France is full of amazing landmarks, monuments, and museums. And now that the worst of the pandemic is behind us you can finally visit them!
Here are 10 marvelous French monuments that make for a fun visit in real life or from your living room. But first….
What is the French word for “monument”?
Before I get to the list, a quick note: The use of “monument” in English, instead of “landmark” could be the cause of semantic debate. You might think of a monument as a structure that was built to commemorate someone or something. But according to most modern dictionaries, the term has also evolved to be less specific, and can be considered a synonym of “landmark”.
In French, it’s actually really simple: monument is the French word for both “monument” and “landmark”.
A tip for virtual visits and drone videos of French monuments
One more thing before we get started. Many virtual visits and videos come with their own soundtrack. In some cases, as with the 360° view of the inside of Notre-Dame de la Garde (#6 on our list), this can add to the experience, although it might be a bit loud.
But in other cases, especially drone views, the music that’s paired with the images might not be what you’re imagining and may not really put you in the mood.
Personally, I like to view most virtual visit and drone videos with the volume on mute. This lets you imagine you’re there, just walking (or flying, I guess, if you’re watching a drone video). Of course, you’d hear ambient noise on-site, but you may have that coming through your window at this very moment.
10 marvelous French monuments you should visit
With all that cleared up, here are ten French monuments you can visit from home!
1. The medieval ramparts and architecture of La Cité de Carcassonne
The ramparts of Carcassonne have existed in some form since the 3rd century AD/CE, and took on their present-day appearance with a restoration by famous architect Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century.
You can take in high-resolution views of sections of the ramparts and some of the city’s medieval architecture in this video.
Or get a bird’s eye view thanks to a drone.
2. Notre-Dame de Paris
Built from 1163-1345 AD, this church is one of Paris’s most famous and most visited monuments. Even Parisians aren’t indifferent to it, but see it as a friendly presence watching over the city. That’s one of the reasons why so many of us reacted with actual grief when it was badly damaged in a fire in April 2019. Fortunately, the church still stands – and there are many ways to discover and explore it from home.
You can find an excellent collection of virtual visits, online exhibitions, and more on this website.
Notre-Dame’s official site includes an interactive map that lets you discover masterpieces that were in the cathedral and were, fortunately, saved after the fire.
If you have an advanced level of French, I HIGHLY recommend the recent documentary Sauver Notre-Dame, which you can watch on YouTube. The doc sheds light on the race to save the cathedral during the fire, as well as the challenges, frustrations, and risks during this first year of its restauration.
Viewers get to follow various members of the restauration team on some pretty daring missions, like hanging on wires suspended from the ceiling (which could have collapsed at any moment), and even takes us into parts of the cathedral we’ve never seen before and would never be able to visit in person. The only downside is that there are no English or even French subtitles. But it’s worth a watch – and the images alone are thrilling and breathtaking.
3. Place de la Bourse et Le miroir d’eau
One of Bordeaux’s most famous sites, and one France’s most magnificent squares, the Place de la Bourse, constructed from 1730-1775, is stunning. In front of it is a newer addition to Bordeaux’s cityscape, Le miroir d’eau (Water Mirror), the world’s largest reflecting pool, installed in 2006. The two are an especially magnificent sight when lit up after sundown.
This video visit of the Place de la Bourse and Le miroir d’eau is one of the few on this list where I would suggest leaving the volume on to feel as if you’re actually there. You’ll hear ambient sounds as you take sights of everyday life, including people frolicking in Le miroir d’eau.
You can also enjoy the view from overhead with this drone video shot during the day.
And this one shot at night.
4. Le Mont Saint-Michel
Located on a small tidal island off the coast of Normandy, Mont Saint Michel is one of France’s most popular tourist destinations – and it’s no wonder. For one thing, it seems utterly magical: a towering yet elegant abbey that every day becomes separated from the mainland when the sea rolls in. Founded around the 8th century AD, the abbey and the town that rises up to it are full of history and impressive architecture.
You can soar over this gorgeous French monument thanks to this drone video:
If you’re interested in exploring further, this all-access visit of Mont Saint-Michel (that can be viewed with English subtitles if needed) hosted by a team of French urbex and history YouTubers will take you to some of the landmark’s most stunning spots, as well the most secret.
5. Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval
Built by a single man – a postman, not an architect or construction worker, at that – from 1879-1912, Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval is the strangest French monument on our list.
Postman Ferdinand Cheval was inspired by strange rock formations he saw when delivering the mail. He ended up creating a structure that’s an odd mix of styles and influences, and utterly charming. Considered a masterpiece of Naïve art, it was classified as a monument of France in 1969 and can be visited today (it’s located in Hauterives, a town about an hour outside Lyon).
You can watch drone flyovers of the Palais and enjoy various concerts that have been hosted there via the Palais’s official YouTube channel.
6. Notre-Dame de la Garde
Notre-Dame de la Garde is Marseille’s best-known and most frequently visited landmark. Built from 1852-1864 on the highest point in the city, the neo-Byzantine basilica is often referred to as “La Bonne Mère” (The Good/Holy Mother) by Marseille’s inhabitants. The gilded copper statue of the Virgin and Child that stands on top of its bell tower is an enormous 11.2 meters (37 feet) high.
You can enjoy this video, which starts outside the church and takes you on a long stroll of its impressive interior.
If you’re looking for a magnificent view you wouldn’t get if you visited in real life, you can watch this breathtaking drone video of the basilica and its surroundings.
And you can see gorgeous close-ups of the famous gilded statue of the Virgin and Child on top of the bell tower in this drone video.
7. L’arc de triomphe
Commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon (but completed after his death, in 1836), the Arc de Triomphe is one of Paris’s most iconic landmarks.
In real life, it lords over the western end of the Champs-Elysées. But you can explore it from your living room with this video visit of the Arc de Triomphe, shot by an American family.
In addition to the interior of the Arc itself, you’ll discover things like the underground tunnel that leads to it and, of course, the view from the monument’s roof.
Just one thing: Although the little boy’s enthusiasm is wonderful, be aware that he doesn’t pronounce “Arc de Triomphe” correctly, so consider him a virtual traveling companion but not a French teacher. Not that I’m knocking the kid – we’ve all made French pronunciation mistakes, myself very much included.
You can also take in views of the Arc de Triomphe and its surroundings from above, thanks to this drone video.
And if you want to party, watch this video of the 2017 New Year’s Eve, shot by someone who was in the crowd. Although there are some other New Year’s Eve Arc de Triomphe lightshow videos online, 2017’s was my personal favorite, with its jaunty black cat climbing the monument and exploring other parts of the City of Light.
8. Les arènes de Nîmes
It can be easy to forget that a large part of France has Ancient Roman roots. That very much includes the city of Nîmes, whose amphitheater (arènes) dates to around 70 AD and is one of the best preserved in the world. The ancient building even continues to host events and concerts.
You can see a 3-D reconstruction of how the amphitheater looked in its Antique heyday and learn more about specific architectural highlights with this virtual visit and interactive map.
And this drone video will show you what the arènes’ interior looks like today.
9. Le beffroi de l’Hôtel de ville d’Arras
Belfries (bell towers) are a very common sight in Northern French cities, and many of them aren’t attached to churches. In fact, these bell towers were often constructed as a symbol of economic or political power in the Middle Ages. Whatever its raison d’être, the belfry of the Hôtel de Ville (city hall) of the town of Arras is exceptionally lovely. So much so, that it was voted Le Monument préféré des Français (The Favorite Monument of the French) in 2015.
You can visit it, as well as the rest of the Hôtel de Ville and the Place des Héros, the beautiful medieval square in front of it, in this video.
If you’d like to hear the belfry’s famous carillon (bells ringing), you can listen, thanks to this video.
And if you find yourself fascinated by beffrois and carillons of Northern France, this short documentary (in English) will give you some additional information and take you behind the scenes – that is, up to the top of a real Northern French belfry.
10. La tour Eiffel
Whether you love it or find it cliché, if you’re interested in France, you’ve probably dreamt of seeing the Eiffel Tower at some point.
Personally, I think that the Eiffel Tower is one of those ultra-famous monuments that actually deserves its reputation. It’s surprisingly massive but also beautiful in real life. Fortunately, this often comes through in videos and virtual visits.
The Eiffel Tower’s official site has a selection of resources specifically aimed at visiting the Tower from home.
You can also virtually explore the Tower floor-by-floor, discovering photos and interesting facts.
If you’re looking for an even bigger picture, this drone video gives an excellent sense of the Tower’s size (even though it doesn’t manage to reach the top).
And there are few sights more beautiful than the Tower’s thousands of lights sparkling at night.
Where can I find more French monuments to visit?
I hope that the drone views, virtual visits, and other material for each of the monuments on our list have transported you for a while. If you’re looking for more French monuments to visit either virtually or during your next trip, you definitely don’t have to stop there!
For one thing, you may have noticed that there aren’t any French castles on this list. That’s because we have an entire article devoted to French castles, including ones that offer exceptionally great virtual visits.
And of course, if there’s a particular French monument you’d like to visit or discover, typing it into your search engine, followed by a term like “virtual tour”, “visite virtuelle”, or “drone” is a great place to start. It’s also a good idea to search specifically on YouTube.
Be sure to stop by a French monument’s official site, too. While some of these are somewhat bare-bones, many offer history, photos, and even some unexpected goodies. For example, I love that the Château de Chambord’s site features printable cut-outs that let you create your own French garden.
And although they may not be quite as immersive as a virtual visit or drone view, , don’t forget that documentaries can also be a great way to learn about and explore French monuments. Just type the one you’re interested in into a search engine or YouTube and follow it with “documentary” if you want to watch in English, or “documentaire” if you want to practice your French. Many of these will not only give you the basics, but take you behind the scenes to places you wouldn’t get to see even if you were actually there.
If you’ve already done a lot of virtual touring, or if you’re looking for a new French monument to discover, the official site of Les Monuments Nationaux (the French Historical Landmark Association) lets you look up different French monuments by categories like location or historical period, in French or in English.
Do you have a favorite French monument? Feel free to share it in the comments!