France is chock-full of notable buildings, cities, historic sites, shopping districts, and more. It’s no wonder that France is a dream destination for many.
The chance to visit France can be even more meaningful if you have ancestors from France. Traveling to an ancestral location gives you the chance to learn more about your cultural heritage as you experience a new place.
If you’re checking a trip to France off your bucket list, then here are some must-see destinations and things to do in France. But really, you can’t go wrong. No matter where you go in France, you’ll fall in love with the cultural history apparent throughout the country.
An asterisk (*) marks locations that are UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France, which are designated as culturally or naturally significant.
Picturesque Historic French Cities
These picturesque cities will place you at the heart of French history. From the clifftop village of Rocamadour to the riverside port of Bordeaux to the famous City of Lights, there’s no shortage of options. The experience will be particularly impactful if you visit one of the cities of your ancestors.
Arles is home to impressive Roman monuments that span millennia, dating as far back as the 1st century BC. Don’t miss these examples:
- Arles amphitheater: an AD 90 theater used for chariot races and battles
- Roman theater: an outdoor theater used for theatrical performances
- Thermes of Constantine: a Roman bathhouse
- Ramparts of the Roman fortress: an impressive example of Roman military fortifications
- Alyscamps: an elaborate Roman cemetery
- Church of St. Trophime: a 12th-century Romanesque church known for its sculptures
Rocamadour, a cliffside village, could be right out of a fairy tale. Its historic monuments and spectacular setting attract visitors from around the world.
Known as the Port of the Moon, Bordeaux is home to more protected buildings (such as Place de la Bourse and the Bordeaux Cathedral) than any French city other than Paris. For 2,000 years, it served as a place of cultural exchange due to its trade connections.
This red- and orange-stone city dates as far back as the 10th century. While you’re there, make sure you see the Pont-Vieux (“Old Bridge”) and the Albi Cathedral (also known as the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Cecilia, or the Cathedral Sainte-Cécile), known as the world’s largest brick building.
Lyon played an important role in the European silk trade. It’s also known for its vital contributions to film history. Make time for these stops if you visit Lyon:
- Fourvière: The Roman district featuring ruins of Roman baths and theaters
- Vieux Lyon: The Renaissance district that was once the center of religious power
- La Croix-Rousse: The silk district that was heavily impacted by the silk industry
- Musée Lumière: A museum honoring French film history
- Lugdunum: A museum focused on Roman and Celtic civilization, formerly known as the Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière
- Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière: A Catholic church dedicated to the Virgin Mary as Lyon’s savior from the black plague
Carcassonne is a pristine example of a medieval fortress, probably exactly the kind you would picture or have seen in movies. Every summer, you can even attend music festivals in its ancient theater.
Nicknamed the “City of Lights” and the “City of Love,” Paris is undoubtedly the most famous city in France and one of the most famous cities worldwide. You won’t want to miss some of its best sites:
- Sacré-Cœur: a jaw-dropping Roman Catholic church resting at the highest point in Paris
- Sainte-Chapelle: a 13th-century Gothic-style royal chapel containing one of the largest collections of stained glass from the time
- Eiffel Tower: one of the world’s most recognizable monuments
- Louvre Museum: the largest art museum in the world, with tens of thousands of pieces in its collection
- Luxembourg Gardens: a 61-acre garden surrounding the Luxembourg Palace
- Place de la Concorde: a large public square decorated with statues and fountains
- Catacombs of Paris: underground ossuaries that are the final resting place of more than six million people
- Panthéon: a monument alternatively used as a church and as a mausoleum
- Grand Palais: an ornately decorated palace used today for art and science exhibitions
- Notre-Dame: a medieval Catholic cathedral known for its fine architecture, rose windows, church bells, organ, and tragic 2019 fire
Because Strasbourg rests near the German border, you’ll find a unique blend of French and German architecture in the city. The Grande Île is an island forming the center of the city, where the Strasbourg cathedral and four other churches have stood for centuries.
Magnificent Cathedrals and Abbeys across France
France is teeming with impressive cathedrals and churches, each with a unique history. Several are even UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Amiens Cathedral is the tallest cathedral in France, with ceilings reaching as high as 138 feet. The builders were intending to reach for the heavens.
The Bourges Cathedral is considered a Gothic masterpiece, featuring striking sculptures and stained-glass windows.
As another Gothic masterpiece, the Chartres Cathedral, offers sculptures and stained-glass windows that are still in remarkable condition centuries later.
The Fontenay Abbey serves as a perfect example of the idyllic life in a monastery. The monks were self-sustaining, evident by the abbey’s bakery, ironworks, and other features.
After the Vézelay Abbey obtained relics of Mary Magdalene, it became a pilgrimage destination attracting visitors from around the world. It also holds beautiful examples of architecture and art.
Mont-Saint-Michel is an island that is uniquely accessible from the mainland at low tide. The changing tides made it so the abbey was easily defended.
Impressive Palaces in France
Along with its collection of cathedrals, France offers a number of beautiful palaces. The following are prime examples:
*Palace of Fontainebleau
The Palace of Fontainebleau rests at the heart of vast forests, making it the ideal location for a royal hunting lodge. It is surrounded by a decorated park.
Château de Chambord
This palace also served as a royal hunting lodge. Now it’s highly recognizable for its medieval French architecture.
Château de Chenonceau
The Versailles Palace first served as a luxurious countryside home and later served as a museum of French history. Some of the rooms are even open to the public today.
Historically Significant French Locations
Several monuments of French history survive today as a testament to the country’s rich culture. If you have French or European ancestry, these sites can help you envision the lives your ancient and more recent ancestors led.
*Canal du Midi
This 220-mile network of canals travels through the south of France. The canal was a remarkable feat of engineering for its time. To make it even more incredible, the canal blends in perfectly with its surroundings, making it both a scientific feat and a work of art.
*Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps
These hut-like homes have survived since as early as 5,000 BC. The area’s wet conditions have made it possible for them to last so long. Excavations have proved invaluable in efforts to understand ancient life.
Lascaux II is a replica of the original Lascaux, a cave that’s part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The original cave was closed to the public to preserve the art after extensive damages were sustained from tours.
*Roman Theatre of Orange
This Roman theater and its accompanying triumphal arch are some of the best-preserved examples of Roman architecture from the time (roughly AD 10–25).
French Countryside and Breathtaking Sceneries
From beaches to mountains to limestone cliffs to impressive caves, there’s a variety of stunning landscapes in France. These are some of the most unique landscapes France has to offer.
*Chaîne des Puys
The Chaîne des Puys is a chain of volcanoes along the Limagne fault line. In total, there are 48 cinder cones (hills made of volcanic ash and other fragments), eight lava domes (mounds formed from slow lava flow), and 15 maars (craters formed by volcanic explosions).
This stunning and incredibly deep river canyon is said to be the most beautiful in Europe, partially due to its clear, turquoise water.
Aiguille du Midi
Aiguille du Midi is the tallest mountain peak accessible by cable car. The breathtaking views along with skiing, hiking, and rock climbing make it a popular destination.
Massif des Calanques
This French national park features dazzling limestone cliffs and hillsides—the perfect place to explore.
Wherever you choose to go in France, you’ll find natural charm, history, and remarkable architecture. If you have French ancestors, take the opportunity to truly experience your cultural heritage. Which items are on your itinerary?
Source: Family Search