In Aquitaine’s Lot-et-Garonne Department, Agen is a conventional town that doesn’t concern itself much with tourism. But that isn’t to say there’s nothing to see or do.
The Fine Arts Museum is a match for any in the region, and the Canal de Garonne promises bike rides or boat trips along a verdant valley beside orchards and with tall wooded hills forming the backdrop.
And if you’re visiting with the family you won’t run out of places to go, with a theme park, tree-climbing centre, caves and a child-friendly Roman site all effortlessly close.
Lets explore the best things to do in Agen:
1. Musée des Beaux-Arts
Agen’s fine arts museum has uplifting painting in a complex of four historic mansions from the 1500s and 1600s.
History nerds will get goosebumps in the archaeology department, where you can pore over 1,600 items from Lebanon and Syria, among the coins, statues and children’s’ toys plundered during the Crusades.
The art galleries are exceptionally rich for a provincial museum, hanging works by Goya, Tintoretto, Camille Corot and Alfred Sisley to name a few.
But the resplendent houses that hold these exhibits will also catch your imagination with their spiral stairways, generous fireplaces, courtyards and furniture in 26 rooms.
2. Agen Cathedral
This 12th-century Romanesque and Gothic church became Agen’s cathedral in 1801 after the former Cathedral of Saint-Étienne had been destroyed in the Revolution.
In 1998 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its location on the ancient Way of St James pilgrimage route.
The oldest portion is the apse, which goes back to the church’s origins in the 1100s.
On the chancel ceiling here are paintings of apostles, evangelists and the ancient Kings of Israel and Judah.
Take a peek at the Stolz organ, which was installed in 1858 and is the largest organ in the department.
The rumour is that Empress Eugénie donated it to the cathedral.
3. Boulevard Piéton
Agen’s four boulevards used to be notorious for traffic, particularly on Saturday afternoons.
But mirroring public works that have improved many French cities, a large tranche of the east-west Boulevard de la République was pedestrianised in 2011. This artery had originally been plotted when Agen was modernised in the 19th century.
Now referred to as the Boulevard Piéton, “Pedestrian Boulevard,” it’s the liveliest street in the city, and is the first port of call for any shopping trip in Agen.
When the mercury rises in summer there are fountains and foggers to cool the air
4. Agen Aqueduct
Crossing the Garonne is a startling feat of 19th-century engineering.
The Agen Aqueduct channels the Canal des Deux Mers over the river and when it was finished in 1849 it was the longest navigable aqueduct in the country, at more than half a kilometre.
The structure is composed of white Quercy limestone and has 23 arches, each 20 metres across.
Also groundbreaking for its time was the width of the channel, which at eight metres could allow two vessels to pass by in different directions.
5. Walibi Sud-Ouest
The premier theme park in the region caters for the youngest members of the family up to around the age of 13. The park is in 30 hectares of wooded parkland surrounding a real 18th-century château, now a genteel setting for one of six restaurants at the park.
Older children will make straight for the Boomerang, the park’s fastest rollercoaster hitting speeds of 90km/h.
You’ll have five main r
ides to pick from, and though all of these pull in the mid-summer crowds, you can cut the queues by paying a little extra for the “Fast Pass”.
6. SU Agen
The town’s rugby team is an Agen institution, and flits between France top two professional divisions: They’re too good for the Pro D2, but haven’t quite managed to stay in the Top 14 for more than a season at a time in the last few years.
SU Agen have a big history though, having won the title eight times and given a start to long line of world-class players like the current French international scrum-half Maxime Machenaud and full-back Brice Dulin.
Matches are played at the 14,000-capacity Stade Armandie roughly every fortnight.
7. Église Notre-Dame de Moirax
A few minutes south of Agen and you’ll come to the village of Moirax where’s there’s an astonishing Romanesque church that used to be part of a Cluniac Priory.
One of the most remarkable things about the site is that you’ll have it all to yourself.
There’s nothing like perfect seclusion to wonder at 11th-century architecture hardly touched since it was built, save for a sympathetic restoration in the 1800s.
If you’re clued up on bible stories you can interpret the thousand-year-old sculpted capitals, conveying the Temptation, St Michael slaying the dragon as well as general motifs like cats, birds and foliage.
An archaeological site with a twist, Villascopia at Castelculier is an attraction over the vestiges of a 4th-century Gallo-Roman house.
But instead of presenting dusty foundations, the ruins are rendered in 3D with tricks borrowed from the theatre and movie business.
You’ll be immersed in the grandeur of a Roman spa, on a tour that leads you through from the bathing room through the frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium accompanied by projections and some of the sounds and smells that you’d have experienced.
And for extra depth you can browse all the intriguing objects dug up at Castelculier, like mosaics, sculptures and ceramics.
9. Parc Naturel de Passeligne
Where Agen’s residents go to recharge their batteries, the Parc Naturel de Passeligne is a 60-hectare swathe of greenery and water at the southern limit of the city.
There are two large lakes in the park, Passeligne and Pélissier, which have big stocks of carp, perch and black bass for fishers.
Young ones can burn off excess energy at three enormous playgrounds, each devised for a different age group and carefully planned to help develop motor skills.
Older kids won’t want to miss the Chambre de Verdure, which has a fun long zip-line.
10. Les Montreur d’Images
If you’re a cinephile and have spent time in France you’ll know the value of a cinema that shows movies in their original language with French subtitles, instead of dubbing straight into French audio.
They are mostly independent theatres like this one, which curates a top-notch program of French and foreign language films, from new titles to classics by the likes of Wim Wenders, Kurosawa and Nicolas Winding Refn.
The venue is ultra-stylish to boot, with a cafe and two plush auditoriums.
It’s a great option if you’re out on a limb in Agen.
11. Happy Forest
You better be sure that kids won’t be bored in Agen, as five minutes up the road is another first-rate family day out.
Happy Forest has all sorts of activities for families to get up to, like laser tag, “zorbing” and a petting zoo.
But the big story is the “Accrobranche”. This is an assortment of 14 adventure courses suspended from the trees like a kind of Ewok village.
They range from courses that children as young as three can handle, up to tough challenges restricted to over-14s and only for those in tip-top shape.
You’ll be strapped into a harness as you scramble up nets, fumble over rope bridges and on “Parcours de Pierre” ride the longest zip-line in the southwest at more than 300 metres.
12. Grottes de Fontirou
In 20 minutes you can get to this network of limestone caves, hollowed out over millions of years.
The tour will take 40 minutes and although you’ll need sensible shoes it’s never tiring or hazardous.
The stalagmites and stalactites and other bizarre concretions are illuminated with different colours to help them stand out and the whole time you’ll be filled in on the cave’s story by a guide.
And when the weather is cooking in summer the caves’ steady 14°C make them an educational way to beat the heat for a while.
One of two “Plus Beaux Villages de France” in the Lot-et-Garonne department, Pujols is a medieval hilltop village placed over an ancient Roman fort.
You won’t regret the trip once you arrive at the crest of this hill and can survey the landscape for miles to the north.
A very solemn way to enter the village is through the arch below the 15th-century Church of St Nicolas, which was built into the ramparts giving it a stern defensive aspect.
There are five other historic churches in this one little village, and a few lanes of rustic stone and timber-framed houses in a carless core within the walls.
14. Garonne Canal
Agen’s aqueduct can also be a majestic stepping stone to access the Canal des Deux Mers, which was supplemented by the Garonne Lateral Canal in the 1850s.
Agen is one of the main springboards for boat trips on the canal, and if you plan ahead you could float all the way from here down to somewhere like Carcassone or Béziers within a week.
If that sounds like a big commitment, you could hire a bike and access the expertly planned itineraries on the towpath organised by the canal’s tourism office.
This is ideal for youngsters because you can see the delightful Garonne countryside without having to deal with road traffic.
15. Local Delicacies
Agen is France’s “prune capital”, and though this may be an odd title the town’s relationship with the fruit began with the crusades.
Agen prunes are made from Ente plums, brought back from Syria in the 1200s.
They’re such a source of local pride that there’s a festival, Le Grand Pruneau Show to celebrate the first prunes of the year on the last weekend of August.
For other Agen specialities you can go to the very places they’re made to get the inside track, dropping by foie-gras farms, vineyards and cellars for the Brulhois AOC, chocolateries and orchards where those prized Ente plums are harvested.