History & Culture

France’s 10 most historic cities

Each of these 10 most historic cities in France is ripe for exploration.

From hilltop castles like Mont Saint-Michel to 13th century Colmar in Alsace, France is filled with fascinating places for history lovers to visit. Discover stories from the past etched into the architecture, or simply wander where thousands have wandered before you as you explore any of these marvellous historic cities.

Marseille, one of France’s oldest cities

Dating back to the ancient Greeks, Marseille is the perfect place in southern France to soak up history as well as glorious Mediterranean sunshine. The port alone is a beautiful reminder of the history steeped city, but there’s plenty more to see and do here including  the impressive Marseille Museum of Contemporary Art and natural phenomenon Calanques.

A panoramic view of a large harbour filled with boats and a town of colourful buildings in the distance in the sun

A wealth of historic sites in Paris

Paris has attracted visitors for centuries and you can explore its rich historical past, somehow seeing something new every time you visit. The birthplace of Gothic architecture and the European capital of fashion, Paris has also seen revolutions and been the epicentre for huge cultural shifts like the Enlightenment. A delve into its past is always well-rewarded.

Albi, a small city with a fabulous heritage

Albi is a medieval city tucked away into the south of France on the banks of the River Tarn. The site of numerous crusades, Albi has a history rooted in the religious conflicts of the Middle Ages. Its must-sees include St. Cecelia’s cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece, the bishop’s palace, and the magnificent Toulouse Lautrec Museum. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was the great post-impressionist iconographer of Parisian life in the late 19th century and the museum hosts the largest collection of his work.

UNESCO world heritage site of Avignon

Home of the Festival d’Avignon and one of France’s most musical cities, Avignon was also once the centre of the Roman Catholic world when the pope lived here in the early 14th century. That’s why the Palais de Papes is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Set on the banks of the Rhône and surrounded by medieval stone ramparts, Avignon is one of Provence’s biggest cities, but has a charming small-town feel. Be sure to visit the famous bridge to nowhere, The Pont St-Bénezet, built originally in the 11th century from wood, which (now in stone) only goes halfway over the river.

A city filled with many stone Gothic buildings with an arched bridge over a river in the foreground and a large church in the background

Bordeaux, one of France’s great historic port cities

You’ve no doubt heard of Bordeaux because of its powerhouse status in French wine culture, but it also has a long history having been founded in 300BC and one of the most important ports for sugar cane and other goods from the 6th century. Today you’ll see over 5,000 buildings from the city’s golden age, the 16th to 18th century, when Bordeaux became an opulent celebration of grand architecture and luxurious outdoor space.

Besançon, the jewel of eastern France

In Eastern France, close to the Jura Mountains and the border with Switzerland, lies Besançon, capital of the historic and cultural region of Franche-Comté. It’s history and unique architecture earned it the label ‘Town of Art and History’ since 1986 and its 17th century citadel is a listed UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also known for its watchmaking which began post French Revolution when the government no longer wanted to rely on England and Switzerland for imports. Visit L’horloge Astronomique (the Astronomical Clock) built in the late 1850s by Auguste-Lucien Vérité. It’s made up of 30,000 pieces telling you the time, date, season, zodiac sign, solar eclipses, moon phase, and other data. The top of the clock features scenes from the Bible, via figures that move around each hour.

The medieval walled city of Carcassonne

A hilltop wonder, Carcassonne sits alongside the Aude River surrounded by walls that were once its defensive battlements. A trip to the Château et Remparts allows you to walk along these walls plus learn about the 2,500 years of history here. You should also plan time in the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire which has some of the most beautiful stained-glass windows that come alive in the sunlight.

A stone owl carved into a white stone wall

Annecy and its medieval château

If you’re a fan of fairytale castles, your next holiday destination has to be Annecy which has one of the most impressive in France. The castle Château d’Annecy was the residence of the counts of Geneva during the 13th and 14th centuries and is filled with art and vintage furnishings. Annecy’s old town, Vieille Ville, is an elegant sprawl of cobbled streets, canals, and pastel-coloured houses that play host to markets and antique fairs throughout the year. This city has a long history linked to its strategic position on the route between Geneva and Italy at the northern tip of Lake Annecy. Originally a Roman site in the 1st century AD, Annecy developed the nickname ‘Rome of the Alps’ only becoming a French city in 1860.

Dijon, capital of the historical Burgundy region

If you are heading to Burgundy, Dijon is an intriguing place, filled with stories from the past. The university alone was founded in 1722, but you’ll also find a 14th century cathedral and the magnificent tombs of Philip the Bold (1342–1404) and John the Fearless (1371–1419), both (brilliantly named) dukes of Burgundy. Many of the streets here will make you feel like you’ve stepped back into the past, but our favourite is Rue de la Chouette, a short medieval treasure trove that takes its name from the little owl stone carving on one of the pillars of the church of Notre Dame. The owl is said to bring good luck if you rub it with your left hand.

Large ornate golden clock above an archway on an old cobbled street lined with old buildings

The important Roman city of Rouen

Capital of the Haute-Normandie region, Rouen is filled with galleries and museums that hold artefacts from across the centuries, including works from art heavyweights Monet and Carvaggio. You can also see the site where Joan of Arc met her fiery demise and check the time at the medieval astronomical clocks on Rue du Gros Horloge.

Immerse yourself in the history of France with Eurotunnel Le Shuttle

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Immerse yourself in the history of France with Eurotunnel Le Shuttle

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