Fair to say that Limoges has always been good with its hands: First with its luxuriant painted enamels in the middle ages, and then later when the city became one of the world’s porcelain centres.
The Museum of Fine Arts and Adrien Dubouché will bring you face to face with this extraordinary legacy. Limoges’ Quartier du Château has pockets of enchanting history, like the Rue de la Boucherie, where the old butchers’ guild used to be, and Cour du Temple, a pretty renaissance courtyard.
Spend a day in the Episcopal City, lingering in the botanic gardens, looking over the Vienne River, perusing the Museum of Fine Arts and tip-toeing through the silent cathedral.
Lets explore the best things to do in Limoges:
1. Musée National Adrien Dubouché
Limoges is one of the world’s porcelain capitals and is the rightful home of France’s national museum for this craft.
The attraction is heaven for aficionados, with around 300,000 ceramic items, many of which are implausibly dainty.
The newly refurbished galleries chart the history of ceramics, with examples from all the main stages in its evolution.
So you can see a Yuan Dynasty plate from China and a renaissance earthenware bowl made in Italy in the 1500s.
The first pieces to be made in Limoges’ kilns are here, dating to the 1770s, and the exhibition of local porcelain goes all the way up to the avant-garde creations made by 21st designers.
2. Limoges Cathedral
Limoges has the sort of flamboyant gothic cathedral you normally only get north of River Loire.
And even though it was started in the 1200s and not completed for another six centuries there’s a satisfying consistency to the building.
The interior’s most valuable decorations are from the renaissance.
First you’ve got the rood screen, an ornament that would have separated the chancel from the nave, dating to the 1500s.
It is sculpted with images from the Book of Revelations, and was commissioned by Bishop Jean de Langeac, whose carved tomb is the cathedral’s other precious artwork.
3. Jardin Botanique de l’Evêché
After leaving the cathedral you could wander the five-hectare park arranged on terraces over the steep right bank of the Vienne.
The views from the terrace walls are gorgeous, and you’ll pass a refreshing hour or two investigating the various gardens.
With more than 1,000 species the botanical gardens are laid out by theme, so you’ll see plots of plants for food colouring, medicinal plants, a vegetable garden and plants used in traditional trades like tanning and dyeing.
There’s also a French parterre with precision-trimmed symmetrical lawns, fountains, boxwoods, the sculpture garden for the Museum of Fine Arts and lots of places to sit and reflect for a few minutes.
4. Cour du Temple
Connecting Rue de Temple and Rue du Consulat is a fabulous 17th-century public courtyard that you have to enter through a dim passageway.
This soon opens out onto a lovely cobblestoned space enclosed by four-storey timber-framed mansions.
On the ground floor there’s an arcade, with carved capitals, linking each building, now filled in with shops.
And then on the first floor, on the Rue du Consulat side, is a fine renaissance stone gallery with a communal stairway.
5. Musée des Beaux-Arts
Every French city has a Museum of Fine Arts, but few are as indispensable as the one in Limoges.
First off, the setting is delightful, in the former Episcopal palace next to the cathedral.
The galleries have just been updated too, and has a layout that draws you in and keeps you riveted for hours.
You’ll get to see one of the world’s richest collections of enamel, which was a Limoges speciality from the 1100s onwards.
Then there are paintings by Matisse, Renoir and Fernand Léger, to name three of the most famous artists.
For ancient history you have 4,000-year-old funerary artefacts from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, donated by a local industrialist, and all of the major finds from the Roman city of Augustoritum , which became Limoges.
6. Rue de la Boucherie
One street suffused with a medieval atmosphere is Rue de la Boucherie (Street of the Butchers) in the Quartier du Château.
You won’t need telling that this is where the butchers’ guild used to be, but you may be interested to know that the entire guild was descended from just six families.
The Maison de la Boucherie will show you how they went about their jobs, with a slaughterhouse, livestock enclosure, cabinets for knives and saws and a large chopping block.
Go upstairs to see where the proprietors and their families would have lived and climb up to the loft, used for curing meats.
7. Musée de la Résistance
Limousin was a Resistance hotbed during the Second World War, and the massacres at nearby Tulle and Oradour-sur-Glane were the sad cost paid for this rebellious spirit.
So it’s right that there should be a museum in Limoges dedicated to the Maquis du Limoges, which was one of the largest groups of French Resistance fighters.
There’s a lot of information about the invasion and the Vichy government to give you some context, and then all kinds of artefacts relating to the Maquis: An Underwood typewriter, makeshift torture devices, a Weirod gun used by the British SOE and the deportation uniform worn by the captured “résistante”, Thérèse Menot.
8. Chapelle Saint-Aurélien
When this dinky chapel in the Butchers’ district was sold off as a national property after the Revolution it was bought by a member of the former butchers’ guild (disbanded in the Revolution), and has remained in their hands since.
The chapel was built in the 1400s, and despite being so small that you could easily miss it going past, there’s some precious liturgical decoration inside.
There’s a 15th-century statue of St. Catherine, and a composite sculpture of St. Anne and the Virgin with Child, from the same time.
9. Gare des Bénédictins
OK, so a railway station might not usually be high on your sightseeing itinerary, but Gare des Bénédictins is among the most beautiful in Europe, and has a few special idiosyncrasies.
One is that the whole structure was built on a huge 90×70-metre platform suspended right on top of the ten railway lines.
The hall and its tower were completed in 1929 with art deco and neoclassical characteristics, and was designed by Roger Gonthier, who furnished Limoges with a few other art deco buildings in the 20s.
Inside check out the stained glass skylight in the copper dome that was restored after a fire in 1928.
10. Église Saint-Pierre-du-Queyroix
This modest-looking church in the Quartier du Château was built between the 1200s and 1500s, and has many interesting features to look out for.
The steeple has a format that is replicated across Limousin, with a square base and an octagonal design at the top.
Then you have to pause by the stained glass windows, made in the 1500s by Léonard Pénicaud, who was one of Limoges’ renaissance enamel whizzes.
Inside are gilded wooden statues in the baroque style from the 1600s and 1700s.
11. Historic Bridges
Pont Saint-Martial crosses the Vienne to the south of the city and dates to 1215. But it wasn’t the first bridge on this site, as it was built on the foundations of a Gallo-Roman crossing.
That structure had survived all the way up to the 1100s when it was destroyed by English King Henry II to punish the city for betraying him.
A few hundred metres upriver is Pont Saint-Étienne, which is on the pilgrimage route, The Way of St. James and was completed in 1203. It has seven gothic arches and like Pont Saint-Martial is considered one of the best-preserved medieval bridges in France.
12. Château de Chalucet
Château de Chalucet was once the largest fortress in Limousin, designed purely for warfare and is testament to the centuries of fighting that beset this part of France.
It dates to the 1200s and rises high on a wooded spur at the confluence of the Ligoure and Briance rivers, all in the middle of a 40-hectare forest park.
The keep, Tour Jeannette has been restored and you can reach the top of its battlements via a metal stairway.
From there you can see the ruins of the lower castrum, where the chapel and the remains of a small village have been excavated.
13. Parc Zoo du Reynou
This zoo has some 600 animals in the grounds of a 19th-century château belonging to the Haviland porcelain dynasty.
Giraffes, antelopes, lions, tapirs, cheetahs, panthers and snow leopards are all here in generous enclosures, where certain species are allowed to mix as they would in the wild.
The visitors’ trail twists through the landscaped parks and woodland for more than five kilometres.
At the mini-farm kids can make friends with ponies, rabbits, goats and miniature donkeys, and see regional farm breeds, like the cul-noir “black butt” pig, so called for its large black patches on its rear end.
Make the brief drive to this village east of Limoges to see the UNESCO-listed collegiate church.
The Church of Saint-Léonard is a romanesque masterpiece, built in the 11th and 12th centuries and unchanged since then.
Its bell tower is a perfect example of that Limousin steeple also visible at Saint-Pierre-du-Queyroix, with four square levels topped by two octagonal floors.
You can find St. Leonard’s tomb inside, under his symbolic prison chains.
Leonard was a 6th-century Frankish noble who converted to Christianity and made it his mission to liberate prisoners deemed worthy of freedom, becoming the patron saint prisoners after he was beatified.
Northwest of Limoges is a ghost village frozen in time after a massacre on June 10 1944, when 642 civilians were killed by the German SS. After the war Charles de Gaulle ordered the village to be kept as a memorial and so now Oradour-sur-Glane’s buildings and the many items left behind by its inhabitants are slowly decaying.
In the theatre there’s a 10-minute presentation to give you the background to the massacre, which was claimed to have been a retaliation for Resistance activity and the kidnapping of an SS major.