If you are planning to Paris or the Loire Valley, Chartres should definitely be on your list of places to visit. With charmingly narrow streets that open on to wide open squares, this city is known for its impressive architectural heritage and history.
Located in the Centre-Val de Loire region, Chartres is famous for its cathedral which is considered a gothic masterpiece. With its intricate statues on the exterior and and 24-hour astronomical clock, it is definitely a sight to behold.
The city is also known for its beautiful stained glass window industry, and, its medieval architecture that has been well preserved over the centuries.
The city has a population of around 40,000, and is located about an hour away from Paris. You can visit it as a day trip from Paris or as a larger visit around the Loire Valley.
So with that, let’s look at the best things to see and do in the town of Chartres, shall we? Allons-y!
History of Chartres
The history of Chartres dates back to pre-Roman times, when the area was settled by the Gauls. The Romans established a settlement in the area in the 1st century AD. The town that grew up here was known in Latin as Autricum, a name derived from the river Autura (Eure)
In the early Middle Ages, the city was laid siege and burnt by Rollo the Viking (an ancestor of William the Conqueror) in 911. The town began to grow in the 9th century, when it became an important center of pilgrimage for holding what was believed to be the Vieil of the Virgin Mary.
It eventually became part of the territories of the Counts of Blois. It fell into the hand of the English in 1417, during the Hundred Years’ War, from whom it was recovered in 1432.
In the 16th century, the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants caused much destruction in Chartres. More recently, Chartres suffered greatly at the hands of the Germans during the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, and then World War II.
Today, Chartres is a popular tourist destination, known for its beautiful Gothic cathedral and its rich history.
Things to do in Chartres
1. Notre dame Cathedral of Chartres
One of the most impressive sights to see in Chartres is the Chartres Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.
Like other cathedrals in France from that era, it was built between 1194 and 1220. However, there were 5 earlier churches on this spot dating back to the 4th century.
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.
2. 24 hour clock
At the base of the North Tower of Chartres cathedral is a Renaissance-era 24-hour clock that was constructed in 1520 by Jean Texier. The face of the clock is eighteen feet in diameter with gold-colored hands and lettering.
The single long hand is connected to the bell that used to strike the hour at the top of the North Tower of the cathedral.
3. Chartres International Stained Glass Centre
Given the beauty of the preserved stained glass windows on Chartres cathedral, the industry is still going strong in the city today.
One of the top places in the town is the Centre International du Vitrail, the Chartres International Stained Glass Centre which hosts a range of exhibitions which are aimed at covering different aspects of glass making.
There are also plenty of stained glass galleries around selling souvenirs if you would like to take some back with you.
4. Explore the Old town
The central Old town of Chartres is a pedestrianized zone with plenty of cafés and shops that are well worth a visit.
There are several large squares with restaurant terrasses serving local French dishes like crêpes and beef tartare.
5. Walk along the river Eure
The oldest part of the town of Chartres is along the river Eure. Here you will still find vestiges of buildings in the old colombage (tudor) style dating back to the medieval era.
It is a tranquil scenic route taking around 15-20 minutes which loops around back to the center of Chartres.
6. The Markets
There are several weekly markets in Chartres, among them being:
- the food market every Saturday morning at Place Billard and Place de la Poissonnerie
- the food every Wednesday morning on boulevard Chasles
- the flower market every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at the Place du Cygne.
The markets are very popular and can get crowded, so I recommend going early. You can read tips for visiting markets in France here.
7. Musée des Beaux Arts
Next to the Chartres cathedral is the city’s largest museum, the Musée des Beaux Arts. The museum features artworks dating from the Middle Ages up until the present day
It was built during the 15-17th century and was once the site of an ancient Episcopal palace. It contains the works of artists such as Limosin, Teniers, Zurbaran, Rigaud, Fragonard, Chardin, Préault, Corot, Vlaminck, Soutine and Henri Navarre.
The permanent collections inside the museum are free to visit, but the museum has restricted opening hours depending on the season, and is not open on Mondays or Tuesdays.
8. Maison Picassiette
Located about 10 minutes from the center of Chartres is one of the more unusual tourist attractions the city has to offer. It was the private home of a quiet man named Raymond Isadore who was a bit of a recluse.
He decided to decorate his home using broken pieces of glass and ceramic, taking over each room in his small home and garden with his creations.
He was born in 1900 as the 7th of 8 children to a modest family living in the area. In 1924, he married Adrienne Rolland née Dousset, a woman 11 years older than him who was a widow and mother of three children.
He acquired a piece of land and built a small home with his stepsons, consisting of a kitchen/dining room, tiny living room and a small bedroom. Then the decorating took over
Over several decades, the “Picassiette” as he was derisively nicknamed completely covered his walls and furniture with paint and multi-colored mosaics from floor to ceiling.
Having spent some time in a psychiatric hospital, he died at the age of 64 in 1964. The City of Chartres acquired the Maison Picassiette in 1981 and turned it into a tourist attraction in the middle of a quiet residential suburb.
It costs around €7 to enter and is located about 1.1 miles (1.8km) from Chartres cathedral.
9. French resistance leader Jean Moulin
Chartres is also famous its former Prefet de Police, Jean Moulin. Jean Moulin was one of the most famous French resistance fighters during WWII and one of the most famous personalities in France.
He was the prefet of Chartres right before the war, having been removed from his functions after the German invasion by the Vichy regime. He would go on to lead the resistance for several years and is remembered today as one of its main heroes working in France to unify the country under Charles de Gaulle.
He was finally caught and arrested by the German Reich and tortured to death during WWII. Around the city of Chartres you will see several memorials dedicated to him including:
- The Jean Moulin memorial consisting of a broken sword which is one of the points of the Chemin de Mémoire .
- A plaque at the entrance to the Prefecture
- The preserved office where Jean Moulin exercised his functions as Prefect, which is only open to visitors on Journée du Patrimoine.
- Place Jean Moulin near the city center
- Several plaques around the city including near the entrance of the Prefecture, Place Chatelet, Hôtel-Dieu, and Taye Station.
How to get to Chartres?
If you are coming from Paris, you can take a TER train which will take you from Paris Gare Montparnasse to Chartres in around 1 hour.
If you choose to drive, it is around 54 miles (86km) and should take around an hour, depending on traffic conditions and your starting point within Paris. You can read more about driving in France here.
How easy is it getting around?
The center of Chartres is very easy to walk around as much of it is pedestrianized, with large parkings at the end of the pedestrianized zone. It does get crowded on market days however, so plan accordingly.
How many days should you spend?
Chartres can easily be visited as a day trip from Paris, however if you wish, you can also spend the night. The town has some lively bars and restaurants with a lot of charm that you will not want to miss.
Where should you stay?
I recommend staying within Chartres’s city center so that you are close to all the main attractions:
- €€€ – Hôtel Particulier de Champrond – apart’hotel
- €€€€ – Mercure Chartres Cathedrale
- €€€€ – Best Western Premier Grand Monarque Hotel & Spa – with swimming pool
If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about other day trips from Paris. A bientôt!