The cathedral is what springs to mind when most people think of Chartres.
And for good reason, because it’s an outstanding piece of medieval heritage and listed by UNESCO . If you’re keen enough you may need half a day or more to get to the bottom of the sculpture and stained glass windows.
But if you’re pressed for time you should also see as much as you can of old Chartres, especially the banks of the Eure River, which are as cute as they are historic.
And whatever you do, you have to stick around after sunset in summer, when Chartres monuments take on a new beauty with the help of creative light and sound shows.
Lets explore the best things to do in Chartres:
1. Chartres Cathedral
Built during the 12th century, Chartres Cathedral is one of the greatest pieces of gothic architecture, if not in France then the entire world.
And it’s one of those buildings that will hold your attention for hours if you let it.
This goes especially for the exterior with its romanesque sculpted portals, towers and flying buttresses, to the point where it might be a long time before you actually go inside.
Once you do you can climb the north bell-tower at 70 metres, solve the pilgrims’ labyrinth, gaze at the blue stained glass windows and marvel at the 200 sculpted figures depicting the lives of Christ and the Virgin around the choir.
And even pausing to study all of these magnificent details you’ll still hardly scratch the surface of this wonderful building.
2. Maison Picassiette
From the 1930s to 1962 the cemetery sweeper Raymonde Isidore built this simple, three-roomed house for himself and his family.
If that doesn’t sound so exciting you have to see how he decorated it, with thousands of shards of broken faience and glass.
So every surface is a mosaic, many of a startling complexity and unbelievable level of skill.
Even the furniture like the bed, chairs and tables were coated.
In all there are 825 square metres of mosaics, which took some 29,000 hours to complete: Isidore’s life’s work, and Maison Picassiette is now considered a shining example of naive architecture.
3. Église Saint-Pierre
This fascinating gothic church once belonged to the Benedictine monastery St-Père-en-Vallée, dissolved after the Revolution.
The monastery dated back to the 7th century and the eagle-eyed visitor will find a few clues about the great age of the building.
The best of these is the hardy-looking tower, which is from around 930 and was originally intended as the abbey’s defensive keep.
Inside the it’s the stained glass windows in the nave and apse that receive the most praise.
These look exactly as they did when they were composed in the 12th and 13th centuries.
4. Eure Riverside
If you want to get a feel for medieval Chartres make for the lower town on the banks of the Eure.
It doesn’t get much prettier than the waterside here, which has vegetable gardens, half-timbered wash-houses, water-mills and humpback bridges, recalling medieval times when tanners and such plied their trade by the water.
If you continue along the ominously-named Rue de la Massacre you’ll pass the 12th-century Church of St.
Andrew, which is on the opposite bank of the river.
The outer walls of the choir show the vestiges of the flying buttresses that once spanned the river.
5. Conservation Area
At 64 hectares, the historic centre with its cobblestone streets and “colombage” houses is the sort of place where you’ll love getting lost for a little while.
Rue des Écuyers (equerries street) must not be missed; this quaint little street is on an incline with iron lanterns and half-timbered houses every few steps, including one boasting the 16th-century Escalier de la Reine Berthe, a beautiful spiral stairway that you can see from the outside on the corner of Rue Saint-Emam.
The oldest part is in the upper town, near the cathedral.
On Rue Chantault is a stone house with window arches that go back to the 1100s.
6. Centre International du Vitrail
If there’s an attraction that truly belongs in Chartres it’s the International Stained Glass Centre, in a city where the religious buildings retain their glorious medieval decoration.
The centre is just a few steps from the cathedral, in a compelling building of its own: The Grange aux Dîmes is a 13th-century barn, listed as a “Monument Historique”. It’s a big resource for fans or exponents of the craft, with tools, exhibitions and seminars telling you all you need to know about how these windows are made and repaired.
The most enlightening part is being able to go into the workshop to see the craftsmen and women at their benches.
7. Maison du Saumon
“Salmon House” in English, the name of this lovable half-timbered house, makes sense when you remember that is on Place de la Poissonnerie “Fishmongers’ Square”. Maison du Saumon is a four-storey cantilevered house, with diamond pattern timber framing and sweet dormer windows at the top.
It holds Chartres’ tourist office, but before you go in take a look at the carvings on the corbels of vines, fish and other produce, which are from when the house was built in the 15th and 16th centuries.
8. Bel Air Frescos
In an effort to liven up some of the public housing in the Bel Air district on the outskirts of Chartres, the city commissioned a team of artists called “Cité Création” to design fabulous trompe l’oeil murals.
Four buildings have been completely transformed, in a process that took a year, in which the grey stone beneath was adorned with striking images of medieval workshops and the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral.
They were such a hit that the city created another in the centre to commemorate François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers, a general in the Revolutionary Wars and native of Chartres.
9. Église Saint-Aignan
A history lesson by itself, this historic church is from the 12th century.
But in the 1500s, during the Second War of Religion it took serious damage and needed a rebuild.
Fortunately 20 of the medieval stained glass windows survived the damage, and the next 450 years to be admired today.
You’ll be struck by the ceiling, which has a barrel shape and wooden crossbeams supporting it.
During the Revolution it was a warehouse and jail, before getting a sympathetic restoration later in the 1800s when the current romanesque-style murals were added around the nave.
10. Musée des Beaux-Arts
In Chartres’ Episcopal Palace is the Museum of Fine Arts, which no real French city should be without.
The palace is also an historic monument, and hosted Henri IV for his coronation in 1594, although not much of the building remains from this time as it was rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The paintings are the headline attraction, with mostly French works by Rigaud, Chardin, Zurbaran, Camille Corot, Fragonard and Soutine.
There are also two antique harpsichords from the 1600s and 1700s respectively and an ethnographic section with African and Oceanic Art gathered by the French Fauvist Maurice de Vlaminck, as well as two rooms dedicated to this artist’s work.
11. Chartres en Lumières
For the last 13 years Chartres has hosted a captivating light show in its historic centre.
This runs just after dark from April to October, when 20 of the city’s monuments, including bridges, the cathedral and Episcopal Palace become the canvas for spellbinding projections accompanied by music.
These images are rich in symbolism so if you need a hand deciphering them you can join the guided tours that trail around the town every night, though you will need some French comprehension to follow them.
On the other hand you could also just download the app and walk the trail in your own time.
12. Conservatoire de l’Agriculture
If you need a special incentive to visit a museum about farming, then it might help to remember that Chartres is in Beauce, a region famed for its architecture and known popularly as the “Granary of France” for its expansive cereal farms.
So you’ll come away a little more informed about life in this part of the country after checking out some bulky pieces of vintage farm equipment that convey the development of farming here in the 1800s and 1900s, and then compare them to the state-of-the-art tractors that are used today.
The museum’s home is work a mention too, as it’s a former shed for steam engines.
It’s almost impossible to look cool riding on one of those tourist trains that trail through European cities.
But if you want to see all of the old city in just a few minutes and pick up some snippets of information that you might otherwise have missed, this could be a good option for you.
The 35-minute loop has running commentary and takes in all of the big sights, and there’s also a train on summer evenings during the” Lumières”, but you’ll need to book in advance for this.
14. Église Saint-Orien
For a brief excursion you could make your way to the village of Meslay-le-Grenet a few kilometres southwest of Chartres.
Your goal should be the Church of Saint-Orien, which, while no more than a small country church, contains an exceptional piece of 15th-century art on its wall.
The haunting painting of the danse macabre was rediscovered in the 19th century, showing death pulling people from all walks of life, including the pope, a king, a usurer, hermit and a child.
It was created at the end of the 100 Years’ War and gives you a good idea of the disarray that the country was in at that time.
15. Food and Drink
L’Eurélienne is a beer brewed with the malt grown in the Beauce region and is bottled less than ten kilometres from Chartres.
There are four malt-based beers to try: blonde.
rousse, white and brown, all brewed without mechanical filtration or pasteurisation.
You’ll see Chartres Pâté at markets and charcuteries, and this is made with game such as pheasant and partridge: This will go great with a “Rétrodor” baguette, baked with the finest wheat from Beauce.
On the sweeter side of things, macaroons are a local speciality and have a softer texture than you might expect from a French macaroon, while the Mentchikoff recalls the days of the Franco-Russian alliance in the late-1800s, with chocolate praline embedded in a light meringue.