There are no less than 41 UNESCO world heritage sites in France, a country that boasts the fourth highest number in the world. For fans of French culture and scenery, this ranking will come as no surprise; France enjoys, after all, a reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful countries.

With such a long list of prime heritage sites, it’s also no surprise to discover that plenty of the UNESCO world heritage sites in France are on or near the waterways. So when you’re on a boating holiday or river cruise in France you’re never too far away from some of the world’s best cultural and historical sites. Read on to find out where you can see sites from the water.

Canal du Midi CarcassonneUNESCO World Heritage sites along the Canal du Midi

Top prize goes to the Canal du Midi, because all 240km of the canal have UNESCO world heritage status. The Canal du Midi, built between 1667 and 1694 to link the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean, is an outstanding work of engineering, a feat recognised in its cultural status.

With no less than 324 structures – locks, aqueducts, siphons and the world’s first canal tunnel – the Canal du Midi has plenty worthy of note. Be sure to travel through the giant Fonserannes staircase where six locks and basins take boats up or down a height of 21.5m. And look out for the Beziers aqueduct where the Canal travels over the river Orb.

Also along the Canal du Midi is another of the most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France: the walled city of Carcassonne. This medieval fortress that includes 53 watchtowers and well over 2km of ramparts is one of the best-preserved citadels in the world.

Where best to see them

Get up close and personal with all the structures on the Canal du Midi as you glide through or under them in your boat. If you’re river cruising in July, don’t miss the firework display in Carcassonne marking Bastille Day. This is best viewed from the banks of the River Aube.

See why the Canal du Midi is a world heritage site for yourself on board Enchanté  or Saraphina.

Bordeaux FranceRiver Garonne’s UNESCO World Heritage sites

A cruise down the River Garonne takes you to one of the largest UNESCO world heritage sites in France: the Port of the Moon in Bordeaux. This crescent-shaped bend in the Garonne is literally bursting with architectural gems and historic monuments.

The Port of the Moon received UNESCO heritage status in 2007 in recognition of its historical importance since the Age of Enlightenment. Home to the second largest number of listed buildings in France, after Paris, Bordeaux is today one of the most interesting cities to visit in France.

UNESCO highlights in Bordeaux

Almost everything in the Port of the Moon is worthy of mention. Particular highlights include the Place de la Bourse, the Grand Theatre and the riverfront mansions with their Neo-classical façades. Don’t miss the Mirroir d’Eau (Water Mirror) whose play on reflections has made it one of the most photographed spots in the city. Another must-see is the Cité du Vin, a huge futuristic building offering a guided tour through the history of the world-famous Bordeaux wine, plus tastings.

Where best to see them

As you’d expect, the best views of the Port of the Moon are from the river itself. Here, you get the whole picture of the crescent shape in all its beauty. The vistas at night are particularly stunning.

See this UNESCO world heritage site for yourself when you cruise with Saint Louis or Rosa.

River cruises Loire FranceUNESCO highlights along the River Loire

The Loire is not only the longest river in France, it’s also one of the most picturesque. In recognition of its scenic beauty and its historic monuments, a stretch of the Loire received UNESCO status in 2000.

The section receiving the accolade lies between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes-sur-Loire, and forms the central part of the Loire Valley. For many people, this is French countryside at its finest – not for nothing is it also known as the Garden of France. The many chateaux that line the Loire are another part of the reason why this area ranks as one of the UNESCO world heritage sites in France.

This stretch of the Loire is literally oozing with historic monuments and a great place to see quintessential French chateaux. Don’t miss those at Amboise, Blois and Chaumont – include the International Garden Festival (20 April to 5 November) in your visit. And make a stop at Orleans, home to a lovely old quarter and one of the world’s most famous women, Joan of Arc.

Where best to see them

Definitely from the Loire itself. You can best appreciate the magnificence of Chaumont Chateau and the attractive row of houses on the riverbank below it as you glide past on board a hotel barge or self-drive hire boat. The views of Amboise Chateau too are the finest from the centre of the river – get the best from the Ile d’Or.

See the Garden of France for yourself as you cruise aboard Meanderer or Renaissance.

UNESCO world heritage sites Pont du Gard RhoneUNESCO highlights along the River Rhone

The south of France also has its fair share of UNESCO world heritage sites, several of which are located on the Rhone. The historic cities of Arles and Avignon have both held world heritage status for several decades and make perfect stop-offs on your way north or south along the Rhone.

At the gateway to the Camargue, Arles boasts several fine monuments, all world heritage sites. Perhaps the most famous is the Roman Theatre, considered by many to be the best surviving example in the world. The Crypotoporticus (underground galleries) are also UNESCO sites along with several Romanesque monuments from the 11th and 12th centuries.

Further up river is Avignon with several UNESCO sites. These include the Pont d’Avignon, built in the 12th century (and the subject of that well-known children’s song!), the Palais des Pape, one of the most important religious buildings in the history of Christianity, and the castle ramparts and the cathedral.

Slightly off the Rhone route but well worth taking a detour to see is the Pont du Gard, a short drive to the west of Avignon. This Roman aqueduct rises nearly 50 metres over the River Gardon and has three tiers. It forms part of the equally impressive Nimes aqueduct that stretches for nearly 50km.

Where best to see them

You can take in most of the UNESCO sites in Arles and Avignon from the Rhone, which flows through both centres. If you want to see the Pont d’Avignon (and be sur le pont), you need to visit the town centre on foot.

See these UNESCO wonders for yourself on board Le Phenicien  or Roi Soleil.

River cruise France Seine ParisUNESCO highlights along the River Seine

Only a small section of the Seine has UNESCO world heritage status, but it’s home to some of the most famous landmarks in France and the world. Given the number of fine buildings along the Seine Banks, it’s no surprise to discover that this stretch of the river ranks as one of the most stunning UNESCO heritage sites in France.

The Seine Banks is the name given to the river between the Pont de Sully on the Ile de Saint Louis and the Pont d’Inea at the Eiffel Tower. This short stretch of river packs in the monuments and includes a long list of the most-visited places in Paris: the Louvre, Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, Les Tuileries, Musée d’Orsay, Grand Palais, Petit Palais, Les Invalides, the Eiffel Tower…

Where best to see them

Easily the best vantage point to see all these monuments is from a river cruise or hotel barge. Not only do you get the best perspective and see them in all their glory, you can also view them without the crowds.

See the Seine Banks for yourself on board Golden Odyssey.

All this history and heritage might ordinarily be exhausting, but from a sunny deck aboard a boat you not only escape the crowds but have a thoroughly relaxing time to boot.