With a rich and tumultuous history, France is a country that has more than its fair share of walled cities. With soaring ramparts and imposing gates, these citadels and fortresses were built for protection.
Since the days of ancient Gaul, there have been so many wars and marauding armies across the French countryside that many castles have been built on top of existing fortifications. (Even the city of Paris at one time was surrounded by fortress walls.)
Most of the walled cities that we see today around France today date back to the medieval era. Rather than being dismantled, they have been adapted to current lifestyles and traffic conditions. And they have added a unique charm to several old city centers, attracting visitors from the world over.
So let’s have a look at the most charming walled cities and fortress towns in France, shall we? Allons-y!
☞ READ MORE: French travel phrases you need for a trip to France
Located the south of France, one of the most popular tourist attractions has to be the in walled city of Carcassonne.
La Cité de Carcassonne and its Château Comtal, with its enormous walls, look and feel like they belong in another time. And indeed they do, dating back to the Middle ages, when wars were waged on horseback and moats were enough to keep invaders out.
A UNESCO world-heritage site, the Cité de Carcassone is one of the largest of its kind with two outer walls and 53 towers.
The impressive citadel towers on a hilltop, surrounded by wide, stone ramparts that you can walk along and explore.
One of the most interesting French walled cities is Avignon in Provence which stems from the 13th century. At the time, the King of France insisted that the Roman Catholic church and its Pope move to Avignon.
It was a controversial move. A landmark palace was built as a fortress for the Pope on a small hill, with high walls surrounding it and the city. This walled city has been preserved, with large parkings built underground, and its center mostly pedestrianized to keep its charm.
At the center of Avignon stand the former Papal Palace. Constructed in the 13th century, the Palace is still one of the largest gothic medieval buildings in Europe.
The palace gradually deteriorated after the popes left in 1377, and was even used as military barracks and a prison by Napoleon Bonaparte as he went around conquering Europe.
Today, it is an exhibition center holding concerts and performances all throughout the year, as well as remaining a museum that tourists can visit.
If you are visiting, do check that there are no special events going on that restrict access to visitors. The inside is rather sparse in terms of furniture, but its large halls and 24 rooms are impressive nonetheless.
There is also a beautiful church to visit in the palace, as well as expansive views across to the Rhône river which is right next door. You can read more about visiting Avignon here.
The stunningly beautiful fortress town of Saint-Malo is located in Brittany, on the Atlantic coast of western France. This is a seaside town with expansively large beaches, but only when the tide goes out.
Saint-Malo has always been most famous for its ocean tides that go out for miles and miles during low tide, and then come right up to the city walls at high tide.
On April 20, 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier set sail from his hometown of Saint-Malo under a commission from King François I. It was the start of the French colonial expansion, and settlement of lands in the Americas.
The medieval town of Guérande is located in the department of Loire-Atlantique, and the region of Pays de la Loire. With a circumference of 1434 meters, the fortified wall of Guérande is one of the best preserved and complete in France.
A settlement has existed on the site since the days of the Celtics, but the walled city was only completed in the 15th century. They were inaugurated during the reign of Francis II, Duke of Brittany who was the father of Anne of Brittany).
The old walled town is surrounded by nearly intact ramparts and has four fortified gates, the largest of which is called Porte Saint-Michel. In addition, it is surrounded by ten towers.
A historical town in the south of France, Aigues-Mortes is famous for being one of the most beautiful medieval fortified towns in Europe. This medieval walled city is located in the Camargue region of France which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The town owes its existence and fame to Saint King Louis IX who stopped here in the 13th century on his way to the crusades in the Middle East.
The center of Aigues-Mortes is surrounded by an imposing set of walls and ramparts designed to protect the city from enemy attack. Louis IX selected Aigues-Mortes for its access to the sea, and the town has been associated with him ever since.
The walled city of Laon dates back through the ages. It is the city of birth of Saint Rémi, one of the most famous saints in France. In turn, he made Laon one of the most important cities of the Kingdom during the reign of the Franks.
Laon became the capital of the Carolingian Empire and as such the fortress town was encircled by eight kilometers of walls and gates. Important site in Laon include the Laon Cathedral and the 12th-century Chapelle des Templiers.
About an hour away from Paris by train, Provins is an ancient fortress town that is so well preserved, it has been inscribed on UNESCO’s world heritage list.
This medieval town is best known these days for its famous “rose de provins”, which is used to make all kinds of rose confectionary.
There are also plenty of towers, ramparts, and dungeons to visit, along with a pedestrianized town center. You can read more about visiting Provins here.
The walled city of Besançon is located in the region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, near the Jura mountains. Its fortifications, designed by the famed French architect and engineer Vauban, have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008.
In the 15th century, Besançon came under the rule of the dukes of Burgundy. After the marriage of Mary of Burgundy to Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, the city was in effect a Habsburg fief and the Spanish crown.
Then in 1667, Sun King Louis XIV claimed the province as part of his marriage to Marie-Thérèse of Spain. It was during this period, with both France and Spain fighting over the territory that the famed military engineer Vauban drew up plans for its fortification and implemented them.
These days Besançon is famous for being the historical capital of watchmaking in France. Some attractions in the city include its old town, citadel and the Saint-Jean Cathedral.
The Baux-de-Provence is not quite large enough to be a city, but it certainly is a beautiful walled village and fortress in France.
The hilltop village of Baux-de-Provence has been named one of the “plus beaux villages de France“, with an impressively large Château, pedestrianized village, and more.
This beautiful village in Provence is located around 52 miles (85km) from Marseille. In addition, within walking distance of the fortified town’s main gate is another attraction called the the Carrières des Lumières.
Ancient quarries that were used to dig out limestone for construction, have been taken over by a digital art studio.
The art exhibition projects the imagery of famous artists like Picasso and Van Gogh on these centuries old walls, of what is classified as a “Site naturel classé” (listed natural site). You can read more about visiting Baux-de-Provence here.
Dinan is a walled town in Brittany, in the Côtes-d’Armor department in northwestern France. The town was fortified by a series of ramparts with an imposing castle in the center to defend it.
The citadel was a strategic point for merchants, sailors and armies between Normandy and the north coast of Brittany. Major attractions in Dinon include the Jacobins Theatre dating from 1224, the gothic St Malo’s Church, Duchess Anne of Brittany’s Tower and the Château de Dinan.
Boulogne-Sur-Mer is a hilltop coastal town overlooking the La Manche (English Channel), that is best known for its fishing and seafood. For centuries it has been on the front line in the wars between France and England.
As such, the city was protected with heavy defenses and walls, which still stand today. The city was on the front lines in the Napoleonic wars, as well as the more recent WWI and WWII.
These days it is most famous for its Nausicaa aquarium which is one of the largest in France, along with its historical ramparts and Basilique Notre Dame. You can read more about visiting Boulogne-sur-mer here.
If you enjoyed this article, you may like to read about the top landmarks in France. A bientôt!