In France, there's a beautiful church around every corner. Each has its own unique flare, from distinctive architectural styles to astounding stained glass windows. It would be lovely to visit them all, but much like French cheeses, there are far too many to explore during one trip. You've got to be selective, but luckily, that's not too difficult to do. There are many churches in France that are world-famous for their beauty, and they belong on most every traveler's bucket list.
Here are 10 gorgeous churches to visit in France:
10 Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe
Located atop a volcanic plug, this ancient chapel can only be reached by climbing 268 steps. However, a visit to Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe is well-worth a bit of exertion. Built in the year 969, this church is like a portal through the centuries, taking visitors back in time to the Middle Ages.
Stained glass and colorful frescoes decorate the interior of the chapel, with columns rising throughout its rooms to support the ceiling above. After exploring the church, visitors can sit outside and enjoy expansive views over Le Puy-en-Velay.
Standing atop this rock formation far above the town below, it is easy to understand why it was chosen as a religious site so many hundreds of years ago. Indeed, its sacred history begins even before the chapel's construction, with the Romans, who built a dolmen at this site in dedication to Mercury.
Fifteen enormous stained glass windows cover the walls of Saint-Chapelle, and walking beneath their panes can feel like wandering through an ocean of color. The effect is the particularly strong during sunset, when the light brings life to the Biblical scenes depicted on the windows.
Built nearly 800 years ago, this chapel was designed in the Gothic style and housed King Louis IX of France's collection of Passion relics. It was part of the residency of the Kings of France, and to this day, it remains a historic symbol of the country, with countless tourists visiting on an annual basis.
8 The Abbey at Mont St-Michel
Located in the tiny island town of Le Mont-Saint-Michel in northwestern France, this famous abbey towers above the town's other buildings, perfectly representing the feudal hierarchy of the Middle Ages during which it was built. At the peak is God and the abbey, with the stores and housing of residents standing beneath.
Construction upon the abbey began around 1,000 years ago, and its Gothic style showcases beautiful stonework and open-air cloisters. With tides sweeping in everyday to surround the island, this town and its abbey were highly defensible and withstood attacks by the English during the Hundred Years' War. Nowadays, a causeway connects the town with mainland France, allowing visitors to more easily breach its well-fortified walls.
7 Notre-Dame de la Garde
Notre-Dame de la Garde is a masterpiece of Neo-Byzantine architecture perched atop the highest point in Marseille. Crowning the church's bell tower is a gold-plated statue of the Madonna and Child, and within its walls, golden mosaics adorn the domes, which seem to glow in the dim lighting of the nave. Striped towers and archways add a vibrancy to the design of the church, and beneath its floors lies a crypt built in the Romanesque style. Visitors to the church will be rewarded with panoramic views across Marseille.
6 Strasbourg Cathedral
Visible from across the border in Germany, Strasbourg Cathedral boasts one of the tallest church spires in the world. Built in the Middle Ages, it rises 466 feet into the air, defining the skyline of Strasbourg and the surrounding country.
Although its Gothic style mirrors that of many other churches in France, this cathedral is made unique by the stone from which it is built, which lends a pink hue to the building. Within the church, visitors can admire stained glass and ornate sculptures—as well as one of the largest astronomical clocks in the world.
5 Notre-Dame de Paris
At a height of 226 feet, Notre-Dame looms large over the Île de la Cité in Paris, and it casts just as long a shadow over the annals of history. Construction on the cathedral began in the 12th century, and its design is lauded as a prime example of French Gothic architecture. Flying buttresses support the walls of the church, extending from its sides like shoulders, and visitors will find ornate sculptures adorning its stonework.
On the interior, enormous rose windows allow sunlight to filter across the darkened nave, creating an ethereal atmosphere that encourages quiet reflection. In 2019, the church was severely damaged by a fire, and numerous architectural firms put forward ideas for a new design (one of which suggested putting a swimming pool on top). However, after much discussion, it was decided that Notre-Dame would be rebuilt exactly as it appeared before, allowing its historic architecture to remain on the front stage in Paris's ancient center.
4 Basilica of Sacré-Cœur
Sacré-Cœur sits like a sentry atop Montmartre, the highest hill in Paris. Designed in the Romano-Byzantine style, its enormous white domes reach towards the sky like halved onions (very elegant onions), and given its elevated position, its unique shape is visible from most any neighborhood in the city.
Hovering above the apse of the cathedral is a colorful mural depicting Christ, and visitors can ascend to the top of its dome for expansive views across the rooftops of Paris. Consecrated in 1919, its history is relatively short compared to some France's more ancient cathedrals, but it remains one of the most popular destinations in Paris.
3 Chartres Cathedral
Unlike most churches, the two spires of Chartres Cathedral boast entirely different designs. One, built in the 12th century, is a pyramid, and the other, a more ornate Flamboyant spire, was added in the 16th century atop an older tower, rising 28 feet higher than the first.
These asymmetrical spires give the cathedral a distinctive flare, but just as impressive are the church's enormous stained glass windows, which are made possible by the flying buttresses on the building's exterior that allow for thinner walls and more window space. The church is home to a tunic that is said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary, which draws many pilgrims every year.
2 La Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière
Showcasing a unique Romanesque and Byzantine design, La Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourrière has become a symbol of the city of Lyon. It is perched atop a hill and is visible from many different parts of the city, looming above the rooftops like a watchtower.
Beautiful murals and stained glass decorate its interior, and its unique shape has earned it the nickname "the upside-down elephant." With four, cylinder-like towers rising from its corners, it does look a bit like an overturned animal—albeit a very graceful one.
1 Rouen Cathedral
Boasting two unique bell towers built during different centuries and an enormous, cast-iron spire, Rouen Cathedral is one of the most distinctive Gothic cathedrals in France. It was a muse of the Impressionist Claude Monet, who created many paintings of the church during different times and seasonal conditions.
Numerous famous figures are buried within this cathedral, but perhaps the most famous tomb is that of Richard the Lionheart's heart (yes, his heart—his corporeal remains are at Fontevraud Abbey). Throughout its history, Rouen Cathedral has been damaged by everything from fire to war to a cyclone, but it is always restored to its former glory, an intrinsic part of France's history.