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Famous Landmarks in France and Some of Their Startling Backstories

There are too many famous landmarks in France to list them all but what follows are highlights of some of France's most remarkable sights, and their intriguing backstories.

Several on this list are UNESCO World Heritage Sites (marked with an *) and you'll find most of these on the very best francophile bucket lists.

famous landmarks in paris, france

Notre-Dame de Paris

We begin with "Our Lady of Paris" because it may well be the most visited monument in France – I say "may be" because many wonderful Parisian landmarks have at some point claimed that title: the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre... No matter. Notre-Dame is stunning, it is much loved, and few visitors to France have ever passed it by willingly.

The outpouring of affection for this 900-year-old church was obvious when fire struck it in 2019, destroying its roof, weakening the upper walls and collapsing its beloved spire, erected during the major 19th-century renovations of noted French architect Viollet-le-Duc, who specialized in restoring medieval buildings, especially those defaced or damaged during the French Revolution.

The spire, by the way, was crowned by a rooster decorated with what is believed to have been a piece of the Crown of Thorns...

Notre-Dame was built on top of two earlier churches, themselves constructed over a Roman temple to Jupiter. Its first stone was laid in 1163 but it would take nearly 200 years to complete.

Over time, Notre-Dame became somewhat unkempt. During the French Revolution, which was anti-clerical as it was anti-monarchist, the statues along the main facade had been beheaded. Revolutionaries thought they represented Kings of France – in fact they represented Kings of Judea. Decapitating monarchs was popular then...

Eventually used as a warehouse, Notre-Dame was rehabilitated by Napoleon, who used it as a venue to crown himself Emperor. Victor Hugo made it even more popular in his book, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which is believed to have inspired Viollet-le-Duc.

The Eiffel Tower

France: famous landmarks - Eiffel TowerThe Eiffel Tower became one of the most famous places of Paris as soon as it was built - first because of the controversies around it but the, because of its distinguished contribution to the Paris skyline ©Offbeat France

Any story about French landmarks is bound to start with the Eiffel Tower, don't you think?

But what if it had been called the Bönickshausen Tower instead?

It easily could have been.

The tower's builder, Gustave Eiffel, was born with a different name: Bönickshausen. His father had been a military officer of German origin but in 1877, in the wake of France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Gustave officially changed his name to avoid being tainted as a Prussian spy.

Of course by the time the tower was built, Bönickshausen had been replaced by Eiffel.

Love it or hate it, the Iron Lady – built to commemorate the French Revolution's 100-year anniversary – has towered over Paris since the 1889 World's Fair, making the city instantly recognizable.

One of the most interesting things about the Eiffel Tower is that, like the Louvre and similar modern mixes, it started life being hated. Initially, most people disliked it, calling it an abomination or a monstrosity (these were some of the more polite epithets). In fact, it was only tolerated because it was meant to be temporary.

Engineer Eiffel may have thought he was pulling Paris into the 20th century, but many Parisians disagreed, and it took time for the city to first accept it, and finally, to adopt it. Today, Paris wouldn't be Paris without it.

Book your ticket for the Eiffel Tower

Centre Pompidou

Famous places to visit in Paris: Centre PompidouThe Centre Pompidou, yet another of several controversial modern landmarks in Paris, France

In the same way, the Centre Pompidou was inaugurated in 1977, but not before it set many tongues wagging, confirming that Parisians don't seem to take instantly to what is modern.

The peculiarity of this building is that it is turned inside out: all the pipes, conduits and shafts are placed outside the building rather than inside, as is usual.

They said it was ugly; it was too long/wide/tall; it cost too much; it's not a museum, 'only' a cultural center.

In other words, the traditionalists and modernists were at it again. 

Detractors called it Notre-Dame of the Pipes, the Pompidolium, or again, the Steamship of Culture, none too flattering.

Yet on inauguration night, people were paying top dollar (or franc) for the rare tickets.

Like the Eiffel Tower before and the Louvre pyramid afterwards − everyone found fault with it, until they didn't.

Visit the Centre Pompidou

The Louvre Museum

Most famous places in France Paris: the Louvre MuseumThe Louvre, one of the most famous museums in France (arguably THE most famous), superb from every angle: architecturally, artistically, historically

Not long after the Centre Pompidou, one of the most famous landmarks in Europe, the Louvre Museum, was to be modernized, again striking fear into Parisian hearts.

When the new design (by I.M. Pei) was first shown to the French, emotions evolved quickly: disbelief at first, followed by disgust. Then, the immediate commentaries: it was ugly; it was anti-French; it was a symbol of death (in Egypt, anyway); it was a rupture with history. Some even called it sacrilegious. And on and on.

Starting to sound familiar?

Still today, it has detractors although most Parisians have learned to live with it, and many have even grown to love it.

As for the building itself, it is an icon France is famous for: the largest museum in the world. I started life as a fortress, and then a royal palace, remaining a royal residence until Louis XIV moved the entire French court to Versailles.

Skip the line and head straight for the Mona Lisa

The Arc de Triomphe

Famous French place: Arc de Triomphe, ParisThe Arc de Triomphe in Paris, one of the many historical monuments in France created by Napoleon

One of the iconic historical monuments in Paris, the Arc de Triomphe commemorates Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz.

The Arc de Triomphe is at the center of Place Charles De Gaulle in the 8th arrondissement − marking the west end of the Champs Elysées − and connecting all twelve major avenues in Paris. 

The juncture formed by these twelve avenues created a star: the official name of this landmark is the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, which translates to Triumphal Arch of the Star. 

Construction, which was inspired by the Arch of Titus in Rome, began in 1806 and lasted 30 years. Napoleon I ordered it built to honour the victory of France's soldiers against Russia and Austria. French architect Jean-François-Thérèse Chalgrin designed the arc, inspired by the Arch of Titus in Rome and the construction lasted 30 years. 

The names of 660 French generals, marshals and assorted officials, along with those of 128 victorious battles of the Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars are inscribed on the arch's outer and inner surfaces. Those names that are underlined, by the way, means they died in battle. And several of Napoleon's own relatives have their names here, of course.

What you may not know is that since 1920, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier lies beneath the Arch, symbolizing those who died fighting World War I. The Arch also harbours the eternal flame, which commemorates all soldiers who died in battle and is lit every evening in remembrance, making it one of the most revered landmarks in Paris, France.

See Paris from the top of the Arc de Triomphe

La Sainte-Chapelle 

Famous France churches: Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, stained glass windowsThe Sainte-Chapelle, one of the most exquisite historical landmarks in France ©Limitless Secrets

The Sainte-Chapelle is in the medieval Palais de la Cité, the residence of the kings of France, on the Île de la Cité. It was built in the first part of the 13th century to host King Louis IX's collection of passion relics, including Christ's crown of thorns. It was a sort of vault, a place to store the sacred relics Saint-Louis had "brought back" during the Crusades.

The chapel was built on two levels. The lower level was where the courtiers, servants, and soldiers of the palace lived. The upper level was reserved for the royal family and their guests − and for the sacred relics.

What makes this such a famous building in Paris is the stained glass that covers much of the chapel's walls: 15 windows, each 15 meters high, covering 670 square meters and featuring 1,113 scenes from the Old and New Testaments, as well as the history of the world until the relocation of the relics in Paris.

The Sainte-Chapelle is a true jewel of the Rayonnant style, the height of Gothic architecture, and one of the most famous monuments in Paris.

But its survival wasn't always a given.

In its lifetime, fire struck this jewel several times, the largest of which were in 1630 and 1777. It was flooded. It was ransacked and its interior stripped during the French Revolution.

Although much of the chapel was restored during the 19th century, (some of) the impossibly beautiful original stained glass windows survived. The techniques used back in the 13th century were so perfect some colours still cannot be reproduced today.

And another thing: those stained glass windows were more than decoration.

In those days, few people could read, and the windows told stories, their finely cut designs depicting scenes from Christian belief − the religious picture books of the era.

Reserve your ticket for the Sainte-Chapelle

The Trianon Estates

The Trianon Estates are often overlooked by people visiting Versailles, one of the most famous landmarks of France. Yet they are a lovely surprise and – in fact – a nice and lesser crowded alternative to the most famous château in France. 

The estate comprises the Petit and the Grand Trianon, both of which were built to help royalty escape the strictures and incessant gossip of nearby Versailles. 

Louis XIV commissioned the building of the Grand Trianon in 1687, as a way of escaping his courtiers and the pomp and rules of Versailles (which he was responsible for instituting, by the way), and especially as a way of pursuing his extramarital affair with Madame de Montespan, who bore him seven illegitimate children.

Historical landmarks France: Grand Trianon - indoor decorInside the Grand Trianon, near the Palace of Versailles ©Claudia Tavani

The Grand Trianon – also called the Trianon of Marble – is also where Napoleon chose to live with his second wife, Marie-Louise (coincidentally, she was Marie-Antoinette's great-niece), preferring it to Versailles.

The furnishings date back to the First Empire, under Napoleon, since the originals were destroyed during the Revolution.

As for the Petit Trianon, it was built in 1758 by Louis XV, who wanted to be close to the gardens so he could indulge in his botanical interests.

But it really came into its own when in 1774 Louis XVI gave it to his wife, Marie-Antoinette, who used it as a retreat to escape the life, gossip and strict rules of nearby Versailles, and redecorated it extensively. The three-story building is famous for its magnificent wrought iron bannister.

During the Revolution, the good people of Paris wanted to break up the Trianon gardens and sell them at auction. But the original gardener's son, Antoine Richard, came up with a brilliant idea: he planted rows of fruit trees and vegetable plants along the canal and around the grounds. These provided food for the population, and there was no more talk of destroying the gardens, which were saved.

You can visit the Trianon Estates during your exploration of Versailles if you have an all inclusive ticket, but you can also decide to visit them separately if you wish. 

Visit Versailles and the Trianon Estates from Paris

south of france landmarks

Fourvière Basilica, Lyon*

Famous places to visit in France: Fourvière Basilica, LyonAnother of the famous France landmarks: the Basilica, above on the left, lit at night, and the small Eiffel Tower wannabe to the right

Lyon is a much underrated city yet oh so worthy of a visit.

It has some of the most stunning murals in France, and is filled with secret passageways, or traboules, that allowed silk workers to run down Croix-Rousse hill and and avoid the rain.

And it has one of the quirkier landmarks of France, the Fourvière Basilica, which guards the city from above, with its mixture of byzantine, gothic, romanesque... and some would even say Moorish styles, not to mention the panoramic view of Lyon you'll get from its lookout.

Before it was a Basilica, a Roman forum stood here. Lyon, or Lugdunum as it was then known, was once Rome's regional capital.

Next to the Basilica you can see a metal tower, which looks tauntingly like a little Eiffel Tower. At 85 meters (278 ft), a quarter of the Eiffel Tower's height, it might qualify as a little sister but no more.

Given the resemblance, it's no surprise there are plenty of stories about this little tower.

One story gives authorship of the little tower to Gustave Eiffel himself, but few people believe this.

In another story, it becomes a "republican" monument that offsets the religious nature of the Basilica next door. There isn't much truth to this one either.

Here's one that is equally false but somehow more plausible: originally designed to compete with the Eiffel Tower, the city authorities eventually ran out of funds or interest... and stopped. But in 1914, during Lyon's World Fair, it even had a little elevator to take people to the top. Just like the Big One in Paris.

These days, it is the highest point in the city and serves as an antenna and broadcast center.

Reserve your entry ticket (site in French)

Pont d'Avignon*

France major landmarks: Pont d'Avignon at nightfallLe Pont d'Avignon, or Avignon Bridge (or, more officially, the Pont Saint-Bénézet)

Every French child knows the Pont d'Avignon – it's one of the most famous bridges in France. 

And although many may not have visited, we all know the song: "Sur le pont d'Avignon, on y danse, on y danse..."

It's one of the first songs French children learn, somewhere between Happy Birthday and Frère Jacques. 

According to the song's lyrics, everyone dances ON the bridge. But the bridge was narrow, and people danced UNDER it, where all the revelry took place. The song was slightly inaccurate.

The bridge no longer spans the Rhône River, as it once did. It had 22 arches, but constant flooding kept washing away parts of the bridge. Eventually, the people of Avignon decided enough was enough, and they let it be, rebuilding another bridge further down the river where it flowed more slowly.

Yet if the current was so harsh here, why was this specific spot chosen in the first place?

Because of Saint Bénézet. Back in the Middle Ages, a boy tending his flock heard voices. "Go build a bridge," the voices said. "Build it there, where the river is swiftest."

The shepherd persevered, the bridge was built, and he was eventually sainted. Of course legends are legends, but this one at least explains why the bridge appeared here in the first place...

Avignon walking tour including the bridge

Papal Palace of Avignon*

France famous building: le Palais des Papes, Avignon (the Papal Palace)The Papal Palace hosted one of the Christianity's most unusual upheavals, making it one of the most Famous French buildings

The Palais des Papes, or Papal Palace, is one of the most famous French landmarks and the site of one of the stranger episodes in the history of both France and Christendom.

Medieval France and Italy both contained Papal States and popes weren't as stationary then – they traveled around Europe and resided in certain cities for a time.

Avignon was one of these papal estates and would remain so until the French Revolution, when it became part of France.

Early in the 14th century, political turmoil in Rome had made the city unbearable for the Papacy. In 1309 Pope Clement V, a Frenchman, established the papal seat in Avignon, where it would stay until 1377. The Papal Palace would be built during this time, both as a spiritual and strategic symbol overlooking the Rhône.

Seven popes would rule during the Avignon years, transforming it into a cosmopolitan city under what came to be known as the Babylonian Captivity of the papacy.

But that wasn't the end of papal troubles. When Pope Gregory XI moved the papacy back to Rome, the second crisis took place and the Roman Catholic church almost broke apart in what became known as the Western Schism. Cardinals in Rome refused to follow the newly elected pope and elected a rival, returning to Avignon. So from 1378 to 1403, Avignon would be the seat of the rival papacy, called "Antipopes" by Rome.

Today, the palace – the largest gothic building of the Middle Ages – is one of those historical places in France on the World Heritage list and protected by UNESCO.

And Avignon can boast the distinction of having played hostess to the Papacy not once, but twice.

Skip the line and walking tour of Avignon

Nimes Arena

Best-known Roman ruins in France: Nimes ArenaThe Nimes Arena is one of the most famous monuments in France dating back to Roman times

The Amphitheater of Nîmes (also known as the Arena) is a perfectly symmetrical piece of Roman engineering and one of the most exquisitely preserved Roman ruins in France.

It has served many purposes, from fortress to bullring to village – yes, at one point it housed a neighbourhood with houses built right within the structure. It has, of course, also been used as a location for films and photo shoots.

Bullfights are still allowed in parts of southern France as a part of the region's "cultural heritage". Although France does have laws against animal cruelty, many, especially locally, want to maintain the sport. Like many things here, the debate continues. And yes, some bulls are allowed to be killed in French bullfights, although not in all.

The entrance of the Arena pays homage to Nimeño II, a French bullfighter whose claim to fame is the single-handed defeat of six bulls. However, the bulls returned the honour and in 1989 he was thrown into the air by one and fell on his head, damaging his cervicals and, to great medical surprise, surviving to regain partial mobility. Sadly, his left arm never recovered and he eventually committed suicide. His memory lives on, with many public areas bearing his name.

His nickname? "The Hero".

Get your tickets to Nîmes attractions

Pont du Gard*

most famous places in France for visitors: Pont du Gard, illuminated at nightLe Pont du Gard and its night light show ©Le Long Weekend

The Roman Pont du Gard stands a towering 50m tall over the river Gardon, near Uzes in the Occitanie region of France, just a short drive from Avignon.

It's a stunning feat of engineering (or, if you believe local legend, a result of a pact with the devil) that encompasses three different levels, and 42 arches of differing sizes.

You can visit the roman aqueduct at any time of the year, but perhaps one of the most interesting times to see it is when the annual à la Belle Etoile event takes place. Every night during summer, you can visit the site in the early evening, and explore the walking tracks around the bridge, take a tour of the top level, dine in the onsite eateries, or take a summer nights' swim, before finding a suitable perch on the grassy bank to watch the grand spectacle that starts as soon as the sun goes down.

Lights illuminate the bridge, displaying both modern and ancient works of art, in sync with music. It's a truly moving and entertaining performance that lasts around half an hour.

The Pont du Gard, built in the first century CE, also happens to be one of the best-preserved ancient ruins in France, the world's highest Roman aqueduct, and the only three-story Roman arch still standing today.

If you happen to visit during the day, look closely for the petroglyphs, or rock art, which reflect stories and legends, including a petroglyph of either a cat or a hare, depending who you listen to.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

Everyone, however, agrees the Devil was involved. Noting the slow pace of building, he allegedly offered to help build the bridge in exchange for one thing: the first person to cross the bridge would belong to him. 

Once the bridge was finished, someone released a cat - or a hare - who ran across the bridge and straight into the Devil's arms. The Devil, furious at being tricked, flung the animal against the wall, resulting in the now-famous petroglyph.

Take a day trip from Avignon to the Pont du Gard and Saint-Rémy

Millau Viaduct

Modern France landmark in the Aveyron: Millau ViaductThe Millau Viaduct, a French engineering feat in the Aveyron

The Viaduc Millau is one of the famous structures in France for its engineering prowess. It is also known as the  Pont-en-Suspension or Bridge in the Air, and spans more than 300 metres across the French River Tarn near the town of Millau. It is e one of the world's longest multi-span cable-stayed bridges.

This architectural wonder, constructed to stay standing even during earthquakes of up to 8 points on the Richter scale, was designed by Michel Virlogeux and English architect Norman Foster, with help from prestigious engineering firms who are responsible for constructing this masterpiece which will remain standing .

The tallest tower of the viaduct is 336 meters high, making the Millau Viaduct France's tallest bridge and the 26th highest in the world.

The bridge cost 400 million euros to build and cots 10 euros to cross.

Find out more about the Millau Viaduct

Grosse Cloche, Bordeaux 

Grosse Cloche BordeauxThe Grosse Cloche, one of the most famous Bordeaux landmarks ©Luxe Adventure Traveler

When it comes to famous French landmarks, you can't miss Bordeaux's Grosse Cloche. It's one of the oldest belfries in France and one of the most recognizable landmarks in Bordeaux, even featuring on Bordeaux's coat of arms.

The belfry was built from the 13th century remains of the Porte Saint-Éloi, which was one of the main gates to medieval Bordeaux when it was once a fortified city. The Grosse Cloche also marks the Saint James Way, or Camino de Santiago, on the way from Paris.

Needless to say, it's got a lot of history that makes the Grosse Cloche well worth a visit.

Just passing beneath, you might not notice the massive bell. The 2-meter wide bell, cast in 1775, weighs in at an impressive 7800 kilograms. It's so massive, in fact, that when the bell is rung it actually rattles the windows of the neighborhood. The distinct, deep gong can be heard throughout the entire city. But you'll have to visit Bordeaux at exactly the right time to hear it. It's only rung on a handful of occasions: the first Sunday of each month, January 1, May 8, July 14 for Bastille Day, August 28th which marks the 1944 liberation of Bordeaux and November 11th.

Even in the bell's heyday, it wasn't just rung to mark the hours like the bells of the cathedral or Hôtel de Ville. The bell of the Grosse Cloche has always been rung only on important occasions like to mark the start of the wine harvest, or in extreme emergencies such as a fire or attack on the city.

The bell is undoubtedly a treasure of Bordeaux. It was such a pride of the Bordelais that King Henry II took the bell to punish Bordeaux for their revolt of the Pitauds in 1548. As a reward for good behavior, the bell was returned to the Bordelais in 1561.

There's one other quirky feature of the Grosse Cloche that simply must be pointed out. Look at the south facing side of the Grosse Cloche and you'll notice it has two clocks on it. The two clocks weren't always there, though. It's thought the second clock was added around the early 1900s when a new time system was implemented throughout Western Europe to unify time in the continent's major cities. Mainly, managing train schedules needed to be simpler. One clock displays the new time system, and the original clock with its half face displays the solar time.

See the Grosse Cloche during a Bordeaux City walking tour

famous landmarks in france: Central Region

Château de Chambord*

Chambord Castle in the Loire ValleyChâteau de Chambord, one of the most famous French castles, and certainly the largest one

Chambord, as we know, is the largest of the giant châteaux in the Loire Valley, built as a "humble" hunting lodge by François I, he who loved to build.

Picture this: 4a mixture of medieval and Renaissance with 440 rooms, 282 fireplaces and 80 or so staircases, including the famous double-helix which some believe may have been inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, who was a friend of the king and lived on another of his properties.

In those days, the royal court was itinerant and didn't stay put: every few months, the king and his retinue moved from château to château, so don't be surprised at the lack of furniture in Chambord. This was never a home, just a stop along the way, and François would spend a total of 60 days here in his lifetime.

You can tell all this by Chambord's interior – cavernous, bare, and in winter, freezing. Decor and comfort were not priorities here, at least not in the early days (building lasted from 1519 to 1547) and it would take years for lavish furnishings to appear.

While Chambord was surrounded by superb hunting grounds, the choice of a marsh to build it has always been shrouded in a bit of mystery, being so far from Paris and its politics. Esoteric writers throughout the times have seen fit to find hidden meanings throughout Chambord, from its sublime symmetry to the repeated us of the number eight. 

Enjoy a day tour to Chambord, Chenonceau and Amboise from Paris

Double helix stairway at ChambordChambord's famous double helix stairway - two people can go up and down without ever running into one another ©Offbeat France

Château de Chenonceau*

Chenonceau CastleChenonceau, the Ladies' Castle; this château is one of the most popular in France

Chambord may be the largest, but Chenonceau is the Loire Valley's best known and most visited château. It is commonly known as the Ladies' Castle, because women have been involved throughout its history: a woman built it (Catherine Briçonnet, wife of a royal financial superintendent), another woman embellished and expanded it (Henri II’s mistress Diane de Poitiers), and yet another reclaimed it (Catherine of Medici, Henri II's wife - she was not amused when her husband gave it to his mistress but she got in the end).

Clearly, there was no lack of intrigue!

But what you might not know is that the castle's attic was once home to a religious congregation of Capucin nuns.

Many roads seem to lead to Catherine of Medici, and this one is no different. Louise of Lorraine was the wife of Henri III, one of Catherine's sons. When he was murdered (we'll go into why another day), his wife could no longer to the château's upkeep and brought in the nuns temporarily to help pay for maintenance.

Famous French monuments: Great Gallery of Chenonceau CastleChenonceau's Grande Galerie ©Offbeat France

And then there's the Grande Galerie, the lovely bridge over the River Cher, with so much history you can almost see the ghosts floating out of its alcoves.

Remember Mistress Diane? She expanded Chenonceau by building a bridge over the river (she liked to go hunting on the other shore). And once Catherine of Medici recovered her château, she covered the bridge and built the gallery, where she would hold many a party.

Eventually, during World War II, it became a war hospital and during World War II, the demarcation line between Nazi-occupied and Free France happened to cross the département of the Cher - and part of it ran right down the middle of the river. The château's owners (the Meniers, who still own it), smuggled Jews and others fleeing the Nazis through the gallery and out the other side into freedom.

Such a small space for the Gallery – 60 x 6 meters (200' x 20') – but so much history!

This is one castle that deserves a photography tour

Villandry Gardens

Gardens of Villandry CastleThe stunning geometric patterns of the gardens of Villandry

One of the most beautiful gardens in the Loire Valley belongs to the Château de Villandry, built in 1532 and extensively renovated from the 18th century onwards.

In 1906, Villandry – having changed hands many times over the years – was purchased by an illustrious Spanish doctor and his American wife, Ann Coleman. She and Dr Joachim Carvallo would spend the rest of their lives restoring the castle and bringing the gardens back to their Renaissance origins.

Carvallo started with the Vegetable Garden, closest to the castle, planting vegetables chosen for their colour and shape so that they resemble geometric works of art.

He hid allusions to his homeland throughout the gardens: the Cross of the Basque Country in the Garden of the Crosses, the figures formed by the boxwoods in the four Gardens of Love, or the details of the pergolas.

Anyone who has ever had even the tiniest plot can admire the planning and hard work that goes into delivering such perfection.

Skip-the-line for Villandry

Hospices de Beaune

Glazed tile roof of Hospices de Beaune, Hotel DieuThe Hospices de Beaune is one of the more famous buildings in France because of its glazed tile roof

This former hospital for the poor was built in 1443, a jewel of medieval burgundian (and very gothic) architecture. Most people who visit here are headed for a wine-related visit to Burgundy.

This is the Hotel-Dieu of the Hospices de Beaune, a flamboyant building that dates back to 1452 – the hospital took in its first patient 40 years before Columbus landed in America. It remained a hospital for 500 years, until 1982.

The building's roof is covered with the well-known tiling called ‘tuile vernissée de Bourgogne’, or varnished Burgundy tile, so typical of this region in East-Central France.  Not many workshops still manufacture these tiles: each is covered in a salt-based coat and lead or pewter are added, which change the tile's colour during baking. Each tile is baked twice and the second time, the salt melts, giving the tiles their ‘iced’ look. The use of different salt varieties and amounts contribute to change the colouring.

The Hospices may no longer be a hospital but it is part of a health complex. In addition to health, the complex also manages the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune winery and its world-famous yearly auction. 

Halfway through the 19th century, the hospital launched an annual wine auction on the third Sunday of November. The event has gained such notoriety that it has become one of the most prestigious dates on the world's wine calendar. Much money changes hands, all the more because the proceeds go to charity.

In fact the Hotel-Dieu has always been wealthy: its vineyards include Grand Crus and Premiers Crus wines labeled Côte de Beaune, Côte de Nuits et Pouilly-Fuissé.

The Hotel-Dieu itself has now become a museum, a fascinating stop because of its extraordinary architectural heritage.

Check out these Burgundy wine tours that include a stop at the Hospices

Northern landmarks in france

Mont Saint-Michel*

What France is known for: Mont Saint-MichelThe changing faces of Mont Saint Michel ©Guide Your Travel

Mont Saint-Michel is an incredibly popular tourist attraction, but that doesn’t mean it isn't still hiding secrets.

It is crowned by an abbey, clothed in a legend... which states that sometime during the 8th century, the Archangel St Michael visited the local archbishop, ordering him to build an abbey. The archbishop acquiesced, the abbey was built, and the abbey became a magnet for pilgrims from all over northern Europe.

For a dozen centuries, until the French Revolution, pilgrims were the main visitors. But where pilgrims alight, you also need people to supply food, lodging, horses, wood for carts… so the town grew.

The abbey also had another function: it had held prisoners for many years but in 1810 it became a fully-fledged prison, losing any religious significance as the Revolution swept such things away. And so it remained for 50 or so years, filled with intellectuals and political prisoners, until Napoleon III (nephew of the first) shut it down. Eventually, the rock was joined to the mainland by a steam tram and pilgrimages resumed. It wasn’t until the 1960s that monks returned to the abbey.

It sits on a granite outcrop just off the coast of Normandy and is crowned by an abbey of the same name. Its bay has Europe’s biggest tides and walking to the rock, with little knowledge of local tides, was once a life-threatening undertaking. Even in modern times, many a visitor has had to call for help after being stranded by the tides. Today, a walkway on stilts lets you amble along the 2.5km in safety.

Consider a walking tour of Mont Saint-Michel

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial, a famous historical site in northern FranceThe Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial ©LeAnna Brown

While many people pay their respects to the men and women lost during D-Day at places like Normandy, it is not even the largest American cemetery in Europe. 

That title belongs to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial, located in northeastern France, an area enriched with decades of history.  Over 15,000 soldiers lay at rest in this pristine cemetery, their tombs stretching as far as the eye can see, each with a carefully placed American and French flag to symbolize the relationship between the two countries.

For history lovers, a trip to this location is somberly paired with other nearby World War II memorials and sites such as Fort Douaumont, Butte De Vauquois, Montfaucon D'Argonne, and the Verdun Citadel, making it an ideal, yet off the beaten path location for history buffs.

One of the most powerful times to visit this cemetery is on the American Memorial Day holiday, each year on the last Monday of May. Americans and French perform a beautiful ceremony in honour of all the lives lost during World War II, particularly those forever placed in this location. 

As you wind through nearby villages, you may be surprised to see that gratitude towards American lives on. Nearly 80 years later, "Thank Yous" and US flags still permeate the countryside...

Visit the WWI cemeteries on a day trip from Paris

Cathedrale d'Amiens*

Amiens Cathedral, which recently celebrated its 8ooth birthday, is the largest cathedral in France. Notre-Dame could fit inside with room to spare.

But that’s not the only thing that’s special about this grand gothic structure: the cathedral holds a surprising secret.

Famous places of France: Cathedral of AmiensWhat the Amiens Cathedral MIGHT have looked like ©The Travel Bunny

When it was first built, the front of Amiens cathedral was painted in full glorious colour.  During renovations, traces of paint were found on the western façade. It was discovered that the cathedral’s intricately carved portals and grand statues were originally brightly painted.   

You can see for yourself how it would have looked after nightfall when a spectacular light show projects the original colours onto the cathedral bringing it to life. The fabulous sound and light show, Chroma ‘the Cathedral in Colour’, takes place throughout the summer and again in December. As well as the original colours, geometric patterns and designs are projected onto the cathedral.

The half-hour spectacle (which is free) is accompanied by specially composed music and narration, in both French and English, definitely worth stopping for on your visit to northern France. Catch it every summer evening after the sun sets.

famous french sites overseas

Cap 110 Anse Cafard, Martinique

One of the famous France monuments overseas: Cap 110 Anse Cafard, MartiniqueCap 110 Anse Cafard, Martinique, one of the major landmarks in France overseas ©A Social Nomad

The visually stunning monument at Anse Cafard on the French Antilles island of Martinique is a memorial to a mystery along with millions and millions of men, women and children.

In 1830, a slave ship carrying 300 slaves sank off the Diamante coast of Martinique.  Yet France had banned slave trading 1817. What was this ship? Who was her crew? Where did she come from? The mystery remains to this day.

No documentation was ever found about the vessel, and no crew members survived, although 60 women and 26 men – all slaves – were rescued. The bodies of the recovered crew were buried in the local graveyard, the slaves near the shore of the Anse Cafard beach. 

The memorial at Anse Cafard was unveiled on the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slave trading. It commemorates not only those lost on the mystery ship, but also those who lived and died as slaves. The white concrete busts of men set in a triangle represent the triangular slave trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. In the Caribbean, white is the colour of mourning. The orientation of the busts, 110° East, represents the direction of the Gulf of Guinea, where the stricken vessel is likely to have come from. 

While the memorial is visually stunning, the stories presented on the information boards are indelibly memorable.

NOTE: French monuments and landmarks marked with an asterisk (*) are in some way connected to UNESCO's World Heritage Site List. They are either on the list themselves, or are part of a region that is (for example, Fourvières is part of the Old Lyon, which is protected, and the two Loire châteaux are protected as part of the Loire Valley).

*Contributors

  • Arc de Triomphe by Journey to France (journeytofrance.com)
  • Sainte-Chapelle by Limitless Secrets 
  • Trianon Estates by My Adventures Across The World (myadventuresacrosstheworld.com)
  • Papal Palace of Avignon by Dr Jam Travels
  • Pont du Gard by Le Long Weekend (lelongweekend.com)
  • Millau Viaduct by The Travelling Twins (the-travelling-twins.com)
  • Grosse Cloche by Luxe Adventure Traveler (luxeadventuretraveler.com)
  • Villandry Gardens by Travel Ruta del Mate 
  • Mont Saint-Michel by Guide Your Travel (guideyourtravel.com)
  • Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery by LeAnna Brown of Wander in Germany 
  • Amiens Cathedral by The Travel Bunny (thetravelbunny.com)
  • Cap 110 Anse Cafard by A Social Nomad (asocialnomad.com)
  • The rest: written by Yours Truly.

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