The Belle France guide to the most beautiful villages in Western France
Although the west of France has its share of legendary beaches – those in the Vendee, Charente-Maritime and the Pays Basque being the most popular with sunseekers – there are plenty of other things it is equally recognised for.
Aquitaine is home to the historic Dordogne, as well as some of the most prestigious vineyards in the world – those of Bordeaux. The latter provides a great cultural experience, with its châteaux set splendidly among the vines and the impressive city of Bordeaux poised at the heart of it all. It is in the Dordogne that some of the most intriguing historical sites can be found. Caves with ancient paintings and mighty stalagmites weave beneath a picturesque countryside, where medieval cities such as Sarlat perch.
The regions of Aquitaine and Poitou-Charentes are home to 24 of the 156 most beautiful villages of France.
We've produced a comprehensive digital guide to France's 156 most beautiful villages. Click below to explore.
Enjoying an immense diversity of scenery, traditions and cuisine, Aquitaine is proof that variety is the spice of life. From the beaches of the Atlantic coast to the old-style grandeur of Bordeaux to the sunflower fields of Lot, it’s a region that continually surprises and enchants.
Points of interest: Bordeaux | Dune du Pilat | Saint-Émilion Monolithic Church | Château de Bonaguil | Saint-Emilion | Biarritz | Sarlat | Brantôme | La Cité du Vin, Bordeaux
Bordering Spain and featured on the Compostela pilgrim route, Ainhoa is a must-visit on any tour of the Basque Country. The village was completely destroyed in the Thirty Years War during the 17th century and entirely rebuilt. Its main street is lined with attractive white, red and green faНades and its 13th century church is worth visiting for its stunning gold altar.
Belvés is a lively town with a preserved 15th century covered market hall and an archetypal bastide layout. In its centre the medieval belfry stands proud overlooking the market square which springs into life on Saturday mornings and summer nights during July and August. Its picture-postcard streets (notable streets include Rue du Petit Sol and Rue de l’Oiseau qui Chante which translates to ‘street of the bird that sings’) are often decorated with colourful garlands in the summer months.
▲ Beynac-et-Cazenac, Dordogne
Conjure up an image of the perfect Dordogne village and Beynac-et-Cazenac comes pretty close. Clinging to the side of a cliff, this alluring village with its flower-decked houses, riverside location and dominating castle offers breathtaking views of the valley. In the summer, classical music echoes through the streets as the village hosts music nights.
Brouage, Charente Maritime
Located on the edge of the marshes of the Marais-Poitevin just southwest of Rochefort, Brouage is a small citadel with historical importance. Historically the town was the regional centre of the salt industry becoming the first important salt-trading town in France and a vital port for the salt trade. Because of its unusual position, it has an incredible diversity of flora and fauna.
Walk up cobbled streets, through arches and discover pretty Périgordian stone houses round every corner. Lining a stretch of the Dordogne river, just 10km from Sarlat and perched snug against the steep hillside sits this beautiful village. It’s perhaps most well known for its imposing chateau high up on the hill which silently watches over the valley.
▲ Domme, Dordogne
Not far from Sarlat sits Domme, a small bastide town founded in the late 1200s. The town has a rich but turbulent history and has changed hands several times between the English and French. Most recently, in the second world war the extensive cave network beneath the town was used as a hideout. The town square, caves and spectacular 180 degree views over the Dordogne valley are a short but steep stroll from the original fortified entrance to the town.
Dating back to the 14th century and resting just 25km southeast of Bayonne lies arguably the most perfectly preserved village in the Basque region. Historically the village was home to Spanish and Portuguese Jews who settled there after fleeing the Spanish inquisition. Its symmetrical arcaded village square is flanked with quaint white houses with red timbering and colourful garlands.
La Roque-Gageac, Dordogne
Lining the banks of the Dordogne river lies La Roque-Gageac with its ochre-coloured houses sheltered beneath dramatically overhanging cliffs. Inevitably, the village pulls bus-loads of tourists each summer so its best to visit off season or get away from the bustle of the centre and wander the secret side streets and alleyways which also offer shade from the midday heat.
▲ Limeuil, Dordogne
Located on the confluence of the Dordogne and Vézère rivers, on the border of the Périgord Pourpre and Périgord Noir just 36km from Sarlat, Limeuil - taken from the Latin ‘Lim lemo’ meaning elm - is a charming rural village. Its honey-coloured stone houses decked with flowers and quaint cobbled streets should be teeming with tourists but the village has escaped its share of bum-bagged, socks-and-sandalled sightseers so make the most of the peaceful atmosphere and laidback pace of life.
Steeped in history and tradition, this hilltop town has hosted a Thursday morning market every week since its founding in 1256! Its gorgeous central square, bordered by arcades with ornate balconies draped with greenery is home to cafés, the tourist office and the Musée des Bastides - an interactive museum offering insight into the fortified medieval towns of southwest France, well worth a visit. In August the Médiévales de Monflanquin festival transports residents and visitors back to the Middle Ages with entertainment, processions, a market and an authentic medieval banquet.
In the heart of the Land of the Bastides lies the almost perfectly preserved village of Monpazier, its original aspect and dimensions still intact. Its covered market square hosts an array of stalls every Thursday morning. Its central square is also home to several cafés and restaurants, perfect for evening dining. Event highlights include the Monpazier Flower festival which is held each spring and the Medieval Day in high summer in which residents dress in medieval finery and decorate the town.
The saying ‘looks can be deceiving’ couldn’t be more true in this instance. Uninviting and cold from outside its military exterior, Navarrenx is quite the opposite on the inside. Its imposing ramparts were built in the 16th century under the direction of Italian architectural engineer Fabricio Siciliano who based it on the citadel of Lucas in Tuscany. It became the first modern, Italian-styled bastioned town in France. It’s also said to be the salmon-fishing capital of France.
▲ Pujols-le-Haut, Lot-et-Garonne
Perched 180m above sea level and dominating the valleys of the Lot Pujols has retained much of its medieval heritage. The village is laid out around a traditional covered market hall where, every Sunday morning from May to September, a market takes place selling local produce and wares. Saint-Foy church, one of two churches in the village, holds regular art exhibitions and is also home to some impressive 15th century frescoes.
Saint-Amand rests just 10km from the world famous Lascaux caves in the heart of the Dordogne. It boasts a beautiful fortified Romanesque church which, during the summer months, is a magical venue for concerts. Its location amongst the woods and its architectural heritage make it popular with tourists who flock to the region known for its rich history and superb gastronomy.
Burrowing into the banks of the river Vézère in Périgord Noir, Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère overflows with authenticity and charm. The village church, small but perfectly formed, sits beside the river on the site of an ancient Gallo-Roman villa and you can see some traces of it next to the church. Make sure you take a look inside as the domed ceiling has the remains of some beautiful frescoes.
▲ Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Pyrénées Atlantique
Nestling between the Basque hillsides and the Spanish border, on the banks of the river Nive lies the old Basque province capital of the Lower Navarre and famous stop of the Way of St James en route to Santiago de Compostela. Its neat white and red faНades with balconies overlooking the river contrast the striking fortress rebuilt by Vauban what overlooks the town and offers fabulous views over the verdant Basque countryside.
Burrowing into the banks of the river Vézère in Périgord Noir, Saint- Léon-sur-Vézère overflows with authenticity and charm. The village church, small but perfectly formed, sits beside the river on the site of an ancient Gallo-Roman villa and you can see some traces of it next to the church. Make sure you take a look inside as the domed ceiling has the remains of some beautiful frescoes.
The small village of Sare rests deep in the Basque country and is backed by the Pyrénées mountains. It shares 25km of border with neighbouring Spain and has long been linked to pastoral agriculture. The surrounding area was briefly exploited for its minerals during the Middle Ages but it now relies mostly on shared tourism with Spain thanks to its proximity and common Basque language. Its traditional houses, pelota court, church of St Martin and unspoilt environment are all add to the charm of the area.
Greeting the Atlantic Ocean with miles of sandy shoreline and vast stretches of oyster beds, Charente is one of the most visited areas of France. Port towns such as La Rochelle combine historic centres with fine restaurants and modern shops. Off the coast are enchanting islands, the most popular of which are the Ile de Ré and Ile d’Oleron, which are best explored in early summer before the crowds arrive.
Points of interest: La Rochelle | Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand & Sainte-Radegonde | Angoulême | Rochefort-sur-Mer | Royan | Château de La Rochefoucauld Ile de Ré | Marais Poitevin | Ile d’Oléron | Cognac | Château d’Oiron
Perched on a peaceful stretch of the River Anglin, the village of Angles-sur-l’Anglin is a must-visit. Commanding the surrounding wooded countryside, the ruined Château Guichard towers above the pretty rooftops of the village and offers splendid views over the rocky valley. The village is also famous for its 14,000 year old Magdalenian sculptures of the Roc Aux Sorciers or “Witches’ Rock”.
▲ Ars-en-Ré, Charente-Maritime
Located at the eastern end of the island of Ré, an arrondissement of La Rochelle, the seaside town of Ars-en-Ré is a popular tourist trap during the summer months although it retains its peaceful and laidback atmosphere. Once an important seaport for the salt trade, its salt marsh industry has been somewhat scaled back and just 60 individuals exploit this salt production today. As well as its ‘most beautiful village’ badge, the town also boasts the ‘Villages of Stones and Water’ label.
Laid out in an amphitheatre arrangement and dominating the River Dronne below, the charming village of Aubeterre immediately appeals to visitors. Its ancient galleried balconies and turreted houses are stacked up the hillside. Its principle curiosity is the cavernous Église Monolithe, an underground church on a cathedral sized scale - one of only a handful in France.
La Flotte-en-Ré, Charente-Maritime
The largest of the settlements on the island of Ré, La Flotte is a bustling harbour town with distant views of the Vendée beaches. Its typical whitewashed houses with emerald green shutters line the harbour and seafront and look out past swaying hollyhocks over gently bobbing fishing boats. The town centre has a good selection of cafés, restaurants, galleries and boutiques.
Mornac sits above the Seudre River on the Arvert Peninsula. A maze of narrow streets and alleys wind around the village and are lined with Charentais-style houses. Having relied heavily on the oyster and salt production industries for years, tourism now brings in a substantial income. To get stunning views over the village and salt marshes be sure to visit the Roman style church of Saint-Pierre, a fortified church dating from the 11th century and whose spire was lost in the Second World War.
▲ Talmont-sur-Gironde, Charente-Maritime
Situated about 120km upstream from Bordeaux in the marshy plain of the Gironde estuary is the tiny village of Talmont-sur-Gironde. Occupied for centuries it became fortified in the Middle Ages and in the 18th century was developed into a fishing and trading port. The tiny houses with white faНades and blue shutters are clustered together on a small promontory just 250m wide!