France reigns supreme amongst the world’s top places to visit and in my view, this recognition is ‘très bien mérité’ (very well deserved). Pound for pound, inch for inch, France has arguably the most delectable scenery and sights on the entire planet. The country’s rich history, art, architecture, monuments, culture, landscapes, nature, cuisine and wines all add to its allure, but they present a wonderful challenge as well. With so many extraordinary things to see and do, how on earth can one decide on the best spots to see in France?
With this year marking the 30th anniversary of my start in teaching French language and culture professionally, I’ve had a lot of time to roam around France, absorb its history and seek out its most fascinating treasures. Since I so often am asked for the absolute musts when visiting France, I have put together my list of the top 25 sights to see in the entire country. Of course, any list like this would be a subject of good debate and differences of opinion but to my mind, these 25 very much are worth a ‘good detour’ as the French would put it. This week’s blog post features the first five of my top 25 list, with the rest to follow in a series over the next several weeks. To give the list more depth and interest, I have taken the liberty of creating a ‘France Hall of Fame’ category for the all time France essentials all located in or around Paris. These five French icons are without question so historically, culturally and geographically important that they are in a class all their own:
- Church of Notre Dame de Paris
- Eiffel Tower
- Champs-Elysées and Arc de Triomphe
- Château de Versailles
Now to my top 25 sights to see in France – included here is a brief description of each one with photos. From time to time, I’ll devote an entire blog post to some of my absolute favorites. Please note that books and books have been written on each entry so this top 25 series is meant to whet your appetite – and to help with ideas for future trips to France!
1. Château de Fontainebleau – This gorgeous castle covering 700 years of French royal history is located about an hour south of Paris in the small town of Fontainebleau. The château traces its origins back to the 12th century and was modified over time by several important French rulers including Francis I, Henry II, Henry IV, Louis, XIII, Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis, XVI, Napoleon and Louis-Philippe. The vast forest of Fontainebleau surrounding the château and town offered excellent hunting which ensured the château’s place as a favorite stop on the royal travel circuit. With over 1500 rooms and 130 acres of gardens and park, one could spend hours or days exploring its riches. Some of the palace’s highlights include the Galerie François Ier – one of the finest examples of French Renaissance decor, the Salle des Fêtes or Grand Ballroom, the phenomenal library, the various chapels, the royal and papal apartments, the throne room, and the Napoleon I museum. I personally love the authenticity and old feel of the castle with its magnificent proportions, various decorative styles, sumptuous atmosphere, wonderfully creaky parquet floors and fewer crowds. While the Château de Fontainebleau is fabulous to see on a beautiful day, it’s also a good option when the weather doesn’t cooperate as you can wander inside for hours. If you haven’t yet visited this French cultural gem, be sure and put a day in Fontainebleau on your agenda the next time you are in Paris. You will be well rewarded! Fontainebleau is easily accessible by train from the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Tickets cost about 20 euros round trip and city buses or taxis can take you right to the château. The castle is open every day except Tuesdays and major holidays. Click here for more information on the castle’s website.
2. Mont Saint Michel – This towering granite tidal island on the border between Normandy and Brittany is one of France’s most extraordinary landmarks (see top photo). According to legend, the archangel Saint Michael appeared in 708 AD to the Bishop Aubert in the nearby town of Avranches and told him to build a chapel on the mount. The bishop disregarded St. Michael and finally after being pressured three times, Aubert finally acceded to the archangel’s demand. Over the centuries, the chapel became an immense abbey with the village built around it down below. Visiting Mont St. Michel is not a new idea – pilgrims from all over Europe have been coming to the mount for hundreds of years. The stunning views of the island rising up out of the tidal flats – the tide differential is about 40 feet – and then the lookout out over the sea and countryside from the abbey’s cloister, also known as the ‘Merveille’ (marvel) attracted tourists and penitents then as now. For an optimum experience, I recommend visiting Mont St. Michel in spring or fall as the narrow streets and abbey corridors can become wildly crowded in summer. While there, be sure and walk the ramparts in addition to visiting the abbey and village – they offer incredible views looking up as well as out. Mont St. Michel is most easily and economically accessed by car – I highly recommend including a Mont St. Michel day in a tour of Normandy – or by organized tour bus operators from Paris. Note that parking for cars and buses is now organized on land about 1.5 miles away; shuttle buses then escort visitors over the bridge to the base of the Mont. Or join my private group tour of Normandy including Mont St. Michel in September 2019 where we go all the way to the top! Click here for specific details on getting to Mont St. Michel.
3. Cliffs at Etretat – At the other end of Normandy stand the astonishing cliffs of Etretat located on the English Channel about an hour from Normandy’s capital city of Rouen. Wind and water erosion over time created the fantastic shapes of the white limestone falaises, especially the three famous arches, which offer a gorgeous contrast with the blue water below. As the age of Impressionism dawned in the 19th century, many painters including Monet, Boudin and Courbet were inspired to capture the light and images of Etretat on canvas. Today, the quaint town of Etretat lies along the pebbly beach and is the starting point of multiple walking trails to the top of the cliffs. If you’re a golfer, there is an amazing golf course just behind the cliffs for one of the most memorable golfing outings in Europe. Personally, I consider Etretat a must-see in France of the nature kind – it’s a wonderful outing to the seaside for a marvelous easy hike and some of the best photo opps in France. Before you go, get inspired by looking at Monet’s lovely images of Etretat in his signature pastel colors. Etretat can be reached by car, or by train from Paris to Le Havre and then by bus. In summer, Flixbus sometimes offers direct service from Paris to Etretat. And Etretat is part of my “Wonders of Normandy” tour this September (we still have a bit of space left) – our local expert guide will lead us on an unforgettable walking tour of this special place!
4. Rocamadour – This mystical ‘village of chapels’ clinging to the steep rock face in southwest France has attracted visitors and pilgrims for centuries. I first came to see Sanctuaire de Rocamadour at Christmastime many years ago and fell under its spell immediately. Set dramatically into a cliff over a tributary of the Dordogne River in the Lot department, Rocamadour is named for the hermit Saint Amadour who spent several years here and whose supposed body was then discovered intact in 12th century in a tomb carved into the rock – hence ‘Roc Amadour’. With this miracle and also the presence of the black Virgin Mary statue since the 12th century, this religious site became deluged with hordes of pentitents seeking absolution and spiritual relief. Visitors today can wander the multiple levels of the village and visit many of the chapels and parts of the monastic complex. One can also walk up (or preferably down!) the Grand Escalier (great staircase). In the Middle Ages, pentitents would volunteer or be forced to go up the 216 steps on their knees while saying “Je vous salue Marie” at each step. The easiest way to visit Rocamadour is to park at the top and walk down through the maze of chapels, passageways and narrow streets. At the bottom, you can pay a small fee to then take the modern elevator back to the top. Be sure and stop for photos at the lookout points in the hamlet of L’Hospitalet across the valley and also near the summit parking area. There is also a stunning ‘Chemin de la Croix’ (Stations of the Cross) path cut into the side of the cliff alongside the village. Or treat yourself to my “Fall in Southwest France” trip in October 2019 where our local historian will share Rocamadour’s fascinating history, and we’ll have lunch overlooking the gorge below!
5. Pont du Gard – The Pont du Gard in southern France is another iconic French work of art not to be missed. The ancient Roman aqueduct is the highest one in existence – approximately 150 feet tall – and one of the best preserved. The Pont du Gard was built of heavy stones in the first century AD as part of a system to carry spring water from Uzès to the important Roman city of Nîmes about 30 kilmeters away. The water traveled along the sluice on the top level across the valley formed by the Gardon river below. After the fall of the Roman empire, the three-tiered structure was used as a tollroad which ensured its overall maintenance. By the 18th century, efforts were made to repair and conserve the bridge and except for the looting of stones in the 17th century, the Pont du Gard remains remarkably in good condition. I first visited the aqueduct in 1985 when you still could just walk up to this big pile of masonry out in the Provence countryside, no museum, no tickets, no nothing. In 2000, the new visitor’s center and museum enclosure opened – this new system helps protect the site and reduce wear and tear on the monument itself. When you go, be sure and view the Pont du Gard up close as well as from various elevated vantage points along the river. I also highly recommend reserving your spot on one of the guided tours of the bridge – it’s the only way visitors can climb up the 19th century stone staircase and cross the top of the bridge inside the sluice – one of my all-time favorite historical experiences in the world! For those with an athletic bent, you can also kayak under the Pont du Gard and picnic along the river banks with kayak rentals available from local companies. Click here for more details on visits and tickets to the Pont du Gard.