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 covers 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. Part 2 is all about food – where, how and what to eat in France.
9. French speed limits will mess up your plans
Driving in France is generally pretty easy. The roads are nice, the drivers are polite and traffic rules are sensible. But there is one thing that makes zero sense, and it is the speed limits in the countryside. Like elsewhere, speed limits in France change based on the area: 50 km/hr through town, up to 130 km/hr on a big motorway. And then there is the Country Road.
A Country Road presumes to go through a rather unpopulated area, without a lot of turn-offs. It usually carries a limit of 75 to 90 km per hour – up to 55-60 mph. When you have a 90 km/hr track coming up, you have EXPECTATIONS. You are imagining a straight, highway-lite road with one-two lanes each way and a decent shoulder. And sure, it might be that.
But in France in might also be a serpentine path winding through woods, up and down and around hills and valleys, barely wide enough for single car going one way. It is down these lanes that French drivers fly at 90 km per hour. Both ways. It is INSANE.
You might be thinking, “I am a reasonable person from a civilized country, I don’t have to max it out, so I will just go at a sensible speed.” First of all, you will be pulling over onto the grass every ten minutes to let past the caravan of cars that inevitably will form behind you. Secondly – and this is important! – you will never get anywhere on time.
Online maps and navigation systems in France take the upper range of the speed limit when calculating travel time, just like they do everywhere else. But if you spend half the distance going at half that speed – because that’s the absolute max you should be going on a barely paved forest trail! – the drive from Villefranche-de-Rouergue to Beynac is suddenly taking you 3.5 hours instead of 2. That might mean skipping lunch, cutting back on sightseeing, and an even longer drive back after dark.
Do some advance research on how ‘wild’ is the area where you will be driving, and adjust schedule accordingly.
10. Let ‘the Most Beautiful Villages’ be your guide
Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (literally: “The Most Beautiful Villages of France”) is an official designation for small rural villages that preserve their original architecture and cultural traditions, and are home to important national heritage sites. There are nearly 160 such villages throughout France, and they are most heavily concentrated in the southwestern part of the country.
I love them, because on top of being ridiculously cute, authentic and usually surrounded by equally beautiful natural landscape, they are a perfect combination of touristy and off-the-beaten-path.
The LPBVDF designation was introduced to promote tourism as a way of preserving rural economies and communities. Such a village will usually have a helpful, English-speaking tourism office, nice eateries serving local fare, an interesting historical landmark – a church is a given, a castle is highly likely, perhaps a small museum or two, and shops selling local arts, crafts and produce de terroir.
At the same time, these villages are spread out through the countryside and most are a ways away from the large tourist hotspots. They require a dedicated detour, which means they mostly attract independent travelers, and few, if any, tour buses. The further inland you go, the more likely you are to wander quaint lanes in near-isolation. Some of my favorite memories – and photos – from France are from visiting LPBVDF.
11. Breton coast is the best coast
Coast of Bretagne (Brittany) has the clearest turquoise waters and long, wide, crescent-shaped beaches of the finest, silkiest white sand. Dramatic limestone cliffs and surreal pink granite formations jut out into the Atlantic Ocean. Hidden coves of Crozon beckon kayaks. Just a few meters inland endless trails wind through pine forests, wildflower-covered rolling hills and charming villages drowning in hydrangeas.
Seaside cafes have the best-in-France oysters, giant crab and skate (yes, the stingray kind). Traffic jams are rare and harbor pubs serve far more locals than foreign tourists. There is surfing and sailing and wildlife excursions with seals and puffins. And all of it comes at a fraction of the cost of holidaying on the French Riviera.
Look, I like Cote d’Azur. The sorbet-colored waterfronts, hiking trails in Calanques de Cassis and mountain-top panoramas over the Mediterranean are all exceptionally picturesque. There are palatial villas and Roman ruins and renowned art museums for visiting. The seafood is omnipresent and luxury shopping is superb.
And yet. Many beaches are covered in rocks, pebbles or coarse sand. When I first visited Nice I was shocked that the shoreline of the most legendary seaside destination was all boulders. Sandy beaches are fairly narrow and so densely packed with holiday-makers that they look like human quilted blankets.
Crowds can be overwhelming even in the off-season. I constantly had people breathing down my neck on a coastal hike on a weekday in MARCH. Heavy traffic is the rule, not the exception in the off-season as well, when Cannes welcomes thousands to trade shows and festivals. Restaurant prices are through the roof. And to be honest, at least for me, spending all day looking at multi-million-dollar cars, yachts and villas that I could never afford even to rent, gets old pretty fast.
The one thing that the Cote d’Azure unequivocally has over Bretagne is the warmer waters. But a cold swim is better for your health – at least that’s what my Russian grandma used to say.
12. Most French are lovely, friendly, helpful people.
Yes, contrary to all the stereotypes. Yes, even in Paris. All you have to do is say ‘Bonjour’ when you walk into any place or pass someone on a trail, and smile. I have had waiters, pharmacists and random hikers go out of their way to help me out in all sorts of situations. Outside of Paris the French strike up conversations about what brings a foreigner into their remote corner of the country. They are curious about Russia and about America, and about how the French are seen abroad.
13. A little French goes a long way
Firstly, knowing a few words of the language will help ingratiate you to the locals. My French is minimal and half made-up, but it elicits adoring compliments any time I try to string together a sentence about where I am from and how beautiful France is.
Secondly, traveling off the beaten path can be bit of a challenge without some basics of French. I had a car rental agent in Bretagne, B&B owner in the Pyrenees and waiter in Burgundy who barely spoke two words of English (though still did everything to try to understand me and to explain things). I still regularly have to resort to a combination of interpretive dance and Google Translate.
Not knowing any French doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to France – just don’t expect every corner of the country to be English-friendly (and maybe practice “Charades” first).
14. France is half of Europe in one country
Few countries – in Europe or otherwise – are truly culturally homogeneous. But I would argue that, at least when it comes to European countries, France is unrivaled in variety. Take food, music or architecture – so many corners of France will transport you to entirely different countries altogether.
Pretzels and boiled sausages of Alsace take you to Germany; half-timbered white-washed cottages of Normandy – to England; bagpipes and cider of Brittany – to Ireland and Scotland; canals and gingerbread row houses of Lille – to Flanders; fresh pasta and terra cotta roofs of Cote d’Azur – to Italy; chalets of Chamonix – to Switzerland; paella on the southern Mediterranean coast – to Spain; and the cross-border Basque Country and Catalonia are worlds onto themselves.
When I was planning my hiking routes in one part of the Pyrenees, in a small area I came across ‘local’ names for the same paths, lakes and mountains in French, Spanish, Aquitanian, Basque and Catalan languages at once.
Still, so much of that remains quintessentially, uncompromisingly French. The golden villages of the Lot Valley and the classical cream townhouses of Beaune. Coq-au-vin, onion soup, foie gras, giant crepes with butter and sugar, my beloved epoisses and saucisson sec. The warm goats cheese salad, which, on top of being my French go-to meal, is a nearly-ubiquitous staple within the country but rarely found elsewhere in its proper form. And the distinct, instantly evocative mosaic of Parisian rooftops could never belong to any other place.
Only France can give you the best of Europe – on top of giving you, well, France.