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France’s best churches and cathedrals

The Belle France guide to France’s most amazing religious buildings

Sometimes on holiday you reach a moment where you need a change. You’ve relaxed and devoured that book, and just fancy a fresh diversion to pique your interest before diving into the next blockbuster.

Perhaps you’ve done some cycling and walking and got yourself from Hotel A to Hotel B without major incident and now fancy a greater challenge. Maybe it’s time to go off-piste to find a cultural sight worth investigating?

Churches, cathedrals and any form of religious building are great ways to delve into the local history, while also giving perspective on a wider national level. They give context to the places you pass through, the people and generations before them. They give insight into historic art, social structure, the impact of wars and religious persecution and all the things that shape your chosen destination.

Step inside the vast monumental cathedral, the small quirky chapel, the elegant mosque. They all shine a light on your holiday surroundings. They help transform the tourist into the traveller. And they always enhance your Belle France holiday in some way. 

Here’s our Belle France guide to some favourites.

Mont St Michel at dusk
Mont St Michel at dusk

Mont St Michel abbey Normandy

In a list such as this we may as well start with a big name. Just half a mile off the coast, this small island seems to shimmer above the water, forming a distinctive silhouette instantly recognisable around the world. Built by Benedictine monks in the 8th century the abbey has ever since been the focal point of the island. Today it receives over 3 million visitors each year, with most arriving via the new bridge opened in 2014. 

Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence - CN Traveler
Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence - CN Traveler

Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence Provence

From the outside, this is nothing special: a small church on the Riviera, low, white and rather undramatic. Step inside however and you behold a barrage of Matisse artworks – large stylised murals, the brown stone altar (the colour of bread), the crucifix, the priests’ vestments and the intensely colourful stained glass windows.

Matisse had been persuaded to collaborate on the project and, as a frail old man, he directed works between 1949 and 1951. The resulting feel of the interior is stripped back and simple, almost austere and certainly unique.

Grande Mosquée de Paris. Photo by muratc3/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
Grande Mosquée de Paris. Photo by muratc3/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Grande Mosquée de Paris Paris

Set in the 5th arrondissement, just west of Gare d’Austerlitz, this is the largest mosque in France and the second largest in Europe. People flock here for various reasons not just religious. For starters it’s a beautiful setting, with elegant pools and fountains in well-tended gardens. 

It also has a fascinating history, being founded in 1926 after the Great War when France wanted to recognize the Muslim soldiers from the colonies who had given their lives. The Great Mosque also played a key role during World War Two, sheltering many Jews during the Holocaust and then providing Muslim ID papers.

Chartres Cathedral
Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral Chartres

Dating from 1194 this a Big Beast among religious buildings of global importance. Lying 50 miles south west of Paris it is a masterpiece of Gothic art, in particular its stained glass windows which gaze across the town.

Its famously mismatched spires give it a distinctive appearance and can be seen from afar across the flat landscape. Inside, the labyrinth walk has attracted pilgrims for over 1,000 years and the cathedral also houses the Sancta Camisa, the tunic (apparently!) worn by Mary during the birth of Christ.

The cathedral nearly came to a destructive end in 1944 when the American command ordered it to be bombed, along with the surrounding area occupied by German forces. Colonel Griffith challenged the order, and ventured behind enemy lines to verify that no Germans were in the cathedral. The order was reversed but Griffith was killed in action later that same day.

St Joseph's Church Le Harve

At first glance this grey concrete structure looks a little unsightly but concealed within the severe shell lies a sombre Neo-Gothic space. Constructed between 1951 and 1958 to replace the original St Joseph's which was completely razed in World War Two, this new Brutalist design with its 107m tall tower was envisioned to act as a lighthouse for Le Harve - historically an important sea port. The octagonal tower is illuminated at night and the light shines through its 12,768 stained glass windows designed by Marguerite Huré. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

Notre-Dame de la Garde illuminated at night
Notre-Dame de la Garde illuminated at night

Notre-Dame de la Garde Marseille

With its lavish gold décor, massive arches, exquisite mosaics, multi-coloured masonry and high vaulted domes, this could be mistaken for one of Rome’s more celebrated and ornate churches. For centuries Marseille has been one of France’s busiest ports, so no surprise this dramatic church was topped off with a gold statue of Mary, the patron saint of Marseille, who the sailors looked to for protection. 

Set on Marseille’s highest point, it was constructed in the 1850s on the site of an old fort and overlooks the entire city, harbour and surrounding coastline.

Notre Dame du Haut
Notre Dame du Haut

Notre Dame du Haut Ronchamp, Eastern France

A post-war modernist structure built in 1953, this design by Le Corbusier replaced a chapel destroyed during the war and remains one of France’s most important 20th century religious structures.

Striking for its thick buttress-like walls, up to ten feet thick in places, and its heavy slab-like roof, it is in fact surprisingly light and airy inside. The sun pierces the walls in cleverly designed asymmetric windows and openings and reflects off the white washed walls.

Basilica of Sacré-Coeur - Lonely Planet
Basilica of Sacré-Coeur - Lonely Planet

Basilica of Sacré-Coeur Paris

Offering one of the iconic views over Paris, from an elevated position in Montmartre, this is a majestic structure by any standard. Its bleached white stone façade maintains its pristine nature in all weather and the rounded domes soaring up into a blue sky make quite an image.

Building commenced in 1875 and the basilica was finally consecrated after the First World War in 1919. Today it is a popular tourist attraction offering breathtaking views as well the enticement of a stroll through the lively streets of Montmartre. 

Laon Cathedral - Getty Images/LECLERCQ Olivier hemis.fr
Laon Cathedral - Getty Images/LECLERCQ Olivier hemis.fr

Laon Cathedral Picardy

With a long history dating back to the 12th century, this magnificent structure is one of a veritable cluster of historic monuments (84 are officially listed in the town, a higher density than anywhere else in the country). Among the narrow streets, ancient buildings and little squares the cathedral rises up to dominate the town. 

The cathedral is striking for its beautiful interior, lighter and brighter than Notre Dame - its Gothic counterpart in Paris - courtesy of the white stone used in its construction. The pale, translucent interior is a perfect backdrop to the huge rose-pink stained glass window that provides the colour.

Strasbourg Cathedral Strasbourg

Sitting on a German-French crossroads and with a thousand year history, the façade’s incredibly detailed sculptures provide countless visual insights into the Middle Ages. The pink sandstone provides colours that change with the shifting of the sun and the spire was, until the 19th century, the highest structure in western Europe.

Daily at half past midday the astronomical clock draws a crowd, keen to witness the mechanical figures perform their complex manoeuvres. This has been a daily occurrence since 1842.


Looking for something a little different?

Basilica of St. Pius X nave by Luc Viatour. Released under Creative Commons license by Luc Viatour.
Basilica of St. Pius X nave by Luc Viatour. Released under Creative Commons license by Luc Viatour.

Basilica of St. Pius X Lourdes

Known as the Underground Basilica, this vast Roman Catholic church was consecrated in 1958 by Pope John XXIII. It was one of the most controversial architectural designs of the post war years and was dreamt up by architect Pierre Vago.

The huge 191 metre long, oval-shaped space is located completely underground, its ceiling is supported by 58 concrete pillars and its nave has a capacity of 25,000. However, unsurprisingly, a building of such immense size comes with design faults. Although views are unobstructed in most of the nave, its large size means worshippers sitting at the far ends of the building are unable to see the central sanctuary. The building is also acoustically very poor with sounds becoming fuzzy towards the back and choral vocals reverberating too much.

Cold War bunker church - Claude Parent
Cold War bunker church - Claude Parent

Église Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay Nevers

Église Sainte-Bernadette du Benlay is a Brutalist take on traditional Cistercian churches. It was built in 1966 and designed by father of modernism architecture, Claude Parent.

A dramatic exterior gives way to a softer interior with dampened light, curved concrete walls and, although industrial, it is also rather intimate. 

It is listed as a Historique Monument and a Monument of the 20th Century.

Russian Orthodox Cathedral
Russian Orthodox Cathedral

Russian Orthodox Cathedral Nice

With similarities to Saint Basil's Cathedral in St Petersburg, this Eastern Orthodox church - the largest in Western Europe - was opened in 1912 and funded by Russia's Tsar Nicholas II. 

Its location in Nice was chosen to honour the son of Aleksandr II tsarevich Nicolai, who died in Nice after failing to recover from tuberculosis. Since the early 19th century there has been a longstanding association of wealthy Russians and the French Riviera, that still continues to this day.

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