Bayonne is at the confluence of the Nive and Adour Rivers in far southwestern France, where historical regions overlap.
The city could claim to be a part of Gascony, while the Basque influence is undeniable and can be seen in the bright red beams of its traditional houses and its wild celebrations during the Fêtes de Bayonne in August.
Each time you cross a river in Bayonne you enter a new district, whether Grand Bayonne with its shops and cathedral or the young and charming Petit Bayonne on the right bank of the Nive.
You can find out all about Bayonne’s culture at the Basque Museum and plan a day of surfing or sunbathing at plush Biarritz or peaceful Anglet, both moments by car.
Lets explore the best things to do in Bayonne:
1. Basque Museum
With 3,000 objects displayed in 20 rooms, the Basque Museum is as good a gateway to the culture, traditions and history of this region as you could hope for.
You’ll learn about pelota, the unusual sport played in the region, and see typical furniture, kitchen utensils, fishing gear and watch archive footage of traditional dancing and rural life in the Basque Country in the 1930s.
Together with these exhibits are displays about the port of Bayonne and the many different people who settled here, from Basque, French, Gascony and Jewish backgrounds.
The museum is in a large 16th-century mansion with a perfect setting, right on the River Nive.
2. L’Atelier du Chocolat
OK, so you might not have chocolate in mind when you picture Bayonne, but maybe it’s worth fixing that, as the first French cocoa ateliers were based here in the Basque Country.
The reason for this is that many of the artisans had brought their knowledge from the New World, but needed to escape Spain during the Inquisition.
You’ll get much more background about this at the Andrieu brand workshop and be talked through every part of production, from mixing to moulding, decorating and packaging.
And maybe best of all is the tasting session at the end.
3. Bayonne Cathedral
The city’s cathedral has been inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage list as for hundreds of years it’s been a stop on the Way of St.
James pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.
The gothic cathedral was started in 1213, and is topped with two magnificent spires that climb to more than 80 metres and are a wayfinder in the city.
Pilgrims call in to see the shrine of St.
Léon, the Bishop of Bayonne, credited with converting the Basque Country in the 9th century.
The nave and choir have renaissance stained glass windows, but maybe the most lovely are in the Chapel of St.
Jérôme and date to 1531, showing Jesus exorcising the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter.
4. Cathedral Cloister
The cloister of Bayonne Cathedral is from 1240 and warrants a separate entry, not least because it’s one of the largest in France.
And unusually it was also at the centre of civic life in the middle ages: District assemblies and corporations would meet right here.
In the galleries around the lawn are niches in the walls that served as tombs, some as old as the 1300s.
The Cloister is still involved in local cultural life, holding artisan exhibitions as well as outdoor concerts in the summer.
5. Grand Bayonne
Around the cathedral, the oldest part of Bayonne is also where the best shopping can be found.
Take an easy stroll down the long pedestrianised Rue d’Espagne, which starts right next to the apse of the cathedral and has cafes, artisan shops like chocolatiers and stores selling Basque regional specialities.
You can’t go in as it’s run by the army, but you can see the outside of the Château-Vieux, an 11th-century castle that was built where the Roman castrum used to be.
And if you here in the morning, you should do some grocery or gift shopping at Les Halles, the superb covered market.
6. Petit Bayonne
Younger, thrumming with nightlife and traditionally a working district, Petit Bayonne is on the right bank of the Nive.
It’s around the Basque Museum and is also where the Bonnat Museum will be should it finally reopen.
This attraction has paintings by Rembrandt, van Dyck and Botticelli; it closed in 2011 for “temporary” refurbishment, but it wasn’t until 2016 that plans were announced for a complete refit.
There’s much more besides though, and you’ll be enamoured of the houses with their beams painted blood red, and the lively bars in the stone arcades next to the river.
You can use the Pont Saint-Esprit to cross the Adour from Petit Bayonne to this district, which wasn’t actually a part of Bayonne until 1857. The Atelier du Chocolat is here, as is the imposing neoclassical train station, with its mansard roof and clock tower.
From 1837, Bayonne’s synagogue is also in Saint-Esprit, at 35 Rue Maubec, and is easy to miss as it was built not to be noticed.
The only giveaway is an inscription in Hebrew and French above the portico.
Lastly, for those with an eye for French military history there’s the citadel, built by the fabled engineer Vauban.
It was constructed in 1680 on a hill above the Saint-Esprit.
You can get a good look at the walls, but like the Château-Vieux the fortress is occupied by the French military.
8. Fêtes de Bayonne
Bayonne’s Feria is all the reminder you need that you’re in a region of France where identities start to blur, and Spanish and Basque traditional culture comes to the fore.
In the five days leading up to the first weekend in August, the Fêtes de Bayonne has exploded in the last few years, turning the city into a sea of white and red.
If it all seems similar to Pamplona that’s no coincidence as the festival was inspired by San Fermín, and in the 90s people started adopting the Navarre outfit of all-white with a red belt and scarf.
There are bull fights, parades, firework displays and dancing: So much dancing in fact that the fiesta has repeatedly broken the world record for the amount of people simultaneously dancing “Paquito el Chocolatero”, a “Paso Doble” with simple steps.
9. Botanic Garden
The city has made very creative use of one of Vauban’s old bastions, seven metres above the streets of Grand Bayonne at Avenue du 11 Novembre, not far from the cathedral.
The compact but restful park is secluded within these walls, and has been conceived in the Japanese style, with a waterfall, pond (with turtles and carp) and a bridge bright with wisteria.
There are 1,000 taxa planted here, but this isn’t a scientific garden, with plants organised by their species; rather they’re chosen and arranged according to their appearance and fragrance.
10. Local Delicacies
Bayonne ham is appreciated throughout out France and has a reputation that travels far outside the country’s borders.
Like Spanish Jamon Serrano it’s a cured ham , never cooked, but stored in special dry conditions for a minimum of seven months.
Since 1424 Bayonne has paid its dues to its favourite food with a four-day fair during Easter when there’s traditional music, sport and culinary competitions.
Chocolate also has its own party in Bayonne, with Journées du Chocolat in early-May when chocolatiers set up shop in the city’s squares to show you how they ply their craft.
11. Aviron Bayonnais
Central and Southern France are where the majority of the country’s rugby clubs are found, and the southwest is a real hotbed, thanks to the Basque community.
Bayonne last won a national title back in the 1940s and had been hustling in the lower divisions before winning promotion back to the prestigious Top 14 in 2016. If you’re new to rugby the Top 14 is a great way to get to know the sport as many of the world’s top players are based at clubs in this league.
Aviron Bayonnais play at the 17,000-capacity Stade Jean-Dauger and every fortnight or so between August and May will host the likes of Toulon, who are seen as one of the best club teams in the world.
You can’t talk about Biarritz without mentioning Empress Eugénie as she “discovered” what was then a village during the 1850s and built a summer palace on the sand dunes.
Favoured by the French elites, aristocracy from all over Europe followed, including many Russians during the days of the Franco-Russian alliance.
Even now, well over a century later, you can’t escape the feeling of old money evoked by the casino, chic Belle Époque architecture, promenades and Eugénie’s palace, now a luxury hotel.
But this is intertwined with a youthful atmosphere created by the beaches, which were the first in Europe to be surfed.
Yes, Biarritz is one of the world’s surf capitals, and La Côte des Basques is the beach where the sport landed in Europe in the 1950s.
Within 15 minutes of Bayonne you’ll come to a whole directory of surf schools only too happy to kit you out and give you the tuition for your tentative first steps on a board.
If you’re a beginner then Côte des Basques is still the place to go, with waves at between knee and shoulder-height, although growing larger the further south you travel.
Grande Plage handles both surfers and bathers, and often gets broad, rolling peaks that are easy to ride.
Just a ten minute trip will bring you to this 220-hectare forest, by far the largest green space in the Bayonne-Anglet-Biarritz “agglo”. The forest is mostly stone pine, with ferns and cork oaks, and was planted in the 17th century.
At this time Anglet, which is just south and west of the forest, was a wild area of sand dunes, and the pine forest was cultivated in the 1630s to act as a barrier stop the sand moving further inland, and Napoleon III did the same in the 19th century.
Now it’s great walking and bike-riding terrain if you and your loved ones need an hour or two recovering from the crowds in Bayonne or Biarritz.
The beaches of Anglet begin just north of Biarritz, where the posh walkways and restaurants are replaced with wide-open spaces, golf courses and low-impact holiday communities.
Surfing is still the main activity in Anglet, at spotlessly clean beaches like Plage des Corsairs and Petite Chambre d’Amour, and the largest surf club in France is located here.
These beaches are patrolled by lifeguards in summer and although there are fewer resort amenities you’ll be compensated with plenty of peace and space.