From medieval Gothic architecture to sky-high castles that marked historical milestones, fall in love with the most stunning churches and cathedrals in France.
Their extraordinary permanence, their everlasting relevance even in a secular world, and their transcendent beauty make the churches and cathedrals of France a lightning rod if you are in search of French culture. Here are some of the best.
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Abbaye du Mont-St-Michel
One of the most visited monuments in France, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is located a half-mile off the coast of Normandy on a rocky tidal island, which means you can only access Pont-Passerelle by foot, horse carriage, or shuttle bus during low tide. During the 5th century, Mont-St-Michel was known as Mont-Tombe, but in 708, a Normandy bishop was said to have been visited by archangel Michael and told to build a sanctuary in his name atop Mont-Tombe. The abbey was completed in 966 and became a key place of pilgrimage in the Christian West, as well as a center of Gallo-Roman culture, where many manuscripts were produced and stored. Continually reconstructed over the last 1,300 years, the abbey has adapted to various architectural styles, from pre-Romanesque to Gothic, and additionally served as a prison during the French Revolution. Its fortified wall built during the Hundred Years’ War protected the island population (which today stands at 60 people) from English attacks for some 30 years.
When construction began on the Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens in 1220, the medieval builders were attempting to reach God’s front doorstep, and so the internal dimensions were maximized to support the height of the cathedral. That is why this cathedral has the largest interior volume of any in France. Its quality and quantity of Gothic sculpture earned it a UNESCO World Heritage Site title, too. Some of its more fascinating architectural features are actually mistakes made during the construction: the original flying buttresses were built too high, resulting in a second lower set of buttresses, which in turn required the installation of a wrought-iron chain installed to keep the cathedral together. Although now lost, its greatest relic was the head of John the Baptist, which served as the inspiration to build the cathedral in the first place.
Basilique du Sacré-Cœur
Every year, some 10 million tourists climb the 222 stairs or take the funicular up to Montmartre to visit the Sacred Heart of Paris. But how many know that its construction marked the end of France’s domination of continental Europe, resulting in the creation of a unified Germany? In 1873, after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, the National Assembly authorized the construction of “an imposing Christian church visible from all over Paris” to forgive the people of their sins. Unlike other Parisian churches, the basilica features Romanesque-Byzantine architecture, similar to San Marco in Venice, and was built with self-cleaning stone from the Château-Landon quarries. When it rains, the calcite has a bleaching effect that gives the exterior its famous chalky white appearance. At 425-feet above sea level, the 270-foot bell tower (one of the heaviest in the world at 19 tons) and dome are the second-highest viewpoint in Paris. It also has one of the largest mosaics in the world.
The largest Romanesque church in France has been an important stop along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela for centuries; today, the Basilique St-Sernin is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Named after the first bishop of Toulouse, the church was built between the 11th and 14th centuries, and sits atop a 4th-century basilica. Don’t be fooled by the exterior; the vaulted ceilings, a 70-foot nave, and the choir’s gold-plated wooden and marble canopy are part of what makes the 337-foot church a symbol of Toulouse. The crypts with an enamel reliquary of the True Cross can also be accessed, but it’s the frescoes painted between 1140 and 1180 that will keep you lingering.
Completed in 1176, Cathédrale St-Etienne is a national monument. Originally constructed as an abbey, it once held more political power than Paris when it served as the capital of several different regions in France. The treasury contains a fragment of the true cross that was presented by Charlemagne, as well as the vestments of Thomas Becket. It is also the resting site of Louis XV’s son and where St. Louis married Marguerite of Provence in 1234.
Chapelle du Rosaire
WHERE: Vence, French Riviera
Built between 1948 and 1951 and located four miles from the town of Vence, artist Henri Matisse called this chapel his chef-d’œuvre (masterpiece). Despite an illness, Matisse worked day and night on the exterior architecture and interior design and even on the furniture. But it’s the large stained glass windows—with their blue, green, and yellow reflections across the white marble floors—that draw the most admiration.
Located 50 miles outside of Paris, the Chartres Cathedral, also known as Cathédrale Notre-Dame, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, courtesy of its well-preserved original stained glass that dates back to the 13th century. Medieval art lovers come for the windows and sculptures, but true believers come to view the Sancta Camisa, said to be the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary at Christ’s birth. In 2009, an $18 million restoration project was launched to return the cathedral to its 13th-century look. Architectural critics have condemned the project, stating it’s absurd to think the interior can be re-created exactly as it was when originally built.
Like many of its Gothic contemporaries, Reims Cathedral (another cathedral officially known as Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims) was built on the site of several older churches and dates back to the Roman-Gallo era. Construction of the present structure began in 1222 and was completed in the 15th century, although its claim to fame is not its height, architectural distinction, or relics, but rather a political and historical connection. Since 987 AD, with the exception of only one, all French kings were crowned in Reims. The cathedral also boasts a mix of medieval and contemporary stained-glass windows, the latest of which was installed in 2011 to celebrate its 800th anniversary.
One of the most impressive Gothic churches ever built, Rouen Cathedral (officially called the Cathédrale Notre-Dame) summarizes the evolution of Gothic art, starting with its construction in the 12th century on the foundations of a 4th-century basilica. Today, the cathedral is home to both France’s tallest spire (a 495-foot cast-iron tower that was added in the 19th century) and its oldest recumbent tomb statue. Throw in early 13th-century stained glass windows and the fact that Joan of Arc was put on trial in the bishops’ palace on the grounds, and it’s easy to understand how this place of worship influenced Impressionist artists like Monet. The choir of the cathedral houses the tombs of the dukes of Normandy, including Richard the Lionheart.
Since 90 AD, the modern-day Strasbourg Cathedral has been the site of several different churches, which explains its Romanesque-style vestiges. Also known as the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, it was the world’s tallest medieval structure until 1874 and is still considered among the finest examples of late medieval architecture. Among its many impressive features is an astronomical clock built between 1352 and 1354. According to legend, the church was built atop an underground lake where a boat still roams aimlessly, and if you listen closely, you can hear the sound of the oars dipping in and out of the water. Another spooky myth suggests that the sound you hear is the Devil trapped inside the church and riding the wind, looking for a way out.