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Tuesday,  March 5, 2024 6:50 AM 

On Location: What’s it like to visit France these days? We spent a month there to find out

On Location: What’s it like to visit France these days? We spent a month there to find out
PAX spends a month in France. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

The streets of Paris are alive with the sound of recovery.

Along the cobbled streets of artsy Montmartre – a village-like district in Paris’ 18th arrondissement where the red-lit Moulin Rouge glows and the white-domed Sacré-Cœur basilica sits at the top of a large hill – the outdoor terraces of cafés are buzzing with nighttime chatter as red wine-sipping patrons gab about this and that while keeping a watchful eye on whatever street style whisks by.

Parisians returned to their cherished sidewalk cafes in May of last year following a six-month-long COVID-shutdown. Paris café culture is a social and culinary tradition that dates back to the 17th century, so you can bet that seats filled up quickly once restrictions eased.

A cafe in Montmartre. (Pax Global Media)

Fast forward to February 2022, and those seats on terraces are still largely claimed as locals and visitors, sitting elbow to elbow in jackets and scarves, meet for an in-person rendezvous – even if the air outside is a tad nippy.

There’s a clamour of impassioned conversation in the air (Parisians, in a wonderful way, are among the most passionate people).

You don’t necessarily have to hear a cha-ching to know that business, once crippled by lockdown, is on the upswing.

It’s a telling sign of a return to pre-pandemic life as France forges ahead on a quest of learning to live with coronavirus.

The Moulin Rouge. (Pax Global Media)

Finding ways to coexist with COVID-19, using recommended protections, has been a goal in France for quite a while now. 

In the early days of the pandemic, President Emmanuel Macron urged the French to wage “war” against the virus, only to change his tune months later by advising the public to assume personal responsibility in preventing outbreaks and, ultimately, learn to live with COVID.

This mindset, bolstered by high vaccination rates, has led to a reopening of French society over time (even if the number of COVID cases continues to rise).

France lifted most local restrictions this month. (Pax Global Media)

France lifted most local restrictions on March 14, 2022, ending the need to wear masks in most establishments (except for public transportation and health facilities) and allowing unvaccinated people back into venues.

France’s previously-mandatory “vaccine pass” has also been eliminated in most places.

Has France, dare we say, returned to “normal?”

The French doors are open

Yes and no, as PAX observed during a month-long, self-guided road trip through the dynamic country from February to March as part of a remote-work stay.

The visit, which included stops in artsy Nantes in Western France, the glittering capital city of Paris, whimsical villages of the Loire Valley, and quaint towns of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, provided a fresh perspective of France as it reopens to the world.

And oui oui, mes amis, the French doors are open, prompting tourists to gradually rediscover (or discover for the first time) the country’s medieval cities, sophisticated cuisine (try the escargot), incredible history, romantic flare and world-famous landmarks.

The bookings alone indicate that a tourism rebound is underway. 

The streets of Paris. (Pax Global Media)

According to Atout France, the country’s tourism development agency, France recovered 50 per cent of pre-pandemic air bookings during the January-March 2022 period.

Air capacity between France and Canada from May onwards, for one, is rising to pre-pandemic levels, the agency says, with December 2021 showing a full recovery from the Canadian market.

Fully vaccinated travellers from Canada, being a “green list country,” can now enter France without having to quarantine or show a negative test.

But Canadian adults who received their second dose more than nine months before arrival are considered not fully vaccinated and must show proof of a negative test before entry. (Click here for complete details).

Entry policies aside, the connectivity between Canada and France, this summer, is set to soar.

Buying pastries in Paris. (Pax Global Media)

Air France’s offering will be 25 per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels with a schedule of up to 49 flights a week, including daily service between Vancouver and Paris and the inauguration of a Quebec City-Paris route in May.

Direct flights with Air Canada and Air Transat to French cities and regions, without connecting via Paris, are starting again. WestJet and Corsair are also back to servicing Paris.

River cruises, too, are once again bringing visitors back into cities.

(Pax Global Media)

And the Government of Canada recently lifting its own return-home testing rule for fully vaccinated travellers is building on the momentum.

“With the lifting of the latest restrictions, there is a renewed motivation for travel that is observable and bookings can attest to this,” says Mélanie Paul-Hus, director for Canada at Atout France. “France has a lot of novelties. The industry has not stopped renewing itself.”

Finding a way forward

The global health crisis may have left a mark, devastating lives and economies worldwide. But France, through innovation, is finding a way forward.

If anything, COVID-19 accelerated the country’s digital transformation, specifically with regards to its contact-tracing and health pass app, TousAntiCovid, which became a leading platform in Europe.

Sidewalk cafe terraces in Paris are busy again. (Pax Global Media)

During lockdown, restaurants sold food to go, paving the way for the “gourmet takeout” trend of offering delivery items beyond the standard pizza pie.

Even if restaurants in France have reopened, some still maintain a menu of cafe-quality takeout meals. 

In Paris, for one, the public’s interest in cycling boomed as more people embraced life outdoors. 

At the end of lockdown, the City of Light added pop-up bike lanes, called coronapistes, and many have become permanent fixtures.

Some streets, such as Rue de Rivoli, have gone completely car free to give cyclists and pedestrians more space.

Musicians entertain crowds along the Seine. (Pax Global Media)

Crowds are back 

But some things in Paris haven’t changed (and that's a good thing). 

The sounds of fast cars rolling over cobbles, honking horns, and musicians playing tubas and saxophones down by the Seine river are still notes in the aural landscape. 

On the bustling Champs-Élysées, a famous avenue that runs from Place de la Concorde to the majestic Arc de Triomphe, crowds have enthusiastically returned to shop till they drop.

The Louvre Pyramid. (Pax Global Media)

And tourists are back at must-dos, like the Louvre museum, the Phantom-famous Palais Garnier opera house, Notre Dame Cathedral (even if it has been secured following the 2019 fire), and, of course, the Eiffel Tower.

But recognizing that some international markets haven’t returned to France (or Europe, for that matter) just yet, the crowds at these world-famous hot spots are (generally) reasonable in numbers, resulting in shorter-than-usual wait times for entry.

Notre-Dame Cathedral, walled in after the 2019 fire that occurred there, still draws admirers. (Pax Global Media)

Pre-COVID, the extravagant Palace of Versailles – a former royal residence, once the centre of political power in France with origins dating back to the 17th century – and it’s lavish gardens would attract upwards of 15,000,000 visitors annually.

In 2020, when COVID hit, that number reportedly sunk by 75 per cent.

Located roughly 20 kilometres outside of Paris, the opulent chateau (now a museum), in 2022, is a visitor magnet once again, but with less hassle, it seems.

Inside Palais Garnier. (Pax Global Media)

Even on a spring-like Sunday afternoon in March, the wait to get into the gold-covered landmark and grounds, which is spread over 800 hectares, was less than ten minutes (bearing in mind that the attraction is more popular in the summer).

Still, according to one local PAX spoke to, simply getting into Versailles palace, and passing security, pre-pandemic, would take upwards of an hour, sometimes two. Even with advanced ticketing.

That, alone, is a good reason to visit France now.

Palace of Versailles. (Pax Global Media)

And while masks are no longer mandatory in France, there’s still a public willingness to wear one in some settings.

The grand Baroque-style Hall of Mirrors at Versailles may have been shoulder-to-shoulder with visitors, but several people, in March, still decided to wear a mask inside.

Visitors explore the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. (Pax Global Media)

The Emily In Paris effect

New trends have also surfaced. 

In Central Paris, at the Jardin du Palais Royal, a tree-lined garden and 17th century palace, there’s a young, camera-ready woman wearing a red beret, striking a pose for what will be, presumably, a colourful post for Instagram that exudes just the right amount of online ohh la la.

You can thank Emily In Paris for that,” quips a voice in the background, referring to the hit Netflix series about an ambitious twenty-something Chicago woman who is hired to offer an American perspective at a marketing firm in Paris.

Palais-Royal in Paris. (Pax Global Media)

Some Parisians may have rolled their eyes at the lighthearted TV series for its exaggeration of French stereotypes and clichés, but Emily In Paris – say what you want about it – has added a new artery to Paris tourism, inspiring die-hard fans to visit filming locations.

It’s a trend the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau is tracking – they have a webpage listing key spots featured in the show, from Café de Flore (one of the oldest coffeehouses in Paris) to the Musée des Arts Forains to the aforementioned Jardin du Palais Royal.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict 

While life in France resumes, COVID-19, though still an active issue, is no longer the main headline driving suppertime newscasts as attention shifts to Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine.

It’s a sad event that French people are watching closely, and in the early days of the conflict, the Eiffel Tower joined landmarks around the globe in lighting up in the national blue-and-yellow colours of Ukraine to show support.

The situation, as it progresses, is starting to leave some people on edge. (“Small wars lead to big wars,” as one local remarked).

The Eiffel Tower lights up in the national blue-and-yellow colours of Ukraine. (Pax Global Media)

And while the conflict appears to have not seriously impacted travel sales out of Canada (yet), there’s still a degree of uncertainty in the air as the price of oil and inflation rises.

"The French, just like their fellow Europeans, are shocked and saddened by the situation in Ukraine and by the personal tragedies that unfold daily," says Atout France’s Mélanie Paul-Hus. 

Questions around security and reinsurance for long-haul customers will be taken into account as things progress, she says.  

“It’s also possible that customers who planned on visiting Eastern Europe will decide to head west and to France, too,” she says.

Stay tuned as PAX brings you more exclusive content from France. For our next instalment, we explore some of the historical chateaus of the Loire Valley. 

For a roundup of what to see and do in Paris in 2022, click here.

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