Gallery

15 of the prettiest places in France

The most enchanting sights across the country.

Lavender blooms in front of the Abbaye de Sénanque in Provence, France © Dreamstime.com/Vwalakte

Mont-St-Michel

A craggy island crowned by the spires of a spectacular abbey, Mont-St-Michel rises majestically from the surrounding sea, or soars above glistening sands depending on the tide. The abbey was a popular place of pilgrimage in the 12th and 13th centuries, but fell into decline after the Reformation and was converted into a political prison during the French Revolution. Today, the Mont is once again home to monks and attracts more than 2 million pilgrims and tourists every year.

Hôtel-Dieu, Beaune

A magnificent building topped with multicoloured roof tiles, the Hôtel-Dieu was built as a hospital to help Beaune residents suffering from poverty and famine after the Hundred Years War. Known as the “Palace of the Poor”, patients in the main ward were tended to under a vast vaulted ceiling and stained-glass windows, and Mass was held in a chapel housing Rogier van der Weyden’s masterpiece The Last Judgement.

Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) at the Palace of Versailles

Light pours into Louis XIV’s breathtaking 70-m (233-ft) gallery at the Palace of Versailles, bouncing off 357 mirrors, 43 sparkling crystal chandeliers, and a series of spectacular gold-encrusted ceiling frescoes. Essentially an extravagant form of political propaganda, this room was used by courtiers and members of the public waiting to meet with the self-styled Sun King. Here, they would be totally surrounded by opulent furnishings and images validating his position as absolute monarch.

Gorges du Verdon

Often described as the “Grand Canyon of France”, the Gorges du Verdon is one of Europe’s most dramatic sights. The emerald River Verdon gushes through twisted rocks and limestone cliff faces, which plunge 700 m (2,297 ft) deep in parts. For a real sense of the scale of the gorge, start your day at the Point Sublime – the mother of all viewpoints ­– before journeying around the North Rim to Moustiers-Ste-Marie.

Gordes

The village of Gordes tumbles down a steep rock face on the Vaucluse Plateau. Its picturesque streets, swanky restaurants and incredible views over the rivers Sorgue and Calavon make it a popular summertime retreat. Just a short drive away is the Abbaye de Sénanque (pictured), a Romanesque monastery surrounded by lavender fields. From June to August, when the lavender is in bloom, it’s one of the most photographed sights in Provence.

Bonifacio’s Old Town, Corsica

Bonafacio’s 12th-century Genoese citadel perches precariously at the top of a limestone cliff which has been hollowed away at its base by thrashing waves. A bewitching warren of narrow cobbled streets and alleyways, the Old Town is now home to chic boutiques and upmarket restaurants.

Cité de Carcassonne

A spectacular combination of turrets, watchtowers and double-walled fortifications, Carcassonne’s restored medieval citadel looks like a fairy-tale castle. Located on the corridor between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe, the town was once an important frontier of French military might, but its importance diminished after a new French-Spanish border was agreed in the 17th century. Today, tourists flock to the citadel to explore the winding streets and picturesque château.

Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval

A building like no other, the bizarre Palais Ideal was painstakingly constructed by postman Ferdinand Cheval using stones he collected on his rounds. Inspired by natural forms and images gathered from postcards and magazines, the palace defies architectural categorisation. Inside, Cheval has inscribed the walls with a series of notes, including a poignant summary of his efforts: “1879­–1912: 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of toil”.

Strasbourg Old Town

Set on the Grande Île, a small island encircled by the River Ill, Strasbourg’s medieval centre is home to picturesque half-timbered houses, narrow cobbled streets and a towering pink cathedral. The Ill splits into several channels in the Petite France district, making it the perfect spot for a scenic boat trip. The quaint buildings here – once home to tanners and millers – are today occupied by upmarket shops and restaurants.

The Japanese Garden at Giverny

Immortalized in paint, and reproduced on birthday cards, cake tins and umbrellas the world over, Monet’s Japanese garden at Giverny is justifiably famous. It remains just as the artist designed it: a patchwork of purples and greens framed by a gently-arched bridge and reflected in the waters of France’s most celebrated waterlily pond. Even busloads of tour groups can’t detract from the tranquil beauty of the place.

Sainte-Chapelle

Medieval worshippers called Sainte-Chapelle the “gateway to heaven”, and when you enter it’s easy to see why. Light streams through soaring stained-glass windows and kaleidoscopic colours shimmer against the star-studded ceiling. Louis IX built the chapel to house his collection of Crucifixion relics; the building is still, in many ways, a huge reliquary, its jewel-like windows and gilded masonry encasing the holy artefacts within.

Château de Chenonceau

Straddling the languid waters of the River Cher, the Château de Chenonceau is the prettiest of all the Loire châteaux. A masterpiece of French Renaissance architecture, it is often referred to as the “Château de Femmes” after the succession of powerful French noblewomen that have lived here, and each played a part in shaping its remarkable design.

Rocamadour

Clinging to the side of a cliff in the Alzou valley, Rocamadour is a truly spectacular sight. For centuries, pilgrims have flocked to the village, drawn by the apparently miraculous powers of a 12th-century statue of the Black Madonna and Child housed in the Chapelle Saint-Michel. Rocamadour is still an important religious site, but tourists now outnumber pilgrims, and generally come to marvel at the village’s dazzling location.

Annecy

Set on the edge of sparkling turquoise lake and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, Annecy is known as the “Venice of the Alps”. Built around a series of canals, the Old Town’s medieval streets are lined with arcaded pastel-hued houses and endless flower-filled balconies. Sights include the Palais de l’Isle, a 12th-century prison set in the middle of the Thiou canal, and the turreted Château d’Annecy.

The cliffs at Étretat

The resort of Étretat is framed by two dazzling white cliffs: the Falaise d’Aval and the Falaise d’Amont. Centuries of sea and river erosion have sculpted parts of these cliffs into dramatic shapes that have captured the imagination of several artists and writers. Gustave Courbet and Claude Monet returned again and again to paint the play of light against the chalky formations, and Guy de Maupassant famously likened the Porte d’Amont, one of three natural arches, to an elephant dipping its trunk into water (Words by Sophie Adam).

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