By some accounts, the history of France dates back to the Iron Age. In the centuries since, France has been home to some of the world’s most historically and architecturally significant churches. From Gothic cathedrals to modern churches by contemporary architects, a big part of French culture can be found in its religious structures. On your next trip to this amazing country, be sure to explore some of the most famous and most beautiful churches in France.
In the beginning of the 13th century, this Roman Catholic Cathedral was erected in Bourges, France. Built in the French Gothic style, the Bourges Cathedral stands in a spot of religious significance dating back to at least the third century. Today, the cathedral boasts three-part elevations, a contemporary double-aisled design and a grand facade made more stunning with intricate carvings and embellishments. Incredibly, much of the original stained glass windows remain, many of them depicting fables and stories from the Old and New Testaments.
The Strasbourg Cathedral is sometimes referred to as the Pink Cathedral, a not-so-subtle reference to its uncommon hue. The cathedral is built from sandstone, giving it the pink color, and it has a large spire on one side rather than the two that were designed for the structure. The architecture is both Romanesque and Gothic, and there are still ongoing Catholic church services within the cathedral that you can attend. Be on the lookout for the astronomical clock inside the cathedral that dates to the 19th century and is the third iteration for the structure.
The town of Aubeterre-sur-Dronne is small and picturesque, with traditional architecture and quaint homes. The most incredible attraction in Aubeterre-sur-Dronne, however, is actually underground. The Monolithic Church of Saint-Jean is carved almost entirely from limestone. Built in the 7th century and greatly enlarged in the 12th century, the church has a vaulted nave, a baptismal pool and dozens of ancient coffins. It is far from the traditional picture of a French church, but this unique religious structure is truly one of a kind.
The city of Rouen is sometimes called the City of a Thousand Spires because it is home to so many churches. However, one stands out among the rest: Rouen Cathedral. This enormous, towering cathedral is the tallest in all of France. Listen for the hourly bells on the giant 56-bell carillon, admire the incredible Bookseller’s Stairway and spot the statues of saints filling the interior walls of the Rouen Cathedral.
The Basilica of Sacré-Coeur in Paris is one of the most well-known churches in France. To start, it has an imposing presence, thanks to its location on a hill perched about the trendy, artsy Montmartre district. It was designed in the Romano-Byzantine style, and it is remarkably similar to the famed Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Istanbul. One of the top features of the Sacré-Coeur is the enormous mosaic of Jesus, and the inclusion of his golden heart.
Getting to the Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe is a challenge in and of itself. This amazing church is perched on a rocky point, and to reach it you’ll have to climb 268 steep steps carved right into the rock face. The climb is well worth the effort, however, because you’ll get the chance to see the sacred brick and rock building constructed in the middle of the 10th century. The church looks incredible from below, but getting to the top also provides stunning vistas over the French landscape and the city of Aiguilhe.
The port city of Marseille is home to the incredible Notre-Dame de la Garde, a cathedral honoring the patron saint of sailors. The Roman Catholic Cathedral was built on the ruins of an ancient fort in the 19th century, and it was created in the Byzantine Revival style. Inside, don’t miss the chance to see the iconic Madonna and Child statue sculpted from copper and covered in brilliant gold leaf as well as the impressive belfry and the stone arches.
Part of the appeal and beauty of the Mont Saint Michel Abbey owes to its location. The island of Mont Saint Michel is just half a mile off the coast near Normandy, making access limited. Approaching the island, you’ll see the abbey rise from the water, occupying a large portion of the island itself. Built in the 15th century, and still home to Benedictine monks, the abbey is surrounded by quaint streets, shops, cafes and museums devoted to the island and its history.
Over 800 years ago, construction began on Reims Cathedral. Today, the cathedral is a stunning example of Gothic architecture and serves as the biggest attraction in the city of Reims. It was in this very cathedral that many French kings had their coronations, and records show that even Joan of Arc was in attendance at one of these ceremonies in the 15th century. With multiple chapels and the first ever use of bar tracery in France, it took nearly a century to complete the Reims Cathedral.
Just two hours outside of Reims is Amiens, home to the Cathedral of Amiens. When the Reims Cathedral was unveiled, the population of Amiens wanted something similar. So, in the 13th century, the French Gothic Cathedral of Amiens was constructed. It is just slightly taller than the one in Reims, an intentional part of the planning process. Impressive cantilevers create a high ceiling for the nave, making it an incredible structure to behold from the interior. Detailed carvings of saints, many of which have been intricately painted, are just one more reason to explore this beautiful cathedral in France.
France’s most famous cathedral is the Notre Dame de Paris, which was constructed starting in the middle of the 12th century. The jewel of Parisian architecture, Notre Dame de Paris is undeniably Gothic in style, and it boasts an incredibly large size. Its flying buttresses were among the first in the world, and many gargoyles were used not just for design but for column supports and even water spouts. You’ll absolutely want to tour the cathedral, but make time to also see the extensive crypts underneath the church that are open to the public.
In 1194, construction began on the Chartres Cathedral. This incredible building, constructed in the Gothic style, is considered to be one of the most important pieces of architecture in France. The colorful stained glass windows are preserved well, and two different spires compete for attention on the roof of the cathedral. Although the exterior is phenomenal, don’t miss the artworks and relics found inside, such as the dress that was allegedly worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus.