With their gothic facades and soaring spires, the cathedrals in France have been built to impress. These magnificent buildings are not only impressive architectural and engineering marvels, but they also provide a peek into the history and culture of the city they are located in.
Many of the cathedrals in France date back to the Middle ages. With several wars occurring on French soil, from the wars of religion, sieges, revolutions, fires, and more recent world wars, these buildings have seen it all.
But they have been carefully restored to their full splendor and continue to serve the community around it. So let’s have a look at the most famous historical cathedrals in France, shall we? Allons-y!
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1. Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral
Standing majestically on the banks of the River Seine, Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris has been a focal point of Parisian life for centuries. The Cathedral is located on an island in the center of Paris, called Ile de la Cité, chosen for its strategic position and defensive location.
The Roman temple was eventually replaced by a Church to Saint Etienne. Construction of the current cathedral dedicated to Mother Mary began in 1163 AD and the high altar was consecrated on 19 May 1182. Significant renovations have occurred several times over the centuries, including the addition of the spire in the 19th century.
Today it is among the most visible and celebrated landmarks of Paris. However it suffered a significant damage in a fire in 2019 and is currently under reconstruction.
2. Cathédrale Notre Dame de Reims
The Reims Cathedral stands on the spot of an older church that is thought to have been founded by the bishop Nicasius in the early 5th century. It is officially recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.
It is here in 496AD that St. Rémi is believed to have baptized Clovis I, the 1st King of the Franks into Christianity, and the start of the Frankish Empire. (The city of Reims is named after the saint.)
Construction of the current building of Reims Cathedral began in the 13th century. After Clovis, most of the French Monarchs through the centuries were crowned here.
Only a handful were not, including Napoleon Bonaparte who decided to be crowned at Notre Dame de Paris. His successor Louis XVIII also tried to dispense with the tradition, after the guillotine of his uncle King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
The last coronation here was 1825 of Charles X, who was quite unpopular and shortly overthrown after. The Reims Cathedral was one of the buildings substantially destroyed during World War I, which had to be almost entirely rebuilt. A large donation from John D. Rockefeller was able to restore the Cathedral to what we see today.
When you walk through the cathedral, you can’t help but remark upon the extraordinary history of this tourist attraction. All around the exterior and interior facades, there are giant size statues of French Kings and saints.
The building today is an inspiration for the reconstruction of Notre Dame de Paris which was also significantly damaged after a large fire in 2019. You can read more about visiting Reims here.
3. Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis
If the Reims Cathedral was the cathedral that the French Kings got crowned in, the Basilica-Cathedral of Saint-Denis was the one they were buried in. Located just outside Paris in the town of Saint-Denis, the cathedral contains the tombs of nearly every king from the 10th century to Louis XVIII in the 19th century.
The cathedral and town is dedicated to one of the patron saints of France, Saint Denis who purportedly carried his chopped up head up the hill of Montmartre. The tradition to bury the royals here came about because the site originated as a Gallo-Roman cemetery.
Around the year 475 AD, Saint Genevieve purchased some land and built Saint-Denys de la Chapelle. The current building dates back to 1135 when construction began. (Both Genevieve and Denis are patron saints of Paris.)
The Queens of France were also usually crowned at Saint-Denis. In addition, the royal regalia, including the sword used for crowning the kings and the royal sceptre, were kept at Saint-Denis between coronations.
The former abbey church was historically a Basilica until it was made a cathedral by Pope Paul VI in 1966. It is the seat of the Bishop of Saint-Denis.
4. Strasbourg Cathedral
Located in the capital of Alsace, the Notre Dame de Strasbourg Cathedral is one of the oldest gothic cathedrals in the world. Construction began in 1015, and it was largely completed in 1432.
At 142 metres (466 feet), the Cathedral in Strasbourg was the world’s tallest building for centuries, before it was surpassed by St. Nikolai’s Church in Hamburg.
Today it is the sixth-tallest church in the world and the highest still standing extant structure built entirely in the Middle Ages. With its elaborate astrological clock and red sandstone surface, a visit to the Strasbourg Cathedral is a must.
Heavily damaged by U.S. and British jets in World War II, renovations were only completed in the early 1990s. At certain times of the year, there is a light show in the evenings, so be sure to check their schedule. You can read more about visiting Strasbourg here.
5. Cathédrale Saint-Gatien de Tours
The Cathédrale Saint-Gatien in the city of Tours is one of the grand gothic cathedrals in the Loire Valley of France.
It is the seat of the Archbishops of Tours, and construction began in the 12th century, around the same time as the cathedrals of Paris, Reims, and Chartres. Earlier churches have stood on the site, dating back to the 4th century.
It is a Roman Catholic church and is also notable for holding the tombs of the children of Anne of Brittany and her first husband, King Charles VIII of France. (Her 2nd husband was King Louis XII, making her twice the Queen of France.)
In 1793, during the French Revolution, it was nationalised and transformed into a Temple of Reason like many of the other cathedrals around France, until it was finally restored to a church in the 19th century. You can read more about visiting Tours here.
6. Chartres Cathedral
One of the most impressive sights to see in city of Chartres is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres. Built between 1194 and 1220, there were 5 earlier churches on this spot dating back to the 4th century. It is officially recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.
It is a beautifully preserved gothic church with a lot of its stained glass windows remaining intact through France’s many wars and revolutions. Since the 11th century, it has been the seat of the Bishop of Chartres.
It is here that Good King Henri IV was crowned King of France on 27 February 1594. Henri was a Protestant and had recently converted to Catholicism to try to convince the local French catholics to accept him.
Reims cathedral, the traditional seat where royals were crowned, and the iconic Notre Dame de Paris were still in Catholic hands. Hence the historic town of Chartres which was nearby was chosen for the coronation. You can read more about visiting Chartres here.
7. Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans
The Sainte-Croix d’Orléans Cathedral is a Gothic -style Roman Catholic cathedral that is the episcopal seat of the diocese of Orléans. A building has stood on this spot dating back to at least the 4th century.
The 6th century historian, Grégoire de Tours relates that in 585 Mérovingien King Gontran attended mass in the church of Orleans, marking an important visit.
Joan of Arc is also believed to have prayed here several times during her battles against the English. In 1568, a group of Protestant huguenots blew up the Cathedral, bringing down a large portion of it.
The current Cathedral of Orleans dates back to 1601, when the 1st stone was laid by King Henri IV (who was a part-time protestant himself) and his wife Queen Marie de Medicis. It was built in the gothic style, in keeping with the other great cathedrals of France.
It has 5 large bells in the north tower, named for the saints Jeanne d’Arc, Michel, Catherine, and Marguerite, as well as distinguished Catholic Félix Dupanloup. You can read more about visiting Orlèans here.
8. Rouen Cathedral
Rouen Cathedral is a Gothic church in Rouen, Normandy in France. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Rouen, Primate of Normandy. The cathedral is in the Flamboyant Gothic style.
The cathedral was consecrated in 1063 in the presence of William the Conqueror (the Duke of Normandy), 3 years before he went off to England to defeat Harald in the Battle of Hastings. (He was still a fief to the French Kings at the time.)
The Cathedral captured the imagination of French impressionist Claude Monet, who painted what is called the “Rouen Cathedral series” in the 18th century. The paintings in the series each capture the façade of the Rouen Cathedral at different times of the day and year and reflect changes in its appearance under different lighting conditions.
You can find a statue of Joan of Arc in the Rouen Cathedral as well, with a sword thought to be her own.
The Cathedral also houses a tomb containing the heart of English King Richard the Lionheart (the son of Eleanor of Aquitaine). Richard didn’t die in Rouen, but it was a sign of the town’s importance that his heart was buried in this cathedral.
One of Richard’s ancestors, Rollo of the Vikings who became the 1st ruler of Normandy, is also buried in the cathedral. Rollo was the great-great-great grandfather of William the Conqueror and thus the current British Royal Family are all direct descendants of Rollo. (And if you are wondering, William the Conqueror is buried at the church of Abbaye des Hommes in Caen, France). You can read more about visiting Rouen here.
9. Cathédrale Saint-Jean de Lyon
Construction for the historic Cathedral of St Jean began in Lyon in 1180 on the ruins of an earlier 6th-century church. The cathedral was founded by Saint Pothinus and Saint Irenaeus, the first two bishops of Lyon.
The cathedral is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, and is the seat of the Archbishop of Lyon. Inside you can see its beautiful astronomical clock which dates back to the 14th century.
It is not only a Roman Catholic church, but also the Primate of Gaul. The city of Lyon the capital of Roman Gaul (as France was then known). The title is hononary, and means that it ranks 1st over over the other cathedrals of the 4 ecclesiastical provinces of 1079 which were Lyon, Rouen, Tours and Sens.
10. Cathédrale Saint-Louis de Blois
The Blois Cathedral is located in the center of the city of Blois, about a 7-minute walk away from the Château de Blois. Construction originally began in the 12th century but the current facade and bell-tower date to the 16th-century.
Traces of a Carolingian church were discovered there in 1927 and the Crypt of Saint Solenne is located in the crypt. It is likely that Joan of Arc prayed here as she prepared to head with her army to save nearby Orléans from the English.
More renovations took place in the 17th century under the Sun King Louis who dedicated the cathedral to his predecessor.
As Blois was occupied by the Germans during WWII, Allied bombardment destroyed most of the stained glass windows in the cathedral, which has now fully been restored. You can read more about visiting Blois here.
11. Amiens Cathedral
The Basilique Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens is a Roman Catholic church in the the city of Amiens in the Picardy region of northern France. The cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of Amiens.
Unlike other cathedrals in France which were built over a long period of time, the Amiens Cathedral was almost entirely built between 1220 and 1270. This remarkably short period of time gives it a unified look since plans for the cathedral were not constantly changing.
The Amiens cathedral is also the largest cathedral in France, large enough to contain two cathedrals the size of Notre Dame of Paris. It is officially recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.
The cathedral hosted the wedding in 1193 of King Philip II, the first king to style himself as “King of France” rather than “King of the Franks”.
He married his 2nd wife Ingeborg of Denmark at Amiens Cathedral, the same day she arrived at the city. In a rather soap operatic episode, Philip changed his mind during the ceremony and tried to send the 19-year old Ingeborg away to Soissons, claiming that the marriage hadn’t been consummated.
He later took a 3rd wife, before the Pope intervened and insisted that Ingeborg was indeed his wife and Queen. Ingeborg spent much of her life locked away by Philip, only finally being acknowledged in 1213, 20 years after their marriage at Amiens Cathedral.
12. Bayeux Cathedral
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux is a Gothic cathedral in the town of Bayeux that was commissioned by William the Conqueror to celebrate his victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
However, there was already a church on this site, as early as Roman times. Following a fire, the cathedral had already begun reconstruction as early as 1020.
Either way, it is known that William the Conqueror himself, along with his wife and family, was present at its consecration on July 14, 1077.
The building suffered through various bouts of looting during the French Revolution and fell into disrepair, before being restored to its former glory in the 19th century. It escaped significant damage during WWII. You can read more about visiting Bayeux here.
13. Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Toulouse
Toulouse Cathedral is a Roman Catholic church located in the city of Toulouse in the Occitanie region of France. The cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Toulouse.
The cathedral began construction in the 13th century on top of an earlier 3rd century chapel constructed by Saint Saturnin, sent to Christianize the Gauls and martyred in Toulouse.
It is made out of the beautiful pink terracotta for which Toulouse is famous for its nickname La Ville Rose (meaning “Pink city”). You can read more about visiting Toulouse here.
14. Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure of Marseille
One of the newest cathedrals in France, is Marseille’s Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure. Often referred to as La Major, the cathedral is on the city’s famous Vieux Port, next to Le Panier and directly across from the MUCEM (Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean).
It stands on a site where churches have stood since the 5th century. The current building was consecrated in 1893, just 30 years after another famous church in the city, the Notre Dame de la Garde.
Both have similar striped interiors, although most locals will tell you it is the Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica that is the symbol of the city. The Cathedral Sainte-Marie-Majeure is nonetheless one of the top sights in Marseille.
You can read more about visiting the Vieux Port of Marseille where the cathedral is located here.
15. Cathédrale Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais de Soissons
The town of Soissons is historically famous for having been the first capital of the Franks (France), after Tournai, a town that is now in Belgium. Its importance came from its location on the river Aisne, a natural junction point between the regions of Picardy, Champagne, and Ile de France.
Known as Soissons Cathedral, the cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of Soissons. A christian diocese existed here since the 4th century, although the exact address of that first church is unclear.
The current cathedral sits on a site where a church has existed since the 9th century. The cathedral is similar in architecture to Notre Dame de Paris, having started construction at around the same time.
The area was much fought over by Caesar and his Roman armies and the Gallic tribes. Over the centuries, it suffered greatly during the various wars it has witnessed, but has mostly been restored today. You can read more about visiting Soissons here.
16. Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens
The Sens Cathedral is a Catholic cathedral in the town of Sens in Burgundy. It is dedicated to Saint Stephen and is the seat of the Archbishop of Sens. Sens was an important town during the late Roman Empire since it was located at the meeting point of the Yonne and the Vanne rivers, and at the intersection of two major Roman roads.
It is famous for being the first cathedral to be built in the Gothic architectural style as construction begun between 1135 and 1140, shortly before Notre Dame de Paris. It is here that in 1234 Saint King Louis IX of France celebrated his wedding to Marguerite of Provence.
The city and the Cathedral declined in importance after Notre Dame de Paris was elevated to archdiocese in 1622.
17. Sainte-Cecile Cathedral of Albi
The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Cecilia, aka Albi Cathedral is thought to be the biggest medieval era brick building in the world. It was begun in 1282 and was under construction for 200 years.
A UNESCO world heritage site, the earliest church that stood here dated back to the 4th century. It is named for Saint Cecilia, a wealthy Roman noblewoman and martyr, who was a patroness of musicians.
The current cathedral is a medieval gothic cathedral and was built to impose Catholic rule in the area.
In the 12th century, Albi was part of the Province of Languedoc, ruled by the Count of Toulouse, who owed allegiance to the King of France. The region became a battleground between the established church and the followers of a dissident religious movement called Catharism.
The Cathars had a strong presence in Albi at the time, leading the Catholic pope to launch the Albigensian Crusade in 1208 to destroy the Cathars in southern France.
It ended in 1209 with the defeat and massacre of the Cathars at Carcassonne, and the end of the semi-independence of the states of Languedoc.
The Cathedral was built a few years later to install a Catholic bishop in the area, and ensure that Catharism did not reestablish itself in the area.
Inside, you can see its beautifully preserved blue and gold ceilings as well a large rood screen (jubé in French) that is on one side of cathedral. It is an ornamental and intricate fence that was reserved for the clergy to pray without being disturbed. You can read more about visiting Albi here.
If you enjoyed this article, you may like to read about the top tourist attractions in France. A bientôt!