There are two main strands to Pau’s past: In 1553 it was the birthplace of King Henri IV, one of France’s favourite monarchs.
Go into the Château de Pau for his back-story and see the turtle shell in which he was cradled as a baby.
The other thread can be picked up in the mid-1800s when the rich Scottish doctor Alexander Taylor recommended Pau for its healthy climate.
It quickly became a resort for well-heeled Brits, with a racecourse, golf club and extravagant palaces and hotels.
But whatever you do, you have to sit back at the Boulevard des Pyrénées and see those awesome peaks lined up on the horizon over the Ossau Valley.
Lets explore the best things to do in Pau:
1. Château de Pau
King Henri IV was born in this castle on December 8 1553, and has always had a special place in French hearts.
He was also the first monarch from the House of Bourbon, a line that would give France all its subsequent kings.
You can’t go self-guided so will need to join a group if you want to see the interior.
Tours are offered in French or Spanish: They last an hour and leave no stone unturned, showing you around a sequence of opulently decorated rooms with coffered ceilings, gilded walls, precious paintings some of France’s finest Gobelins tapestries.
If language is a problem then there’s a booklet with English information.
One of the high points is the king’s birthplace, which still has the turtle shell in which he was cradled as an infant.
2. Boulevard des Pyrénées
Laid out in the final years of the 19th century, Boulevard des Pyrénées has to be one of France’s most extraordinary streets.
It links the Château de Pau in the west with the Parc Beaumont 800 metres to the east, and runs along a terrace at the top of the cliff above the Gave de Pau.
Rearing up In the distance to the south are the peaks of the Pyrenees, like the singular Pic du Midi d’Ossau at the far end of the Ossau Valley that begins right next to Pau.
There are small panels all along the boulevard to tell you what you’re looking at.
The boulevard is infinitely inspiring for morning jogs and unfathomably romantic when the sun is setting.
3. Funiculaire de Pau
Operating from dawn ’til dark every day for more than a century, the funicular railway sends trains trundling up and down the 30% gradient between the Gare de Pau and the Boulevard des Pyrénées.
The service has been free of charge since 1978 and trains come every three minutes.
The track is little more than 100 metres long, but you’ll be glad it’s here if you arrive by train with heavy luggage –as Pau’s moneyed guests might have done in the early-1900s–and see the onerous climb from the station to the Boulevard des Pyrénées.
4. Musée des Beaux-Arts
One of the men to thank for the superb assembly of works at Pau’s fine arts museum is Louis la Caze, who donated 30 major paintings in the 1800s.
La Caze also went down in history for his donation of 583 works to the Louvre, which remains the largest the museum has ever received.
At Pau there’s a clutch of famous names from the 16th and 17th centuries, like El Greco, Jacob Jordaens, Zurbaran ,Breughel the Elder.
The 19th century collections are almost completely French and contain pieces by Granet, Boudin, Camille Corot, Eugène Carrière and Edgar Degas.
5. Musée Bernadotte
At the birthplace of Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, this museum relates one of the Napoleonic era’s most fascinating stories.
Bernadotte had relatively humble origins, as the son of a prosecutor in Pau.
But in a time of tremendous upheaval he rose through the ranks of the army to general and then Marshal of the Empire, and later ascended the Swedish throne.
The current Swedish royalty are descendants of this man.
The house has been kept as a typical Béarnaise home of the time, and with the help of the Swedish royal family has paintings, miniatures, porcelain, medals and compelling pieces of personal memorabilia like letters, telegrams and everyday items.
Once Alexander Taylor had got the word out in the mid-1800s, the bourgeoisie soon descended on Pau as a wintering destination.
Many built their grand English-style holiday villas in the Trespoey quarter a short way east of the centre, and this plush green neighbourhood is now where Pau’s most upscale hotels are set.
The tourist office will give you an itinerary of handsome old villas to look out for on you walk through this leafy part of Pau, which also sits on a ridge and like the Boulevard des Pyrénées has epic vistas of the mountains.
You can normally only see mansions like St.
Basil’s and San Carlos from a distance, but the former does open its doors on the third Sunday of September as part of the National Heritage Day.
7. Château Quarter
The lanes surrounding the castle are exceedingly pretty, with architecture as old as 500 years.
In its earliest days this was all there was of Pau, so it’s by far the oldest part of the city.
You can pick up a leaflet from the tourist office to help point out the most exciting historic features.
The doors are a giveaway; large slabs of old carved wood with quirky wrought iron handles.
Later, Pau expanded eastwards along Rue Maréchal Joffre, which is dotted with elegant mansions built for nobility.
8. Quartier du Hédas
Set in a depression below the Château to the north, this district is named for the stream that used to wind through here.
It’s easy to see the course that the Hédas used to take because it cut a deep valley through this part of the city.
Bridges like Pont de Lassansaà and Pont Neuf were built to help develop the difficult terrain.
For us it’s just a beautiful neighbourhood to tackle on foot, with steep passageways and peculiar details like Tor deu Borrèu on Rue du Hédas, which belonged to Pau’s last executioner in the 1800s.
Once the site of Pau’s slums, Hédas is now a youthful nightlife quarter, with bars, restaurants and a strong community spirit.
9. Hippodrome du Pont-Long
You may wonder if you’ve suddenly woken up in 19th century society at Pau’s racecourse.
The Béarn region has always had a high reputation for its thoroughbred horse-breeding, but in the mid-1800s the equestrian industry took off with the arrival of rich Brits who required entertainment for their winter stays.
The racing season at the Hippodrome still takes place only in winter, when there are 154 hurdle races and 62 races on the flat.
If it’s a bit chilly you can watch the action from the warmth of a heated hall with a bar, or over lunch at the panoramic restaurant.
10. Pau Golf Club
Yet another sign of the transformation that took place in Pau in the mid-19th century: Pau Golf Club was inaugurated in 1856, making it the oldest course in mainland Europe, as well as the first golf course to be founded outside of British territory.
The Scots who came to Pau needed somewhere to indulge their passion, and the club was soon founded in Billère, a couple of kilometres west of Pau.
Future stars like Sergio Garcia and José María Olazábal have competed at the France-Espagne Boys Match that tees off in February.
If you fancy a round you’ll need a handicap, and the visitor fee is around €60. There’s also a museum recounting the course’s past.
11. Parc Beaumont
If you take the Boulevard des Pyrénées east, the path enters Parc Beaumont almost seamlessly.
Just like the boulevard, Parc Beaumont is enriched by those fabulous views of the Pyrenees and is a special place at sunset with a loved one.
Within 10 hectares there are more than 100 tree species planted back when Pau was becoming fashionable.
Some are from the New World, like the giant sequoia, American persimmon and the bald cypress from Louisiana.
There’s also a rose garden, flower beds and abundant water, with a lake, river and waterfall.
12. Section Paloise
The southwest of France has always been a rugby stronghold, and Section Paloise has been around since the start, winning the French championship three times.
The most recent of these was back in 1964 and the last decade has seen “La Section” playing in the second tier.
In 2015 though they won promotion to the Top 14, easily the most competitive rugby league in the Northern Hemisphere.
Home matches are played at the 18,000-seater Stade du Hameau from August to May.
If you’re new to rugby and want to see what it’s all about come for a match against the likes of Toulon or Clermont when some of the world’s best talent will be on the pitch.
13. Ossau Valley
Escape into Béarn via the Ossau Valley, which rolls out for 70 kilometres to the south and starts right next to Pau.
The valley is a bed of rich green pastures and mostly easy-going walking trails.
All along are quaint medieval villages like Béost and Bielle, as well as the natural springs of Eaux-Bonnes, where you can unwind at a spa resort.
At Upper Ossau the scenery is heart-stopping, and you can venture to Lac d’Artouste, a lake in a natural amphitheatre of peaks rising to almost 3,000 metres.
On the way is the Col d’Aubisque, which fans of the Tour de France will know well as there have been 45 passages and three stage finishes at this magnificent pass.
14. Adventure Sports
The bubbling, untamed waters of the Gave de Pau can be intense, and if you’re up to the task then white water rafting, canyoning, canoeing and kayaking are all on the menu in Pau.
On terra firma there are endless hikes available from the city, all with those invigorating views of the Pyrenees in the distance.
The Gave de Pau and its four main tributaries have exceptional water purity and when you consider the gorgeous natural scenery and large stocks of salmon, perch or rainbow trout, fishing starts to seem like a great way to spend a summer’s day.
In the 16th century Henri IV helped to put one Béarnaise speciality on the culinary map: He swore by poule au pot, which is a chicken and vegetable stew, not too different in method from the French classic pot-au-feu.
Also big in this part of the country is garbure, a thick broth of ham, cabbage and other vegetables that sustained generations of Béarn peasants.
Bayonne ham is a succulent cured ham with a slightly sweet flavour, and is practically a local delicacy because many of the pigs are reared in the Ossau Valley.
At Les Halles in Pau, ask for Pyrnean cheese like Ossau-iraty, made with sheep’s milk and wonderful when tried with regional black cherry jam.