France is a country with so much rich history, it can seems like the entire country should be on a protected list. From soaring medieval cathedrals to imposing castles all over the country, it can be difficult to know where to begin.
The World Heritage List is created by UNESCO to protect sites of “outstanding universal value” to humanity. With different categories for culture and nature, there are so many beautiful UNESCO world heritage sites in France it is hard to choose which ones to visit.
Having traveled to many of these sites, I can say however there are ones that clearly stand out for their history as much as their beauty. So let’s have a look at the most beautiful UNESCO World heritage sites in France, shall we? Allons-y!
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1. Palais de Versailles
It was built by the famous Sun King Louis XIV of France, but we think more today of the tragic destiny of Marie-Antoinette and the French Revolution. The Château de Versailles is a palace that is officially recognized as a UNESCO World heritage site.
Many other key moments in history took place here as well, such as the Treaty of Versailles (WW1), subsequent German retaliation (WW2), amongst many others, so wander around and breathe in the history of France.
You can read more about visiting the Château de Versailles here. It does get quite crowded, especially in the summer so I highly advise booking tickets in advance.
2. Pont du Gard
About 72 miles (117 km) away from Aix-en-Provence in the region of Provence, is an ancient Roman aqueduct known as Pont du Gard.
Built over a period of 5 years in the 1st century, the aqueduct was built to carry water to over 50 km (31 miles) to what was then the Roman colony of Nimes.
With 3 tiers of arches, it crosses the river Gardon and is the highest of all Roman aqueduct bridges, as well as being one of the best-preserved.
After the Roman empire collapsed, the Pont du Gard remained in use as it also served as a toll bridge for people looking to cross the river. The bridge remained mostly intact, with the Ducs of nearby Uzès being responsible for maintaining the bridge.
Rather than delivering water, the bridge instead became a tourist attraction, with everyone from French Kings to apprentice masons making their way to the bridge to admire its architecture.
In the early 2000s, traffic around the area was rerouted to preserve this UNESCO world heritage site and from pollution and maintain the tranquil nature of the area. Today, it is one of the most popular destinations in France after the Palace of Versailles and Mont Saint Michel.
You will need a rental car to visit, or alternatively you can book a tour from Aix-en-Provence. You can read more about Pont du Gard here.
Located in the south of France in Occitanie, one of the most popular tourist attractions in France has to be the in town 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. There is quite a lot of see, so to make the most of your day, I suggest taking a guided tour when you arrive at Carcassonne. You can read more about visiting Carcassonne here.
4. Canal du Midi
The Canal du Midi is a man-made river constructed in 1681, located in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in France. Today it is officially recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.
This canal crosses the region between Toulouse and the Mediterranean Sea and ranks as one of the greatest feats of engineering of all time. At over 120 miles (193 km) long, this waterway links the Mediterranean and the Atlantic ocean, making it a crucially important crossroad within France rather than having to go around Spain and the Iberian coastline.
It was constructed by Sun King Louis XIV of France in 1666 (who also built the Palace of Versailles), who let his engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet take the lead on the project. Riquet would spend much of his own fortune to ensure that the Canal was completed in 1681.
It is also exceptionally beautiful, with houseboats along its tree-lined quais and working locks that still adjust water levels. Go for a stroll, a bike ride with a tour guide, or take a boat ride onto its waters. You can read more about the Canal du Midi here.
5. Roman ruins in Arles
Known as Arelate, the city of Arles was once an important Roman settlement on the crossroads of the Rhône river and the Mediterranean sea, as Caesar and his Empire expanded into Gaul and headed west.
The city in southern France has a long history, having considerable importance in the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis. Today Arles and its Roman ruins are recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.
With a magnificent amphitheatre, forum, and other Roman buildings, Arles was city that had prospered from trade and commerce. It also has managed to preserve many of its artefacts and ruins, making it one of the best places in France to see the remaining vestiges of the Roman empire.
A clear sign of the city’s importance is the Arles Amphitheatre, that served as a stadium for entertainment and sporting events in the old empire.
It was built in 90AD, 10 years after the Colosseum was completed in Rome. While the one in Rome is larger holding 65,000 people, the Arles amphitheatre can hold around 20,000. Quite impressive for a town that still only has a population of around 50,000.
Within a few 100 yards of the Arles amphitheatre is the Roman theatre. While gladiators provided the entertainment in the amphitheatre, this Roman theatre was for plays and musical acts.
The Roman theatre is actually older than the amphitheatre, having been completed nearly 100 years earlier in 12 BC. It was built to seat around 10,000 people.
At the time, it was highly decorated with statues and sculptures. The famous Venus of Arles, which is now in the Louvre museum, was discovered here during excavations of the ancient theatre.
Along with gladiator sports and the theatre, the Romans were also very fond of the baths. Built in the 4th century, the Thermes de Constantin baths were believed to have been constructed when Emperor Constantine I resided in Arelate as the city was known.
Nearly 3900sqm with grand arches and multiple levels, the bather was required to travel a circuit of hot and cold springs in an effort to restore good health.
The Thermes de Constantin are among the best preserved in France, along with the Thermes de Chassenon in Charente and the Thermes de Cluny in Paris.
6. 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 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.
Other famous historic cathedrals in France that are recognized as UNESCO world heritage sites include the Amiens Cathedral (which is the largest in France), Chartres Cathedral, and Bourges Cathedral.
7. Grotte Chauvet
One of the greatest cultural treasures in the world is located in the heart of department of Ardèche, about 124 miles (200 km) away from Lyon.
Known as Grotte Chauvet (Cave Chauvet), it is a cave network which has some of the earliest known Paleolithic human cave paintings. Dating back about 28,000 – 32,000 years old these are among the oldest in the world.
There are several panels with some of the earliest known figurative drawings, making it one of the most important prehistoric art sites in the world. These spectacular images were created by prehistoric humans, or Homo sapiens, as they roamed the European continent.
The actual cave is too fragile to allow visitors, and so an exact replica was built called Grotte Chauvet 2. Built to educate visitors about the Paleolithic era, there is an entire complex of exhibitions to visit about the lives of these prehistoric humans.
Another prehistoric cave complex called Lascaux is also on the UNESCO world heritage list, however it too is not open to visitors. You can read more about visiting Grotte Chauvet 2 here.
One of the most beautiful and unique sights in the world, Mont Saint Michel is a sight to behold. 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.
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).
It is a bit of an adventure though, so this one day trip that I would strongly recommend going with a tour company. You can read more about visiting Mont Saint Michel here.
9. Château de Fontainebleau
In the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, Château de Fontainebleau was “the true home of kings, the house of ages.” While the glamorous Château de Versailles was a bit of a party palace, Château de Fontainebleau was the original working royal palace of the monarch, constructed centuries earlier.
Further away from Paris than Versailles, Fontainebleau was originally constructed as a hunting lodge. Today it houses two exhibitions, both on larger-than-life French Kings: François I and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Of all the magnificent châteaux near Paris, this is perhaps the one with the most history. It is officially recognized as a UNESCO world heritage sites. You can read more about Château de Fontainebleau here, and find recommended tours from Paris.
10. Loire Valley Châteaux
It is lucky that the Loire Valley is about 2.5 hours away from Paris (by car), because that meant many of its luxurious renaissance châteaux were saved from the destruction of the French Revolution.
Chateau de Chenonceau and Chambord are two of its most famous. The beautiful city of Amboise has its own Royal Château that you shouldn’t miss.
In addition, the Loire Valley is a wine-producing region, so there are many popular white wines that are grown in the region, which you can read about here. The area is the second-largest concentration of sparkling-wine producing vines in France after the Champagne region.
And since they don’t build train stations next to castles, I would highly recommend taking a tour from Paris. There are several tours that combine wine-tasting and château-hopping as a day trip, or longer if you choose. You can see Loire Valley tour options here.
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.
But Provins was never a royal city. Instead it was a city where nobility and royalty sent their servants to do their shopping. The town held the letters patent to hold annual events called the foires de Champagne (Champagne fairs), where tradespeople and merchants from far and wide would come to sell their wares.
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.
12. Strasbourg Grand Ile
Located in the city of Strasbourg in Alsace, the Grand Ile is the large island that is in the heart of the city.
And who can have an island without a few bridges? This area is dotted with many small bridges, some dating from the medieval age.
Les Ponts Couverts are a set of three bridges and four towers that were erected in the 13th century. It is officially recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site. You can walk across the Pont, which is usually open between 9-7pm. Access is free.
13. Route of Santiago de Compostela
The Routes of Santiago de Compostela is one of the oldest religious pilgrimages in the world. It includes 71 monuments as well as 7 different paths, starting in Paris, Vezélay, Le Puy, and Arles and stretches across France into the north of Spain.
The sites include monuments, churches, or hospitals that provided services to pilgrims headed to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Some of the notable sites on the Routes of Santiago de Compostela are:
- Amiens Cathedral
- Basilica of St. Severinus in Bordeaux
- Romanesque church of Sainte-Foy at Conques
- Cathedral Saint Caprais in Agen
- Cathedral Sainte-Marie in Bayonne
- Church of Saint-Pierre at Moissac
- Basilica Saint-Vincent of Castres
- Basilica church of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse
- Collegiate church of Neuvy-Saint-Sépulchre
- Cathedral Saint-Étienne in Cahors
- Village of Rocamadour
14. Episcopal City of Albi
The Episcopal city of Albi is located in the Occitanie region of France, near Toulouse. It is a small town that is dominated by one of the most incredible churches in France that has been recognized by UNESCO
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 landmarks in France. A bientôt!