The top 20 most visited sites in France might come as a surprise. There are quite a few museums here but count both foreign and French visitors. The French are hot on cultural institutions. Left to the foreign visitors alone, the figures might be slightly different. Visitor figures refer to December 2014 and come from INSEE (National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies).
16 million visitors
The enduring appeal of Disney and all those characters we remember from our childhood came to Europe in Disneyland Paris. Opened in 1992, it’s just an hour’s simple ride by commuter train from Paris. It has two full theme parks, hotels, shopping, and entertainment.
Louvre Museum, Paris
9.4 million visitors
The Louvre Museum is the big daddy of Paris museums, a vast building housing a vast collection of art from the Greeks and the Romans to the early modern period. It’s something every visitor to Paris must see, apart from Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa.
Eiffel Tower, Paris
7.5 million visitors
Think of Paris and most people instantly think of the Eiffel Tower. Its wonderful iron structure has been dominating the skyline of the City of Light since 1889 and the World Exposition. It’s odd to think that when it was first built, people talked of pulling it down. Today it lights up at night with a show hourly.
Château de Versailles near Paris
6.7 million visitors
It’s not surprising that Versailles, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is next on the list. It’s a magnificent, huge palace just a short ride away from Paris. It’s another must-see on anybody’s visit to France, and particularly to Paris. If you’re there, do a bit of luxury shopping at the Courtyard of the Senses.
Pompidou Centre (National Museum of Modern Art, NMMA), Paris
3.8 million visitors
The Centre Georges Pompidou stands in its own huge space in Beaubourg. It’s a magnificent building designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano and opened in 1977. It houses the National Museum of Modern Art, a superb collection of contemporary artworks with all the great names from Matisse to Picasso. It also puts on top temporary shows.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
3.5 million visitors
This is many people’s favorite museum and it’s easy to see why. The Musée d’Orsay is housed in a former grand Beaux-Arts railway station in St Germain on the left bank. Its roomy interior now offers four floors of superb Impressionist artworks. This is the place for a feast of Monets, Manets, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and more. Taking art from 1848 to 1914 the museum shows the effect that Impressionism, at the time a revolutionary approach to painting, had on the artists who followed that generation.
Science & Industry Museum, La Villette, Paris
2.6 million visitors
The Science and Industry Museum (Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie) is the place to visit with your family but it’s relatively unknown to tourists. It’s designed for children aged from 2 to 18 with exhibits that capture their imagination and teach them science in easy steps. Divided into themes from light games to mathematics, it covers everything from human anatomy to space exploration with a mass of interactive exhibits. It’s at La Villette, an area well worth a visit.
National Museum of Natural History, Paris
1.9 million visitors
The Muséum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle is in a royal garden of medicinal plants of King Louis XIII which opened to the public as the Jardin des Plantes in 1640. There’s also a small zoo, the Mineralogy and Geology gallery, and the Paleontology gallery. They are all part of the National Museum of Natural History, another major site little known to foreign tourists. The highlight is the Great Gallery of Evolution, where thousands of creatures stand in the center while exhibits to each side explain their habitats and characteristics.
Futuroscope Theme Park, Poitiers
1.8 million visitors
An astonishing, futuristic theme park which opened 25 years ago, Futuroscope in Poitiers, west France offers differently themed rides and shows. It’s the place to go under the sea or into space.
Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Champs-Elysées, Paris
1.5 million visitors
Restored and re-opened in 2008, the Grand Palais is the place for blockbuster art exhibitions. Originally opened for the Great Exhibition of 1900, it then put on some adventurous exhibitions such as the 1905 Salon d’Automne which shocked the general public with art by Matisse, Braque and Derain and the birth of Fauvism. The exhibition on Monet attracted 900,000 visitors; other popular exhibitions have included Edward Hopper and Helmut Newton. Its vast open spaces are perfect for exhibitions of fashion, photography as well as performances of theater, music and dance.
Omaha Beach American Cemetery, Normandy
1.6 million visitors
Omaha Beach played a vital, and tragic role in the D-Day Landings on June 6th, 1944. Today the long sandy beach attracts walkers and swimmers, while the American Military Cemetery above it, is the most visited site of World War II in Normandy.
The cemetery holds 9,387 graves; the visitor center tells the story of some of the American forces killed here.
Parc Astérix, Picardy
1.5 million visitors
Parc Astérix in Picardy is great fun for families, whether you are familiar with Obelix, Astérix and the diverse cast of characters from the original comic books or not. Plenty of rides and attractions for all ages and it’s just 30 km north of Paris so easy to reach for a day out.
Arc de Triomphe, Paris
1.7 million visitors
The Arc de Triomphe is another iconic image of Paris, standing at the top of the Champs-Élysèes and honoring Napoleon Bonaparte, the army and his victories. Started in 1806 on the Place d’Etoile and finally finished 30 years later, it’s one of the most photographed buildings in the French capital. At ground floor level there’s the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, You can climb the 284 steps, or take the elevator then climb 64 steps to the top (there is an admission charge for this). It’s worth it for the stunning views over Paris.
Puy du Fou Theme Park, Atlantic Coast
1.4 million visitors
This favorite theme park in France has everything. There are chariot races, a Viking ship that rises from the lake, gladiatorial contests and a wonderful nighttime show that is well worth the extra cost. Diehard enthusiasts can stay here as well in a themed hotel.
Quai Branly Museum, Paris
1.3 million visitors
The Quai Branly museum opened in 2006 in an uncompromising contemporary building to display the arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. It has a fabulous permanent collection and also puts on a varied program of temporary displays. Recent exhibitions include the lives and ambitions of the Ican Atahualpa and the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro, and one on tattooing which shows the social and mystical role of tattoos in early societies from the Oriental, African and Oceanian worlds to today’s embracing of tattoos by fashionistas.
Army Museum (Musée de l’Armée Invalides), Paris
1.4 million visitors
The Army Museum is housed in Les Invalides, an imposing building of 1670 intended as a hospital and convalescent home for injured soldiers in the reign of Louis XIV. The Army Museum has a vast collection of weapons and armor from the 13th to the 17 th centuries; it’s one of the three largest army museums in the world. There’s a section on the French Army from 1871 to 1945 and covers both World Wars comprehensively. The museum also includes jousting, hunting and tournaments and weaponry from the Ottoman, Persian, Mongolian, Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian worlds.
Les Invalides is probably best known for Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb, moved here in 1840.
Mont St-Michel, Normandy
1.3 million visitors
Mont St-Michel stands on a rocky island off the coast of Normandy, an abbey which has attracted pilgrims and worshippers since the first buildings of the 9th century. A new bridge has replaced the old causeway, and the place is once again an island, washed by the tides. It's one of the great sacred sites of France.
Millau Viaduct, Mid-Pyrénées
1.2 million visitors
The Millau Viaduct was first drawn up in 1987 to link the Causse Rouge to the north with the Causse du Larzac to the south on the A75 autoroute. Designed by Michel Virlogeux and realized by the British architect Lord Norman Foster, work started in 2001. The viaduct was opened in 2004. It’s a beautiful structure, seemingly floating over the Tarn river valley.
It’s currently (records are made to be broken) the tallest vehicle bridge in the world and taller than the Eiffel Tower at its tallest point.
Chateau and Museum of the Dukes of Brittany, Nantes
1.3 million visitors
The Dukes of Brittany were once rich and powerful, building themselves a glorious 15th-century château in the middle of the port of Nantes. Today it houses a museum, telling the colorful story of Nantes.
Nantes is a fabulous city, often overlooked particularly by foreign visitors, but well worth a visit.
Bois de Boulogne Zoo (Jardin d’acclimatation), Paris
Created in 1860 the Jardin d'acclimatation took over the winter gardens of the hothouses as well as exotic animals. It grew into a pleasure park with a merry-go-round and puppet shows for children, as well as housing bears, lions, monkeys, and deer. But it’s mainly about plants, whether providing tea or perfumes. It’s also a fabulous place for bird watching as the lakes and ponds provide shelter for migrating species. It’s in the popular Bois de Boulogne.