Logistics: Air France and United offer daily nonstop flights from Dulles International Airport to Paris-Charles de Gaulle. From CDG you can connect to other French destinations like Nice, Lyon and Bordeaux. The country’s high-speed rail network makes for a pleasant and efficient journey. The road network is also excellent, but keep in mind that tolls can be expensive. If driving, avoid the beginning and end of school holiday periods, when the roads can become clogged with traffic, particularly around urban areas.
Money: The currency is the euro. Credit cards are widely accepted. Restaurant waiters will patiently divide bills, too; it’s common for friends dining in restaurants to pay by card exactly what they owe.
Paperwork: U.S. citizens don’t need a visa when traveling to France and other members of the Schengen Area for up to 90 days. Your passport must be valid for at least three months beyond your planned date of departure.
Language: French is the official language; English is widely spoken in cities. The number of dialects, patois and vernacular languages — including Basque, Occitan, and Breton — reflect the multifaceted diversity of the country. It was only under Napoleon that French became the national lingua franca. Learn a few French words and phrases to speak with locals who will greatly appreciate your effort.
Health: No special precautions. If you come down with something, the highly trained French pharmacists can help. Look for the neon green cross flashing outside a pharmacie.
Prevailing myth: France is no stranger to stubborn stereotypes. Rude waiters, beret-wearing accordion players, sexy Parisiennes who exude effortless chic. … Forget these cliches; France is a cosmopolitan, open-minded place.
Itinerary for first-timers: Paris is always a good idea, especially by foot. Take a few days to see the major landmarks, like the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, wandering the pedestrianized quays along the Seine. Then stroll the Marais and Saint-Germain-des-Prés districts, before exploring less touristy neighborhoods like the 11th arrondissement (great restaurants), 13th (street art) and 3rd (trendy concept stores). Pair a stay in Paris with a few days (or weeks, depending on time and budget) in another region.
Keep in mind that the tourist “rules” in Paris are different from the countryside. In rural areas, locals adhere to precise hours for meals, meaning restaurant kitchens are open from noon to 2 p.m. for lunch. Likewise, shops can close for an afternoon break and most close completely on Sundays.
Itinerary for repeat visitors: Rein in your ambitions (France is the biggest country in Western Europe, after all) and choose just one area to explore. Love wine? Taste your way through Burgundy, the Rhone Valley or Bordeaux. Kids in tow? Check out the prehistoric cave paintings in the Dordogne Valley. History buff? Discover the D-Day landing beaches in Normandy, along with Mont-Saint-Michel, the UNESCO-listed island monastery. Adrenaline junkie? Ski, paraglide or go canyoning in the Alps. Hiking fanatic? Try Corsica’s epic GR20 trail. Beaches abound: the Catalan coast, the rollicking playground of the Cote d’Azur, and Europe’s highest sand dune (Pilat) on Arcachon Bay. Follow in the footsteps of artists in Provence. Take a royal road trip in the Loire Valley, dotted with Renaissance chateaus. Or if you hear the (Celtic) siren song of Brittany, discover the islands and sea-centric culture of an ancient province at the end of the earth (Finistère, at the far west of France, is derived from the Latin “Finis Terræ”).
Eat this: The birthplace of the bistro and the Michelin guide, France has a vast and thrilling culinary heritage. On a gourmet Tour de France, try boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin in Burgundy, bouillabaisse in Marseille, quenelles in Lyon, and buckwheat crepes in Brittany. Don’t skip dessert. With a patisserie renaissance underway in Paris, sample jewel-like pastries by Cédric Grolet, Christophe Michalak and Yann Couvreur. Tip: The fixed-price lunch menu, offering two or three courses, can be a great bargain, especially at fine-dining restaurants.
Special events: France is a fete all year round. May means the Cannes Film Festival and French Open tennis tournament. The Fête de la Musique is staged on the summer solstice and brings concerts to almost every street corner. Summer also brings the Tour de France, Festival d’Avignon and music festivals galore. Autumn is marked by European Heritage Days and the grape harvest. Christmas markets start popping up in November; the one in Strasbourg has been delighting crowds since 1570. December’s Festival of Lights in Lyon is followed by winter revelry on the French Riviera (the Carnaval de Nice, the Lemon Festival in Menton).
Reading list: The country that gave us Colette and Camus inspires countless writers. A smattering of insightful English-language books include “The Discovery of France” by Graham Robb; “The New Paris” by Lindsey Tramuta; “The Seine” by Elaine Sciolino; “Le Divorce” by Diane Johnson.
Playlist: “Le langage du corps” (Grand Corps Malade); “Je dis aime” (M); “Je suis” (Bigflo & Oli); “Makeba” (Jain); “Get Lucky” (Daft Punk); “Christine” (Christine and the Queens); “Boléro” (Maurice Ravel); “Symphonie fantastique” (Hector Berlioz); “Memories” (David Guetta); “Un homme debout” (Claudio Capéo); “Tout l’monde s’en fout” (Sofiane); “Joe le taxi” (Vanessa Paradis); “Sapés comme jamais” (Maître Gims); “Allumez le feu” (Johnny Hallyday); “Route Nationale 7” (Charles Trenet).
Cultural sensitivities: Say “bonjour” when entering a shop or restaurant. Avoid athleisure; the French simply don’t wear yoga pants unless they’re going to a yoga class. On the Paris metro, don’t sit in one of the fold-down seats on a crowded train during rush hour.
Souvenirs: Handcrafted knives like Opinel, Nontron and Laguiole; wine, cognac and other fine spirits; Espelette red pepper from the Basque country; striped Breton shirts by Saint James; sea salt from the île de Ré; linens and lavender from Provence; Hermès, Goyard, et al in Paris. If you coincide your trip with the semiannual soldes (sales) in January and July, you’ll be able to snatch up bargains of up to 70 percent off.
Quote: “How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?” — Charles de Gaulle