While visiting the Dordogne Valley, I recommend staying in Sarlat-la-Canéda and setting aside at least three days for exploring. Sarlat is perfectly situated between amazing natural caves, sacred pilgrimage destinations, and picturesque riverside villages. Not to mention, Sarlat itself is home to the highest concentration of medieval, Renaissance, and 17th-century architecture than any town in France. It also hosts an incredible market. For more details on Sarlat, visit my Sarlat post.
While I was visiting the Dordogne Valley, I was staying farther away on a farm for free in exchange for caring for their animals. While I LOVED my time at the farm and the less touristy Corrèze region of France, if I were to return to the Dordogne and pay for my accommodations in Sarlat, below would be my recommended itinerary.
First and foremost, enjoy the market in Sarlat on Wednesday or Saturday. Sarlat’s market is considered one of the best in the region, and the larger Saturday market attracts locals from all around. On the other days, consider the following side trips.
Day 1 – A Drive Through the Dordogne Valley
The Dordogne Valley’s farmland, caves, wineries, woodland hillsides, religious centers, and riverside towns make it an extremely attractive vacation destination, especially for the British.
One itinerary to consider is to drive 15 minutes south from Sarlat to Vitrac where canoes or kayaks are available for rent. Paddling down the Dordogne River is a very popular way to see the quayside towns. Having said that, I think that is easiest for those in groups of two or more and who are somewhat familiar with the area.
While kayaking down the Dordogne is a lovely way to see the hamlets, for those with a car, driving to each picturesque tourist destination is quite simple.
The first stop after Vitrac is in Domme, only 9 minutes away by car. If arriving early or in the off season, pass by parking lot 4 and aim for lot 1 or 2 which shortens the walk substantially. Don’t forget to pay the 2 euro parking fee and put the ticket on the dash.
Domme is a medieval, bastide town perched on a rocky outcrop above the Dordogne Valley. A bastide town is one that was built quickly by the French or English to settle unpopulated areas during the Hundred Years’ War. These towns, including Domme, feature a grid of streets and fortified perimeters that surround a church, central square, and market arcade. Despite Domme’s walls and cliffside location, it faced much turmoil and fell under English, French, Catholic, and Protestant rule over the years.
The best way to visit Domme is by a walking tour. Signs with a map posted along the way indicate where to go and what to see. Be sure check out the incredible view from L’esplande de la Barre. Also consider visiting La Grotte de Domme, caves beneath the town where villagers took refuge during the Hundred Years War, as well as the Porte des Tours gateway where imprisoned Knight Templars etched graffiti (only open in July/Aug). More detailed information about these attractions may be found at my post on Domme.
From Domme drive a little over three miles to La Roque-Gageac and park in the first lot on the eastern side of the city. One main street passes between the Dordogne River and the village of shops and homes built into the cliff.
La Roque-Gageac is stunning. Climbing up and down the stairs and weaving along the paths that stretch between layers cliffside structures reward visitors with spectacular architectural views. Because the town is south facing and is protected by the high limestone cliff, La Roque-Gageac enjoys a much warmer climate than many other villages in the Dordogne Valley. As such, it features a tropical garden with palm trees near the church!
Above La Roque-Gageac, nestled in the limestone cliffs, are remnants of a troglodyte fort that dates back to the 12th century. In addition, perched on the cliff on the west side of town is Château de la Malartrie. Also dating back to the 12th century, this Château was once a leper hospital that was later transformed to a manor house of Renaissance style by Count de Saint Aulaire. The castle, which sleeps 12, may now be rented out for 4,000 euro per week.
La Roque-Gageac, with its architecture, gardens, and views is picture perfect and might be worth a short boat cruise to view it from the Dordogne. Both charming and breathtaking, La Roque-Gageac is classified as one of the Les plus beaux villages de France (most beautiful villages in France).
From La Roque-Gageac, continue on to Beynac-et-Cazenac, another three miles downriver. If possible, squeeze into likely one of the last remaining parking spots in lot 1 by the river. After paying and leaving the parking ticket on the dash, head for the castle for which the village is known.
Narrow, cobble stone streets lead visitors up and up and up past many flowers and views of rooftops. The climb is not for the faint-hearted or physically disabled. I was thankful to be from Colorado and used to living at a mile high altitude as I passed by many winded tourists taking a breather.
The Chàteau de Beynac is well worth the 8 euro admission, which includes a guide upon arriving at the correct time. If a tour is not taking place, meander around the grounds and through the rooms of this 12-century fortress with the aid of a pamphlet or audio-guide. That’s what I did.
Once a solitary tower, the castle expanded over time as the likes of Richard I, Alienor d’Aquitaine, and many lords roamed its hallways. It is known for its well-conserved authenticity and magnificent views. I particularly liked its austere appearance rather than the usual castles adorned in gold, marble and paintings. Though the climb requires some effort, especially at the end of the day, tourists are rewarded with remarkable views of the Dordogne Valley below.
Day 2 – Explore A Network of Caves
Another Side Trip from Sarlat is to the network of caves in the Dordogne department. One of the most famous prehistoric sites, Lascaux IV, is only a 30-minute drive away. It features rock paintings dating back to the last Ice Age. The actual cave is closed to visitors, but a replica has been created.
If seeing a replica isn’t appealing, don’t worry, there are still many other caves to choose from in the Dordogne Valley, including but not limited to Grotte de Font de Gaume, Grotte des Combarelles, Abri du Cap Blanc, and Rouffignac. The biggest challenge tourists face for visiting most of these caves is that tickets are not sold online. Visitors must arrive early to purchase entry to the caves which sells out fast. More info here.
Grotte de Font de Gaume is known for having the best prehistoric paintings, Rouffignac includes five miles of caves of which 1.5 miles are serviced by an electric train, and Abri du Cap Blanc is famous for its rare, life-size frieze of horses and bison carved in the rock shelter.
Abri du Cap Blanc
While Grotte de Font de Gaume and Rouffignac require going early and waiting in lines to a get a ticket, Abri du Cap Blanc is not so difficult. Park in the gravel lot, take the path through the woods, stop at the bathroom along the way if needed, and soon reach the visitor’s center built to cover access to the rock wall.
Tours generally take place in French on the hour and last 45 minutes. Handouts in other languages are provided for visitors who don’t speak French. The sculpted rock with life size animals and a grave underneath is about 100 feet long. The tour remains in this space the whole time, thus for those who are not archaeologists, the lecture on each animal might be a bit long! The rarity of the carvings is the draw, and it is a good secondary stop to one of the more popular above listed destinations.
All of these caves are located near one another to the northwest of Sarlat. Pick a few for a nice day’s journey and consider visiting Musée National de Préhistoire in Les-Eyzies, which helps put the paintings into context.
Day 3 – Visit Rocamadour and Gouffre de Padirac
If an entire day of caving northwest of Sarlat is too much, then visit other places like Périgueux and Bergerac on day two and try out this day three itinerary. Drive about an hour east to Rocamadour and Gouffre de Padirac. Technically, they are located in the Lot department of France, rather than the Dordogne department, but they are very close to the border and worth a visit.
Rocamadour is a picturesque village that clings to the side of a cliff overlooking the Alzou River. It has been a renowned Christian pilgrimage site since the Middle-Ages. Both its religious importance and spectacular scenery have qualified Rocamadour as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Grand Site of France (of which there are only 46).
The small town of 600 attracts over 1 million visitors a year. It is best known for its sanctuaries, in particular the Chapel of Notre Dame, which houses the Black Madonna and bell that are worshipped for their many miracles performed. Next to the chapel is a tomb which held the undecayed body of St. Amator for which Rocamadour is named. For more details on Rocamadour, visit my Rocamadour post.
Gouffre de Padirac
Gouffre de Padirac was the first underground natural heritage site in France. Advanced ticket purchases are available online, but day of ticket purchases must take place in person. Audio-guided tours (in 6 languages) cost $14, take place every 15 minutes, and last 1.5 hours.
Guided tours in French only take place two to four times a day depending on the season and cost $19.50. The guided tours also last 1.5 hours.
Visitors begin the tour by descending in an elevator 300 feet to wander through the caverns by both foot and by boat. In July and August, only audio-guided tours are available.
NOTE: Most of the caves do not allow photography, though I managed a few illicit, no-flash shots at Abri du Cap Blanc.