On the right bank of the Isle River, Périgueux is a gorgeous city with not one but two historic centres: The Cité district is a cultured quarter of 19th century boulevards and is strewn with little hints left behind by its ancient Roman residents.
The best of these is the Vesunna Museum, where the ground floor of a Roman villa is revealed inside a modern glass building. Then you have the Renaissance and medieval Saint-Front quarter, set around the emblematic domed cathedral and laced with tight streets and alleys. The beloved Dordogne region is your backyard here, and waiting for river trips and days out at castles or outlandish cave networks.
Lets explore the best things to do in Périgueux:
1. Vesunna Gallo-Roman Museum
In 1959 while laying the foundations for apartment buildings workers dug up the vestiges of a resplendent Roman domus.
The extent of what has survived is amazing, and in 2003 the site was covered with a glass building created by the acclaimed architect Jean Nouvel.
You’ll traverse the ground floor of the domus with the help of raised walkways, looking down at painted plasterwork and mosaics and getting insights from information panels and LCD screens.
There are also display cases all around with pieces gathered at other local Roman sites, as well as others unearthed right here, including amphorae and plates.
2. Tour de Vésone
In the museum grounds are the ruins of a Roman temple to the goddess Vesunna that date to the turn of the 2nd century.
What remains is a circular tower almost 25 metres in height, with a nine-metre hole in its side.
At first glance the building might seem pretty nondescript, but apart from its great age the tower is also valuable for the way it merges Celtic architecture with a traditional Roman temple design.
The ruins are also steeped in local folklore, and the story goes that the tower’s large breach was caused by Périgueux’s patron Saint Front chasing demons out of the building.
3. Cathédrale Saint-Front
With a Greek cross floor-plan and Romanesque-Byzantine design, the 12th-century Saint-Front Cathedral doesn’t have many parallels in France but was modelled on St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
It’s an astonishing building with big dimensions, and the five symmetrical domes and bell-tower that form its skyline are famous across the country.
The cathedral was almost destroyed during the French Wars of Religion in the 16th century, but was restored in a sympathetic way in the 1800s by Paul Abadie, the same man who worked on the Notre-Dame in Paris.
The perfect time to come is when the organ is playing or there’s a choral performance because the acoustics are out of this world.
4. Rue Limogeanne
Right in the middle of medieval Périgueux’s pedestrian zone, Rue Limogeanne is a long ravine-like street that you’ll find yourself on if you’re shopping.
Go slowly to appreciate the lovely stone-built Renaissance architecture that closes in from both sides.
Maison Lapeyre at no.1 and Maison Estignard at no.5 are beautiful examples.
For a curious detail check out the stonework next to the doorway at Maison Courtois at no.7, where the initials “AC” are etched.
This was made by Antoine Courtois, whose partridge paté won him great renown across Europe in the 1700s.
5. Tour Mataguerre
The Tour Mataguerre on Rue de la Bride was once joined to 27 other towers and 12 gates as part of a mighty defensive system that enclosed the medieval town.
The structure is from the 1200s and was updated a little later when it was given its circular outline.
For a couple of hundred years up to 1831 the tower was a gunpowder magazine, and today you’re free to have a look inside where there’s a little display of medieval weapons.
Go up to the roof for a photogenic view of the town and cathedral, aided by an information board to tell you what you’re looking at.
6. Saint-Front Quarter
Périgueux’s medieval district is north and west of the cathedral and almost totally pedestrianised.
All you need is two feet and an inquisitive eye for a little journey through time.
The town has also put a lot of effort into rejuvenating its awesome Renaissance architecture, and there’s something worth stopping for at almost every street.
The 16th-century Hôtel de Mèredieu d’Ambois on Rue de la Nation is a private property but needs to be seen for its moulded windows and sculpted porch.
Place de la Clautre in front of the cathedral is the scene of a big market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
7. Jardin des Arènes
If you weren’t already aware, the elliptical shape of this delightful garden will tell you a lot about what used to be here.
This is right where Périgueux’s former Roman amphitheatre once stood.
In amongst the spruces, chestnut trees, fountains and lawns are a few isolated pillars, walls and arches from the original structure, while the rest of the stone was plundered to build medieval Périgueux.
These evocative ruins blend beautifully with the garden, which complement the nearby Vesunna Gallo-Roman Museum neatly.
8. Voie Verte des Berges de l’Isle
Used by locals as much as tourists is a 15-kilometre greenway that crosses the Périgueux “agglo” from east to west.
For the full length of the route the path never leaves the banks of the River Isle and so promises restorative nature and unbeatable vistas of sights like the Saint-Front Cathedral.
How you do it is your choice as can hire a bike in the town and make your way on two wheels or ease along the parallel trail on foot.
This path puts you in touch with a whole network of trails all devised to let you discover the area without using your car.
9. Voie Bleue des Berges de l’Isle
A canoe trip on the smooth waters of the Isle is yet another way of seeing the best of Périgueux.
The “Blueway” is 24 kilometres of placid, child-friendly river, from Trelissac in the east to Marsac in the west.
Everything has been planned to make your little voyage as hassle-free as possible: There are 12 special launch points, as well as four canoe stations, with information, loos, drinking water and anything else a family of adventurers could need.
The canoe clubs in Périgueux, Telissac and Marsac can also set you up with paddle boards if you want to be trendy!
10. Cité District
The Vesunna Museum, Vésone tower and amphitheatre are in a neighbourhood known as the Cité, named after the Vésone Roman Citadel.
This Roman part of the town has a few other vestiges from Roman times, like the 2,000-year-old gate, Porte Normande at RueTurenne and crumbling stone curtains frim the citadel’s ancient ramparts.
These ruins are interspersed with regal boulevards that were cleared during the rule of Napoleon III in the mid-1800s.
Boulevard de Vésone is one such thoroughfare, flanked by splendid stone townhouses with wrought iron balconies and mansard roofs.
11. Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie du Périgord
In a marvellous converted Augustinian convent you can indulge your curiosity about the ancient history and prehistory of Périgord as well as other regions of the world.
The museum is a bit of a miscellany of things from all sorts of times and places.
So there are ethnographic pieces from Oceania and Africa together with exquisite medieval art like an enamel statue of the Virgin Mary from the 1200s and stained glass windows recovered from a nearby 14th century church.
There’s also a Roman lapidary collection and Neanderthal fossils discovered in caves near the famous system at Lascaux.
12. Château Barrière
In a small park on Rue Turenne are the breathtaking ruins of a medieval castle that was founded on top of the Vésone Citadel’s Gallo-Roman wall.
Looking at the base on the west side of this building structure you can easily identify the larger stones that have ancient origins, but the entirety of this decaying building is magnificent.
The castle was completed in the 1100s and updated over time, but was torn down by the Huguenots in the French Wars of Religion in 1575. Late-medieval fittings like the mullioned windows, flamboyant gothic portal and renaissance stairway in great condition after almost half a millennium exposed to the elements.
13. Musée Militaire du Périgord
Along with the two other museums on this list, Périgueux’s Military Museum has earned the prestigious “Museum of France” label.
This attraction investigates more a 1,000 years of warfare in the region and covering the international conflicts that Périgord’s citizens fought in.
With some 12,000 weapons (cannon, muskets, daggers), armour, uniforms, flags and day-to-day equipment on show you’ll be wiser about Périgord’s role in history’s defining conflicts.
The marquee exhibit is a large canvas of the 1872 Battle of Solferino by the military painter Jean-Adolphe Beaucé but there’s a whole load of interesting memorabilia for a military enthusiast to get through.
14. Days Out
You won’t run out of things to see in Périgueux, but for a change of scenery there are some top-notch sights and attraction an easy drive from the town.
The Château de Puyguilhem is a quintessential French renaissance château, constructed in the 1500s with architecture as sublime as almost any you’ll find in the Loire Valley.
To go underground the Grotte de Tourtoirac can be reached in about half an hour on the D5: This cave system has only been on the map in the last couple of decades, having been discovered by cave-divers in 1995. The great thing about this is that the attraction has modern faculties like escalators, providing access for people with mobility issues.
The black truffle is unearthed all across the Périgord in autumn and winter and can fetch unbelievable prices.
But you’ll know what all the fuss is about when you taste some of the local delicacies with this treasured tuber.
Périgueux pâté has foie gras and black truffle and has been made in the town since at least the 1400s, while Périgueux sauce consists of roux, red white and chopped truffle and is divine with anything from omelettes to roasted duck or quail.
Walnuts in Périgord have an AOC label and are produced in a huge quantities by the orchards around the city and are in season around late-summer.