It has to be said that some of the biggest tourist attractions in France are underground. From the sun-kissed regions of the south to the mysterious depths of the Ardennes in the north, these subterranean wonders attract visitors by the millions.
Some of these caves are testimony to prehistoric humans and animals roaming around the French countryside. The oldest cave paintings date back to more than 30,000 years old. There are also fascinating geological formations in many of these caves, with stalactites and stalagmites formed over the millennia.
So, grab your flashlight and let’s dive into the mysteries of the most amazing caves in France, shall we? Allons-y!
1. Grotte Chauvet
One of the greatest cultural treasures in the world is located in the heart of department of Ardèche, about 124 miles (200 km) away from Lyon.
Known as Grotte Chauvet (Cave Chauvet), it is a cave network which has some of the earliest known Paleolithic human cave paintings. Dating back about 28,000 – 32,000 years old these are among the oldest in the world.
There are several panels with some of the earliest known figurative drawings, making it one of the most important prehistoric art sites in the world. These spectacular images were created by prehistoric humans, or Homo sapiens, as they roamed the European continent.
The actual cave is too fragile to allow visitors, and so an exact replica was built called Grotte Chauvet 2. Built to educate visitors about the Paleolithic era, there is an entire complex of exhibitions to visit about the lives of these prehistoric humans. You can read more about visiting Grotte Chauvet 2 here.
2. Lascaux caves
Located near the quaint village of Montignac in the heart of the Périgord Noir, it is here in 1940 during World war II, that 4 teenagers and their dog stumbled upon an entrance to a cave.
The Lascaux caves would become one of the most famous caves in France of all time. It holds a treasure trove of mesmerizingly clear art dating back between 17-000 to 20,000 years.
Today, visiting original Lascaux caves is restricted to scientists. The first meticulous replica of the Lascaux Caves, which is known as Lascaux II, was opened to the public in 1983.
The most recent is Lascaux IV, which is what is open to tourists today. The older Grotte Chauvet cave paintings included carnivores like lions, while Lascaux is mainly farm animals.
The most famous panel at Lascaux, known as the Hall of the Bulls, features larger-than-life renditions of aurochs, horses, and deer. You can read more about visiting the Lascaux caves here.
3. Gouffre de Padirac
For those seeking a subterranean adventure, the Gouffre de Padirac is a must. About 11 miles (18km) from the famed pilgrimage town of Rocamadour is a mesmerizing hole in the ground, leading to an elaborate cave system.
The caves were carved by an ancient river, and were first explored in the 1889.
The chasm itself is 338 feet (103m) deep, and has a diameter of approximately 108 feet (33 metres). The tunnel itself extends over 35 miles (55 km).
Today this natural phenomenon attracts explorers and tourists alike to embark on a boat ride through a portion of these mysterious caves. You can read more about visiting the Gouffre de Padirac here.
4. Grotte Cosquer
The city of Marseille boasts a captivating blend of new and ancient attractions, and Grotte Cosquer is a prime example. One of the newest attractions on the Vieux Port, this cave has hidden in it prehistoric paintings dating back 27,000 years.
While the actual cave is underwater, a full replica has been built next to the Mucem on the Vieux Port.
Located underwater, with access by elevator, visitors get to hop into a little cart, rather like an amusement park ride and travel through the caves, with the automated headphones providing commentary.
Once inside, the cave reveals the intricate drawings and paintings that adorn the walls. From horses to cattle, the artwork is a testament to the creativity and ingenuity of our ancient ancestors.
But the most intriguing part of the Grotte is the handprints that can be seen over several parts of the caves. It was also very interesting to note the penguins drawn on the walls, drawn on the walls, indicating that those creatures once inhabited the shores around the French Riviera. You can read more about visiting Grotte Cosquer here.
5. Grotte de Choranche
About 2 hours drive away from Lyon is the spectacular natural cave called Grotte de Choranche. This incredible natural phenomenon is the only one of its kind in Europe, known for its thousands of fistuleuses stalactites providing quite the spectacle.
About 32,300 meters long, the Grotte de Choranche is located high in the falaises calcaires (meaning “limestones cliffs”) of the Vercours Massif, at an altitude of over 500m.
Partially discovered in 1897, the cave was not fully explored until 1943 which is why it remains so well preserved. Today, thousands of visitors flock to see the famous caves. You can read more about visiting the Grotte de Choranche here.
6. Grotte des Demoiselles
The Grotte des Demoiselles, also known as the “Grotto of the Maidens,” is a spectacular cave located in the Hérault Valley in southern France, near the city of Nimes.
It is renowned for its breathtaking beauty and geological significance, making the cave a popular tourist destination in the area. After centuries of rumors of shepherds and local countrypeople stumbling across the cave, it was properly explored in 1884 by Édouard-Alfred Martel, a pioneer in the field of speleology.
One of the cave’s most striking features is the vastness of its chambers. The large room known as the Cathedral reaches heights of up to 120 meters. The natural formations within the cave include impressive stalactites and stalagmites.
Visitors can explore the cave through guided tours, which offer insights into its geological history, how it was formed, and the unique ecosystem that thrives within its depths.
If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about famous UNESCO heritage sites in France. A bientôt!