The Underrated Little Town Rick Steves Says Is One Of The Prettiest In France

When you think of French travel, you might picture Paris or the beaches of the South of France, but the country — the third largest by size in all of Europe — is brimming with hidden gems and cute, underrated towns unknown to many international tourists. One example, according to travel expert Rick Steves, is Dordogne.

Dordogne is technically a province, rather than a town, located in the Dordogne River Valley region. Still, you're treated to a charming small-town feeling wherever you turn. Steves, who featured Dordogne on his website and in an episode of his TV show "Rick Steves' Europe," named the province's La Roque-Gageac as a "strong contender for 'cutest town in France,'" likely for its cliffside houses, Renaissance-style Château de la Malartrie, and picturesque riverbank.

Steves also noted the beauty of Beynac, a medieval village with scenery just as worthy of being on a postcard. Its hilly landscape and 12th-century castle instantly transports visitors to the times of fairytale princes and princesses. For a balanced marriage of contemporary and historical, the travel guru visited the town of Sarlat-la-Canéda. Though you'll find hotels, boutiques, and restaurants in the town, you'll also notice how pristinely preserved the old buildings and cobblestone streets are. Consider Sarlat the perfect base for your Dordogne trip.

For a unique experience, ditch the car

You won't find big attractions — and certainly nothing as large and bright as the Eiffel Tower — while exploring Dordogne, but what you get in the province is the feeling of escaping everyday life and stepping into the simple village lifestyle of the people who live there. Just walking around the area's towns, with their typical rock-roofed cottages, quaint châteaux houses, and narrow streets, can be a fascinating way to get to know the area — no touristy bells and whistles needed.

Canoeing is one activity that's just as authentic to the area as it is fun, and Rick Steves recommends a trip down the Dordogne River to just about any traveler — including, as he mentioned on his website, a "spry, 73-year-old grandmother" visiting Europe. Canoes can be rented and used to travel between the many villages dotting the river. Once you find a town that catches your eye, simply stow your canoe on the bank and go exploring by foot (though, of course, be sure to retrieve your canoe once you're done and return it to the agreed-upon point).

Cycling is another easygoing way to get around Dordogne, though inexperienced cyclists should watch out for strenuous hills between the villages. Aim for the "voie vert" paths found in the countryside, which are off-limits to motorized vehicles, making them a safe and enjoyable way to get around.

Don't miss the castles, caves, and local cuisine

You might be satisfied just traversing around the Dordogne River Valley aimlessly, given the abundance of stunning sights, but there are a few must-visit spots you should add to your travel itinerary. For breathtaking architecture and a bit of history, make your way to one of the area's castles, including Château de Beynac, Château de Castelnaud, and Château des Milandes (though you'll find plenty more around the region — Dordogne is known as "the land of 1,001 castles," after all).

Caves are another popular site in the area, with the Lascaux caves being among the most famous. The original Lascaux caves have barred public entry for decades, but a replica allows visitors to tour a cave site with recreations of the original prehistoric cave art. Grotte de Rouffignac is another cave complex featuring prehistoric drawings, though note that the attraction closes during the winter.

If all the canoeing and sightseeing tires you out, you're in luck. Dordogne is bursting with delicious food to refuel your body and entice your taste buds. Rick Steves suggests visiting Sarlat's Saturday market for fresh goods, including foie gras, nuts, and seasonal produce. The province is also home to multiple wineries, and tourists can book tours to sample the local vin.