Architecture in France, What to See

The City of Light and Beyond

Small French towns like Sarlat de Dordogne, east of Bordeaux, often have a mix of historic architectural styles
Small French towns like Sarlat de Dordogne, east of Bordeaux, often have a mix of historic architectural styles. Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images

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.

What is French Architecture?

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.

From 1885 until about 1820, the hot new 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. 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.

A Guide for Travelers to France

From medieval times to modern days, France has been at the forefront of architectural innovation.

Follow these links for an architectural tour of France. Also find travel help and resources for planning your French tour.

Must See Structures In and Around Paris:

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:

One of the aspects of French architecture that I love the most is that 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.

Famous French Architects:

Plan Your Trip:

  • What to Know Before You Go
  • Paris Travel Guide
  • Tour Six Great French Cathedrals

Pop Quiz:

Find out how much you know about buildings in France. Here's an Architecture Quiz from your Guide to the French Language.

Learn More:

What is your favorite French haunt?

France is such a center of Western civilization and culture that volumes have been written about its architecture. We couldn't list everything here. What is your favorite and why? Let us know on Facebook, and we may add it to this list.