Outside France you might know the baguette as a 'french stick'. It is a loaf of bread, up to a metre long but only about four - five centimetres in diameter. See Make French Bread for recipes to try at home.
The baguette (and French bread in general) is a staple food, and the baguette is a veritable symbol of France.
Baguettes are perfect for sandwiches - cut a baguette in half, then slice each half along the middle, and are also eaten for breakfast (usually with jam or chocolate spread). If you dunk your chocolate-spread covered slice of baguette in your bowl (not mug) of hot chocolate, you will be close to the French experience!
A loaf the same length as a baguette but thicker (about 8-10 centimetres diameter) is known as a 'pain' and a thin version of the baguette is known as a 'ficelle'. It is 'pain' that is more usually served in restaurants, or one of the larger types of loaf available.
Even within France there is a very big difference between a traditional baguette and a 'supermarket' baguette.
Try if at all possible to track down a local baker that makes the former. It is hard to describe the difference visually, but the traditional loaf will smell much more strongly of bread, the crust will tend to be darker, the interior is cream colour rather than white and the interior texture is much less consistent. The former is infinitely more pleasurable than the latter!
Associated bread recipes
(For something for the children or other ways to use French bread try perhaps French bread pudding, french bread pizza or Grilled coconut bread but please don't complain if you think they aren't very French!)
History of the French baguette
The baguette is a derivative of the bread developed in Vienna in the middle of the 19th century. At that stage steam ovens had just been brought into use, enabling loaves to be made with a crisp crust and the white centre, similar to todays baguettes. Long Then in 1920 a law was passed preventing bakers from working before 4am. This made it impossible to make the traditional loaf in time for customers' breakfasts. The longer, thinner baguette solved the problem because it could be prepared and baked much more rapidly.
Note: by sheer good fortune we live 500 metres from, what I am reliably informed, is one of only six bakers in the whole of France still in existence from before the Revolution and still using the same techniques. True or not I don't know, but their bread puts all other bread to shame. And their biggest loaf, ('gros batard', I think!) sits in the centre of a dinner table with all the presence (and size) of a roasted turkey.