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Gothic Cathedrals in France – Train Itinerary07/27/2022
France was the birthplace of Gothic architecture and has some of the oldest, most magnificent, and captivating Gothic cathedrals in the world. In this post, you will visit some of the best Gothic Cathedrals in France by train, a curated list of 8 incredible French Gothic Cathedrals (also known as Grandes Cathédrales) that represented a milestone in the development of Gothic architecture.
This train trip starts in Paris, from where you can visit the first cathedrals on the list on day trips. Then, follow this suggested train itinerary of France’s best Cathedrals, stopping in Chartres, Reims, Laon, Amiens, and Rouen. Each building on this Grandes Cathédrales list is a work of art and has its own personality, marked by exquisite carvings and spires reaching skyward.
This famous Cathedrals in France train itinerary is one of the best train trips in France. Read more about train travel in France.
Train Trip French Gothic Cathedrals – Overview
You can take the whole tour, or shorten this train itinerary by doing only some of these towns. If your time is very short, just choose one of them. But most of these Gothic cathedrals are concentrated in the north of France, so it is possible to visit them in a few days.
- Start: Paris
- Finish: Paris
- Duration: 8 days
- Suggested Itinerary: Paris – Reims – Laon – Amiens – Rouen – Paris
- Best for: history and architecture lovers
8-Day Famous Cathedrals in France Train Itinerary
The descriptions of the cathedrals are not super technical and easy to follow. If you are not familiar with the vocabulary related to churches and cathedrals, you may find this glossary helpful.
Day 0 | Arrival in Paris
This France by train itinerary starts in the French capital, where you will spend at least four nights. For your stay in Paris, we recommend the Handsome Hotel by Elegancia in Paris 1. Located just 800 meters from the Louvre, this hotel offers great facilities and always gets the best reviews.
Day 1 | Paris and Notre Dame Cathedral
Morning on Ile de la Cité
Notre Dame Cathedral is arguably the most famous cathedral in the world. This jewel of French Gothic architecture is located on Ile de la Cité, the biggest river island in Paris. On the forecourt, a point 0 marks the start of all roads in France and is also the starting point of your train trip.
Notre Dame is one of the oldest Gothic Cathedrals in France, the construction began in 1160 and was completed in 1345. Its huge flying buttresses hold up the massive structure 130 meters long and 35 meters high (under vault), with a transept 48 meters wide. Its towers are 69 meters high, reaching into the sky and offering that superb vantage point.
As you would no doubt be aware, Notre Dame de Paris was severely damaged during a fire in April 2019 and is currently closed to the public. During the fire, parts of the roof and the spire were destroyed forever, however, you can still admire the façades.
On the main façade, look out for the huge rose window dedicated to Our Lady of Paris and the 28 sculptures below representing the Kings of Judah and Israel, the ancestors of Christ. These sculptures lost their heads during the French Revolution and what you see today are replicas.
The rose window on the front above the portal measures 9.6 meters in diameter while the two rose windows that adorn each of the arms of the transept are among the largest in Europe, with a diameter of 13 m.
Spend the rest of the morning visiting Ile de la Cité, the beating heart of Medieval Paris. To discover all that Ile de la Cité has to offer, try this Ile de la Cité Walking Tour with an expert guide, which visits the banks of the River Seine, Notre Dame Cathedral (from the outside), and the Sainte Chapelle. It also includes a Seine River tour so you can admire Ile de la Cité from a different perspective. If you prefer to visit alone, here are the best things to do on Ile de la Cité.
Afternoon Visiting Paris
If this is your first visit to Paris, you may want to visit other Paris landmarks and neighborhoods. If you don’t know where to start, here’s the list of the best things to do in Paris.
Day 2 | Basilica of Saint-Denis
Morning in Saint-Denis
Day 2 of this train trip in France visits the magnificent Basilica of Saint-Denis, one of the first examples of French Gothic architecture and also the necropolis of the Kings of France. Saint-Denis is located on the outskirts of Paris, and you only need a metro ride to reach this magnificent building.
The first religious building here was laid out in the 5th century around a cemetery and the tomb of Saint-Denis, the Saint Patron of Paris. Denis was a bishop who lived in Paris in the 3rd century and was beheaded in Montmartre by the Romans who were driving out the Christians. According to the legend, the beheaded Denis would have walked from Montmartre down to Saint-Denis with his head in his hands and the first church would have been built where Denis collapsed.
A new church was built in Saint-Denis around 750 by King Pépin the Short. Later, a bigger building was built under the Carolingians, which was renovated until the 14th century.
Between 1135 and 1144, Abbot Suger – adviser to Kings Louis VI and Louis VII – enlarged the Carolingian abbey church by adding a façade equipped for the first time with a rose window and three large portals. Suger also added radiating chapels in the choir using new and innovative architectural techniques which are considered today the basis of French Gothic architecture: the combination of the pointed arch and pointed ribbed vault and the play of light through stained glass windows.
The building, as it stands today, is 108 meters long and 29 meters high (under vault), with a transept 39 meters wide. The lighting is made up of more than 100 windows and 90 columns. The crypt remained Carolingian.
Another innovative Gothic element in Saint-Denis is the towers. Originally they were two towers but the one on the left, the tallest one was dismantled in 1846 because damaged by a storm.
The Basilica of Saint-Denis is one of the most important historical sites in France and a guided tour with a knowledgeable guide is the best way to learn about this impressive Gothic building and the history of Kings and Queens buried here. This private guided tour in English always has very good reviews.
Afternoon in Paris
Spend the afternoon visiting a Paris neighborhood of your choice. If you need some help to decide, here are the best neighborhoods in Paris.
Day 3 | Day Trip to Chartres
Day three of this tour around the famous Cathedrals in France visits Chartres, in the region of Centre Val-de-Loire. Chartres is a lovely city, easy to visit from Paris on a day trip. From Gare de Montparnasse, it’s an 1h 15 min ride to Chartres by regional train (TER) – Click here to buy your train tickets to Chartres
Notre Dame of Chartres is one of the most famous Gothic Cathedrals in France, visible long before arriving in the city. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chartres Cathedral will dazzle you with the height of its spires, the dimensions of its nave, and its stunning stained glass windows.
The current building dates from the 13th century. Its dimensions were conditioned by the former Romanesque Cathedral that occupied the site and particularly the exceptional length of its crypt: 130m long and 16.4 m wide, with a transept 64 m wide.
In Medieval times, Chartres was an important religious center, with pilgrims coming from all over Europe to pay their respects to the Virgin Mary and walk through the labyrinth on the Cathedral’s pavement. If possible, try to visit the Cathedral on Friday when the famous labyrinth can be clearly seen.
Apart from the magnificent Cathedral, Chartres has a picturesque Old Town with some timbered houses and other historical buildings. There is the Upper Town (Ville Haute) around the Cathedral, while the Lower Town or Ville Basse follows the river Eure.
The list of the best things to see and do in Chartres includes:
- Maison Picassiette
- Saint-Pierre Church (10th to 13th centuries)
- Centre International du Vitrail (stained glass international center)
- Maison du Saumon
- Upper Town (streets around the Cathedral)
- Lower Town (banks of the Eure River)
Day 4 | Day Trip to Beauvais
The region of Hauts-de-France, formerly Picardie, counts six of the famous Cathedrals in France. Today, this France train itinerary visits the Cathedral of Saint Pierre de Beauvais, which was the last Grande Cathédrale to be built. The ride from Paris Gare du Nord to Beauvais is straightforward, and it only takes 1hr 20 min – Click here to buy your train tickets to Beauvais
The construction of the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre began in 1225 and consists of a 13th-century choir, with an apse and seven polygonal apsidal chapels reached by an ambulatory, joined to a 16th-century transept.
Saint-Pierre has the highest Gothic choir in the world: 48.50 m under the vault! Its designers had the ambition to make it the largest Gothic Cathedral in France ahead of Amiens. Victim of two collapses, one in the 13th century and the other in the 16th century, it remains unfinished today, only the choir and the transept have been built.
The remnant of the previous 10th-century Romanesque Cathedral, known as the Basse Oeuvre (Lower Work), still occupies the intended site of the nave. The building, as it stands today, is 72.5 meters long and 48.5meters high (under vault), with a transept 67.2 meters wide.
When visiting the Cathedral, don’t miss its elaborate astronomical clock (1866) and its stunning collection of stained glass windows built between the 13th and 20th centuries.
Spend the rest of the day visiting the city. The list of the best things to see and do in Beauvais includes:
- Mudo – Musée d’Oise
- Saint-Etienne Church (12th to 16th century)
- Galerie National de la Tapisserie (Tapestry Factory of Beauvais)
- Maladrerie Saint Nazaire (medival hospital for lepers)
- Plan d’Eau du Canada
Day 5 | Paris – Reims
After four days of exploring Paris and the cathedrals around, it’s time to leave the French capital to the North. Day 5 of this French Gothic Cathedrals tour visits Reims, the capital of the Champagne region, where you will spend one night. The ride from Paris Gare de l’Est only takes 46 minutes – you can book your train tickets to Reims here
For your stay in Reims, book one night at Domaine Les Crayères, a mythical property in the city nestled in a seven hectares park, 300m from Pommery Champagne House. Inaugurated by the Marquise de Polignac, this wonderful villa belonged to her descendants until 1978.
Reims is famous for its magnificent Notre Dame de Reims Cathedral. From King Clovis (6th century) to the French Revolution, all the Capetian Kings of France (with few exceptions) were crowned in the Reims Cathedral.
The construction of the current building began at the beginning of the 13th century, so it is posterior to the Cathedrals of Notre-Dame de Paris and Notre-Dame de Chartres. Notre Dame de Reims is one of the major achievements of Gothic art in France, both for its architecture and for its statuary, which includes 2,303 statues. Notre Dame de Reims is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991.
The building, as it stands today, is 149 meters long and 38 meters high (under vault), with a transept 61 meters wide. Its main facade is one of the most beautiful in France, and apart from the famous smiling angel, it is also known for its impressive Galerie des Rois de France (French Kings’ Gallery), best admired at sunset. Don’t miss the stained glass windows by Marc Chagall behind the choir; they are stunning!
Spend the rest of the day exploring the city. With many historical gems to visit, Reims is undeniably an important place for French history. Reims is also home to some of the best champagne houses offering great champagne tours with tastings for visitors.
The list of the best things to see and do in Reims includes:
- Palais de Tau
- Basilica of Saint-Remi
- Musée des Beaux-Arts
- Ar-Déco architecture
- Visit one of Reims’ champagne houses
- Taste the rose biscuits, a local specialty
Day 6 | Reims – Laon
From Reims, take a regional train (TER) to Laon (pronounced “Lon”), in the Hauts de France region, where you will spend one night. The train ride from Reims only takes 40 min, so if you leave early, you will have almost a full day to visit the city – Click here to book your tickets to Laon
The train station is located in Laon’s Lower Town, which is connected to the Upper Town (the historical part) by hundreds of steps. If you are traveling with heavy suitcases, consider a quick ride with a taxi to the Upper Town.
For your stay in Laon, book a night at the Logis du Parvis. Located in the heart of Old Laon, it has direct views of the Cathedral!
Click here to book your stay at Logis du Parvis
Notre Dame de Laon is one of the first Grandes Cathédrales of France, a superb early Gothic construction that started around 1155. The building dominates the countryside from the fortified Upper Town and defined the style of the following Gothic Cathedrals in France, including Reims, Chartres, and Paris.
The building, as it stands today, is modest compared to the cathedrals that followed: 110 meters long and 24 meters high (under vault), with a transept 31 meters wide. It has many indications of being early Gothic – most noticeably, there are still tribunes over the rather short side aisles. Because there are four levels to the elevation – the arcade, the tribune, the triforium, and the clerestory –, the only direct lighting in the nave comes from the clerestory windows.
Another indication that this is a transitional cathedral is that there are both round and pointed arches in the structure. The nave arcades are ogive, and the tribune, triforium, and clerestory arches are round.
Notre Dame de Laon has six towers (two of which are unfinished), and a lantern tower surmounts the crossing of the transept. The choir, enlarged over the centuries, does not have an apse but a back wall adorned with a large rose window that faces that of the entrance. Life-size statues of oxen adorn the towers, recall, according to legend, the efforts these animals made to hoist the stones of the cathedral to the top of the hill.
After visiting the cathedral, get lost in the narrow medieval streets of Laon; they are full of hidden gems! The list of best things to see and do in Laon are:
- Templars’ Chapel (12th century), currently under restoration (2022)
- Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie
- Laon’s Ramparts
- Porte d’Ardon, Porte de Soissons
- Ancien Hotel-Dieu (currently the Tourism Office)
- Saint-Martin Church
- Underground Laon (with a guided tour, booked at the Tourism Office)
- Episcopal Palace
- Batterie Morlot (part of Laon’s defenses)
Day 7| Laon – Amiens
Day 7 of this French Gothic Cathedrals itinerary visits Amiens, where you will spend one night. Trains from Laon to Amiens depart early in the morning and late in the afternoon so it is well worth waking up with the sun to catch one of the morning trains – Click here to book your train tickets to Amiens
For your stay in Amiens, book one night at Hotel Le Prieuré. Located at the foot of the Cathedral, some of the rooms have direct views of the impressive Gothic building.
Notre Dame d’ Amiens is the world’s biggest Gothic Cathedral. With a volume of 200,000m3, it could fit two Notre Dame of Paris inside! Built between 12020 and 1288, Amiens is a symbol of the classic Gothic style for the nave and the radiant choir. The flamboyant Gothic style is present in the rose windows of the western façade and of the transept, the upper parts of the north tower, the Beau Pilier, the stalls, and the statuary of the enclosure of the choir.
The building, as it stands today, is 145 meters long and 42,3 meters high (under vault), with a transept 70 meters wide. The Cathedral has lost most of its original stained-glass windows, but it remains renowned for its 13th-century Gothic carvings adorning its facades, as well as the choir stalls inside, made in the early 16th century and remarkably intact.
Spend the rest of the day visiting Amiens, one of the most beautiful cities in Northern France. This lovely place is also known for being home to Jules Verne (the famous French writer), and its floating gardens or hortillonnages, unique in France.
The best things to see and do in Amiens are:
- Explore the hortillonages by boat or bike
- Saint-Leu neighborhood
- Jules Verne’s house
- Musée de Picardie (art and history)
- Cimitière de la Madelaine
- Banks of the Somme River by bike
Day 8 | Amiens – Rouen – Paris
The last day of this France by train itinerary explores Rouen in Normandy. From Amiens, the train to Rouen only takes 1 hr 30 min – Click here to book your train tickets to Rouen
Notre Dame de Rouen Cathedral is the city’s most important monument. The huge towers of the Cathedral, very ornate, announce the city from afar. One of the Grandes Cathédrales of France, Notre Dame de Rouen is a masterwork of French Gothic Architecture, with elements from early Gothic to Gothic Flamboyant.
The works to build the Gothic Cathedral started in 1145 on the foundations of a 4th-century basilica and an 11th-century Romanesque Cathedral, of which the crypt has been preserved. A hundred years later it was complete, but it was remodeled and completed over the following centuries.
The building, as it stands today, is 136.86 meters long and 28 meters high (under vault), with a transept 57 meters wide. The facade represents a precious testimony to the evolution of Gothic art from the middle of the 12th century to the beginning of the 16th century. In the 19th century, the pretty lantern tower received a cast iron spire that rises to 151 meters, the highest in France!
The choir of the Cathedral houses the tombs of the Dukes of Normandy, including Rollo, founder of the duchy in 911, as well as the heart of Richard Coeur de Lion, King of England and Duke of Normandy.
In the early 1890s, Notre Dame de Rouen was the model for some of Monet’s masterworks. The different paintings (30) depicted the Cathedral in different lights and weather, showing Monet’s fascination with the effects of light. On the Cathedral’s forecourt, visitors can still see the exact spot where Monet set his easel to paint the Cathedral.
Before leaving Rouen, take the time to explore the city. Nicknamed ‘the city of 100 bell towers,’ which dominate the city’s skyline, Rouen boasts the best-preserved medieval center in all of France, with beautiful architecture.
The list of best things to see and do in Rouen includes:
- Musée des Beaux-Arts
- Musée le Seq des Tournelles
- Historial Jeanne d’Arc – her trial site turned into a museum
- Tour Jeanne d’Arc
- Old Market Square
This train trip in France ends here. From Rouen, the train to Paris Saint-Lazare only takes 1 hr 30 min – Click here to book your train tickets to Paris