NEED TO KNOW
Capital City: Paris
Population: 60.7 million
Area: 211,000 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 33
Electricity: 230V, 50 Hz
Currency: As of Nov 22, 2011:
1 Euro = $1.36 US Calculate Other Amounts
France, a member of the EU, does not require visas for citizens of the United States. A valid passport is sufficient for a three-month stay.
GOOD TO KNOW
In France there are two distinct forms of cuisine. The first is "gastronomique," also known as "gourmet." This is the legendary haute cuisine, a world unto itself: absurdly expensive meals lasting hours that create art out of the humblest fowl or most luxurious foie gras. If you can afford it, it's worth every cent. Pick up the red Michelin Guide—which rates restaurants on a scale of zero to three stars—to find these temples of taste. Remember that even one star is a stellar achievement, the life's dream of many a French chef.
The second type of French cuisine is bistro cooking. Utilizing generally cheaper ingredients, in more earthly settings, bistros are similar to small local restaurants in the United States, with one exception: The food they serve is usually excellent. Single dish meals like coq au vin and cassoulet evoke the French countryside—and joie de vivre—with layer upon layer of satisfying flavor.
Wine is a particularly French obsession. Despite changing mores and a major drop in alcohol consumption, they still often enjoy a glass or more at lunch and share a bottle at dinner. And the price range and variety available is much better in bistros and higher-end restaurants compared to what you'd find in America. There are great expensive wines, of course, but the surprise is how often the reasonably priced bottles are terrific. Wine is a source of pride as well as pleasure in France, so you can usually feel confident ordering the house wine in a restaurant.
Nobody goes to France just for croissants and coffee—although perhaps they should. Even the French can be caught gawking slack-jawed at the glorious displays lining the boulevards; they call it lèche-vitrine—literally, "licking the windows." The major cities are loaded with high-end merchandise costing a fortune, such as couture at Givenchy and Chanel, Louis XIV gilded everything at antique stores, avant-garde art at the many galleries, and jewelry from some of the world's best jewelers. The many flea markets surrounding Paris (called marché aux puces) can also be repositories of treasure at far better prices. And don't forget the gigantic hypermarkets, which are like luxury Wal-Marts and have begun to spring up everywhere in recent years, selling everything from food to furniture. Many of the best gifts are the beloved food and drink specialties: chocolates, cheese, wine, cognac, and coffee are universally world-class. Foie gras is much cheaper in France than in the United States, but sadly it's illegal to import it.
A value-added tax (VAT) of 19.6 percent is added to every purchase in France, but non-EU residents can get refunds for high-ticket items upon exiting the country.
Waiters in France are trained professionals paid a living salary from the service charges every restaurant adds. Most Parisians leave a small tip anyway, especially if the service has been exceptional.
January: 1, New Year's Day; 6, Epiphany
February: 2, Candlemas
May: 1, May Day; 8, V-E Day
July: 14, Bastille Day
August: 15, Assumption
November: 1, All Saints' Day; 11, Armistice Day
December: 25, Christmas Day
Spring: Easter; day after Easter, Easter Monday; sixth Thursday after Easter, Ascension; eighth Sunday after Easter, Pentecost