One of the things many of our travelers find fascinating about France is its history and heritage, from medieval streets, houses, cathedrals and castles to Greek and Roman ruins dating back more than 2,000 years. In this article, we'll recommend places that will help you get a sense of what it was like to live in medieval France. Let's embark on a journey to some of the best-preserved medieval towns and villages in France!
Saint-Émilion, surrounded by extensive vineyards, is a blend of historical charm and wine heritage. At its core lies the underground monolithic church, dating back to the 8th century. When you enter, you'll be following in the footsteps of monks who once congregated there. Overground, the town's medieval architecture and narrow lanes paint a vivid picture of how the town may also have looked in the Middle Ages. After exploring these historical sites, you might want to go for a wine-tasting. Here, wine isn't just a drink, but a testament to the region's long-standing traditions. If you book one of our Bordeaux tours, we will recommend our favorite vineyards and wineries, so you get the best impression of this world-famous wine!
You can visit Saint-Émilion on any of our tours of Bordeaux
Bayeux is more than just the canvas of its renowned Tapestry, depicting the Norman Conquest with unparalleled detail. The town holds keys to deeper stories of history. The Bayeux Cathedral, an 11th-century Norman architectural marvel, looms large, preserving tales from the past. For World War II enthusiasts, the Battle of Normandy Museum offers a vivid chronicle of the D-Day landings and subsequent battles, ensuring the memories and sacrifices aren't forgotten.
The Medieval Festival of Bayeux brings a lively flair every year on the first weekend of July. During this event, the town pulses with medieval music, traditional crafts, and vibrant parades, recreating the spirit and excitement of medieval times. In Bayeux, history isn't just observed, it's experienced firsthand.
You’ll be able to explore beautiful Bayeux on our self-guided tours of Normandy
Perched on a rocky islet in Normandy, a trip to Mont Saint-Michel is a journey back in time! This fascinating island commune, with its narrow winding streets and towering spires, seems as if it's been lifted straight out of a fairy tale. At its heart is the awe-inspiring abbey, a testament to medieval architecture with its gothic spires, defensive walls, and flying buttresses. As you wander through its halls, you'll be transported to an era where monks chanted and pilgrims sought spiritual solace.
Surrounding the abbey are the waters of the English Channel. With the ebb and flow of the tides, you’ll enjoy various changing panoramic views of Mont Saint-Michel (we’ll tell you the best places to take photos!). It stands isolated at high tide and reconnects with the mainland as the waters recede. We can help you explore this popular UNESCO World Heritage site with a guide who will help you escape the most crowded areas and learn about the myths and legends of this islet. You may even get your feet wet!
Saint-Malo was a prosperous city in the medieval era, attracting merchants and sailors. Often referred to as the "City of Corsairs," it’s located on Brittany’s coast and has a rich maritime heritage evident in its robust ramparts and historic architecture. The city walls have stood since the 12th century, bearing witness to eras when daring sea merchants and pirates operated in and out of this port. The walls played a crucial role in defending Saint-Malo against various invasions. Walking along the walls offers a panoramic view of the city, the sea, and the Fort National.
Inside the city walls, visitors can explore the former homes of wealthy sea merchants, the imposing Château of Saint-Malo (home to the Saint-Malo History Museum), and bustling marketplaces. Beach-lovers will also love strolling along the Grand Plage du Sillon, once voted the most beautiful beach in France.
If you’re a fan of the novel All the Light We Cannot See, which was set in Saint-Malo, we can suggest a walking tour that takes in local places that feature in the novel.
Visit Saint-Malo on one of our top Brittany self guided tours
Just over an hour’s drive from Paris, the town of Provins, a UNESCO gem, beckons travelers with a promise of a trip back in time. Every year in June, the streets come alive as the famous Provins Medieval Festival gets underway. Actors in period costumes, jugglers, and musicians transform the town into a lively medieval market, like a vivid tapestry of the past.
Beyond the festivities, the town's imposing ramparts stand testament to its historic significance. It’s also worth visiting the town’s network of underground tunnels, known as "Les Souterrains de Provins", which date back to the 10th century. These were used in times past for defense purposes during times of siege and for the storage of food and wine. On a tour of the tunnels you’ll get a genuine feel of the medieval era, as these were integral to a town's survival and prosperity. The tour guide should also share the history, stories, and legends associated with the tunnels and offer you an insight into the engineering and architectural capabilities of medieval societies.
As you can see, in Provins, history isn't just remembered; it's re-lived! If you’d like to experience it for yourself, why not browse our France tour packages?
In the heart of Alsace, Colmar’s serene waterways and beautiful multi-colored half-timbered houses have rightfully earned its nickname, "Little Venice." Take a boat trip along the canals and you can almost imagine you’ve traveled back to a bygone era.
Colmar is a reflection of medieval prosperity, as it was an important trade hub in the Middle Ages. The town flourished due to its strategic location, bridging trade routes between the North Sea and the Mediterranean. You’ll see evidence of this era of commerce in the well-preserved historical district, with the prominent 13th-century Saint Martin's Church an example of the town's medieval architectural prowess.
The Unterlinden Museum showcases art and artifacts from this period, offering a deeper understanding of Colmar's significance in medieval Europe. Each corner and cobbled street holds stories waiting to be discovered, making Colmar a must-visit for every history and architecture enthusiast.
Strasbourg is the largest city in the Alsace region, and you’ll notice both French and German influences on the architecture, food, language and culture. At its heart stands Strasbourg Cathedral, a testament to the intricate skill of Gothic artisans from ages past.
On one of the corners of the cathedral square, you’ll see an ornate and well-preserved medieval civil housing structure called Kammerzell House, noteworthy for its remarkable carved timber exterior. Built in 1427, it was renovated in the Renaissance style in 1589, and is now home to a restaurant.
A short stroll takes you to the cobbled streets and half-timbered houses of La Petite France. This is the most picturesque district of old Strasbourg. Fishermen, millers, and tanners once lived and worked in this part of town, where the streets were built level with the waterways.
At the edge of La Petite France, the Ponts Couverts are bridges and towers that date back to the 13th century. They are no longer covered (as their name suggests) but played a defensive role and provided a means of crossing the river Ill during medieval times and beyond. They were also once essential for controlling access to the city.
We can include a trip to beautiful Strasbourg in any of our Alsace itineraries
The town of Eguisheim has a unique circular layout, dating back to medieval times. As you walk its spiraled lanes, you'll see vibrant flowers adorning traditional half-timbered houses.
Eguisheim's design isn't its only nod to the Middle Ages; historical markers like the 13th-century Castle of the Counts of Eguisheim also point to its storied past. Imagine knights returning from crusades or local craftsmen trading goods from far and wide in the town’s busy market squares.
If you plan to visit Alsace in late August, Eguisheim winegrowers' festival is a vibrant tribute to the region's vinicultural heritage. Visitors will get a taste of authentic Alsace, from its delicious wines to its traditional crafts. Open courtyards and cellars offer a peek into the wine-making process, while artisans showcase their skills along the ancient ramparts. The evenings come alive with lantern-lit dances and melodies echoing through the village squares. It’s a delightful fusion of music, food, wine, and Alsatian tradition!
To experience Eguisheim's enchanting blend of nature and history first hand, browse our self-guided tours of Alsace
Riquewihr, also in Alsace, is most famous for its Riesling wine - but it’s also a medieval jewel. As you walk through the village passing the vibrant half-timbered houses, you might imagine a time when medieval traders bustled through the streets.
The Dolder Tower, an iconic 13th-century gateway, welcomes you to explore the historic heart of the town. Be sure to visit the Thieves’ Tower, a relic from the 16th century, and the Winegrowers' House with its enchanting Renaissance facade.
If you’re in Alsace around Christmas time, it has an exceptional Christmas market, famous for its medieval ambiance.
Rocamadour's cliffside setting overlooking the Alzou Valley in Occitanie offers breathtaking views. With history dating back to the 12th century, it transports visitors straight into the heart of medieval France.
The town's UNESCO-listed sanctuary is accessible by the Grand Escalier staircase or by elevator. Once you reach the top, the Basilica Saint-Sauveur and its shadowy interior await, a place that has welcomed pilgrims for centuries. Nearby, the Chapel Notre-Dame holds the esteemed Black Madonna and child statue, a symbol of devotion since the Middle Ages.
Around the central Parvis des Eglises square, various chapels each tell their own tale. The Chapel Saint John the Baptist, with its historic pilgrim portraits, and the stained-glass adorned Chapel Saint Blaise reveal insights into ancient religious practices. High above, the Chapels of Saint Michael and Saint Louis showcase medieval frescoes, which will help broaden your understanding of the region’s history. Whether you're a medieval history buff or simply wanting to enjoy some incredible landscapes, Rocamadour promises an unforgettable journey back in time.
We can easily include a stop in Rocamadour as part of a Dordogne self-drive tour
In the heart of the Dordogne and famous for its market, Sarlat is an ideal example of how medieval France might have looked - you might say the past feels wonderfully present here.
The town's authentic medieval layout is beautifully preserved, with narrow alleyways leading you to iconic landmarks such as the Cathedral Saint-Sacerdos and the Place de la Liberté. These spaces have witnessed countless market days since the 14th century, and the tradition continues.
Every week, Sarlat's renowned market offers not just local produce but a genuine slice of French history. Explore further and you'll find the town's manor houses and preserved buildings—each one with its own story. Sarlat is a delightful blend of history and everyday French life. You can visit the town on any of our self-drive tours in Dordogne.
Conques is a gem for lovers of medieval history. As an integral stop on the historic pilgrim route, the village resonates with deep spiritual undertones. It’s a good stop to make if you’re driving between Dordogne and Provence.
The centerpiece, Abbey-Church of Saint-Foy, is a testament to the architectural brilliance of the past. Within, its stained-glass windows cast kaleidoscopic tales, each pane revealing stories from medieval times.
Wander the narrow lanes, and you'll be drawn to the exquisite details of the age-old houses and stone structures.
The village's dedication to preserving its past makes Conques a genuine window into France's fascinating medieval era. It's a must-visit for those wanting to step back in time.
Beynac-et-Cazenac is located by the Dordogne River, its majestic castle a clear sign of the village's significant medieval past.
This fortress, Château de Beynac, is one of the best-preserved and most renowned in the region. With its imposing stone walls and watchtowers, it has borne witness to centuries of history, from fierce battles to noble affairs.
Down below, you’ll enjoy strolling the village's cobbled streets. Houses with slatted windows and ancient doorways reveal snippets of bygone eras, making Beynac-et-Cazenac an enchanting escape for history enthusiasts. Visiting Beynac-et-Cazenac is an absolute must if you’re driving through Dordogne.
Saint Paul de Vence
Saint Paul de Vence in Provence remains a beacon for history enthusiasts and art lovers alike. Enclosed by medieval walls that have safeguarded its residents since the 14th century, this fortified village offers a glimpse into a time when defense was paramount.
Within these protective barriers, the village houses a wide range of art galleries, showcasing its commitment to cultural preservation and celebrating its rich legacy as a haven for artists from the 20th century onward.
Key landmarks in Saint Paul de Vence include La Collegiale church, which dates back to the 12th century, with its remarkable Gothic architecture and frescoes. Adjacent to the church, the meticulously maintained ramparts offer visitors panoramic views of the surrounding Provence landscape.
Additionally, the village's narrow cobblestone streets, dotted with fountains and sculptures, are a testament to its medieval origins. You may visit St Paul de Vence on any of our Provence tours.
Avignon was a nexus of religious and cultural exchange in medieval Europe. In the heart of the city stands the imposing Papal Palace, which was the seat of Catholic power in the 14th century. This UNESCO World Heritage site, with its turrets, towers, and fortified walls, serves as an example of Gothic architectural prowess. Inside, the frescoed chambers and grand ceremonial rooms, such as the Grand Tinel, provide a glimpse into the opulence and intrigue of papal life.
A short distance away is the Pont Saint-Bénézet, the famed bridge of Avignon. Although only four of its original 22 arches remain, it's an emblem of the city's past. Medieval Avignon was an important trade hub between the Mediterranean and the interior regions of France and beyond, as goods such as textiles, wine, grains, and spices could be transported efficiently via the Rhône river.
We often arrange for our travelers to spend a few days in and around Avignon, as it’s an excellent base for exploring other parts of Provence.
We love to recommend Gordes to our travelers visiting Provence because of its terraced beauty and panoramic views of the Luberon. In the town, the Château de Gordes dates back to the 10th century and is a blend of defensive medieval architecture and Renaissance elements. Inside, you can see period furniture, frescoes, and artifacts that reflect the daily life and nobility of the era. Furthermore, the castle’s strategic hilltop location illustrates the strategic importance of Gordes in relation to Provence's historical disputes and power dynamics.
Just a 10-minute drive from Gordes, Sénanque Abbey, which was founded in 1148, is a prime example of Cistercian architecture and spiritual life in medieval Provence. During the Middle Ages, the abbey became a vital center for monastic life, emphasizing contemplation and self-sufficiency. Its austere stone edifice illustrates the Cistercians' emphasis on simplicity and manual labor, and stands in contrast to the surrounding lavender fields, which are in bloom from June through early August.
The fortified city of Carcassonne, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is an authentic medieval marvel. Established in the 5th century, the city's imposing stone ramparts and 53 watchtowers transport visitors back to the Middle Ages. The history of the Cathar heretics, who once sought refuge here, unfolds as you step through the Narbonnaise Gate, which dates back to the 13th century.
Nearby, the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus, consecrated in 1096, showcases remarkable Gothic and Romanesque architecture. As you explore further, the Château Comtal, originally constructed in the 12th century, offers insights into the city's defensive strategies and medieval way of life.
If you’ve booked one of our Carcassonne & Cathar country self-drive tours during the summer, you may be able to experience the Festival de Carcassonne, normally held from late June to early August. There’s a range of events, from rock, pop, and jazz concerts to classical opera and theater performances. Many events are set within the historic walls, including at the Saint-Nazaire Basilica and the Théâtre Jean-Deschamps. Some events require a ticket, but many performances in the Bastide Saint Louis (outside the walled medieval city) are free.
If you are interested in a self-guided tour of France that includes plenty of history and heritage, check out our France History Tours. These have an emphasis on history, but we can also include any other activities you might enjoy, such as hiking, biking, outdoor activities or cooking. Alternatively, you may like to browse our sample itineraries for our off-the-beaten-track French towns and villages tours.
Just let us know your preferences and we’ll take care of the rest!