It's worth pointing out that very few buildings (especially churches) were built in one particular architectural style. These massive, expensive structures often took centuries to complete, during which time tastes would change and plans would be altered.
Ancient Roman (125 B.C.-A.D. 450)
Provence was Rome's first transalpine conquest, and the legions of Julius Caesar quickly subdued the Celtic tribes across France, converting it into Roman Gaul.
Nîmes preserves from the 1st century B.C. a 20,000-seat amphitheater, a Corinthian temple called the "Square House," a fine archaeology museum, and the astounding pont du Gard, a 47m-long (158-ft.), three-story aqueduct made of cut stones fitted together without mortar.
The Romanesque style took its inspiration from ancient Rome (hence the name). Early Christians in Italy had adapted the basilica (ancient Roman law-court buildings) to become churches.
The Cathédrale St-Bénigne in Dijon was the first French Romanesque church, but of that era only the crypt remains. The Cathédrale St-Pierre in Angoulême has a single large nave, a rounded apse with small radiating chapels, and a pair of transept mini-apses.
By the 12th century, engineering developments freed church architecture from the heavy, thick walls of Romanesque structures and allowed ceilings to soar, walls to thin, and windows to proliferate. Gothic interiors enticed churchgoers' gazes upward to high ceilings filled with light. Graceful buttresses and spires soared above town centers.
The best examples in and around Paris of the Gothic are Basilique St-Denis (1140-44), the world's first Gothic cathedral in a Paris suburb; Cathédrale de Chartres (1194-1220), a Gothic masterpiece with some 150 glorious stained-glass windows; and, of course, Cathédrale de Notre-Dame (1163-1250), which possesses pinnacled flying buttresses, a trio of France's best rose windows, good portal carvings, a choir screen of deeply carved reliefs, and spiffy gargoyles.
In architecture as in painting, the Renaissance came from Italy and was only slowly Frenchified. And as in painting, its rules stressed proportion, order, classical inspiration, and precision to create unified, balanced structures.
The Loire Valley and Burgundy are home to many Renaissance châteaux. Foremost is the Loire's Château de Chambord, started in 1519, probably according to plans by Leonardo da Vinci (who may have designed its double helix staircase). In contrast, the Château de Chenonceau, home to many a French king's wife or mistress, is a fanciful fairy tale built in the middle of a river. The best example in Burgundy is the Château de Tanlay, east of Chablis.
Classicism & Rococo (1630-1800)
While Italy and Germany embraced the opulent baroque, France took the fundamentals of Renaissance classicism even further, becoming more imitative of ancient models. During the reign of Louis XIV, art and architecture were subservient to political ends. Buildings were grandiose and severely ordered on the Versailles model. Opulence was saved for interior decoration, which increasingly (especially from 1715-50, after the death of Louis XIV) became a detailed and self-indulgent rococo (rocaille in French). Externally, rococo is noticeable only in a greater elegance and delicacy.
Mansart built town houses, châteaux, and churches (Val-de-Grâce in Paris; the Palais du Tau in Reims) and laid out Dijon's place de la Libération. But the Parisian architect is chiefly remembered for his steeply sloping namesake, "mansard" roofs.
Louis Le Vau (1612-70) was the chief architect of the Louvre from 1650 to 1670 and of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte (1656-61) outside Paris, a gig that put him and his collaborators -- including Mansart, interior decorator Charles Le Brun (1619-90), and the unparalleled landscape gardener André Le Nôtre (1613-1700) -- on Louis XIV's radar and landed them the commission to rebuild Versailles (1669-85). Versailles is France's -- indeed, Europe's -- grandest palace.
The 19th Century
Architectural styles in 19th-century Paris were eclectic, beginning in a severe classical mode and ending with an identity crisis torn between Industrial Age technology and Art Nouveau organic.
Identifiable styles include the neoclassical First Empire, with its strong lines often accented with a simple curve -- the rage during Napoleon's reign; and Second Empire, which occurred during Napoleon III's reign, a reinterpretation of classicism in an ornate mood. During this period Paris became a city of wide boulevards courtesy of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-91), commissioned by Napoleon III in 1852 to redesign the city. Haussmann lined the boulevards with simple, six-story apartment blocks, such as elongated 18th-century town houses with continuous balconies wrapping around the third and sixth floors and mansard roofs with dormer windows.
The Third Republic expositions in 1878, 1889, and 1900 used the engineering prowess of the Industrial Revolution to produce such Parisian monuments as the Tour Eiffel and Sacré-Coeur.
Art Nouveau architects and decorators rebelled against the Third Republic era of mass production by creating asymmetrical, curvaceous designs based on organic inspiration (plants and flowers) in such mediums as wrought iron, stained glass, and tile.
The best examples are the Arc de Triomphe (1836), Napoleon's oversize imitation of a Roman triumphal arch, the ultimate paean to the classic era; Tour Eiffel (1889), which Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923), slapped together to form the world's tallest structure at 320m (1,050-ft.); and Métro station entrances.
The 20th Century
France commissioned some ambitious architectural projects in the last century, most of them the grand projets of the late François Mitterrand. The majority were considered controversial or even offensive when completed.
At Centre Pompidou (1977), Britisher Richard Rogers (b. 1933) and Italian Renzo Piano (b. 1937) turned architecture inside out -- literally -- to craft Paris's eye-popping modern-art museum, with exposed pipes, steel supports, and plastic-tube escalators wrapping around the exterior; Louvre's glass pyramids (1989), were created by Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei (b. 1917); Opéra Bastille (1989), is a curvaceous, dark glass mound of space designed by Canadian Carlos Ott (b. 1947).
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