Why Is France So Popular?

Pope's Palace Avignon, France

In 2012, France was once again the top country in the world for tourism, its number one spot ensured by the more than 83 million people who visited. I always knew that France was a popular tourist destination, but I had no idea it was #1 and I was even more surprised to learn that the majority of tourists to France (83%) are from Europe. That means that many of the reasons why I thought France was popular may not be true and made me wonder, why exactly is France so very popular?

Drilling down into the numbers I discovered a couple of other facts that may help explain its popularity. Even though France is #1 in the world for visits, it is not #1 for spending. That’s because all of those visitors don’t spend as much time in France as in other countries, which means they don’t spend as much money. So when all of those European tourists visit, they’re staying for a few days or maybe a week.

I also took a look at the list of top attractions in France. Seven of the top ten most visited sights in France are not surprisingly all in Paris. So that leads me to my first conclusion of the day:

 Paris Eiffel tower night

Paris may be the best city in the world – I’ve wanted to write that phrase for a long time. Paris is my personal favorite city in the world and it’s a town I will never get tired of visiting. And based on the numbers, I’m not alone. But what is it about Paris that makes it so damn appealing?  Well that’s not an easy question to answer, but I think there are a few reasons.

  • Allure – I find it hard to believe that most people don’t have a romantic notion of Paris. Strolling along the streets of the Marais, stopping at a café for some wine and cheese and of course seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time. Agree or not, there is an undeniable allure that Paris exudes attracting people from around the world.
  • Great city – Irrespective of the Eiffel Tower or the Champs Elysees, Paris is just a great city in its own right. If nightlife is your thing, Paris is a fun place to spend a long weekend and if you’re a fashionista, there may be no better city in the world. It’s this great big city vibe that may attract many European visitors, promising fun times in a romantic locale.
  • Je ne sais quoi – Maybe I’m a little biased when it comes to Paris, but I find it hard to believe that most people who visit once don’t want to return again and again. Before you start clogging up the comments section, let me also say that I know there are people who don’t like Paris and who never, ever want to return. That’s fine, but I maintain they’re in the minority and not the majority. For the rest of us there’s just something that latches onto our hearts and minds, making it impossible to stay away.

But French tourism cannot be explained away by Paris alone. Of the top 20 most visited sights in France, half are not in Paris, they’re strewn throughout the country. A closer look at the list takes me to my second observation:

 Arles France van gogh starry night

France is the European travel dream – The remaining sights on the list represent most geographical areas of the country but can be roughly divided into two categories: 1) religious and 2) aspirational. The religious sights are cathedrals, churches and pilgrimage destinations. They point towards the long history France has as a very important destination for the penitent.

This concept may seem strange in what is today a very secular country, but places like Metz Cathedral and Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille illustrate a very different past. But they also crossover with the second category, the aspirational. There are places so unique and beautiful in France that many of us dream of the day when we can witness their splendor in person. Mont Saint-Michel, Château de Chambord and Carcassonne are all so spectacular that people travel to France just to see them. It is for this aspirational quality that I believe France is so popular; it fulfills the promise of Europe, even for Europeans.

A gilded age of castles and cathedrals, vineyards and rolling hills, great food and even better wine; from an American point of view this is Europe and it may also be partly true for Europeans. (I’m not European, so I can’t say for sure)  While you can find these things in other countries, the frequency and quality is so much higher in France that it makes it a very popular destination.

 toulouse river

Geography and transportation – Finally, I posit that a third reason for France’s domination in the world of travel and tourism is a function of geography and the current travel infrastructure. While not centrally located in Europe, France is extremely well situated and an easy enough trip for many who live within the Schengen borders. Geography has also helped those from the top country to visit France, Germany. (Irony duly noted) Transportation is also an important consideration. For train travel, there are few more important hubs than Paris and Gare du Nord station. It seems that everyone traveling by train has to pass through this illustrious station at some point, helping augment French tourism. The French train system is also extensive and easy to use, something I can attest to from experience. Not every country in Europe can say this and it absolutely makes a huge difference since many of the 83 million tourists do not fly directly to France when they visit. Finally, Charles de Gaulle airport is one of the busiest in the world. That alone is not enough to drive tourism, just look at even busier Heathrow in London, but the number of direct flights from Europe and around the world gives France more than enough lift to support its #1 status in the world.

Devil's Bridge, Cahors, France

I love visiting France. There’s just something about the country that has always appealed to me, even if I’ve only explored a tiny fraction of it. It seems as if there’s a new discovery around every corner, something more beautiful and interesting than the last. Contrary to popular belief, I’ve always found the people to be kind and helpful and of course the food is amongst the best in the world. More than these facts, and the reasons I’ve tried to lay out though, I think the real reason why France is such a popular tourist destination is much less tangible than the experts would like to think. It’s the ephemeral feeling of Frenchness that draws so many of us in and convinces us to return again and again, if only to try to recapture the magic of the country.

Have you been to or do you want to travel to France? Why?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

31 thoughts on “Why Is France So Popular?”

  1. Interesting post. I can only speak for myself and my country (The Netherlands), but for Dutchies France is always the nr 1 place for a holiday. Especially the summer holiday, for which people usually take 2 or 3 weeks. (Spain, Germany and Italy are also super popular here). So I can try and explain why France is popular from a Dutch point of view :)

    You don’t have to fly to get there, so it’s easy to just get in your car and drive. Usually you are there in a day of driving, whatever part of France you choose. There are a lot of campings, something a lot of Dutch people do when on vacation. Most importantly: France almost always has good weather in summer, something you cannot be sure of in The Netherlands. So it’s good to have something sunny booked for the holiday, which is pretty close by, cheap to get to (no plane tickets).

    But most of all it’s a magnificent country. I’ve seen lots of it, because I visited it often as a young dutch girl on holiday with her parents ;-). I’ve been to Paris three or four times in my life, and plan to go again next spring (it’s like a four hour drive…). I absolutely love the country, and many people do. It has a certain charm that is different from many countries I’ve seen, it has an amazing language (French or German is taught in schools as a secondary language after Dutch and English), and it’s an absolutely gorgeous land. One of the things that makes France so popular is that is so diverse. It has so many different sites and nature in one country. Whatever you want, you can find it there, basically…


    1. Thank you, thank you for offering your point of view. This is what was missing from the piece and I hoped some folks would chime in. Very interesting

  2. I honestly think it’s the food and the countryside, not to mention the brilliant art. Everything is in place…from the wine –some of the finest in the world–to the cheese. France gives you all in one convenient pint-sized country.

  3. Kristin @ KEEN Digital Summit

    I agree with your love for Paris. Too bad last time I was there (in May), I got a terrible stomach flu that kept me in bed for six days!

    I get so many reader emails with “I know this is cliche, but I’m thinking about going to Paris for my honeymoon…” and it makes me hate the fact that going to such amazing cities are deemed “cliche” when they’re very deserving of their reputations!

    1. Oh no! Sorry about the bug :( You’re right though, I always tell people that places are popular for a reason, they’re awesome. :)

  4. Thank you Matt and Explorista for articulating the reasons why I keep returning to France once a year since I first visited in the summer of 2009.

    I now have the advantage of traveling “shoulder-season” (Nov-Dec) which is my favorite time.

  5. I think it’s because France has it all. History, architecture, good food, style, variety of landscapes, foreign accent. It’s a one-stop kind of place for travelers who don’t have a lot of time on their hands.

  6. I feel the exact same way about Paris. I’ve traveled there 5 times and it just never gets old. Loved reading this! Also, have you seen Midnight in Paris? It really captures the allure and beauty of Paris in my opinion. Try to get past the fact that Owen Wilson is in it! ;)

  7. I have to admit, Paris was a “neutral” country in my list..until I saw the movie Amelie! More than the ‘high fashion’, glamour and romance that people associate the city with, I’m more interested in the daily city life Paris has for locals. I wonder if they themselves believe that they live in the best city in the world , or are they like the majority of us, who think our own city can be better with a lot of “only if’s”… I’m heading the Paris for the first time in October, and I cannot wait :)

  8. I have been to France and I feel in love with the place! The Eiffel Tower, the French Alps, the romantic vibe, a train journey through the countryside, everything!! France has a special feel to it!! There is just something about that place!!

  9. It’s interesting how the allure can spring up randomly, and “I’m going to France” tends to have that mystical quality that tends to spark a lot of jealous “Oh I wish I could too!” comments. Certainly a whole lot more than “I’m gonna visit Belgium!” Even though there’s plenty of similar architecture there as well. Maybe some famous author needs to write a huge blockbuster book that takes place in Slovenia and then that’ll be the new hip and trendy destination for a few years.

    1. For generations France has held that spot in our collective hearts. For centuries it’s been known as the height of fashion and culture and everyone wants to experience it at least once. This ability to endure the centuries with the same level of appeal points towards some inextricable quality it MUST possess.

    2. OCDemon, I agree with you when I see people staying just 2 days in 10 cities in Europe “to visit the maximum”or taking picture of themselves with the Joconde without watching her! But you can not compare the diversity of Belgium and France. I like Belgium, above all people. But this country has not the diversity of France, without speaking about the French islands and Guyane…

      Matt, I’m French, living in Barcelona and I like travel in France. Why? I like all except two things, very problematic: a lot of pickpockets now (you always have to be carefull) and sometimes French people are rigide. Thank you very much for this article, above all because we use to bash ourselves in France.

  10. I’ve had a love affair with France since I’m a little girl when I first heard the French language. So beautiful, poetic, melodic, it led me to discover an equally rich culture, history, beauty and I wanted to learn more. I studied all facets of France and French life as a hobbie for years. Having visited many regions of France and finding each one amazing in a different way I decided to finally pursue my dreams of living and traveling in France and creating a boutique tour company so I can share my obsession with France and all things French.

  11. Agreed on all fronts, Matt. Paris is my favorite city in the world – I adore going over there any chance I get. Why the Parisien has such a bad reputation among Americans is beyond me; honestly, I think it’s among primarily those who’ve never been! Whenever I hear francophobia here, I always respond “Rochambeau called – he wants the Battle of Yorktown back!” That usually puts an end to it! ; And France overall is a lovely country. Every corner is distinctive – Alsace over against Provence, vis-a-vis the Loire. And the people are, with only a few exceptions in my experience, quite friendly.

    By the way, great photos!


    1. Thanks Richard, I appreciate that. It’s also been my experience that the French have a better understanding of the role they played in the formation of our country than we do, which is sad. My only regret so far is that I’ve only explored a relatively tiny portion of the country. It’d take a lifetime though to truly do it justice.

  12. I absolutely adore Paris .. and even though I live in England , I did not visit until 2009 ,, this was all through my blogging . Got invited over to meet bloggers and Expats ,, 14 of us in all .. One even from Australia and her English husband , (they now live in England) we have kept up friendships ,, and the circle has expanded which is super. My last visit to Paris was July this year ,, went to places we had not experienced before ,, Free concerts in Parc Floral and La Denfense , and then just chilling with friends … I would say give it a go and if it is not for you , you have at least tried .

    I have also been to other areas on France , once going from Paris to Rouen for a few days and then North of Toulouse too.. I am not sure why I didn’t want to visit before ,, but NOW , try and stop me going !! A great write up.

  13. I couldn’t agree with you more. People ask me all the time what is it about France that I keep wanting going to go back over and over again. I always say that while I continue to be fascinated with the architecture, history, monuments, food, wine, beauty, etc, it is the mood and the emotional connection I feel while there. I think France, especially Paris is a destination that one doesn’t just go to “see”. You have to “feel” it! The ambiance is like magic, especially in the evening. I could go on and on. I just love it there!

  14. I’d agree that France does epitomise Europe for many, even for Europeans. Paris really does feel like the culture capital of Europe with it’s countless examples of beautiful architecture, museums and boulevards lined with great places to eat and drink. I would say Italy and Rome are fairly similar in this regard. I think in both cases it’s the relationship they have with food and wine which makes them feel like such romantic places to visit. Who hasn’t thought of owning their own vineyard and whiling away days in the sun?! And the sun-drenched south coast is a big draw for tourists. Many in England drive to the south of France for a one or two week holiday in the summer to capitalise on the guaranteed weather. I think being able to reach the country by car is a massive plus for a lot of people, especially if they have kids. Another thing to consider is that France is very popular with Europeans in the winter as a skiing destination. The airport in Geneva is so much busier from December to March, with people going on to one of the many ski resorts in the Rhone-Alpes region.

  15. I so loved reading this post, France is our absolute favorite travel destination! We fell in love the moment we arrived and were so sad when we had to leave. We celebrated our daughter’s birthday in Paris at a marvelous bistro in the most quaint setting I could image. The people, the food and the wonderful atmosphere there made for such wonderful memories. And as you mentioned, we also found the people of France to be kind and helpful. We will be returning soon! Happy Travels!

  16. Thank you for this. I have dreamed of going to to France my whole life… I will get there one day. It’s just too expensive for me and I’m not a savvy travel shopper :-(

  17. Great article. One thing not mentioned that I love about France is how clean it is. Driving through France we have stopped many times in towns that are so attractive and clean that we wondered why they were not even mentioned in tourist guides. Avranches- south of Cherbourg being a classic example. It is hard to find an unappealing town or city. You could name a dozen such places in the UK easily that are not worthy of a stop.

    I was recently in Callac, Brittany and was amazed to see the local council cutting the grass verges with a petrol mower and a grass collection box! Never ever seen that in the UK.

    Would move there tomorrow.

  18. Simply because French architecture powerfuly reflects the image of the western world, the same as China Does for the Asian conuntries, and Morocco for the arab world.

  19. hey,
    I really enjoy to see that American people can enjoy and understand this much the quality of France ;) I’m French and travel a lot myself, always enjoying, but i enjoy coming back also! ^^ well, never been to US yet :p
    I knew France was a well known destination for Europeans and more, even if i think myself that northern European countries are quite nice to see also, at least for the quality of architectures…
    But what i had to say about your post and what is really true is that France isn’t only Paris… When you tell to foreigners that you are French it’s the only city that they want you talk about, and i can understand that, because of the cultural influence of Paris over history. But what you said is true, each region of France deserve to be visited also, because they all have a great historical legacy and a particular environment. And so that’s what I’m doing today, i go living from a town to another depending on jobs I get, and I like that! Even as a French I’m discovering things in my own country! :))
    To finish and to thank you for this post, I will recommend to you guys some cities that you should visit if you ever come: Bordeaux, Carcassonne, Montpellier, Marseille, Nice, Reims, Strasbourg, Lyon, Tours, Orléans, Rouen, La Rochelle, and of course Paris and so many more in countryside…. In those cities you will experience many good different food, wine, culture and architecture, I guaranteed you! ;)

  20. As a french, I won’t reply directly to the question. Instead let me speak about my foreign experiences (as a civil work consultant, i travel a lot). When I was student, doing my military duty more exactly, i went to New York. Whoua! What a chock! So much enegergy ! I really like architecture so i alredy knew high rise building of NY, but the verticality of street view is so spacial that it delivered me a willing to do better to go farther in my life.

    I worked in northen Portugal. In that case, I felt like being in a good old France fantasm: hard hand working people, little farm with everything from crops to fruits, from chickens to porks, people who still know how to share time with neibhours ans visitors.

    So all in all i agree with your arguments, Matt. I will just add that maybe people looks for country to visit with something different, someting that still talk to them, maybe a question of contrast with their daily life but sill some connections to their roots.

  21. Second try:

    The “modern” explanation: Maybe France, Paris espacially, is a very well managed brand ?

  22. Hello there !
    Just to post my point of view about the subject : Beeing French my self, I would say that what makes France so popular is its geographic position in Western Europe, as the Dutch lady suggested : France is surrounded by well developped countries whose populations can afford holiday making abroad at a not soo expensive costs.
    Of course, France played and is still playing an important role in Europe, but that is not the only reason. On my opinion, all Europe has a lot to see actually, from North to South, West to East, and the French culture should be seen as a result of European,world and own self influences, as any other european countries.

  23. The seaside boardwalk that runs along the Baie des Anges owes its existence to the British tourists who first popularized Nice as a holiday destination in the early 18th century. When hard economic times brought an influx of people to Nice searching for work, some of the wealthy Englishmen proposed paying them to create a walkway along the rocky beach. Today, it’s one of the most famous seaside promenades on the Mediterranean, lined with palm trees, beach cabanas, chic cafés and luxury hotels. The most well known attraction in Nice, strolling along the Promenade des Anglais is a quintessential Riviera experience not to be missed.

  24. France would easily surpass 100 million visitors per year if it wasn’t so expensive, which is why many middle and lower classes of Europe opt for Spain, Italy and Greece.

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