In conversations about French seaside destinations, most of the hype attaches to the glamorous towns of the French Rivera: Cannes, Nice, Saint-Tropez and such. But what about the Atlantic coast? What about Basque Country, Normandy and Bretagne?
Biarritz, a small, beautiful town in the southwest of France near the border with Spain, rarely makes it to the top of anyone’s bucket list. Yet, after living there for a month last summer, I’ve come to believe that this town is greatly under-appreciated.
Biarritz has been around for almost a thousand years. It has a long and rich history as a summer spot for the French monarchy, the House of Bonaparte, and many other significant figures in European history. Now, though, it gets more publicity for its surf culture. This is how I ended up there in the first place.
For most of the year, Biarritz is a provincial seaside town with population of approximately 25,000. Around July and August, though, its population blows up, increasing by as much as tenfold, all thanks to the Parisians and English who invade the town during their summer vacations.
Tourist Stuff to Warm Up With
There are a few major attractions that anyone visiting Biarritz should be interested in checking out. Here’s a quick rundown, before I move on to some of the more unique experiences the town has to offer.
La Grande Plage – The main beach in the town center. La Grade Plage is good place for sunbathing, or for sitting in a cafe drinking coffee or a cocktails. During the winter, it’s a great surf spot; in summer the waters warm up but the surf conditions become less ideal.
Le Phare – “The lighthouse” is visible from virtually anywhere around La Grande Plage. It’s a nice observation point. On the opposite side from the cliff, a staircase leads to the other side of the horn, with a view towards Anglet, the next town to the north.
Hotel du Palais – This resort was originally built as a villa for the wife of Napoleon III. It sits just above La Grand Plage and boasts a nice walking path on its seaward side. Good luck walking the path during the high tide without getting wet!
You May See the Roxy Pro Biarritz Surfing Competition
If you’re lucky. But if you’re not…
It was 2013, on one of those late June mornings when the waters of the Bay of Biscay are still cold and the sun is still hiding behind the clouds. I was surfing La Grande Plage, wearing a wetsuit. All of a sudden I saw a girl in bikini and a pink rash guard picking up her board and paddling out. A cameraman followed her out towards where I sat. I actually had to move aside a couple times, as I kept getting in between the surfer and her cameraman. I was curious what it was all about; I found out a few days later, as this video started blowing up in surfing communities around the world:
The closing shot of this teaser was filmed just in front of me. I was no more than ten feet behind the cameraman.
Back then I was thinking, boy, it takes a lot of commitment to shoot a hot video in such cold conditions. My respect to Stephanie Gilmore, a five-time ASP Women’s World Tour Champ.
The contest itself was to be held at the Cote de Basques beach, but was called off after five days due to the waves not being cooperative. This didn’t stop the public from talking about the sport and its representatives, though, as that promo video was barreled in the wave of controversy.
Without wading into the debate over nudity and sex appeal, I’d like to point out Steph’s list of “Favorite Cities to Visit”.
All of them, especially NYC, Paris and Biarritz
I second that! May I just add Buenos Aires even though it has zero surfing? If not, Montauk will do but that’s another topic:)!
In many, cases my adoration of a city begins with a study of its architecture. While many of the more modern buildings in Biarritz are nothing to rave about, the older castle and palace-like structures are inspiring. Who would mind living in a Hotel Particulier kinda mansion?
This one below is my ideal retirement home. Overlooking two best surf spots in Biarritz, washing its feet in the open ocean, gazing out from its dramatic overlook, this mansion on a cliff has it all.
Well, one day!
Villa Goeland could make such a dream a reality for only $200 to $300 per night:). And why not? We live only once, and some Bed & Breakfasts are totally worth the extravagance!
The “Best Crêpes Outside of Brittany” Award
A few years back, I spent some time in the town of Saint Malo, in Brittany, where the art of making crêpes is alive and well. I’ve also eaten many times in the Monparnasse area of Paris, where bretons (the folks from Brittany) settled in the early 1900s and opened up many traditional restaurants.
One little family restaurant just off the Grand Plage in Biarritz completely blew my mind. It’s called La Crêpe Dentelle. It’s run by a couple from Brittany, who ran two restaurants there until deciding one day to move to Biarritz. The owners explained to me that the climate in Biarritz is more pleasant—and, apparently, no one else here knows how to make authentic crêpes. A win-win situation for crêperie owners, then.
Their specialty, a pot of mussels with cider sauce and different types of crêpe blé noir, is to die for. Truly remarkable! These mussels, after a good surf session, are worth flying across the Atlantic for.
Who Would Guess That Golf Is So Much Fun?
I would never have learned how to play golf if it wasn’t for Biarritz. Right up until the moment that I hit the ball first time, I hadn’t realized how exciting this sport really is. Golf had always seemed like boring entertainment for rich retired folks. Oh boy, I was wrong big time!
A friend of mine I’d met in Montauk a year before lives in an apartment just over the golf course in Biarritz. We managed to sneak in a few rounds before a big tournament took over the course. What a fun time we had!
Thank you, Jon and Kasia, for introducing me to golf and teaching the basics! There is plenty more to learn—but in the meantime just look at my shoes and pants, what a joker!
Centuries-Old Traditions Well Preserved by the Basques
While Biarritz is situated in France, it has a different flavor to it. It’s a part of the beautiful Basque Country that runs along the Atlantic coast of Spain and across into a little section of French territory.
One thing I absolutely adore is their espadrilles, the traditional shoes made in the region for centuries.
Espadrilles usually feature canvas or cotton fabric over a flexible sole made of rope, or rubber material moulded to look like rope. The jute rope sole is the defining characteristic of an espadrille, while the upper part can vary widely in style.
One incredible thing about these shoes is that there is no left or right: the pair is identical. I bought two pairs for my sister and myself. Check it out to the right!
From 14th century up to today, the Basques still make these shoes by hand in many towns in both France and Spain. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the average price of a pair is still somewhere in the range of $10 to $30.
A year later, my espadrilles have gone through mud and tropical rainstorms but still feel solid and comfortable. Depending on my mood I wear them with their back up, or flipped down like sleepers.
I can tell they are made with love, as everything in this world should be:
Have you ever been to this part of the world? What was your experience?
4 thoughts on “An Anti-Tourist Guide to the Most Under-Appreciated Seaside Town in France”
I also would like to say a few words about movie theatre “Cinema le Royal”. To my opinion this theatre has a great director. I was highly delighted to see so many indie movies on the list. 😉
Yes, the movie theater and their selection are remarkable.In the summer they also run 3 for 3 program – three euros for three movies. I loved that!
Last year I was in hossegor for a week and went only for a day to Biaritz. Now that I read your article I’m 100% sure I’m going back this summer. Great article mate
Thanks Mickaelrochat! Hossegor is on my Regret-coz-didnt-visit list. I’ve seen some amazing photos from there. I will definitely come back to Biarritz and do more scouting on the areas around. I am happy the post was inspiring to you.