This part of the world is so renown that the very phrase “the south of France” conjures up images of great wine, glamorous beaches, and glitzy terrace restaurants. It’s all true — southern France really is a slice of heaven! I visited the Basque country in southwest France (Bayonne and Biarritz) last summer, returning after having visited a decade earlier. I also traveled to Nice on the earlier trip, taking a long-haul train from west to east, passing through this sunny, vibrant region.
Biarritz– on France’s southwest coast– might be my favorite city in France. It has a walkable old city with historic buildings, great food, green parks, and a long, sandy beach. It is a famous getaway for surfers and sunbathers alike; it also features the palatial summer home of Napoleon III, which has become a five-star hotel and casino.
The Plages de la Cote des Basques stretches on as far as the eye can see, although it becomes swallowed up by the sea in the late afternoon as the tide rolls in. The path leading down to the sea winds through a pleasant park of vibrant trees, with small alcoves to stop and take in the scenery. The various parts of town are connected via a series of walking paths along the water, which sometimes jut out on rocky outcrops carved into arches and other formations by the sea– including the Rocher de la Vierge (with a statue of Virgin Mary on top). The Villa Belza is an example of the classic grandiose homes dotted atop the clifftops.
Further north is the Grand Plage— the main beach — surrounded by plenty of restaurants and cafes. The city center has some world-class pastry shops, as well– such as Chocolaterie Henriet, where I had a super-rich chocolate pastry bomb — with more calories than I care to know : )
When I visited in 2019, I crashed with a friend who was staying at the Radisson Blu. It has an outstanding rooftop pool and bar, with live music and awesome views over the ocean — it made for a great home base while in the city!
The food here is fabulous. We ate dinner one night at Le Pim’Pi Bistrot, which has exceptional fare and great coffee! (I had a dish made of polenta, ham, and prawn, featured below). There’s also a great snack / tapas scene around town. The Biarritz Market is a popular spot to buy meats and produce– and also wine by the glass with meat/cheese boards. Nearby vendors sell fresh oysters from along France’s coast, as well as goose liver pate (to go), which you can enjoy over a barrel with a glass of wine in the public common space. There are plenty of restaurants and bars in this area and it turns into a lively nightlife spot!
In my most recent trip to Biarritz, I arrived on Assumption Day (August 15) and was treated to a spectacular fireworks show along the waterfront that evening. We watched the fireworks from the upper-part of town, since the lower part (by the beach) was mobbed with thousands of spectators!
Bayonne is an exceptional city in the heart of France’s Basque region — and is an easy commuter bus ride away from Biarritz. The city is surrounded by old ramparts that have been transformed into green parks with a nearby botanical garden. The Cathedral Sainte-Marie is beautifully decorated and — when I last visited — it hosted a local crafts market inside its medieval courtyard, featuring clothing, leather products, art work, jewelry, etc.
The old city is spectacular, filled with narrow streets lined by colorful, timber-and-mortar buildings. There are plenty of shops and cafes dotted throughout the old city– and I definitely recommend visiting the Carreau des Halles, a large covered market with plenty of local meats, cheeses, and drinks. There’s also an open-air market along the river where locals sell produce and pastries. Both times I’ve visited Bayonne, my favorite memories were visiting the historic Cideries or sitting with friends at open-air restaurants along the banks of the Nive River and enjoying the atmosphere.
Bayonne is famous for its shanks of delicious aged ham, “Jambon de Bayonne” — and there’s even a museum for it! Bayonne is also known for other regional specialties including duck, as well as and its tasty cider, which is on offer in huge barrels inside the old wooden and stone Cideries.
I also visited L’Atelier du Chocolat, featuring wonderful home-made variants of rich chocolate. I was most intrigued by the wavy sheets of dark chocolate infused with spice from local peppers.
Finally, if you’re lucky enough to be here during the Fetes de Bayonne — in late July — it sounds like a blast! It’s a five-day party throughout the city with dancing, parades, music, and fireworks — and everyone is decked out in traditional red scarves. I didn’t make it to this festival yet — but I hope to do so one day!
I visited Nice, in southeastern France, many years ago on a shoestring trip during grad school. Nice is a large city with a bright, relaxed feeling owing to the broad plazas, waterfront views, as well as the generous amounts of sunlight and sea air it receives.
After checking into my boutique hotel, my first destination was a walk along the waterfront, passing through the palm-treed lined Albert I Garden (which features some ornate statues). I also walked down to the harbor to see the old lighthouse of Nice, as well as a WWI memorial just off the harbor. While I didn’t go swimming, there are numerous public beaches sprawling across the waterfront right off the main drag.
Castle Hill features a beautiful park, a waterfall, and fantastic views over the city. On the way up there’s also a panoramic observation deck. Back in the city, Massena Square is a hub of activity, restaurants, and cafes. (If anyone can explain the origins of the figures on top the light poles in Massena Square, I would be grateful!) the Baroque-styled Nice Cathedral is very impressive. Finally, fans of Henri Matisse won’t want to miss the Matisse Museum — in the northern part of the city — featuring his artworks inspired by when he lived here.
Something for Next Time: There’s still plenty of south left to see. I’d particularly like to get to the wineries of the Bordeaux region, as well as Marseilles and the Massif des Calanques mountains. On the French Riveria, I still need to see St. Tropez and Cannes (although maybe not during the film festival). Finally, I’d like to go skiing in the French Alps when winter rolls around again — especially Chamonix.