Planning a trip to France and need some destination inspiration? This is the ultimate guide to 50 must visit landmarks in France, for your French bucket list.
France is a gorgeous country, where history lives on in its monuments. In France, you’ll find a heady mix of glamorous chateaux, towering cathedrals, medieval monuments, 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 beautiful things to see and do in France. Many of these must see landmarks in France are UNESCO World Heritages sites or designated historic monuments.
The French landmarks are destinations in and of themselves. They would make the perfect weekend getaway or mini-vacation.
50 Best Landmarks in France
Here are my picks for the must visit landmarks and monuments in France. I’ve put them 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. They 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 architectural wonders, Albi Cathedral and the Berbie Palace. They are both UNESCO-listed.
The doughty Saint Cecilia Cathedral is a 13th century masterpiece of southern Gothic style. Inside and out, it’s a place of superlatives. The cathedral is almost menacing, more like defensive fortress than a house of worship.
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 largely 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 mediueval castles in France.
The palace was formerly the residence of the Albi’s archbishops. Now, it’s home to the wonderful Toulouse-Lautrec 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 massive cathedral is known for the beauty and harmony of its architecture. 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, hence the white appearance.
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, happily, that 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. Because of their historical importance, they’re both designated UNESCO sites. There’s also ongoing excavations of a Roman temple near the theater.
Southern France was one of the first regions Rome annexed, many decades before Julius Caesar arrived on the scene to snatch up more of France.
Louis XIV called the Orange Theater “the finest wall in my kingdom.” For four centuries, it was the main entertainment venue of Roman Orange. There’s a large statue of Emperor Augustus perched center stage, just to remind you of his importance. His right arm is raised as if to signal the performers.
In the summer, you can watch operas in the theater, just as the Romans and Gauls did 2,000 years ago. In fact, the theater hosts “Roman festivals” twice a year complete with period costumes, gladiators, and reenactment of Olympic games.
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 the epicenter of Roman Gaul. The town was founded by Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, in the 1st century B.C. Nime’s was “Caesar’s Town,” one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire.
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 that’s remarkably well preserved. It once boasted a giant awning that could be unfurled to protect spectators from the sun.
When first built, the arena hosted gladiator fights, animal chases, and even (shudder) executions. Like the Colosseum in Rome, the arena had clever features, like trap doors and lifts for “performers.” The arena looks great for its age, mostly due to extensive restoration.
Nowadays, the hosts bullfights, reenactments, 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. Built by Abbott Sugar in the early 12th century, it’s a French national treasure and terrifically fun to visit.
Saint-Denis is the birthplace of Gothic architecture. A milestone, the basilica marked Europe’s transition from a cumbersome Romanesque style to a more elegant Gothic one. Saint-Denis is one of the most historic and religiously important buildings in Paris.
The church is essentially a museum of French religious sculpture and funerary monuments. It’s the burial place of French kings, with over 70 effigies and monumental tombs.
You can say hello to the ill-fated Marie Antoinette and a veritable who’s who of French royalty. In the crypt, the belly of the whale, you’ll find the tomb of the cathedral’s titular saint, Saint Denis.
As the world’s first Gothic church, the basilica is even on the tentative UNESCO list. If it still had its north tower (destroyed in the 19th century) it might be already. Here’s 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. In a city brimming with medieval church spires, Saint-Sernin is Toulouse’s most defining landmark. Built between 1080 and 1120, the basilica is now a UNESCO site.
Saint-Sernin is a fine example of Romanesque architecture, claiming to be the world’s largest Romanesque religious edifice. The basilica is built in the characteristic Toulousain red brick, designed in a crucifix with a barrel vaulted interior. 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 a charming town in the Loire Valley. But it’s most famous for its massive 13th century Cathédrale Notre-Dame, designated a UNESCO site in 1979. The cathedral looms large, isolated on a hilltop.
Finished in 1220, the Gothic cathedral features two towering spires, flying buttresses, ornate sculptures, a 16th century astrological clock, relics, and elaborate rose windows — all you’d expect in an architectural wonder. To my mind, the cathedral resembles its contemporary in Laon France.
Interesting, however, the two 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 Royal Portal has a row of 12th century statues, which have been dubbed the Elgin Marbles of French art.
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.
For an extra fee, 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 the war time ravages of the French Revolution. There are over 1,500 rooms with period furniture. The stunning gilded ceilings could give you neck strain.
The busy builder Francois I is most associated with Fontainebleau. He significantly expanded it, replacing a hunting lodge with a lovely Renaissance chateau.
Fontainbleau’s highlights are the Royal Apartments, Marie Antoinette’s boudoirs (the Ottoman-themed 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
Chenonceau housed and was influenced by many famous French women over the centuries — Diane de Poitier (Henry II’s mistress), Catherine de’ Medici (Henry II’s wife) , and Louise Dupin. It’s nicknamed the “Ladies Chateau.”
In fact, upon Henry’s death, Medici kicked out Poitiers, reclaimed the crown jewels in her possession, and banished Poitiers to the smaller and more fortress-like Chateau de Chaumont. Then, Medici expanded the chateau to add the two story Grand Gallery over the arched bridge.
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). The art at Chenonceau is the best of the Loire Valley.
12. Chateau de Chambord, Loire Valley
The Chateau de Chambord wins the contest for Loire valley chateaux on steroids. It’s the most famous chateau in the Loire and one of France’s most famous landmarks.
Building started on this massive Renaissance chateau in 1519. As you approach, the striking view is the stuff of farirytales.
Commissioned by Francois I, Chambord was intended as a lowly hunting lodge. But it was transformed from a would be boys club into a epic monument to royalty and royal sport. It’s rumored that Leonardo da Vinci, who relocated from Italy to France as a court artist, influenced some of the chateau’s architectural elements.
Some theorize that the roofline’s capricious mass of turrets and towers represent a futuristic city that Leonardo and Francois planned to build one day.
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 of the interior is the ingenious double helix staircase, definitely a Leonardo contribution.
Twin staircases intertwine without actually touching. The rooftop offers breathtaking views over the Loire Valley.
13. Chateau de Chaumont, Loire Valley
The fairytale Chateau de Chaumont combines a medieval facade with 19th century furnishings inside. Construction began circa 1465 and continued until 1510. You’ll love the thick Gothic era spires and lovely Renaissance interiors.
Catherine de Medici purchased the chateau after her husband Henry II died. There, she entertained various astrologers, including Nostradamus. In 1559, as I mentioned, Medici kicked Poitiers out of Chenonceau and gave her the more fortress-like Chaumont instead.
In 1875, the heiress Princess de Broglie purchased and renovated the chateau. Rather high maintenance, she also had the entire village razed and rebuilt. The chateau has elaborate manicured gardens, a maze, and hosts a “Festival International des Jardins” in high season.
14. Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte, Maincy
Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte was Versailles before Versailles existed. Vaux-le-Vicomte is the most beautiful privately owned chateau in France. When Princess Elizabeth visited in 1948, she pronunced it “more beautiful than Versailles!”
Built between 1656-61, Vaux-le-Victomte is a fine example of French Baroque architecture. It was designed by Le Vau and boasts gardens by the famous landscaper Le Notre.
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 and the wealthiest man in France. In 1661, against his friends’ advice, Fouquet invited the king and his entourage to a luxurious dinner reception.
Three weeks later, suffering from a serious case of chateau envy, a peeved Louis XIV ordered Fouquet’s arrest and seized his estate. Louis XIV stole the exquisite statues and tapestries for Versailles. But otherwise left Vaux-le-Vicomte largely intact.
15. Chateau d’Amboise and Chateau du Clos Luce, Amboise
The royal Chateau d’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, which makes a great base for a Loire Valley road trip. 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, Leonardo da Vinci was a guest at the chateau. Da Vinci lived and worked at his own Amboise chateau, Clos Luce, for the last three years of his life. Clos Luce was connected to Amboise by an underground tunnel. You can visit Clos Luce and see model’s of Leonardo’s inventions and military contraptions.
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, naturally nicknamed 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 his 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. I say folly because the cost bankrupted Dumas.
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. Here’s my complete guide to the Chateau de Monte-Cristo.
17. Chateau de Coucy, Coucy-le-Chateau-Affrique
If you fancy a romantically-ruined chateau, the Chateau de Coucy fits the bill. 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.
Here’s my complete guide to visiting the magnificent ruins of Coucy Chateau.
18. Chateau Azay-le-Rideau, Loire Valley
This exquisite and petit chateau is one of France’s most romantic hidden gems. Situated on an island in the middle of the Indre River, the moat-ringed Chateau Azay-le-Rideau is a more human size Loire Valley structure.
Chaumont dazzles with fanciful turrets and decorative stonework. Honoré de Balzac described it as a diamond. Like Chenonceau, it successfully integrates stone, water, and woodland.
The creamy white chateau’s most famous feature is its open loggia staircase. The staircase is Italianate in style and overlooks the central courtyard.
It’s decorated with bas reliefs of salamanders and ermines, symbols of Francois I and Queen Claude. There are also monograms everywhere, as if the royals were compelled to put their mark on the chateau.
19. Chateau de Montresor, Loire Valley
If you’re looking for more off the beaten path things to do in the Loire Valley, head to Montresor. The small secret French village is one of country’s prettiest hamlets.
The chateau is perched on a hill, surveying the village on one side and the Indre River on the other. You walk through a facade girded by thick walls and massive towers into a small courtyard often filled with roses and peonies.
The courtyard is flanked by two manors, one is a a true Renaissance manor and one is a replica. When Montresor was purchased in the 1950s by Count Branicki, he built the replica to live in.
Dating from the 13th century, the main chateau is furnished in a classic Victorian style. There are scads of marble busts, Neo-Gothic furniture, embossed leather, and quite a few Winterhalter portraits.
The billiard room has a stunning painting by Vigee-Lebrun. But the highlight of a visit to Montresor is its treasure trove of decorative arts, mostly silver, a gift from the Hapsburg family of Vienna.
20. Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg, Alsace
The Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg is in France’s Alsace regions, a magical land straddling and influenced by three countries. Construction began in the 1100s.
The chateau is a massive castle built and rebuilt over the centuries with a distinctly medieval vibe. The castle was fully restored in the 20th century, making it unusual in a region of ruins.
The chateau’s final itineration is complete with a fairytale moat and drawbridge. Inside, you’ll find highly decorated walls with intricate details, ceramic tile heaters, weapons, the imperial apartments, and period furniture from the 16th and 17th centuries.
The chateau, like most, is perched on a hill to achieve the most intimidating effect. Like the town’s famous cathedral, it was built of pink sandstone. The pink color makes the chateau particularly glowing at sunset.
The chateau is famous as the inspiration for the dark castle of Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings film series.
21. Chateau de Beynac, Dordogne
Chateau de Beynac is a doughty castle-fortress set on limestone cliffs, one of the best known chateaux in the Dordogne region. The town of Beynac-et-Cazenac itself is listed as one of France’s les plus beaux villages. Unlike chateaux of the Loire, this castle was meant for military action.
Arriving in Beynac, it’s a steep and cobbled climb up to the castle. For awhile, Richard the Lionheart seized the castle from the barons of Beynac. You can see his bedroom inside.
The rather villainous Simon de Montfort made an appearance at Beynac during the Albigensian Crusade. And Beynac featured in the skirmishes of the Hundred Years War.
The oldest part of the castles is the keep and donjon, dating from the 12th century. The most impressive room is the State Hall, clad with tapestries. Upstairs, the apartments have some period furniture and a monumental fireplace.
22. Chateau de Vincennes, Vincennes
Lying in the eastern suburbs of Paris is the 14th century Chateau de Vincennes. The underrated 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. It makes the perfect half day trip from Paris. You can combine it with a visit to Pere Lachaise Cemetery, another hidden gem in Paris.
23. Conciergerie, Paris
The Conciergerie is an imposing palace-fortress looming over the banks of the Seine. It was Marie Antoinette’s gloomy prison after her arrest by the revolutionaries.
The Conciergerie was built in the 6th century. 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 fancier digs. When King Charles V, the last royal resident, moved out, he appointed the first “Concierge” and renamed the building La Conciergerie.
The Conciergerie 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.
24. Eiffel Tower, Paris
The Eiffel Tower is Paris’ most iconic landmark. It’s a lacy iron edifice on the Champs de Mar. The Eiffel Tower was built for the World Fair in 1889 in record construction time. It was meant to demonstrate France’s engineering might and marvel.
At the time, the Eiffel Tower was the world’s tallest building. But when it debuted, the tower was shunned by architectural critics. Nicknamed the “Tower of Babel,” the Eiffel Tower was thought to be a stain on the elegant cityscape.
Originally, the Eiffel was just 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 top-of-the-hour light show when 20,000 lit bulbs sparkle and gleam.
The Eiffel Tower can be a cliche tourist trap in Paris. If you want to avoid long lines, buy timed entry tour on the official Eiffel Tower website. Or, hike up the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator.
25. Fortified City of Carcassonne, Carcassonne
Magical Carcassonne will take your breath away. It’s one of the most beautiful medieval landmarks in France. 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.
Carcassonne has a double row of fortified walls stretching nearly 2 miles with 52 watch towers. Fantastical “witch hat” turrets crown each tower. The medieval streets are fairytale perfect. As a result of all this magnificence, Carcassonne was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997.
The Château Comtal, the central castle of the upper town, dates from the 12th century. It has an epic 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 to Carcassonne.
26. Hotel de Sully, Paris
I have to include one of Paris’ finest mansions on my list of must see French landmarks. The Hotel de Sully is a private mansion in Paris’ Marais neighborhood, right off the elegant Place des Vosges. It’s a remaining scrap of medieval Paris, most of which was plowed down by Haussmann.
Built between 1625-30 during the reign of Henry IV, the architect was Jean Androuet du Cerceau. Originally owned by the duke of Sully, the mansion has had a series of owners.
It’s now owned by the French state, home to the Center for National Monuments. In 2008-09, the lovely mansion underwent a complete renovation.
The Renaissance building is decorated with allegorical bas reliefs. Inside, the 17th century apartments have illusionistic frescos by Antoine Paillet. The Hotel de Sully also has a magnificent formal garden and courtyard, which you can access for free.
27. 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.
The cathedral is renowned for its six imposing towers and as a key stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago in northern 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.
28. Les Baux de Provence, Provence
Les Baux is a popular destination in Provence. It’s 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.
Happily, 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.
29. Les Invalides Complex, Paris
Les Invalides is a complex of buildings in the 7th arrondissement, celebrating France’s tumultuous military history. The complex 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 golden 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.
30. Louvre Museum, Paris
The Louvre is Paris’ crown jewel and the world’s most visited museum. The museum 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.
31. Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy
The famous French 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. Here’s my complete visitor’s guide to Mont Saint-Michel.
32. Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Ah, the Musee d’Orsay is one of my favorite museums in Paris. It’s 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.
33. 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.
34. 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 and can’t get to Versailles. The Opera Garnier 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.
Highlights of the the Opera Garnier are 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 and tips.
35. 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 for the royal ruralists.
36. Pantheon, Paris
t 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.
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.
Except for 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 (and mostly secret) 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.
37. 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 a 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.
To be sure, Pierrefeonds is not a faithful reconstruction of a medieval castle. Some think it’s a faux-chateau. But I appreciated Viollet-le-Duc’s remarkably inventive free interpretation, with ornament, color, and architectural references from the Middle Ages.
Here’s my complete guide to visiting Pierrefonds.
38. 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.
39. 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.
40. Pont du Gard, Occitanie
The mighty Pont du Gard is a surviving scrap of a Roman aqueduct. Dating from the 1st century, it’s now 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. It’s the highest Roman aqueduct in the world, the equivalent of a 16 story building.
READ: Guide To Uzes
Despite the aqueduct’s massive size, it took only 5 years to build. It’s made of limestone that was pieced together without using concrete. The bridge is 275 meters long. It sports 52 arches in three receding tiers one on top of the other.
Take some time to read about the mighty edifice in the Visitor Center. Then amble down the the Gardon River to admire it properly.
41. Pope’s Palace, Avignon
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 palace in the world. The imposing facade resembles medieval fortified churches.
Inside, the palace seems rather austere, with stark stone walls. But you can gasp at the Pope’s private apartments, frescoes of garden and hunting scenes, and the soaring Great Chapel. The Banquet Hall has a stunning timber vault, which is 135 feet long.
You can see what the palac actually looked like in the 14th century on a histopad. The histopad really makes the palace come to life.
42. 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. The now restored smiling angel smiles back at you. 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.
43. Chateau de Rocadamour, Dordogne
Rocamadour is a stunningly romantic 11th century village carved into the limestone cliff face of a canyon. Rocamadour may be France’s most dramatic village.
Because of its precipitous vertical location, it’s entirely pedestrianized. Naturally, there are many hills and stairs to challenge your quads. You’ll have to climb up to see the Chateau de Rocadamour at the very top of the hill. Or take the gondola.
Rocadamour is a pre-medieval 14th century fortress. It was built to protect the town’s pilgrimage sites, the Lady Chapel and the UNESCO-listed Basilica of Saint-Sauveur.
Only the castle ramparts are open to visitors. But it’s worth passing through the turnstile. The castle offers epic views of the beautiful village and countryside.
44. 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 and French landmarks.
READ: Guide To Arles
You’ll find the massive Amphitheater, a Roman Theater, and Constantine’s Baths. You can also stroll through Les Alyscamps, a tree-lined Roman necropolis a short distance outside the old town walls dating 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 could 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 like Arles. It also features Camargue-style bull runs and controversial bullfights, which while once beloved by Picasso, is controversial or illegal elsewhere in France.
45. 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.
46. 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.
47. 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.
It depicts scenes in chronological order from the Old and New Testaments. The masterpiece is the Rose Window in the upper chapel.
48. 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.
49. 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.” The cathedral has an elaborate pulpit, organ, and a famous astronomical clock.
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.
50. Lascaux Caves, Lascaux
The world’s most famous cave pantings are located in Lascaux. The caves were discovered in 1940 by accident.
Dating from the Upper Paleolithic era, the grotto paintings are 20,000 years old. There are 15,000 polychrome depictions of animals — bison, reindeer, horses, and wooly mammoths. The paintings are celebrated for their artistry and beauty.
The prehistoric paintings were popular with tourists. For 15 years, visitors tromped through the caves bringing with them a destructive green fungus and increased humidity. Mold grew on the paintings and deteriorated the surfaces.
In 1964, to preserve the cave paintings, the caves were closed to the public. To attempt to fix the damage, even experts were barred and the cave was bombarded with disinfects and fungicides.
In 1983, a replica cave was built. It’s called Lascaux II and it was built right next to the original cave. In 2017, another replica (Lascaux IV) opened reproducing 100% of the cave’s paintings. If you can’t see both, pick Lascaux IV and take the 40 minute guided tour.
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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