Spreading over much of France’s Massif Central, Auvergne is a region of hills, mountain peaks, pastures and lakes.
Many of Auvergne’s biggest landforms were once active volcanoes, and this volcanic rock has even been used as a building material for its medieval monuments.
See the dark spires of Clermont-Ferrand Cathedral, or the basalt that decorates romanesque churches like Sainte-Austremoine.
In winter or summer you’ll spend most of your time in the countryside, trekking through volcanic valleys, swimming in flawless Blue Flag lakes or gliding down ski runs at intimate, unpretentious resorts.
Lets explore the best things to do in Auvergne:
The colossal Puy-de-Dôme is a lava dome reaching 1,465 metres, just a few minutes southwest of Clermont-Ferrand.
You’d be remiss not to go to the top, but how you get there is up to you: You can follow in the footsteps of the Gallo-Romans and take the 2,000-year-old path that leads to the ruins of the Temple of Mercury, or join the GR4, which approaches the summit from the northern side.
If walking sounds too much like hard work, the new Panoramique des Dômes is a rack railway that brings you one of France’s great views in complete comfort!
The drive down to this city on the D941 from the west will stir even the weariest travellers.
There are places to park up and see all of Clermont-Ferrand laid out before you, with the black spires of the cathedral thrown into relief by the city’s red roofs.
The cathedral’s colour comes from its lava stone, and it really sets the monument apart.
Inside, the blue (north) and orange (south) rose windows create an ethereal light, and you can pay a small fee to go to the top of the towers 100-metre-high towers.
This is obviously just the first port of call, and you have to make time for the statue of the chieftain, Vercingetorix, who led the Gauls against the Romans at Alesia in 52BC.
3. L’Aventure Michelin
The tyre brand has been a big source of employment in Clermont-Ferrand for more than a century, and whole parts of the city were actually constructed by the company to house its workers.
You can find out everything you need to know about Michelin at its new museum, showcasing almost 130 years of machinery: There’s an electric car dating to 1899 and a plane from the First World War, and you can see the largest tyre in the world by the entrance.
If you’ve ever wondered how the Michelin Man mascot (Bidendum to the French) came to be, this is where you can find out!
4. Le PAL
Auvergne’s top tourist attraction is the fifth most-popular in France, combining a theme park with a zoo.
The park rolls out new features most years, one of the most recent being safari lodges.
These can sleep families of five and look over the savannah enclosures where springboks and zebras roam in semi-freedom.
There are 600 animals in the zoo in all, and, as with the savannah area, the habitats are spacious and resemble real wilderness.
The theme park has three roller coasters, five water rides, as well as carousels and roundabouts to bring a smile to smaller members of the family.
5. Le Puy Cathedral
Auvergne has five romanesque churches that demand a visit, and this might be the greatest of them all.
It’s mostly from the 1100s but has fragments in its sanctuary that go back to the 400s, and is a UNESCO site for its location on the Way of St. James.
Getting there feels like a pilgrimage too, because you have to climb 132 steps on the stairway from Rue des Pèlerins to reach the entrance.
As you go you can have a good look at the facade and its striped byzantine-style brickwork, with pale sandstone contrasting with black volcanic breccia above carved cedar doors from the 1100s.
6. Église de Saint-Nectaire
This 12th-century church was included in France’s original catalogue of historic monuments, compiled in 1840. Before you go inside you have to wander around to the external wall of the apse, which has amazing polychrome patterns made with beige, brown and black stones.
The interior is suitably sober for a romanesque church, but check out the carved capitals in the sanctuary, which depict scenes such as the Passion and the Transfiguration.
The statuary is also worth a look, containing a thousand-year-old sculpture of the Virgin with child.
7. MuPop, Montluçon
This newly refurbished museum has France’s largest collection of musical instruments, totalling 3,500 items.
The museum is within two historic mansions, joined by a sleek modern foyer.
You can browse 210 electric guitars, 200 sets of bagpipes, 36 accordions, 80 brass accordions and 30 drum sets, as well as all kinds of equipment for recording and reproducing music, going back to the early-1900s.
MuPop has also gathered a comprehensive archive of graphic art from the history of pop music, with posters, record covers, original album art, as well as masters from music videos and a wealth of other memorabilia.
8. Centre National du Costume de Scène, Moulins
In Moulins you can explore the world’s first museum entirely devoted to scenography and costume design.
The collection is extensive too, with 10,000 ballet, opera and theatre costumes, and numerous prestigious theatres donating their costumes to the museum when their shows close.
Ballet aficionados need to see the Nureyev collection, which has 70 costumes worn by this famous dancer and former director of the Paris Opera ballet.
The museum building is appropriately elegant; Villars is an 18th-century former cavalry barracks on the left bank of the Allier River.
9. Réserve Naturelle de Chaudefour
This natural park protects a large U-shaped valley, the result of a titanic volcanic event some 600,000 years ago, causing the partial collapse of the Massif de Sancy.
High on the sides of the valley are strange volcanic rocks like the Dent de la Rancune, which is a magnets for climbers.
Further down you’ll be blown away by the wildflowers: There are a large number of Alpine species like the alpine snowbell, which tend to be very rare in central France.
This is a quirk of the valley’s high elevation and exposed slopes, forming eco-systems you’d usually expect of the Alps and Pyrenees.
10. Église Saint-Austremoine d’Issoire
Another of Auvergne’s celebrated romanesque churches, Saint-Austremoine is a good partner to Saint-Nectaire, and sits 25 kilometres to the east.
Like Saint-Nectaire this church has lovely exterior decorations on its apse, only here the use of dark basalt causes the designs to stand out even more.
Inside, you might be caught off-guard by the brightness of the frescoes, which were restored in the 19th century and, amongst other scenes, show Eve fleeing the Garden of Eden.
The choir is surrounded by eight pillars, each one with a capital with images from the bible.
The most remarkable of these portrays Jesus and the 12 apostles at the last supper.
11. Musée de la Coutellerie, Thiers
If you’d like to acquaint yourself with one of Auvergne’s most famous artisan trades, stop by the cutlery museum in Thiers.
High-class knives and cutlery have been honed in the Haute-Marne for several centuries: You can see how they were made by watching a master knife-maker at work in this half-timbered medieval house.
You can also peruse the collection of surgical instruments, scissors, barbers’ kits, clippers, blacksmith tools, butchers’ knife, and more decorative cutlery sets embellished with gold, ivory or mother of pearl.
12. Château de Tournoël, Volvic
Declared a French historic monument in the 19th century, this castle dates back to at least the 1000s and maybe even earlier.
It had been in a state of ruin for centuries when the current owner took over in 2000, but has been restored over the last few years, although the imposing main tower is still off limits.
In its 13th-century heyday it was considered “unconquerable”, and defended the town of Riom, which had a privileged status with the French royalty as a “Bonne Ville”. You’ll be taken on a tour by the children of the owner, and get fun insights about the restoration work, including how some wooden beams were reinstalled with the help of a helicopter.
13. Winter Sport
Auvergne has five mountain ranges, and in winter these are an easy-to-reach and affordable alternative to destinations in the Alps and Pyrenees.
The two most popular are Super-Besse and Mont-Dore, on the slopes of Le Puy de Sancy, the highest mountain in the Massif Central at 1,886 metres.
These have inter-connecting slopes totalling 85 kilometres.
If you want to be able to tell your friends you’ve skied down the side of a volcano, Le Lioran on Le Puy Mary is the one for you!
14. Auvergne Cheese Trail
Five of Auvergne’s cheeses have got protected geographic status, more than any other region in France.
These are the strong Bleu d’Auvergne, the nutty Saint-Nectaire, mild and smooth Fourme d’Ambert and Cantal, which varies depending on its age.
Tourist offices in the region can give you all the information about the various farms and dairies on the “Route des Fromages”, and if you’re in doubt you can just follow the signposts.
There are more than 40 stops and each one is assessed each year to make sure that it explains cheese-making clearly and allows you to taste cheeses of the highest quality.
To pick just one, Fromagerie Wälchli in Condat specialises in Saint-Nectaire and will show you around the cellars where the cheese matures.
Yes, that’s right, landlocked Auvergne has some seriously good beaches, some of which have even earned the Blue Flag, ensuring perfect water-quality and amenities for tourists.
Lac d’Aydat is where Clermont-Ferrand goes to cool off in summer.
On the shore are campsites sheltered by the pine and hardwood forests of the Réserve Naturelle de Chaudefour.
Further into the park, the volcanic Lac Chambon at 877 metres benefits from two Blue Flag beaches on its northern shore.
These waters are very shallow, so the lake warms up quickly for swimmers in summer.