Welcome to France! France is known for its quaint villages, hilltop towns and beautiful cities. From its vast vineyards in the countryside to its endless coastline with sweeping sea views, it’s definitely one of Europe’s most diverse and popular destinations to visit.
With its rich history, culture and architecture, France has a total of 45 designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. That places them fifth overall for the top number of sites. All of these places are recognized for their natural, historic and cultural significance, selected by representatives of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a way to preserve and protect for future generations. So, let’s learn more about some of the best ones to visit while in France.
Best UNESCO Sites in France
Contributed by Chris at Explore Now or Never
There is no better way to spend your day than visiting the weekly market while in the south of France. Why not plan your itinerary around these villages on market days and enjoy immersing yourself in the Provençal way of life!
Contributed by Nadine Maffre of Le Long Weekend
The entire historical centre of Avignon was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Due to its multiple, well maintained historical interests, most of which are contained within ancient city walls.
Located at the edge of modern-day Provence, Avignon was once the home of the papacy. The Popes set about building the impressive Papal Palace in the 14th century, and it was expanded on by successive popes thereafter. Today, visitors can take a tour of the interior and get a glimpse into how life once was, with the help of an interactive Histopad.
Nearby, you’ll find the famous Pont d’Avignon (Saint Bénézet Bridge) of which remains just 4 of its original 22 arches spanning the Rhône River. Halfway across the remains, you’ll find the tiny Chapel of St Nicolas.
The historical centre has been lovingly preserved, and you’ll find many examples of Medieval architecture as you wander through the cobbled streets. Be sure to take your time to savour them all. Take a walk up to the Rocher des Doms, where you’ll find a stunning view over the river to Villeneuve les Avignon, with its own stately hilltop fort.
Banks of the Seine in Paris
Contributed by Dymphe of Dymabroad
One of the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France is the Banks of the Seine. This is the area that surrounds the Seine river in Paris. It’s been on this list since the year 1991 and it includes the historic part of the city of Paris. The reason why the banks of the Seine are included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list is that the Seine river played an important role in the development of Paris.
This area shows the evolution and history of Paris and the influence of the Seine river on this. You find there the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Petit Palais, Notre-Dame, and Place de la Concorde, among other famous spots. It is here you will find many of the reasons to visit Paris. You can also see the different architectural styles and decorative arts of about 800 years of Parisian history along the Seine river. That’s another one of the reasons why it’s included on the list.
Wandering around Île Saint-Louis, one of two natural islands in Paris, makes for the perfect escape while in Paris. As it sits in the middle of the Seine with the left and right banks on either side. As you can image, it offers a lovely view of the Seine and the Parisian buildings.
Contributed by Elisa of France Bucket List
The medieval Cité de Carcassonne, in the Occitanie region in southern France, is listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. Carcassonne is a remarkable example of a fortified medieval city with its keep, ramparts, and other well-preserved buildings.
Carcassonne was one of the crusades’ main sites against the Cathars – a religion that thrived in southern France. History tells us that Cathars was considered heresy by the Catholics. The Counts of Carcassonne and its inhabitants supported the Cathars, and the Crusaders besieged the Cité until it surrendered.
Today, Carcassonne is one of France’s most visited sites, thanks to its beautiful architecture and rich history. Visitors can stroll the medieval streets, lined with lovely shops and restaurants, and explore the remaining structures of this fortified city.
While visiting Carcassonne, be sure to try a delicious cassoulet. A cassoulet is a slow-cooked casserole containing meat, pork skin, and white beans. It’s a staple regional dish found on all local restaurants’ menus.
Chaîne des Puys
Contributed by Patricia of Ze Wandering Frogs
The Chaîne des Puys – Limagne fault tectonic arena in Auvergne has been recognized as a natural UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018. It features the West European Rift created some 35-million years ago in the aftermath of the Alps formation.
Hiking the popular Volcanoes Regional Nature Park is the perfect way to explore the Chaîne des Puys. Day trips around the popular Puy-de-Dôme provide a great introduction to the Auvergne landscape, with views across the Chaîne des Puys and all the way to the Limagne Valley.
In addition to its geological importance, the Chaîne des Puys region is very rich culturally and historically. Visiting the Chaîne des Puys is like walking through France’s history. From the prehistory Grotta dolmen, Romanesque Orcival Basilica, medieval Castle of Mural, to exploring small villages of Montpeyroux, Usson, and Saint-Saturnin considered among the most beautiful villages of the region.
The city of Clermont-Ferrand, which was already crucial under the Romans, is famous for its 13th-century Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption Cathedral and 95 metres high spires.
Contributed by Lee & Stacey of One Trip at a Time
Located in the Normandy region of France, Le Havre was founded in 1517 at the mouth of the Seine River to replace nearby ports that had silted up. It has grown into France’s second largest port with cargo and cruise ships visiting throughout the year.
Most of the city was heavily bombed in World War II so there isn’t much of its historic architecture left. A design team, led by Auguste Perret, rebuilt the destroyed areas of the city from 1945 to 1964.
Perret and his team preserved historical patterns such as streets and squares, along with buildings that survived the bombs. They then combined those with new planning concepts such as uniform design and the use of concrete. These innovative ideas earned Le Havre a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list for being an “outstanding post-war example of urban planning and architecture.”
In addition to experiencing a whole city that is a UNESCO site, visitors will find many hidden gems tucked away amidst the modern post-war buildings just waiting to be discovered!
Contributed by Leyla Giray Alyanak of Offbeat France
Contributed by Elisa of World in Paris
The beautiful city of Lyon, in eastern France, is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its rich history and heritage. From its origins to present day, buildings are preserved and representative of the urban settlement of over two thousand years, always building new structures while preserving the old ones.
Lyon, the capital of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, is located at the junction of the Saône and the Rhône Rivers. Thanks to its fast connection of the TGV train, Lyon makes for the ideal weekend trip from Paris.
Lyon is like a stroll through history. Without leaving the city, it is possible to visit the Roman vestiges of antique Lugdunum, get lost in the medieval streets around the Fourvière hill, and admire beautiful Renaissance houses in Vieux Lyon. It is also considered the capital of French gastronomy, and it is an excellent place to taste delicious French food.
Contributed by Victoria of Guide Your Travel
Described by UNESCO as the “Wonder of the West”, Mont-Saint Michel is an impressive construction located on a small rocky island in a sheltered bay in the north of France. Originally, in the 8th century, only an abbey was built on the island but a whole village soon followed.
Today, Mont-Saint Michel has become a tourist hotspot and popular weekend location for thousands of visitors every week. Recently, an updated walkway was built so the island is easily accessible on foot. There are complimentary buses that will take you there if you’re not up for the 30-minute walk.
The main attraction in Mont-Saint Michel is the beautiful historic abbey that sits at the highest point of the island. There is an entrance fee although it is only a few euros. The rest of Mont-Saint Michel can be seen free of charge. Definitely plan to spend at least a day here to see everything. Mont-Saint Michel was named a UNESCO world heritage site because of its unique architecture and natural location as well as its significance to the catholic faith.
Thanks to Victoria for the use of the cover photo.
Pont du Gard
Contributed by Ania from The Travelling Twins
The heart of Provence, is in the department of Vaucluse, which is close proximity Avignon and Pont du Gard. This part of France has the greatest number of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (or Most Beautiful Villages in France). Although these seven villages are not on the UNESCO list, they are definitely worth seeing.
Contributed by Jes from Tourist to Travellers
If you are travelling to Paris and wish to check out some offbeat places then do not give Provins a miss. This medieval town is only a 2 hour drive from Paris. Provins is a beautifully well- preserved town whereby most of the old buildings are in their original form.
In the 13th century, Provins was one of the important towns in France and was prosperous due to its making of wool. Many fairs were held here as a result, and is another reason why this town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001.
The beauty of the town is best explored on foot and sightseeing the historic places will not take up more than a day’s time. Some of the places of interest include Cesar Tower, rampant, church of Saint Quiriace and Place du Chatel to name a few.
While in Provins, do not forget to try the cheese and rose flavours products, such as, rose syrup, rose candies and rose petal jam.
The Saint-Émilion vineyards and surrounding town in Nouvelle Aquitaine were added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1999, in recognition of the vineyards from the area dating back to Roman times. Along with the beautiful landscapes of vines for miles around, the town is also home to many notable buildings including churches, monasteries and hospices.
The town grew from the 11th century due to its location on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrims’ walk. Many grand buildings were constructed in the town from the local yellow stone including the Grotto of Saint-Émilion, the Monolithic Church, and stunning château dotted amongst the vines.
Saint-Émilion is well worth spending a few days to explore the gorgeous town and surrounding wineries. Towards the end of summer, when the crowds are less, you can also witness the harvest in action. The town is full of wine shops also, where you can taste and purchase red wine with this amazing heritage behind it.
One of the most authentic cities in France is without doubt Strasbourg. This lovely city on the border of Germany and France has been part of both countries during its history. You can clearly see to this day the influences of both France and Germany represented in the city.
Initially, only the Grande Île, the old historical part of Strasbourg had been named UNESCO World Heritage. Thanks to its rich history, impressive Gothic cathedral and surrounding canals.
But recently, the younger Neustadt, built under the German administration in the late 19th and early 20th century, was also added to the list. This is because of the specific, highly recognizable German architecture, which had been built to represent the ‘new’ German town of Strasbourg. However, this clash of German and French styles is only one of the things that makes Strasbourg so unique.
Contributed by Mark from Wyld Family Travel
Contributed by Sarah of CosmopoliClan
Just half an hour from Paris lies an estate that, to this day, sparks the imagination: The Palace and Gardens of Versailles. Sun King Louis XIV had it built on the site of his father’s hunting lodge in the 17th century. The opulent palace, and especially the iconic Hall of Mirrors, soon became the gathering place of the Parisian political and aristocratic society.
The Versailles Gardens, a collection of intimate parterres, lavish fountains, fragrant flowerbeds, are just as renowned as the Palace. Hidden behind the Gardens are the Trianon Palaces, which served as a place of refuge for the royals, and the Queen’s Hamlet, Marie-Antoinette’s very own romantic garden and model village, complete with cottages around an artificial lake, an operating farm and a grotto.
The grandeur of Versailles became a model of excellence and various palaces and royal gardens were modeled after it. Because of that unmistakable influence of both the Palace and Gardens on European architecture and landscape design, the Versailles estate was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. It’s also one of the Royal Residences in UNESCO’s Visit World Heritage program.
Contributed by Erica of Tripscholars
It is a profound experience to see the Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley. UNESCO World Heritage specifically recognizes 15 prehistoric sites, but there are over 150 in a small geographic region. So the whole area is a wonderland for curious travellers.
In 1979, it was among the first sites in France to receive the UNESCO designation. It was admitted for containing masterpieces of prehistoric art and for the incredibly rich abundance of sites and artifacts that help us piece together our understanding of these long extinct civilizations.
Visit the most famous cave, Lascaux, often called the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory. The original cave is now closed to visitors to preserve it, but Lascaux IV provides an accurate reproduction as well as a multimedia hands-on museum. Visitors can also have the transformative experience of exploring six of the original decorated caves. Other highlights include the National Museum of Prehistory and the Cro-Magnon rock shelter, after which the term Cro-Magnon was named.
As a holidaymaker…
France offers so many amazing options for travel, almost too much. Perhaps looking at the designated UNESCO sites might be a way to help plan your next intinery. As these places are carefully selected for their historic and cultural significance, and always are worth visiting.
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