Mention moving to France to most people and they will automatically assume you plan to relocate to an idyllic country spot, complete with fields of sunflowers or row upon row of vines. France does boast some stunning countryside and there is something for all tastes, from the gentle Normandy bocage to stunning rocky outcrops in the Languedoc. But France also has some equally stunning cities, many of which offer a fantastic lifestyle for those relocating to France. So why not consider city living?
French cities are bustling vibrant places where real communities live, as well as work. City centers have remained residential in a way that has been largely lost in the UK. In France huge numbers of flats or appartements are located above shops and businesses and are available to rent or buy. As a result, French urban living often has a very ‘villagey’ feel to it and can offer all the benefits of a small local community plus the convenience of being in a large city. This ‘villagey’ aspect is a huge advantage; it makes French cities both more human and safer.
Living in a city can have huge advantages for families with children. There are plenty of parks and playgrounds, plus good schools; activities, doctors and dentists will also all be within walking distance. Mum of three, Jacqueline Parade has called Paris ‘home’ since 1990 and explains “ The children can walk to school and all their various activities, which is both environmentally friendly and economical! Everything is close by so they can learn to be independent earlier; this also helps their self-confidence. We live in an apartment block with neighbours and a concierge (caretaker); this enables me to leave them alone for an hour or so, knowing there is help nearby should anything go wrong. Because we are in a city, there’s a wide choice of things to do for all of us, kids and parents, all within walking distance or a short bus or metro ride away. Plus, everything from 24 hour chemists and restaurants to taxis and babysitters is available instantly, which makes life much easier.
I think being able to use public transport is great for older children, as they can learn to be independent and gain their parents trust earlier on. I am sure this helps with teenage conflicts in the long run. There is also loads of stuff for them to do during the holidays and it is easy to meet other parents too.”
The opportunities to interact and meet people can be a significant benefit for people moving to France. Just popping out for supplies on a daily basis will mean that you will be speaking French. With clubs and activities close by, taking part in a favourite hobby or sport couldn’t be easier and this is one of the best ways to meet like minded people. Cities often also have good ex-pat networks who can help with all sorts of things from finding work to finding out what’s on. Local knowledge like this can be hugely beneficial, especially when you first arrive.
Clearly there are many benefits to city living but how do you go about choosing the right city and the right location within the city for your new French home?
You may already have a leaning towards a particular area or region; this might help narrow down the choice. If not, it is a good idea to list all the things that are important to you; think about both location and facilities and then see which city (or cities) tick the boxes.
For example, you may want to be within easy driving distance of the UK, in which case a northern city such as Rennes could be ideal. If you are after great nightlife, then Lyon could be the answer and if you are a keen swimmer, then Paris with its 38 municipal pools, may be the perfect location.
Once you have decided on the city, it is time to do some really detailed research. A huge amount of this can be done on the internet but nothing beats going there and spending time exploring the city. A few long weekends can reap dividends, allowing you to really get to know individual areas. You could also consider renting for a few months before you buy. This will also allow you to really familiarise yourself with the city and decide on your ideal location.
Having settled on where you think you would like to live, the next thing to do is to check up on all the things that might affect day to day living. Perhaps the most important starting point is transport. Most French cities have excellent public transport networks which may include bus, tram and underground systems. These will answer day to day needs and with cite centers becoming increasingly pedestrianised, are the most practical solution for getting around. Have a look at the system in place in your chosen city and try to see how it will work for you. Trams are great for people with young children as they are easily accessed with push-chairs and the free mini-buses or navettes, provided in some cities may be a nice bonus for those who plan to use the system a lot.
If you decide you do need access to a car, then you will need to check out how feasible it is to both drive and park your vehicle close to your home. Some central flats will have parking or garage spaces but where parking is at a premium, it will be reflected in the price. You may decide that it is better to base yourself on the outskirts and use the car to drive out of town and public transport to get into and around the centre. Some cities encourage this by providing park and ride facilities, others have free bicycles that can be ‘hired’ from car parks once you have parked your car. Equally, if you do not need to travel into the center every day, being at the end of the metro or tram line and having a longer journey time, may be acceptable. Especially when you consider that you are likely to get more property for your money!
You also need to consider the area and the housing stock that is available. Districts vary widely in quite a small geographical area. Finding out that you have bought in ‘student central’ after the event, is unlikely to please you if you would rather be in a quieter part of town! On the other hand, if you think that you might want to rent out your property at some point, buying in such a district, may be a bonus.
When searching for property, remember that centrally located property is likely to be older. This means that you will get charm, quirks and character. Unless you are exceptionally lucky, you will also get maintenance issues and the inconveniences that go with older properties. Older appartements often do not have lifts and again, ones that do, command higher prices. In a building with no lift, the flats on the top floors will usually be cheaper than those lower down. Generally flats on the second and third floors are the most expensive. This is because they are far above the street enough to be safe and quiet, yet not too high up for deliveries and carrying shopping. The location of the flat is ultimately down to personal preference; if you want an amazing roof top view and maybe even a terrace, you may be prepared to lug shopping up six flights of stairs. Equally you may decide that living in a large, stunning space in a down at heel district works better for you than a small flat in a select area.
Shopping is a key factor to consider when choosing a location. A large family with young children are obviously going to have different requirements compared to those of a couple and you should check that you are going to be able to source and transport your shopping easily. You should establish where supermarkets for basics are located, as well as butchers, bakers and green grocers. One of the best things about city living is the availability of fresh, high quality produce and you will probably find that shopping becomes a pleasure as you find yourself buying fresh ingredients on a daily basis. Many shops will offer a grocery delivery service which can be a real bonus too.
Being close enough to an open space to almost use it as a garden, will be a real blessing for families with children. Some parks and squares also contain play areas. Ann Clements bought her Paris flat in the 16th arrondissement because of the square below. She explains “there’s a playground, roller skating area and ping pong table as well as extensive seating for more sedate pastimes! This means it is absolutely ideal for when my grandchildren come to stay; we can be out there with the younger ones or keep an eye on the older ones from the comfort of the sitting room window.” Many French cities contain lots of open space in some form or another and areas such as the regenerated quay sides in Bordeaux are ideal for walkers and joggers.
Proximity to leisure facilities is another consideration. If you enjoy going to the theatre, being within strolling distance could be a fantastic benefit. Equally, if you are a keen tennis player or swimmer, make sure you are close enough to the courts or pool to really reap the rewards. As French cities are often smaller than their UK counterparts, even sports such as golf and horse riding are often found very close by.
Of course, like any location, there can be downsides to urban life. Traffic can be an issue but avoiding peak periods or using public transport overcomes this. Crime is bound to be slightly higher than in rural areas but French cities are still relatively very safe places to live. Perhaps the biggest problem might turn out to be all the visitors who invite themselves to come and enjoy a taste of urban French life!
Did you know?
There are more than 20 major towns and cities in France and
Paris is the only French city with over a million inhabitants
Five top cities for family living:
The number and range of activities available on offer for kids in Paris is astounding and this site will give you all the details. There is even a section listing all the parks and gardens with play areas.
Bordeaux is another family friendly city that even offers a ‘carte enfance’ - this works as a charge card allowing parents to pay creche and school dinner bills directly. A brilliant idea!
Lille has put into action a wide range of measures designed to improve and strengthen family life. They are also one of the few French cities to have instigated a ‘Walking Bus’ to take children safely to school.
Toulouse has a one stop family information center complete with a free phone number. There is a wealth of information on schools, activities etc. and best of all, a registration service allowing parents to enroll kids in everything from holiday clubs to after school child care to sporting activities, in one streamlined process.
Nantes produces a downloadable guide that tells you just about everything you could possibly need to know about family life in Nantes.
Copyright - Catharine Higginson