A seemingly limitless supply of picturesque castles and fortified towns with rich histories can be found littered throughout France. As the battleground for many of Europe’s medieval wars, France also has hundreds of the continent’s most impressive and beautiful forts. Check out our guide to ten of the most beautiful of these architectural marvels that are just waiting to be discovered by travelers.
An island some 600 meters off the coast of Normandy, Mont Saint-Michel has been an impregnable fortress since ancient times. The town became the site of an abbey in the 9th century and quickly became a destination for Christian pilgrims, the original European tourists. The abbey’s secure position also encouraged the French monarchy to begin using it as a prison for some of its more troublesome opponents from the 15th century onwards. The site now attracts more than three million tourists a year, both domestic and international, making it one of the most popular attractions outside of Paris.
Château de Chambord
Built in the 16th century, during the reign of the towering monarch Francis I, and with a construction process that took almost three decades to complete, this immense building was unfortunately abandoned and neglected after the French Revolution. It was no doubt seen as a symbol of the lavishness of the despised ancien régime. Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, the Louvre moved its art collection to the Château de Chambord for safety, including the Mona Lisa. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and among the most internationally recognizable and iconic châteaux in the world, largely due to its breathtaking Renaissance architecture.
Palace of Versailles
The centerpiece of many supremely important events in world history, Versailles should be at the top of everyone’s list of destinations when visiting Paris. Initially a hunting lodge, it became the seat of power for the French monarchy during the reign of Louis XIV, with all aspects of the palace designed to praise the glory of the king. The Hall of Mirrors, situated at the very heart of the palace, became the site where both the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1) and the First World War (1914-18) were formally concluded.
Place d’Armes, 78000, Versailles, France, +33 1 30 83 78 00
The beautiful hilltop town of Carcassonne is more than just a castle. The beautifully preserved medieval town is a historical gem. One of the major towns in the Languedoc region of France, Carcassone played a key role in the Albigensian Crusade in the early thirteenth century. Its tolerant attitude towards religious diversity, and its role as a haven for Cathar heretics ensured that the town was attacked by a crusader army on the orders of the pope. The location of the town remained strategically important, as it is situated in the frontier region between France and Spain. Neglected due to the long-lasting peace between France and Spain countries, the town was restored to its former glory in the 19th-century by Viollet-le-Duc.
Château de Chenonceau
Nestled elegantly on the Cher River, Chenonceau is the second most visited château in France, after Versailles. Bombed by both the Germans and the Allies during the Second World War, both the palace and its exquisite gardens underwent a wide-ranging reconstruction in the post-war years. Chenonceau also boasts a lavish museum with many superb paintings by the likes of Le Corrège and Murillo, as well as many other fine furnishings and decorations.
37150 Chenonceaux, France, +33 820 20 90 90
Roquetaillade is the most popular castle in the Bordeaux region, and the initial fortifications were laid down by Charlemagne the Great over 1,200 years ago. The legendary gothic revivalist Eugène Viollet-le-Duc led a dramatic restoration of the castle in the 19th century, and it has been open to an eager public since 1956. Perhaps most interestingly, the castle has been the home of the same family for over 700 years, and they are understandably yet to show any desire to move elsewhere.
Located in the city of Angers, within the iconic Loire Valley, the Château d’Angers was founded over a millennium ago by the Counts of Anjou and contains an extraordinary display of medieval art known as the Apocalypse Tapestry. This astonishing set of tapestries, produced in the late 1300s, depicts the Apocalypse as described in the Book of Revelation, and is considered by art historians to be among the most important collections of French art dating from before the Renaissance.
Palace of Fontainebleau
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palace of Fontainebleau, was used as a residence by the kings of France continuously from the 12th century until the demise of the monarchy following the abdication of Napoleon III at the end of the 19th century. Situated in the heart of an immense forest to the south-east of Paris, the palace contains more than 1,500 rooms and offers a nearly unmatched insight into French culture and history spanning the course of 700 long and eventful years.
77300 Fontainebleau, France, +33 1 60 71 50 70
Fort de Joux
Initially, an inconsequential castle, constructed out of wood in the 11th century, this imposing and strikingly beautiful complex was expanded into a border fort in 1454. It later functioned as a prison between the 17th and 19th centuries – its most notable inmate being Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave revolt in history. Fort de Joux now houses an impressive museum of arms, containing many rare and unique instruments of war.
Route du Château, 25300 La Cluse-et-Mijoux, France, +33 3 81 69 47 95
A lavish Renaissance mansion built upon the foundations of a medieval fortress on the right bank of the Indrois river, Montrésor fell into decline following the turmoil of the French Revolution. In the 19th century, it was purchased by a Polish noble family and underwent an extensive renovation, restoring it to its former glory and eventually encouraging the French government to grant the castle the designation of monument historique.
Château de Montrésor, 37460 Montrésor, France, +33 2 47 92 60 04