The Dordogne seems like a country on its own. From the dry limestone plateaus of the Périgord Blanc to the oaks of the Périgord Noir, from the Bergerac vineyards in the Périgord Pourpre to the rolling pastures of the Périgord Vert, there is one river that unifies everything: the mighty Dordogne itself!
The department of the Dordogne is made up of a multitude of medieval villages and is home to 1000 castles! If you add prehistoric caves, spectacular views and a famous gastronomy, you know you’re on to a winner! It is impossible to see everything that the Dordogne has to offer in a few weeks. We stayed in the Dordogne for a total of four months, on four different house sits, and there is still so much left to discover. For those of you who are short on time, this itinerary will give you an overview of the best things to do in the Dordogne. You won’t necessarily be able to do all of them in one go, but that will give you the perfect excuse to come back!
1. Visit the bastides and the most beautiful villages of the Dordogne
The Dordogne has a large number of listed villages, full of charm and nestled in beautiful natural surroundings. You will see a lot of villages referring to themselves as ‘bastides’. These are towns that were mainly built in the 13th-14th century. In the Dordogne they formed the disputed frontier between the then English-ruled Aquitaine and Capetian France. From the ochre-coloured houses of La Roque-Gageac to circular Issigeac, from the Esplanade of Domme to lesser-known Saint-Avit-Sénieur, you don’t have to drive far to stumble upon yet another medieval beauty.
2. Stroll around the weekly markets
Do French markets really need an introduction? All year round, the small medieval towns of the Dordogne come alive with weekly markets, full of local produce. They are the perfect spot for your weekly fruit & veg shop and are great to stroll around, while checking out the local delicacies. The most famous market is the Sarlat market on Saturday. In summer, be prepared for crowds and parking issues! The Issigeac market on Sunday is another one not to miss. If you prefer your markets less touristy, try Le Bugue (Tuesday), Périgueux (Saturday) or Saint-Cyprien (Sunday). This last one is also very lively during winter.
During winter, you will also find specific ‘foie gras’ and ‘truffle’ markets. (Usually November- end of February)
3. Eat, drink and be merry at the ‘marchés gourmands’
Talking about markets, in summer get ready for the ‘Marchés Gourmands’. These evening food markets are one of the best things to do in the Dordogne! You sit at long tables and buy food from the stalls that set up for the occasion. It’s best to arrive before 7-ish as tables often run short, especially if you’re in a group. There is very often music and dancing, and there’s always wine! The ‘marchés gourmands’ are a perfect way to interact with locals. Don’t forget to bring your own plates and cutlery!
4. Get a belly full of local delicacies
Dordogne is known as one of the best regions in France for foodies. Its rich cuisine with nuts and truffles, coupled with fine local wines, sounds like a recipe for a wonderful gastronomic escape. These are the main regional food specialties you’ll come across in the Dordogne:
- Duck. Duck is to the Dordogne what chicken is to the rest of the world. You will find it on every single menu of every single restaurant. My favourite duck dish is ‘magret de canard’ or duck breast. Order it pink, it’s at its most delicious with a jus reduction.
- Foie gras: fattened goose or duck liver. This dish is met with a lot of resistance from animal lovers, because geese and ducks are force-fed via a funnel to enlarge their livers to gigantic proportions. However, it is one of the most popular starters in this region and considered an absolute delicacy.
- Pommes de terre sarladaises: sliced potatoes, fried in duck fat, with garlic and parsley. The most popular side dish.
- Enchaud périgourdin: Slow-roasted pork loin with garlic and thyme, served cold. Not a fan.
- Truffles: also known as ‘black diamonds’, because of their value and rarity. From November till March there are special truffle markets. In February 2022, a truffle weighing more than 1kg was sold for 10,000 dollars! (no, that’s not a typo!) In restaurants, truffles are often served as shavings on top of a French omelette.
- Cabécou cheese: a very popular soft goat cheese, made in small discs. It’s often served on a bed of salad and bacon bits, drizzled with walnut oil.
- Walnuts: you’ll find fields of perfectly aligned walnut trees all over the Dordogne Valley and this little nutty delight is used in many shapes and forms. Do yourself a favour and buy a small bottle of walnut oil to season your leafy greens. So tasty! You’ll also come across ‘tarte de noix’ as a dessert and they even make liquor out of the walnuts, known as ‘vin de noix’!
- Strawberries: During summer, market stalls are filled with different varieties of these juicy, sweet and delicious summer fruits. The ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Mara des Bois’ varieties are said to be the best ones.
- Wines: nearby Bordeaux is one of the most famous wine regions in France, but to be honest, I prefer the Bergerac wines. Try the full-bodied red ‘Pécharmant’ or go for a sweet Saussignac or Monbazillac, perfectly paired with blue cheese.
Are you hungry yet?
5. Go kayaking on the river
If there’s one thing you need to do when holidaying in the Dordogne, then it’s definitely kayaking. Well, if you’re visiting in summer that is, it might be a bit cold during the winter!
The Dordogne and the Vézère river are the most popular rivers for an afternoon of gliding along chateaux, caves and gentle rolling hills. There are numerous operators, all more or less charging the same price. One of the nicest stretches starts from La Roque-Gageac up to Les Milandes, passing Beynac and Castelnaud-La-Chapelle. It’s also one of the busier ones, so in high season, it might be better to book ahead. Make a half-day trip out of it, take a picnic and stop at one of the river beaches along the way.
6. Visit Sarlat
Probably the prettiest town with the busiest market in the whole of the Dordogne. The old town with its 15th and 16th century pale ochre-coloured houses is a real eyecatcher. Stroll along its medieval streets and lanes and stop for a drink or two on one of the squares. You can visit Sarlat in half a day, but we stayed there for a week and still found new stuff to do every day.
7. Explore the many castles
Ah, France and its ‘châteaux’! Now, the Dordogne isn’t the Loire Valley, so don’t expect luxury mansions here. The Dordogne castles are more of the military, defensive type and most of the castles were built during the ‘Hundred Years War’ between France and England. The Dordogne is often referred to as the ‘Land of 1001 Castles’ and although they can’t all be visited, those that can, are absolutely stunning, whether it’s for their position, their architecture or their history. Beynac and Castelnaud-La-Chapelle are the most popular ones, but I personally preferred the ‘Château de Biron’. The ‘Château de Hautefort’ is definitely worth a visit too, especially for its beautiful French garden.
8. Enjoy an afternoon in Bergerac
For some reason, I always imagined Bergerac to be a big city. It’s not, but it is still one of the main towns of the Dordogne. Situated in the ‘Périgord Pourpre’, Bergerac is a lovely medieval town of half-timbered houses and pretty squares. During summer, sipping a local Bergerac wine on one of the terraces, watching the world go by, is one of the best ways to spend an afternoon. The town is also famous thanks to ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’, a semi-fictional character in a famous late-19th century play. The real Cyrano was actually from Paris, but who cares about these ‘small inaccuracies’?
9. Explore prehistoric caves and the Cradle of Mankind
The cliffs of the Vézère valley are riddled with limestone caves and prehistoric paintings. The Lascaux Cave has the most famous and popular drawings. They are however a replica, the original cave is closed off for the public to preserve them. I visited the ‘Grotte Font de Gaume’, the only cave art site in France with polychromic paintings still open to the public. You need to book well ahead, in high season even up to a few weeks in advance, but walking underground, in the depths of the cave, realizing you’re looking at art of more than 10,000 years old, makes it absolutely worth it. There are many caves in the area around Les Eyzies and new ones are still being discovered!
The Dordogne region has been continuously inhabited by mankind for tens of thousands of years, that’s why the area around Les Eyzies is also called ‘The Cradle of Mankind’. It is home to one of the most impressive collections of prehistoric sites in the world, such as caves, ancient old habitats or troglodyte sites. One of these sites is ‘La Roque de Saint Christophe’, a majestic natural refuge overlooking the Vézère valley that could offer shelter for over 1,000 people! The whole complex is nearly 1km long and up to 80m above ground level. The earliest traces of occupation go back over 50,000 years, but the site was at its peak during the Middle Ages, when the settlement had grown into a real town with its own marketplace, church, prison, …
If you’re traveling with kids, there are even theme parks (complete with dinosaurs) that will tell them all about the history of this fascinating area.
10. Admire the mighty river at the ‘Cingle de Trémolat’
If there is one spot that shows the Dordogne river in all its glory, this is it! From the limestone cliffs to the north of the small village of Trémolat, you get a spectacular bird’s eye view over the meander. INSIDER TIP: Don’t limit yourself to the ‘official’ place, marked with a plaque, right next to the road. Follow the track into the forest instead and after 5 minutes you’ll come to an outcrop from where you have the BEST VIEW EVER! It is usually very quiet. On our last night here, we took a take-away pizza with us and enjoyed the views and sounds with the sun setting behind us. The perfect ending to our stay in Trémolat!
We’ve been housesitting in the Dordogne on 3 different occasions, for a total of about 4 months. Had it not been for these house sits, I might have never visited. But boy, am I glad I did!
So tell me, when are you going?