French cathedrals are some of the impressive in the world, they draw millions of visitors per year and are a site to behold.
King Clovis I converted to Roman Catholicism around the turn of the sixth century. This was France’s first official introduction to the religion. Ever since, cathedrals have been built across the country in the name of the church.
One of the most interesting things about looking through all 100 cathedrals today is you can see a timeline of France. Throughout the centuries, these often amazing buildings show the intricate design of the time they were built.
The Catholic Church created an unintentional timeline of architecture that spans as far back as 543 AD when the first was erected.
Without further ado, let’s set off on a field trip where we get to travel back in history without needing a time machine!
Famous French Cathedrals
1. Notre Dame de Paris
One of the most well-known and recognizable Catholic cathedrals in the world, Notre Dame de Paris, has quite a history. Aside from being the notable setting for Victor Hugo’s famous novel by the same name, Notre Dame has a lot of aspects that set it apart from other cathedrals.
Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, “Our Lady,” this cathedral is the best example of Gothic architecture. Construction began on Notre Dame in 1163 and wasn’t fully completed for a century.
Due to regular use and eventual historical status, the church has undergone regular upkeep and renovations. One of which was after the French Revolution when it was desecrated. Around this time, the Pope designated Notre Dame a basilica.
Also Read: Landmarks in Paris
In April 2019, during a modern restoration, the cathedral caught on fire. The famous spire and roof were destroyed in the blaze. In total, there was about $865 million in damage.
Notre Dame de Paris is currently closed for reconstruction but is expected to reopen when the Olympic games return to the city in 2024.
2. Chartres Cathedral
About 45 minutes south of Paris stands Chartres Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The rose window and front facade are reminiscent of Notre Dame, which makes sense since it was built around the same time.
Viewed by all those who appreciate the Gothic style as a masterpiece, UNESCO called it the “high point of French Gothic art.”
This site stands out because, before Chartres, there were five other cathedrals built on this spot since Catholicism arrived in the country.
Despite its age, there’s actually very little that’s been done to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres. The last major renovation was after a devastating fire in the first half of the 1200s.
Chartres almost didn’t make it this far. The cathedral was a WWII target because the Allies believed the Germans were using it as a lookout. Luckily, the American soldier with orders to bomb it decided against the action.
Aside from the beautiful stained glass and works of art, a Black Madonna owned by the church was Pontifically crowned by the Pope in 1855. The art, architecture, and religion all come together to make it one of the biggest tourist attractions in the area.
3. Reims Cathedral
Halfway between Paris and Belgium is a cathedral that just might be the most important in all of France. Not only was King Clovis I baptized at Reims Cathedral, but 33 sovereigns had their coronations here over the next millennium. That means all the big business came through these doors for much of French history.
Well, the current cathedral was constructed in the 1200s but it was built from the church that sat here since the 400s. Reims is clearly quite important to France, so the country owns it and the larger Catholic church gets to use it.
The French government makes sure the structure is kept up properly. Naturally, any building with that much attachment to the European timeline has to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
4. Amiens Cathedral
Nestled in Amiens by the Somme River, this Roman Catholic cathedral is one of the biggest in the Gothic style still around. Amiens Cathedral officially opened for worshipers in 1270 with plenty of room to spare, due to the three-tier interior. Technically, you could fit two Notre Dame cathedrals inside.
A fun fact about the city is that it actually predates Catholicism coming to France. In the 200s, Christianity was brought to Amiens by two martyrs. Later, Saint Martin was baptized here. It didn’t last too long though and wouldn’t be brought back until around 500.
Sculptures that adorn the front of the church are enough to keep you staring up for a long time, as will the intense amount of detail.
Some of the windows from a restoration in 1802 were destroyed in a fire over a century later after they had been put in storage to avoid WWI damage. Most recently, a restoration project in 2001 uncovered paintings on the original sculptures.
5. Strasbourg Cathedral
You might be instantly thrown off when looking at Strasbourg Cathedral for the first time. Most of the Catholic Churches built in this time frame had two towers. This cathedral only has one. To be fair, it was always meant to have two, but when blueprints are implemented over three centuries, plans tend to change.
Picture it, the year was 1015 and this church was destined to be Romanesque in design. However, a few more architects would see progression in both the late 12th century and again when it finally was completed in 1439. For almost 230 years, Strasbourg Cathedral was the tallest in the world.
In 1988, Pope John Paul II dropped by the church to help commemorate the city’s second millennium. In the early 2000s, the tower was restored.
6. Bourges Cathedral
Smack dab in the middle of France is a cathedral that is widely praised for the multitude of stained glass windows, among other things. Like many other Gothic cathedrals, Bourges was constructed in the ashes of churches before it.
Opening in 1230, the cathedral was dedicated to Saint Stephen and has a unity interior that has inspired architects for years. During the French Revolution, however, this church was turned into a Temple of Reason.
The goal was to drop Christianity for something more modern. Unfortunately, this was when many of the sacred items were stolen or repurposed.
It wasn’t a proper Catholic Cathedral again for 40 years. After the restoration, Napoleon III declared it a historical monument.
7. Laon Cathedral
It’s probably to be expected that a church with a long history is going to have some drama. Laon Cathedral does not disappoint.
There was a building erected here for the newly established Diocese of Laon in the 400s. It and the one after it was destroyed. The latter also involved the purposeful death of a bishop.
The third iteration was put together after townsfolk donated to the cause in 1114. Before long, though, the town outgrew their church and a fourth one would be necessary.
That was the last one, completed in 1230. Laon Cathedral continued to be a place of worship until 1802. It’s now considered a historic monument.
8. Beauvais Cathedral
If you want to listen to a choir that feels like they’re singing from heaven, it would be from here. Beauvais Cathedral has the most elevated Gothic choir anywhere on the planet. For a short blip of time, the church was the tallest human construction. The original goal of Beauvais was for it to be the largest.
While it may not have hit that last checkmark, it is one of the most notable works of church art from the Gothic period. Several items planned were too ambitious to carry out, such as a nave, and the church is technically still incomplete.
If you get the chance to check it out, don’t miss a clock inside from the 1300s. It’s the oldest working mechanical clock on the continent.
9. Albi Cathedral
By the Tarn in southern France, one of the largest brick buildings in the world towers over Albi. The outside looks like a castle, whereas the inside is brightly colored and gives off cozy vibes.
Clearly, the strategy was well thought out, since it took 200 years to complete. Of course, this was after as many as four other churches in the same spot had to be replaced.
Once Albi was ready to go, it once again faced issues. There were things added and taken away decoration-wise after being completed in 1480. However, the church faced its greatest foe in the French Revolution when parts were close to being destroyed.
Luckily, they were saved by people who could do something about it but the threat loomed for years. Major restorations took place in the last half of the 1800s.
10. Marseille Cathedral
At the very bottom tip of France, overlooking the ocean, is Marseille Cathedral. The most recent on the list, the current Marseille has been official since 1896.
However, a piece of history stayed with the new building. Part of the church built in the 1100s is next door. The oldest building to have been on this site was put there in the 400s.
The zebra stripes are sure to leave a mark on the memory of all who see the cathedral. Marseille was built in a Byzantine and Roman Revival design.
If you want to make friends, come to a service. 3,000 attendees can fit within these walls.