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, France has a wealth of fantastic historic sites to explore.
From stunning roman ruins and medieval fortresses to World War battlefields and beyond, there’s a staggering array of historic sites in France, deriving from a history filled with everything from bloody conquests to ostentatious royalty and ecclesiastical grandeur.
Among the very best cultural attractions to explore are the Palace of Versailles, Mont Saint-Michel and Nimes Arena. Other popular sites tend to include the Somme battlefields, Notre Dame and of course the Eiffel Tower.
We’ve put together an experts guide to French cultural landmarks and monuments, with our top ten places to visit as well as a full list of Historic Sites in France, which shouldn’t be ignored if you have the time.
What are the best Historic Sites in France?
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. And so it remained until the French Revolution in 1789.
In the 19th Century King Louis-Philippe turned it 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.
Nimes Arena is amongst the best preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world. Built during the reign of the 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.
Now fully restored, the arena is a popular tourist attraction and allows people to really experience what it would have been like for Roman spectators. Including an interactive audio guide and some detailed exhibits, the site is now a fitting museum of its past.
The Circuit of Remembrance is a route touring the Somme battlefields in France. The Battle of the Somme was an infamous First World War battle from July to November 1916, renowned for the controversial tactics employed by British forces and the exceptional number of casualties borne by the Allied forces.
Today a forty mile route, the Circuit of Remembrance, starts from either the town of Albert or that of Peronne, winding through numerous battle sites, memorials and museums. This Somme battlefields tour explores the individual battles as well as going through individual towns occupied by different forces with signs along the way. Those who wish to embark on this route can download audio guides to the route for free from various sources, including from the website of the Historial de la Grande Guerre museum.
Many of the routes of the Somme battlefields are carried out by taxi and the taxi firms in the area have prepared itineraries for different routes. You can also walk the route (guided or not), do it by cart, by plane or by train, the latter route being the same as that used to carry supplies to the soldiers. The trip can take anything from half a day to a full day or more, depending on your level of interest.
Notre Dame is a gothic cathedral in Paris’s fourth arrondissement and a world famous tourist attraction. 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.
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.
Pont du Gard is an iconic Ancient Roman bridge and aqueduct built in first century AD and located near Nimes in France. In fact, 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.
Today guided tours of Pont du Gard take visitors right to the very heart of this iconic structure to see the how such an engineering feat was achieved and how the aqueduct operated. Visitors can also walk the full length of the bridge itself and explore this Roman marvel up close. These tours last approximately 1.5 hours.
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.
Carcassonne is believed to have first been a hill fort known as an “oppidum” created in the sixth century BC and which formed a vital link between Europe as a whole and the Iberian Peninsula.
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.
In the Visigoth era, Carcassonne was a powerful stronghold, leading to a series of construction campaigns. However, it was from the twelfth century onwards that the structure of Carcassonne really took hold, initially with the building of the Count’s Castle or “Chateau Comtal”. The medieval fortifications seen today were built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Throughout its history, Carcassonne has been considered untouchable. Even before its walls were built it was the subject of two failed sieges in the thirteenth century and, during the Hundred Years’ War, an attack was never even attempted.
It was only in the nineteenth century that 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.
Since 1997, Carcassonne has been a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Les Invalides was originally built by the order of Louis XIV as a hospital and home for ailing soldiers. This order was given on 24 November 1670, the building designed by architect Liberal Bruant and Les Invalides was completed in 1676. In fact Les Invalides still operates as an institution for war veterans, under the name Institution Nationale des Invalides.
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 15th 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.
Les Invalides operates numerous types of tours, including those specifically dealing with historical, cultural or artistic issues. There is even a tour dedicated entirely to Napoleon. The multimedia presentation on the life of Charles de Gaulle is also worth seeing.
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. In fact, even by the time Sainte Chapelle was consecrated on 26 April 1248, at a cost of 40,000 livres, this expense paled in comparison to the 135,000 livres which these relics cost when bought from the Byzantine emperor Baldwin II.
The relics are now housed in the Treasury at the Notre Dame Cathedral, but there are still many attractions in Sainte Chapelle. With its two impressive upper and lower chapels and imposing gothic architecture, Sainte Chapelle a top tourist attraction.
Audio tours are available guiding visitors through and explaining the significance of its colourful stained glass windows and statues. In particular, the windows at Sainte Chapelle depict over a thousand images relating to the Old Testament and the Passion of Christ.
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.
From singer Edith Piaf, novelist Marcel Proust and impressionist painter Camille Pissarro to playwright Oscar Wilde, an array of famous figures are buried there today. One of the most popular graves at Pere Lachaise Cemetery is that of The Doors’ front man Jim Morrison, probably attracting the largest number of visitors, but all of the graves are fascinating, including those of the regular citizens.
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.
Maps are available to buy at the entrance, but you can also use the directories on the grounds. Overall, Pere Lachaise Cemetery is a peaceful and interesting way to spend an afternoon.