UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France

The Esplanade des Quinconces, Bordeaux

Thomas Sanson


France currently has 43 UNESCO World Heritage Sites with several on a provisional list (requested but not yet approved). The first French sites were recognized in 1997: Chartres Cathedral; Mont-St-Michel and the Bay; Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley, and the Church and Hill of Vézelay. The latest include Champagne Houses and Cellars (2015); Climat and Terroirs of Burgundy (2015), and The Decorated Cave of Pont d'Arc (2014).

UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has been listing World Heritage Sites for over thirty years. It is an incredibly important task, preserving places that it recognizes as having world importance to our cultural lives and to the natural history of the planet.

The following UNESCO World Heritage Sites are in alphabetical order.

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The Episcopal City of Albi (2010)

Jane Avril Poster, Toulouse Lautrec Museum, Albi, Languedoc
Photo courtesy of Toulouse Lautrec Museum, CDT Tarn

North east of Toulouse, Albi became a UNESCO site after the extensive and sympathetic restoration of the area around the Cathedral, now a delightful paved area. The huge cathedral of red brick with a massive belfry is the major sight. The interior is completely covered in an extraordinary riot of colored scenes, including a graphic late 15th-century Last Judgement with the damned in their own particular hell.

The Palais de la Berbie, the former bishop’s palace, now houses the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, magnificently restored and with his work on show in a series of galleries.

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Arles Roman and Romanesque Monuments (1981)

The Roman Amphitheater in Arles, Provence
Photo courtesy of R Shetter

Arles is one of the most delightful cities in the south of France. Located on the east bank of the Rhône river, it’s known mainly for its superb amphitheater, Les Arènes, the largest Roman building in Gaul. Arles became the Roman capital of Gaul, Britain and Spain and prospered mightily. After the Romans left, the city survived well and enjoyed a new golden age in the Middle Ages, particularly seen in the magnificent 12th-century Cathédrale St-Trophime.

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Avignon: Papal Palace, Episcopal Ensemble and Avignon Bridge (1995)

Palais des Papes in Avignon
Jean-Marc Charles/Avignon Tourism

Avignon, on a bend in the Rhône river, is one of Provence’s liveliest cities, particularly in July when the Festival d’Avignon takes over the city and brings audiences from far and wide. During the Middle Ages Avignon became the capital of the Catholic Church, the transplanted popes building the Palais des Papes to show the power of the papacy.

Around the Palace, other buildings like the Palais Neuf and Petit Palais were constructed, making the site today one of the great attractions of France. You’re not done yet; the other must-see is the 12th-century Pont St-Bénézet--now just half a bridge, a romantic ruin after destruction by a flood in 1668.

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Caverne du Pont d’Arc (2014)

Ardeche Ppont D'arc Lions
SYCP Sebastien Gayet

The decorated Caverne du Pont d'Arc in the Ardèche was discovered in 1994. It has the earliest known pictorial drawings in the world, dating back 36,000 years. Having learnt the lessons of the caves at Lascaux, the cave was studied by scientists and a smaller replica made. The replica is extraordinary, giving you a very real feel of the past. 

Also visit the Aven d'Orgnac cave nearby for its fabulous stalagmites, stalactites and wonderful rock formations.

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Chartres Cathedral (1979)

Carved Angel at Chartres Cathedral
Atout France/Catherine Bibollet

Chartres is one of the greatest Gothic cathedrals of Europe. It stands up above the flat countryside, an enduring landmark in medieval and religious history. It was begun in 1154, caught fire in 1194 then was reconstructed over a very short 26-year period. So it is a remarkably cohesive example of French Gothic architecture.

The cathedral has a nave stretching out as you enter which when clear of chairs gives you a very real feel for the majesty of the building. But it’s the magnificent stained glass from the 12th and 13thcenturies that most people come to see. Take a pair of binoculars with you; some of the scenes are so far above you that you’ll need help in deciphering them.

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The Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay (1981)

Cloisters of Fontenay Abbey in Burgundy
Alain Doire/Bourgogne Tourisme

The great Abbey of Fontenay, founded by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1119, stands deep in the countryside of Burgundy. Like all such great foundations, it suffered over the centuries. But today what is left is a remarkable collection of buildings, giving you a very real idea of what monastic life was like in the Middle Ages

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The Loire Valley: Sully-sur-Loire to Chalonnes (2000)

Chenonceau Chateau in the Loire Valley
Photo courtesy of Atout France/Martine Prenevielle

The Loire Valley is one of the most visited areas of France, a part where chateaux and small towns are strung along the mighty river Loire like jewels around a woman’s neck. It’s a long stretch, starting at Sully-sur-Loire and the grand chateau built there in 1360 then passing through Orleans, Blois, Tours and Angers and ending at the former river port town of Chalonnes-sur-Loire.

It takes in great chateaux like Chambord, Cour Cheverny, Blois, Amboise and Clos Lucé, the last home of Leonardo da Vinci, Chenonceaux, Azay le Rideau, Villandry and Chinon. A rich legacy and beautiful countryside, great wines and the Loire a Velo trail attract visitors of all kinds through the year.

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The Historic Site of Lyon (1998)

Lyon Festival of Light
Muriel Chaulet

Lyon, France’s second biggest city, has a remarkable collection of sites from the Roman theaters on the hill of Fourvière to the newly developed confluence where two of France’s most important rivers, the Rhône and the Saône meet. Lyon became rich on trade and on the silk produced here for centuries. It saw the birth of the cinema, suffered during World War II and now is busy renovating the banks of the Saône to make a memorable walk.

It’s also known for its major festivals, including a Film Festival and the internationally known Fête des Lumières in December when the city is imaginatively and beautifully illuminated by international artists.

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Mont-Saint-Michel and its Bay (1979)

Mont Saint Michel
Fiona Quinn

The most famous landmark outside Paris, the fabulous Abbey of Mont St-Michel, stands on a rocky island, cut off from the mainland by treacherous tides. Dating back to the 8th century when a monastery was founded here, the unmistakeable spires of the abbey dominate the surrounding gothic buildings, known since 1228 as the Merveille (The Marvel). In 2015 a new bridge was opened taking visitors across the tides, making the abbey once more an island. 

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Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin (2012)

UNESCO North France Mining Site
Photo courtesy of Hubert Bouvet, Région Nord Pas de Calais

Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin is one of the latest additions to the UNESCO sites. The Nord-Pas de Calais Mining  Basin was once a vital mining area of 120 kms (75 miles) around Béthune just south of Lille. With mining pits from 1850, slag heaps, transport, railway stations, workers’ estates and mining villages, it presents a lost world which once kept the industries of France powered. It’s also a testimony to the living conditions and the solidarity of the workers.

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Reims: Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Abbey of St-Remi and Tau Palace (1991)

Reims Cathedral in Champagne at night
Photo courtesy of Jacques Driol

Reims, the capital of Champagne just northeast of Paris has a fabulous cathedral among its many attractions. As UNESCO states: “The outstanding handling of new architectural techniques in the 13th century, and the harmonious marriage of sculptural decoration with architecture, has made Notre-Dame in Reims one of the masterpieces of Gothic art.”

Inside the Cathedral you’ll find the remains of Archibishop St Rémi (440-533) who was the first cleric to anoint a King of France, starting a tradition that continued to the 19th century. Beside the cathedral, the former Bishop’s Palace of Tau houses some remarkable tapestries and a treasury full of golden riches.

Apart from this, there’s always the great attraction of the numerous Champagne houses which you can visit.

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Vezelay, Church and Hill (1979)

Vezelay Abbey in Burgundy
Atout France/Franck Charel

Vézelay which tops a hill in the rolling countryside of Burgundy, was one of the great centers of Christendom, one of the important stops for pilgrims on their long way to St. Jacques of Compostella in Spain.

Today it’s an empty, beautiful building, surrounded by small streets of old houses that wind their way up the hill. Besieged by tour buses in summer (particularly at midsummer), it’s worth visiting in the ​off season when the village has a sad and romantic feel​

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Complete List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France

Fontainbleau Chateau


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