France travel guide: 20 things that will surprise first-time visitors

You might think you're familiar with France thanks to stereotypes about its high culture, chic fashion sense, supposedly matchless cuisine and much more. If you're on your first visit, though, you'll be surprised to discover not everything is a cliché in this popular travel destination.

The French aren't rude

Stories of French unfriendliness are greatly exaggerated. Parisians are as impatient as any big-city dwellers, but overall the French are perfectly agreeable, and particularly receptive to any clumsy attempt to speak French. Polite greetings in places such as shops and on country walking paths are the norm.

The French aren't all the same

H99MRX Two young women holding French flag

Photo: Alamy

Asterix cartoons and Napoleon's conquests give the impression of a gloriously unified nation, but ethnic groups do exist in France, including Bretons in Brittany, Catalans and Basques along the Spanish border, and Provençals in the south. Immigration has also changed the ethnic mix, and nine percent of French are Muslims.

France's most famous food isn't French


Photo: Alamy

The croissant was invented in Austria and was likely brought to France in the late 1830s. The French still call pastries viennoiseries or "things from Vienna". The first recipes for French toast are German and Nordic. It's called pain perdu or "lost bread" in French. Don't even mention French fries – they're probably Belgian.

Lots of people speak English

It's a furphy that the French don't speak English. It's the most-spoken second language in the country, with some 40 per cent of the population claiming some English-language ability. Most people in the tourism industry especially speak perfectly good English.

The French like sports as much as culture

The French are proud of their history and high culture, but less well known – and offering common ground with Australians – is the French obsession with sports, especially soccer, rugby and cycling. Traditional pétanques (a variation on lawn bowling) is played in every town square across the country.

Not all French food is fancy…

True, escargots appear relatively commonly on menus, but not all nosh is posh in France, which has a great tradition of simple, regional country cuisine. Probably the most common dish on menus is entrecôte-frites, or steak and chips to you and me. Many consider it France's national dish.


… and burgers are popular

The French scoff at the supposed lack of culture in general and food culture in particular among Americans, but that doesn't stop them flocking to McDonald's. There are more McDonald's outlets in France (about 1400) than in any other European country except Germany.

Coffee costs less inside a café

You'll pay far less for your croissant and coffee if you stand at the counter inside a brasserie or café rather than sit down at a table on the terrace outside. The bar counter will have baskets containing pastries, bread and hard-boiled eggs; just help yourself and pay later.

The French aren't huge wine drinkers

In the popular imagination, the French are big drinkers, giving their kids alcohol at an early age and supposedly keeping themselves young and slim by quaffing red wine at every opportunity. But wine consumption has dropped steadily over the last 40 years, and a third of French say they don't drink wine at all.

French men don't often kiss each other

Men don't go around kissing each other in greeting. Well, only sometimes – usually with someone they know well, or on ceremonial occasions. Greeting the opposite sex with a kiss (or same sex if you're a woman) is the norm. Stick to the standard two when in doubt (start with the cheek on your left), though regionally, three or four kisses might be involved.

The French don't wear berets


Photo: Alamy

Not really, unless they're mime artists, bohemians or buskers. The round, flat caps are rarely seen except in the southwest (and over the border in Spain), where they're nearly always black. The French military do however wear berets, which originated with the Chasseurs Alpins or alpine light infantry.

"Oh là là!" doesn't mean what you think

What's with the English-language use of French for saucy innuendo? You won't hear this phrase, accompanied by a Benny Hill wink, used that way by the French. It has nothing to do with sexiness, but rather expresses surprise, shock, awe or even annoyance. It's more like "wow!" than anything else.

Most venues are smoke-free

You'll probably notice more people smoking in France than in Australia, but you won't have to eat in a smug of Gauloises fumes like you did in the bad old days. France now has some of the most rigorous anti-smoking laws in the world, and smoking is banned in enclosed public places and government offices, on public transport and in bars and restaurants.

The service isn't bad


Photo: Alamy

Probably, from an Aussie point of view. We expect friendliness, informality and perhaps a certain speed from restaurant staff. The French, on the other hand, expect efficiency and some measure of formality. Plus, they like to linger over meals, so the service we consider slow is actually considerate.

Not all the French are chic and slim

Don't fret that the French will be slimmer, better turned out and far more fashionable than you are. Recent surveys show that nearly half of the French are now overweight (unless you're haunting posh districts of Paris). Dress codes have become far less formal, and smart-casual will see you through most occasions. French tourists are as daggy as any other tourist.

The French eat weird things

Like snails. Or frogs. Yes, okay, those two are seen quite often on dinner plates, and both can be very tasty (it mostly depends on the sauce). What horrifies visitors most is horse meat. Yet horse is becoming less common and is often only sold in specialist butchers. Your chances of encountering it on a menu are slim.

Paris isn't the world's most visited city

It was once, and for a long time. Not any more though. According to the World Economic Forum, it was only the eighth-most visited city in 2017, with 14.4 million visitors, lagging far behind Hong Kong in number one position with 26.6 million. In Europe, it's also beaten by London, with 19.2 million.

See also: 20 reasons to visit Paris

Shops and museums are often closed

Some of the time, anyway. Small towns can be dead over the two-hour lunch time, when shops and business close up. Even smaller museums and tourist attractions often close for lunch. Many cultural sights are closed on Tuesday, quite a lot is closed on Sunday (especially shops) and practically the whole country shuts down in August.

Beware of right of road rules

As if it isn't enough that the French are fast, aggressive drivers, you'll have to contend with the horrible "priority on the right" rule in which you must give way to a car on your right, unless you're on a designated priority road (such as a highway). Nightmare. Though worth the drive, because the countryside is beautiful.

There's more to France than you think


Reunion Photo: Shutterstock

France isn't just the roughly hexagonal country you think of in Europe. It has several overseas departments that have exactly the same rights as any department (or administrative region) in mainland France and use the euro, among them French Guyana in South America, Martinique in the Caribbean and Réunion in the Indian Ocean.

See also: Reunion: The amazing, record-breaking island few Aussies have heard of

See also: The 10 things you should never do in France