Biarritz had been a humble whaling town on the Atlantic Ocean before it was discovered in the 1850s by Empress Eugénie de Montijo, the wife of Napoleon III. The couple commissioned an extravagant summer home on what was then just sand dunes, and so the Hôtel du Palais and Biarritz’s reputation as a getaway for nobility were born.
To this day it’s a cultivated, upmarket kind of place, with regal 19th-century architecture and supreme beaches. Take sophisticated strolls by the ocean on promenades and in parks with hydrangeas and tamarisks. Or ride the waves at Europe’s first ever surf beach, christened in 1957.
Lets explore the best things to do in Biarritz:
1. Rocher de la Vierge
From the tip of this adapted rocky outcrop you can look up to the Bay of Biarritz or down to the Côte des Basques, even making out the outline of the Pyrenees far behind.
For centuries the rock had been used as a whale-watching platform and in the 19th-century, at the behest of Napoleon III, it was connected to the coast with a wooden bridge and the statue of the virgin was fixed on top of the rock.
This was replaced by a metallic one in 1887, named after Gustave Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower, even though he had nothing to do with the structure.
2. Grande Plage
Biarritz’s main beach is fringed by the city’s grandest buildings, like the Hôtel du Palais and the Casino Barrière.
It’s an enticing golden bay with soft sand, just what you need for a sunny afternoon in the company of friends, family or a good book.
Grande Plage gets decent swells, so the beach is shared by casual bathers and surfers, and in July and August it can get a little crowded.
You could always retreat up the steps for an ice cream and a jaunt along the dignified promenade.
To the rear of the beach is a long line of colourfully striped tents that you can hire for half a day, along with beach chairs.
3. Port des Pêcheurs
In stark contrast to the imposing hotels above and along the shoreline, Port des Pêcheurs is a modest harbour built by Napoleon III for the town’s fishermen in the 1800s.
You can get down to it on the scenic path from the Musée de la Mer.
The walls of the harbour are high to protect the boats when the ocean is rough, even if fishing vessels have now been replaced by pleasure craft! The row of cottages where the fishers used to live are now restaurants serving fish and seafood, and it’s an adorable place to come for dinner with the sun going down in the evening.
4. La Côte des Basques
The story goes that in 1957 when the American screenwriter Peter Viertel was in Biarritz filming The Sun Also Rises, he had his surfboard shipped from California and caught the waves at this beach.
So Côte des Basques was the first place where anyone surfed in Europe.
Despite being attached to a posh resort favoured by high society, the beach is as untamed and exposed as you can get.
Surfers and stronger swimmers will love it, apart from at high tide when the water comes all the way up to the roadside and everyone has to clear off.
To appreciate the size of the beach at low tide climb up to the Avenue de Notre Dame at the cliff-top and take in the seascape from a bench.
5. Biarritz Lighthouse
At Pointe Saint-Martin, marking the boundary between Biarritz’s rocky coast and the smooth sands of Landes, the city’s lighthouse sits atop a rocky headland 79 metres above the water.
It has been guiding mariners since 1834 and the current lenses are more than a century old, dating to 1904, with a range of 26 miles.
It has been fully automated since 1980 and you’re free to go inside if you’re in the mood to take on the 248 steps to get to the gallery deck.
Or you could remain below, as this headland is one of Biarritz’s best spots to see the sun go down.
6. Aquarium de Biarritz
If you’re a fan of deco architecture you may fall in love with this attraction facing the Rocher de la Vierge before you even go inside.
The Musée de la Mer building was completed in 1933, and the whole attraction went through a big renovation and extension in 2011, doubling the amount of exhibition space.
You’ll gain fascinating insights about Biarritz’s historic whaling history and watch a 40mm movie shot by Jacques Cousteau.
There’s a surprising number of live tanks and enclosures for an attraction of this size, and you’ll travel through zones, with marine life from the North Atlantic, Caribbean and Indo-Pacific.
The shark cave goes down well with the crowds and it’s always fun if you can watch the seals at feeding time.
7. Église Russe de Biarritz
Eugénie invited the Russian aristocracy to join her in Biarritz in the summer, and the wealth that they brought with them helped transform the resort.
After a few decades the community was so large that they needed their own place of worship.
And they got one in 1892, designed in the neo-byzantine style and built in just two years.
The church is an enlightening look back, not just at Biarritz’s past but Russia’s too, as the interior is adorned with icons transported from St. Petersburg.
8. Hôtel du Palais
Eugénie’s summer palace is still the most striking building in the city.
Where it was once alone on the dunes it is now the heart of the resort that grew around it, and following the collapse of the Second Empire it reopened as a luxury hotel casino.
Believe it or not, the palace was in disrepair in the post-war years, though it was soon restored to its imperial glamour in the 50s The likes of Sinatra, Ava Gardner and Coco Chanel stayed here in the 20th century, but for most of us it’s something to admire from a distance!
9. Imperial Chapel
A few dainty steps from the Hôtel du Palais is Eugénie and Napoleon’s private chapel, built in 1864. The design has clear Spanish influences, Spain being the Empress’ home country, with neo- Mudéjar arches and painted tiles (azulejos) decorating walls inside.
The highlight of the interior is the painting of the Virgin by the artist Louis Charles Auguste Steinheil above the chapel’s sanctuary.
Also check out the enamel medallions on either side of the apse depicting members of the House of Bonaparte.
10. Casino Municipal
Directly in front of the Grand Plage the Casino Municpale, from 1929, is another vivid and not-so-subtle reminder of Biarritz’s status in days gone by.
It’s an expansive and opulent art deco building and you might find yourself drawn to the shade of its portico for a glass of wine or post-meal digestif on sunny days.
If you plan to go inside you’ll need to be dressed up, and once through those doors you’ll be transported to the roaring twenties, with croupiers that remember your bets and respond to your slightest wink or nod.
Pull yourself away from the table to appreciate the art deco skylights and floor mosaics.
11. Les Halles de Biarritz
French food markets like this are much more than a place to purchase groceries; they’re little cathedrals, a social hub and the place to discover the produce and delicacies that generate regional pride.
Biarritz’s market, with its cast-iron supports, was built in 1885 and should be visited even if you don’t need anything in particular.
Laid out is cheese, pate, fresh meat, fruit and vegetables, so you may just decide to change plans and have a picnic.
You might also head into the adjoining seafood market to indulge in oysters that are shucked for you while you wait.
12. Cité de l’Océan et du Surf
You can buy a ticket that combines the Aquarium with this museum. The Cité de l’Océan is a striking modern building designed by Steven Holl Architects in collaboration with Solange Fabião.
The museum explores Biarritz’s relationship with the ocean via an array of interactive and multimedia exhibits most likely to appeal to kids.
For example there’s a virtual reality surf experience and the “bathyscaphe”, an theatre showing a 3D movie taking you down into the Gouf de Capbreton, an underwater chasm 3,500 metres deep off the coast of Biarritz.
13. Musée Asiatica
One of a select few Asia-oriented museums in France, the Musée Asiatica is a pleasant surprise, with large collections of artefacts from China, Nepal and Tibet, arranged almost at random.
The largest galleries are reserved for the Indian subcontinent and take up the building’s entire basement.
In this department you can peruse Bronze Age weapons and a host of Buddha statues, textiles, jewellery and handicrafts from a dizzying array of time periods.
From Tibet and China you’ll discover prehistoric jade carvings made for burials and a fabulous set of Thangkas, Buddhist paintings made on silk.
Biarritz will hold the World Surfing Games in 2017. Veteran surfers will know all about the city’s surf heritage, and will make a bee-line for La Côte des Basques, but there are other waves to be caught along this six-kilometre coast.
Newcomers won’t have to search hard for surf schools (there are five!), or places where you can rent and buy gear.
For beginners committed to becoming the best surfers they can be, there are also surf camps.
On these, equipment, transfers, accommodation and tuition from certified pros, are all provided for as long as a week.
So there’s no excuse not to be able to at least keep your balance for a few seconds once you’re finished.
On the other side of Pointe Saint-Martin are the epic beaches of Anglet.
The Côte d’Argent begins here and continues right the way up to the Gironde Estuary north of Bordeaux.
Next to Biarritz’s Lighthouse, Chambre d’Amour has dreamy views of the headland from its panoramic boardwalk.
Plage des Corsairs is also prime surfing territory, offering similar waves to La Côte des Basques but with a gigantic sweep of golden sand to go with it.
Many of France’s next big surf talents learn their craft at this beach.
On terra firma it’s a fun place to fly kites with kids, or go for an invigorating jog next to the ocean.