Useful Words and Sentences to Ask Directions the Right Way in French

Navigating any place can be quite difficult, especially if you are directionally challenged. I often felt that way in New York when I would emerge from the subway at 43rd Street and not know which way 42nd Street was. I felt the same way in Paris when I would get off of a bus in the middle of a winding street and not be entirely sure which way to walk. In such cases, it is useful to be able to ask for directions. I am aware that people navigate with devices and that these devices can be quite helpful. They can also be lost, stolen, or defunct, and so it still helps to be able to ask passersby where things are located and how to get there.

Useful Words When Asking for Directions in French

Below are vocabulary words and sentences that are useful when asking for directions in French. We will begin with words that help with navigation and positioning and then proceed to vocabulary related to movement and location. Finally, we will put all of these together with sentences that are useful when asking for directions.

Adverbs

à droite to the right
à gauche to the left
tout droit straight ahead
au centre at the center (of)
à l’est to the east
à l’ouest to the west
au nord to the north
au sud to the south
loin far
près close
tout près cery close

Some people wonder about the difference between the words près and proche. In many cases they are interchangeable, although it is useful to remember that près is an adverb, rendering it invariable, while proche is an adjective, rendering it variable in gender and number. Près also tends to be used to express spatial proximity, while proche tends to be used to express affective, mental, or intellectual proximity. You could say “Le jardin est près du musée” and “Les deux amies sont très proches’’. You could also say “Les deux amies sont près l’une de l’autre”, if they are standing near each other, for instance.

If you’ve studied ballet, some of the following will look very familiar.

Prépositions

en l’air in the air, aloft
en arrière backward
en avant ahead; forward
en bas below
dans in
derrière behind
devant in front of
en haut above
par terre on the ground, on the floor

Verbs

aller to go
s’en aller to leave, go away, depart
avancer to go forward
chercher to look for
conduire to drive
continuer to continue
découvrir to discover
démarrer to start up
se diriger vers to head for, in the direction of
freiner to brake
garer to park
marcher to walk
perdre to lose
se perdre to lose oneself; to get lost
se promener to walk, go for a walk
reculer to back up
repérer to locate, identify, spot
se trouver to be; to be located, situated; to be found

Noms

l’aéroport airport
l’autoroute highway, freeway
la banque bank
le bistro bistro
le bureau de change money exchange, bureau de change
le café cafe
le carrefour crossroad, junction, intersection
la cathédrale cathedral
le centre-ville downtown, city center
le cinéma cinema
la cité universitaire university residence
le commissariat police station, precinct
l’école school
le funiculaire funicular (railway)
la galerie gallery
l’hôtel hotel
l’intersection intersection
le jardin garden
le magasin stroe
le métro subway
le musée museum
le parc park
le parking parking lot
la piscine swimming pool
la plage beach
la rue à sens unique one-way street
la supérette grocery, convenience store
le (bureau de) tabac the tobacco shop
le trottoir pavement, sidewalk
le théâtre theater

Useful Sentences When Asking for Directions in French

You can use the above words in phrases such as these below when asking for directions:

Où se trouve le parc ? Where is the park?
Où est la gare ? Where is the train station?
Comment est-ce que je pourrais aller au musée ? How would I be able to get to the museum?
Est-ce que c’est loin ? Is it far?
Est-ce que c’est près d’ici ? Is it nearby?
Est-ce que je pourrais y aller à pied ? Could I get there on foot?
Quel est le meilleur site à visiter ? What's the best site to visit?
Pourriez-vous nous recommander un bon restaurant ? Could you recommend a good restaurant (to us)?
Où sont les toilettes ? Where is the washroom?
Quelle est la route la plus rapide pour se rendre de l’hôtel à la plage ? What is the fastest way to get from the hotel to the beach?
Est-ce que la cathédrale est à l’est du parc ? Is the cathedral to the east of the park?
Est-ce une rue à sens unique ? Is this a one-way street?

When being given directions, you might hear:

Tournez à droite au carrefour. Turn right at the intersection.
Continuez tout droit. Continue straight ahead.
Le théâtre est à deux rues d’ici. The theater is two blocks (away) from here.
Le commissariat est à trois kilomètres d’ici. The police station is two kilometers from here.
Vous pouvez traverser le parc pour aller au restaurant. You can cross the park to go to the restaurant.
La fontaine est au centre du parc. The fountain is in the center of the park.
Vous pouvez garer la voiture dans le parking. You can park your car in the parking lot.
On peut prendre le funiculaire pour monter cette colline. We can take the funicular to go up this hill.
Le tabac est devant le restaurant. The tobacco shop is in front of the restaurant.
Les toilettes sont en bas. The washroom is downstairs.
La piscine est dans le parc. The swimming pool is in the park.
L’entrée du musée est facile à repérer. The museum’s entrance is easy to spot.
L’arbre est au coin de la rue. The tree is at the street corner.

The above sentences are models for ways in which you can ask for things. The directions you ask for will, of course, differ depending on circumstance. For instance, rather than asking if the cathedral in one of the sentences above is to the east of the park, you may want to ask whether it is located to the west. In this case, substitute “à l’ouest” for “à l’est” in the example that is given.

To describe position, the verb être is used quite a bit, e.g., “La fontaine est au centre du parc”, “Est-ce que c’est loin ?”, and “Les toilettes sont en bas”. This reflects the idea of attributing a position to something, in a manner that is descriptive.

The French word for washroom (toilettes) is plural, and verbs for which it is a subject must correspond. This means that to describe a washroom’s position, you would use the third person plural conjugation of être, as we see above. Its synonym, W.C., or waters, is also used in the plural.

In English, the word block is used to mark off sections of a city or town between streets. We say, “Walk two blocks to get to the grocery” or “The subway is three blocks from here”. In French, we tend to use the word rue, which translates into English as street, to measure this distance. You will notice that in France many streets do not follow a grid and that the sections marked off by intersections are a lot less block-like. Although we often use the word rue to measure distances in cities, we can also use pâtés de maisons, and so could translate the first sentence above as “Marchez trois pâtés de maisons pour aller à la supérette”. The second sentence can easily be translated using the word rue, i.e., “Le métro est à trois rues d’ici”.

A bureau de tabac or, simply, a tabac is translated into English as tobacco shop, but it sells much more than tobacco. It is possible to not even realize where its name comes from because there are so many other reasons to go to a tabac, such as to buy newspapers, magazines, stamps, or chocolate bars. Some tabacs even have counters where you can drink coffee, although these are often referred to as cafés-tabacs.

Happy navigation and do not hesitate to ask for directions. I’ve found people in large cities as well as small towns to be very helpful to people who are visiting. If you wonder whether the people walking past live in the area, chances are that if they are walking a dog, they are local. I also notice that when people ask me for directions, there are often two or three other people who are eager to help the person asking, so if anything, you may have too many people who are willing to help out rather than the opposite.


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