Exploring UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France and all over the world has become something of a trend in our family over the past few years. It’s something I’ve always done, albeit sometimes without realising, particularly when much younger, but now it’s something we actively seek out when travelling. These sites have undergone a rigorous application process to gain their prestigious UNESCO World Heritage status and we want to see why. Sites can be natural or manmade but not all are beautiful for the premise of the listing is that the place must be of special cultural or physical significance. This means there are industrial sites, as well as sublimely beautiful natural sites and of course gorgeous buildings/monuments, and there are a huge amount of them: 1154 at time of writing, spread across 167 countries.
Clearly visiting them all would be a gargantuan task and one that I am unlikely to achieve, but there’s no harm in breaking it down to more realistic goals such as getting to all those in France…. Currently there are 49 UNESCO World Heritage sites in France, which puts it in joint 4th place with Spain after Italy, China and Germany. The list began in 1978 with 12 sites and the first places in France to achieve heritage status were Chartres Cathedral, Mont St Michel, Versailles and Vézelay all added a year later in 1979.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France
As much for my own records as anything I have put together a list of those sites I’ve been to in France and it appears it numbers 26, although two are rather tenuous. I’m ashamed to admit that although I’ve driven past Chartres on the motorway several times, from where you can see the cathedral, I’ve never actually stopped to visit. I don’t count it in my list though I do count the Nord-Pas-de-Calais Mining Basin (tentatively) as I’ve driven through it more times than I can count. I won’t go into historical or cultural detail here, rather just a few words about personal experiences relating to each site. All photos are my own (unless specified) and many of them date from pre-digital days, please excuse their archaic quality. Let’s go….
Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments
Arles, on the edge of the Camargue, is a gorgeous town to visit, associated with Van Gogh and bursting with culture. We took the little kid there a few years ago to see the Roman arena and being into gladiators at the time he loved it!
I know I’ve been to Amiens Cathedral several years ago, but have no photographic evidence, so this photo is from Pixabay. We visited having stopped for lunch on the way to the Baie de Somme.
Belfries of Belgium and France
Having had the misfortune to live in Calais in the late 1990s, a pretty awful place to live even before the horrors of The Jungle, JF and I have seen many of the belfries of northern France and Belgium. The best thing about living in Calais was getting out of it – its location was great for exploring the north of France, Belgium, Holland and even quick trips to England. This photo is of the belfry in Calais with Rodin’s sculpture “The Burghers of Calais” in the foreground.
Canal du Midi
In the summer of 1981 my family rented a boat with some American friends for a week on the Canal du Midi. I remember many details about this trip, such as going through locks and drifting along under the shady plane trees, but the most memorable thing about this particular holiday was a royal wedding. We were on board when Charles and Diana got married and our American friends were obsessed with the wedding. Obviously this was way before the internet and 24 hour news coverage so we were amazed to find a small village bar showing the wedding on a tiny TV and managed to watch it from there. We’d decked out our boat in Union Jack bunting too. Quite a spectacle! These days we have friends who live near the canal and we like to have apéros by the water whenever we stay with them.
Thanks to Diane at Oui in France for this lovely photo
Cathedral of Notre Dame, Reims
When we lived in Paris we used to go to Reims regularly to visit friends who lived there and buy champagne. At least one time we made the effort to see the cathedral but bizarrely I can’t find any photos of the exterior. This is the (now) adult aged about 2 sitting inside the great Cathedral, you’ll just have to take my word for it!
Chaîne des Puys – Limagne fault tectonic arena
The Chaîne des Puys is a string of volcanoes in the centre of France in the Auvergne region. We have visited the area a couple of times, climbing up the most famous Puy, the Puy de Dôme in deep fog one year, resulting in absolutely no view! However when we returned a few years later we explored the Puy de Lémptegy, a dormant volcano open to the public, which our boys loved.
Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars
In conjunction with visiting friends in Reims and its Cathedral, we have often been to champagne houses, cellars and the vineyards themselves, though we’ve never been to the cellars of the big well known houses, only small independent producers. When we first moved south we missed our regular supplies of champagne from a particular house so much that we had it delivered, some 950 kms away! Those were the days…. Nowadays we buy from the local supermarket, how our standards have fallen!
Fortifications of Vauban
Vauban was a very prolific “fortifier” and living in France these days it’s pretty hard to miss his architecture. He built fortified towns, citadels and forts all over the country during the 17th century. Officially there are actually only 12 on the UNESCO list of which I’ve been to Briançon (photo) and St Martin de Ré. However other Vauban sites that I’ve visited are Entrevaux, Colmar-des-Alpes and Fort Carré in Antibes which was redeveloped by Vauban though not originally built by him (and is only 25 mins from Lou Messugo).
Historic Centre of Avignon: Papal Palace, Episcopal Ensemble and Avignon Bridge
We’d been to Avignon many years ago when we only had one kid so decided it was time to go back with the other one and explore some more. That weekend we danced “sur le pont d’Avignon” (one way guaranteed NOT impress an 11 year old) and visited the Papal Palace. What a beautiful town!
Historic Fortified City of Carcassonne
I visited Carcassonne as a kid during that holiday on the Canal du Midi, but it is the more recent visit with my boys that stands out. We stayed in a lovely B&B directly opposite the medieval walls with the most perfect view. At the time both our children were into knights and castles and you can’t really find a more impressive location to indulge this passion.
Historic Site of Lyon
Lyon is conveniently located exactly halfway between our current home in the Côte d’Azur and both Paris, our former home, and Nancy, JF’s hometown, so we have visited many times. We’ve stayed overnight with the kids several times and have tried to visit something of interest each time. I’ve also been to the incredible Fête des Lumières, its winter light festival.
Mont-Saint-Michel and its Bay
I first went to Mont St Michel on the most miserable of French exchanges in about 1985 in the pouring rain and wasn’t overly impressed, however, the second time was with the boys and JF, in perfect weather and a total revelation. In contrast to the mess of cars parked at the base all those years ago, the car park has been moved back a few kilometers and the almost exclusively pedestrian bridge has been designed to blend into the landscape revealing the splendour of the mount rising out of the bay without distraction. We all absolutely loved it.
Nice, Winter Resort Town of the Riviera
Nice was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2021, not as many people might expect as a summer resort, but as a winter destination. It was originally sought after as a place for aristocratic and well-to-do Brits to “winter”, hence the origins of its famous seafront boulevard’s name “le Promenade des Anglais”. Living 30 minutes from Nice, I have visited far too many times to count and absolutely love this cosmopolitan, diverse city.
Palace and Park of Fontainebleau
Fontainebleau is somewhere I feel I should know better, but have only been to the château once, pre-children, in the days when we lived in Paris. The surrounding forest, while not part of the UNESCO site is a great place for hiking and rock climbing.
Palace and Park of Versailles
I first went to Versailles on a school trip aged 11, then again on my first ever holiday without parents, with 2 friends to celebrate the end of our O levels aged 16. Since then I’ve taken visiting relatives from Australia, but we’ve never been as a family with both the boys. That’s definitely something that needs to be rectified on our next trip to Paris. Edited to say that we finally made it to Versailles with the younger kid in April 2019.
Paris, Banks of the Seine
The parts of Paris which are on the UNESCO list are along the Seine river, including Notre Dame, the île de la Cité and the Eiffel Tower. We lived in Paris and the surrounding area for 10 years so naturally we’ve explored pretty much every part of the Banks of the Seine. One of our favourite things to do on the weekend was to rollerblade along the river when the roads were closed to traffic, which explains the silly photo I’ve chosen to illustrate Paris UNESCO! (Who wants another perfectly beautiful shot of Paris anyway?)
Place Stanislas, Place de la Carrière and Place d’Alliance in Nancy
Nancy is JF’s hometown which means we visit often. We had our wedding reception in the elegant Place Stanislas and posed for our disastrous professional wedding photos in Place de la Carrière. Disastrous because it was -8°c and I was so cold that I look completely frozen in the photos and not at all relaxed and happy! Nancy isn’t as well known internationally as it should be, it really is a beautiful city.
Pont du Gard (Roman Aqueduct)
We spent a couple of days camping near the Pont du Gard with the little kid. The aqueduct itself is an incredible feat of engineering and a phenomenal structure to contemplate, and together with its surroundings – the lovely river Gardon and “memories of the garrigue” park – it really is a very special place.
Provins, Town of Medieval Fairs
Provins wasn’t so far from where we lived on the outskirts of Paris and I used to go with my mums and babies group sometimes for picnics. In this picture the (now) Teen is in his buggy aged about 18 months.
Strasbourg – Grande île and Neustadt
Bizarrely, despite Strasbourg being only 2 hours’ drive from Nancy we’ve only visited once, for the famous Christmas market in rather poor weather. It’s gorgeous and I’d love to see it in the spring or summer.
The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement
17 sites around the world designed by Le Corbusier are on the UNESCO Heritage list of which I’ve visited one and driven past another (la Cité Radieuse in Marseille). The Cabanon in Roquebrune Cap Martin (about an hour from Lou Messugo) is an “archetypal minimum cell based on ergonomic and functionalist approaches” but to the untrained eye looks very much like a shed! It’s an absolutely fascinating place to visit to understand how this incredibly modest shed is so important to modern architecture.
The Climats, terroirs of Burgundy
Burgundy is so centrally located for driving through and stopping over on long drives across the country that we’ve done just that too many times to count. During the great heatwave of summer 2003 we stayed in a hotel in the vineyards near Baune, the only criteria being a pool. We managed to tear ourselves away from the pool for long enough to visit the gorgeous Hospice of Baune, with its unusual colourful roof.
The Loire Valley between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes
We’ve driven through the Loire Valley several times, stayed in Saumur and Durtal, and visited the Châteaux of Villandry (photo below) and Chenonceau (photo 2nd from top) with the kids. I’ve also been to a wedding years ago in Angers. However, there are so many amazing castles to explore in this area that we’ve really only scratched its surface.
Vézelay, Church and Hill
We spend time in Burgundy most summers with JF’s family and the place we stay is close to Vézelay, but it was only after about 10 or 12 years that I finally visited the great abbey in summer 2021! And it was worth the wait as we visited without kids and took our time exploring the magnificent 12th century Benedictine monastery and gorgeous surrounding village which is part of the “Plus Beaux Villages de France”.
And the two I rather dubiously claim….
Le Havre, the City Rebuilt by Auguste Perret
Le Havre is somewhere that I’ve driven through having arrived by ferry but have never properly explored. I put it on my “tentative” list.
Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin
I can’t honestly say I’ve actually been up close to any of the mines, but having lived in Calais and Paris we’ve driven past countless times. The piles of scree stand out like pyramids and can be seen across the flat landscape from miles around and there’s even a dry ski slope on one!
For more information on any of these sites click through to the UNESCO World Heritage website here.
So that’s it! There are another 23 to visit which should be achievable, all the while visiting sites in other countries too. By paying to visit these places we help fund further conservation, hopefully ensuring these wonderful heritage sites will be around for future generations to enjoy. Have you been to any of these places? Do you like “UNESCO World Heritage tourism” and if so which places are your favourites?
For more UNESCO World Heritage inspiration I recommend this article (where you can read more detail about Mont St Michel, written by me) 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Europe to visit by Tracy’s Travels in Time
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