The 5 Most Bizarre French Tourist Attractions

France is usually thought of as a place of chic refinement and haute couture, with world-class art galleries and beautiful buildings, but it also has some freaky attractions. Here are five of the best.

Saline Royale d’Arc-et-Senans

You might think that an eighteenth-century salt factory would be pretty dull, but you’d be wrong. The Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans in eastern France is a bizarre, unfinished architectural masterpiece, designed by visionary architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. Planned as an ideal town, with everything workers would need on-site, it was intended to have futuristic, spherical buildings, and was designed for both beauty and efficiency. Commissioned by Louis XV himself, only half was ever built, since the revolution of 1789 disrupted it mid-building. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has a feel quite unlike any other architectural space.

Pompidou Centre

Although well-known, the Pompidou Centre remains mind-bendingly weird, constructed as an inside-out building. The trio of architects, Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini, worked ambitiously on this cultural center, containing a library, museum of modern art and center for music research, putting the structure’s skeleton and infrastructure on its outside instead of hidden within. Its pipes are color-coded according to their function, so from the outside you can easily spot the water pipes (green), electricity lines (yellow), and air ducts (blue). Once seen, the Centre Georges Pompidou is never forgotten.

Troglodyte village of Trôo

The strangely-named village of Trôo, in the Loir-et-Cher department in central France, has little in common with the typical French village. Here you may almost expect to encounter a hobbit, as the village is made up of quirky little houses built in caves dug into the limestone cliff side. (The name of the village comes from trou, meaning hole.) There are about twenty of these cave dwellings, many of which have exterior staircases built into the rock. The other wonders here include the “speaking well,” which produces perfect echoes when you speak into it, and a cave with a water source that’s rich in limestone which petrifies objects, eventually turning them to stone.

Block Field of Nîmes-le-Vieux

Essentially a big field full of rocks, this doesn’t sound too exciting at first, but visiting this “block field” in the Cévennes National Park, Languedoc-Roussillon, is like stepping onto a different planet. Also known as the felsenmeer of Nîmes-le-Vieux (from the German, meaning “sea of rock”), this site is full of bizarrely-shaped limestone rocks, eroded over millennia by the elements. The real appeal of this site is the shapes that you might see in the formations—everything from a lion to a giant cauldron—and everyone will spot something different. A four kilometer trail leads you through the site, with signs along the way explaining its significance.

Paris Catacombs

Famous, but no less weird for it, the Paris Catacombs are the result of a late eighteenth-century public health project to clear the overcrowded cemetery of Les Halles and store the bones of the dead in ancient quarries beneath the city. A huge ossuary holding the remains of some six million Parisians was the result; its walls of neatly stacked bones have been visited since the nineteenth century by those with an interest in the macabre. The fact that the Catacombs were used by the fighters of the Paris Commune in the early 1870s and by the French Resistance in the 1940s only adds more appeal to this attraction, already shrouded in deep mystique.