France is the ideal country to visit for the “beginner” family – especially North Americans. It offers a deep cultural experience with an incredible history, and it is quintessential Europe – from old stone villages to outdoor markets to wonderful Roman ruins – France has it all. When people think of France they usually think of Paris. And that’s it. When most foreign families decide to go to France for their vacation, they are thinking Paris. And don’t get me wrong, Paris is wonderful, but France is so much more.
In fact, we’ve been to France three times with our kids and we’ve only popped into Paris once.
France is generally an easy country to tour with kids. It is true that sometimes the French appear to be more attached to their dogs than to children, but we have only ever found traveling with kids simple when it comes to France. The days when the French refused to speak English to visitors are long gone, and France is such a melting pot of people these days anyway, that it’s always possible you’ll be asking a foreigner (or a newcomer to France anyway) for directions yourself. Still. a basic knowledge of French is helpful, as a basic knowledge of any local language is when on holiday.
France is great for kids of all ages, but we mainly travelled there when our kids were little – the reassuring thing about a country like France (and Western Europe in general) is that you know that by and large everything will work and you are unlikely to get sick from the food. If you need a replacement stroller, car seat, whatever, you can pick one up with ease, and every supermarket will be overflowing with baby foods – though to be sure some of the bottled baby food in France was unusual – from salmon with green beans to various other menus that we and our babies found very strange. Still you can be sure that from diapers to soothers to everything else you might need, you’ll find it. Recently, as our kids have grown older we’ve tended to travel more to Asia, Africa, the former Soviet Union – places where none of the above is assured.
France has not achieved the #1 tourism spot in the world for tourism. The reason that it is such an astounding destination is that every region is unique, with its own wonderful towns, villages and sights, food and things to buy and so France can be best thought of as a whole lot of countries bunched into one. This may be true for other countries as well, but in France regional differences are sometimes so large that different regions really do feel like different countries, and various parts of the country have had different rulers from each other in times past.
In my opinion, the way to best experience France is firstly, to forget about seeing “France” as a whole – rather, it makes more sense to focus on a particular area and get to know it well, and then add Paris as the cherry on top to whichever part of France you decide to tour.
Getting around is easy – public transport is excellent but car rental is my transport of choice – highways are good, and having your own car truly is the best way to manage your time and your family. In Paris, stick to public transport.
Food – France has one of the most famous cuisines the world – but for families supermarkets work especially well. You can pick up your breads, meats, cheeses, whatever, and eat well while on the go. Fast food is everywhere, but for that special French meal – go for small bistrots rather than Michelin starred restaurants – formal French meals are long drawn out affairs and unless you have older kids who can sit through a two hours plus meal, leave those alone. Still, if it is your dream to eat at a Michelin restaurant and you are worried that they won’t welcome your kids, give it a go anyway – we did once, and were given our own room with our own dedicated waitstaff – the restaurant clearly thought that our kids (aged about 1 and 5 at the time) would not fit in well with the mainstream dining room and we respected that, but at the same time, they went out of their way to look after us and we were very glad that they did!
Just realise one thing – that in France it is extremely difficult to get “off the beaten track”. You’ll find tiny villages that see over one million visitors a year, and in the height of tourist season cars are often barred from entering small towns and villages – you’ll have to park outside and walk in. If you can swing it, go in a shoulder season – spring and fall are just great. The only way to really escape mass tourism is to go active into the national parks – go climbing in the Savoy or hiking in Corsica – you’ll still see lots of people, but only those willing to make the same physical effort as you, so you can be assured that most of the millions won’t be following in your footsteps.
So, where to go? We’ve been to Alsace, the Perigord Noir/Dordogne and part of the West Coast (Bordeaux and La Rochelle), Provence and Paris of course. That still leaves us with so many places to go – Normandy, Brittany, The Loire, Corsica, the French Alps…And we did one region per trip, so that means at least 4 trips to go.
PS: These days I am helping families plan great trips to France. For more info, click here.