Cave paintings 20,000 years old. A spectacular Roman theater. Breathtaking islands and reefs. France has no shortage of wonders, natural and historic. Tour France's best UNESCO World Heritage sites.
<b>Palace and Park of Versailles</b><br>The magnificent Palace of Versailles was home to French kings from Louis XIV to Louis XVI. The grounds include this “Orangerie” garden, built between 1684 and 1686, to showcase one of the day’s most expensive food items: the orange.
<b>Decorated Caves, Vezere Valley</b><br>In 1940, these Paleolithic paintings -- nearly 20,000 years old -- were discovered in one of 25 caves in southwestern <a href="http://www.travelchannel.com/topics/france/index.html" target="_blank"> France’s</a> Vezere Valley. The most notable were found in the Lascaux Cave. Here’s an image of aurochs (the ancestor of domestic cattle) painted with mineral pigments.
<b>Carcassonne</b><br>Time for dungeons and dragons! Travel back to medieval times at Carcassonne, a fortified French town in the south of France. Its mighty walls stretch nearly 5 miles, and once kept out invaders such as King Pepin the Short -- take that!
<b>Roman Theater of Orange</b><br>This ancient Roman theater stands in France’s Rhone Valley. The remarkably well-preserved structure -- now 2,000 years old -- was built during the reign of Augustus, whose Roman Empire stretched from the Atlantic to the Euphrates.
<b>Bordeaux, Port of the Moon</b><br>Ah, the glow of Bordeaux. In southwest France see the “Port of the Moon,” a town situated along the Garonne River. (The town owes its nickname to the moon-shaped bending of the river.) Here’s a view of the town’s stone bridge, built on Napoleon’s orders to modernize the ancient Roman city.
<b>Fontainebleau Palace and Park</b><br>Where did French kings go to escape the city? The Palace of Fontainebleau, of course. About 34 miles from Paris, the palace was built in the 16th century, surrounded by formal gardens, orchards, woods and this sleepy lake.
<b>The Cevennes Region</b><br>Journey to the southern part of central France for a stunning mountain landscape: In the Cevennes, you’ll find deep valleys dotted with stone farmhouses like this. The area also inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s <i>Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes</i>, a trail-blazing classic of outdoor literature.
<b>Roman Amphitheater in Arles</b><br>Wanna see a gladiator fight? There were once plenty at this amphitheater in Arles, a city in the south of France, in the first century A.D. Through the centuries, Arles made the graceful transition from ancient to medieval city, retaining mighty markers of the past like this.
<b>Pitons, cirques and ramparts of Reunion Island</b><br>France has 27 overseas regions -- including Reunion Island, in the southwest Indian Ocean. The island is a natural wonderland: pitons (that's volcanic plugs), cirques (valleys formed by glaciers) and ramparts (wall-like stone ridges) make up 40% of the island.
<b>Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans</b><br>In the 18th century, salt was super-valuable. The salt was extracted by boiling water over wood fires. This building, Saline Royale (Royal Saltworks), in eastern France, was the hub of that activity. It’s also notable as an important achievement in industrial architecture.
<b>Paris, Banks of the Seine</b><br>A great city begins by the banks of a great river. View Paris’s evolution, from prehistoric days to its wide-scale development between the 16th and 17th centuries, in a walk along the Seine River. Among the classical architecture you’ll see: the Institute of France (pictured here), built as a college around 1670.
<b>Vezelay Church</b><br>More than one crusade was launched from this church. A monk named St. Bernard called for the Second Crusade from here. Later, English king Richard the Lionheart joined forces with French king Philip Augustus to launch an invasion of the Holy Land. On the more tame side, the church is said to house the relics of Mary Magdalene.
<b>Scandola Reserve, Corsica</b><br>Journey to the central western coast of Corsica island. Within this French territory, a nature reserve is home to porphyritic rock masses (when one group of crystals is clearly larger than the other group). The reserve also includes seagulls, sea eagles, cormorants (a bird species) and nearby islets with abundant marine life.
<b>Notre Dame de Paris</b><br>You’re looking at one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. It took nearly 100 years to build Notre Dame. Later, during the French Revolution, a few rowdy revolutionaries damaged and, in some cases, destroyed its religious imagery. An extensive restoration followed.
<b>Lagoons of New Caledonia</b><br>Long ago, New Caledonia was part of a super-continent. Then it separated from Australia 65 million years ago, and eventually reached its present position in the southwest Pacific. Today, the archipelago (and French territory) is home to one of the 3 most extensive reef systems in the world.
<b>City Center in Le Havre</b><br>The port city of Le Havre, in northwestern France, suffered the most damage of any other French city during World War II. Then a 70-year-old architect named Auguste Perret led the city’s reconstruction. The result: out of the ashes, a rebirth … with a little help from the innovative use of concrete.
<b>Palace of the Popes in Avignon</b><br>The Pope didn’t always live in Rome. In the 14th century, the seat of papacy moved to Avignon, in southeastern France. Why? Turns out, when Gascon Bertrand de Goth was elected Pope, violent clashes erupted in Rome. Suddenly, moving to Palais des Papes, a fortress surrounded by ramparts, seemed like a nice idea.
<b>Jurisdiction of Saint-Emilion</b><br>Wine grows here. Lots of it. The Romans introduced wine-making to the fertile area of southwestern France known today as Saint-Emilion. The area has another big draw: It’s on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Drink up.