The Local’s Guide to Enjoying and Talking About the French Summer

France has four seasons: spring (le printemps), summer (l’été), autumn (l’automne), and winter (l’hiver), and each one has its own significance in French culture and everyday life.  

While we mostly associate summer with the south of France, the location of the famous Côte d’Azur, the summer weather and mood does reach the whole country and affect it in some important ways.  Let’s talk about all things summer in France.

How to say “summer” in French

The word “summer” in French is l’été. Although the French word for season, la saison is feminine, l’été is masculine.

When you want to use “summer” as an adjective in French, you would either say d’été or estival(e). It’s hard to say exactly why you should use either one, but as a general rule:

d’été is usually used with things that aren’t exclusively associated with summer. For example, as you’ll see on the list below, you would use it when talking about clothes, time, or rooms in a house. Be careful not to confuse this with de l’été (of the (this) summer), which I’ll talk about in the next section. 

estival(e) tends to be used with things we’d more likely associate with summer – for example, summer weather.

Again, this is just a general rule. If you’re in doubt, the good news is, people will understand what you mean if you use either one.

If you want to say “in summer”, “over the summer”, or “during the summer” in French, that would generally be “en été” or “pendant l’été”.  For example: En été, on va à la plage. (In summer, we go to the beach). And Il a bien grandi pendant l’été (He grew a lot over summer).  

La fin de l’été is “the end of summer”.

Some common summer-related French words

blooming lavender

Here are some common summer-related French words. As you read them, remember the general rule about using d’été or estival(e) that I mentioned in the previous section of this article.

de l’été – of the (this) summer. This is used when talking about the trends and tendencies of this particular summer. A very common example is the expression le tube de l’été – this summer’s hit song.

une robe d’été – a summer dress/a sundress.

l’heure d’été – daylight savings time. Passer à l’heure d’été means to switch to daylight savings time/set the clocks forward.

les vacances d’été – summer vacation. This can mean either a vacation from school or other organized activity, or an actual planned summer vacation getaway. 

une cuisine d’été – an outdoor, covered space for cooking, eating, and storing food. In addition to a standard indoor kitchen, this is a very common feature in lots of houses in the south of France, where, as other French people often remark, inhabitants like to live outdoors. A cuisine d’été lets them not only eat outside, but even prepare their meals and store food there, since it usually includes some kind of stove or oven as well as storage areas. You can see some examples of typical cuisines d’été here

How to say “Have a good summer” in French

Summer is a time of leisure, vacation, and festivities in France, but interestingly enough, it’s not extremely common for people to tell each other “Have a good summer!”, as you’ll learn if you do an internet search for it.

With friends who are going away for a long time in the summer, I usually say Passe un bon été or Passez un bon été if there’s a group of them. They always understand and appreciate this, but it’s not necessarily the way native French speakers would put it.

Instead, it seems if native speakers of French want to say “Have a good summer”, they would either be very formal and say Je te/vous souhaite un bon été (I wish you/you all a good summer) or they would focus more on the vacation aspect, and use a very common French saying, Bonnes vacances!(Have a nice vacation!).

Summer weather in France

Culturally, summer in France starts around late June and ends at la rentrée – the period at the beginning of September, when most people are back from summer vacation and school and other activities start again. 

From an astronomical standpoint, summer in France is officially from June 21 to September 21. But the weather can be very warm before and after that period. For example, this year we had several days where the temperature reached 30 degrees Celsius (about 86 degrees Fahrenheit) in April and May, even though overall temperatures for these months were a lot lower, at times even a bit chilly.

Even summer itself can be a bit unpredictable in France. Sometimes, the days can start or end up quite chilly, even if it’s hot in the afternoon. So if you’re planning to visit, you may want to bring a light jacket or shawl with you if you’ll be out very early or very late.

What is France like in the summer?

glass of red wine on table in French summer

By late June, French people are in the spirit of summer, with schools in their last weeks and travel plans fresh in many minds. People tend to want to spend more time outside, and in that spirit, most towns, cities, and villages will have some kind of festivities in the summer, from outdoor concerts and film festivals, to athletic competitions, novelties like Paris-Plages and more. If you’re traveling to France in the summer, definitely be sure to check the places you’re headed to see what’s on.

Two summer events that will definitely be going on to some extent, wherever you are in France, are the Fête de la Musique (Music Day) on June 21, and le 14 juillet (Bastille Day, July 14). 

La Fête de la Musique is a holiday celebrated in many countries, and quite the big deal in France. Anyone who wants to play music outside is welcome, and you can stroll the streets or even travel far distances across a region or city to attend concerts by amateurs and famous musicians alike.

“Bastille Day” in French is actually just called le 14 juillet (July 14), or sometimes La Fête Nationale (the national holiday). If you’re into history, this is because the date isn’t supposed to celebrate the storming of the Bastille, the event that kicked off the French Revolution in 1789, but the Fête de la Fédération, a sort of reconciliatory celebration celebrating the new nation, which occurred exactly a year later on July 14, 1790. If you’d like to read more about the turbulent and gruesome origins of the French Revolution and le 14 juillet, feel free to check out a blog post I wrote about it. The most common 14 juillet celebrations today are fireworks displays, which are put on by many French cities and towns.

Most French people have five weeks of vacation time, which they tend to spread out over the course of the year, but summer is when they tend to take the longest and most important trips. That’s why schools’ and other organizations’ summer breaks are often called les grandes vacances (literally, “the big vacation”)

It’s said that August is a time when things are dead in places like Paris, since so many people leave on vacation. It’s true that August is the most popular vacation month in France, but nearly as many people prefer to leave in July – and 31% of French people don’t go on vacation in the summer at all. 

So, if you visit France in August, especially if you’re in a major city or summer tourism area, you probably won’t find that the place has become a ghost town. That said, it can be harder or even impossible to make appointments with certain specialists, government workers, and so on.

Heatwaves and air conditioning phobia: How the French deal with summer heat

Nice city beach, France

Summer weather in France can be pretty variable, from unseasonably cold days, to heatwaves (la canicule). Sadly, due to global warming, canicules have become much more common, even over the past few years alone. 

Even when summer temperatures are at their seasonal average in France, though, you might find them hard to bear, depending on where you come from. This is because the French have an aversion to air conditioning, and even to electric and ceiling fans!

The French will very easily admit that hot weather can be hard to get through. But they prefer to use techniques like keeping their shutters drawn and airing out the house in cool morning weather or taking cold showers and eating cold meals, rather than relying on AC or a fan. 

The reason behind this may not be what you’re expecting. Sure, the French are motivated by ecology to some extent. And sure, home air conditioning units do exist here but aren’t cheap (a small one currently starts at around 150 euros). But the main reason most French people don’t have air conditioning or possibly even an electric fan in their house – or, if they do, they use them sparingly – is…they’re afraid of cold air.

Most French people consider air conditioning a source of sickness, whether due to the contrast of a cool or cold interior and hot outside air, or the idea of recirculated air in general. Fans are a source of courants d’air (drafts), which most French people are convinced will cause colds and sore throats.

Although extreme cold can cause certain illnesses, it’s pretty much scientific fact that a draft or breeze on a hot day cannot.  Still, most French people are unconvinced. Even my French husband who, to my utter shock, insisted we buy an air conditioning unit a few hot summers ago, is wary of letting my son sleep with a fan in his room.  “He’ll get a sore throat!” he moans every time I turn it on in the stifling room.  

So far, my son has not had a cold or sore throat from sleeping with a fan blowing on him, and more importantly, he hasn’t suffered from heat exhaustion, stroke, or fever. 

Even if cold air did cause colds or sore throats, I can’t wrap my mind around why avoiding those usually mild conditions would take priority over avoiding overheating and all of the very serious conditions this could bring on. But that’s the way most French people think. Recently, during a heatwave, I was at a grocery store checkout line when the cashier sneezed. “It’s this air conditioning,” she grumbled. “I don’t know why they have to turn it on.” It was 33 degrees Celsius (91.4 degrees Fahrenheit) outside!

French people’s distrust of cold air in hot weather is a common complaint for visitors and residents from many other countries – especially Americans like me. I’ve spent significant time in places like Atlanta, Georgia, and various locations in Florida, where it regularly gets much hotter than a very hot day in France. But because air conditioning is just about everywhere in America – and it’s set to full-blast – you don’t really notice the outside temperature as much. In France, on the other hand, you have to learn strategies for keeping cool, and slog through the hot days.

This cultural difference makes for many amusing (and relatable) articles like this one. But there’s a darker side, too. That aversion to cool air can be lethal.

In August 2003, there was a two-week heatwave in France, with record high temperatures. Because of a lack of air conditioning even in places with vulnerable populations, like nursing homes, an estimated 14,000-20,000 people died

Let that sink in for a minute.

Up to 20,000 people died over two weeks, in temperatures that were high but not the highest on earth, because air conditioning and fans weren’t widespread or used by a majority of the population.

Some things have changed since then. For example, there are awareness campaigns and warnings when une canicule is coming, cool rooms in public places like city halls, and obligatory air-conditioned common rooms in nursing homes. But most French people are still at least a little bit wary when it comes to fans and air conditioning.

 How to dress like a French woman/man in the summer

In lieu of or in addition to relying on air conditioning, the French deal with the heat in a number of ways, including taking cold showers, drinking lots of water, splashing themselves with water or using a water mister (un brumisateur),keeping their shutters closed against the hot sun, and more. The way they dress can be another strategy.

You’ll see people wearing many different styles in France, from what you probably imagine when you picture a French person, to street or vintage or hippy clothes. Whatever the style, the general rule in hot weather is to favor light colors (making for a strange contrast from us Parisians’ usual “uniform” of blacks and grays), cotton, linen, and other light, natural fabrics, and light sneakers or sandals. People often wear hats or baseball caps, as well, especially children.

That being said, French people tend to wait until really hot weather to wear their absolute lightest clothing. I think it has to do with what I talked about before, that wariness of being cold. So, if you come to France in the summer, you’ll probably see people wearing sundresses and shorts, but you’ll also likely see at least a few others in long-sleeved blouses and trousers. Elderly French people often tend to stay covered up, as well, especially men. I know several older Frenchmen who wear a suit pretty much year-round. This isn’t for professional reasons; they’ve been retired for decades. It just goes back to another era, I guess. But I can’t understand how they don’t transform into a puddle of sweat.

One thing that you can be pretty sure of is that an overwhelming majority of French people don’t wear flip-flops. There are some exceptions, especially among younger kids who like streetwear and/or American culture. But in general, flip-flops are rare here, and until recently, even looked down upon as impractical and inelegant.

Still, if you come to France in the summer, your priority should be to enjoy the sites and culture, not to look like a native. So if you feel most comfortable in flip-flips and want to dress light even if it’s only in the low 20’s (high 60’s to low 70’s Fahrenheit), go for it. Don’t get overheated or uncomfortable and ruin your trip or stay.  

Well, maybe swap out flip-flops for more elegant summer footwear if you’re attending a formal event or meeting a client, celebrity, or other figure you want to show respect towards. 

One thing you should note, though, is that many churches frown upon mini-skirts and very short shorts, as well as plunging cleavage and uncovered shoulders. In general, French churches aren’t as policed as ones in places like Italy, so you may be able to get in regardless of how you’re dressed, but just so you’re sure not to miss out on admiring their beautiful architecture and artwork, if you’re not covered in those areas, make sure to bring a shawl or poncho that you can slip on over your clothes.    

French summer foods

salade niçoise

As befits the French love of food, certain meals are another way the French keep cool in summer. In very hot weather, French  people will tend to eat cold foods that don’t have to be heated or cooked, like salads (des salades) that are filling all the same (for example, a recent meal I had with French friends involved a huge salad made up of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, shallots, mozzarella cheese, and olives, with cold cuts (charcuterie) and baguette on the side) , caprice (tomate-mozza), and avocados sliced in half and pitted, then topped with canned tuna and mayonnaise (un avocat au thon) or shrimp (often in a mayonnaise-based sauce) (un avocat crevettes), to name a few popular choices. 

And of course, fruit is always a favorite. While the iconic summer fruit in America is probably watermelon, in France it’s le melon. This word stands in for various regional varieties of melon. The most famous is from the Charente-Maritime region. Most melons taste similar to cantaloupe.  

Eating ice cream is another great way to keep cool. Ice cream stands can be found just about anywhere people are doing outdoor activities in France, and you can also find lots of different varieties of ice cream and sorbets in French grocery stores, not to mention frozen food chains like Picard (this particular ice cream flavor is my personal favorite – it is amazingly delicious).

Italian ice drinks, also known as slushees or icees, are called granités in France. They’re somewhat popular in the summer, but they can be very pricey, especially when you consider they’re often sold in small cups, not the huge goblets you get at gas stations in the US.   

Despite the wide selection of cold desserts, most French people tend not to overindulge. As I’ve written before, regardless of the delicious pastries and other sugary delights here, the French seem to prefer savory over sweet.

When it comes to drinks, water is the go-to in very hot weather. But remember that most French people – and French restaurants – don’t put ice in drinks, so if you want ice water, you should ask for de l’eau avec des glaçons, s’il vous plait. (Water with ice cubes, please.)

An alternative to water that’s great for kids as well as adults with a sweet tooth (like me) is cold bottled water with a flavored syrup added to it. You can read more about that here

If you want something with a bit more of a buzz, a cold glass of white or rosé wine is a popular choice in the south of France, while a cold beer is a favorite in the north. 

There are, of course, lots of other cold drinks that you can enjoy in France, from une limonade (a carbonated beverage that tastes a bit like Sprite or 7-UP), to a range of cocktails (here’s a list of the French’s favorites).

How can you learn French during the summer?

Maybe summer means you’re on vacation from school or have more free time in general. This may mean you’re looking for a way to up the ante on your French learning. There are lots of ways to do this.

One option that many people consider is taking summer courses in France. An online search should help you find the right one for you. Remember to consider your budget, what’s included in the price (just lessons, or accommodations and other benefits like excursions, as well?), the timing, and other important factors, like whether or not it’s an immersive French language program. If you’re not sure about what’s important, an online search for “how to choose the best French summer program for me” will result in a bevy of helpful articles (just be sure none of them have the ulterior motive of trying to sell you their specific courses).

But what if you don’t have the time or budget to take summer courses in France?  Don’t worry! There are other ways you can practice and perfect your French. 

For one thing, see if there are local French learning programs at universities, schools, and French organizations near you.

You can also opt for personalized French tutoring sessions. Check out websites, community message boards, and printed-out job ads at schools and community gathering spots to find a local French tutor. Ideally, they should be a native speaker.  

An online French tutor is another option. One of the advantages of this is that the tutor is more likely to be a native speaker, since the distance from your house to France doesn’t matter. Another good thing: You don’t have to worry about issues like transportation problems, a noisy meeting place, etc.

Whether or not you opt for face-to-face French lessons this summer, don’t forget that there are also lots of online French learning platforms and courses that can help you boost your French skills, too (including the French Together course). These can be used on their own, combined, or along with lessons, to really give you an edge on all things French. 

And one word of advice: Whether you go the distance, by signing up for a summer French immersion course, or use online resources to practice and learn, it’s your desire to learn and your curiosity that will give you an important edge. You could be in a total immersion course in France, but if you’re too tired or distracted, you may not learn as much as someone who’s doing online tutoring or using language learning platforms and is super-motivated back at home. 

I say this from personal experience. I wasn’t able to do immersion programs, and when I studied abroad, many of my classes were still in English. And yet, because I loved French and wanted to learn, I used all the other resources available to me and voilà – I’m a fluent French-speaker today. Well, okay, voilà is kind of a simple stand-in for years of work, but hopefully you get the point.

With that in mind, I’ll leave you with a famous French quotation about summer (sort of) by Albert Camus: Au milieu de l’hiver, j’apprenais enfin qu’il y avait en moi un été invincible. (In the middle of winter, I learned at last that within me there was an invincible summer.)

Alysa Salzberg
Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

2 thoughts on “The Local’s Guide to Enjoying and Talking About the French Summer”

  1. J’ai aimé lire votre critique. Cela correspond tout à fait à ma propre expérience et m’a rappelé de beaux souvenirs. Merci ! Une chose que j’ai apprise à la dure: lorsque je voyage en été, je vérifais toujours si l’hébergement prévu dispose de la climatisation ou, du moins, de ventilateurs et de fenêtres accessibles.

    Reply
  2. J’ai aimé lire votre critique. Cela correspond tout à fait à ma propre expérience et m’a rappelé de beaux souvenirs. Merci ! Une chose que j’ai apprise à la dure: lorsque je voyage en été, je vérifais toujours si l’hébergement prévu dispose de la climatisation ou, du moins, de ventilateurs et de fenêtres accessibles.

    Reply

Leave a Comment