Auvergne: Planning Your Trip

Remote and secret, the Auvergne is worth discovering.

Auvergne volcanic landscape
Getty/Martial Colomb

The Auvergne is one of France's hidden destinations, long kept apart from the rest of the country by its mountains, forests, and wild countryside. At the very core of the vast Massif Central, the Auvergne is a region of contrasts, stretching from Moulins in the rich Bourbonnais region of the north to Le Puy-en-Velay and Aurillac in the much more rural southern Haute-Loire.

Still relatively undiscovered by tourists, the Auvergne is a place to walk the high plateau, scramble down to the rivers, and visit historic medieval-era towns. It is the largest volcanic region in Europe also home to one of the great starting points for pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. In this beautiful landscape, you'll find heavily forested mountainsides, gorges, and river valleys.

There is much to be inspired by and discover in the sparsely-populated and wild Auvergne, but you'll need to be prepared. From how you get around to where you stay, what you eat, and which cities you visit, it takes a little cultural know-how to plan the perfect adventure into the heart of the French countryside.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Between June and September, the warm weather is great for exploring the outdoor scenery. If you prefer winter sports, you can typically find snow in mountains between December and March.
  • Language: French
  • Currency: Euro
  • Getting Around: A rental car will be the most useful asset for a trip to the Auvergne, but if you don't have a car, shuttles from Clermont-Ferrand are available to transport visitors to the Puy de Dôme and Vulcania.
  • Travel Tip: You can also travel through the gorges of the Allier and the national park by this little-known touristic train. The two-hour trip begins in Langeac and goes through 53 tunnels on the way to Lagnogne.

Things to Do

The Auvergne offers an abundance of natural beauty, so you'll want to bring a sturdy pair of walking shoes. The area has something for everyone. You can go white water rafting, cross-country skiing, ballooning, kayaking, swimming, bicycling, and walking along the well-signposted grandes randonées (numbered GR routes). Check in each local town and village for information. Here, you can explore the ancient volcanic landscapes and more recent history at World War II-era museums.

  • Chaîne des Puys: This mountain range offers spectacular scenery, mineral waters like Volvic Spring, and the National Regional Park of the Volcanos topped by the Puy-de-Dôme which the extremely energetic can walk up. In the southern part, you can take the Plomb du Cantal cable car from the ski resort of Le Lioran for a spectacular view of the mountains.
  • Vulcania: This superb theme park is devoted to volcanoes. It features interactive and dramatic 3D films about the eruptions in the region and a dragon-themed ride. The park is located at the foot of the Puy de Lemplegy, just 26 kilometers (16 miles) west of Clermont-Ferrand.
  • Mont Mouchet Museum of the Resistance: At this museum, you'll learn about the story of the Maquis resistance in June 1944 which held up German divisions on their way north to Normandy and the D-Day Landings.

What to Eat and Drink

The cuisine of the Auvergne is deeply connected to its agricultural traditions. Dishes in the Auvergne are rich and hearty, using ingredients like pork, potatoes, and cheese. The best-known dish is potée auvergnate, a kind of pot-au-feu of cabbage, potatoes, bacon, beans, and turnips. Chou farci is cabbage stuffed with beef and pork. Equally satiating is l’aligot, puréed potatoes mixed with cheese.

The cheese of the Auvergne is famous across France, ranging from the cow’s milk St. Nectaire to Bleu d’Auvergne and taking in Laguiole, Cantal, and Fourme d’Ambert. Local sausages made from pork are also worth buying and there are endless varieties of marvelous honey from bees living in the forests and fields of the region.

The region is known for producing two vin de pays, or country wines. Vin de pays du Bourbonnais is a soft rosé and vin de pays du Puy-de-Dôme can be red, white, or rosé and are characterized by their light structure and freshness. It has also seen a burgeoning of natural wineries, which can be tasted in Clermont-Ferrand at Le Saint-Eutrope, a small bistro with a wide selection of regional and organically-made wines.

Where to Stay

If you prefer an active urban environment Clermont-Ferrand is the Auvergne's largest city, best known as the home of Michelin tires, but it’s also an ancient city going back to Roman times. Another larger city is Moulins, which is the capital of the Bourbonnais region and has a medieval cathedral with wonderful stained glass windows, a black virgin, a superb triptych from the Master of Moulins. Vichy is best-known for its hot springs and is a delightful and rather sedate town with beautiful Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings. You can also find belle époque hotels in Saint-Nectaire, the town for which the Auvergne's famous cheese is named.

Saint-Flour is a historic city, once the seat of a 14th-century bishopric, and Le Puy-en-Velay is a must-see for those interested in religious history. Dominated by extraordinary monuments perched on the "needles" of rock that rise up from the town's skyline, Le Puy-en-Velay is one of the great medieval starting points for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. If you'd rather stay in a more rural corner of the Auvergne, consider a detour east of Clermont-Ferrand to the very small village of Bort l'Etang, where you can find the Château de Codignat, a romantic 14th-century castle hotel.

Getting There

Clermont-Ferrand is the largest city of the Auvergne and is an ideal starting point for a vacation in the area. Flights are available from Paris, Lyon, and other European cities to the Clermont Airport which is 7 kilometers (3.5 miles) east of the city center. Clermont-Ferrand is 423 kilometers (262 miles) from Paris and by car, the journey takes around 4 hours. From Lyon, Clermont-Ferrand is 104 miles (168 kilometers) west, which is about a two-hour drive.

Clermont-Ferrand is a great base, but if you have a rental car and are driving from Paris, you can stop first in Moulins and Vichy, before arriving in Clermont-Ferrand. From here, it is easy to visit the Chaine des Puys and Vulcania in the west, and then you can continue south to visit the towns of Saint-Nectaire, Saint-Flour, and Le Puy-en-Velay.

Culture and Customs

The Auvergne is not well connected to the rest of the country by train, so it is often perceived as being isolated. The landscape of the Auvergne can make it a difficult place to live, but Auvergnats are very proud of their Saint-Nectaire cheese, truffles, and the verdant beauty of the surrounding mountains.

The Auvergne is not only the most sparsely populated region of France, it's also one of the least populated regions of Europe. The economy is based mostly on agriculture, but it also happens to be the home of Michelin, the world-famous tire company best known for its highly selective star-rating restaurant system. Michelin is based in Clermont-Ferrand, the historic capital of the region. In this city, the most iconic building is the ash-black cathedral which was built from locally cut volcanic rock. Although Clermont-Ferrand is the largest city in the Auvergne, Le Puy-en-Velay is one of the region's most important cultural centers as it has a deeply religious history, serving as one of the main stops along the historic Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.

There are many cultural attractions in the region, but the Auvergne is primarily regarded as an outdoorsy destination, popular with campers, hikers, and skiers. However, if you travel south, you can also find remnants of prehistoric culture in the Chauvet Cave, where hundreds of cave paintings were discovered in 1994. Access to the cave is restricted because too many visitors can damage the paintings, but there is an exact replica located a kilometer away that is open to the public.

Money Saving Tips

  • The Auvergne is one of the most affordable travel destinations in France, but you will need to rent a car to make the most of the experience. If you try to travel only by public transit or taxi, you will end up spending more money.
  • You can purchase the 48- or 72-hour ClermontPass in Clermont-Ferrand, which includes access to attractions like the Panoramique des Dômes, Michelin adventure, and other attractions.
  • There are many campgrounds in the Auvergne, so if you have your own equipment or are renting a campervan, this is a great way to save some money.
  • Look out for street and flea markets as you travel through each village. These are great opportunities to get great prices on fresh food or find a beautiful antique to take home as a souvenir.