When it comes to historical and cultural heritage, France is a global heavyweight. The country counts a total of 45 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, stretching from Normandy to Paris, the Loire Valley to the Dordogne, and beyond. These are 15 of the top UNESCO sites to visit on your next trip to France. What these remarkable sites all have in common is a tendency to make your jaw drop—and your horizons to suddenly expand.
Banks of the Seine, Paris
The banks of the Seine river that run through Paris were only recognized by UNESCO as a heritage site in 1991—but the area has been a center and living source of Parisian civilization for millennia. The central island between the right and left banks, known as the Ile de la Cité, was settled by a tribe of Celtic fishermen known as the Parisii in the 3rd century B.C., and during the first century Gallo-Romans renamed it "Lutetia."
During the Middle Ages, sites including Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Louvre Palace, and the Sainte-Chapelle were built around the banks of the Seine, making it one of the most important areas for historic discovery in the area. Take a long walk along the riverbanks, and if time allows embark on a commented sightseeing cruise of the Seine to learn more about its rich heritage.
Few global sites meld natural and human-made wonder more dramatically than the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey and Bay, situated at the border between Normandy and Brittany in northern France. The Gothic and Romanesque Abbey—built between the late 10th and 16th centuries, was dedicated to the Archangel St. Michel; it once housed an order of Benedictine monks.
It impossibly towers atop a rocky islet, overlooking the dramatic Bay and its powerful tidal systems. These make the Abbey and its surrounding, watery landscapes appear dramatically different depending on the time of day and quality of the light, and the Bay is home to a remarkable number of wild birds and aquatic species.
We recommend experiencing the haunting magic of Saint-Michel as part of a weeklong trip to France.
Notre-Dame in Paris may enjoy greater fame, but Chartres Cathedral is at least as great a masterpiece of high Gothic architecture. Situated only an hour from Paris by train, Chartres makes an easy and essential day trip from the capital.
Built between the late 12th century and early 13th centuries, it's lauded for its harmonious design and remarkably well-preserved original features. Come to admire its elegant flying buttresses, elaborate stained glass and jaw-dropping rose window. Meanwhile, the Chapel of Saint Piat is striking for its rounded turrets, which resemble those featuring in medieval castles.
Historic Center of Avignon, Including the Papal Palace
The picturesque city of Avignon in Provence is best known today for its dramatic battlements, well-preserved medieval city center, and vibrant summer theater festival. But what arguably makes the city so fascinating is that it, like the Vatican in Rome today, once served as the seat of the Pope, and enjoyed a great deal of independence from the rest of France as a result.
Explore the city center to take in the 13th and 14th-century Papal Palace, one of the best-preserved and most heavily fortified medieval century buildings in Europe, the "Episcopal Ensemble," and the 12th-century Avignon Bridge, which stretches gracefully over the Rhône River.
Champagne Hillsides, Houses, and Cellars
Almost everyone knows that the Champagne region makes some of the world's most famous (and expensive) sparkling wines. But did you know that it's also prized for its extensive network of underground chalk galleries, or crayères?
Dating to the early medieval period, these galleries were initially used as limestone quarries, but in the 18th century, they were repurposed to serve as cellars for the burgeoning champagne-making industry. The cool, humid underground passages are ideal for storing and aging sparkling wine. The UNESCO site in Champagne comprises underground networks of cellars and passageways in Reims and Epernay, as well as historic vineyards in Hautvillers, Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ.
Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris
Probably the world's most iconic gothic cathedral, Notre-Dame remains one of the crown jewels of the Parisian skyline. Construction on the cathedral began in around 1163; it took the toil of hundreds of laborers over two centuries to complete it.
Situated on the Ile de la Cité, the cathedral boasts two dramatic towers, an elegant spire (that was sadly all but destroyed in a 2019 fire), delicate stained glass, and a prominent rose window. The facade features three portals whose numerous statues tell elaborate biblical stories. Current restoration efforts include plans to restore the spire. The cathedral will hopefully grace the city's landscape for centuries to come.
The "Climats" and Terroirs of Burgundy
The French region of Burgundy is renowned for its high-quality wines. The high price tag of Burgundy wines is partly owing to the fact that they're often produced in very small yields compared to other wines, on tiny plots of land whose soil is said to have very specific characteristics. Some of the more prized vineyards of Burgundy, located in the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune winemaking areas south of Dijon, were named a UNESCO Heritage Site for their outstanding history and influence on the cultivation of vines. The tiny vineyards, which have grown on steep-sloped since the Middle Ages, are called climats prized for their unique geologic conditions and exposure.
The Burgundian towns of Beaune and Dijon, as well as surrounding villages, are also part of the UNESCO site, representing the historic centers of wine commercialization in the region.
Palace and Park of Versailles
Situated just an hour outside Paris by train or car, the Palace and Gardens at Versailles are an enduring symbol of French royal power and prestige. Named a UNESCO heritage site in 1979, Versailles was commissioned by King Louis XIV in the late 17th century, displacing the seat of monarchy from central Paris at the Louvre to the nearby countryside.
Comprising 2,300 rooms, the main chateau is a historic marvel for its lavish (and recently renovated) Hall of Mirrors, Royal Operahouse, King's apartments and Royal Bedchamber, and the bedrooms of Queen Marie Antoinette, one of the palace's last royal residents. Meanwhile, the site's extensive and painstakingly planned gardens, designed by Le Notre, are a masterpiece in their own right, brimming with elaborate parterres, fountains, sculptures, and geometric shrubbery. We recommend visiting in late spring or summer, when the gardens are in full bloom.
Lyon isn't always on tourists' radar, but it should be. The former Gallo-Roman capital boasts over a thousand years of history, and UNESCO recognized the oldest part of the city, "Vieux Lyon," as a World Heritage Site, for its wealth of culturally important sites. You can neatly trace the city's history in just a few hours exploring the area around the Saone river.
Start at the well-preserved Roman amphitheaters that still crown Fourvière Hill, descending through the Renaissance-era "traboules," or courtyard passageways that cut through rose-hued, Italian-style buildings, to the medieval streets of Vieux-Lyon and the Saint-Jean Cathedral.
Prehistoric Sites & Decorated Caves of the Vézères Valley
For anyone interested in prehistoric art and civilization, we recommend a trip to the mesmerizing Vézères Valley in southwestern France. Home to 147 prehistoric sites dating to the Paleolithic period, the lush valley near the Dordogne river also boasts 25 decorated caves. The Lascaux Cave is the most famous of these, discovered in 1940.
While it's currently only possible to visit an elaborate replica (to preserve the delicate originals), witnessing the some 100 paleolithic hunting scenes and animal figures is breathtaking. Meanwhile, other nearby caves, such as the Font de Gaume, allow you to take in original art drawn by prehistoric human hands. Also, consider a trip to Les Eyzies for its remarkable caves and National Prehistory Museum.
Strasbourg, Grand Ile, and Neustadt
The northeastern city of Strasbourg won accolades from UNESCO for its unique urban landscape: one blending outstanding Gothic, Renaissance, and French 18th-century architecture, cut through by the Rhine river and waterways.
In the city center, the imposing Cathedral is considered a masterpiece from the high Gothic period, and it also counts important Romanesque elements. In the surrounding streets, French and Germanic structures spanning several centuries form a rich interplay of cultural influences. The Grande-Ile area incorporates 15th to late 17th-century private residences into the landscape, while the Palais de Rohan is a remarkable example of 18th-century classicism. Finally, the Neustadt area blends 19th-century Haussmannian architectural influences with Germanic ones. The result? A landscape unique to Strasbourg.
Fortified Medieval City of Carcassonne
One of the world's best-preserved medieval cities, Carcassonne is situated in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southwestern France. With foundations dating to the late Roman period, the imposing walled city was a military defense site well before the Middle Ages. During the 11th century, a cathedral was built within the city, and a family of noblemen, the Trencevals, constructed a chateau within the walls. A series of revolts and Crusades in the 13th century led to the formerly independent city submitting to the rule of the French crown.
During the 19th century, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc led ambitious efforts to restore the medieval cité, which had fallen into ruin. His painstaking restoration was recognized by UNESCO as an important element of Carcassonne's outstanding cultural heritage.
Pont du Gard (Roman Aqueduct)
This impressive aqueduct bridge in Southern France is one of the best-preserved architectural structures from the Gallo-Roman period, and dates to the 1st century A.D. Crossing the river Gardon in close reach of the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard, it's part of the extensive Nimes aqueduct that stretches for some 31 miles. It is the tallest aqueduct bridge from the period, standing 164 feet high, and was designed to transport water to the nearby Roman colony of Nemausus, more than 31 miles away. Visit the nearby Pont du Gard museum to learn more about the site and Gallo-Roman France.
Old Bordeaux and the "Port of the Moon"
The historic center of Bordeaux, in southwest France, is the largest urban environment to be deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some 2,718 acres—or around 40 percent of the total surface area of Bordeaux—were recognized as part of the site in 2005, stretching from the Port de la Lune (Port of the Moon) on the banks of the Garonne River, to the Place de la Bourse (Old Stock Exchange) and the splendid Miroir d'Eau (water mirror). In addition to boasting some remarkably well-preserved medieval and 18th-century architecture, Bordeaux has been a center of trade and cultural exchange for over 2,000 years, with the commercial wine trade putting the city on the global map since the 12th century.
The Loire Valley Between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes
The Loire Valley, situated on the banks of the Loire and Cher rivers in central France, is mesmerizing for its natural beauty, astoundingly well-preserved castles (most dating to the Renaissance period), and cultural traditions, including winemaking. It counts some 300 castles, including the world-famous Chambord, Chenonceau, and Amboise, whose storybook-reminiscent architecture and lush gardens attest to strong French, Italian/Mediterranean, and Flemish cultural encounters during the 15th and 16th centuries.
In towns such as Saumur, Chinon, and Blois, impressive architecture and vast, ornate gardens abound, alongside picturesque vineyards and wineries, lush river ecosystems that host an abundance of wildlife, and a unique local culture that's always worth exploring.