Some of Europe’s most famous rivers run through France, so it’s only right that the country is also home to some of its most famous bridges. Some of these date back to the time of the Romans, whilst others were only built in the last few centuries. There’s also a variety of bridges to admire in France – viaducts, aqueducts and footbridges. Some have been reduced to little more than an arch, whilst others carry plenty of traffic to this day.
Here’s our pick of France’s finest bridges.
Although ‘Pont Neuf’ translates as ‘New Bridge’, it is in fact the oldest bridge in Paris, and the oldest bridge that crosses the Seine. It consists of two spans – or ‘arms’ – which link the western end of Île de la Cité with banks of the river. Its ‘long arm’ is made up of seven arches and links the Right Bank to the island, whilst its ‘short arm’ is made up of five arches and links the Left Bank to the island. Henri III laid the first stone of the bridge in May 1578, and it was eventually completed in 1607 under the reign of Henri IV.
On the bridge there is an equestrian statue of Henri IV, which was first commissioned by his widow four years after his assassination. During the French Revolution, the original statue was taken down, melted and re-cast into cannons. However, a replacement statue was later made after the Bourbon monarchy was restored in 1815. Another interesting feature of the bridge is its mascarons, or ‘grotesque faces’, which decorate its cornices.
This bridge was first built between 1177 and 1185 under the direction of Saint Bénézet. According to Christian legend, St. Bénézet, who was a shepherd, came to the city to declare that he had been commanded by God in a vision to build a bridge across the Rhône at Avignon. After being dismissed by the locals, Bénézet picked up an enormous stone that should have been too heavy for a man to carry, and placed it down, declaring it the foundation of his bridge.
As he continued to work on the bridge, many other miracles occurred, including the deaf and the blind being cured. Most in Avignon were now convinced of Bénézet’s divine commission, and finally helped him.
However, three quarters of this bridge was destroyed when Louis VIII laid siege to Avignon in 1226. It was rebuilt a few years later, but was badly damaged several times by floods, and eventually abandoned by 1663. Today, only four of the original twenty-two arches remain, along with the Saint Nicholas Chapel, located on the second pier of the bridge.
Pont du Gard
Pont du Gard is a three-tiered bridge in the south of France that was built by the Romans as part of a 50km-long aqueduct that transported water from Uzès to Nîmes. The size of the bridge is huge: it is almost 50m tall, and the longest tier measures 275m across. Indeed, it was the tallest bridge in the Roman Empire.
It is also a work of great precision, as every block that made up the bridge would have been carved by hand out of limestone extracted from nearby quarries. Similarly, the bridge descends by two and a half centimetres from end to end, which provides a very small incline that enables the flow of water.
The Pont du Gard is a great place to visit – it’s illuminated after dark, it’s surrounded by walking trails and there is a nearby museum dedicated to it.
Pont Alexandre III
Often described as the most elegant bridge in Paris, Pont Alexandre III commemorates the new relationship that was forged between France and Russia towards the end of the 19th century, when the Franco-Russian Alliance was formed in the early 1890s. The alliance was finalised when Tsar Alexander III ruled Russia, hence the bridge named after him, although it was his son Nicholas II who later laid the foundation stone in October 1896.
At both ends of the bridge, there are two pillars on either side. As well as proving counterweight to the bridge’s arch, these pillars are also lavishly decorated: they are all topped with gilt bronze statues that show the mythological winged horse Pegasus being brought to heel by the goddess Fame. Similarly, on the bases of these pillars are sculptures representing different eras of France – France under Charlemagne, France under Louis XIV, Renaissance France, and Contemporary France.
Other notable features to look out for on Pont Alexandre III are the Art Nouveau lamps which line either side of the bridge, and the vast array of sculptures which show cherubs nymphs, lions, fish, and many more creatures.
The Milau Viaduct is a road bridge that spans the valley of the River Tarn in southern France, near Milau. Before the bridge was opened in 2004, it could take motorists up to four hours to cross the valley in heavy traffic, as they would have to follow a single main road that gradually wound its way down each side of the valley to a bridge that went over the river. Now it only takes about five minutes to cross the valley, which is especially useful for holidaymakers travelling to the Mediterranean coast.
This renowned French bridge has also become a tourist attraction in its own right, and boasts of a visitor centre with a viewing area that provides a panoramic view of the viaduct and the surrounding countryside. Alternatively, you can see the bridge from below in a canoe or on a nearby walking trail.
At its highest point, the bridge is 343m tall, making it the tallest bridge in the world. Like the Channel Tunnel and the Concorde, the Milau Viaduct was a product of both French and British ingenuity, being designed by the French structural engineer Michel Virlogeux and English architect Lord Norman Foster.
Pont Valentré is one of the most splendid medieval fortified bridges in France, crossing the River Lot in the southern town of Cahors. The bridge itself was constructed between 1308 and 1378, and the three towers are believed to have been completed later in 1380. Today, it’s still possible to see the defensive features of the bridge, including the machicolations and battlements on the towers, and one surviving barbican on the eastern end of the bridge.
According to legend, the foreman who was building the bridge was frustrated with how long it was taking to complete, and decided to make a deal with the devil. In exchange for the devil helping him to finish the bridge and following all of his orders, the foreman would forfeit his soul. When the bridge was practically finished, the foreman decided to try and save his soul, so gave the devil an impossible task – to take water with a sieve to the central tower so that its final stone could be installed.
The devil could not complete this task, and so he had not technically upheld his end of the bargain. Furious at being tricked, the devil sent one of his imps every night to loosen the last stone on the central tower, and the masons would be forced every day to put it back.
In the 1870s, when the bridge was being restored, the architect Paul Gout was inspired by the legend and had a sculpture of an imp placed on the central tower. Now, according to the updated legend, the devil mistakenly thinks his work is being done when he checks on the tower, which is at last truly complete.
Completed in 1884, the Garabit Viaduct was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the French civil engineer famed for the Eiffel Tower. In late 1878, he was approached by Léon Boyer, one of the engineers in charge of a building a railway bridge at Garabit, and asked to repeat his earlier bridge spanning the Douro River in Portugal, the Maria Pia Bridge.
This time however, Eiffel was challenged with creating a bridge over a much deeper valley: the vertical distance between the railway line and the river is 122m, which is twice that between the Maria Pia bridge and the Douro River. In fact, the Garabit viaduct was the highest bridge in the world for many years.
The Garabit Viaduct is illuminated at night, all year round, and offers access into the gorges of the Truyère River. On these gorges, which are listed as a “Natura 2000” site, visitors can enjoy boat excursions, a vast array of water sports, and even go fishing.
The Briare Aqueduct is a canal bridge that carries part of the Canal Latéral à la Loire across the River Loire. With its total length of 2174 feet, it is the longest canal aqueduct in France; the next longest in France is the Agen aqueduct, which seems short by comparison at 1767 feet in length.
Built and opened to navigation in the late 19th century, the aqueduct is still regularly crossed by boat today, and can also be walked and cycled across. As well as taking in the beautiful views of the River Loire and its banks, visitors to the bridge should also take some time to admire its four entrance columns (two at either end) and the dozens of Renaissance-style lanterns that illuminate the bridge after dark.
Although the bridge is one of the younger ones on this list, it does have some history attached to it, dating to the Second World War. In 1940, one arch of the bridge was blown up by the French Resistance and four years later, a flying bomb caused a hole in the trough.
Pont des Arts
Pont des Arts is a pedestrian bridge in Paris where it was popular for couples visiting the capital to attach a padlock onto it. Couples would typically scrawl their names onto a “love lock”, fix it on the metal grills of the bridge, and then throw the key into the Seine. However, the weight of all the padlocks – estimated at 45 tonnes, caused a side barrier of the bridge to collapse in 2014.
Due to the risk of further damage in the future and the tacky appearance of the padlocks, which many felt were spoiling Parisian cultural heritage, they were all removed from the Pont des Arts and the other bridges they had been attached to in 2015, and the practice was banned in the city. The metal grills were also replaced with glass panels so padlocks couldn’t be fixed on.
The construction of this iconic French bridge, along with two other iron bridges in Paris, was ordered by Napoleon Bonaparte shortly after he came to power in 1799. Despite being advised to have Pont des Arts built in stone, Napoleon insisted on it being built from iron, making it the first bridge in Paris to be built from iron. However, upon visiting it, he declared that it had “no solidity, no grandeur” , and that bridges in France were better off being built from stone.
Believed to have originally been over 574 feet in length, and to have had eleven arches, the Pont Ambroix has almost completely succumbed to 2000 years of wear and tear, including numerous floods. Now, only one arch remains.
Two arches had stood as recently as the early 20th century, but a flood in 1933 carried one of these away. The bridge with two arches was depicted by the famous French painter Gustave Courbet in his 1957 painting Le Pont d’Ambrussum.
The Pont Ambroix is a Roman bridge that has been dated back to the first century BC, and once allowed the Via Domitia to cross the River Vidourle. (The Via Domitia was a Roman road that begun construction in 116 BC and went all the way from the French Alps to the Pyrenees).