City Breaks

Things to see and do in Biarritz

Golden sands, fashionable chic and the surfing set make Biarritz one of the most iconic spots in the south of France. Take the plunge!

Mix sun, sea, sand and art deco splendour and what do you have? The perfect Biarritz cocktail.

This elegant resort on the French Basque coast has been a playground of the rich and famous since the 1850s, leaving a legacy of luxury hotels, fine architecture and a sense of undimmed glamour.

If it is cosmopolitan, Biarritz is also a fun town, especially when the surfers arrive! The huge variety of beaches, shops, attractions, cafés and restaurants make it a thriving holiday spot from spring to autumn.

Have a swell time in Biarritz!   

First, a little history

Biarritz was just a small whaling port before the French Emperor Napoleon III bought a few acres here for his wife, the Empress Eugénie, in the 1850s. Almost in an instant the town was transformed.

It flourished during the Belle Epoque – the ‘Beautiful Era’ of peace and prosperity from 1871-1914 – bringing luxury hotels, casinos, fashion stores and bath houses. When surfers discovered the beaches in the 1950s, the resort entered another golden age.

Where is Biarritz?

A quiet harbour at sunset with boats at anchor. A large seaside town in background, with a large church most prominent

With sweeping views of the Bay of Biscay, Biarritz is just 11 miles from the Spanish border. The Pyrenees are around a two hour drive from Biarritz and Bordeaux less than three hours drive away.

Driving to Biarritz from Calais

It is around a ten and a half hour drive (including tolls) from the LeShuttle Calais Terminal to Biarritz, but the journey can be broken at Rouen, Le Mans, Poitiers and Tours.

The highlights of Biarritz

Whatever you are looking for on this beautiful stretch of the Basque coast, Biarritz will keep you entertained.

La Côte des Basques

Surfers walk across a beautiful sandy beach in early evening with some surfers in the sea

La Côte des Basques is the iconic main beach at Biarritz, a haven for surfers and swimmers. It was the first surfers beach in Europe, having been discovered by the American screenwriter Peter Viertel in 1957 while filming The Sun Also Rises.

Today it is home to a surfing school and surf shops, and in high summer is extremely popular. At sunset, with the mountains in the distance, you will think you are surfing in heaven. But sunbathers will need to have left the beach by then, as the tide comes right up to the roadside!

Phare de Biarritz lighthouse

The lighthouse on the Phare de Biarritz, the rocky outcrop at the edge of Le Grand Plage, has been guiding mariners since 1834. It is still operational today, though fully automated.

73 metres high, the Phare de Biarritz lighthouse has a range of 26 miles. It is open to the public, but to get to the viewing gallery, you will have to climb the 258 twisting steps to the top.

Port Vieux beach

Plage du Port Vieux is the locals’ beach, a cosy cove in the headland between the two main beaches of Biarritz, La Côte des Basques and Le Grand Plage. It has calmer waters than the surfing beaches, and is ideal for families.

There are restaurants and cafés, and lifeguards too. Locals and daring tourists like to dive off the rocks, and the beach is also home to a legendary sea swimming club. Boats and jet skis leave from the nearby Boucalot Rock.

Rocher de la Vierge

A bridge stretches between two rock formations in the sea, amid crashing waves

Jutting out into the Atlantic swell is a rock formation on which stands a statue of the Virgin Mary. She has been there since 1864 after a boatload of Biarritz whalers were saved from certain death when they saw a mysterious light from the shore and followed it back to safety.

The rock was joined to the mainland by a bridge on the orders of Napoleon III, and crossing this walkway (actually a later metal bridge) to the Rocher de la Vierge is now one of the most popular things to do in Biarritz.

Cité de l'Océan et du Surf museum

The intimate relationship Biarritz has with the ocean is celebrated in the family-friendly ‘City Ocean’ museum, housed in a sleek glass building on the Avenue de la Plage. Here through multi-media exhibits you can understand more about how the oceans came to be, the dangers they face, how waves are made and get aboard a virtual reality surfing experience.

Tickets for the Cité de l’Océan can also be used for the Biarritz Aquarium, which sits on a stunning location overlooking the Port Vieux beach and the Rocher de la Vierge.

Grande Plage

Towering cliffs, a long sandy beach with tides rolling in on a summer’s day, with blue sky, white clouds and a seaside town

Perhaps the most iconic beach in Biarritz is the ‘Grande Plage’, a beautiful sweeping bay with golden sands overlooked by some of the town’s grandest art deco buildings. Surfers like it too, but the swell is gentler than La Côte des Basques.

Needless to say it gets very busy during the summer months, but you could always retreat for an ice cream or bite to eat on the elegant promenade. Beach tents can be hired for half a day as well as chairs.

Biarritz has some fantastic beaches, and for more sumptuous sands read our guide to the best beaches in the south of France.

Eugénie’s summer palace - Hôtel du Palais

When Napoleon III and Eugénie discovered Biarritz, they built a palace amid the dunes. The resort as we know it today flourished with their patronage, but it is the Hôtel du Palais that is still the town’s most celebrated building.

Once the monarchy had fallen in the 1870s the summer palace became a hotel and casino as Biarritz flourished during the Belle Epoque. Not just any old casino either – in the mid-20th century it came to epitomise French glamour, with Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner and Coco Chanel among its famous guests.

Very large elegant building of 5 or 6 floors, flags either end, with parkland in front

Port des Pêcheurs

Just around the headland from the Rocher de la Vierge is this charming harbour. It is hard to believe you are so close to the two surfing beaches (it feels like a world away). Port des Pêcheurs was also built by Napoleon III for the fishermen of the town in the 1800s.

The fishermens’ cottages may now be seafood restaurants and the harbour full of pleasure boats, but there is an authentically Basque atmosphere to this part of the seafront. It is ideal for a pre-dinner stroll in the evening.

Église Russe de Biarritz

The Russian church of Biarritz is another legacy of the Empress Eugénie’s patronage of the town. She invited members of the Russian nobility to holiday in Biarritz with her and her husband.

Gradually the Russian community became so influential in the town that a church was built for them. It was completed in just two years and opened in 1892. It has a neo-Byzantine exterior and inside you can see icons that were brought here from St Petersburg.

Musée Asiatica

Don’t leave Biarritz without an hour or two in the Musée Asiatica. You can browse collections of artefacts from Tibet, China and the Indian subcontinent dating from prehistoric times. 

The Indian collections feature statues, textiles, jewellery and weapons from the Bronze Age, while the Tibet and China galleries include prehistoric jade carvings and Thangkas, Buddhist paintings made on silk.

Start your trip to Biarritz with LeShuttle

If this guide to Biarritz has whetted your appetite for the other delights of the French Basque country, why not make it your next French destination? Remember, France is just 35 minutes away via LeShuttle from Folkestone!

Start your trip to Biarritz with LeShuttle

In this article

More southern France inspiration

Driving time