Between medieval masterpieces and modern timekeepers, there’s no shortage of stunning public clocks to be found throughout l’Hexagone. Among some of the most beautiful is the astronomical clock of Auxerre as well as the golded gilt clock on the side of Marie Antoinette’s former prison, La Conciergerie, in Paris. Here’s your guide to the best of beautiful belltowers (belfries), timepieces and clocks in France.
Editor’s note: If you’re wondering what the difference between a timepiece and clock is, it’s as follows. While a timepiece simply tells the time, a timepiece only becomes a clock once it chimes to indicate certain hours. As such, all clocks are timepieces, but not all timepieces are clocks!
Tour de l’Horloge d’Auxerre
In the North of Burgundy, somewhere on the train line between Dijon and Paris, Auxerre is a stunning city that’s filled with several important churches. Birthplace of Saint Germain, it was here where an abbey was founded in the 5th-century and it’s now here where some of the oldest Christian frescoes in France can be spied in the crypt.
The town is divided into three distinctive quarters, Le Quartier Saint Pierre, Le Quartier de la Marine, and Quartier de l’Horloge. As the latter district’s name would suggest, this area is home to a clock: one of the most beautiful clocks in France to be precise! The Tour de l’Horloge dates all the way back to the 15th-century and was installed at the behest of a Count of Auxerre.
Le Gros Horloge de Rouen
As the capital of Normandy, a region in Northern France, Rouen has no shortage of incredible things to see and do. Alleged to be the place where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake and home to the cathedral where the likes of Richard the Lionheart and Rollo the Viking are buried, this timber-framed city is filled to the brim with history.
Wander around the city for long enough, and you’ll soon stumble upon one of the oldest streets the city has to offer. Cobbled and filled with architecture that’s reminiscent of the Middle Ages, it’s also here where you’ll spy Le Gros Horloge de Rouen, a fourteenth-century astronomical clock that has one of the oldest working mechanisms in France.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Head to Musée at opening time to get the place to yourself and to ensure the very best photos, of course! Walk up the many flights of steps (or take the elevator) straight to the top floor of the former train station turned museum, and you’ll soon be rewarded with one of the best views of Paris.
For, situated on the 5th floor of the Musée d’Orsay in a room filled with some of the most famous impressionist art from the 20th-century (Monet and Van Gogh among countless others), a clock dominates one wall. Dating back from the time when the Orsay train station was still in operation, from here you can enjoy unparalleled views of the Seine, the Louvre Museum, and even over towards the Sacré-Coeur.
Grosse Cloche de Bordeaux
The beautiful South West city of Bordeaux is the capital of the Nouevelle-Aquitaine region and is often said to be the city where Parisians would most like to reside if they didn’t already live in Paris. Filled with hidden gems, breathtaking architecture, and endless day trips, Bordeaux lies in the heart of French wine country.
Considering that ‘Grosse Cloche’ is actually translated as ‘Great Bell,’ you may well be surprised to see this tower on the list of the best clocks of France. However, aside from the fact that this is one of the oldest belfries in France and the bell, which dates back to 1775, weighs well over seven and a half thousand kilos (!), the side of the tower is also home to a wonderful clock (on the South side) which has a rather unusual semi-circular dial.
Conciergerie Clock, Paris
The oldest public clock in Paris can be found on the side of the Conciergerie. This building stands on the banks of the River Seine and has performed many functions over the years. During the French Revolution, the Conciergerie operated as a prison and was even where Marie Antoinette was kept.
Today, the building is home to the largest Gothic Hall of its kind in Europe. And on the side of the building, you’ll find one of the most beautiful clocks in Paris. Though it may not appear like it today, thanks to a 2012 renovation and clean, the clock actually dates back to the 14th-century!
Still in perfect working order, the clock chimes each hour. For those interested to know, the difference between a timepiece and a clock is that a clock must chime for it to be called a clock! So prominent is the story of the clock in the history of Ile de la Cite, that the Quay alongside the Conciergerie has since been named ‘Quai de l’Horloge’ in honour of the beautiful timepiece.
Nearby, there are plenty of beautiful Parisian gems worth exploring. For example, Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole is one of the most beautiful cafés in Paris, while Sainte Chapelle has one of the greatest examples of medieval stained glass in the world. If you’re looking to explore this clock in the context of the area, be sure to take my free and self-guided Île de la Cité walking tour.
Strasbourg Astronomical Clock
If you were to visit just one Strasbourg attraction (other than the Christmas Markets during winter time), then you should make it Strasbourg’s impressive cathedral. Once upon a time, the Cathedral was the tallest building in the world (for a staggering two-hundred plus years!)
Today, other than some beautiful Gothic architecture and several rose windows, the main highlight of the ecclesiastical building is the Strasbourg Astronomical clock. And while you can see the clock for free during opening hours, between 11:30 AM and 12:30 PM each day, you can purchase a ticket to see the automaton show of the 19th-century clock.
Defender of Time, Le Marais, Paris
One of the most unique and unusual public clocks in Paris is that of the ‘Defender of Time‘. Situated in the shadow of the Centre Georges Pompidou, a modern architectural building featuring a myriad of modern artworks, including some by Picasso and Georges Bracques, the clock was created in the late 1970s.
Featuring a man fighting a crab, dragon, and bird (representing the sky, sea, and earth), unfortunately the clock has been stopped since 2003. Though there is plenty of interest in restoring the Paris public clock to its former working glory, this will only be achieved if sufficient funds are found.
Astronomical Clock of Besançon
It was here, in an often forgotten city in Eastern France that’s not far from the border with Switzerland where some of France’s greatest names and thinkers were born. After all, Besançon is not only the birthplace of Victor Hugo, but is also where developers of cinematography, the Lumière brothers, spent their childhood.
Elsewhere in the city, the impressive Vauban fortifications merit a full day’s visit in their own right, where Roman ruins can be found in abundance. Often said to be the greenest city in France, it’s also here in Besançon where you’ll find one of the most beautiful clocks in France in the form of an astronomical clock.
Dating back to between 1858 and 1863, the timepiece was actually created to replace a 1850s astronomical clock that proved to be unsatisfactory! Nearby, there are plenty of beautiful places worth exploring, including the impressive fortifications by Vauban and the medieval city gates that once guarded the walls of Besançon.