If you’ve read our ‘about‘ page, you’ll already know that we moved to the Dordogne in 2012 (and if you haven’t, go check it out here!). As a result, we’ve been able to explore the length and breadth of this incredible region and have plenty of information on things to do in the Dordogne which we’ll share with you. Chateaux, history, prehistory, gastronomy, diverse experiences, culinary experiences, thrill-seeking, action, adventure – you name it, we’ve got it!
The Dordogne – referred to as the Périgord by locals – is located in South West France and is made up of 4 different sub-regions: the Périgord noir (highest concentration of tourist sites), the Périgord pourpre (think ‘wine’), the Périgord vert (nature) and the Périgord blanc (chalky limestone). From prehistoric times to the One Hundred Year War, this region is steeped in history. As the majority of tourist sites are concentrated in the Périgord noir, we’ll be predominantly focussing on this area.
Visit a chateau
You can’t come to the Dordogne and not visit a chateau – it is the land of 1001 chateaux after all! I’ll never forget one of our first visits to the area when it seemed like a chateau popped up after every turn in the road. The scenery still blows me away. So here are some of the best ones that you should include in your Dordogne itinerary:
Chateau de Castelnaud
The stunning Chateau de Castelnaud, which stands proudly above the quaint village of Castelnaud, is of one of the best known and most visited chateaux in the region, if not in France. It has a colourful history and was involved in a tug-of-war between the English and the French during the 100 year war. Following a 3 week siege in 1442, it eventually fell back into the hands of the French. There are various workshops that take place during the school holidays if you have kids in tow. You’ll get some of the best views down the Dordogne valley.
Chateau de Beynac
On the opposite bank of the Dordogne river, you’ll find the Chateau de Beynac, ancient arch rival to the Chateau de Castelnaud during the Middle Ages. This domineering 12th century fortress is one of the best preserved castles around and perches high on the rocky promontory above the Dordogne. Richard Lionheart is said to have scaled the steep cliff from below and (briefly) conquered the chateau! In 1962, the castle went into private hands when it was bought and restored by Lucien Grosso. You may also recognise it from the silver screen as it featured in a number of films including the hilarious The Visitors 2 and The Joan of Arc Film.
Chateau des Milandes or Josephine Baker Castle
This chateau is one of our favourites! It’s known both as the Josephine Baker Castle and the Chateau des Milandes (the name of the local town). The origins of the castle date back to 1489 when Lord François de Caumont had it built for his wife who disliked the austere fortress-like feel of the Chateau de Castelnaud. Many years later, Josephine Baker fell in love with this fairytale castle and bought it 1947. She lived there with her 12 strong rainbow tribe of adopted children for several years before she went bankrupt and sadly lost her beloved home. We particularly love her stage show outfits, including her famous iconic banana skirt, and other clothes as well as learning about her incredible role within the French resistance.
Chateau de Commarque
This spectacular site is much more than just a solitary castle, it’s the ruins of a small medieval village and some troglodyte caves thrown in for fun. Park up in the small car park (maybe use the toilets as there are none down at the castle), then venture down the tree lined 10-minute walk – it’s like a time tunnel to a different age. On arrival, the greenery clears to reveal the majestic sight of a honey coloured stone fortification perched high on a rocky hillside.
Chateau de Hautefort
Villages & Towns
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to quaint, picturesque towns and villages. In fact, the region is home to 10 of the 152 most beautiful villages of France! Here are our must-visit favourites:
This impossibly beautifully medieval town is the jewel in the crown of the lovely Dordogne. If possible, I recommend visiting out of high season as tourists flock here in July and August, streets are crowded, and parking can be an issue. Chances are you may have seen the town before, as it’s a favourite location for movie makers, the 1998 fantasy movie ‘Ever After’ starring Drew Barrymore was shot here.
The town of Beynac hugs the hillside under the chateau and is also located next to the river. A walk through the village (or rather ‘up’ the village) isn’t for the faint-hearted as the village hugs the side of the cliff and is composed of rather steep alleys. But you’lll be rewarded with stunning views across the Dordogne valley after your walk up to the chateau. You can choose to take a trip on a Gabarre (kids go free in the morning), sit by river and take in the scenery, take a more vigorous walk up through the cobbled alleys to and visit the famous Chateau (apparently Richard Lionheart scaled the cliff and briefly conquered the chateau during the 100 year war!)
La Roque Gageac
La Roque Gageac is classed as one of ‘Les Beaux Villages de France’ and with good reason. It recently featured in a French programme on La 5 and its reputation is well deserved. It’s nestled between the river and the limestone cliffs with dwellings which are literally carved into the rock face. You can walk along the water front or explore the backstreets of the village. Alternatively, jump aboard a gabarre boat for a wonderful view of the village from the river.
The incredible medieval town of Domme is perched high on top of a cliff top, with stunning views of the Dordogne valley and river. It was originally founded 1281 and was an important Bastide during the 100 years’ war. The ancient fortified walls are famous for holding the Knights Templar when they were imprisoned here in 1307. You can even see some of the brilliant graffiti that they etched in the stone, during their incarceration.
After wandering through the postcard perfect streets lined with interesting shops and restaurant, I recommend visiting the tourist office. From here you can purchase tickets for the Templar graffiti, the little tourist train and the amazing cave under the town square. In the summer, on a Thursday there is lovely market on an esplanade lined with shady trees.
Located in the Périgord pourpre, Monpazier is classified as one of the most beautiful villages of France. Monpazier is a beautifully preserved bastide town that dates back almost 900 years. It’s closer to Bergerac and the land of wine.
Canoeing is a wonderful way to discover the Dordogne and can be a great family outing. There are plenty of pick up points along both the Dordogne and the Vézère rivers with a choice of runs ranging from a short 4 kms to a more challenging 25 kms. You can take a picnic along with you or simply stop off now again and enjoy a beer and an ice-cream.
The companies will either drive you upstream in their buses and you canoe down or you leave from their base and you aim for a specific pick up time at a specific spot. We personally prefer the option of being driven upstream first so that we can take as long as we like to reach the canoe base on the return trip.
You have the choice between canoeing on the Dordogne river or the Vézère river. The choice is largely down to personal preference – the Vézere offers much wilder scenery (think Canada), whereas the Dordogne offers more picturesque scenery (chateaux, villages).
Trip on a Gabarre
A trip on a Gabarre is such a great way to get a different vantage point of the Dordogne. A ‘gabarre’ is a flat-bottomed wooden boat that was used in the past to transport goods along the river. There are two main gabarre trip options: one from Beynac (children are FREE in the mornings) and la Roque-Gageac. You’ll enjoy some beautiful views across the river and you’ll be able to find out more about the local history as all visitors are provided with an audio guide.
River swimming & paddling
There’s nothing quite like wild swimming and a dip in the river is just what you need to cool yourself down on a sunny day. Why not head to one of the 3 rivers, grab yourself a baguette and jump in the water for a swim or a paddle. We suggest heading to the following places:
Castelnaud (and why not combine it with a trip to the Chateau)
Limeuil – the picturesque village sits next to the point where both rivers meet. There’s a large parking at the entrance to the village. It’s a perfect spot for young children to paddle safely in the water.
Le Coux – this place is much more off-the-beaten track and is a place where lots of locals head to. It’s worth going to in the summer as there’s a life-guard on duty (apart from lunchtime of course – we’re in France after all, lol!).
The Dordogne is synonymous with lush green landscape (we do get our fair share of rain in the winter!) and there are some stunning formal gardens in the region.
Les Jardins Suspendus de Marqueyssac
The Hanging Gardens of Marqueyssac are one of the most beautiful romantic gardens of France. They perch high above the Dordogne Valley and include paths bordered by 150,000 hand-pruned boxwoods, breathtaking viewpoints, rock gardens, waterfalls, and verdant glades. From the belvedere 400 feet above the river, there’s an exceptional view of the Valley.
In the summer, every Thursday, the Gardens turn into a most romantic setting with their ‘soirée chandelle’ when the entire gardens are filled with candle lights. It’s a fabulous experience for the entire family – there is music, entertainment. Be sure to include this unique experience in your Dordogne itinerary!
Les Jardins d’Eyrignac
Located 13km from Sarlat on a hilltop plateau, these beautiful formal gardens are set around an old manor house and famous for its 300 fabulous topiary sculptures. Shrubs, trees and hedges have been clipped to produce some very striking designs. The house and its gardens have been in the same family for 22 generations, which gives a visit a very personal and friendly feel.
There is an excellent restaurant where you can have a sophisticated lunch or just coffee and cake and a classy little giftshop at the entrance. The highlight for some, are the unique evening parties organised in July and August, where everyone is requested to wear white.
Les Jardins d’Eau
Prehistoric Caves & Chasms
You’re in the birth cradle of European civilization so make the most of this opportunity and find out more about the world of Cro Magnon! Before you know it, you’ll be able to tell you the difference between Neanderthal man, Homo Sapiens, the neanderthal prehistory.
Font de Gaume
If you enjoyed visiting Lascaux then you will love discovering the very special Font de Gaume in the attractive town of Les Eyzies. There are no replica prehistoric paintings here, everything you see is 20,000 years old!
In order to experience something that only the very privileged do, it’s an early start, as the only way to view this marvel is to queue before the doors open. It’s a first come first served situation because tour numbers are very limited. This is to restrict damage to the ancient artworks.
Tours are available in English and French with an expert guide, who will take you on the short walk up to the unassuming cave entrance. Once inside you can’t fail to be impressed by the quality and sheer volume of paintings of animals, as you move through the various galleries. There are very few sites like this in Europe open to the public as most have followed Lascaux’s lead by closing their doors. We were warned by our guide that conditions in the cave are constantly monitored and if levels of certain gases reach an unsafe level for the paintings then the doors will be firmly bolted. We feel very privileged.
There is a small gravel car park next to the road from Les Eyzies to Sarlat where the ticket office is. Inside the wooden building is a small gift shop selling books and other prehistory related gifts.
Gouffre de Proumeyssac
A short drive from the market town of Le Bugue is the amazing natural phenomenon, that is the Gouffre de Proumeyssac. This deep underground cavern has been described as a ‘Crystal Cathedral’ due to its spectacular limestone rock formations.
The guided tour takes you down a series of ramps followed by a longish dark tunnel until you enter the cave itself. Once inside the lights are turned up and the fascinating limestone structures are revealed in all their glory.
Rain water drips from the ceiling into the cave pools and as it does, it builds some amazing calcite structures. The most famous feature being the giant La Meduse natural sculpture along with many smaller, but equally impressive stalactites and stalagmites.
Grotte de Rouffignac
This amazing system of caves (8km of passageways) is located 20 minutes’ drive from the market town of Le Bugue and contains around 250 cave paintings! There is a large car park in the woods and its only a short walk to the entrance of the cave where you can buy tickets.
The main cavern is so deep underground that it is necessary to take a small electric train to avoid a long walk. On arrival you will quickly realise why this grotte is known as the cave of a hundred mammoths. The animal art is everywhere and you can clearly see how the artist has used the natural relief of the rock to create a 3D effect. Not bad for 13,000 years ago.
The Dordogne is known as foodie heaven! It’s one of the gastronomic capitals of France and with very good reason. Foie gras, duck confit, gizzards, truffles, walnut tarts… your taste buds will be tantalized but be warned, you may leave with a few extra pounds or kilos! There’s an incredible respect for the terroir and a deep appreciation of nature’s bounty in this region.
The Dordogne is not only the land of chateaux but also of truffles (not the chocolate type) and foie gras. The Perigord Noir part of the Dordogne takes its name from the oak trees that are famous for producing truffles, the black diamond.
If you fancy learning a little more about this famous black diamond, sign up for a spot on a truffle tour. We strongly recommend joining the Truffe-en-Perigord’s tour run by Edouard and his wife, Carole. Edouard is passionate, exuberant, full of life and will have you heading home determined to start your own truffle orchard! He provides entertaining, informative, fun truffle tours and will teach you about the different types of truffes, how to find them and will give you a demonstration with his adorable border collie, Lino.
Many of the vineyards were destroyed by the phylloxera virus in the late 19th century, however, the area around Bergerac is brimming with vineyards and tasty wines just waiting for you to try out.
Clos les Verdots
Regional Cookery Class
If you fancy doing something completely unique, then why not sign up to a regional cookery course with Ian, chef extraordinaire, at Le Chèvrefeuille.
Ian from Le Chèvrefeuille offers junior cookery courses for children and their parents. This half day experience, where you’ll prepare a two-course meal using locally sourced ingredients, is fun, informative and a great opportunity for some family bonding time. Ian’s passion and enthusiasm for local produce, getting children into cooking and healthy eating is infectious. He is a natural teacher and knows exactly how to tailor the course to his audience. Ian has a fun, light-hearted and encouraging teaching style.
Become one of the locals and trade in a supermarket shop for a visit to a real French market. Some excellent local produce is available from bread cooked in a traditional wood fire to locally grown stawberries. Here’s a list of all the weekly markets that take place in the Dordogne.
Here are some of our favourites:
Evening gourmet markets
The Marchés Gourmands are a wonderful experience involving locals and tourists alike gathering around long tables and enjoying food and wine from the numerous popup style restaurants. Our favourite is the one set in picturesque Audrix with stunning views across the Dordogne Valley.