This list of the ten most visited places in France has been compiled with data from sources including INSEE – France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques).
Note that entrance to museums in France is free to any European citizen under the age of 26 – you’ll need to have id to prove it (a passport will do).
The vast majority of the most popular tourist attractions in France are based in Paris and there are so many of them that we dedicated a section just to Paris and the many alluring sites – here’s our top ten most visited sites in Paris - read on for the rest of France.
Not surprising, with nearly 15 million visitors in 2011 Euro Disney is a major draw for families on holidays to France. Read The Good Life France review of Disneyland Paris.
Château de Versailles
Logging 6.5 million visits each year, it’s only surprising that this UNESCO World Heritage Site doesn’t have more tourists flocking to marvel at its glories. This is a fabulous palace, glamorous and awesome in its bling appeal. The Hall of Mirrors is one of those rooms that once seen is impossible to forget and the sense of grand history is impossible to avoid throughout the palace and gardens.
The Palace of Versailles was built during the reign of the Sun King Louis XIV (1643 – 1715) and it was the centre of French political power from 1682 when the King moved there until the royal family was forced to return to Paris at the beginning of the French Revolution. At that time Versailles was little more than a country village although it is now a suburb of Paris.
The gardens of the Chateau de Versailles are an amazing example of the French style of parterres (see our article on parterre gardening for more information). From the central window of the Hall of mirrors visitor look down on the spectacular sight that leads your eyes from the Water Parterre to the horizon.
To go to the Chateau de Versailles from Paris you can take a suburban “RER C” train to the station Versailles-Rive Gauche and it’s a 5 minute walk to the Chateau. There is a Tourist Information office on the walk to the Chateau and you can buy tickets there. You can buy a basic palace ticket or a “passport” ticket which includes entry to all aspects of the palace and gardens for details of cost, opening times and to buy tickets online visit the Chateau de Versailles English language website.
Parc Astérix, Plailly
Parc Astérix is an amusement park just outside Paris based on the stories of Asterix – a comic book hero. Astérix or Astérix le Gaulois, is a series of French comic books written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo which first appeared in France in 1959.
The Asterix series is one of the most popular Franco-Belgian comics in the world, with the series being translated into over 100 languages.
Parc Astérix is hugely popular with the French but as its only 30 km north of Paris and boasts one of the largest wooden rollercoasters in Europe this might be a day out with a difference for you too. If you don’t want to drive you can go direct from Paris to Parc Asterix using the shuttle service, one departing from the Louvre and the other from the Eiffel Tower but the latter is in peak season only so check online at the Parc’s English language website for times and availability.
Park Futuroscope, Poitiers
Futuroscope, or Parc du Futuroscope is a French theme park based upon multimedia, cinematographic futuroscope and audio-visual techniques. On the site are 3D cinemas and a few 4D cinemas along with other attractions and shows, some of which are the only examples in the world.
Just under 2 million visitors went to Futuroscope last year, largely French but if you’re in the area there’s no reason not to take advantage of the fact and check it out – especially as many of the attractions are available to non French-speakers via translation headsets.
You can find details of the Futuruscope Park on their website where they describe the experience as “extreme thrills, images in giant-screen format, breath-taking shows, interactive adventures that will delight your senses, and more”.
Mont Saint-Michel is a rocky tidal island and a commune in Normandy, France. A strategic stronghold since ancient days the island has been the location of a monastery since the 8th century. The Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay are part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. More than 3,000,000 people visit it each year and it’s easy to see why – it is a quite amazing site. French composer Claude Debussy was a frequent visitor to the island and some people say that the cathedral of Mont-Saint-Michel was the inspiration for his piano prelude La Cathedrale Engloutie. Our recommendation would be to wear sturdy walking shoes – there are a lot of steps to climb if you want to get to the top and see the amazing views (when we went there were pompiers standing by for those who had breathing difficulties on the climb!). There are some excellent restaurants on the rock, lovely antiques and souvenir shops and the photo opportunities are outstanding.
Chateau and gardens of Fontainebleau
Just 55 kms from Paris, this is one of the largest chateaux in France – it has more than 1500 rooms and is set in the heart of 130 acres of parkland and gardens.
Originally a hunting lodge, successive dynasties have made their mark, elaborating on the design, adding and tweaking and there are many different styles of construction to be seen.
One of the most well-known features of this fabulous palace is the double horseshoe staircase where Napoleon Bonaparte stood to bid his guards farewell before being imprisoned on the island of Elba. Napoleon too modified the palace and stamped his mark – his preference for this palace marking unease with Versailles as it was so closely linked to the royal Bourbons.
There is a lot to see and do at Fontainebleau including horse drawn carriage rides, boating on the Carp Pond, a former swamp drained by Francis 1 to create a lake for carp to live in – they were reserved only for the royal tables and not for the poor. There is also a Real Tennis room where enthusiasts can play, hiking plans for keen walkers, rock climbing and of course the huge and well-furnished palace itself.
Part of the château is home to the Écoles d’Art Américaines, a school of art, architecture, and music for students from the United States. The school was founded by General Pershing when his men were stationed there during the First World War.
For details of tickets, timing and exhibitions see the website for Musée Chateau Fontainebleau.
Railway Montenvers and Mer de Glace, Chamonix
The Mer de Glace, the Ice Cave and the Montenvers Train are one of the biggest attractions in the Chamonix valley. The largest glacier in France -Mer de Glace is 7kms long and 200m deep. In the winter it is very popular with thousands of skiers who follow the glacier down to the Montenvers Railway station after ski-ing the famous “Vallee Blanche”.
The Montenvers Railway was the first custom built tourist attraction (1908) in the valley. The train departs from Chamonix and makes its way up the sides of the Aiguilles de Chamonix to an altitude of 1913 – offering spectacular views over Chamonix – and into the station which is just clinging to the rocky ridge overlooking the Mer de Glace.
From the station you go by cable car to the man-made ice grotto where you’ll find a collection of ice sculptures and caves under the glacier.
In summer the area is popular with hikers who enjoy the alpine walks to the Plan de l’Aiguille and the valley floor.
Boat tour of the city, Strasbourg
The Service Touristique du Port Autonome de Strasbourg, 15 rue de Nantes, organises a 70-minute cruise of the old quarters and EU quarter. The boats are glass top and operate during the day as well as offering illuminated night trips – immensely popular with visitors to the city.
Château de Chambord, Loire Valley
The royal Château de Chambord at Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, is one of the most recognizable châteaux in the world. The architectural form screams French Renaissance and is hugely romantic in style. Francois 1 commissioned the palace so that he could be close to his mistress whose own chateau was next door!
It is the largest château in the Loire Valley and there have been claims that Leonardo da Vinci had a hand in its design. It’s a fairy tale looking palace which has some 440 rooms and 365 towers and chimneys. Molière gave the first performance of the “Bourgeois Gentilhomme” here, attended by Louis XIV. It is full of artwork, furnishings and tapestries and is the most visited chateau of the Loire.
Domaine National de Saint-Cloud
The park de Saint-Cloud, which covers 460 hectares, was a nature reserve until 1923. It is considered one of the most beautiful gardens in Europe. Located on the site of the Château de Saint-Cloud, a residence of royal and imperial families from the 16th century although only a few outbuildings remain from the original structure.
The park contains a Le Nôtre-designed garden in the French style, an English garden, and Marie Antoinette’s rose garden.
The park showcases a panoramic view of Paris called “La Lanterne” or the “Lantern of Demosthenes”.