The important heritage of France's major towns and cities
Among the 35 French sites listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, around fifteen cities boast monuments or town centres dating from all the major historical periods and featuring a range of different architectural styles, from the Gallo-Roman era to the reconstruction of the post-war period, including medieval districts, Gothic cathedrals and Renaissance-style quarters. The following "chronological" tour of France will give you a taste of the country's urban highlights which await discovery!
The Gallo-Roman era
The Roman and (Romanesque) monuments of Arles
Founded to reward Julius Caesar's generals after their conquest of the Gauls, the colony of Arles prospered alongside the Rhône river, providing a port on the delta. Although threatened by flooding, the town nonetheless retained many of its extraordinary Roman ruins, including an amphitheatre (known as the "arènes"), theatre, gates and sections of the city walls dating from the 1st century. A fascinating museum houses the numerous pieces of sculpture and other objects discovered during excavations (a splendid bust of Caesar was recently found at the bottom of the river!). However, the old town of tightly packed narrow streets is also home to monuments from other historical periods (Saint-Trophime cloisters built between the 12th and 14th centuries, Romanesque churches etc), as well as evocative sights such as the Espace Van Gogh (housed in the old Hôtel-Dieu) and the Café Van Gogh overlooking the attractive Place du Forum - the Impressionist painter has very much left his mark on the streets of the town and the surrounding region. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Arles, the remarkable and imposing Abbaye de Montmajour, built and extended between the 12th and 17th centuries, is well worth a visit. The abbey stands proudly on an isolated knoll between the Plaine de la Crau and the Camargue.
Superbly preserved medieval towns
Provins, town of medieval fairs
Provins is renowned for its medieval heritage, including around sixty perfectly preserved buildings and monuments dotted around the Ville Haute, Ville Basse, Châtel and Val districts of the town. The military town founded between Paris and Reims during the reign of Charlemagne (around 800AD) became an important market centre between the year 1000 and the 14th century, hosting an annual trading fair. Situated on the crossroads of important commercial routes, this fair brought great wealth to the town, which was a fief of the Counts of Champagne. The town has retained its ramparts, its imposing keep (Tour César), vaulted halls, underground tunnels and half-timbered houses. It now hosts various festivals from April to October, including a knights' tournament, falconry demonstrations, and a colourful costumed medieval festival.
Carcassonne, a medieval town with an epic destiny
Perched on a hill between the Aude river and the famous Canal de Midi, Carcassonne's old town (120 permanent inhabitants) is renowned for its 3km-long double wall of ramparts, punctuated with 52 towers. The old town is also home to the castle of the Lords of Trencavel (12th century) and the Saint-Nazaire basilica (11th and 14th centuries). The old town was restored in the 19th century under the aegis of influential architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who was largely responsible for developing the principle of protecting historic monuments. Carcassonne enjoyed an important strategic location between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and the Pyrenees and the Cévennes. The town was also the site of a tragic episode in French history, a medieval "War of Religion" which took place in the 12th and 13th centuries between the Cathars (also known as the "Perfects", who followed a particularly austere and strict form of Catholicism) and the established religious authorities of the time. This "war" was also taken up by the different lords who controlled this region of the Languedoc.
Other towns which are completely surrounded by their medieval town walls include Aigues-Mortes, Concarneau, Saint-Malo, Bayonne, Guérande and Avignon.
Strasbourg and its Grande Ile quarter
Founded by the Romans in 12BC on the banks of the Rhine and at an important crossroads on the Alsace plain in the heart of Europe, Strasbourg is symbolised by its Gothic Notre-Dame cathedral, which took two and half centuries to build and was completed in 1439. The town was involved in many of Europe's important historical events, inventions and new ideas, including the Gutenberg press, Martin Luther's reform and the French Revolution. With its 16th century half-timbered houses (such as the famous Maison Kammerzell and the Petite France district reflected in the canals), the whole city centre is a World Heritage Site. Build up an appetite as you stroll around the narrow streets (where you will be tempted by numerous local delicacies!) and enjoy the sights of this friendly, welcoming city, especially during its famous Christmas markets.
The Gothic cathedrals of Amiens, Bourges, Chartres and Reims
Built in the 13th century in just 68 years, Notre-Dame cathedral holds the record for the tallest and longest cathedral in France (42m high in the nave and 145m long) and is renowned for the stunning sculptures on its façade. A unique multi-coloured light show provides visitors with an idea of the flamboyant decor which would once have adorned the building. Other highlights of this capital of Picardy include the historical Saint-Leu district, the fascinating Maison de Jules Verne, the water market and the marshland market gardens (known as hortillonnages).
Saint-Etienne cathedral is another important Gothic masterpiece, both as a result of its bold architectural design and because of its wide façade with five sculpted doors. The northern tower, known as the "Tour de Beurre", takes its name from the fact that it was rebuilt in 1506 (after an earlier tower collapsed) with funds raised by a tax on butter! Built around this listed gem, the old town is also renowned for its famous Palais Jacques Coeur (built by a powerful merchant who was given a noble title in the 15th century) which prefigures the Renaissance, as well as the Grange aux Dîmes, rue Bourbonnoux and place Gordaine, with their 15th century half-timbered houses.
Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, and adorned with thousands of sculpted figurines and some 5,000 painted figures over a total surface area of 2,600m² of stained glass, Chartres' Notre-Dame cathedral is one of the most representative Gothic-style cathedrals in France. Visitors are struck by the bright colours of its period stained-glass windows, which are in perfect condition and which form a unique ensemble. Around the cathedral, picturesque districts cling to the hills which run alongside the Eure river. Chartres has retained a vibrant arts and crafts tradition from its illustrious past and is also developing a less well-known speciality - the production of perfume.
Its harmonious architecture and striking luminosity make Reims' Notre-Dame cathedral an important emblem of the 13th century Gothic style. The capital city of the Champagne region and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Reims boasts other fascinating monuments, such as the old Saint-Remi basilica and the Palais du Tau. The former archbishops' residence, the Palais du Tau was transformed in the 17th century. The cathedral itself was for a long time used for the coronation of the kings of France, a ceremony which referred back to the first royal baptism, that of Clovis around 498. Reims is also known for its elegant, beautiful town houses, as well its famous Champagne producers.
Other magnificent Gothic cathedrals: Beauvais, Paris, Laon etc.
Built on a hill (the Rocher des Doms) overlooking the Rhône river (partly spanned by the famous medieval bridge), the imposing Popes' Palace was begun in 1335. It symbolises an important period in the town's history, from 1309 to 1418, when the Popes moved away from Rome and settled in Avignon. The palace comprises tall towers, vast halls, and dwellings and chapels of impressive dimensions, making it the largest Gothic building in history, the equivalent of approximately 4 cathedrals! Every July since 1947, the main courtyard of the palace has hosted the most famous theatre festival in France, which also spills out into the streets of the old town.
The Classical style of the 18th century
The city's riverside quays, place Royale and place de la Bourse present a harmonious architectural whole which is typical of the 18th century Classical style. The succession of façades belonging to the elegant mansions in this area are testament to the prosperity enjoyed by the town, its merchants and surrounding vineyards during this period. Bordeaux is also home to other very elegant districts, such as the Grand Théâtre, Palais Rohan, place des Grands Hommes and Les Chartrons. In fact, more than 350 buildings in the city are registered or listed as national historic monuments, including 3 religious monuments which are part of the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France World Heritage Site.
Nancy: Grande Place Stanislas
During the period when this duchy belonging to the King of Poland returned to being a French province, Stanislas modified three neighbouring squares (place de la Carrière, place d'Alliance and place Royale) to create Place Stanislas. This unique example of harmonious façades dating from 1755 includes buildings such as the Hôtel de Ville, Opéra-Théatre and Musée des Beaux-Arts. The square is also renowned for its gilded wrought-iron railings. Other districts, not part of the World Heritage Site, add to the attractions of this city in the Lorraine region: the old town boasts several fine examples of 15th Renaissance-style architecture (Porte de la Craffe, Palais Ducal, place Saint-Epvre etc), and the Ville-neuve district is also worth a visit. In the 19th century, the Nancy school - a spearhead of the architectural "Art Nouveau" style - also left its mark on the town.
Other Renaissance-style districts: Troyes, Bar-le-Duc etc.
A tribute to contemporary architecture and the use of "concrete"
Le Havre reinvented
The centre of this Norman port was rebuilt between 1945 and 1964 following the destruction caused by bombing during the Second World War. The project was entrusted to the Atelier de Reconstruction directed by Auguste Perret, a visionary architect who introduced methods of working with concrete, a material which was highly innovative at the time. He also established a coherent town plan, designed around geometric lines and buildings which were substantial in size. The site is the only example of contemporary town planning listed by UNESCO. The city, which is now focusing on a policy of sustainable development, also boasts a number of picturesque districts, such as the upper town and hanging gardens.
Major cities with a rich history
Paris and the banks of the Seine
The City of Lights boasts numerous majestic monuments and atmospheric quarters and one World Heritage Site - the banks of the Seine. Uninterrupted views of the splendid sights along the riverbanks, such as the Louvre, Ile de la Cité, Notre-Dame cathedral, and the many monumental bridges, can be enjoyed on a Bateau-Mouche boat ride along the river.
Lyon and its historic centre
The Capital of the Gauls also boasts a range of architectural styles and periods spanning 2,000 years in its atmospheric districts, including the narrow streets and covered passageways known as "traboules" on the Colline de la Croix-Rousse, 18th-century buildings in the Presqu'ïle quarter, the 19th-century Fourvière basilica and Renaissance-style houses in the Saint-Jean district and along the Quai de la Saône.
Groups of themed sites
In 2005, UNESCO added 23 French belfries to the 33 Belgian belfries (Flanders and Wallonia) already included on the World Heritage list. Neither a keep (symbol of the feudal lords) nor a bell tower (emblem of the church), a belfry is a pointed tower (often bearing a large clock) which illustrated the civil power of the aldermen - the magistrates who managed these towns (an early form of the contemporary mayor). Built in large towns with flourishing economies based on industry and commerce, these towers are found in the regions of the Nord-Pas de Calais and Picardy. Dating from between the 11th and the 17th centuries, they exist in many different architectural styles, including Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. Examples can be seen in Lille, Arras, Douai, Béthune, Calais and Lucheux (a small medieval town, whose belfry-gate dates from the 13th century).
The network of the 12 major Vauban sites (only in french)
UNESCO has combined 12 of the main fortifications designed by Vauban, a marshal and pioneering engineer under Louis XIV who completely reinvented the concept of defensive ramparts at several sites, including fortified towns and garrison citadels. Briançon, Mont-Louis, Camaret, Neuf-Brisach and Besançon are some of the sites listed.