9 Stunning Medieval French Towns You Can Visit on a River Cruise

by Lena Katz

9 Stunning Medieval French Towns You Can Visit on a River Cruise

by Lena Katz

To say France has well-preserved history is an understatement. In villages, towns, and cities all over the country, not just ancient buildings, but entire medieval neighborhoods are in excellent condition, full of people living and conducting business. And these beautiful settings are welcoming to visitors. You can enjoy a show at a Roman coliseum, savor lunch in a medieval mountain village, or sip France’s finest spirits in a former citadel.

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Avignon / iStock.com / SerrNovik
Vineyards in Bordeaux
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1. Bordeaux

The wine capital is a lovely example of an inhabited historic city in southwestern France. In fact, almost the entirety of the metropolis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When you dock at the Port of the Moon, you’ll be steps from a Renaissance triumphal arch and the historic Saint Pierre district, the town center during the Middle Ages.

The wine capital is a lovely example of an inhabited historic city in southwestern France. In fact, almost the entirety of the metropolis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When you dock at the Port of the Moon, you’ll be steps from a Renaissance triumphal arch and the historic Saint Pierre district, the town center during the Middle Ages.

Blaye city walls
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2. Blaye

With less than 5,000 residents, this quaint wine country village set on the right bank of the Gironde estuary was the site of the French Wars of Religion. Today, the dominating landmark is the Citadel of Blaye. Constructed in the 17th century, it further protected some important ruins and circa 12th-century buildings.

With less than 5,000 residents, this quaint wine country village set on the right bank of the Gironde estuary was the site of the French Wars of Religion. Today, the dominating landmark is the Citadel of Blaye. Constructed in the 17th century, it further protected some important ruins and circa 12th-century buildings.

Traditional festival in Cognac
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3. Cognac

A popular shore excursion from Blaye is a visit to the 1,000-year old town of Cognac, famous for its spirits production. Many of the Cognac houses can trace their lineage back hundreds of years, though there are relatively new tenants blending the distilled brandies in some of these stone buildings. Some historic châteaus contain an ancient crypt or haunted oubliette that serves as a storehouse for the oldest and most-prized vintages. 

A popular shore excursion from Blaye is a visit to the 1,000-year old town of Cognac, famous for its spirits production. Many of the Cognac houses can trace their lineage back hundreds of years, though there are relatively new tenants blending the distilled brandies in some of these stone buildings. Some historic châteaus contain an ancient crypt or haunted oubliette that serves as a storehouse for the oldest and most-prized vintages. 

The Pont Saint-Bénézet with Palais des Papes
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4. Avignon

The most famous ruin in Avignon — and there are many — is Saint-Bénézet Bridge, of which only half remains. The ancient connector once linked the main town with the isle of Villeneuve around the time when Avignon was the papal seat. A popular French folk song tells of townspeople dancing on the bridge — or perhaps underneath it, nobody really knows. 

The most famous ruin in Avignon — and there are many — is Saint-Bénézet Bridge, of which only half remains. The ancient connector once linked the main town with the isle of Villeneuve around the time when Avignon was the papal seat. A popular French folk song tells of townspeople dancing on the bridge — or perhaps underneath it, nobody really knows. 

Arles Amphitheater
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5. Arles

Once the thriving capital of Julius Caesar's empire, Arles is rife with Roman sites, some dating to the first century. The most famous Roman monument is the amphitheater, which can’t really be described as a ruin. It’s in excellent condition and currently serves in much the same capacity as it did when first constructed.

Once the thriving capital of Julius Caesar's empire, Arles is rife with Roman sites, some dating to the first century. The most famous Roman monument is the amphitheater, which can’t really be described as a ruin. It’s in excellent condition and currently serves in much the same capacity as it did when first constructed.

Landscape near Les Baux-de-Provence
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6. Les Baux de Provence

The itty-bitty village of Les Baux looks like it could be a movie set, with shade trees, courtyard gardens, and time-weathered stone buildings housing souvenir shops and cafés. The town's cobbled streets wind upward to a beautiful church and scenic overlook. Offered on many Rhône River itineraries, this is a storybook stop that's well worth the excursion. 

The itty-bitty village of Les Baux looks like it could be a movie set, with shade trees, courtyard gardens, and time-weathered stone buildings housing souvenir shops and cafés. The town's cobbled streets wind upward to a beautiful church and scenic overlook. Offered on many Rhône River itineraries, this is a storybook stop that's well worth the excursion. 

Rouen Cathedral
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7. Rouen

The capital of Normandy reached a historic high point during the Crusades, when Richard the Lionheart was crowned in the Old City. It hit its a nadir during the Hundred Years War, when Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. By the Renaissance, Rouen had established itself as a wealthy commercial and cultural center. Today's popular sightseeing points include a Medieval cemetery, a 13th-century tower, a magnificent Gothic church, and what is thought to be the oldest Jewish building in France.

The capital of Normandy reached a historic high point during the Crusades, when Richard the Lionheart was crowned in the Old City. It hit its a nadir during the Hundred Years War, when Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. By the Renaissance, Rouen had established itself as a wealthy commercial and cultural center. Today's popular sightseeing points include a Medieval cemetery, a 13th-century tower, a magnificent Gothic church, and what is thought to be the oldest Jewish building in France.

Yachts in Honfleur Harbour
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8. Honfleur

A busy — and important — port since the Middle Ages, the maritime town of Honfleur has been through many iterations. It was a political hub of the Duchy of Normandy, a military fortress during the Hundred Years War, and, later in the 19th century, an artists’ enclave. Stroll amid the medieval, Gothic, Renaissance, and neo-Norman buildings and you'll see why painters are so enamored by the town's charm, waterfront, and stunning natural light. 

A busy — and important — port since the Middle Ages, the maritime town of Honfleur has been through many iterations. It was a political hub of the Duchy of Normandy, a military fortress during the Hundred Years War, and, later in the 19th century, an artists’ enclave. Stroll amid the medieval, Gothic, Renaissance, and neo-Norman buildings and you'll see why painters are so enamored by the town's charm, waterfront, and stunning natural light. 

Bonifacio
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9. Bonifacio

The lower part of Bonifacio is a yacht marina. The upper part is a postcard-perfect village set within a medieval citadel on the island of Corsica. To get from the bottom to the top, walk up ancient stone ramparts or take the staircase cut into the hillside. The panoramic overlook is unforgettable; it's easy to imagine what it must have been like to be a soldier standing watch in the very same spot a thousand years ago.

The lower part of Bonifacio is a yacht marina. The upper part is a postcard-perfect village set within a medieval citadel on the island of Corsica. To get from the bottom to the top, walk up ancient stone ramparts or take the staircase cut into the hillside. The panoramic overlook is unforgettable; it's easy to imagine what it must have been like to be a soldier standing watch in the very same spot a thousand years ago.

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