On one of my housesitting ventures in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France, I asked my neighbor to recommend some local highlights. Without hesitation, he answered, “Sarlat. Sarlat-la-Caneda.” This was not just any routine answer. I noticed immediately that he had a dreamy look in his eyes when he spoke of Sarlat-la-Caneda. “Duly noted,” I thought to myself, and knew I needed to investigate.
When I did visit Sarlat-la-Caneda, I knew straight away why my neighbor had that faraway look in his eyes. Sarlat-la-Caneda is like stepping back in time to a stunning representation of 14th-century France. Restored honey-colored stone buildings, beautiful squares, and cobblestone streets are ripe for exploring.
The medieval town of Sarlat-la-Caneda grew around a large Benedictine abbey of Carolingian origin. Sarlat-la-Caneda was a busy market town until the 18th century, and after that, it was forgotten about for 150 years. It was due to the new Malraux Act in 1962 that the buildings of Sarlat-la-Caneda were protected. The Malraux Act, created by Andre Malraux, the French minister of culture from 1959 to 1969, aimed to preserve the historic centers of France’s old towns. Sarlat-la-Caneda was one of the first towns to be preserved! Consequently, Sarlat-la-Caneda has one of the highest densities of historic monuments of any town in France. It is on France’s list for a future nomination for a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
Sarlat-la-Caneda is the capital of the Perigord Noir region of France. Mention Perigord Noir to a French person, and right away, they sigh. Perigord Noir is well known for its gastronomy, and perhaps, in retrospect, this is why my French neighbor was so moved. The food. The gastronomic experience.
Whatever the reason, Sarlat-la-Caneda is the perfect place to spend a day exploring and to use as a base to visit nearby points of interest in the Dordogne Valley.
Wander The Medieval Streets
There is a certain delight in exploring medieval streets in a new location. Turn down a passageway and discover a tucked-away square that you weren’t expecting, or gaze skyward to see ancient half-timbered houses. Perhaps you will find a little cafe with a red-and-white striped awning that epitomizes French country life. Sarlat-la-Caneda, with its largely car-free medieval center, calls you to tuck the map in your pocket and just wander for a bit. Cobbled laneways and narrow passages are sure to thrill.
Place De La Liberte
Place de la Liberte is the most welcoming of central squares. Framed with 16th- and 17th-century traditional houses and a view of the bell tower of the Cathedral St. Sacerdos, it is essential to perch on a chair at one of the many cafes and just soak in the ambience of this medieval town. Keep your eyes peeled for the small passageways that lead away from Place de la Liberte and are perfect for exploring Sarlat-la-Caneda.
St. Mary’s Church And The Covered Market
St. Mary’s Church was the parish church in the 14th and 15th centuries. Unfortunately, over the years it was severely damaged, pillaged, and finally sold around 1815. The part of the church that does remain was renovated into a daily covered market selling local produce. A glass elevator takes visitors to the top of the building for marvelous views over the typical rooftops of Sarlat.
The first thing you may notice about Cathedral Saint-Sacerdos is its uniquely shaped bell tower. Listen for her tolling bells and admire it from Place de la Liberte, and then make your way to Place du Peyrou to see the cathedral.
The cathedral, named a historical monument in 1840, has seen many modifications throughout the centuries. Part of the Cathedral dates to the 9th century while the nave, for example, dates to the 17th century.
The cathedral is dedicated to Saint Sarcedos, who was born near Sarlat and became the Bishop of Limoges in the 8th century. His remains were once held at the cathedral.
The Lantern Of The Dead
Just behind Cathedral Saint-Sacerdos is a small stone tower called the Lanternes des Morts, or the Lantern of the Dead. It is still a controversial mystery as to what this building was used for. Walk around this cylindrical tower, dating from about 1180, and ponder what its function might have been while admiring views of the cathedral.
Gastronomy And The Weekly Sarlat Market
Sarlat-la-Caneda is well known for its gastronomy and this, in fact, draws many visitors each year. Walnuts, truffles, foie gras, different types of mushrooms, chestnuts, and Gariguette strawberries are some of the gastronomic treasures found at the Wednesday and Saturday markets. And the cheese. Huge rounds of cheese and the famous goat cheese from nearby Rocamadour.
There are plenty of gourmet shops exhibiting and selling regional goods that can be packed and taken home by visitors from afar. Jars of duck confit, foie gras, dried cepes (mushrooms), smoked goose sausage, truffle oil, and truffle mustard are just some of the gastronomic pleasures that can be purchased.
The Wednesday and Saturday markets are an outstanding way to delve into local produce and the French way of life. The Saturday market has even more stalls with local traders and artisans selling their goods as well.
There is also a separate Truffle and Foie Gras Market held on Saturday mornings in the winter.
The Boetie Mansion
Facing the cathedral on Place du Peyrou is the Boetie Mansion. It was built in 1525 in the Italian Renaissance style, and Etienne de la Boetie, a famous French writer and judge, was born here in 1530. The detailed facade of the house has marvelous windows carved with medallions and diamond shapes.
Other Mansions Worth Finding
There are many remarkable mansions in Sarlat-la-Caneda. Keep your eyes open for towers, turrets, intricate doorways, and interesting windows. Here are a few to find on your wanderings:
- The Vienne Mansion (Hotel de Vienne) is found at 3 Rue du Minage and Rue du Vieil-Hopital. This mansion was built in the 16th century and is also known as the Hotel de Maleville. Jean de Vienne was in charge of finances for Henry IV, and his beautiful mansion was created by merging three neighboring houses together.
- The Presidial, at 6 Rue Landry, was founded by Henry II. Clearly, it has been around for a long time! Used as a justice building until the 18th century, it is a historical monument with a noteworthy facade and lantern tower. Le Presidial is currently occupied by a restaurant.
- The Grezel Mansion (now called Gueule et Gosier), found at 1 Rue Salamandre, has a half-timbered facade, a nobility tower, and an intricately crafted door.
Where To Stay In Sarlat-La-Caneda
Plaza Madeleine Hotel and Spa is well located and walking distance to the historic part of Sarlat-la-Caneda. The spa and pool are welcome after visiting the area in the summer heat!
Located in a country setting just a ten-minute walk from Sarlat, La Maison des Peyrat is also a wonderful choice. The walk into town is downhill, and the walk back to the hotel is ten minutes uphill.
Where To Eat In Sarlat-La-Caneda
Restaurant Le Grand Bleu, a Michelin-starred restaurant at 43 Rue de la Gare, features the creative menu of chef Maxime Lebrun.
Book Restaurant L’Adresse in advance to experience dining at one of the top-rated bistros in Sarlat. It is located at 10 Rue Fenelon.
La Petite Borie, at 4 Rue Tourny, is one of Sarlat-la-Caneda’s oldest restaurants, is situated in an ancient walnut oil mill. Enjoy their traditional regional cuisine with foie gras as a specialty.
Each March, there is the annual Goose Festival (the Fest’Oie). Live birds and market stalls line the streets, and local chefs create a sumptuous outdoor meal. There is even a square dedicated to geese, Place des Oies, where you will find bronze statues of geese. This used to be the location of the fowl market.
Sarlat-la-Caneda is a very popular tourist destination and can become quite snarled with traffic and people during peak season and on market days. Plan to explore early in the day to avoid the busiest times.
While you’re in France, consider: