From the World famous cave of Lascaux to the most recent discovery of Chauvet, France has some of the most spectacular prehistoric cave art in the world. Ranging from about 30,000 to 12,000 years ago, cave art is found in limestone caves found in southern France.
Although there are caves with prehistoric paintings and/or engravings in many regions of France, not all of these are open to the public. There are three main areas that have a number of decorated caves, museums and theme parks that are popular destinations: the Vézére Valley in the Dordogne, the Lot Department in the Midi-Pyrénées, and in the Pyrénées mountains themselves. The Vézère Valley, in the Dordogne, is so rich in Palaeolithic archaeology that the region was placed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979.
The three areas do not, however, count for all the accessible decorated caves; see the map and list of all sites below.
Certainly the most concentrated set of sites, and amongst the best cave art in France is in the Dordogne. More specifically, in the Vézére Valley; in which there are over 14 archaeological sites and 25 decorated caves on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. And a number of these are open to the public – enough, with various museums and other interesting attractions in the area, to keep visitors busy for a week or more.
Les Eyzies-de-Tayac is not only a wonderfully picturesque town, it is a good choice for a base for exploring the prehistory of the Vézére Valley. There are not only a number of sites and museums in the town itself, but the others are within easy reach. For anyone wishing to explore the archaeology of the area, read my Guide to Les Eyzies: the World Capital of Prehistory, with numerous tips and suggestions for where to stay and eat, how to get there and what to do. A good place to start once you are in the Vézère Valley is the Pôle international de la Préhistoire in Les Eyzies.
For anyone on holiday with the family in the Vézère Valley, read the Archaeology Travel Tips for Visiting the Dordogne’s Ice Age Caves with Children
One of the most popular caves in the Vézère Valley is Font de Gaume. This is because these are the finest prehistoric paintings still accessible to the public in France. Getting tickets requires a bit of planning – read my definitive and authoritative guide to buying tickets to Font de Gaume, and Les Combarelles.
There are some spectacular limestone caves in the Lot Department of the Midi-Pyrénées region. And a number of these are open to the public as geological attractions. At Gouffre de Padriac, for example, visitors take a small boat ride on an underground lake. Three of these caves with Ice Age art are open to the public – and are as interesting for their geology as much as the prehistoric cave paintings. They are Grotte des Merveilles Cougnac and Pech Merle. The last two are amongst the most important caves in Palaeolithic Europe, and archaeological research carried out on the imagery in these two caves has done much to advance understanding of cave art in Europe.
These three caves in the Lot are not that far from the Vézére Valley, a couple of hours drive at the most. Taking in the best sites in both areas is easily achieved. The three Lot caves are not as close together as some of the best caves in the Dordogne are. With careful planning ahead, however, it is possible to see all three in one day if that is required.
The majestic Pyrénées also has a significant concentration of decorated caves. Sadly, for conservation reasons, not as many of these are open to the public. But those that are accessible to the public are exceptional examples of prehistoric cave art in France, and should not be missed. These include Niaux, Bédeilhac and La Vache. Near to these caves is the Pyrénées Park of Prehistoric Art (Parc Pyrénéen de l’ Art Préhistorique), and here visitors will find excellent facsimiles of painted panels from some of the caves in the area that are not open to the public.
The following is a directory of all the decorated caves in France that people can visit. Some are owned and managed by the state, others are privately owned. When they are open during the year, the cost of tickets, the facilities at each site and other factors all vary from cave to cave.
The highlight at Roc-aux-Sorciers near Angles-sur-l’Anglin is a panel of up to 18 metres that has a number of exceptionally carved animal and human figures. Today the site is closed to the public. A facsimile of the panel can be seen in an innovative interpretative centre in the village. Some of the original carved blocks of limestone that were removed from the cave can now be seen in the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale just outside of Paris. Traces of red and black pigment have been found on the carved figures, suggesting that the animal figures were coloured when they were made … go to Angles-sur-l’Anglin
There are two decorated caves at Ary-sur-Cure, but only one – la Grande Grotte – is open to the public. This is a large cave that has been visited for many centuries and is particularly well known for the geological limestone features. The prehistoric paintings were found in 1990 during the cleaning of the walls. Most of the paintings are depictions of mammoths. The other cave has engraved images, but these are considered too difficult for visitors to get to without potential damage. These cave paintings are amongst the oldest painted images in Europe … go to the Arcy-sur-Cure caves
Located deep in the cave on a sloping, soft limestone wall are a number of engraved animals and geometric patterns, including horses, bisons, bears and deer. Before the cave was occupied by Palaeolithic communities, bears hibernated in the cave and scratched the walls with their claws. As at other caves, the artists here made use of some of these scratch marks. The original prehistoric finely incised depictions are difficult to see. To help visitors better experience this cave, line drawing of the images have been placed on light-boxes in front of the panel … go to Bara Bahau
The cave of Bédeilhac has an enormous entrance, one that was very attractive to the German army during World War II. They intended to use the cave as an airplane hangar. This activity destroyed a lot of archaeological deposits in the cave. Bédeilhac has a great diversity of parietal and portal art, including images that were engraved into hard clay. Some of the side galleries are closed to the public, but the main gallery is accessible by a guided tour and has some interesting examples of Palaeolithic art … go to Bédeilhac
The cave of Bernifal is as near to ‘pristine’ as most people are ever going to get when it comes to exploring Palaeolithic art in France. There is no electric lighting or walkways installed as at most caves open to the public. The cave is privately owned and lighting is supplied by the guide in the form of torches. There are both paintings and engravings in the cave. Besides the many interesting depictions of mammoths the cave has a number of the enigmatic, geometric ‘tectiform’ signs found at only a few other sites in the Vézére Valley. This is an experience anyone with a strong passion for cave art should not miss … go to Bernifal
The bas relief sculptures of animals, mostly horses, at Cap Blanc are the finest examples of sculptured Palaeolithic art still in situ and open to the public in France. The highlight of the frieze is a carved horse, the body of which measures over two metres in length. In the deposit in front of the carved panel lies the body (now a cast) of a young female. The archaeological deposit also revealed tools that must have been used to carve the animals. Today the shelter is enclosed within a building that also houses a very good museum … go to Cap Blanc
Although not the clearest of bas relief representations in France, this is one of the few shelters with carved animal images that is on open view. The small panel, just under three metres long, is protected behind a secure fence. In all there are eight carved animals. Rock art scholars do not agree on their identification as their defining features are either absent and/or very badly preserved. The carvings may be representations of horses or bovids, but some have pointed out that they also bear a striking resemblance to the carvings of ibex at other at other similar sites … go to La Chaire à Calvin
Les Combarelles, unlike most of the other caves open to the public in the Les Eyzies area, is notable for its many exquisitely engraved depictions along a windy, narrow passage of about 240 metres in length. Although the usual range of animals were engraved, such as horses, bison, mammoth, reindeer, bears, and lions, there are also a number of representations of humans. Depictions of humans in European cave art are relatively rare, but there are exceptional examples here: stylized outlines of female bodies … go to Les Combarelles
A guided tour at Cougnac takes visitors to two separate caves, one that is of geological interest and the other of archaeological interest. The tour starts in the undecorated cave, which provides visitors with a good background to the natural processes that create the limestone caves in which Stone Age artists came along many millions of years later and made their paintings and engravings. The nearby decorated cave has some of the finest examples of paintings in France, with a few unique and rare depictions – the so-called ‘wounded man’ motif … go to Cougnac
The discovery of Chauvet Cave in 1994 by three speleologists had a enormous impact on cave art research. Not only was the cave art as spectacular as many other decorated caves in France, but because the cave had been sealed since prehistory the archaeology of the cave’s inhabitants lay undisturbed on the floor. For conservation reasons the cave would never be open to the public, the cave has been faithfully reproduced – the art and the the archaeology – which opened to the public in April 2015. Besides the replica, an excellent state-of-the-art interpretation centre provides an excellent background to the art of this period of the Stone Age. Booking tickets online is very easy … go to Chauvet Cave
Font de Gaume is the only decorated cave in France that has polychrome paintings that has remained open to the public. Although access is very restricted, and why tickets are highly sort after. In a narrow gallery there are over 230 animal engraved and painted depictions. Not only are some of the painted bisons polychrome, they are also both engraved and painted. One of the many highlights of the site is a frieze of 5 bison, where the artist(s) made use of the contours of the rock face to give shape to the painted bison. Tickets may take a lot of queueing at busier times of the year, but it is worth every minute … go to Font de Gaume
Although the archaeology in Isturitz cave was badly damaged, the cave is one of the more important Palaeolithic sites in France. Not only do the archaeological deposits have evidence of some 70,000 years of near continuous occupation, extensive excavations recovered hundreds of beautifully carved artefacts. Isturitz and the adjacent Oxocelhaya cave also have images on the walls, and in Isturitz there are bas-relief sculptures on a large stalagmite near what would have been the prehistoric entrance to the cave … go to Isturitz
Lascaux is the most well known Stone Age cave art site in the World. Sadly, due to conservation reasons, the cave is now closed to the public altogether. In 1983 a replica of the famous cave, called Lascaux 2, was opened to the public. This ‘cave’ has been as popular with tourists as the original ever was. Not all of the cave was reproduced in Lascaux 2, and so a more complete replica has just been created, that opened to the public in December 2016 … Information about Lascaux 4
In the centre of the town just above the cliff-side town of Rocamadour is a small cave known not only for its geological features but also a number of interesting paintings. Besides depictions of animals, including horses, deer and a feline, there are 6 known negative hand stencils. This is the image created when a hand was placed on the rock surface and pigment was then blown (through an animal bone) onto the hand and surrounding rock surface leaving a negative impression of the hand … go to Grottes des Merveilles
The Grotte de Niaux has some of the finest examples of Palaeolithic art in Europe, and thought to date to the end of the Ice Age. The cave stretches back into the mountain for some two kilometres, but the first painted panels are only 500 metres from the entrance. Besides paintings on the wall, there are also engravings on the clay floors. There is also an interesting historical aspect; seventeenth century graffiti, some near the painted panels, suggests that these earlier visitors knew about the prehistoric art. A walk of nearly 40 minutes takes visitors through some spectacular speleological visitors to the gallery of black animals … go to Niaux
Since the discovery of the paintings in 1922 archaeological research on the paintings at Pech Merle, including the techniques used to make the images, what pigments Palaeolithic artists used, and also how some of the more complex panels developed over time, have been at the forefront of research on and debates about the meaning of Palaeolithic cave art in western Europe. Without doubt, this is certainly one of the most striking decorated caves still open to the public in France – and should really not be missed. It is also the easiest painted cave to book tickets for online … go to Pech Merle
With over eight kilometres of underground tunnels, the cave of Rouffignac is the largest of the decorated caves in the Vézère Valley currently open to the public. The cave has both paintings and engravings, an these are located deep in the cave. Visitors are taken to a number of the panels on an electric train. Besides some extraordinary examples of prehistoric art, there are also ancient bear pits, as well as historical graffiti that indicates this cave has been known about in the Modern period for a few hundred years at least … go to Rouffignac
In a small rock shelter in the limestone cliffs above the quaint and picturesque hamlet of Saint-Cirq is an extraordinary and rare incised engraving of a male human figure – which has for along time been called the ‘sorcerer’. Although there are not many other images in the cave this is still a good cave to visit. Not only for the rare depiction of the human figure and the human head, but also to see that not all decorated caves are as visually striking as some of the more well known caves in the Dordogne. The setting of the shelter makes the visit all the more worthwhile. The site stays open longer than otehrs, so can be left to the end of the day … go to Saint-Cirq
There are a number of museums and theme parks around the country that add much to any visit to the decorated caves, for people of all ages and differing degrees of interest. Most of the artefacts excavated from the caves are housed in various national and regional museums. The displays of these objects include not just stone tools but also the exquisite mobile art – such as the bone and ivory carved animals the Palaeolithic archaeology of France is well known for. Theme parks are designed with children and families in mind, and often provide hands-on activities for younger family members to learn more about life in prehistory when the cave art was made.
A theme park and museum with a number of reconstructions of prehistoric life in the Stone Age. Including dioramas that show how Palaeolithic people created their paintings and engravings. The vast grounds have many enclosures with living animals, the range of animals that the Palaeolithic artists depicted on their cave walls. In the museum are reproductions of five of the more spectacular panels in the cave of Lascaux not seen in the Lascaux II facsimile. For many obvious reasons this is a great place to take the children, who love the horses, bison and goats.
In what was once a Royal castle on the outskirts of Paris, Napoleon established the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale, France’s national archaeology museum. The museum has a vast collection of artefacts from all over the country, from the earliest Palaeolithic to the Medieval on permanent display. The extensive exhibits of the Palaeolithic period has artefacts and portable art from all over the country. From replicas of the clay bison from Le Tuc d’Audoubert, to the original carved limestone blocks from Roc-aux-Sorciers and Roc-de-Sers … go to the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale
Re-opened in 2004, the National Museum of Prehistory has one of the finest series of exhibitions that explore the early prehistory of humanity. Innovative displays offer an extensive introduction to the archaeology of the Vézére Valley. One display takes the artefacts from successive deposits of a few local caves to allow us to see the changes in stone tool design through time. There are also a number of intricate carved bone and ivory artefacts, as well as reconstructions of extinct animals. The Stone Age archaeology of the Vézére Valley is placed in context of the Palaeolithic period Worldwide, to show how important this area has been in the history of archaeology.
In the foothills of the majestic Pyrénées is the Parc Pyreneen de l’ Art Prehistorique, a 13 hectare educational theme park that provides a good compliment to visiting the nearby caves of Bédeilhac and Niaux. In the grounds are various reconstructions of tents and the like to give an idea of what domestic life might have been like during the time when Palaeolithic people were making cave art. The centre has a number of spectacular reproductions of important cave art panels in nearby sites not open to the public. The one not to miss is the replica of Marsoulas. Photo © Babsy [Website]