Must-See UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France
France, one of the most popular travel destination for tourists. From pop culture references, books, cars and rich national history, it seems like everyone has heard of France. Rightfully so, this beautiful country stretches all the way from the Mediterranean sea to the La Manche channel. It’s small intimate villages, vineyards, and the hilly countryside is ever so inviting to tourist from all over the world. Considering this, it’s not a surprise that there is even a phenomenon named after the capital city. Paris Syndrome is usually expected when someone visits the country, but the city of Paris does not live up to their expectations, and ideals they have built in their own minds. Most tourists end up in Paris, and Paris only. It would be a shame not to leave the city and visit some of these must-see UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France.
Visiting these sites will give you all the background to understand the locals. To understand how France became such a culturally and historically great country. Visiting these sites will broaden your sights and we promise, you will fall in love even more with France. France has a total of 41 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
In Paris: The Banks of The Seine River
The river got its name from the Latin word of “La Sequana”. It plays an important part in French culture. Legend says Napoleon himself wanted to be buried on the banks of Seine. According to another one, Joan of Arc’s ashes are actually thrown into the river carrying it to the ocean. In Victor Hugo’s famous novel Les Miserables, the main protagonist Javert drowns himself in this very river. The Seine even appears in pop culture as new as ‘La La Land’ where the female lead sings about her uncle aunt who jumped into the river.
Out of the UNESCO Heritage Sites in France, this is the only one in Paris. The heritage site covers the banks of the Seine River. This historic river runs through Paris, continuing towards Rouen and into the sea. There are a total of 37 bridges in Paris that you can use to cross and take pictures of the river.
Many of the famous landmarks in Paris lie on the banks of the river. The Eiffel Tower, The Louvre and the Notre Dame Cathedral all are found here. You can see it has inspired writers, poets and even emperors. Let the Seine inspire you today. When you visit make sure to take a moment to sit down, and just take in the flowing river.
Palace of Fontainebleau
The Palace of Fontainebleau has been the lodging of Emperors and Kings for many decades. It is an impressive castle just out of Paris. Built, in the 12th century, this monument has been built as a hunting lodge for the Royal Family. Calling the Fontainebleau a ‘hunting lodge’ is not doing it any justice. For all intents and purposes, this is a palace. Styled as such even The Palace of Versailles can envy some of its features and beauty.
Since then the palace has been transformed from Royal Quarters to a museum dedicated to the aristocracy in France. The palace is a sight in itself and worth the visit, but inside the museum, you will be able to see attractions like Napoleon’s Bedroom and the apartment of the Pope.
Mont Saint-Michel and it’s Bay
The next site is probably one of the most widely recognized UNESCO National Heritage Site in France. It is the Mont Saint-Michel and it’s Bay. Located on the seaside between Normany and Britanny, Mont Saint-Michel has its own little island in the sea. Although you will mostly meet other tourists here, the site is actually populated to this day. Due to its exciting location, the city becomes a real fortress sitting in the water when the tide is high. There were even occasions when the bridge leading here was completely submerged, isolating the island.
At the height of the population, the island had around 1500 locals. It was built to be used as a stronghold. The Abbey was built in the 11th century. The grandiose Abbey, built in the Romanesque-Gothic style makes this island fortress a unique sight. For a time in its history, it even served as a prison. It was only in 1863 that the prison has been closed and restoration work started on the establishment. Even the renowned author Victor Hugo contributed to the restoration works. Today the Abbey is loved and visited by tourists all over the world.
Decorated Cave of Pont d’Arc
Also known as Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, this UNESCO Heritage Site is possibly the oldest in France. This site is a prehistoric cave full of wall paintings. These are one of the best-preserved cave paintings on earth. The paintings and other artefacts of life from the Paleolithic era were discovered in the 90s. They are estimated to be around 35,000 years old.
Many of the paintings include dangerous animals, that were very hard to observe without the modern technology available to the humans of the Paleolithic era. Among these are mammoths, lions and rhinos. Apart from the paintings, human life can be observed in the cave. Several footprints have been found on the ground including footprints for children and either a dog or wolf. This last finding suggests that dogs might really be man’s best friend.
UNESCO wants the preserve the cave as much as possible, meaning it is not open to the general public. Instead, you can visit The Grotte Chauvet 2, which is an exact replica of the caves. Without doubts, this is one of the most special of all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France.
Historic Fortified City of Carcassonne
Carcassonne is a medieval town surrounded by walls on all sides. It has very well been preserved and restored throughout the years. Today it is in a state that allows you to get a feel of a medieval fortified city. With the massive defensive walls running all around the city and the gothic cathedral in the middle it offers a unique experience for your visit.
Walking down the streets you will feel it’s rich history from every stone in the walls. It has been serving as a fortress for more than 2500 years. Carcassonne has been occupied by Romans, Crusaders and Visigoths alike in different time periods. At its height, the city had a population of around 3-4000 people.
The Chartres Cathedral had quite a long history. Even before it was built, there were already 4 religious buildings built in its place. The first one, constructed at the 4rh century was destroyed as per the orders of the Duke of Aquitaine. The second church didn’t survive much longer. After being rebuilt, a group of ravaging Danish Vikings destroyed it around 858. The third try lasted a bit longer and was looking to stay. However, on one unfortunate night, it was devoured by fire.
After all of this comes the Chartres Cathedral. Construction finished in 1220 and it has been standing proud ever since. There were attempts to destroy it though. During the French revolution, an angry mob was trying to get close and tear the Cathedral down to the ground. Luckily the good townspeople of Chartres defended the Cathedral and it escaped without a scratch. Another time during the second world war, there have been whispers, that the Germans are trying to destroy it by artillery fire. Luckily this has all been but a rumour, and the Cathedral once again stood the test of time.
Considering the history of Chartres Cathedral it is a miracle that the building didn’t overgo any major renovations over the years. It is preserved at a very similar state, then it was when built. It even has a Christian relic: the tunic that was worn by Mary at Christ’s birth.
The Climats, terroirs of Burgundy
This is one of the newer sites added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in France. This site was added to commemorate the word renowned quality of the Burgundy wine region. The Climats are parcels of winegrape that each has its own microclimate, due to soil quality and weather exposure.
On this UNESCO Heritage Site, you will be able to enjoy and taste all the different wines of the Burgundy region. Along with the great wine, you will be able to enjoy the view of sloping vineyards wherever you look. There is also another part of this Heritage Site, which is the historic centre of Dijon.
Roman Theatre of Orange
Located in the Rhone Valley, you will find the ancient Roman Theatre of Orange. This UNESCO Heritage Site in France is, the theatre and its surroundings are one of the best-preserved Roman buildings you can find in the world. We highly encourage anyone who is interested in the ancient Roman culture to pay a visit to this site. Even better the theatre today operates as a proper open-air theatre. Although to keep it functional there has been some small restoration works on the theatre, it does not take away from the experience.
Pont du Gard (Roman Aqueduct)
Added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, the Pont du Gard is a long-surviving Roman Aqueduct. The Romans have built many aqueducts around Europe to supply fresh water into their cities and baths.
This masterpiece shows off the incredible skills of Roman engineers. It is almost 50m high and has three levels. Throughout the years it has withstood flooding, weather and general negligence, yet it still stands strong even today.
Provins, Town of Medieval Fairs
Provins is a fortified medieval town in the region once ruled by the influential Counts of Champagne. This town was specifically designed to host fairs and related activities. The town centre is extremely well preserved. Once you enter the old town, you will feel as if you have taken a step back in time.
The town also hosts a medieval re-enactment of Knights in battle. They put on a great show for anyone interested in knights and knighthood.
If you have seen the movie ‘In Burges’ you already have a pretty good idea what to expect from the beautiful city of Bourges. In the movie, it is called a fairytale town, which really is true. Walking around the streets you will find yourself in a true medieval village.
The Cathedral of St Etienne of Bourges is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992. It is a great example of the masterpieces that are gothic art. The Cathedral is beautiful both from the inside and outside. We would recommend visiting Bourges even if the only thing to see was the Cathedral. However there is a whole old town, that is a beautiful medieval city. You should definitely check it out.
Historic Centre of Avignon
Avignon is another well preserved medieval city in France. It is a popular destination for its architecture and monuments. The scenes on the streets of Avignon are dominated by Palais des Papes or the ‘Pope’s Palace’. This impressive gothic palace was once the home of the Pope, as for a time in history Avignon was the centre of Christianity.
Here you will also find the remains of Avignon Bridge. This bridge was once used to connect the palace with the city and the rest of France. There was even a period in history where the Avignon Bridge was the only bridge crossing the river Rhône.
Part of this heritage site is also the Avignon Cathedral. It’s white walls and Romanesque style make it stand out in the medieval centre of Avignon.
Fortifications of Vauban
The Fortifications of Vauban is not one building but rather it is a collection of buildings. In total, this UNESCO World Heritage Site in France consists of 12 different groups of fortified buildings.
When it came to designing fortresses Vauban proved to be an engineering genius. These buildings represent the work and heritage of Vauban. Among the 12 groups of buildings are mountain fortresses, towns designed by Vauban, bastion towers, and sea forts.
As you can see tell are a lot of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France to explore. Our list only gives you a taste of what to expect, and the most popular ones to visit. Even though we have only mentioned Heritage Sites directly on mainland Europe, there are even more in French Polynesia. This alone shows how rich in culture and history the French nation is. Make sure you also check out our other guides.