If you’re looking for a “new” region to explore in France this summer beyond the big name destinations like the Loire Valley, Provence, and the French Riviera, the Dordogne region is a blast to visit with kids of all ages.
One of the reasons I like it so much for families is that the list of things to do is so varied within a small geographic area. Cultural and historic touring can easily be combined with active days out biking, hiking, swimming, and canoeing.
All this to do and the Dordogne is not overrun with tourists. Peak holiday months like July are busy, but not in a “never again” way.
Kristi and I have both spent summer family vacations in the Dordogne. Here’s our combined list of highlights for families:
Meandering through markets in France is one of life’s great pleasures and a perfect way to get a glimpse of local life in action. There are wonderful markets to explore in the region every day of the week, including Sundays. Here’s a link to a schedule of market days in the Dordogne.
With small kids this is a no-brainer as all the treats and trinkets can easily entertain them. Honestly, the 10-year-old boy in our group wrote in his diary that our market visit was SO boring. So be it, the next day was spent at the zip-line adventure park, Parc-en-Ciel, and any doubt in his mind that the Dordogne is fun for kids disappeared instantly.
The area around the Dordogne is full of prehistoric caves; some with paintings and others with interesting rock formations. While they are relatively close to each other and easy to find, figuring out how to purchase tickets in advance can be challenging and not all caves take reservations. There is no photography allowed in the caves. We visited three very different caves, all with paintings.
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Lascaux II. Lascaux is the most famous prehistoric cave. In order to preserve it, an exact replica, Lascaux II, was built next to it. This tour is a great place to start for first-timers and kids. There are many tours in English, the tour is very educational and because it’s a replica the animal paintings, mainly horses and bulls, are very easy to see. Attempts to book via email in English and French were unsuccessful. My hotel in Paris finally secured reservations over the phone and I picked up the tickets at the tourist office.
Font-de-Gaume. This is widely considered the best cave art in the area and is the most difficult ticket to obtain since they only allow 180 visitors per day (12 people per tour) and only two tours in English. This feels like a cave; it’s cool inside with narrow areas, but it’s an intimate and personalized tour. The guides are very knowledgeable and the main paintings here are of bison. The tour is 45-50 minutes and kids need a good attention span here, as the group is small and talking is disruptive. Our local hotel purchased tickets for us but you may try [email protected].
Rouffignac. After seeing the two most famous caves in the area, we went to one of the most popular ones, Rouffignac. This was our kids’ favorite because visitors ride on an electric train to view the famous mammoths. Tours are only in French and no advance reservations. We arrived right when they opened up after lunch and had a 30-minute wait.
There are more than 1,000 castles in the Dordogne. Not all are open for visitors, but there are plenty to explore. I wrote about our visit to Château de Beynac — one of my favorite castles in all of Europe.
Château de Castelnaud is also fantastic with a large collection of medieval ammunition on display. If you are traveling with boys, this is a crowd-pleaser.
You don’t need to go into each castle to appreciate them. The exterior is always a big part of the magic. A boat ride down the Dordogne is the perfect way to view them.
Canoeing or Kayaking on the Dordogne River
There may not be a more magical river to canoe or kayak. Every bend reveals a castle or an astonishing medieval city built into the cliffs. There are many canoeing and kayaking companies to choose from and we went with Roquegeoffre which was recommended by our hotel Le Chevrefeuille. They were great – efficient and organized and there is an ice cream store at the end!
With a 5 and 8 year-old we chose the shorter, “highlights” course comprised of a minimum of 2.5 hours of kayaking without stops. Our total time with the kayaks was just over four hours including a stop in La Roque-Gageac for lunch.
With younger children I would recommend packing a lunch and stopping at one of the little beaches along the way instead of going to a restaurant – four hours was too long for my kids. Another option if you want to see the sights without the kayaking is a one-hour ride on a “gabarre” boat.
Les Jardins de Marqueyssac
Garden visits are fun for every age, particularly versions with mazes and trails for kids to romp around. We spent an afternoon at Les Jardins de Marqueyssac and loved it.
Garden touring is effortless and relaxing. This is a perfect destination for all ages.
When people tell me they are going to bike Italy’s rural roads with kids I always have an eyebrow up as the roads are narrow with blind corners — this combination only seems to make the Italians driver faster.
In the Dordogne, however, many of the back roads are very quiet with gentle hills and are glorious for bike riding. We had bikes delivered to our farmhouse for the week and biked around as a break from sightseeing. Hotels or villa agencies can organize this for you.
Our favorite part of the Dordogne for families is that it’s so easy to go local and not feel surrounded by tourists all the time. Kids don’t get quite as excited by quaint villages as we do, but if you loiter in a place for long enough, they settle in and discover the fun and freedom of village life in the French countryside.
Summer festivals are plentiful. We were lucky enough to catch Beaumont du Perigord decked out for their celebration. Some villages have evening cookouts of sorts where the community gets together outside for dinner. We joined one for an evening — within no time, our kids were playing tag with kids from all over the world while we sipped wine.
Where to Stay
We rented a VRBO-sourced farmhouse outside the idyllic village of Tremolat and loved this area as a home-base for exploring the region. It’s a bit off the central tourist corridor, but the main Dordogne attractions are still accessible from here. Villa rentals in the Dordogne are popular, although, I recommend rentals for multiple families traveling together, not independent families.
For single families, I prefer hotel stays where other kids are likely to be present. Kristi loved her stay at Le Chevrefeuille, a farmhouse-style accommodation with a perfect set-up for kids.
I also scouted Château Les Merles, a stylish boutique hotel with an apartment that works well for families. They don’t have enough room capacity to be part of our France family hotel portfolio, but this is one to check out if an upscale hotel with full services is the accommodation plan.
Regardless of where you stay, be sure and visit our friend Yannick who runs Les Truffières, a working farm with a restaurant. This is one of our most memorable meals in all of France. We returned back for five nights we loved it so much! Your kids will love the animals and garden, you will love the food, the host, and price point. +33 (0) 5 53 27 30 44
Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy. Le Chevrefeuille photo courtesy of Le Chevrefeuille
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