On the coast of Languedoc in southwest France, Agde is a town with two faces.
There’s an historic core on the left bank of the Hérault, while Cap d’Agde by the sea is a timeless holiday destination, with beaches and fun for kids and grown-ups.
Agde is also a byword for naturism, and naked folk have a whole village to themselves, tucked discreetly away from the modern resort.
From antiquity to around the 18th century Agde was one of the key commercial ports, not just in France but the entire Mediterranean.
Find out all you need to know about this legacy at the Musée de l’Éphèbe, which displays artefacts discovered on the beds of the Hérault and Mediterranean.
Lets explore the best things to do in Agde:
1. Plage de la Grande Conque
The most magnificent natural site in the resort will catch you off guard.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the Grande Conque is a volcanic beach in a perfect horseshoe, with grey black sand and fine pebbles.
The beach sits at the base of cliffs, which break off into a couple of stacks on the south side known as Les Deux Frères (two brothers) . If the weather is settled this is a very comfortable place to bathe: The sea is shielded by those headlands, and the low-shelving beach keeps the water below knee height for a few metres.
When the weather is wild it’s equally beautiful, as you can watch the swirling surf lashing the beach from the safety of the cliff-top.
2. Musée de l’Éphèbe
Overlooking the harbour in Cap d’Agde, this riveting underwater archaeology museum opened in 1987 and is made up of modern galleries around a traditional farmhouse.
The local seabed is almost cluttered with centuries of shipwrecks, and the items recovered from these will inform you about the cultures settled and traded in the town.
But the museum owes its existence to just one piece, l’Éphèbe d’Agde, a late-Hellenistic bronze statue of a young man, possibly Alexander the Great.
The statue was discovered in the Hérault in 1964 and for many years was in storage in the Louvre before returning to Agde to be this museum’s showpiece.
3. Agde Cathedral
The 12th-century cathedral cuts a striking figure on the left bank of the Hérault.
The machicolated tower and crenellations on the walls make the whole thing look like a fortress, while the building material, black volcanic basalt, only heightens the sense of menace.
None of this was coincidental, as the cathedral was functioned as a military keep and the hardy-looking walls weren’t just for show, as they’re between two and three metres thick.
The interior is sparse and equally stern, so the few pieces of decoration draw your gaze immediately.
Go in for a closer look at the Baroque marble altar and magnificent organ, both from the 17th century.
4. Aquarium Marin
Rainy days aren’t common in Agde summer, but if the weather does take a turn for the worse, you can bring curious young minds to the aquarium for an hour or two.
The attraction is free for children under 6, which is handy because they’re the ones who will get the most out of it.
The well-lit tanks capture the colours and iridescence of the octopuses, seahorses, jellyfish and clownfish (and many more), so toddlers will be rapt too.
The high-point though is coming within centimetres of the blacktip sharks and sea turtles, and there are lots of fun, bite-sized facts about these creatures for kids to take in.
5. Naturist Village
“Village” is a bit misleading, because this resort at the remote northern limit of Cap d’Agde is practically its own city.
It can accommodate 50,000 naturists at any one time, and if you prefer getaways in your birthday suit there are few better destinations anywhere.
People return year after year from all over the world to stay at the campsite, chalets, apartment towers or one of three hotels, all served by a long sandy beach, that we’ll come to next.
Everything is self-contained (except for private parts), and there are shops, restaurants, nightclubs and all kinds of leisure facilities.
6. Plage Naturiste
The naturists even have the best beach in the area: A long band of soft flaxen sand, hemmed by dunes and with all the necessary facilities like lifeguard patrol and medical centres.
To reach it by car you have to buy a pass that lets you enter the Naturist Village.
But you can also walk along the seafront to get there, even if this can take quite a while.
The family-friendly areas are around the campsite and hotel, while in-between there’s a seedier area that is definitely not appropriate for all ages.
On the lighter side there’s an annual naked swim on 31 December, when dozens of people strip off and brave the brisk temperatures for a New Year’s Eve ritual.
7. Plage du Môle
North of Cap d’Agde’s lava field, the Plage du Môle is the first of a line of more conventional beaches.
There’s a boardwalk at the back delivering you to restaurants and beach bars, and lots of room on this arc of sand and small pebbles to roll out a towel and relax in the sun for a while.
The beach is protected by two large breakwaters, which on clear days give rise to lagoon-like pools of shallow clear water.
Many people sunbathe on the narrow sandy spurs between the bays, which are lapped on both sides by the sea.
8. Musée Agathois
If the Musée de l’Éphèbe is dedicated to the city’s show-stopping archaeology, the Musée Agathois gets down to the nitty-gritty and explores daily life in Agde down the ages.
In what used to the almshouse that was founded by the Bishop of Agde in 1699, you’ll get the lowdown on regional arts and traditions: There are reconstructions of traditional homes and shops, and with the help of scale models you’ll understand how the port grew after it was established by the Phocaeans in the 6th century BC. You can get acquainted with the local dress, and the emblematic sarret, a dainty lace bonnet still worn by women on feast days.
9. Old Agde
The dusky and confusing knot of tiny lanes and passages behind the cathedral is only moments from the 1960s resort on the coast, but light-years away for ambience and character.
Many of the houses are built with the same black volcanic rock as the cathedral, and some have been here for hundreds of years.
Two, Hôtel Malaval and Hôtel de Viguier-Guérin are listed as French historic monuments and date to the 16th and 17th centuries.
Lastly, the Maison du Cœur de Ville, also made with that black basalt, is the former seat of the municipality and used to hold markets under its arcades.
10. Luna Park
The Île des Loisirs (Leisure Island) is in the middle of the Cap d’Agde’s Luno Lagoon by the marina.
The name is accurate, as there’s a casino, bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
But dominating the island is the Luna Park, a funfair style attraction where entry is free and you pay for the individual rides and amusements.
There’s a different crowd depending on the time: Early evening is when young families bring little ones to the slides, carousels and bouncy castles.
Later on the park fills up as young adults hit the white-knuckle slingshot and bungee rides before shuffling off to the discos.
Just off the Île des Loisirs in the smooth waters of the Luno Lagoon there’s a kind of floating assault course in the summer.
The attraction opened in 2015 and has a series of inflatable ramps, bridges, climbing walls, trampolines, slides and swings that is much more challenging than it looks.
When the surface gets wet you’ll find it almost impossible to keep your footing, but the waters here are pretty shallow and free of currents so there’s no danger.
Kids as young as six can try and tackle the course for an hour of safe, exhausting fun.
12. Water Jousting
In the middle of May every year the Fête du Nautisme sweeps the town, and gives you a chance to observe the time-honoured spectacle of water jousting.
This sport goes back at least 500 years in this part of France.
Get down to Cap d’Agde’s quaysides for a vantage point of the action, in which two opposing crews row towards each other on boats.
Balanced on raised platforms are two guys armed with a wooden shield and pike, ready to tip the other off.
In May you’ll see the local teams fight it out in order to compete in the Trophée du Languedoc on the first Sunday of August against other teams from the region.
13. Écluse Ronde d’Agde
After travelling hundreds of kilometres across southwestern France the Canal du Midi reaches its final leg a minute or two north of Agde.
The UNESCO-listed canal was a project of awesome proportions, planned by Louis XIV’s civil engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet and helping to ship wine, silk, grain and many other goods produced in Languedoc and Gascony.
Built from local volcanic basalt, the Écluse Ronde (round lock) dates from 1676, and is where the canal joins the Hérault.
Its circular format allowed boats to turn around and along with its three different water levels it’s a one-off work of engineering that you won’ t see anywhere else.
Agde’s marina is absolutely enormous, and is equipped for almost any maritime activity you can imagine.
We mentioned shipwrecks earlier, and you can descend to some of the more recent ones if you’re an experienced diver.
There’s a clutch of PADI 5-star centres angling for your business here, so if you’re trying to get some extra training, want to head underwater for the first time or are an experienced diver out for an adventure, you should find what you need.
And if you’re trying to qualify for a boat licence Agde is a wonderful place to get tuition, with companies providing courses in navigations and skippering.
15. Food and Drink
The hideously ugly but delicious monkfish goes into stews across Mediterranean France, and in Agde it’s the bourride, a sort of sister dish to bouillabaisse.
This also has whiting, mackerel, bass and mullet, combined with celery, carrots and leeks.
You’ll add aioli to the dish and enjoy it with croutons rubbed with garlic.
Try it with a rosé, a light local red from the Pays d’Oc or a dry white.
If you’re inspired by Languedoc’s wine then you need look no further than the slopes beside the Thau Lagoon, where you can hire an cycle and drop by the vineyards and cellars of the Côtes de Thau.