France is a beautiful country, full of gorgeous architecture and a great culture. However, having lived here for almost two years, there are a few things not to do in France as a tourist. I often see some moments with locals and tourists that are so awkward that I end up coming in and saving the day. Don’t worry it’s normal (I was there too!). We want to assure you that we understand your concerns on worrying about the practices in France.
When I moved to France, I was basically an idiot. I had only started learning French, I had no idea what I was getting into and I basically acted like your average tourist, wide-eyed and lost. But 2 years later, I can finally say I feel more confident living here. My French is conversational. I don’t feel as culturally lost and I’ve learned a lot from the experience. This guide will give you some inside information on things to know before going to France from someone who understands, has been there, and had to learn it the hard way. Below find the 10 most important things not to do in France as a tourist or as a foreigner, from someone who learned this through personal experience.
Avoid speaking English, a little French goes a long way
Coming here for travels doesn’t mean you can’t learn a few words to get you by. No matter where you are in the world, and most especially if you’re in France, knowing a little bit of the language goes a long way. Speaking English straight off the bat especially if you’re going somewhere outside of Paris may end up getting you confused looks or no response from the French people. Even just a little Bonjour or some other broken French phrases will already be super useful.
Our tip: Download Google Translate, if you don’t know how to express yourself then let the app do it for you. It’s not the perfect translation but it will convey the idea good enough.
We also advise teaching yourself some French beforehand. A useful pocketbook would be very useful. As a recommendation, I would suggest these flashcards that I started with when I was a beginner. They are interactive and fun to learn with: French Words and Phrases You Need to Know.
Do not forget to say 'Bonjour' or to exchange pleasantries
The French love their greetings. Literally, everyone’s always greeting each other and doing the “bisous.” I initially thought that you only had to greet a person you knew. But here in France, you greet everyone. Whether you’re entering a bakery, next in line at the grocery, in the middle of a hike crossing other people, basically any situation where you encounter people, it’s always polite to say hello or “bonjour.”
There was seriously one time when we were going down from the Alps after camping and we literally encountered over 50 people. It sounds crazy, but we had to greet all of them.
Also, when you’re leaving a bakery, store, cafe, restaurant or getting off the bus (metro not so much), it’s always good to say “merci, au revoir (thank you, good bye)” to the server, cashier or bus conductor. More than likely, they’ll say it to you first, so if you forget, that’s your cue to holler your pleasantries back.
Do not expect anything to be open on Sundays
If you’re looking to go shopping during your trip, take note that in France, almost all stores are closed on Sunday. You can still go to some museums and attractions.
On the other hand, most restaurants and activities stay open on Sunday but are closed on Mondays, so just a little thing to take note of when planning your itinerary.
Thinking of summer? August is a ghost town in most cities of France
You’re super excited to go to Paris or any other major city in France over the summer, you get there and you’re surprised to see it’s a ghost town. Why? Most of France is on their summer holidays during the month of August and one thing to know is that summer is a HOLY grail to the French. They take it very seriously. They’re either in the South heading to the beaches or out of the country.
So if you had high expectations for your summer vacation to France, remember that August is pretty much a dead month. Most small shops will also be closed during this time to have their summer vacation.
Do not anticipate fast waiting times or service
French people, in general, are very relaxed and chill. Things here move a little bit slower. So if you’re used to a more fast-paced service in a restaurant or in getting your cup of coffee, expect to wait a little longer. Everything is often prepared as you order and not like in America or certain countries in Asia (Philippines, for example), where things have already been prepared beforehand.
The great thing about it though is that the experience feels more personal because everything is made to order. Oftentimes, the server even has a nice conversation with you as your order is being prepared. Isn’t that great?
Do not expect to eat at just any hour
In America or Asia, there are tons of fast food joints open 24 hours a day. In France and much of Europe, this is likely not the case. Fast foods are generally frowned upon and thought of as distasteful.
French cuisine is all about fresh and local products, which the French take very much pride in. The restaurants serving these products will only open at a certain time (lunch and dinner service). So if you suddenly get a craving to eat something at midnight, you’re most likely not going to find any restaurant service still open.
You often won't get responses online or by email, call or go in-person instead
If you’re making reservations for a planned trip or accommodation in the more countryside areas of France, it’s always, always better to call the business directly. Most may not even have any option to book online or otherwise, the emails in their website are never checked (meaning, you likely won’t get a response).
Hence, if you need to check on your reservation or make a reservation, it’s better to call the business. Or better yet, if you’re already nearby. then go straight there in-person. It feels a bit more old-school to have to do this, but that’s how it often goes in most of rural France.
Use 'vous' and not 'tu' when speaking with strangers
So if you’ve had the time to go through a bit of the French language, you’ll know that there’s two ways of speaking in French (formal and informal). When speaking to strangers, make sure you use vous as it’s a sign of politeness. Using tu to someone you don’t know is a dead giveaway that you’re a tourist and may get you some dirty stares. I’m not saying it happens all the time, but remember vous and not tu, unless it’s someone you’re familiar with.
Don't get drunk when it's only apero
Apero? Appetizer? Technically, yes but not really. An apero is a drink or two, usually a strong cocktail or beer, that French people usually have before dinner (to open up one’s appetite), along with a few bites of saucisson or cheese.
When I first heard of apero, I thought it was crazy to drink alcohol when you were basically starving. So remember take small slow sips (just like the French do) to avoid getting drunk.
Do not ONLY visit Paris
If you’re going to France, then don’t stick to only seeing Paris. The country is full of beautiful hidden gems and cultural experiences all around. Our picture of this country is often the magical Eiffel Tower along the Seine River, all the romantic feels of the Parisian vibes. But France is more than just Paris, and discovering other parts of the country like Bretagne, Provence or the Alps is so much more of a fulfilling experience than simply going to Paris.
Our tip: If you’re unsure what other cities in France to visit, this Country Guide by Lonely Planet is super awesome. It has great itineraries to follow including restaurant recommendations, top places to visit and regional guides.
Our Final Thoughts
France is an amazing country and one that we highly recommend you go to. However, there are some factors to take into consideration. We hope these 10 important things not to do in France as a tourist helps you out when the time comes that you travel to France, coming from someone who understands what it feels like to be here all wide-eyed and confused.
If you know of any other things not to do in France as a tourist or as a foreigner that you think should be part of this list, let us know in the comments below.