you will deep-dive into local culture and inevitably feel as part of the community.