Limousin is a rural part of France, known for being earthy and a little rough around the edges.
There aren’t so many refined châteaux and gardens in this part of the country; instead Limousin’s attraction lies in its wilderness, crumbling fortresses, green meadows and gorgeous old villages.
The landscapes, blanketed with fresh birch woodland, boast thousands of streams, the clear, pure water of which is one of the region’s main economic assets.
Different parts of the region are known for their artisan crafts, whether its slate-making, tapestry weaving in Aubusson or porcelain in Limoges.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Limousin:
1. Old Oradour-sur-Glane, Haute-Vienne
As unnerving as it is deeply moving, Old Oradour-Sur-Glane is the ruins and rubble of a village that was massacred by the SS on June 10 1944. 642 men, women and children were killed, and after the war Charles de Gaulle ordered that what was left of the village should remain untouched.
And so it sits, frozen in time, with possessions such as the shell of the local doctor’s Peugeot 202 still in place and slowly rusting.
It is the only war-damaged place in France to be kept in this way.
2. Tours de Merle, Saint-Geniez-ô-Merle
On the side of a precipitous valley towards the south of Corrèze is a scene that hardly seems real, so much does it resemble something from a fairytale.
This set of towers belonged to medieval fortified homes built to control a river crossing, but after river crossing was constructed in a more accessible place in the 1500s these structures fell into ruin.
Some parts are off limits because of the state of decay, but the towers are surprisingly accessible and you’re pretty much free to see what you can find.
Below the fortified section is the ruins of the old village and stone bridge, a fantasy-style location for a family picnic!
3. Limoges Cathedral
Unmissable in Limoges’ old quarter is the romanesque bell-tower of the city’s 13th-century cathedral.
This tower remained separate from the rest of the structure until 1888, so you can say that it wasn’t completed until the 19th-century, despite being the only homogenously gothic religious building in all of Limousin.
Two things you can’t ignore are the carved rood screen on the western side of the nave, and the sculptures on the tomb of the 16th-century bishop Jean de Langeac.
As you go out blinking into the sunlight, spend a while in the cathedral’s gardens, where there’s a parterre with the typical topiaries, fountains and meticulously-groomed lawns.
The cathedral is also on a rise, so there are fine panoramas of the city from these gardens.
4. Abbaye de Moutier-d’Ahun
The little gothic monastery is as peaceful you’d hope for, but the main reason to stop by is for the collection of woodcarvings commissioned by the monks in the 17th century.
These are marvels of craftsmanship and include a rood screen, altarpiece with twisted columns, the 26 stalls of the choir and the doors either side of the choir.
In the 18th century they were all painted white for reason, but were slowly restored to their original appearance from the 1890s to the 1960s.
Also take a moment to see the roman bridge in the village, and the roman milestone just outside the abbey.
5. Canal des Moines, Aubazines
Limousin is a dream for hikers. Practically the whole region is hilly but the peaks, ensconced in hardwood forest, are easier to ascend than in the Chaîne des Puys for example.
In many places you can combine a hike with a trip to discover a piece of historic culture, such as at Canal des Moines.
This is an astounding piece of engineering considering it was made in the 12th century, when the monks of Aubazine Abbey channelled the waters of the Coiroux brook along the steep side of a valley for irrigation, hygiene and to power their mills.
It runs for 1.5 kilometres, with just a 10-metre drop in elevation.
In places they had to reinforce the channel with corbels, which continue to support the structure to this day.
6. Château de Châlucet, Saint-Jean-Ligoure
The solemn ruins of this castle are in an arresting location, perched above woodland at the confluence of the Briance and Ligoure rivers.
There was nothing decorative about this structure; Château de Châlucet was a fearsome symbol of feudal power built in the 1300s, but was ransacked during the French Wars of Religion in the 16th century for harbouring protestant Huguenots.
It’s another visit that you can combine with a nature walk, as it’s on a rocky crag at the top of a pretty steep hill.
The keep, known as Tour Jeanette, dates to the 1100s is still mostly intact, with a platform at the top that gives you a perfect view of the lower castle.
7. Les Pierres Jaumâtres, Toulx-Sainte-Croix
Another landmark rewarding people who go the extra mile is at the summit of Mont Barlot in Toulx-Sainte-Croix.
Almost 600 metres up is a set of granite boulders deposited during the last glacial period and weathered into rounded, mushroom-like shapes.
So unusual are the forms that local legends were created to explain them, and they were handed names like le Grenouille (The Frog) and le Berceau du Diable (Cradle of the Devil). Despite the otherworldly scene that greets you at the top not too many people make the climb, and you’ll often have the stones to yourself.
8. Distillerie Denoix, Brive-la-Gaillard
At this distillery you can appreciate all the artisanal savour-faire that goes into Denoix’ liqueurs and aperitifs.
The factory has been passed down the Denoix family since 1839 and uses methods that haven’t changed too much in all that time.
Thirteen different drinks are made here, including a the most popular walnut liqueur, made with locally-cultivated green walnuts that are crushed down in huge batches every summer.
Led by a member of the Denoix family, you can see how the walnuts are macerated, and view the oak barrels where the liqueur matures for five years.
All the while you’ll get insights about a time-honoured tradition and follow it up with a free tasting session!
9. Les Pans de Travassac, Donzenac
Without pits likes this, the Limousin region, and France in general would have a very different appearance.
Les Pans de Travassac is an old slate mine now open as a kind of living museum.
The setting is a big part of the appeal, where man-made cliffs drop for 100 metres and you can pass through ravines along a system of elevated paths and stairways, all the while finding out how the slate was dislodged from these walls.
There are also demonstrations by artisans, paring the stone down to small panels by hand with expert ease.
10. Musée National Adrien Dubouché, Limoges
Limoges is famed for its white porcelain, so it’s only right to see the finest public collection of these ceramics in the world, in one of the few nationalised museums to be set outside Île-de-France.
They include the earliest creations by the local kilns in 1771 as well as the latest pieces by expert craftsmen.
The attraction is named after a local philanthropist and museum director, who donated 4,000 of his own items to the collection.
This doesn’t stop with local porcelain either, as there some 18,000 items from many eras and parts of the world, including Ancient Rome, Greece and China.
11. Parc Zoo du Reynou, Vigen
This zoo in Haute-Vienne covers 600 hectares and has more than 600 animals from 130 different species.
These range from pygmy marmosets, the smallest monkey in the world and weighing just 100 grams, to the highly-endangered Rothschild’s giraffes, almost six metres in height.
The park is set in the grounds of wealthy Haviland family Château and is divided into different areas: Two for Africa, two for Asia and one for South America and Australia.
All are set up to help the animals behave as they might in their natural habitat.
If you’re here with younger children stop at the mini-farm where little guys can pet the goats and feed cows, chickens and donkeys.
12. Loups de Chabrières, Guéret
The last European grey wolf in the forests of Creuse died in 1937, but this creature is intertwined with the region’s folklore, especially in the case of the Celts who ascribed to them supernatural qualities, linked to the cosmos.
So it makes sense that this park should have a pre-Roman design, with recreated wooden village buildings around spacious enclosures in which some 50 grey wolves live in semi-freedom.
There’s a daily feeding show, where you can see the wolves scrapping over small chunks of meat.
If your curiosity about wolves is still not sated there’s a museum relating the folklore, biology and behaviour of this enigmatic creature.
13. Musée du Président Jacques Chirac, Sarran
Fair to claim that Jacques Chirac isn’t France’s best-loved president, but this museum collecting the various objects presented to him by dignitaries from around the world between 1995 and 2007 merits a visit if you’re in Corrèze.
The permanent collection runs to 150 objects, including precious paintings, sculptures and items of clothing.
This is just what’s on show, as there are more than 5,000 pieces in the archives.
Each item has a sign providing detailed info about its history and when and where it was gifted to Chirac.
There are also temporary shows here, tending to focus on art from Africa and Asia.
14. Lac de Vassivière
When the Maulde River was dammed in 1950 it created Limousin’s largest body of water, a 10-square-kilometre lake wrapped in birch and beech forest.
In summer it comes alive with activity, and if you crave the great outdoors you could easily spend your entire holiday mountain-biking, taking hikes around the shore or exploring every inch of the shore in a kayak.
There are also five beaches, supervised by lifeguards in July and August, and next to waters that are between 20° and 25°C at the height of summer.
15. Limousin Cuisine
It seems ridiculous now, but in centuries gone by Limousin’s cuisine, together with the region as a whole, was derided by the Parisian elites for being crude and rustic.
Many dishes that people once thought were the preserve of the poor are now more appreciated, like Galétous, buckwheat pancakes that go with sweet or savoury toppings like honey or pâté.
Mique is dough cooked in a broth and served with meat and vegetables.
The basic ingredients could hardly be better either, as Limousin beef and lamb are held as some of the best in France.
Purchase these, as well as the first-rate walnuts, chestnuts, berries and apples, at local markets across the region.
If you’re in Creuse, see if you can find somewhere that makes creusois a typical hazelnut cake with a recipe known only to a select few bakers.