Ultimate Guide To Historic Landmarks and Monuments in France
Planning a trip to France and need some destination inspiration?
In this France travel guide, I describe 40+ of the best must see landmarks and monuments, for your bucket list or France itinerary. From the glitter and glitz of Versailles to ancient Roman ruins, you can travel through France soaking up culture along the way.
France is a gorgeous country, a heady mix of glamorous chateaux, historic landmarks, massive cathedrals, and iconic museums. France is at the forefront of architecture, art, and culture. The country attracts over 90 million visitors a year. It's the world's most visited country.
Why? Because there are so many amazing things to see and do in France.
Many of these must see landmarks in France are UNESCO World Heritages sites or designated historic monuments. They could be weekend getaways or mini-vacations in and of themselves. These landmarks can also be combined to create a customized road trip or itinerary for France.
43 Must See Historic Landmarks and Monuments in France
Here's my picks for the must see landmarks in France, in alphabetical order for ease.
1. Abbey of Fontenay
Founded in 1118 and enshrined as a UNESCO site, Fontenay Abbey is the world's best preserved Cistercian abbey. Founded by Bernard of Clairvaux, the abbey is virtually untouched by the outside world.
The abbey offers a fascinating glimpse of the austere (yet serene) surroundings of the Cistercian monks, who led lives of asceticism, poverty, contemplation, and manual labour. Pray and work was their motto. At the time, the monks were a great counterpoint to the excesses of the catholic church.
Set in a bucolic lush valley beside a tranquil stream, the restored monastery is a masterpiece of medieval monastic architecture. The complex includes an unadorned Romanesque church and a barrel-vaulted monks' dormitory. You'll even find Europe's earliest metallurgical forge -- complete with a working reconstruction of the actual hydraulic hammer used by 13th century monks.
Inside, the walls are plain. The only pop of color is in the rounded arches and capitals. Don't forget to take a stroll in the pretty garden.
2. 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 has two truly imposing citadels, the Albi Cathedral and the Berbie Palace, that are both UNESCO-listed.
The mighty Saint Cecilia Cathedral is a 13th century masterpiece of southern Gothic style. It is a place of superlatives both inside and out. The cathedral appears more fortress than church.
Located on Place Sainte-Cécile, Albi Cathedral is knicknamed the "crucible of faith." It's one of the largest brick structures in the world. The cathedral has a stern unadorned exterior, befitting a symbolic threat, and a 78 meter tiered bell tower. The interior is serenely blue and gold.
Like Albi Cathedral, the 800 year old Berbie Palace is an all brick affair with stout walls of extraordinary height and thickness. Aside from the Pope's Palace in Avignon, the Berbie Palace is one of the best preserved castles in France.
The palace was formerly the residence of the Albi's archbishops. Now, it's home to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, a world class single artist museum.
3. Amiens Cathedral, Picardy Region
The 13th century Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens is the tallest Gothic church and largest cathedral in France. It's an 800 year old UNESCO-listed icon of French Gothic architecture. It packs a punch.
The enormous cathedral is known for the beauty and harmony of its architecture and art. It has a triple portal facade similar to Reims Cathedral. The central door is flanked with statues of the apostles. The facade has been recently cleaned and appears quite white.
Inside, the stone vaulted nave reaches 42 meters. According to locals, the volume is double that of Paris' Notre Dame. Most of the glass is clear, as the windows were blown out during the world wars. But that means the church is flooded with natural light.
You walk through the "labyrinth," a typical medieval church feature. A black line leads you to the center, which represents paradise. You may have to wait in line to secure paradise. While inside, admire the 16th century choir, with wood carved stalls and over 4,000 figures.
4. Antique Theater of Orange, Occitanie
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 so well-preserved, the theater is 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.
5. Arc de Triomphe, Paris
The Arc de Triomphe, officially titled the L’Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, was inaugurated in 1836. Napoleon commissioned the ceremonial structure following his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz.
The Arc de Triomphe is the centerpiece of a roundabout with 12 avenues. Beneath the arch lies the flame and tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The top of the Arc de Triomphe offers amazing 360 views over Paris.
6. 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.
7. Basilica-Cathedral of Saint-Denis, Paris
Just outside the Paris city limits lies a completely overlooked hidden gem, the fantastic and underrated Basilica Cathedral de Saint-Denis. It's a French national treasure.
Saint-Denis is the birthplace of Gothic architecture. It heralds Europe's transition from a clunky Romanesque style to a more elegant Gothic one. It's one of the most historic and religiously important buildings in Paris. And it's essentially a museum of monumental French religious sculpture.
As the world's first Gothic church, the basilica is even on the tentative UNESCO list. If it still had its north tower, it might be already. Click here for my complete guide to visiting Saint-Denis.
8. Basilica of Saint-Sernin, Toulouse
The Basilica of Saint-Sernin is a magnificent well-preserved Romanesque basilica, and one of the greatest churches in France. It is Toulouse's most defining landmark and a must see site. Built between 1080 and 1120, the basilica is now a UNESCO site.
Saint-Sernin is a fine example of Romanesque architecture in the characteristic Toulousian red brick, designed in a crucifix. It has an octagonal bell tower with five layered tiers, capped by a spire.
The basilica is holy ground in Toulouse. The site is a shrine for the remains of its eponymous 4th century saint, housed in the inner part of the ambulatory.
Sernin was Toulouse's first saint. He met his death in gruesome fashion, when pagans tied him to a bull and dragged him down the Rue du Taur (the Street of the Bull) in 250 A.D.
9. Chartres Cathedral, Chartres
Chartres is famed for its massive 13th century Cathédrale Notre-Dame, designated a UNESCO site in 1979. Finished in 1220, the Gothic cathedral features 2 towering spires, flying buttresses, ornate sculptures, a 16th century astrological clock, relics, and elaborate rose windows -- all you'd expect in an architectural wonder.
Interesting, however, the 2 steeples don't match. One's in the Gothic style and one's in a Romanesque style. The cathedral's south, west, and north entrances all boast ornate triple portals.
The cathedral's most stunning feature is its dramatically hued stained glass. Chartres has one of the best medieval collections of stained glass in the world. It's especially renowned for its "Chartes Blue" color tones.
The colorful windows survived the French Revolution and both world wars. During WWII, they were taken down and temporarily stored in the Church of Saint-Emilon. Scout out the Jesse Window, the Blue Virgin Window, the Noah Window, and the South Rose Window.
You can also climb 350 steps up the lacy north tower, known as Clocher Neuf. There, you can inspect the rooftop and the flying butresses.
10. 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. Decorated with ornate gold and stucco (and lots of angels), the gallery was created by Rosso Fiorentino.
11. 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).
12. Chateau de Chambord, Loire Valley
The Chateau de 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, relocated from Milan to France as a court artist, 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.
13. Chateau de Chaumont, Loire Valley
The beautiful Chateau de Chaumont combines a medieval facade with 19th century furnishings inside. Construction began circa 1465 and continued until 1510. The chateau has elaborate gardens and hosts a "Festival International des Jardins" in high season.
Catherine de Medici purchased the chateau after her husband Henry II died. There, she entertained various astrologers, including Nostradamus. In 1559, Catherine kicked Diane de Poitiers, Henry II's mistress, out of the Chateau de Chenonceau and gave her the fortress-like Chaumont instead. She also made Diane hand over the crown jewels Henry had given her.
In 1875, the heiress Princess de Broglie purchased and renovated the chateau. Rather high maintenance, she also had the entire village razed and rebuilt.
14. Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte, Maincy
Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte was Versailles before Versailles existed. Vaux-le-Vicomte is the prettiest privately owned chateau in France. When Princess Elizabeth visited in 1948, she pronunced it “more beautiful than Versailles!” Built between 1656-61, it's a fine example of French Baroque architecture with elaborate gold paneled halls.
In fact, Vaux-leVicomte was the inspiration for Versailles. The chateau was originally owned by the ill-fated Nicholas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s finance minister. In 1661, against his friends' advice, Fouquet invited the king and his entourage to a luxurious dinner reception.
Three weeks later, jealous of such grandeur, a peeved Louis XIV ordered Fouquet's arrest and seized the estate. He stole the exquisite statues and tapestries for Versailles. But otherwise left Vaux-le-Vicomte intact.
15. Chateau d'Amboise
The royal chateau of Amboise is a Renaissance jewel, with a taste of Italy and some medieval gargoyles thrown in for good measure. It features the Loire Valley's iconic gray slate cone-shaped rooftops. Designed by Italian master masons, Chateau d'Amboise is known as the “First Italianate Palace in France.”
Chateau d'Amboise is perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the town of Amboise. The chateau was the childhood home of luminaries such as King Charles VIII, Francois I, and Mary Queen of Scots.
At the invitation of Francois, Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci was a guest at the chateau. Da Vinci lived and worked at his own Amboise home, Close Luce. It was connected to the chateau by an underground tunnel.
Leonardo brought some of his favorite paintings along with him to Amboise -- Sainte Anne, and a special little piece called the Mona Lisa. Da Vinci is buried in the chateau's Chapelle St-Hubert, also called, naturally, the Da Vinci Chapel.
16. Chateau de Monte-Cristo, Le Port Marley
Literature lovers will adore the swishy pleasure house of the famed novelist Alexandre Dumas. In 1847, with characteristic panache and elan, Dumas unveiled a dashing new estate to his coterie of friends and fans. It was one of the greatest architectural follies of its time -- a miniature Renaissance chateau and a Gothic house set in Le Port-Marly outside Paris.
Naturally, Dumas christened the chateau the "Chateau de Monte-Cristo" and the Gothic house the "Chateau D'If." The novelist Honore de Balzac described the duo as “one of the most delicious follies ever created … the most royal sweetbox in existence.”
The Chateau de Monte-Cristo is now a house museum dedicated to Dumas' life and novels. Click here for my complete guide to visiting the Chateau de Monte-Cristo.
17. Chateau de Coucy, Coucy-le-Chateau-Affrique
If you fancy a romantic ruined chateau, the Chateau de Coucy is perfect. The Chateau was the home of Enguerrand de Coucy VII, the star of Barbara Tuchman's magnificent novel The Distant Mirror. Chateau de Coucy was the greatest castle of the middle ages.
During its heyday, the chateau was famous for the size of its donjon and the pride of the Coucy lords. They had a bold motto, which translates to "I am not king, nor prince nor duke nor count; I am the Lord of Coucy."
In 1400, after Enguerrand's death, the Duke of Orleans bought the chateau. In 1498, the chateau became Crown property. During the French Revolution, it was transformed into a prison.
Click here for my complete guide to visiting the magnificent ruins of Coucy.
18. Chateau de Vincennes, Vincennes
Lying in the eastern suburbs of Paris is the 14th century Chateau de Vincennes. The chateau began life as as a royal hunting lodge in the 12th century. During the 13th century, the lodge was transformed into a larger, palatial estate for the French kings.
In the 14th century, the venerable building you see today was reconstructed, renovated, and modernized. It became the primary royal seat until Versailles was completed. When the 52 foot Donjon was added, Chateau de Vincennes became the tallest medieval fortified structure in Europe.
The chateau is wholly intact with a keep, dungeon, moat, and fortified concentric walls.
19. Conciergerie, Paris
The Conciergerie fortress was Maire Antoinette's gloomy prison after her arrest. It was built in the 6th century. I think it's one of Paris' hidden gems. It was the residence of Clovis, the first King of France, and used to be a royal palace. Today's version of the Conciergerie dates from 1200.
In the 14th century, the kings and queens of France abandoned the gloomy Gothic palace and decamped for brighter digs. When King Charles V, the last royal resident, moved out, he appointed the first "Concierge" and renamed the building La Conciergerie.
The Concierge oversaw the police and supervised the prisons. During the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution, "enemies of the people" were imprisoned without trial and duly "sentenced." The verdict was either innocent or death, no murky middle ground.
The Conciergerie became the "antechamber of the guillotine," the last stop before people were marched to the Place de la Concorde and decapitated. Its stunning and atmospheric vaulted ceiling in the Hall of Soldiers, the Salon des gens d’armes, was declared a UNESCO site in 2006.
20. Eiffel Tower, Paris
The Eiffel Tower is Paris' iconic landmark. It was built for the World Fair in 1889 in record construction time, and considered an engineering marvel. At the time, it was the world's tallest building.
Originally, the Eiffel was meant to be a temporary exhibit, the main showpiece for the World Fair. There are several viewing platforms. In 2014, a glass floor was added to the first floor. At night, there's a light show.
21. Fortified City of Carcassonne, 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 in 1997.
The citadel includes the Château Comtal, the central castle of the upper town dating from the 12th century with an amazing 31 towers. Cast your eyes to the roofline so you don't miss the gargoyles. The Basilica of Saints Nazaire (Carcassonne's main church) also has lovely 12th century stained glass and stonework.
For the full scoop on this dreamy UNESO town, read my complete guide.
22. Laon Cathedral, Aisne Region
Laon is an ancient medieval village perched high on a limestone rock. Its crowning glory is the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon (pronounced Lon). The cathedral can be seen from miles away.
Constructed between 1160-1230, Laon Cathedral is one of the oldest Gothic cathedrals in France, pre-dating even the Notre Dame in Paris.
It's known for its six imposing towers and as a key stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago in Spain. It's a musty, dusty, and ancient affair, unspoiled by modernity or excess adornment, and with little of the elegance of its Parisian counterpart.
Perhaps what most enchanted me, and what sets Laon Cathedral apart from its other Notre Dame siblings, is the nature of the adornment that does exist. There's a veritable farm on the upper towers -- 16 oxen in total. Local legend holds that the sculptures are a tribute to the animals who hefted the granite up the steep hill.
23. Les Baux de Provence, Provence
Les Baux is a popular Provencal spot, located in the heart of the Apilles Mountains and perched on a cliff. Les Baux is home to a great medieval fortress-castle, the Chateau de Baux. It's now mostly in ruins, but the historic stone slabs are very atmospheric. Perfect for ruin lusters.
And the ruins remind you that Les Baux once fended off maraunding bands of medieval villains. The fortress was eventually destroyed by Cardinal Richelieu in the 14th century, when the fortress fell into rebel hands.
You can trample all over the ruins, even the crumbling stairs. Get an audio guide and inspect the keep, the towers, the chapels, the lower courtyard, the hospital, the windmill, oven house, cistern, and cave houses. From the lookouts, you'll have wonderful views of the village and surrounding countryside.
24. Les Invalides Complex, Paris
Les Invalides is a complex of buildings in the 7th arrondissement, celebrating France’s tumultuous military history. 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.
You enter the royal chapel through monumental bronze doors decorated with fleurs-de-lys and Louis XIV's initials. Inside, the decoration is sumptuous -- painted cupolas, pilasters, columns, low-relief sculptures, and stained glass windows. Napoleon's tomb takes center stage, lying directly under Les Invalides' fabled dome.
Paris' Army Museum is one of Europe's best military museums. Military buffs and history geeks will be in heaven.
The impressive museum has seven collections and over 500,000 pieces of art -- artillery, weapons, armor, uniforms, and paintings from antiquity to the 20th century. You can even find Napoleon's stuffed horse and one of Hitler's notebooks.
25. Louvre Museum, Paris
The Louvre is Paris' crown jewel and the world's most visited museum. The Louvre is the largest, busiest, most loved museum in the world. It has 35,000 works of art art from the 6th century BC to the 19th century AD. It's a sumptuous Renaissance palace itself, with a lavishly decorated interior and beautifully painted ceilings.
The Louvre is huge, really massive. Even with a map, you may get lost. The Louvre is U shaped, divided into three wings: Denon, Sully, and Richelieu. Each of the wings has four floors.
The Denon Wing is home to the Louvre's best known paintings, including Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. The Sully Wing is known for its statuary and antiquities, including the Venus de Milo. The Richelieu Wing houses the lavish apartments of Napoleon III and some famed Dutch art works, including Vermeer's The Lacemaker.
If you want to know more about the history of the Louvre, click here. I've also written an extensive guide to the underrated masterpieces of the Louvre and one on tips and tricks for visiting the Louvre.
26. Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy
Mont Saint-Michel is the crown jewel of Normandy. It's one of France's most recognizable silhouettes, a veritable castle in the clouds.
The famous landmark is a pretty-as-a mirage island sanctuary. Its steeply built architecture seems almost impossible. A surreal medieval stage set, the Mont's sky-high spires, stout ramparts, and rocky outcrops rise dramatically from the sea.
The immense stone pile stands guard over gleaming sands laid bare by a receding (and unpredictable) tide. At high tide, Mont Saint-Michel seems to float in the sea.
The hulking abbey is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Christendom. In medieval times, devotees flocked to venerate the Archangel Michael. The Mont’s star attraction is the ancient abbey crowning its top. Click here for my complete visitor's guide for Mont Saint-Michel.
27. Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Ah, the Musee d'Orsay is one of my favorite museums in Paris, housed in a beautiful converted Beaux-Arts railway station. The museum has the world's largest collection of French paintings from 1848 to 1914, a period when Paris was the undisputed artistic capital of the world.
The Orsay is where you'll find one of the world's best stash of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, including works by Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Paul Cezanne, and Pierre-August Renoir.
READ: The Monet Guide To Paris
In particular, the Orsay is a Van Gogh treasure trove. You can inspect his Self Portrait, Starry Night, Dr. Gachet, The Church at Auvers, and The Siesta. Other standout masterpieces at the Orsay include Manet's Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, Cezanne's Card Players, Monet's Houses of Parliament, and Renoir's Moulin de la Galette.
Click here for my guide to 25 must see masterpieces at the Musee d'Orsay.
28. Notre-Dame de Paris, Paris
On April 15, 2019, Notre Dame and I cried. Located on the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine River, the Gothic cathedral with its dramatic flying buttresses is 859 years old. The first stone of the cathedral was laid in 1163. It was completed in 1345.
Since then, Notre Dame has been the toast of Europe, a utopian symbol of western civilization, of literature, and of culture.
Notre Dame has a storied history. Louis IX deposited the crown of thrones there in 1239. Henry VI was crowned king there in 1431 after the 100 Year War. Mary Queen of Scots was married there. Napoleon was coronated as emperor there in 1804 and married there in 1810. In 1909, Joan of Arc was beatified by the pope.
Since the fateful fire, you can no longer visit. There will likely be years or decades of construction. But don't despair. You can visit take a 360 tour of the edifice virtually. You can also study Notre Dame on Google Arts & Culture.
29. Opera Garnier, Opéra National de Paris, Paris
The Opera Garnier might be the most beautiful building in Paris. Especially if you’re in the mood for gold. It first sprang from the brain of Napoleon III, who had almost been assassinated at the old opera house.
The exterior is sometimes compared to a wedding cake. You can sort of see why.
It's built in a rather bombastic Beaux-Arts style with eclectic Neo-Baroque elements. Inside, there's gold and marble everywhere. Even a mini Versailles-like Hall of Mirrors.
Now, you can explore the Opera Garnier virtually on Google Arts & Culture. During this tour, you’ll be able to explore everything -- the grand staircase, the stage, the balconies, and even the rich red velvet seats. You can marvel at the magnificently painted ceiling by Marc Chagall.
Here's my complete guide to the Opera Garnier, if you want more information.
30. 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.
As exemplifies the Baroque style, Versailles was decorated with gilding, stucco, arabesques, frescoed vaulted ceilings, mirrors, and tromp l'oeil effects. The king's apartments were in the center, because the world revolved around him.
Aside from the palace, you can visit the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, and the Hameau. The ultra refined Grand Trianon was built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart in 1687. Made of pink marble and porphyry, this was where Louis XIV escaped court life and pursued his affair with Madame de Montespan.
Built in 1762-68, the Petite Trianon was originally a gift from Louis XV to his mistress Madame du Barry. When Louis XVI inherited it, he re-gifted it to Marie Antoinette. "This pleasure house is yours," he told her.
Not content with just the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette hired two architects to create a pastoral fantasy for her. On the surface, the resulting Hamlet, or Hameau, appeared to be a rural hamlet of crackled tumbledown cottages and wisteria vines. The countryside was fashionable at the time. But inside, the cottages were decked out.
31. Pantheon, Paris
The Pantheon is a grand neoclassical basilica dominating, rather ironically, an artsy area of Paris, the Latin Quarter. It was built after a king's near death experience and celebrates the greatest dead heros of France. Though initially disliked, the building is now a fixture on the Paris skyline.
The Paris Pantheon was modeled, rather obviously, on Hadrian's Pantheon in Rome. With its doughty 272 foot dome, it also resembles St. Paul's Cathedral in London. While the exterior is Romanesque, the gigantic interior resembles a Gothic cathedral. The overall design is that of a Greek cross, with Corinthian columns and elaborate marble floors everywhere.
People tend to glide by the Pantheon and just snap a photo. That's a mistake. Despite the disappointing lack of windows inside, the interior's the most fascinating part of the Pantheon. You can see a copy of Foucault's Pendulum. As an added bonus, the rooftop boasts one of the best viewing points in Paris.
The French state rather schizophrenically converted the Pantheon back and forth from basilica to temple. But when the esteemed Victor Hugo was Pantheonized in 1885, it remained evermore a mausoleum for France's greatest heroes and martyrs. You'll also find the tombs of Alexandre Dumas, Emile Zola, and Marie Curie on your tour of the crypt.
32. Pierrefonds Castle, Picardy Region
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 artists. 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.
Pierrefeonds is not a faithful reconstruction of a medieval castle. It’s Viollet-le-Duc’s remarkably inventive free interpretation, with ornamental and architectural references from the Middle Ages and new construction materials.
Click here for my complete guide to visiting Pierrefonds.
33. Place de la Concorde, Paris
When you stand in the Place de la Concorde, Paris spreads around you. You have views of the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, and the Champs-Élysées. Its 3300 year old pink granite obelisk was a gift from Egypt in 1831.
First laid out in 1755, the square was originally named after King Louis XV. But its royal associations meant that it took center stage during the French Revolution. Louis XVI was the first to be guillotined there in 1793.
During the following two years, 1343 more people, including Marie Antoinette, Danton and Robespierre, also lost their heads in the square. When the Reign of Terror ended, the square was given its current name in the hope that it would become a place of peace and harmony.
The corners of the square are marked by eight statues representing what were once the largest cities in France. The square's two fountains were completed in 1840 during the reign of King Louis-Phillipe. They both feature a stone basin, where six tritons with fish spout water.
34. Pont Alexandre III Bridge, Paris
Often said to be the most beautiful bridge in the world, the Pont Alexandre III is a beautiful Parisian Belle Epoque bridge. As you pass over it, you have views onto the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysees, and Les Invalides.
Classified as a National Historic monument since 1975, Pont Alexandre III was constructed between 1896 and 1900. It's the most ornate bridge in Paris. The bridge has four gilt gold statues of Fames at the corners, art nouveau lamps, and golden highlights.
As you may have guessed, the bridge is named for Tsar Alexandre III, who completed the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1892. The bridge was thus a symbol of the friendship between France and Russia.
The bridge is one of the greatest feats of architectural engineering from the latter part of the 19th century. It has a single low slung steel arch (to not block the views). The four pillars hosting the horses stand at 17 meters high, providing a counter-weight to the bridge’s arch.
35. 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 Uzes 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.
36. 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.
Inside, 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.
37. Reims Cathedral, 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. Reims Cathedral was designated a UNESCO site in 1997.
The church 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.
Reims Cathedral is also the spot for the coronation of French kings, making it the equivalent of Westminster Abbey in England. Joan of Arc made an appearance, crowning Charles VII in 1429.
38. 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, 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.
Like nearby Nimes, Arles' amphitheater was inspired by Rome's Colosseum and is largely intact. Built in the 1st century when Augustus reigned, the two tiered arena can hold up to 25,000 people. Much of the structure's original architecture remains, including terraces, galleries, and the original Roman drainage system.
Today, the arena hosts spectacles and concerts befitting a cultural hot spot. It also features Camargue-style bull runs and controversial bullfighting, which while beloved by Picasso is controversial or illegal elsewhere in France.
39. Rouen Cathedral, Rouen
Rouen's Notre Dame Cathedral is a landmark of art history, one of Europe's best cathedrals. Constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries, the cathedral was built on the foundations of a 4th century basilica.
The cathedral rises 151 meters tall, making it one of the tallest in France. The Dukes of Normandy were traditionally crowned and buried there. Richard the Lionhearted insisted his heart be kept there.
Inside, Rouen Cathedral is High Gothic at its best. The nave soars four stories high. In length, only Amiens Cathedral and Reims Cathedral are longer. Many of Normandy’s most famous citizens are buried there, including Richard the Lionheart and early Norman rulers Rollo and William I.
There's an interesting two story high Escalier de la Librarie (Booksellers’ Stairway). The first floors dates from the 15th century. The second floor dates from the 18th century.
But it's the cathedral’s lacy western facade that's made it enduringly famous. The facade is styled in a highly ornate Flamboyant Gothic fashion and is a sight to behold. Claude Monet painted 30 versions of it.
40. Sacre Coeur, Paris
The striking white Sacre Coeur is one of the most iconic attractions in Paris' popular Montmartre neighborhood in the 18th arrondissement. It sits atop Montmartre Hill, the highest point in Paris, overlooking the city.
The Sacre Coeur is not ancient Paris. It's surprisingly new. It was only completed in the early 1900s.
The basilica's creamy white stone is pristine, due to calcite in the stone. The interior is nothing special. But the panoramic views from the dome are sublime.
If you want to take a virtual tour, the Sacre Coeur offers an actual audio guide tour of the building. It comes complete with shots of the interior and exterior. You can even listen to the organ, which you might miss on a regular visit.
41. Sainte-Chapelle, Paris
Completed in 1248 and enshrined within the Palais de Justice, Sainte-Chapelle is Paris’ most exquisite Gothic monument. It's a 14th century royal chapel, built by Louis IX to house the relics of the passion of Christ, including the Crown of Thorns.
You'll be awed by the gorgeous stained glass. Saint-Chapelle has some of the oldest pieces of glass in the world. Nearly 2/3 of the windows survived the French Revolution. To prevent further damage, the windows were temporarily removed during WWII.
Saint-Chapelle also features beautiful painted wood columns and a starry night sky. There are two parts to Saint-Chapelle. The glass awaits you at the top of a spiral staircase, depicting scenes in chronological order from the Old and New Testaments. The masterpiece is the Rose Window in the upper chapel.
42. Senlis Cathedral, Senlis
Senlis itself is a fantastic day trip from Paris. And you might be rather surprised that such a diminutive town is lorded over by an impressive cathedral. Built between 1153-91, under the reign of Louis VII, Notre Dame de Senlis is listed as a historic monument in France.
It's in the heart of medieval Senlis, surrounded by cobbled lanes and ancient stone buildings. Pure old world French charm.
The cathedral seems a little lopsided, with one massive 78 meter tower, completed in the 13th century. Two tall columns flank the facade, preventing the entrance from being engulfed by the tower.
Its magnificent carved-stone Grand Portal is thought to have inspired the one in Chartres Cathedral. Inside, there's pretty stained glass.
43. Strasbourg Cathedral, Strasbourg
Nothing prepares you for your first glimpse of Strasbourg's Cathedrale Notre-Dame. The red sandstone cathedral was completed in all its Gothic grandeur in 1439. The intricate lacey facade lifts the gaze to flying buttresses, leering gargoyles, and tall spires.
The interior is exquisitely lit by 12th to 14th century stained-glass windows, including the western portal's jewel-like rose window. Victor Hugo declared it a "gigantic and delicate marvel." Goethe proclaimed that its "loftiness is linked to its beauty."
A spiral staircase twists up to a viewing platform, from which the tower and its Gothic spire soar another 76 meters. The city of Strasbourg is at your feet.
I hope you've enjoyed my guide to the best landmarks in France. You may enjoy these other France travel guides and resources:
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