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Six prehistoric sites in France to visit

Long before the Gauls, the Franks or the Romans, prehistoric groups of people were creating paintings, stone circles and burial mounds in the land that is now France.

Six prehistoric sites in France to visit
People visit the new replica of the Lascaux cave paintings, during the first public opening in 2016 (Photo by MEHDI FEDOUACH / AFP)

Several of these sites survive and have been meticulously preserved and opened up to visitors. Here’s our pick of some of the most fascinating prehistoric sites in France. 

The Carnac stones

Located in western France in Brittany, the Carnac Stones are one of Europe’s most important ancient sites. They are a collection of thousands of ancient stones, spread over 27 communes. You might recognise these “menhirs” – single standing stones – as the giant rocks carried by Obelix, in the classic “Asterix & Obelix” French comic series.

Recently these stones made the front pages in France when 39 were reportedly destroyed to make way for the construction of a DIY store.

READ MORE: Prehistoric standing stones in western France destroyed during construction of DIY store

Believed to have been erected during the Neolithic period, some stones are thousands of years old, having been placed there as early as 4,000 BC.

There is still a lot of mystery surrounding why the stones were placed there and what purpose they served. One local legend says that they are the remains of a Roman army that was turned into rock. Others believe that the site is a ‘megalithic yard’ – or an ancient unit of measurement.

You can visit the stones for free from October to March, but between April and September, you must go via paid tour guide. With several hiking trails around the site, there are plenty of paths to explore. Tours are also available in English, German and Spanish.

There is also a nearby museum about the site called the “Maison des Megaliths“, which is open and accessible year round. You can find more information about planning your trip to see the stones here.

The caves in Lascaux

In the Vézère valley in Dordogne, there are more than 100 prehistoric sites and over two dozen decorated caves dating back to the Palaeolithic period. The most famous is the “Lascaux Cave” –  a UNESCO recognised site. It was discovered in 1940 and paved the way for a much greater appreciation of prehistoric art, featuring detailed and colourful hunting scenes. 

Much of the prehistoric art found in the caves in this valley is thought to be up to 20,000 years old.

Unfortunately, visitors are no longer allowed to enter the Lascaux Caves, as scientists came to the conclusion that tourism could harm the art. Instead, you can visit a detailed reconstruction of the caves, the Lascaux IV, which was recently completed.

There are plenty of other prehistoric sites nearby in Dordogne, including the “Grotte de Rouffignac”, another cave, but one where visitors can view the sites from inside an electric train.

You can find more information about visiting these sites HERE.

The caves in Ardèche

In southern France, just north of Avignon, lies the “Grotte Chauvet” – another UNESCO World Heritage site.

These caves contain some of the earliest known “figurative drawings” in the world, likely dating all the way back to the Aurignacian period (30,000–32,000 BC), according to UNESCO.

Discovered in 1994, the cave had managed to remain untouched for thousands of years. The paintings show plenty of different animal species, including extinct ones like mammoth. 

Like the caves in the Vézère valley, the Grotte Chauvet is not accessible to the public, but there is an impressive reconstruction available for visit called the “Grotte Chauvet 2”. You can find ticketing information here.

Cairn de Barnenez

Also found in Brittany like the Carnac stones – though this time in the Finistère area – the Cairn de Barnenez is an ancient structure likely dating back to 4,800 BC, and a lesser known monument in France. It is recognised as “the largest megalithic mausoleum” in Europe. 

The Cairn de Barnanez is 72m long and currently measures six metres in height, though experts believe it once was eight to nine metres tall.

It contains 11 chambers, with at least four types of granite having been used in its construction. Older than the pyramids of Giza, archaeologists were able to discover several tools from the Bronze Age inside, and some have been put on display at the visitor’s centre (which is worth the visit too).

Tickets are €6, and you can find more information about planning your trip here.

The Niaux caves (and Grand Sites of Ariège)

If you want to be able to visit prehistoric caves and caverns in person, then you might consider the Niaux caves near the Pyrenees mountains. Many are still open to the public, so you can go in person to see the original paintings of bison, horses and deer that date back 13,000 years.

In order to visit the caves, you’ll need to make an appointment for a guided tour in advance. They typically last about one hour and 45 minutes.

These caves are part of the “Grand Sites of Ariège”, which also includes a great spot for families with kids, the ‘prehistoric park’ where you can enjoy workshops on how prehistoric people hunted, carved flint and lit fires. Both kids and adults can learn about archaeology, view films, and experience intricate reproductions of existing caves.

You can find more information about visiting HERE.

The Gallardet Dolmen

Located in the Hérault département in the south of France, near the village of Le Pouget, this is a prehistoric site that dates back to between 2,800BC to 3,500BC.

Large in size, the dolmen contains a 12 metre long corridor inside that was used as a burial site. The dolmen likely held an important religious or spiritual function at its time of construction. 

The site is easily accessible from the nearby village, with several walking paths that will take you directly to it.

Finally, if you want to explore more of France’s prehistory, you can plan a visit to the National Museum of Prehistory. It is located near the sites at the Vézère Valley, in the village of Les Eyzies. More information here

Member comments

  1. Great article! But if you want to see the oldest visitable decorated caves in France (the originals, that is), take a day trip to the Caves of Arcy-sur-Cure in the Yonne (Burgundy), a short two-hour train ride from Paris Bercy: .

  2. Now need to add more sites to my list, thanks.
    Pech Merle is worth a mention, it is a brilliant site. Cave paintings over 20,000 years old, with many still looking very fresh, especially the spotted horse. The footprint of an adolescent boy dated over 12,000 years old is still visible.

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For members


Five UNESCO recognised sites in France you should visit

France is now home to 51 UNESCO World Heritage sites, all of which would make for a lovely visit. If you are feeling spoiled for choice, here are five of The Local's favourites.

Five UNESCO recognised sites in France you should visit

Maison Carrée

Located in Nîmes in southern France, Maison Carrée was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in September 2023, bringing the total number of French UNESCO sites up to 51.

Built at the start of the previous millennium, between 1 AD and 10 AD, the Maison Carée is one of the best preserved Roman Temples in the world. 

The “Maison Carree” (“square house” in French) in 2022 (Photo by Pascal GUYOT / AFP)

The Museum de la Romanité attributes Maison Carrée’s ‘excellent state of preservation’ to its “continuous use since the 11th century.”

The temple has been used as a private residence, namely during the Middle Ages, and then later it became the property of the Augustinian monks. 

It has also been used as a stable, government office and even the headquarters of the archives of Nîmes before it became a museum and designated historic site.

The Episcopal city of Albi

Also located in the south of France, the town of Albi sits along the Tarn river. The Old City, or the Episcopal city of Albi, was first recognised as a UNESCO site in 2010. 

The cathedral  of Sainte Cécile is made from brick, not stone and it also stands out for its fortifications. It was constructed in the 13th century, shortly after the brutal religious conflict between Catholics and the dissident Cathar sect.

Cathedrale Sainte-Cecile (Also known as the Albi Cathedral) in Albi (Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP)

The Bishop involved in constructing it hoped that the monument would show his power and unity with the king, as well as his disdain for heresy and resistance against religious enemies. 

The interior is decorated with frescos and stained glass.

While in the area, you can also visit the Pont-Vieux, which is one of the oldest bridges along the Tarn and gives a lovely view of the Old City, while the town also boasts an impressive museum dedicated to the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who was born in the area. 

Canal du Midi

Measuring 240km in length, the Canal du Midi gained UNESCO status in 1996 for its ‘outstanding engineering and artistic design’. 

It was built in the 17th century, with the original goal of linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea.

A lock on the Canal du Midi, near Mas-Saintes-Puelles, southern France (Photo by ERIC CABANIS / AFP)

The Canal runs from Toulouse to the Étang de Thau in Sète, near Montpellier, and it is one of the oldest canals still in use.

A feat of engineering and great technical achievement, its creator, Pierre-Paul Riquet, inspired many of the canals to follow. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, the third US president and minister to France at the time, visited the Canal du Midi in 1787 to get inspiration for future canal projects in the nascent United States.

READ MORE: Ten of the best day trips out of Paris

Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Reims 

France is home to many ‘Notre-Dame’ (Our Lady) cathedrals, but the one in Reims, the unofficial capital of France’s Champagne region, stands out.

It was named as a UNESCO site in 1991, but it has been a very important French landmark for centuries. During the Ancien Régime, many French kings were crowned at the Reims Cathedral. 

The Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral in Reims (Photo by FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI / AFP)

Known as one of the great masterpieces of Gothic art, construction on the cathedral began in the 13th century. It was heavily bombed during World War I, and the resulting repairs took almost two decades.


The fortified medieval town of Provins is located a little over an hour’s drive outside of Paris.

Named a UNESCO site in 2001 for its beautifully preserved medieval architecture and 11th century city walls, it was once a trade hub during the Middle Ages. If you happen to visit during the month of June, you can also enjoy their famous Medieval Festival. 

The site is especially known for having hosted trade fairs, where merchants would transport goods between Europe and the East.

Do you have a French UNESCO recommendation? Share your tips in the comments below