Widely regarded as one of the most important events of French history, the French Revolution was a period of social, economic, and political change. Taking place over a decade from 1789-1799, resistance against economic depression and social inequality led to ideas which are considered to be the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy today.
Its impact was wide-ranging, with the French Revolution later inspiring campaigns for the abolition of slavery and universal suffrage, and its famous rallying cry – Liberté, égalité, fraternité – reappearing in other revolts such as the 1917 Russian Revolution.
As a result, France is host to many striking buildings, monuments, and fortifications which bore witness to the tumultuous events of the revolution. Highlights include the remains of the famous Bastille, whose storming signalled the beginning of the French Revolution, or the luxurious Palace of Versailles, which stirred up so much anger amongst those who incited and supported the revolution. Here’s our guide to 10 of the best French Revolution sites across France.
1. Fort Saint Nicholas
Fort Saint Nicholas in Marseille is a fortification built by King Louis XIV between 1660 and 1664, supposedly to defend the city’s port, but also to quell the uprising of the people of the city against their governor. In fact, its guns, like those of its contemporary, Fort Saint Jean, pointed at the city, not away from it.
In the eighteenth century, Fort Saint Nicholas was used as a military prison and garrisoned. In 1790, during the French Revolution, the people of Marseille sacked Fort Saint Nicholas, however the Assemblée Nationale put an end to this destruction a mere month later. Fort Saint Nicholas was then restored in the early nineteenth century. The newer parts are discernible because they are grey in colour as opposed to the pink of the original brickwork.
2. Place de la Concorde
Place de la Concorde in Paris was the site where King Louis XVI was executed on 21 January 1793. During the French Revolution, Place de la Concorde was named Place de la Revolution. Prior to this, it had been known as Place Louis XV and had contained a statue of the monarch. However, when the revolution took hold, this monument was taken down and replaced with the guillotine.
Place de la Concorde became the focus of the executions of France’s elite during the Reign of Terror, a period of exceptional violence during the French Revolution. Over 1,300 people were executed at Place de la Concorde, amongst them Louis XVI’s wife Marie Antoinette and even leading revolutionary figures such as Danton and Robespierre.
3. La Conciergerie
La Conciergerie in Paris, France is located on an important site which once formed the seat of the city’s Roman leaders during their occupation of Gaul. La Conciergerie itself originally formed part of thirteenth century Palais de Justice, the royal palace built by King Philip IV. It served this role until the 1350’s, when the French royals moved to the Louvre.
As it ceased being used as a royal residence, La Conciergerie became the site where judicial functions were carried out, a purpose which parts of the palace still fulfil today. From 1391, La Conciergerie’s judicial function took on a different character as it was transformed into a prison. Thus it remained for centuries, playing its sinister role during the French Revolution as the home of the ominous Revolutionary Tribunal which sent thousands of prisoners to the guillotine.
4. Palais de Justice
The Palais de Justice in Île de la Cité in Paris is a vast and majestic gothic structure, the site of which was originally the home of governors of Ancient Rome. Palais de Justice then became the royal residence of the French monarchy such as Louis IX and remained as such until Charles V moved the royal palaces to Marais in 1358 following the Jacquerie revolt.
As the current seat of the French judicial system, the Palais de Justice serves a function which it has fulfilled in various guises since medieval times. This began in earnest in April 1793, when the civil chamber or “Premier Chambre Civile” of the Palais de Justice became the home of the Revolutionary Tribunal. This was the fearsome court of the French Revolution from which the Reign of Terror was systematically carried out.
5. 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. 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. The gardens of the Palace of Versailles, designed by André Le Nôtre at the instruction of Louis XIV, are equally spectacular and took forty years to complete.
6. The Bastille
The Bastille was a fourteenth century fortress turned prison in Paris which would become central in igniting the French Revolution. On 14 July 1789, a large group descended on the Bastille demanding that its prisoners – by now only seven were held there – be released. Their main aim was to have access to weapons and gunpowder that were held in the Bastille.
After some negotiations, the crowd became restless and stormed the prison, an incident known as the “storming of the Bastille”. Whilst the storming of the Bastille had been preceded by general turmoil in Paris, this chaotic event is widely considered to have been the catalyst of the French Revolution. It was followed by the abolition of feudalism and the signing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a central document of the revolution.
7. Monument aux Girondins
Monument aux Girondins (The Girondins Monument) is a dramatic fountain statue in Bordeaux which commemorates the Girondists. The Girondists were originally part of France’s Legislative Assembly, becoming one of the groups which supported the French Revolution as it began. In fact, they were one of the legislature’s most militant sections.
However, in October 1793, the Girondists were executed under the orders of one of the leaders of the Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre after they began opposing the movement. Monument aux Girondins was built in the early twentieth century as a memorial to the Girondists, now considered to be political martyrs. Depicting the Statue of Liberty standing atop a large pillar and flanked by two pools containing spectacular statues, Monument aux Girondins is a striking memorial to the Reign of Terror.
8. The Pantheon - Paris
The Pantheon in Paris (Le Pantheon), was built as a result of King Louis XV’s determination to create an edifice to the glory of St-Genèvieve, the patron saint of Paris. “The Pantheon” means “Every God” and construction began in 1758 with the intention that the building be a church. However, it was completed just before the French Revolution in 1789 and the revolutionary government converted The Pantheon into a mausoleum for the interment of great Frenchmen.
The Pantheon’s crypt is now the burial place of many French icons and bears the inscription ‘Aux Grands Hommes La Patrie Reconnaissante’, meaning “To the great men, the grateful homeland”.
9. Basilica of St Denis
The Basilica of St Denis (Basilique Saint-Denis) in Paris, France is a cathedral basilica named after France’s patron saint. In fact, the place where Basilica of St Denis stands is believed to the site where Saint Denis, also known as Saint Dionysius, was buried after his death in around 275 AD, making the then abbey church a place of pilgrimage.
From the 7th century onwards, and officially from the 10th century, the Basilica of St Denis acquired a new and important role as the burial place of the kings and queens of France. It retained this role for hundreds of years and all but three of France’s monarchs were buried there. However, during the French Revolution, many of the tombs were opened and the remains removed. In 1966 the Basilica of St Denis became a cathedral.
10. Fort Saint Jean
Fort Saint Jean was one of two fortresses built by King Louis XIV in Marseille in the seventeenth century. Construction began in the 1660’s under the guise of wanting to protect Marseille from outside attack. In fact, the purpose of Fort Saint Jean was to subdue a rebellion by the citizens against royal rule, a role also fulfilled be Fort Saint Nicholas on the other end of the harbour.
In World War II, Fort Saint Jean served as a munitions storage facility during the Nazi occupation of Marseille. This would spell the destruction of much of Fort Saint Jean as, in 1944, some of the ammunition stored within it exploded. It is home to the Museum of Civilizations in Europe and the Mediterranean, although at the time of writing, this may be undergoing renovation.