What Is France Famous For

What Is France Famous For 

What is France famous for?  Its capital, Paris, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with many of the best-known sights in France.  Yet seeing Paris is like dipping your toes in the water – there is so much more. Find out what else makes France famous as we explore its history, culture, cuisine and more. 

Even if you’ve never visited France, you’ve experienced it in some way. That baguette or croissant from the local bakery – you’ve had two of the most famous French foods. You meet a friend for coffee in a café – an institution France gave to the world.  That painting of waterlilies on the wall? One of a series by the French Impressionist master, Claude Monet.  The perfume from the next table? Most likely made from herbs grown in Grasse in the south of France. 

So here’s our guide to what France is famous for, from Gothic cathedrals to Jean-Luc Godard,  the French Revolution to restaurants, and Cannes to the can-can et al

Image of a mosaic representing France and French things in Cardiff Wales UK
This mosaic in my hometown Cardiff is a good place to start…

Paris 

Image of the view of Paris and a gargoyle from Notre Dame Cathedral
Paris from Notre Dame – a view we all yearn to see again

Paris, the ‘City of Light’, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  It’s home to some of the most famous monuments in France – Paris is famous for the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame Cathedral and a great many more. It’s a great melting pot of cultures, cuisines and styles.  It’s the birthplace of the café, several art movements and the wonders of French film and music. 

Claude Monet 

Image of a Claude Monet painting projected onto the facade of Rouen Cathedral France
A Monet painting projected onto the facade of Rouen Cathedral, one of his favourite subjects

Claude Monet was one of the most famous French painters, and one of the pioneers of the Impressionist era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He spent his later years at Giverny in southern Normandy, where he painted many of his celebrated Water Lilies series. He is also widely known for his paintings around Europe, from the cliffs of Étretat and Rouen Cathedral in Normandy to London, Venice, the Côte d’Azur and Brittany. 

The French Riviera 

Image of Hotel Le Negresco Nice France
Hotel Le Negresco, one of the most famous hotels on the French Riviera
Image of Villefrance-sur-Mer waterfront at night France
Gorgeous Villefranche-sur-Mer at dusk

Also known as the Côte d’Azur, the Riviera is one of the most beautiful places in France. It’s the south-east coast of the mainland, overlooking the Mediterranean, and is full of glamorous chi-chi seaside resorts like St- Tropez, the moneyed world of Monte Carlo, some of the best cities in France (step forward Nice) and treasures like Villefranche-sur-Mer and Menton. The easternmost section is famous for the corniches, mountain roads above the coast with astonishing views. 

Eiffel Tower 

Image of the Eiffel Tower from the Tour Montparnasse PAris France
The Eiffel Tower at sunset from the Tour Montparnasse

The most prominent landmark that Paris is known for, la Tour Eiffel IS Paris and France to the rest of the world. If you have a head for heights it’s well worth the trip 300 metres to the top for what can be an extraordinary view of the city far down below. Built for the 1889 World Exhibition, it was only intended to be a temporary feature, but now the Paris skyline is impossible to imagine without it.  

Louvre Museum 

Image of the Louvre MUseum and Pyramid Paris France
The iconic Louvre and its glass pyramid

The Musee du Louvre is one of the great art museums of the world. It’s full of some of the most famous French art in the world, including the likes of Eugene Delacroix’s iconic Liberty Leading The People. As well as thousands of other art treasures, it’s also possible to visit other parts of the Louvre Palace complex, including the foundations of the medieval fort and sumptuous rooms including the Napoleon III Apartments. 

Gothic Cathedrals

Image of Rouen Cathedral Normandy France
Rouen Cathedral, one of the great French cathedrals

France is known for its incredible array of Gothic cathedrals. The most famous is Notre Dame de Paris, which is currently undergoing restoration after the tragic 2019 fire that destroyed its roof and spire.  Within 100 miles (160 km) of Paris there are six of the greatest Gothic Cathedrals in Europe.  Four of these – Chartres, Amiens, Reims and Bourges – are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, while Rouen and Beauvais are equally spectacular and deserving of a visit. 

It’s The Most Visited Country In The World 

Image of colourful houses in Roussillon Provence France
Roussillon is one of the most beautiful villages in France

France is famous for…. well, partly for being famous. For many years, France has been the most visited country in the world.  No wonder, with so many famous places in France (take a look at our Famous Landmarks In France article for a lot more information). Paris is one of the greatest cities in the world to visit, then there are the many wonders of French cuisine, French literature, French art and more. 90 million people a year can’t be wrong! 

Famous French Food 

Image of a mural of a Roquefort cheese maker Aveyron Francec
Blessed are the cheesemakers – a mural near Roquefort-sur-Soulzon

There is so much famous food in France to mention, much of it having become as universal as pizza or pasta.  This includes the baguette, or French stick, a long loaf of bread of varying length that tastes delicious warm or fresh a few hours after it’s made, but like a house brick the following day. If you’re planning a picnic in Paris or anywhere else in France the baguette should be the first thing on your shopping list – along with a selection of French cheese. Famous French cheeses include Camembert and Pont l’Eveque (both originally from Normandy), Brie (from the Ile de France) and delicious Roquefort from the southern Massif Central. 

Image of trays of baguetes in a bakery in France
Baguettes – delicious just out of the oven

Other famous French foods that have become popular worldwide include the croissant, a crescent-shaped pastry. It tastes best warm and fresh, and a plain croissant is normally flavoured with butter. Croissants are often served for breakfast, either with savoury (cheese, ham, salad) or sweet (jam, chocolate) fillings. 

Crepes are another enormously popular French food. The word crepe is often translated as ‘pancake’ but there is a distinct difference between them.  Yeast, baking powder or baking soda is used in pancakes to ferment the dough and make it rise, whereas nothing is used to do this when making crepes. Pancakes are therefore thicker and fluffier than crepes. So if you want to call something ‘as flat as a pancake’, ‘as flat as a crepe’ is probably more accurate. 

Image of a selection of French cheeses
If only you could smell it – a selection of French cheese

Growing up in ‘80s Britain, one of the first things we learned about the French was that they were partial to eating snails and frogs’ legs. Gastropods and amphibians have never featured on the British menu, so mention of these elicited a general “Eeeeeuuuurgh!” response. Naturally I wanted to try them. Finding snails – escargots – is easier than frogs’ legs – escargots are a common starter, often sauteed in butter and garlic.  

Frogs’ legs – les cuisses de grenouille, literally frogs’ thighs – are trickier to track down. They’re sometimes found on fine dining menus, and the area they’re most popular is in eastern France, especially Lorraine. I tracked some down in Nancy many years ago, and was pleasantly surprised – it tasted like chicken wing.  Years later I learned that if you eat frogs’ legs in France nowadays it’s highly unlikely that your frog would have been French, and high consumption of them elsewhere in the world has led to a large depopulation of the poor amphibians.     

French Cafes, Bistros and Restaurants 

Image of a cafe sign in St Remy de Provence France
A typical French cafe sign in St Remy de Provence

It didn’t just give the world-famous French cuisine – it also gave the world the places where you could sit down and eat it.  All three words and concepts originated in France in the 19th century.  The café is the French name for ‘coffee house’, where coffee, tea, cakes and light snacks would be served.  A bistro is a small restaurant usually serving a small number of home-made dishes – some believe the word to have originated from Russian Cossack soldiers in Paris who would call out,”Bystro!” – meaning ‘quickly’. 

A restaurant is a larger establishment with a more extensive menu and more seating than a bistro. The word comes from the French ‘restaurer’, meaning ‘to revive’. 

French Wine & Champagne

Image of a vineyard in Gigondas Provence France
Gigondas, home of a fine Cotes du Rhone red

The range of famous French wines is colossal.  From Bordeaux and Burgundy reds to Champagne, Chenin blancs and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, each French wine region has a lifetime’s worth of knowledge to reveal. French wines have inspired – indeed generated – wines across the world, from Australia to Chile and New Zealand to South Africa. The wines are unique to their terroir, but the grapes are French. So next time you sip on an Adelaide Hills Merlot, close your eyes and remember you’re also tasting a grape from the right bank of the Gironde river, most likely from near the gorgeous medieval city of St Emilion. 

French Perfume 

Image of a lavender field in Provence France
Lavender – abundant in Provence every summer – is an important perfume ingredient

One of the most famous things about France is its perfume and cosmetics industry. Not all French fragrances were pleasant, so perfumes were developed to conceal body odour and the stench of excretions – environmental pollution also added to the whiffy mix in later years.  France produces around 30% of the world’s perfumes, and this is because so many plants suitable for fragrances are grown there.  The Provencal town of Grasse is the centre of the world’s perfume industry, producing lavender, mimosa, myrtle and other flowers used in the production process. 

The French Language 

Image of a shop sign in French saying Bienvenue -  Ouvert - Welcome - Open in English
Welcome – Open – a French sign outside a shop

The French language (francais) is another of the things France is famous for.  It’s the fifth most widely spoken language in the world, with 280 million speakers. Of these, just over 200 million speak French as a second language (that’s me), with around 77 million first language native speakers. 

French Alps & Mont Blanc 

Image of Mont Blanc in the French Alps
Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe

France is famous for its part of the great Alps mountain range, which includes the highest point in Western Europe, Mont Blanc, which it shares with neighbouring Italy. Chamonix is the nearest town and ski resort, from which you can catch a cable car to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi, 3842 metres (12,602 feet) above sea level, from where you have an amazing view of the Mont Blanc range. Ski resorts further south include L’Alpe d’Huez, Val d’Isère and Les Arcs.    

Tour De France  

Image of a mountain stage of the Tour de France
The Tour de France is often decided in the Alps

The Tour de France is the most prestigious race in the world of cycling. It’s held over three weeks every June and July, and is one of the most gruelling – and the most prestigious – in the calendar. The Tour de France route varies each year, but you can always guarantee some of the famous Tour de France climbs – in the Alps and Pyrenees, and also mighty Mont Ventoux in Provence. The most successful climbers usually end up at the top of the leaderboard by the time the race finishes on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. 

Citroen 2CV 

Image of a red Citroen 2CV car outside a cafe in France
The much-loved ‘umbrella on wheels’, the Citroen 2CV

Another of the most famous things about France is its cars.  The three biggest car manufacturers are Renault, Citroen and Peugeot, but one car is more quintessentially French than all others – the Citroen 2CV, or Deux Chevaux. Like its German counterpart the Volkswagen, it was conceived as an economy car, affordable for people living on low wages in the countryside. It was manufactured between 1948 and 1990, and production would have begun in 1939 but for the outbreak of World War II. Citroen went to great lengths to hide the project from the Nazis, even burying some of the prototypes.  

French Cinema 

One of the things associated with France most frequently is its rich cinema history.  It all began with the Lumière brothers – who essentially invented cinematography – in the late 19th century, with Pathé following son afterwards. By the 1930s masterpieces such as Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion were being produced, and by the 1960s the French New Wave was in full flow, with the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut at the forefront. More recently, the likes of Cyrano de BergeracDelicatessenLa Haine and The Artist have all broken new ground and been popular internationally. French cinema has prospered so much because it has always been well-supported by successive governments. 

This wealth of great cinema has seen the rise of many famous French actors, including the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Philippe Noiret, Catherine Deneuve, Audrey Tautou (see below) and Marion Cotillard just a few to look up. 

Amélie 

Image of a signed Amelie film poster in the Paris cafe where some of it was filmed
Much of Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain was filmed in the Cafe des Deux Moulins, above

We’ve given Amélie its own small mention for several reasons. Also known as Le Fabuleux Destin d’ Amélie Poulain, it’s one of the most famous French films of recent times, following the fortunes of Amélie (played by Audrey Tautou) who tries to make those around her happy while things don’t work out so well for her. It’s set in Montmartre and incredibly evocative of Paris, as is the wonderful soundtrack by Breton musician Yann Tiersen. It’s beautifully written and acted, with some hilarious characters, similar to other films by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet.  Along with 2011’s The Artist, Amélie is one of a small number of famous French movies to have made it big in the box office in recent years. 

French Literature 

Image of a bust of Victor Hugo in the Victor Hugo Museum Paris
Victor Hugo, one of the greatest French authors

As well as French film, French literature is an immense treasure trove. The list of famous French authors is long indeed, but there will be familiar names among Moliere, Voltaire, Stendhal, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert and later French writers including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus.  It’s also worth seeking out famous French writers like Alain-Fournier, known for his classic Le Grand Meaulnes, which isn’t as well-known in the English-speaking world.  

The French Revolution 

Image of Eugene Delacroix's painting Liberty Leading The People, depicting the French Revolution
The most iconic depiction of the French Revolution, Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading The People, which can be seen in the Louvre

France is famous for the French Revolution which began in 1789 and, arguably, was Europe’s first great leap into the modern age. Out went the monarchy and feudal system, and off went King Louis XVI’s head. In came the First Republic, the principles of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ for all citizens, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Revolution also had an enormous influence and impact across Europe.  

Chateaux 

Image of the chateau of Azay-le-Rideau near Tours France
Azay-le-Rideau Chateau

The Loire Valley, to the south-west of Paris, is one of the most famous French places to visit because of its profusion of chateaux. There are over 300 chateaux in the UNESCO World Heritage area between Sully-sur-Loire in the east and Chalonnes-sur-Loire, and these range from the vast medieval fort at Angers to the gorgeous Renaissance palace at Azay-le-Rideau. If you’re planning a Loire Valley chateaux tour, the area with the most – and best – of them is between the cities of Tours and Blois. 

Napoleon  

Image of a painting of Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most famous French people of all time. Born Napoleon di Buonaparte in Ajaccio, Corsica, he only started learning French at the age of ten, having already mastered Corsican and Italian.  He went to the mainland to study, eventually becoming the first Corsican to graduate from the École Militaire. He was a highly successful military leader, and became Emperor of France in 1804. He spent the next decade and more at war, conquering much of Europe, before finally succumbing to defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He was exiled to the remote Atlantic island of St Helena, where he died in 1821. 

Cannes Film Festival 

The Cannes Film Festival, which takes place every May, was originally devised as an alternative to the Venice Film Festival, which was subject to interference from Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. The first Festival de Cannes was held in 1946, and it has gone on to become one of the top film festivals in the world. All genres of film can be submitted, and the two main prizes – the Palme d’Or and Grand Prix – confer great prestige on the winners.  Films as diverse as La Dolce VitaTaste of Cherry and Blue Is The Warmest Colour have been awarded the Palme d’Or. 

Haute Cuisine 

Gourmet French food is at the top end of the scale. The term ‘haute cuisine’ – ‘high cooking’ – is French, and used worldwide to describe the often intricate and extravagant food served at fine dining restaurants. These famous dishes would often be very time-consuming and elaborate to prepare, and the ingredients sometimes difficult to procure, hence the high prices that would be charged. 

The French have also devised a means of grading the best restaurants – this applies not only to French fine dining but restaurants across Europe. Restaurants are awarded up to a maximum of three stars, and the award of a Michelin star confers great prestige on an establishment. 

Edith Piaf 

Image of the grave of famous French singer Edith Piaf
The grave of Edith Piaf in Pere Lachaise Cemetery

Edith Piaf (1915-1963) is one of the most famous French singers of all time. She had a tough, turbulent childhood and youth, and her singing talent was discovered by nightclub owner Louis Leplée in 1935. By the late 1940s she was regarded as France’s national singer, but was also a proficient lyricist, writing the lyrics to her signature song La Vie En Rose.  Her best-known international hit was 1960’s Je ne regrette rienone of the classics of the entire 20th centurySadly she died just three years later at the age of 48. 

French Music 

French music is an extremely broad church with a history going back over a thousand years.  Classical composers such as Georges Bizet (author of the opera Carmen), Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Olivier Messiaen led the way in the 19th century, and around this time French popular music started to grow. Paris is famous for being the birthplace of cabaret and the can-can, and throughout the early 20th century chansonniers learned their craft there, from Edith Piaf’s protégé Charles Aznavour to the great Jacques Brel (who was Belgian but mainly worked in France). 

The 1960s were a heyday for French pop music, with the likes of Francoise Hardy and Juliette Gréco among the best singers from that era. In the 1970s, Jean-Michel Jarre released Oxygene, which sold over 12 million copies, the most for a French album ever at the time. Into the new millennium, Daft Punk, pioneers in dance, funk, house and pop, have been an enormous influence. Over the last few years Héloise Letissier – who performs as Christine and the Queens – has produced some outstanding electronic pop and dance music, and she writes French and English versions of each song.  

French Fashion Shows 

Paris Fashion Week takes place twice a year – the first showcases forthcoming spring and summer collections, and the second shows the autumn and winter designs. Paris is one of the Big Four fashion capitals of the world, along with London, Milan and New York. At these shows, the big fashion houses parade their new collections, with models parading on catwalks (also known as runways). Of the Big Four, Paris is the sole venue for haute couture shows.  

TGV 

After Japan introduced the Bullet Train service in 1959, France set about modernising its rail network with a series of high-speed trains serving destinations around the country and beyond. The trains a grande vitesse were first introduced in 1981 and have rendered short-distance flights obsolete. Travelling from Paris to Avignon, 690 km south in Provence, now takes just 2 hours 40 minutes.  The Eurostar linking London with Paris and the rest of Europe is also part of the TGV network. 

French Football 

Football in France has taken off massively in the last 25 years. The academy at Clarefontaine has churned out an endless supply of excellent footballers, and more and more are coming through. France won the 1998 World Cup, Euro 2000. And the 2018 World Cup. They have Kylian Mbappé, one of the quickest and most prolific strikers in the world their disposal, and it would be no surprise to see them win more tournaments. Mbappé’s club side Paris St-Germain have been close to winning their holy grail, the Champions League, but a decade of splashing their Qatari cash hasn’t done the trick yet.   

Nostradamus 

Michel de Notre Dame – better known by his Latinized name Nostradamus – was a physician, astrologer, and, some would say prophet or seer, who lived in 16th century France. He is one of the most famous French writers because of his ‘Les Prophéties’, a series of four-line verses making very vague predictions about the future. His supporters say he predicted the rise of Hitler, the atomic bomb and the end of the world. Sceptics veer towards the view that his writing is so vague that it’s impossible to attribute anything specific to his verses, and that many translations from the original 16th century French are of very dubious quality. 

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David Angel
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing Europe for over 25 years.  His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.