France is one of the most popular destinations for travelers, many of whom take interest in the country’s rich culinary scene, artistic lineage, and beautiful countryside. But there are others who are interested in the country’s long and storied history, with its famed monarchy and engagement in multiple influential wars. For those interested in days past, here are some places you must visit when you come to the country dubbed “l’Hexagone” for its six-sided shape.
1. The Côte d’Azur
This section of gorgeous land, which extends around the Mediterranean Sea in the southeast corner of the country, is known in English as the French Riviera, and has seen multiple periods of historic interest. It seems that important civilizations just couldn’t keep away from the stunningly beautiful view of the sea. It became what it is today after becoming a resort home for wealthy Englishmen in the 1800s, but prior to that it was influenced by the Greeks, colonized by the Romans, and converted to Christianity in the 4th century. Frejus Cathedral, built in the 5th century, is a place possessed of a sense of ancient peace. Elsewhere, you can visit Cannes, home of the famed film festival, and Saint-Tropez, where the jet-setters of the 50s parked their yachts.
2. The Louvre
This is it: the world’s largest art museum, housed in a historic monument that is one of the defining features of the City of Lights. Paris’ most visited site was originally built in the 12th and 13th centuries as a fortress by order of Philip II, but later became the main residence of the Kings of France. The museum that currently occupies the space opened in 1793, making it one of the world’s oldest collections of fine art. Today, it still houses some of the most recognizable pieces of artistic and historical import, including the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and the Code of Hammurabi.
3. The Palace of Versailles
While the Louvre served as the palace of the French Kings from 1546 to 1682, it wasn’t good enough for the famously demanding Louis XIV, who made his home instead at the Palace of Versailles, where he also held meetings of the royal court. It was a massive symbol of his almighty power, a monument to excess and extravagance that cost untold amounts of money and whose gaudiness potentially triggered the historic French Revolution. It is just as ostentatious and beautiful today as it was then, and now, nearly five million people visit the palace and museum each year.
4. Notre Dame Cathedral
This building is perhaps the defining symbol of Medieval architecture. Built between 1163 and 1345, the massive structure, with its naturalistic sculptures and awe-inspiring stained glass, is one of the first buildings in history to use the architectural feature known as a flying buttress. The church is a marvel of architecture and human will that has been memorialized in numerous works of art, most notably Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
5. Mont Saint-Michel
This island commune in Normandy is the seat of a historic monastery that has existed for centuries. The architecture is largely unchanged from when it was constructed, a fortified structure that reflects the organization of feudal society in its very organization. It is like stepping into a world you could only imagine previously. It has been an abbey, a prison, and more, but is now one of France’s most recognizable sites, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
France is a country imbued with history. Visit the sites above, and you’ll leave with an understanding of how this relatively small country came to influence the course of human events so deeply.