Architecture in France For the Casual Tourist

Historic Buildings and More in the City of Light and Beyond

Small Medieval French towns like Sarlat east of Bordeaux, often have a mix of historic architectural styles
Sarlat-la-Canéda en Dordogne. Tim Graham/Getty Images (cropped)

Studying French architecture is like time traveling through the history of western Civilization. Any tourist can't possibly see everything on the first visit, but that's okay with the French — they will welcome you back any time.

From medieval times to modern days, France has been at the forefront of architectural innovation. Follow this overview for an architectural tour of France.

French Architecture and Its Importance

Over the centuries, France has been at the forefront of architectural innovation.

In Medieval times, Romanesque designs signaled pilgrimage churches, and the radical new Gothic style found its beginnings in France. During the Renaissance, the French borrowed from Italian ideas to create lavish Chateaux. In the 1600s, the French brought exuberance to the elaborate Baroque style. Neoclassism was popular in France until about 1840, followed by a revival of Gothic ideas.

The Neoclassical architecture of public buildings in Washington, D.C. and throughout capital cities across the U.S. is in large part because of Thomas Jefferson in France. After the American Revolution, Jefferson served as Minister to France from 1784 to 1789, a time when he studied French and Roman architecture and brought them back to the new American nation.

From 1885 until about 1820, the hot new French trend was "Beaux Arts" — an elaborate, highly decorated fashion inspired by many ideas from the past.

Art Nouveau originated in France in the 1880s. Art Deco was born in Paris in 1925 before the style moved to Rockefeller Center in New York City. Then came the various modern movements, with France solidly in the lead.

France is a Disney World of Western architecture. For centuries, students of architecture have made a point of traveling to France to learn historic design and construction techniques.

Even today, the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris is considered the best architecture school in the world.

But French architecture began even before France.

Prehistoric

Cave paintings have been stumbled upon throughout the world, and France is no exception. One of the most popular sites is Caverne du Pont d’Arc, a replica of the Chauvet Cave in the southern France area known as Vallon-Pont-d'Arc. The real cave is off limits to the casual traveler, but Caverne du Pont d'Arc is open for business.

Also in southwestern France is the Vézère valley, a UNESCO Heritage area containing over 20 prehistoric painted caves. The most famous is the Grotte de Lascaux near Montignac, France.

Roman Remains

The Western Roman Empire in the 4th Century A.D. included what we now call France. Any country's rulers will leave their architecture behind, and so did the Romans after its collapse. Most of the ancient Roman structures are, indeed, ruins, but some are not to be missed.

Nîmes, on the southern coast of France, was called Nemausus thousands of years ago when Romans lived there. It was an important and well-known Roman city, and, so, many of the Roman ruins have been maintained, such as the Maison Carrée and Les Arènes, The Amphitheater of Nîmes built around 70 A.D.

The most spectacular example of Roman architecture, however, is the Pont du Gard, near Nimes. The famous aqueduct carried springwater to the city from the mountains about 20 miles away.

Within two degrees latitude of Nîmes is Vienne near Lyons and another area rich in Roman ruins. In addition to the 15 B.C. Grand Roman Theatre of Lyon, the Roman theater in Vienne is just one of many Roman ruins in a city once occupied by Julius Caesar. The Temple d’Auguste et de Livie and the Roman Pyramide in Vienne have been more recently joined by the newly discovered "little Pompei" a couple of miles across the Rhone River. As excavation for new housing was underway, intact mosaic floors were unearthed, which The Guardian described as "remarkably preserved remains of luxury homes and public buildings."

Of all the Roman ruins that remain, the amphitheatre may be the most prolific. The Théâtre Antique in Orange is particularly well-preserved in southern France.

And, of all the French villages that have so much to offer, the cities of Vaison-la-Romaine in southern France and Saintes or Médiolanum Santonum on the west coast will lead you through time from Roman ruins to Medieval walls. The cities themselves are architectural destinations.

In and Around Paris

La Ville-Lumière or the City of Light has long influenced the world, as a center of the Enlightenment and a canvas for western art and architecture.

One of the most famous triumphal arches anywhere in the world is the Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile. The 19th century Neoclassical structure is one of the largest Roman-inspired arches in the world. The spiral of streets emanating from this famous "rotary" is the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, the road that leads to one of the most magnificent museums in the world, The Louvre, and the 1989 Louvre Pyramid designed by Pritzker Laureate I.M. Pei.

Outside but near Paris is Versailles, whose popular garden and chateau are rich in history and architecture. Also just outside Paris is the Basilica Cathedral of Saint Denis, the church that moved Medieval architecture to something more Gothic. Further afield is Chartres Cathedral, also called Cathédrale Notre-Dame, that takes Gothic sacred architecture to new heights. The cathedral in Chartres, a day trip from Paris, should not be confused with the Notre Dame Cathedral in downtown Paris.

The Eiffel Tower, a New Seven Wonders of the World finalist, can be seen down the river from the gargoyles of Notre Dame.

Paris is filled with modern architecture, too. The Center Pompidou designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano revolutionized museum design in the 1970s. Quai Branly Museum by Jean Nouvel and Louis Vuitton Foundation Museum by Frank Gehry continued the modernization of Paris.

Paris is also known for its theaters, most notably the Paris Opéra by Charles Garnier. Integrated within the Beaux-Arts-Baroque-Revival Palais Garnier is L'Opéra Restaurant by the modern French architect Odile Decq.

Pilgrimage Churches of France

A pilgrimage church can be a destination in itself, such as the pilgrimage church of Wieskirche in Bavaria and Tournus Abbey in France, or it can be a church along the route pilgrims take. After the Edict of Milan legitimized Christianity, the most popular pilgrimage for European Christians was to a place in northern Spain. The Camino de Santiago, also called the Way of St. James, is the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, where the remains of Saint James, Apostle of Jesus Christ, is said to be.

For European Christians who could not travel to Jerusalem during the Middle Ages, Galicia was wildly popular. To get to Spain, however, most travelers had to move through France. Camino Francés or the French Way are the four pathways through France that lead to the final Spanish route to Santiago de Compostela. The Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France are historic, with historic architecture created to accommodate the REAL Middle Age tourist!

These routes became part of the  UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998.

Look for preserved, historic buildings and monuments along these routes. The symbolic use of the shell (an item given to pilgrims who completed the journey to Spain's coast)  will be found everywhere. The architecture along these routes does not attract the large crowds of modern tourists, yet much of the historic significance is similar to more touristy structures..

Architecture Beyond Paris

France has not stopped growing. Ancient Roman structures may stand near 21st century modern architecture. France may be for lovers, but the country also is for time travelers. Sarlat-la-Canéda en Dordogne, La Cite, the castle city of Carcassonne, Pope's Palace in Avignon, Château du Clos Lucé, near Amboise, where Leonardo da Vinci spent his last days — all have stories to tell.

The work of 21st century architects abound throughout up-and-coming French cities: Lille Grand Palais (Congrexpo), Rem Koolhaas in Lille; Maison à Bordeaux, Rem Koolhaas in Bordeaux; Millau Viaduct, Norman Foster in Southern France; FRAC Bretagne, Odile Decq in Rennes; and Pierres Vives, Zaha Hadid in Montpellier.

Famous French Architects

The writings of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) are well-known to the student of architecture, but his restoration of Medieval buildings throughout France — most notably Notre Dame in Paris — are better known to the tourist.

Other architects with French roots include Charles Garnier (1825-1898); Le Corbusier (Swiss born in 1887, but educated in Paris, died in France 1965); Jean Nouvel; Odile Decq; Christian de Portzamparc; Dominique Perrault; and Gustave Eiffel.

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Craven, Jackie. "Architecture in France For the Casual Tourist." ThoughtCo, Oct. 30, 2017, thoughtco.com/architecture-in-france-what-to-see-177679. Craven, Jackie. (2017, October 30). Architecture in France For the Casual Tourist. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/architecture-in-france-what-to-see-177679 Craven, Jackie. "Architecture in France For the Casual Tourist." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/architecture-in-france-what-to-see-177679 (accessed November 24, 2017).