When traveling around France, one can’t help but notice there are thousands of churches across the country, and many of them are stunningly beautiful. Dating back into French history, these churches have stood the test of time.
From ornate gothic churches to soaring abbeys and chapels, the churches in France have been at the center of small villages-life and big cities.
Beyond their architecture and feats of engineering, these historic churches continue to serve their local communities. So let’s have a look at the most famous churches across France, shall we? Allons-y!
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1. Abbaye du Mont Saint Michel
Mont Saint Michel is religious monastery that may be one of the most beautiful landmark and heritage sites in all of France. Legend has it that the archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert of Avranches in 708 and instructed him to build a church on a large rock.
In the 10th century, the Benedictine Monks settled here and the site had become a destination for pilgrims from across Europe. The French and English Kings continued to fight over the Mont (and the entire region), including during the Hundred Years’ War and the French Wars of Religion.
Surrounded by marshland, the waters turns the UNESCO World heritage site into an island when the tide comes in.
It takes about 4 hours to get there from Paris, and to get there from Paris you can take the train from Paris’ Gare Montparnasse to the city Rennes (2 hours), from where SNCF buses travel to Mont St. Michel (1.5hrs).
2. Reims Cathedral
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 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. Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris
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. It was the golden age of cathedrals, when several other historic cathedrals were also built across France.
Significant renovations have occurred at Notre Dame 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.
4. Sacre Coeur Basilica – Paris
Consecrated in 1919, Sacré-Cœur Basilica is located at top of butte Montmartre, and is the highest point in the city (except for the Eiffel tower). It was built as a penance for the local riots and troubles that happened during the Paris Commune of 1871 in Montmartre.
The Church is free to enter and certainly quite impressive to explore. However, it is in coming back out of the Basilica, that you notice the views. Have a seat on the stairs and admire the panorama of the whole city.
The best views are at sunset from this northern point of the city. Avoid the street vendors and tricksters that hang around there though. Their modus operandi is to distract excited tourists and pickpocket them. You can read more about the Sacre Coeur Basilica here.
5. Notre Dame de la Garde – Marseille
Known as the Bonne Mere to its locals (Good Mother), this Basilica overlooking the Vieux Port is the highest natural point in Marseille, visible from everywhere.
In 1214, a local priest was inspired to build a small chapel to the Virgin Mary on top of the hill known as La Garde which was already belonged to the Church of France. In the 15th century, French King François I paid a visit to the city and decided that Marseille was poorly defended against neighboring Spain.
He realized that an excellent spot for his battlements would be on top of this hill which overlooked the entire city, and set about making the Basilica bigger, with surrounding fortifications. As the Basilica grew in stature, local sailors and fishermen started giving thanks to La Bonne Mere for keeping their safe on their travels.
In 1853, Napoleon III decided to make the Basilica even bigger, and that is the building we see today. The building survived occupation, when German soldiers and snipers were stationed there during World War II. You can read more about Notre Dame de la Garde here.
6. Sainte Chapelle – Paris
The Sainte Chapelle church is a little hidden, but to locals and tourists in the know, this is the church to visit.
It is a gothic royal chapel constructed in 1248 as a home to the Crown of Thorns and is located within the medieval Palais de la Cité (Conciergerie). Because the Palais de la Cité is still a working courthouse, visitors must pass through airport-style security in order to get to Sainte Chapelle.
It is one of the earliest surviving buildings of the royal palace. It was built by Saint King Louis IX in order to house the Crown of thorns and other relics that the King had brought back from Constantinople.
The Crown of Thorns was moved to Notre Dame de Paris during the French Revolution. It currently resides in a safe in Paris’s Louvre museum for security purposes.
However Sainte Chapelle still has one of the most extensive 13th-century stained glass collections anywhere in the world. You can read more about Sainte Chapelle here.
7. Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes
In 1858, a 14-year-old poor peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirou thought she had visions of an apparition in a grotto near her family home. Based on her recountings, the townspeople thought it was of the Virgin Mary.
Bernadette would go on to to become Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, one of the most famous saints in France. And the village she was born in would become one of the the world’s most important sites of Christian pilgrimage.
The spring from the grotto is believed to have healing properties, and close to 5 million people are believed to visit the site at Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes every year, especially at Toussaint.
8. Russian Orthodox Cathedral – Nice
Along with English tourists on the Promenade des Anglais, the City of Nice regularly attracted members of the Russian aristocracy.
In 1864, Russian Tsar Alexander II visited by train and was attracted by the pleasant climate. Thus began an association between Russians and the French Riviera that continues to this day.
The cathedral was consecrated in December 1912 in memory of Tsar Nicholas Alexandrovich, an heir apparent to the Russian throne, who died in Nice at the age of 21, while on an European tour. It was funded by Tsar Nicholas II, who would end up being the last Tsar of Russia.
After 1917, Communist revolution, the Paris-based Russian Orthodox church assumed control of the Nice Cathedral. However, after a long legal dispute, a French Court ruled in 2010 that the property on which the Cathedral is built belongs to the Russia.
The church itself is beautiful example of Russian architecture and is free to enter. You can read more about visiting Nice here.
9. Basilique 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 Saint Denis and Genevieve are considered the 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.
10. Les Invalides – Paris
Cathédrale Saint-Louis-des-Invalides is part of a series of buildings known as Les Invalides in the 7th arrondissement. The site is marked by the golden dome which covers the national cathedral of the French military, and the former Royal Chapel.
It is the tallest church building in Paris at a height of 107 meters and inside has a very interesting permanent resident: the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. His body lies in an elaborate monument surrounded by reliefs of his accomplishments.
There is also an in-depth museum, Musée de l’Armée dedicated to the military history of France in one of the other buildings of the complex.
It is still today a military base in the center of the city, and many important and symbolic events take place in its courtyards. Lines are long, so book your tickets in advance here. You can read more about Les Invalides here.
11. Abbaye aux Hommes – Caen
William the Conqueror may have have conquered England in 1066, leaving his descendants to rule through the House of Windsor, but his heart was in Normandy, France.
In his capital of Caen, he constructed the grand Abbaye aux Hommes and the Abbaye aux Dames. William had ordered the construction of the two abbeys as a way to ask for repentance from the Catholic church for having married his closely related cousin, Mathilde of Flanders.
William was on a trip back home to quell unrest in Normandy when he was killed.
William died in 1086, after leading an expedition near Mantes-la-Jolie (today a suburb of Paris). He was brought back to Caen and buried in the Abbaye aux Hommes (Abbaye to Men) that he constructed.
His wife Mathilde was buried in the Abbaye des Dames, separated from her husband forever. (They had a prosperous marriage, which William greatly mourned when she died.)
William’s descendants would go to intermarry for several generations with the French royal house, leading to many wars and conflicts as they each tried to assert their rights to the other’s throne. You can read more about visiting Caen here.
12. 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 the Episcopal city of Albi here.
If you enjoyed this article, you may like to read about the top tourist attractions in France. A bientôt!