We could call Marseille a true immigrant city with a vibrant local culture, but we prefer to think of it as the Tijuana of France. A Tower of Babel produced by the train-with-cut-brakes that is globalization, this (in)famous port town is the stomping ground of sailors, backpackers, mobs of immigrants, and (we suspect) suspicious characters involved in the import-export business. Expect color, chaos, and a lingering smell of something unsavory. Located in the center of Provence, Marseille is an ideal home base for visits to the calanques along the coasts or to the Provencal cities of Avignon, Arles, and Cassis. This may not be the prettiest town on the French Riviera, but it does host the closest train station that will take you to other Mediterranean coastal towns. Avoid certain neighborhoods, and schlep it to the sweet smell of lavender only an hour away.
Marseille is organized into four main areas, situated around the roughly rectangular port that cuts into the city’s heart. The area on the south side of the port, extending east roughly to rue de Rome and north to la Canebière, is the Vieux Port, with the glimmering Notre Dame de la Garde on the hilltop behind. The ancient quarter on the north side of the port is Le Panier, where you’ll find Marseille’s oldest buildings, cutest corners, and most cramped 6ft. wide alleys. Just downhill from Le Panier, the quai du Port is lined with expensive hotels, boutiques, and upscale waterfront cafes.
The area to the east of the port (near its shortest side) is Belsunce, home to a large part of Marseille’s sizable immigrant population; this is where you’ll find the Gare St-Charles SNCF station and the main thoroughfare of la Canebière. We recommend exploring—just not at night. Uphill farther east is Notre-Dame du Mont, a district with a gritty feel but great food and nightlife around cours Julien and the pl. Jean Jaurès.
A blend of color and commotion, Marseille buzzes with traffic, construction, and endless partying. Although the city inherits a typical French legacy—complete with Roman ruins, crumbling forts, and traditional 18th-century art workshops—a walk through its side streets is punctuated by the vibrant colors of West African fabrics hanging in market stalls, the sounds of Arabic music blaring from car stereos, and the smells of North African cuisine wafting out of hole-in-the-wall restaurants. A true immigrant city, Marseille offers a taste of both the ancient and modern cultures of the Mediterranean.
Don’t spend time mulling over which sights to visit in Marseille. Here are our top picks. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Marseille’s restaurants reflect the city’s diversity. Options range from African eateries and kebab stands along cours Saint-Louis and rue d’Aubagne to the places provencals on rue Saint-Saens and rue Fortia. The streets surrounding the vieux port are packed with restaurants serving the city’s trademark bouillabaisse (a heavy stew made with Mediterranean fish, broth, and a spicy red sauce called rouille, or “rust”). Eclectic restaurants line the streets around cours Julien.
Most restaurants offer a menu à prix fixe (fixed-price meal) that costs less than ordering à la carte. Menus vary, but may include an appetizer, plat principal, fromage (cheese), and dessert. The formula is a cheaper, two-course version. L’eau gazeuse (sparkling water) or l’eau plate (flat mineral water) are always offered first; for a free pitcher of tap water, ask for une carafe d’eau. If the stubborn wait-staff still brings you water you have to pay for, adding a “du robinet” (from the tap) should do the trick. When “boisson comprise” is written on the menu, you are entitled to a free drink (usually wine) with the meal. Be sure to polish off your dining experience with un café (coffee). Vegetarians will have the best luck at crêperies, ethnic restaurants, and establishments catering to a younger crowd. Beware: an aversion to meat will sometimes be taken as culinary sacrilege.
Whether you sit down at a bistro, bar, or sidewalk cafe, you won’t run out of different dishes to enjoy. For breakfast, try a croissant, or a chocolate-filled pain au chocolat. Lunch typically consists of simple salads, sandwiches on baguettes, crepes, croques-monsieur (a fancy-pants version of a grilled ham and cheese), or heavier meat dishes. Dinner may include a few fishy options: bouillabaisse is a popular traditional soup made from many different types of fish, and escargots are available at elegant restaurants for those who dare to try cooked snails. Perhaps the best part of dinner is dessert—from éclairs to chocolate mousse to crème brûlée, you’ll find you have much to gain, and some bigger clothes to buy.
It’s easy to assemble inexpensive meals yourself with a ration of cheese, pâté, bread, and wine. Start with bread from the boulangerie, and then proceed to the charcuterie (delicatessen) for pâté, saucisson (hard salami), or jambon (ham), or buy a freshly roasted chicken from the boucherie(butcher shop). Charcuteries also tend to offer a surprising selection of side dishes, both vegetarian and not; tabouli, a North African couscous dish, is a popular option. If you want someone else to do the work, boulangeries often sell fresh sandwiches. Pâtisseries (cake shops) will satisfy nearly any sweet tooth with treats ranging from the decadent, layered mille-feuille (or Napoleon) to the can’t-miss pain au chocolat.
Cafes on a major boulevard can be more expensive than smaller establishments down a side street. Prices in cafes are two-tiered: cheaper au comptoir (at the counter) than en salle (in the seating area). Seating à la terrasse (outside, on the terrace) may cost even more. Beer and pastis are the staple café drinks, while coffee, citron pressé (lemonade), and diabolo menthe (peppermint soda) are popular non-alcoholic choices. If you order café, you’ll get espresso; for coffee with milk, order café au lait. Coffee with cream is café crème. Bière à la pression, or draft beer, is 660mL of either blonde (pale) or brune (dark) lager; for something smaller, ask for un demi (330mL).
Le vin (wine) is an integral component of French culture. Though consumption is slowing as the French keep pace with the sobriety of modern life, this national treasure continues to play a major role in social occasions. France produces an astoundingly diverse array of reds, whites, and rosés; each varies according to the grape, region, and method of production. French vintners place great importance on the concept of terroir, the combination of soil composition, sunlight, and rain unique to each hectare of carefully cultivated land. Farther south, the region of Côtes du Rhône turns out richly flavored reds, while the even warmer Côtes de Provence region is known for its rosés.
Though French wines are expensive in the US, quality wine is much more affordable in France. Budget travelers can pick up high-quality, affordable bottles of table wine in supermarkets; those looking to splurge should head to the shops of cavistes (wine merchants), where knowledgeable staff can point out quality bottles for connoisseurs.
Late-night restaurants and a few nightclubs center on place Thiers, near the vieux port. On weekends, there’s a rush for seats at the bar tables that spill out onto the sidewalk along quai de Rive Neuve, but a more eclectic crowd likes to unwind along cours Julien. Tourists should exercise caution at night, particularly on the dimly lit streets of the Le Panier and Belsunce quartiers; night buses are scarce, taxis are expensive, and the Métro closes early. Marseille also has plenty of gay nightlife, and men and women often frequent the same establishments.
The prehistoric French proved their artistic and engineering finesse even before the “civilizing” effect of the Romans with the murals at Lascaux and menhirs (enormous upright stones) in Carnac. The Roman Empire left its mark as well, especially in Provence, with the theater at Orange and the ruins of the amphitheater at Nîmes. Nearby, the Roman arches of the Pont du Gard aqueduct brought some 10 million gallons of water per day to Nîmes’s thirsty citizens.
Although ruins of the empire may be scarce, lasting evidence of Roman influence can be seen in the arches, thick walls, and barrel vaults of Romanesque churches built in the 11th to 12th centuries. Their quiet and simple—relatively speaking—beauty is epitomized by churches like the Basilique Saint-Sernin in Toulouse and the Basilique Sainte-Madeleine at Vézelay. The 12th century also saw the emergence of Gothic architecture, whose name has nothing to do with the historic Goths, except that it, like the tribe, was perceived as vulgar. Flying buttresses distributed weight outward to the walls, enabling the vaults of Gothic cathedrals to soar to dramatic heights and allowing for thinner walls that showcase intricate stained glass. The cathedrals at Amiens, Chartres, and Reims exemplify the intricate sculptural details that define the Gothic style.
During the Renaissance, Italian influence produced buildings such as François I’s elaborate Château de Chambord. Châteaux sprang up in the Loire Valley as aristocrats scrambled to keep up with the royal example. Meanwhile, in response to his finance minister’s 17th-century Baroque Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte outside Paris, Louis XIV converted his father’s hunting lodge at Versailles into the world’s largest and most flamboyant royal residence. The mid-18th century welcomed the columns and clean lines of Neoclassicism, exemplified by the grand Église Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, known since the revolution by its secular name, the Panthéon.
Religion ruled the arts during the Middle Ages, as cathedrals, reliquaries, and religious texts were the dominant creative outlets. Brilliant stained glass and expertly chiseled stone at Chartres, at Reims, and in Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle bridged the gap between God—or king—and a largely illiterate parish by illustrating a royally selected program of Bible stories. Monks created beautiful illuminated manuscripts by painstakingly adding gold and silver illustrations to sacred texts. The Middle Ages also saw the creation of Normandy’s 11th-century Bayeux tapestry, a 70m long narrative of the Battle of Hastings. The Burgundian noble, Jean, Duc de Berry, became a great patron of the arts toward the end of the Middle Ages. In the early 1400s, he commissioned the Limbourg Brothers to create the famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, a sumptuously decorated prayer book with illustrated scenes of daily life to mark each month of the year.
The art of 16th-century France drew its inspiration from the painting, sculpture, and architecture of the Italian Renaissance. At the invitation of François I, Leonardo da Vinci trekked from Florence, bearing the enigmatic Mona Lisa, but ended up producing very little in France. Visitors can visit the town where Leonardo spent his final days in Amboise.
I’d like to thank the académie. Italian influence persisted into the 17th century, as painters Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorrain—whose serene landscapes would become the academic standard in French painting for two centuries—lived and painted next door in Italy. The French Baroque reached its height with the exorbitant spectacle of Louis XIV’s renovated Versailles. Realist painters Georges de La Tour and the Le Nain Brothers kept the lid on with their faithful renderings of daily life.
The 17th century also brought the rise of one of the earliest national art schools in Europe, the Académie Royale (founded in 1648), whose elitism and narrow definition of the “acceptable” in French art would become the bane of many a Realist painter’s existence in the 19th century. Artists such as Louis XIV’s court favorite, Charles Le Brun, dominated the Académie’s salons—France’s “official” art exhibitions—with Grand Manner history paintings, conservative portraiture, and large-scale scenes from classical mythology.
The early 18th century brought the opulent Rococo style in painting and interior decorating. Catering to the tastes of the nobility, Antoine Watteau painted their fantastic fêtes and secret rendez vous, while François Boucher depicted pastoral landscapes and naughty, rosy-cheeked shepherdesses.
Neoclassicism witnessed—as the name would suggest—a revival of classical order and symmetry in the visual arts in France. In works like Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii (1784-85), artists idealized those Ancient Roman virtues that their ruling class patrons considered most necessary to contemporary society. The French Revolution inspired an update to the genre of history painting whereby scenes from front-page news stories—history in the making—took center stage in works like David’s The Oath of the Tennis Court (1791) and TThe Death of Marat (1793). The Louvre, which opened as a museum in 1792, grew in importance during this era.
Romanticism took hold in French painting in the works of Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix. Géricault’s epic Raft of the Medusa (1818-19) exposed the horrific aftermath of the scandalous shipwreck of the Medusa, offering a subtle commentary on the slave trade by heroicizing the black sailor who appears at the climax of the composition. Delacroix’s paintings shocked salons of the 1820s and 1830s with their Romantic and colorful melodrama. Both Delacroix and his bitter rival, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, pursued Asian-inspired subjects with the advent of Orientalism, as in the latter’s seductive masterpiece, La Grande Odalisque (The Tall Concubine; 1814), now on display in the Louvre.
After the Revolution of 1848, Realists like Gustave Courbet shifted their focus to a depiction of humble peasant life that was, well, more realistic than the idealized aristocratic view of country-dwellers favored by earlier members of the Académie. His Burial at Ornans provoked a scandal at its 1851 salon debut because the huge canvas depicted an ordinary, working-class village scene with stunning realism instead of an idealized historical drama. The salon rejected Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe for its frank inclusion of female nudes in a commonplace setting, but the painting found a home among other rejected works at the Salon des Refusés in 1863.
By the late 1860s, Manet’s new aesthetic had set the stage for Impressionists Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whose careful use of light and color earned them posthumous fame even beyond the art historical community. Monet’s garden at Giverny, the source of his monumental 1890s Water Lilies series, is almost synonymous with Impressionism. This famous movement in turn encouraged Edgar Degas’s Japanese print-inspired ballerinas, Gustave Caillebotte’s rainy Paris streets, and Berthe Morisot’s tranquil studies of women, as well as sculptor Pierre-Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss (1886) and his lover Camille Claudel’s The Waltz (1891-93).
Revenge of the impressionists. Paul Cézanne, whom many consider the “Father of Modern Art,” kicked off the ambiguously labeled in-between period of “Post-Impressionism.” His geometric still lifes, portraits, and obsessive deconstruction of the Aix-en-Provence landscape upset traditional spatial relationships and had a powerful influence on his Cubist followers.Georges Seurat developed Pointillism, painting thousands of tiny dots that from far away read as a single image. Paul Gauguin escaped to Arles, Brittany, Martinique, and Tahiti seeking refuge from the pressures of modern life in what he considered the “primitive.” His large, flat blocks of typically garish color, bold outlines, and simplified human forms depicted a world where men roamed in a more natural state and women in a state of semi-nudity. Also in Arles, Gaugin’s Dutch associate, Vincent van Gogh, became famous for his thickly layered brush strokes, for his intense, expressive colors, and for cutting off part of his ear after the dispute that ended his friendship with his roommate. Henri Matisse became the forerunner of colorful Fauvism (from fauves, wild animals) with earlier oils like The Dance (1909) and the brightly colored paper cut outs of his old age, such as his 1940s Jazz Series.
In the 1910s, former Fauvist Georges Braque and Matisse’s Spanish-born rival, Pablo Picasso, developed Cubism, shifting their focus from what objects looked like to a distinctly modern concern with the process of visual perception. Using shaded planes and a limited palette, Braque and Picasso reassembled familiar images and objects in abstract form, later adding ready-mades and collage into the mix. The constant stylistic innovation throughout Picasso’s oeuvre set the tone of modern art for decades. The Musées Picasso in Paris and Antibes pay tribute to his prolific career.
Prompted by their sense of loss after WWI, a group of artists sought to expose the artificial nature of modern consumerism and to question the very institutions that make up our visual culture. Marcel Duchamp unleashed the subversive Dada movement with works like The Fountain (1917), a factory-made urinal that he turned sideways and then signed.
Surrealism, on the other hand, created an unnerving mix of fantasy and the everyday, creating what the movement’s leader, André Breton, called “an absolute reality, a surreality.” Surrealism’s exemplary works—René Magritte’s apples and pipes, Joan Miró’s dreamscapes, Max Ernst’s birds, and Salvador Dalí’s melting timepieces—arose out of the 1920s art scene. More recent 20th-century experiments in photography, installation art, and sculpture are on view at the Centre Pompidou and the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain.
Medieval aristocrats enjoyed tales of chivalry and courtly love penned by Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century in addition to the famous Roman de la Rose, an elaborate allegory of l’amour. The medieval masses, on the other hand, indulged their common tastes when listening to chansons de gestes, or epic accounts of eighth-and ninth-century crusades and conquests. John Calvin helped ignite the Protestant Reformation in his 1536 criticism of the Catholic Church, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Around the same time, François Rabelaissatirized French society in Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-64), a series of novels told from the perspective of two comical giants. In 1588, Michel de Montaigne’s Essais ensured him eternal enemies, as students everywhere continue struggling to master his brainchild.
Although the French Enlightenment did not technically begin until the 1700s, its seeds were sown a century earlier when Cardinal Richelieu, perhaps suffering a bout with obsessive compulsive disorder, founded the Académie Française in 1635 to codify and regulate French literature and language. Shortly thereafter, René Descartes used the Enlightenment ideal of rationalism to prove his own existence in the famously catchy—and logical—deduction, “I think, therefore I am.” In the 18th century, Denis Diderot ambitiously set out to accumulate and record everything in his Encylopédie. Meanwhile, Voltaire critiqued social norms in his sharp satire Candide, as Molière had done in the previous century with comedic plays Tartuffe, L’école des Femmes, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and others. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose 1762 Social Contract laid the foundation for modern democracy, promoted the Enlightenment ideals of tolerance and equality in his argument for sovereign rule by common popular agreement. In the same year, Rousseau, who left his own five children in an orphanage, also tackled the evidently difficult problem of rearing children in Émile. Mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal—known to some for his triangle—demonstrated his true brilliance in contemplating everything from the abyss to the Bible in the 924 “thoughts” of his Pensées (1670).
During the 19th century, French literature adopted the expressive ideals of Romanticism, which had already gained prominence in Britain and Germany. Great writers such as Henri Stendhal helped to establish the novel as the preeminent literary medium, but the novels of Victor Hugo, most famously Les Misérables (1862) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), dominated the Romantic movement long before they made inspiring musicals and Disney movies. During the same period, the young Aurore Dupin left her husband, took the pen name George Sand, and published passionate novels condemning sexist conventions. Novelists Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas, and Gustave Flaubert contributed to the movement of Realism in literature, creating detailed characters and settings that endeavored to be true to life. Nevertheless, Flaubert’s characters may have become a little too real—he narrowly escaped charges of immorality for Madame Bovary (1856), whose middle-class heroine spurns provincial life in favor of adulterous daydreams. A supposedly racy description of a woman’s breasts and legs earned poet Charles Baudelaire a ₣300 fine from the same tribunal. Despite this notoriety in his own time, Baudelaire is now highly praised, especially for his 1857 poetry collection, Les Fleurs du Mal.
Stranger things have happened. Toward the end of the 19th century, the dream reality of Symbolism replaced the daily reality of Realism. Poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and the precocious Arthur Rimbaud rejected mere description. Marcel Proust’s investigation of the nature of time and love in the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past exemplifies the progressive efforts of Modernism, which began to take hold in the early 20th century. After WWII, Existentialism expressed Jean-Paul Sartre’s belief that man is condemned to be free, and life gains meaning only through individual choice and action. Nobel laureate Albert Camus, an Algerian-born novelist best-known for L’Étranger (The Stranger), shared Sartre’s theoretical beliefs. The two were friends and allies until political conflicts—killer of many great working relationships—divided them in 1952. At the same time, Irishman Samuel Beckett took Sartre’s ideas on the absurd to the extreme in the infamous Waiting for Godot (1948-49), which he first wrote in French.
(S)ex libris: Simone de Beauvoir, attached to Sartre both romantically and philosophically, attacked the mistreatment of women and the stereotypes of femininity in The Second Sex, inspiring a generation of second-wave feminists starting in the 1950s. In turn, works like Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, Hélène Cixous’s Laugh of the Medusa, and Luce Irigaray’s This Sex Which Is Not Onesparked feminist movements in France and abroad.
Throughout the 20th century, writers from the French colonies of Haiti, Québec, the Antilles, Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia), and West Africa condemned France’s rampant racism and colonial exploitation. These ideas were channeled into the Négritude movement in the 1930s by intellectuals Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léopold Sédar Senghor, who would become president of Senegal. Similarly, Maghreb Mehdi Charef wrote provocative novels about beur—slang for Arab-French—culture and the continuing difficulties of cultural assimilation.
France boasts prominent postmodernist figures who still influence literary, political, and intellectual thought. Despite its universality, the movement stubbornly resists definition and is best described as a rejection of stable meaning and identity—or else a pretentious response to the pretentiousness of Modernism. Its roots can be traced to the Structuralist ideas of 20th-century anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who believed that society determines behavior. Post-Structuralist theorists, influenced by the revolutionary moment of May 1968, claimed that language itself is inherently controlled. Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction, a way of reading texts by seeking to uncover the internal tensions they suppress, transformed philosophy, literary theory, and cultural criticism across the globe. Influential historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, author of Madness and Civilization (1961) and The History of Sexuality (1984), argued that society, including institutions like hospitals and schools, can only be understood in terms of the power dynamics it enforces.
After inventing the cinématographe—a device that was able to record, develop, and project motion pictures—the aptly named Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste, screened the world’s first film, La Sortie des Usines Lumière (Quitting Time at the Lumière Factory) in a Parisian cafe in 1895. Soon thereafter, Auguste declared, “The cinema is an invention without a future.” Luckily, he was better at inventing than predicting the future, and Paris became the hub of early cinema, dominating production and distribution worldwide.Although WWI stunted economic growth, the inter-war period yielded diverse and influential films. Envisioned by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, the 1924 experimental film Ballet Mécanique mesmerized viewers with its disorienting, fast-paced use of montage. The work of Jean Renoir, son of the Impressionist painter, routinely tops critics’ lists of the greatest films ever made, particularly his powerful anti-war protest, La Grande Illusion (1938), and his biting social satire, La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game; 1939).
The 50s were a pivotal decade in French cinema. In 1956, a star was born when director Roger Vadim sent Brigitte Bardot shimmying naked across the screen in And God Created Woman (Et Dieu… Créa la femme). The French New Wave movement—or La Nouvelle Vague—of the 50s and 60s was an iconoclastic rejection of traditional cinematic form that did away with the linear narrative and blurred the distinction between fiction and reality with its highly mobile, documentary-like filming techniques and amateur actors. The year 1959 was a watershed for the movement, releasing such heavyweights as François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story Les 400 Coups (The 400 Blows), Jean-Luc Godard’s comedic, jump-cut-happy gangster flick A Bout de Souffle (Breathless), and Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Hiroshima, My Love). Famed critic André Bazin, mentor to Truffaut and Godard, was not only an invaluable supporter of the Nouvelle Vague; his seemingly endless body of film criticism and his co-founding of the influential Cahiers du Cinéma are what helped propel film studies to its position as a legitimate discipline of scholarship.
French talent enjoyed international recognition in the 60s, producing mega-stars Anna Karina, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Catherine Deneuve, Alain Delon, Jeanne Moreau, and Yves Montand. Released in 1966, Italian director Gillo Ponte vorco’s La Bataille D’Alger (The Battle of Algiers) ruffled a few feathers with its eerily relevant portrayal of the violent French occupation of the African city. The French comedy tradition lived on in La Cage aux Folles (The Birdcage), Édouard Molinaro’s 1978 film about a gay couple who try to conceal their lifestyle and their transvestite club from their son and his recent fiancée.
The 80s gave rise to the heritage film, big-money costume dramas that painstakingly recreated historical ages in such popular works as Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette (1986) and Yves Robert’s La Gloire de Mon Père (My Father’s Glory; 1990) and Le Château de Ma Mère (My Mother’s Castle; 1990), both adaptations from Marcel Pagnol novels. It was also the decade of Gerard Depardieu—he appeared in no fewer than 30 films in the 80s alone. Jean-Jacques Beineix’s cult classic, Diva (1981), established the so-called cinéma du look, the stylish-punk rock trend that brought US audiences The Fifth Element in 1997. The 90s ignited a new wave of political consciousness that included the at times confrontational beur cinema, films dealing with issues of immigration and racism affecting North African populations within France. Mehdi Charef’s Le Thé au Harem d’Archimède (Tea in the Harem; 1985) and Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (Hate, 1995) exemplified the genre. In recent years, several more mainstream French hits—including Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (Amélie; 2001),Cédric Klapisch’s L’Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment; 2002) and Michel Gondry’s Les Sciences des Rêves (The Science of Sleep; 2006)—have exploded onto the international scene, becoming instant blockbusters. At home, films like Arnaud Desplechin’s Comment Je Me Suis Disputé…Ma Vie Sexuelle (My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into an Argument; 1996),Claire Denis’s Chocolat (1988) and L’intrus (The Intruder; 2005), and Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus (The Life of Jesus; 1997) continue to challenge audiences, carrying on the progressive legacy of French cinema.
Gregorian chants echoed in monasteries and troubadours crooned narrative ballads in the south of France in the 12th century. The religious trend continued through the 15th century, when Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez created reverent masses for the court of Louis XII. Things grew considerably more scandalous by the Baroque period and the court of Louis XIV, as notorious libertine Jean-Baptiste Lully received acclaim for his ballets and lavish operas. At the end of the 18th century, Robespierre’s reign of terror rallied the citoyens and Rouget de Lisle provided an appropriately revolutionary soundtrack. Volunteers from Marseille claimed his 1792 War Song of the Army of the Rhine for their own, dubbing itLa Marseillaise and designating it the national anthem in 1795.
Paris, having regained its position as the hub of European music in the 19th century, welcomed influential foreign composers, including notables like Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, and Felix Mendelssohn. Grand opera merged with the simpler opéra comique to produce the Romantic lyric opera, an exotic amalgam of soaring arias and tragic death best exemplified by Georges Bizet’s Carmen in 1875. The 20th century began a new period of intense, abstract, and at times bizarre invention, heralding the impressionist Claude Débussy and avant-garde Erik Satie, whose works include the 1912 Chilled Pieces and Dribbling Prelude (for a Dog). Maurice Ravel’s Basque origins surfaced in the Spanish rhythms of his famed Boléro (1928), and the violently dissonant sounds of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring provoked a monstrous riot at its 1913 premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
Though a thoroughly American musical form, jazz found a welcoming second home in France during its formative years. Jazz crooner Josephine Baker left the US for Paris in 1925 and found France more accepting than her segregated home. She showed her appreciation by joining the resistance movement during WWII. In the years following the war, a stream of American jazz musicians—including a young Miles Davis—flowed onto the Paris music scene. The hundreds of jazz clubs in Paris and throughout France today are a testament to the enduring popularity of this American tradition. Cabaret, which came to prominence around the same time as jazz, brought song, dance, comedy, and theater to smoky nightclubs across the country. Édith Piaf’s iconic voice popularized cabaret music with such sultry ballads as “La Vie en Rose” in 1946 and the unforgettable “Je Ne Regrette Rien” in 1960.
In the second half of the 20th century, French music was dominated by two opposing ambitions: to emulate the sound of American pop and to maintain a distinctly French musical tradition. The French love for rock and roll inspired yé-yé, a genre whose sound was borrowed from American styles. Parisian Jean-Philippe Smet Americanized his name to Johnny Hallyday before bursting into the pop scene as a teen idol in the 1960s, gyrating his hips to Elvis-inspired tunes. Meanwhile, 16-year-old France Gall cultivated a Lolita-esque appeal with hits like “Laisse Tomber Les Filles” (1964). The same decade also produced the guitar-strumming Georges Brassens, who sang lyrically complex and often subversive ballads, but gained more notice for his bristly moustache and ever-present pipe. Songwriter Jacques Brel performed songs of love and despair that have since been covered in more than a dozen languages. The era’s undisputed bad boy, Serge Gainsbourg, shocked and delighted audiences with his crass lyrics and pleasure-seeking nihilism. The simulated orgasm at the climax of Gainsbourg’s biggest hit, “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus” (“I Love You… Me Neither”), even got the pope’s attention—the Vatican condemned the song for obscenity in 1969.
Style and fashion are important in France, and dressing well is never taken lightly. The more of an effort you make to blend in, the more authentic your experience in France will be. For dress, what may look perfectly innocuous in Miami will stick out like a bad pair of acid-wash jeans in Marseille. The French are known for their conservative stylishness: go for dressy sandals or closed-toe shoes, dark jeans or khakis, and stylish shirts rather than Tevas and baggy pants. The French rarely wear shorts; if you choose to sport them, leave those daisy dukes at home and opt for Bermudas instead. For women, skirts or dresses (knee-length or longer) are generally most appropriate. Sneakers, athletic T-shirts, baseball caps, or any kind of sloppy clothing will mark you as a tourist immediately. Conservative and respectful clothing (including covered shoulders for women) is mandatory when visiting places of worship. Rule of thumb: Keep it classy.
The French adore their dogs. Don’t be surprised to find a pampered pet in your hotel, on your train, or even sitting under the table next to you in a restaurant. Perhaps because they are so well traveled, most French pooches are also generally well behaved. However, this civility has not yet translated to toilet training, so watch your step.
A ban on smoking in public establishments went into full effect in January 2008, prohibiting the habit—or lifestyle, for most of the French population—in locations from nightclubs to cafes. Ignoring the ban will land you a fine—a great incentive to go cold turkey.
The French call the ground floor the rez-de-chaussée and start numbering with the first floor above it (le premier étage). The button labeled “R” (not “1”) is typically the ground floor. The sous-sol is the basement.
Most restaurants open for lunch at noon and close in the afternoon before re-opening for dinner. For those craving a light meal at 3pm, some bistros and cafes remain open all day. Small businesses, banks, and post offices close daily noon-2pm. Many establishments shut down on Sundays and take half-days on Wednesdays, while most museums are closed on Mondays.
Shopping in France is a joy and an art form. Fashion is serious business among the French. Stores nationwide have soldes (sales) in January and July, when you can get the best bargains. France uses the continental European sizing system, which differs from American and British sizes.
The French are extremely proud of their language. When English words began sneaking in—le jogging, par exemple—the government took action, creating a law for the protection of the French language in 1994. Even as English has become the international language of business, English speakers are still often met with scorn. If your French is anything but fluent, waiters and salespeople who detect the slightest accent will often immediately respond in English. But, if you continue to speak in French, more often than not, the waiter or salesperson will respond in French. Those without knowledge of the most beautiful language in the world—according to the French— will fare well with English in most parts of the country; in rural and less touristed areas, such as the Massif Central or Flanders, working knowledge of French is an asset. Believe it or not, French is not France’s only language; while regional dialects such as Basque, Corsican, and Breton are in steep decline, they’re hanging on, infusing their regions with a proud linguistic tradition and culture.
French youngsters have developed a very particular form of slang, called verlan, which is genuinely decipherable once the basic concept is grasped. Verlan is based on the idea of reversing the order of syllables: the word verlan itself is a reversed form of l’envers, which means backward. One-syllable words such as femme (woman) or mère (mother) are simply reversed to form what is pronounced as “mef” or “rem.” Two-syllable words such as crayon are broken up according to syllable, and the order is changed, to make words like yoncré. So when you hear an unfamiliar word, don’t assume it’s brand-new to your vocabulary; try deciphering it first—it might be verlan. Try this: cainri—it comes from ricain, an abbreviated form of “American.”
The French put a premium on polite pleasantries. Smiling is very American, so put on your best brooding artist face. Always say “bonjour Madame/Monsieur” (salut is so 70s) when entering a business, restaurant, or hotel and “au revoir” or “bonne journée” (“good day”) when leaving. If you bump into someone, drop him or her a quick “pardon.” When meeting someone for the first time, a handshake is appropriate. However, friends and acquaintances—except two men, who often stick to a handshake—greet each other with bisoux, an airy kiss on each cheek. Feel the love in the South of France, where three kisses are the norm.
Bread is served with every meal; it is perfectly polite to use a piece to wipe your plate. Etiquette dictates keeping one’s hands above the table, not in one’s lap, and forearms, not elbows, should rest on the table. In restaurants, waiters will not bring the check until you ask. When you are ready to pay, say, “L’addition, s’il vous plaît.” It is extremely impolite to address your waiter as “garçon” (boy); call him “Monsieur” instead.
French public toilets are worth the €0.30 they require, as the newer models of these machines magically self-clean after each use. Older public toilets are often dirty or broken. Toilets in train stations and public gardens are tended by gardiens and generally cost €0.40-0.60, often in exact change. Public toilets can sometimes prove elusive, but private establishments do not look kindly on being used solely for their facilities; in an urgent situation, you may have to buy a drink or snack first. In rural areas, public toilets often consist of a very basic shack sans toilet paper; consider packing an extra roll of TP and a bottle of hand sanitizer.
There is no assumption in France that “the customer is always right”—complaining to managers about poor service is rarely worthwhile. When you’re engaged in any official process like opening a bank account or purchasing insurance, don’t fret if you get shuffled from one desk to another. Hold your ground, patiently explain the situation, and (maybe) you’ll prevail.
In restaurants and cafes, the tip is almost always included in the tab, as indicated by the words “service compris” on the check. To acknowledge particularly good service, the French leave a euro or two in change on the table. Cab drivers should be tipped 15% of their fare. It’s considerate to tip museum tour guides €1 after a free tour and guides for official tour companies 20%.