Travel to France Online: the Best DIY Virtual Tours of French Landmarks
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Here's my wanderlusty guide to the best virtual tours of important landmarks and museums in France.
Do you wish you were in France right now? Or do you dream of France, but just can't afford to go? Or maybe you just need some destination or cultural inspiration to cure cabin fever?
Well, there's a fix. Now, you can virtually tour many of France's must see sites online, right from the comfort of your couch or computer. You can visit stunning landmarks, monuments from ancient Rome, beautiful chateaus, art-filled museums, UNESCO sites, and more. Ooh la la!
With the click of a mouse, you'll be transported to the City of Light. Grab some wine and cheese, preferably of French vintage. Let's tour France virtually. Allons-y!
The Best Virtual Tours of French Landmarks and Museums for Wanderlust and Cabin Fever
1. Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy
Mont Saint-Michel is one of France's most visited landmarks, dedicated to the Archangel St. Michael. It's a breathtaking Gothic fortress-style island commune rising dramatically from the bay. Both the rock top abbey and the cobbled alleys will leave you in a medieval state of mind.
The star attraction is the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel. It was settled in 996 by Bendictine monks. For 1,200 years, it's been a Christian pilgrimage site. The abbey is a mix of architectural styles, with religion and military overtones.
Now, you can enjoy this mystic place without being swamped by adoring crowds. There are stories and over 270 images of this iconic landmark on Google Arts & Culture. You can take this virtual tour, powered by Google Street View or tour the island abbey through HistoryView’s VR field trip.
2. Palace of Versailles, Versailles
The Palace of Versailles is massive, flashy, and very, very gold. The opulence is overwhelming. Even the bathrooms are gold plated. It's the most famous and popular day trip from Paris. It's been a UNESCO site since 1979.
The Sun King Louis XIV transformed his father’s hunting lodge into a monumental palace in the mid 17th century. Located in the quaint suburb of Versailles, the Baroque palace was France's political capital and royal seat from 1682 until October 5, 1789.
Now you can explore the palace virtually on Google Arts & Culture or check out its Facebook page for photos. You can go outside and inside for a birds's eye view. And admire the famous Hall of Mirrors. Versailles 3D, created by Google, also gives you an impressive tour.
If you'd like to go behind the scenes and visit the filming locations for the BBC's TV series Versailles, here's my guide.
3. Pierrefonds Castle, Pierrefonds
In 1857, Napoleon III hired the famed architect Viollet-le-Duc to rebuild the romantic ruins of Pierrefonds Castle. The ruins have been captured by many artist, including Camille Corot. Napoleon III longed for a lavish castle, fit for a king and evoking a medieval fantasy.
Inspired by Coucy Castle, one of my favorite French ruins, Viollet-le-Duc wanted to maintain an equilibrium between fortified palace with beautiful state rooms and a residence. The rooms are recreated in vibrant rich colors as they would have appeared in the Middle Ages, with medieval motifs like St. George and the Dragon.
Here's my complete guide to Pierrefonds Castle. Here's a 360 virtual tour of Pierrefonds. And you can also explore the castle on its official website.
4. Chateau de Fontainebleau, Loire Valley
Chateau Fontainebleau is ravishing a UNESCO site. The rambling chateau boasts 800 years of royal patronage. The NYT calls Fontainbleau "the single greatest assemblage over time of French architecture and decor still in its original state." It's a rare royal residence that escaped from the war time ravages of the French Revolution.
Francois I is most associated with Fontainebleau and he significantly expanded it. The highlights are the Royal Apartments, Marie Antoinette's boudoirs (Turkish Bedroom and the Silver Bedroom), the Papal Apartment, and the grand Francoise I Gallery.
You can virtually tour Chateau Fontainebleau on Google Arts & Culture. Here's a 360 tour on YouTube from the chateau's official website and this Youtube video gives you the full scoop on the history and architecture of the magical chateau.
5. Chateau de Chenonceau, Loire Valley
Built in the 16th century, the Chateau de Chenonceau is the most famous and romantic of the Loire Valley chateaus. It spans the River Cher with picturesque palace arches for boats to glide under. Chenonceau housed and was influenced by many famous women over the centuries -- Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de' Medici, and Louise Dupin. It's nicknamed the "Ladies Chateau."
Highlights of the meticulously maintained chateau are the lavishly decorated ceilings, the ornate chapel, the Grand Gallery, the bedroom of Diane de Poitiers, and the Medici Gallery (now a museum).
Chenonceau has partnered with Google Arts & Culture. So you take a virtual tour and read stories of the historic chateau. Or take this virtual tour.
6. Chateau de Chambord, Loire Valley
Chambord is the big daddy of Loire valley chateaus. Building started on this massive Renaissance chateau in 1519. Commissioned by Francois I, a lowly hunting lodge was transformed into a monument to royalty and royal sport. It's rumored that Leonardo da Vinci influenced some of the chateau's architectural elements.
The chateau is laid out as a keep in the shape of a cross with four towers, two wings, and over 400 rooms. The highlight is its mind boggling double helix staircase. Twin staircases intertwine without actually touching. The rooftop offers breathtaking views over the valley.
You can explore Chambord virtually on Google Arts & Culture. Click on the images to discover more information. You can also take a virtual 360 tour on the Chambord website.
7. Etretat Cliffs, Normandy
Sleepy Etretat is a classic old world French town on the north coast of France. Etretat is unique in that it boasts mesmerizing scenery. Etretat is set on the sea. Waves crash against the shores of a jagged chalky coastline with arches jutting out. Its beauty inspired artists like the revered Claude Monet and Henri Matisse.
The best way to admire the seascape is to walk along the cliffs. But if you can't be there in person, you can take a YouTube boat tour to see the cliffs or explore them here. You can also see paintings of Etretat on Google Arts & Culture.
8. Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, Champagne Region
With or without a glass of champagne, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims is one of Europe's greatest cathedrals. Some experts think it's France's most beautiful cathedral, surpassing even Notre Dame de Paris.
It was built over 60 years, beginning in 1211. The ornate western portal is distinctive for its beauty, unity, and harmony. Inside, there's a towering 500 foot nave. You're greeted by a wall of 52 intricately carved statues. In the apse behind the ornate altar, you'll see the catastrophically beautiful stained glass windows created by the famed French painter Marc Chagall in 1974.
You can take a 360 tour here or follow the cathedral's social media feed on its official website here. Smarthistory also offers an excellent guided tour, giving you the full scoop on every detail of the famed cathedral.
9. Pont du Gard, Occitanie
The mighty Pont du Gard is a surviving scrap of a Roman aqueduct that's a UNESCO site. The aqueduct was an engineering marvel that originally took water from Uzès to Nimes. The aqueduct soars over the Gardon River and its dramatic gorge.
The aqueduct is massive, despite taking only 5 years to build. The bridge is 48.8 meters high, 275 meters long, and sports 52 arches. Pont du Gard was the highest aqueduct in the Roman Empire. There are three tiers of arches, one on top of the other.
Pont du Gard has partnered with Google Arts & Culture. You can see online exhibits, read stories, or see images of the grand UNESCO site. The Pont du Gard also offers a 360 virtual tour its site.
10. The Pope's Palace, Avignon
News Blast! The popes haven't always lived in Vatican City. I had long forgotten this little factoid until I was plotting an itinerary for my recent southern France trip. From 1309-77, the popes lived in the enchanting riverside town of Avignon, rather than in Rome. That period was called the "Avignon Papacy."
Built in 1335-52, the Pope's Palace is the largest Gothic building in western Europe. The imposing facade resembles medieval fortified churches. You can gasp at the Pope’s private apartments, frescoes, and the soaring chapel. And see what it actually looked like in the 14th century on a histopad, if you're there in person.
The Pope's Palace is the 10th most visited site in France. If you can't be in France, you can tour the palace on YouTube here and there are plenty of photos on the official website.
11. Roman Monuments, Arles
Arles is a fantastic and underrated UNESCO town in Provence. And it's a veritable playground of ancient UNESCO-listed Roman ruins.
You'll find the massive Amphitheater (inspired by Rome's Colosseum) a Roman Theater, and Constantine's Baths. You can also stroll through Les Alyscamps, a famous tree-lined Roman necropolis a short distance outside the walls of the old town that dates from 241 B.C.
Arles is also associated artist Vincent Van Gogh, the Post-Impressionist genius who changed the art world. He was maniacally prolific in Arles and loved its sun-drenched light.
Here's my complete guide to visiting Arles. You can tour Arles on Google Arts & Culture and read about the art that Van Gogh produced there. Or watch a YouTube video of the impressive amphitheater.
12. Arena of Nimes, Nimes
The town of Nimes was founded as a Roman colony in the 1st century B.C. Nime's centerpiece, and key reason for visiting, is its fantastic Roman arena.
The 20,000 seat Arènes de Nîmes was built in 70 A.D. It's a perfectly symmetrical two level stadium. When first built, the arena hosted gladiator fights, animal chases, and even (shudder) executions. The walls had ingenious features, like trap doors and lifts for "performers." It looks great for its age and, nowadays, hosts bullfights and concerts.
13. The Antique Theater of Orange, Orange
Orange has both a Roman triumphal arch and the spectacular ruins of a Roman Theater you'll just love. Because of their historical importance, they're both designated UNESCO sites. There's also ongoing excavations of a Roman temple near the theater.
Louis XIV called the Orange Theater "the finest wall in my kingdom." Indeed, it's one of the greatest ancient Roman sites in all of Europe. For four centuries, it was the main entertainment venue of Roman Orange. There's a large statue of Emperor Augustus center stage, just to remind you of his importance.
You can take a virtual tour on the theater website or here on YouTube. Here's a YouTube video of the triumphal arch.
14. The Fortified City of Carcassonne
Magical Carcassonne takes your breath away. It's a 13th century fantasy world of towers, spiky turrets, stout walls, winding alleys, and moats. It's a medieval junkie's dream city on steroids. As British writer Anthony Horowitz said much more poetically than me, "In no other city I've visited does history feel so alive."
Carcassonne has a double row of fortified walls stretching nearly 2 miles with 52 watch towers, each one crowned with fantastical “witch hat” turrets. The medieval streets are fairytale perfect. Not surprisingly, Carcassonne was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List list in 1997.
You can take a 360 virtual tour of Carcassonne or check it out on YouTube here. Here's my complete guide to the beautiful UNESCO town.
15. Albi Cathedral and the Berbie Palace, Albi
Albi is a serious town, with a weighty history, a wondrous must see destination in southwest France. Albi was listed as a UNESCO site in 2010 and is a strangely affecting place, despite the weight of its past or perhaps because of it.
Albi has two truly imposing citadels, the Albi Cathedral and the Berbie Palace, that are UNESCO-listed. The mighty Saint Cecilia Cathedral is a 13th century masterpiece of southern Gothic style. The Berbie Palace houses the Toulouse- Lautrec Museum, a fantastic single artist museum.
You can tour the episcopal city of Albi on Google Arts and Culture, which has images, stories, and virtual tours on Google Street view. You can also take a virtual 360 tour here.
Here's my complete guide to visiting the underrated city of Albi and my guide to visiting the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum. You can also check out Toulouse-Lautrec paintings on Google Arts & Culture, with almost 700 images.
16. Paris Catacombs, Paris
The Catacombs is Paris' "Empire of Death,” a 200 mile honeycomb of tunnels. The system is so enormous that no one knows exactly how many tunnels or chambers exist. The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables' Jean Valjean both haunted these tunnels. During WWII, the French Resistance used the tunnels to hide.
With cemeteries in Paris overflowing, a portion of the tunnels were turned into an ossuary for human remains. At first, bones were haphazardly deposited. Eventually, they were organized and systematically displayed.
Now, housebound horror fans can get their fix of Parisian gore. Check out this virtual Catacombs tour. This virtual tour gets you even closer.
17. Les Invalides Complex, Paris
Les Invalides is a complex of buildings in the 7th arrondissement. It includes: (1) the royal chapel, known as the Cathedral of St. Louis des Invalides, with its iconic golden dome; (2) the Musee de l'Armee, and (3) Napoleon's Tomb.
The cathedral was Paris' tallest building until the Eiffel Tower was erected in1887. It's definitely one of Paris' must see churches.