Is Cantal the best place you’ve never heard of? Quite possibly. In fact, unless you’re French, chances are you’ve never even heard of this area, which is quite simply one of the four departments of Auvergne. Each one is really quite different from the other; more specifically, Cantal is all about the great outdoors and spectacular landscapes, dotted with cheese farms, winding mountain roads, and towering volcano peaks. Here are the absolute best things to do in Cantal, whether you’re a first-timer or a connoisseur.
Top Things To Do In Cantal
Les Bains du Rouget
Overlooking a tranquil green valley, Les Bains du Rouget is a first-class spa nourished by the mineral-rich waters of the adjacent Lake Moulègre. The wellness centre offers massages, jacuzzis, hammams, aqua training, and other beauty and aesthetics facilities.
Auberge de Concasty
Martine Causse, Concasty’s owner, is one of the friendliest persons I’ve ever met—and if that wasn’t enough, she cooks a mean steak that still, to this day, has my mouth water in anticipation. The seasonal hotel is part of a historic stone building surrounded by lush vineyards and woodlands and features 12 rustic yet refined guest rooms and an outstanding terroir restaurant.
At 562 hectares, Lake Saint-Étienne-Cantalès is one the largest artificial lake in Auvergne. It was created as part of the eponymous dam project nearby in the 1940s and now caters mostly to tourists, with plentiful watersports opportunities as well as leisurely hiking trails.
Aurillac may be one of the main cities in Auvergne, it’s still surprisingly small. Not that this is a bad thing; with its narrow medieval streets and hidden passageways, its Jordanne riverfront flanked by historic 12th-century houses, and its Benedictine heritage, Aurillac is a city worth visiting and not just a pit stop.
Le Puy Mary / Pas de Peyrol
Welcome to one of Cantal’s “grand sites de France”! An area of outstanding natural beauty, Puy Mary is part of the Massif Cantalien and is, technically, the largest volcano in Europe. Getting to the dramatic peak is a rather challenging 1,700 metres hike but visitors are rewarded with unobstructed 360° views of the mountain range. It’s also possible to drive to Pas de Peyrol right below the summit, where there are restaurants and a tourist information centre.
I’ve already talked about Salers on this blog, as it’s officially ranked one of the prettiest villages in France. Nestled deep in the Parc naturel régional des volcans d’Auvergne, Salers is famous for its dark lava stone building, often topped with distinctive turrets dating back to the Renaissance period.
The Garabit Viaduct is a railway arch bridge spanning the River Truyère near Ruynes-en-Margeride built by none other than Gustave Eiffel himself; in fact, it is said that Garabit was a practice, of sorts, for the iconic Iron Lady in Paris that would come to life a few years later. The striking red wrought iron bridge was, at the time, the highest in the world at 124 metres above River Truyère.
Château de Val
There are many estates and châteaux in Cantal, but my favourite is Château de Val. Built in the 15th century by the noble d’Estaing family (which was basically royalty at the time, and still is, in some prospects), the fortress is built on a rocky peninsula in the mighty River Dordogne. It’s now a historic monument of France.
Cheese Route / La cave de Salers
If you’re even remotely curious about cheese, you have to explore the Auvergne cheese route. The region is home to five emblematic cheeses which are pretty much the pride and joy of locals: Fourme d’Ambert, Cantal, Salers, Saint-Nectaire, and the world famous Bleu d’Auvergne. The route’s 40 stops will take you straight to cheese farms and production centres, allowing you to really immerse yourself in the savoir-faire and know-how of this impossibly tasty tradition.
La cave de Salers is also one of the most interesting things to do in Cantal, as it features an interesting exhibit on the history and industry of cheese in Auvergne. But to be honest, I was only there for the tasting session.