Somewhere on the train line between the touristic towns of Toulouse and Bordeaux, you’ll find it. A place that few have heard of and even fewer have visited, Agen is the kind of city where timber-framed houses can be found in abundance and where history is never too far away. The rugby and prune capital of France can easily be explored over the course of a day. Here’s a guide to the best things to do in Agen!
A brief history of Agen
Lying alongside the River Garonne (one of the five major rivers of France), Agen was first founded in Antiquity. During the Roman era, the city was known as Aginnum and was inhabited by the Celtic Nitiobroges. Much like many other cities in the South of France (such as Narbonne), Agen was then occupied by the Romans from the 1st Century BCE to around the 3rd Century CE.
At this time, Agen was known as Civitas Agenensium and the city’s trade flourished. In 303 CE, it’s alleged that it was here in Agen where the Saints Faith (Foy) and Caprasius were martyred. By the time of the 6th-century, King Clovis seized power and Agen was made the capital of the Agenais region of France.
During the 11th-century, Agen had been incorporated into the Dukedom of Aquitaine and it was at this point that the Agen of today began to take shape. After all, during the Hundred Year War, the English and the French continuously struggled over Agenais.
It wasn’t until the death of Margaret of France (Marguerite de Valois) in 1615 that Agen was returned to France. Today, the city is one of the most important in the Lot-et-Garonne department of France. And though it may not seem much to look at on a first glance, dig deep into the surface of the city and you’ll soon discover a wealth of history and culture worth discovering…
The best things to do in Agen
Cathedral of Saint-Caprais
Built in the 12th-century, the church is dedicated to Saint Caprasius. Free to visit, be sure to wander inside for the true masterpiece of this Cathedral: the ornately painted 19th-century frescoes that adorn the walls, ceilings, and altar-piece of the ecclesiastical building.
Now a UNESCO world heritage site, Agen’s cathedral has been the city’s cathedral since 1803 and is impressive with Gothic and Renaissance stylistic features. Also of note is that Saint-Caprais is one of the churches on the roads of France on the Way of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela.
La Tour de Notre-Dame du Chapelet
One of the oldest visible monuments in the city can be found in the form of the tower of Notre Dame du Chapelet. Once part of the city’s defensive walls, in time the tower was incorporated into a monastery to serve as a belfry. Now, the brick façade can be admired from afar.
Chapelle Notre-Dame du Bourg
Dating back to the 13th-century, this small chapel is just one of the many churches and chapels that can be found sprinkled across the city of Agen. Once the chapel of an important regional cemetery, the side of the building is home to a unique clock, while the brick build is reminiscent of Toulousain architecture.
The oldest private residence in Agen can be found in the form of Le Sénéchal. And with roots dating all the way back to the 14th-century, it’s hardly surprising that many visitors flock to Rue Puits de Saumon to admire the pretty stone building.
Le Théâtre Ducourneau, Place du Docteur Esquirol
Right next to Agen’s town museum, the first stone of the theatre was laid in 1906 by the-then president of the Republic of France, Armand Fallières. The theatre of Agen is the first of its kind in l’Hexagon to be constructed in re-enforced concrete.
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Housed in several former ‘Maison Particuliers,’ the turreted town museum of Agen is one of the best things to do in the city and is spread across several mansion houses. Established in 1876, the museum is best-known for its 5 Goya plates and countless impressionist pieces, including several by Monet and Sisley.
Le Canal de Garonne (The Canal des Deux Mers)
Situated a little way out the city, the canal of the River Garonne was inaugurated in 1857. Linking the Pink City, Toulouse, to the Atlantic Ocean, today the easy-to-navigate waters are popular among pleasure cruises. Adjacent pathways mean that cycling or walking alongside the canal couldn’t be easier.
The Canal des Deux Mers is sometimes used to refer to the Canal du Midi but is also used to describe the entire canal route across France, which incorporates the Garonne Canal and Canal du Midi. So-called because when the Romans arrived in the area, thanks to the way the two rivers flow into the area, they believed that they were between ‘two seas’, the name has stuck around ever since.
Le Pont-Canal (Agen Aqueduct)
Spanning over the part of the Canal de Garonne closest to the city, the rather impressive Pont-Canal is easily one of the best things to do in Agen. Construction of the aqueduct began on the 25th of August 1839 when the Duke of Orleans laid the first stone. Today, the aqueduct is supported by 23 arches, and encompasses four locks, making it the second longest aqueduct in France (580 metres long).
Explore Rue Beauville
Often said to be the ‘most beautiful street in Agen’, Rue Beauville is all cobbled lane and timber-framed houses, providing a true glimpse into what Agen must have looked like in times gone by. Many of the residences along Rue Beauville date all the way back to the 15th-century.
Église Notre Dame des Jacobins
All brick façade, this church dates back to the 13th-century and was established by the Dominicans in 1249. A rare example of Dominican architecture in France, the building is no longer consecrated but has since been incorporated into the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Should you wish to visit today, you can expect to pay an entry fee if you want to enjoy the exhibitions housed within.
Wander around the old town
Much of the charm in Agen lies in the ability to traverse the city by foot in the space of a couple of hours. The historic part of the town has plenty of Gothic architecture, numerous cobbled streets, and no less than thirty historic monuments and buildings. Must-see attractions in the historic old town include Place des Laitiers for an organic market on Saturdays and Rue des Corniers for the chance to spy some medieval houses.
Sample the world-famous Agen Plums
Truth be told, Agen is most famous for its prunes (Ente plums) that are actually grown in the fields and villages surrounding the city. Sometimes steeped in brandy, this local French speciality is a must-sample when in the region. Each year, on the last weekend in August, Agen hosts ‘Le Pruneau Show, Les Fête d’Agen’ over three days, in which live music, sports, and plum culture are celebrated.
L’Ermitage (the Hermitage)
The story of Agen goes back to at least 400 BCE when the Nitiobroges inhabited the area. Their first settlement was likely on le Plateau de l’Ermitage, i.e. the top of the highest rock in the area. Now, the hermitage can be found around 150 metres above the rest of the city.
Situated high above the city on Ermitage Hill (which stands at 162 metres high), the Hermitage of Agen is now closed to the public. However, a nearby sign can be found at the perfect viewpoint location for admiring the best of Agen. This plaque tells a little history of the town (in French, of course) and depicts, with a map, all of the main attractions the city has to offer.
Where to stay in Agen
There are several places to stay in Agen and it’s the perfect stop-off en route to Toulouse from Bordeaux or vice-versa. As such, I recommend giving yourself an overnight stay in the city so as to fully explore Agen’s countless cobbled lanes and historic past. Here’s some of the best accommodation in Agen based on web reviews and location:
Hôtel Château des Jacobins: Located opposite the Église des Jacobins, if you’re looking for a true taste of luxury while in Agen, be sure to book yourself into this four-star accommodation. Check prices and availability here.
Citotel Stim’Otel – Hôtel – Restaurant: I personally stayed at the Stimotel during my time in the city and found it to be clean, affordable, and comfortable; i.e. perfect for a quick one-night stopover. Located steps away from the historic city centre, it was also just a ten-minute walk from the train station. Check prices and availability here.
Contact Hôtel le Provence Agen: This three-star hotel is generally well-reviewed and comes with complimentary WiFi. Check prices and availability here.
When to visit Agen and tips for your French adventure
While much of the charm of Agen lies in its offbeat nature and significant wealth of history, there is no ‘best time of the year to visit Agen’ as the city doesn’t ever get truly busy. Though it’s true that all the hotels, cafés, and restaurants will be open during the summer and many close during the winter, spring and autumn are also great times to plan a trip.
Agen is on the train line somewhere between Bordeaux and Toulouse, meaning that the city can easily be visited in a day, or across a long weekend if you have a little time. You can also visit Agen from Paris. Although Agen doesn’t have its own international airport, you’ll find well-served airports in Bordeaux and Toulouse.
Alternatively, if you’re looking to visit by car, the road network to reach Agen is excellent. Visiting by boat? No problem. Agen is served by the Canal des Deux Mers. Small and compact, the city is easy to walk around on foot, though should you head to the canal or the hermitage, then you’ll need to factor in a little extra time.