France is packed full of fantastic cultural attractions to visit. From the romance of Paris to the sunshine of the south and the picturesque Dordogne, there is something for any kind of history enthusiast to explore.
Many sites can be enjoyed against the backdrop of France’s chic cityscapes and rustic rural countryside. From stunning roman ruins and medieval fortresses to World War battlefields and beyond, France’s historic sites derive from a past filled with everything from bloody conquests to ostentatious royalty and ecclesiastical grandeur. Here’s our pick of 10 sites that you can’t miss.
What are the best Historic Sites in France?
1. Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles was originally the hunting lodge of France’s King Louis XIII, but was transformed into a magnificent residence by his son and successor, Louis XIV. The ostentatious monarch built the Grand Apartment of the King and Queen which included the magnificent Hall of Mirrors before moving both his court and the government of France to Versailles in 1682. It remained so until the famously turbulent French Revolution in 1789.
In the 19th Century, King Louis-Philippe turned Versailles into the Museum of the History of France. There are numerous places to visit at Versailles and a range of tour options. Audio headsets are available as are guided tours.
2. Nimes Arena
Nimes Arena is among the best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world. Built during the reign of Emperor Augustus in the first century AD, Nimes Arena is a marvel of Roman engineering. A vast oval with a stunning façade resplendent with archways and ornamentation, Nimes Arena could seat up to 24,000 people in its 34 terraces.
In the sixth century, under the Visigoths, Nimes Arena began to play a military role. Transformed from a sports arena to a castle fortress or “castrum arena” complete with a moat, the arena was a sort of emergency shelter of the people of the town in the event of attack. In the eighteenth century, this went even further with the establishment of a whole 700-strong village within its walls. It was only in 1786 that Nimes Arena began to be restored to its original grandeur.
3. Somme battlefields
The Somme battlefields constitute a series of sites where the Battle of the Somme was fought during ‘The War to End All Wars’ – the First World War. They are among the most famous battlefields in France.
Today, a forty mile route known as the Circuit of Remembrance starts from either the town of Albert or that of Peronne, winding through numerous battle sites, memorials, and museums. Those who wish to embark on this route of Somme battlefields can download audio guides to the route for free from various sources, including from the website of the Historial de la Grande Guerre museum.
4. Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris
Notre Dame is a gothic cathedral in Paris’s fourth arrondissement and a world famous tourist attraction. Though it recently endured a devastating fire, much is still available to see. While still an operating church, visitors are welcome to tour the building and appreciate both its beauty and sheer size. Some of the highlights include its stained glass windows, gothic architecture, and many sculptures.
Free tours are conducted throughout the year, and the nearby tower outside the cathedral is also worth a visit. Those feeling particularly fit can climb its 387 steps for magnificent views. Finally, Notre Dame’s Treasury houses some of the relics of the Passion of Christ, including the famous Crown of Thorns.
5. The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower is an icon of modern France . Standing 324 metres tall, it’s the tallest building in Paris and the fifth tallest in the world.
Today, the Eiffel Tower is a tourist hotspot and visitors can climb or use the lifts to reach the first or second floors, the latter of which is 115 metres high. The most expansive views can be found on the Eiffel Tower’s third level at 276 metres, which has its own separate lift from the second floor. A backstage tour is available, which details the workings of the Eiffel Tower and its history.
6. Pont du Gard
Pont du Gard is an iconic Ancient Roman bridge and aqueduct built in first century AD located near Nimes in France. It was the tallest bridge ever built by the Romans, rising 160 feet. Nimes had been a major city of Gaul before 45BC, when it was incorporated in the Roman Empire. As the city’s population grew, exceeding 20,000, the need for water surpassed the available supplies of the Nemausus spring. Thus, from 40AD, over 1,000 workers were engaged in building Pont du Gard in order to transfer water from the Gard River (the Eure) to the city. Upon its completion, it would stay in use until the sixth century, when it was finally abandoned.
Since then, Pont du Gard has undergone a series of restoration projects and is now a spectacular place to visit. In 1985 it was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. There is also a Pont du Gard museum on site that explores the engineering techniques used by the Romans to build the bridge as well as the history of the area in which it is built, which actually stretches back to prehistoric times. Other exhibits found within the museum also focus on the history of Nimes and the surrounding area during the Roman era.
Carcassonne, known as “La Cite”, is a fortified town in southern France whose important strategic position between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic led to it being inhabited since before the Ancient Roman era. In the first century BC, Carcassonne and the area in which it was located were incorporated into the Roman Empire and, in the third and fourth centuries, the town began taking shape with the construction of a mighty wall. This, now largely ruined, wall is still visible in Carcassonne today.
After a turbulent history, including involvement in the Hundred Years’ War, Carcassonne began to suffer deterioration was it was exploited for materials. The Carcassonne seen today was reconstructed by Violett-le-Duc. There is much to see at Carcassonne, including its incredible double fortified 3 km walls and 52 towers. There are audio guided tours of the majestic citadel and visitors can explore the cathedral, both built by the then ruling Trencavels.
8. Les Invalides
Les Invalides was originally built by the order of Louis XIV as a hospital and home for ailing soldiers. Les Invalides was completed in 1676. Following its initial construction, several further additions were made to Les Invalids, including a chapel in 1679 and the striking Dome Church or ‘Église du Dôme’, which incorporates the royal chapel built by Louis XIV and completed in 1706.
One of the most significant dates in the history of Les Invalides was when the body of the Emperor Napoleon I (Napoleon Bonaparte) was brought there on December 15 1840. His tomb, which was completed in 1861, remains there today and is housed in the Dome Church. Les Invalides is made up of several buildings and now stands as the largest complex of monuments in Paris, including its comprehensive military museum, Musée de l’Armée.
9. Sainte Chapelle
Sainte Chapelle, or the “Holy Chapel”, is a gothic church built by Saint Louis in Ile de la Cité in the centre of Paris. The construction of Sainte Chapelle began in 1246 under the orders of King Louis IX, and was carried out with the specific purpose of housing the relics of the Passion of Christ, including the Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the true cross. Even by the time Sainte Chapelle was consecrated in 1248 at a cost of 40,000 livres, the cost paled in comparison to the 135,000 livres which the relics cost when bought from the Byzantine emperor Baldwin II.
The relics are now housed in the Treasury at the Notre Dame Cathedral. However, there are still many attractions in Sainte Chapelle. With its two impressive upper and lower chapels and imposing gothic architecture, the striking church is a top tourist attraction.
10. Pere Lachaise Cemetery
Pere Lachaise Cemetery (Cimetière du Père-Lachaise) was established by Napoleon I in 1804. Originally considered to be too far from the main city, Pere Lachaise Cemetery initially attracted few funerals, but following a marketing campaign and the transfer of the remains of French philosopher Pierre Abélard in 1817, its popularity grew and it soon gained over 33,000 residents.
Singer Edith Piaf, novelist Marcel Proust, impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, and playwright Oscar Wilde are just a handful of some of the famous figures who are buried there today. One of the most popular graves at Pere Lachaise Cemetery is that of The Doors’ front man Jim Morrison.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery is also the home of the Mur des Fédérés or ‘Communards Wall’ where 147 of the working class defenders of Belleville or ‘Communards’ were shot on 28 May 1871 as part of the ‘Bloody Week’. This is also surrounded by monuments to concentration camp victims from the Holocaust.