From 19th-century European royalty to modern-day surfers, all walks of life have flocked to the stunning beaches of Biarritz in French Basque country. This captivating romantic getaway destination is ideal for long walks on La Grande Plage skirting the pounding surf followed by slow-paced meals spent admiring the stunning cliffside views. But if you pull yourself away from the sun and surf, you will find just the right number of things to do in Biarritz to make for a perfect summer escape.
Biarritz was a popular retreat for decades before the jet set crowds started flocking to Saint-Tropez and Cannes instead. While well known in France, this seaside destination never came onto my radar until I was planning a river cruise in Bordeaux and was trying to decided where to spend a few days relaxing afterwards. My friend from Paso Robles suggested Biarritz and once I started Googling and saw photos of those iconic striped beach umbrellas and got a glimpse of that stunning coastline, I was sold.
If you are debating a trip to southwestern France, don’t hesitate! This is a true European vacation destination, with only a smattering of Americans, offering great food, beautiful luxury hotels, and a stunning coastline that is just off-the-beaten path enough to create a little social media envy. I think it is one of the most picturesque towns in France.
Things to do in Biarritz
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People mostly come to Biarritz to surf at La Côte des Basques, swim and sunbathe on the beaches, shop the designer boutiques, dine on seafood and Basque cuisine, play at the Casino Barrière, and relax. However, if you are into sightseeing, these are the best things to do in Biarritz.
Just keep in mind that it can get quite windy in Biarritz, so it isn’t unusual to have large waves (hence the surfers) and they may close the beaches if the surf gets too dangerous (such was the case on our first two days in Biarritz.) Those winds also bring in storms off the Atlantic, so be sure to pack some layers (you will need a sweater / sweatshirt or jacket in the evenings) and a decent raincoat.
The Biarritz Lighthouse, or Phare de Biarritz, sits on a rocky cliff overlooking the Grande Plage and the town of Biarritz. Built in 1834, the lighthouse stands 73 meters above sea level overlooking Cape Hainsart. You can climb 248 steps to the top in order to see the 360 degree views that stretch all the way down to the Spanish Coast.
The walk from town up to the lighthouse is a bit of a hilly climb but it is well worth the effort for the magnificent views of the striated cliffs from the lighthouse. Once you reach the promontory, the tree-lined path has many scenic overlooks to stop and admire the view before you arrive at the lighthouse.
The Grande Plage is Biarritz’s most famous beach, and for good reason. It’s a wide, sandy beach with dramatic rock formations and stunning views of the Bay of Biscay. It is known for its iconic striped beach tents, which can be rented for the day. I was actually a little bummed that the beach was closed due to high winds and rough surf for the first couple of days of our visit because I was looking forward to renting on of those cuties.
As you can imagine, it is also a popular spot for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing and the beach can get quite crowded, especially on summer weekends. Just behind the beach, you will find a small playground and a carousel, making it great for small children, along with beach shops that sell or rent beach gear. There are also a number of restaurants, smaller food carts, and stands selling crepes, gelato, and casual food.
There are also several hotels located nearby, including the Hôtel du Palais, but keep in mind that you aren’t allowed through the gates of the Hotel du Palais unless you are a guest or on a tour. Just further up the beach past Hotel du Palais you will come to Plage du Miramar, which has great views of the cliffs and the waves crashing against rock formations in the sea.
At one end of this mile-long beach, you’ll find the Casino Barrière Biarritz, a grand casino with a variety of games, restaurants, and bars. The Grande Plage is also a wonderful spot to watch the sunset. You will find people gathered to enjoy nature’s show and often street performers or musicians providing some entertainment.
Rocher de la Vierge
The Rocher de la Vierge, which means Rock of the Virgin, is a rocky outcrop near the Grande Plage with a statue of the Virgin Mary on top. The shrine was built in 1864 by Napoleon III as a thank you to the Virgin Mary for protecting Biarritz from a storm that had threatened to destroy it, but its history dates back to the 11th century when a chapel was first built on the rock.
It was a popular pilgrimage site for Catholics, although old legends tell of a sea serpent that once inhabited the rock and terrorized the people of Biarritz before a knight killed it. Today, you can also across a footbridge from the mainland and enjoy the panoramic views of the beach, city, and Bay of Biscay. Just note that in extremely rough surf, this footbridge is closed. Luckily, on our last day in Biarritz we happened to be at the gate just as they decided to open it and had the pleasure of being the first out on the Rock.
The Biarritz Aquarium is one of the largest aquariums in France, with over 1,200 species of marine life from all over the world. If you are visiting with kids or need something to do when it rains, you can easily spend one to two hours exploring this multi-level aquarium.
Inside, one of the main attractions is the shark tank that is home to a variety of sharks, including blacktip reef sharks, sandbar sharks, and nurse sharks. There is also a ray tank with majestic eagle rays, a sea turtle tank, and a seal tank where you can watch them frolic underwater or learn more during scheduled seal feedings.
Plage du Port Vieux
Plage du Port Vieux is tucked into a cove, offering calmer water than what you will find on the Grande Plage. Just a short walk through town, this beautiful beach can get quite crowded as you can swim or snorkel out quite far in this calm, protected water.
On the cliffs above the beach, you will find a walking path with beautiful scenic viewpoints and there are a number of restaurants that offer patio seating overlooking the beach for one of the prettiest views in town. By the way, if you are visiting with kids you may want to let them know before you go that in France many women go topless on the beach.
Petit Train de Biarritz
If you would like to see the main sights of Biarritz without all the walking, you can climb on board the Petit Train, which is a sightseeing train that is common in many French cities. The train starts and ends at the Grande Plage near the Casino and the round trip takes about 30 minutes and cover just over three miles.
Along the way, you will see (from the open-air train) the Grande Plage, Rocher de la Vierge, Port Vieux, Hôtel du Palais, Port des Pêcheurs, Côte des Basques, Église Sainte-Eugénie, Jardin Public, and the Gare du Midi.
A fun way to fill an afternoon is by browsing the shops along Rue Gambetta or Port des Pêcheurs and the Quartier Saint-Charles. Because Biarritz has catered to the jet set crowd, you will find a number of designer boutiques, such as Chanel, Dior, ba&sh, Sessun, American Vintage, and others. There is also a Galleries Lafayette department store with designer offerings.
If you prefer to purchase some local specialties as souvenirs, look for the shops that sell espadrilles or high-quality Basque linen. You could also spend a morning admiring the local produce and goods at Marché des Halles and try Bayonne ham (but don’t try taking it home) or the Piment d’Espelette chili pepper that is popular in Basque cuisine and can be purchased in a powder or dried form.
I happen to think that Biarritz is the perfect destination for a relaxing holiday that you don’t want to fill with too many “to dos”. Rain or shine, a great way to relax is at the spa and I happily spent one of our rainy afternoons in Biarritz ensconced in the luxurious Imperial Spa at the Hôtel du Palais. Not just for guests, this luxurious spa offers a wide range of treatments, including massages, facials, and body wraps. The spa also has a heated indoor pool, a Jacuzzi, and a sauna.
Other options include the Sofitel Biarritz Le Miramar Thalassa Sea & Spa, Spa Alaena, and The Regina Experimental Hotel & Spa Biarritz.
Where to Stay in Biarritz
There are many beautiful hotels in Biarritz but I was completely enamored by the Hôtel du Palais, which is part of the Unbound Collection by Hyatt (hooray for World of Hyatt members that can use or earn points!) This luxury hotel was originally built as a summer villa for Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III. Designed by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the villa was a grand and opulent residence and it remains so today.
From a prime position on the Grand Plage, it stands as a landmark of Biarritz. Fortunately, the service and rooms live up to the standards that you would expect from such a grand hotel. From beautifully-appointed rooms with elegant decor but modern amenities, to a Michelin-star restaurant, and a multi-floor spa, the Hotel du Palais landed itself on my list of favorite hotels in the world.
The hotel has a large outdoor pool overlooking the beach, with attentive service and a poolside restaurant. And, despite our visit in August during high season, the pool was not overcrowded, and it was easy to find unoccupied chairs.
Find other places to stay in Biarritz:
Where to Eat in Biarritz
Biarritz cuisine is a blend of French and Spanish / Basque influences, with strong reliance on the sea. With a reputation as a luxury travel destination, there is no shortage of fantastic restaurants to try. Just keep in mind that you should make reservations in advance, especially when visiting during the summer months.
A few of note include:
- La Table d’Aurélien Largeau – this 1 star Michelin restaurant takes up the outer rim of the dining room at the Hotel du Palais, offering the most beautiful views in Biarritz. You know it is good because when we were there, famous French chef Daniel Boulud was dining in the best seat in the house. If the menu is too pricey for your wallet, you can dine in the inner circle of the same dining room at La Rotonde – Côté Maison (that’s what we did and it was still fabulous!)
- Chistera et Coquillages – vibrant Spanish / Basque restaurant with great seafood dishes.
- Le O2 Verdun – small, informal, and affordable restaurant in the heart of town offering French, Basque, and European cuisine.
- Chez Eugenie Biarritz -sun-filled, indoor restaurant offering fresh seafood and beautiful views of the Grand Plage.
- Nuts Biarritz – cute and cozy cafe that is perfect for brunch serving up healthy French and Middle Eastern dishes, smoothies, and coffee with indoor and outdoor seating.
- La Petite Plage Biarritz – perfect spot for lunch or cocktails overlooking the Petite Plage.
Getting to Biarritz
Biarritz is located on the southwest Atlantic coast of France and it is easily accessible by train, bus, or car from Paris or San Sebastian, Spain. TGV trains from Paris Montparnasse station take about 4 hours and 30 minutes to reach Biarritz station and the train from San Sebastian to Biarritz takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
If you prefer to travel by air, you can fly into Biarritz Airport (BIQ), which is located about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the city center. Air France and other airlines fly into Biarritz, connecting through Paris if you are traveling from the U.S.
Once you are in Biarritz, the town is very walkable, but you will want to prearrange for a taxi to and from the airport or train station, as there aren’t too many otherwise available and you might have to wait for quite a bit.