UNESCO World Heritage sites
The Belle France guide to World Heritage sites in France
UNESCO World Heritage Site is a place that has been deemed to be of special cultural or physical significance. Currently, France is in 4th place in terms of the number of sites within the country, following hot on the heels of Italy, China and Spain.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee was formed in 1972 and 21 member states currently form part of the Programme. A World Heritage Site is deemed by UNESCO as being in the interest of the international community to preserve each site.
France currently has 41 sites which have been given UNESCO status, and of these, 39 are in mainland France (or just off the coast, one is in Corsica) and the remainder are in New Caledonia and Réunion.
There are some impressive places on the list, as you can well imagine, such as Chatres Cathedral, the Palace of Versailles and the fortified city of Carcassone. So why not plan your next trip (or trips!) across the Channel to visit some of these sites, they’ve been given this status for a reason, so you know you’re in for a treat!
Download the full Belle France eGuide to UNESCO sites in France.
Here’s the definitive list of 39 sites you should plan to visit if you can!
- Île de France
- Picardy and Nord Pas de Calais
- The Loire
- Champagne, Alsace, Franche Comté & Lorraine
- Charente and Centre
- Ardèche and the Rhône-Alpes
- Pyrenees and Languedoc
- Provence and Corsica
- Throughout France
Île de France
Palace and Park of Fontainebleau
One of the largest Royal Châteaux, Fontainebleau was originally a medieval palace before becoming a château. It has been the residence of many of France’s kings, and even Napoleon relocated the throne here before he was finally exiled. It was given its name due to one of the springs that were found in the grounds. Its location in relation to Paris, and also the abundance of game in the surrounding forest is one of the reasons why it became so popular with French monarchs.
Many additions and extensions were made to the château over the years, which is why it is so large now. It has served as a military school, prison and an art and music school during its time. It was occupied by the Germans during the war and even became a headquarters for NATO. Visitors will be able to see Marie Antionette’s bedroom, the Throne Room, Napoleon’s Apartments and also the Pope’s Apartment. The gardens and Park are also included within the World Heritage status due to their impressive nature.
Palace and Park of Versailles
Versailles was originally a small village which dates from the 11th century, now it has been swallowed up by the suburb of Paris.
The Palace itself was built as a hunting lodge by Louis XIII in 1623, before being turned into a Royal Palace by Louis XIV.
In 1682, the Palace was fit enough for Louis XIV to move the royal court from Paris, and it remained as such until the French Revolution when the Royal family were forced to return to Paris.
Following the Revolution and the fall of the monarchy, Versailles fell into disrepair. Some work was done to try and restore the Palace by Napoleon and Louis XVIII, Louis-Phillippe turned the Palace into a museum of French history in the mid-19th Century and continued the work to bring it back to its former glory.
Primarily a museum and tourist attraction, it is still used for some political and ceremonial functions.
Paris, Banks of the Seine
The banks of the River Seine which runs through the heart of Paris contain many of Paris’ famous landmarks, including the Louvre, Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower. There are 37 bridges which cross the river through Paris including the Pont Neuf which dates back to 1607. It’s called the Seine after the Roman Goddess of the River, Sequana. Each bank has a name, Rive Gauche and Rive Driote, and both of them have been given World Heritage Status. They are a popular attraction for tourists to walk along and take in all the sights of Paris.
Year listed: 1991 [Wikipedia link] [UNESCO link] Category of site: Cultural site Recommended Belle France Holiday:Landscape of Kings [Add extra nights in Paris at a 3-star hotel by the Canal Saint Martin.]
Provins, Town of Medieval Fairs
Provins is a medieval fortified town with many interesting aspects to its history and features. For example, it was the home of one of the Champagne fairs, which were so important to the economy in medieval times, when the city was under the protection of Counts of Champagne. It has well preserved city walls, and even two sets of caves under the town! One set contains Bronze and Iron Age graffiti and the other was used for storage. Visitors to Provins will notice lots of roses, as it is famous for its rose cultivation, particularly rose petal jam, rose honey and rose candy.
Picardy and Nord Pas de Calais
Amiens Cathedral overlooks the River Somme and is one of the largest 13th century Gothic cathedrals in France. It’s the tallest complete Roman Catholic cathedral in the country, as its nave reaches over 42 metres high.
It was built between 1220 and 1270, and is renowned for its ornate Gothic sculptures giving it an impressive façade. Inside, the cathedral boast 126 pillars, giving it the title of largest medieval interior in Western Europe. Truly a cathedral of firsts, largests and tallests!.
Belfries of Belgium and France
This would take a lot of visiting! This UNESCO World Heritage site is actually made up of 56 individual buildings and their bell towers, representations of civil liberty in Flanders and the Duchy of Burgundy.
Originally, there was a list of 32 belfry towers in Flanders and Wallonia, and then in 2005, 23 other belfries were added from Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy regions. Some church towers are also included on this list as at some point in history, they were used as watch towers or alarm bells.
Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin
This site is interesting in that it represents the period of industrialisation in Northern France. The area has been shaped by over three centuries of mining coal beginning in the 18th Century.
There are 109 components to this World Heritage site, and these include slag heaps and mining pits as well as mining villages and transport infrastructure a complete representation of a miner’s life.
Le Havre, the City Rebuilt by Auguste Perret
Le Havre is the second biggest port in France after Marseille, and is the biggest container port. It’s location in North West France led to it being heavily bombed in the Second World War, to the extent that the whole city needed to be rebuilt. Step in Auguste Perret who was tasked with just that job. His material of choice was concrete, and he started from scratch by clearing any old structures that were remaining. His plans were widely celebrated as being able to maintain the former layout, but bringing it into the 20th Century. The reconstruction work was completed in the 1960s. It is only one of a few modern sites in Europe given World Heritage status, and was granted this because of the ‘innovative utilisation of concrete’s potential.’
Mont Saint-Michel and its Bay
An island commune in Normandy, it is a sight which has become familiar to tourists as one of France’s most recognisable landmarks. It rests just 600 metres from the mainland, and was only accessible at low tide before a new bridge was built to connect it to the mainland in 2014. Interestingly, the island is constructed on a hierarchical system, so at the top is the abbey and monastery, then great halls, storage and housing, and then outside the walls was the accommodation for fisherman and farmers.
Because of its position, and the fact that at high tide, it is unreachable, it was used as a place of fortification from ancient times. It has been a garrison and even a prison. The site was awarded World Heritage status not only because of its unusual natural features, but also its historical and architectural significance..
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres is a medieval cathedral and another example of fine Gothic architecture. Construction began in the 12th Century, and much of its original stained glass windows still remains. The main attraction of the Cathedral has drawn many visitors over the years, and it’s a must-see for Christian pilgrims because of its famous relic.
Called the Sancta Camisa, it’s said to be the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary when she gave birth to Jesus.
The Cathedral is easily identified by its two differing spires one from the 12th Century, and one from the 16th Century. In addition, all around the outside can be seen hundreds of sculpted figures, which depict a variety of stories along a number of themes.
The Loire Valley between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes
The Loire Valley stretches for 280km and is situated bang smack in the middle of the Loire River. It is lush and splendid, full of vineyards and orchards. As well as being famous for its wines, the whole area includes amazing architecture and important towns. It has been inhabited since the Paleolithic period. Of course, there is no possible way you can visit the Loire Valley without touring at least one château!
Year listed: 2000 [Wikipedia link] [UNESCO link] Category of site: Cultural site Recommended Belle France Holidays:Loire Prestige à PiedChâteau to ChâteauChâteau Gardens and AbbeysLoire Prestige en VéloAlong the Leisurely Loire
Champagne, Alsace, Franche Comté & Lorraine
Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Former Abbey of Saint-Remi, and Palace of Tau, Reims
The Cathedral in Reims is important in that it was the place where French Kings were crowned. The present building replaced a much older structure which was destroyed by fire in the 13th Century, which originally itself was on the site of some Roman baths. During the First World War, the Cathedral was used as a hospital, before a large proportion was destroyed in the bombing.
The Abbey of Saint-Remi was founded in the 6th Century. The remains of Saint Remi are conserved there, and have been so since the 11th Century.
The Palace of Tau was the palace of the Archbishop of Reims, and displays many objects from the cathedral as well as those associated with the coronations of the Kings of France.
Year listed: 1991 Cathedral of Notre-Dame [Wikipedia link] Former Abbey of Saint-Remi [Wikipedia link] Palace of Tau [Wikipedia link] [UNESCO link] Category of site: Cultural site Recommended Belle France Holidays:Sparkling Champagne
Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars
Of course, this wine region is well known for producing sparkling white wine, which can only be called champagne in this region. Grapes grown here include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Sparkline wine has been produced here since the 17th Century. The area comprises of three sites - Hautvilliers, Reims and Epernay. The status also includes the hillsides, underground cellars and of course the Champagne Houses which complete the whole Champagne process.
From the Great Saltworks of Salins-les-Bains to the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans, the Production of Open-pan Salt
The Royal Saltworks was built in 1775 by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, a prominent Parisian architect. The extraction of salt in this area started in the Middle Ages, and continued right up until 1895. The building broke the mould in terms of design and architecture, and was even signed off by Louis XV. Today, the building houses exhibitions and details of other similar design projects.
Place Stanislas, Place de la Carrière, and Place d'Alliance in Nancy
Nancy is a city in North Eastern France, and was the capital of the Duchy of Lorraine. Place Stanislas is a large square built in the 18th Century by Stanislaus I of Poland, and links the old town of Nancy to the new town, which was created by Charles III.
Two other squares, Place de la Carrière and Place d'Alliance were also given Heritage status along with Place Stanislas.
Place de la Carrière is renowned for its 18th century architecture and Place d’Alliance is the smallest of the three, and was listed for its art, peace and refinement.
Strasbourg – Grande Île
The Large Island lies in the centre of Strasbourg. On one side is the Ill river and the other is the Canal du Faux-Rempart. It’s only ¾ mile by ½ mile and at the centre is the city’s square, Place Kléber. Visitors can also see Strasbourg’s Cathedral, which is built with reddish stone and as well as the Rohan palace and several other ancient churches. One of the main tourist attractions can be seen here too, called Petit France, where the city’s tanners, millers and fishermen previously lived. To mark the fact that the Grande Île was awarded Heritage Status, 22 brass plates were placed on the bridges which give access to the island.
UPDATE: In July 2017 the Grande Île UNESCO Site was extended. The extension concerns the Neustadt, new town, designed and built under the German administration (1871-1918). The Neustadt draws the inspiration for its urban layout from the Haussmannian model, while adopting a Germanic architectural idiom for its edifices. This dual influence has enabled the creation of an urban space that is specific to Strasbourg, where the perspectives created around the cathedral open to a unified landscape around the rivers and canals.
Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay
The Abbey is the oldest preserved Cistercian Abbeys in the world. It’s located in the commune of Marmagne in Burgundy. It was founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who was a high profile French saint, and is a fine example of the Romanesque period. Sights to see include the Church itself, the Dormitory, Cloister, Chapter Room, Common Room and the Forge. The Abbey is nestled within landscaped gardens, which has also been granted with many different awards and statuses. The Abbey is privately owned, and has been in the same family since 1820.
The Climats, terroirs of Burgundy
Just south of Dijon, The Climats refer to a patchwork of vineyard plots that cover the slopes of the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune. They vary according to specific natural conditions (geology and exposure) as well as vine types. The status also includes the villages and town of Beaune which are central in the production of wine in this area. The centre of Dijon has also been thrown in for good measure here too.
Vézelay, Church and Hill
Located in northern Burgundy, Vézelay is a beautiful village which plays host to a Benedictine Abbey – the Abbey of St Mary Magdalene. The village is also the start of one of the four major pilgrim routes in France and Richard the Lionheart and Phillippe Auguste set out on the 3rd Crusade from Vézelay. The Abbey is located at the top of a hill which the village forms around. Relics of St Mary Magdalene can be seen within the Church. The Church was built with the alignment with the sun and at midday of the summer solstice, the light comes through the windows and creates an incredible precise pattern on the floor of the nave.
Charente and Centre
Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe
Located in Poitou-Charentes, this Abbey Church was built in the 11th Century. It’s an amazing example of Romanesque religious architecture, leading it to be called the ‘Romanesque Sistine Chapel’. It’s famed for its incredible 11th and 12th Century murals which are housed in the abbey, and in the crypt below. They cover several hundred square metres of the interior and depict biblical stories from the Old Testament, such as the story of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve and Noah and the Arc.
The stone spire which is over 80 metres high was added in the 14th century, and the church itself is over 40 metres long.
The Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Etienne is dedicated to Saint Stephen. The present cathedral was built as a replacement for a structure which was built in the 11th Century. There are still traces of this building in the crypt. Work probably began on this structure in the 12th Century. Its French Gothic style has remained fairly intact over the year, more so than other cathedrals built around this time. Visitors to the cathedral marvel at its architecture and the Cathedral is still surrounded by medieval timber houses of the town of Bourges. It’s a truly unique cathedral that was ahead of its time.
Bordeaux, Port of the Moon
Part of the port city of Bordeaux is called the Port of the Moon, because of the crescent shape bend formed by the Garonne and a strip of land along the bank. This area within Bordeaux was designated as a UNESCO Heritage site because of its ‘outstanding urban and architectural ensemble’ of the 18th century. It’s one of the first French cities to be urbanised. Overall, Bordeaux has the highest number of preserved historical buildings in France outside of Paris.
Jurisdiction of Saint-Émilion
Saint-Émilion was named after the monk Émilion, a travelling confessor who settled in a hermitage carved into the rock. The village is on the Santiago de Compostela route, so it was popular with pilgrims. Monks followed Émilion to the village, and it was them who began the commercial wine production that it is still known for today. The village boasts a beautiful Romanesque church and also a monolithic church which is carved from a limestone cliff.
Romans planted vineyards in Saint-Émilion as early as the 2nd Century, and of course, vineyards still dominate the region today. Saint-Émilion became a jurisdiction during a period of English rule in the 12th Century.
The village was so strapped for cash, that in 2011, it was forced to sell the medieval monument Cordeliers Cloisters to the vice president of the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce.
Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley
The Valley contains 147 pre-historic sites, phew! The sites include the world famous Lascaux caves which were discovered in 1940. These caves revealed numerous Paleolithic cave paintings believed to be over 17,000 years old.
Most of the images are of large animals, and are extremely important to the archeological world. Among the discovery of cave paintings, the Valley also revealed hominid remains, which have been studied by anthropologists the world over.
Year listed: 1979 [Wikipedia link] [UNESCO link] Category of site: Cultural site Recommended Belle France Holidays:Dordogne Prestige en VéloDrama of the DordogneDordogne ExplorationTranquil DordogneDordogne Prestige à Pied
Ardèche and the Rhône-Alpes
Decorated Cave of Pont d’Arc, known as Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, Ardèche
This cave contains the earliest known and best preserved figurative cave paintings in the world. It’s located on a limestone cliff above the former course of the Ardèche river and was only discovered in 1994. Not only were the paintings discovered, but also fossilised remains and animal markings and prints. Also discovered was a child’s footprints, which may be the oldest footprints ever discovered.
Historic site of Lyon
France’s third largest city, it was founded in the 1st Century BC by the Romans. It has links with cinema, the cinematographe was invented here. It’s also known for its Festival of Lights, which happens every December. As such, Lyon is known as the Capital of Lights.
Visitors to the city will be able to get a good meal, as Lyon is well known for its gastronomy, but actually, Lyon was awarded World Heritage status for its historical and architectural importance, including in the production and weaving of silk. Nowadays, it has a reputation for innovation and fostering start-ups.
Visitors should see the Fourvière Basilica, Roman ruins and amphitheatre, Parc de la Tête d’Or and Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon.
Prehistoric pile dwellings around the Alps
These are a series (well 111) of pre-historic settlements (pile dwellings or stilt houses) that were built from 5000 to 500 BC. The majority of them are located in Switzerland, and only 11 actually appear in France. They will be found on the edge of lakes, wetlands and rivers. Some have been excavated and have revealed a large amount about life in pre-historic times. They are all highly preserved and are an important source for archeological study.
Pyrenees and Languedoc
Canal du Midi
Canal du Midi is a 241 km long canal in Southern France, linking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. It was built between 1667 and 1694 and is celebrated for its civil engineering skills, it was one of its kind in the 17th Century. The canal starts in the city of Toulouse and winds its way down to the Étang de Thau on the Mediterranean. It’s one of the oldest canals still in operation in Europe, it was originally built for the wheat trade, and now you can cruise along it on a Belle France holiday!
Episcopal City of Albi
Located on the River Tarn, the city was given World Heritage Status because of its rich architectural heritage. The Cathedral and surrounding episcopal buildings are built using red brick and red tiles, and are easily recognised by these features. Visitors to the city should visit the Old Bridge, which has and still is used, after almost 1000 years. It has 8 arches, and in the 14th Century was fortified with a drawbridge. The Bishops Palace is one of the oldest and most complete castles in France. The cathedral too is a sight to see, and the collection of buildings have not changed much over the years, and it is this which has been given the importance of preservation for future generations.
Historic Fortified City of Carcassonne
One of the finest examples of a medieval walled city, Carcassone is fully enclosed within its ramparts. The site was heavily restored in the 19th century. The Romans first fortified the hilltop around 100BC and it’s been a site of importance ever since. Visitors to the town will be able to see two outer walls and 53 towers. It even has its own drawbridge. A truly stunning site to behold.
Pont du Gard (Roman Aqueduct)
An ancient Roman bridge that crosses the Gardon river and is part of the Nîmes Roman aqueduct. What’s unusual about this bridge is that it has three tiers of arches, and is the highest of all elevated Roman aqueducts, and one of the best preserved. The aqueduct itself was used to take water to the homes in Nîmes and transported about 44,000,000 gallons of water a day, up until around the 6th Century.
After the aqueduct fell into disuse, the Pont du Gard remained intact, most likely because it was also used as a toll bridge. After some hundreds of years, the bridge suffered with wear and tear, and restorations were undertaken. Traffic can no longer use the bridge, and visitors are directed towards a visitor’s centre to learn more about the bridge and its history. It was named as a Heritage Site due to its rareness and therefore historical significance.
Pyrénées – Mont Perdu
The third largest mountain in the Pyrénées, Mont Perdu stands at 3355m high. The summit is actually in Spain and is easier to climb from Spain than it is in France. The summit is hidden from view by the peaks of the Cirques of Gavarnie and Estaubé. Mont Perdu means lost mountain.
The Causses and the Cévennes, Mediterranean agro-pastoral Cultural Landscape
These mountainous landscapes were awarded UNESCO heritage status as it reflects a period of almost 3000 years of pastoral history. The landscape has evolved with the development of pastoral techniques and some of the traditional techniques that were practiced here many years ago are still present today. It’s an amazing example of how nature and human activities have existed and developed together over hundreds of years.
Provence and Corsica
Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments
The city centre of Arles contains a collection of Roman monuments, which date back as early as the 1st Century BC. Visitors to the area will be able to see an amphitheatre, a Roman theatre, a Forum, Baths, subterranean galleries, courtyard and necropolis. These monuments were evidence of the popularity of Arles throughout the centuries and its status as an important city. Its city walls also contain the Church of Saint-Trophime and its cloister, which is said to be one of Provence’s finest examples of a Romanesque monument .