15 Best Things to Do in Aquitaine (France)

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
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Covering the Atlantic side of south-western France, Aquitaine is vast, with a multitude of landscapes, places to visit and things to do.

On the coast the sand goes on forever and is washed by rolling waves that attract surfers from far and wide.

This is a world away from the Dordogne and its medieval castles and prehistoric caves, or the mountain meadows in the Pyrenees, or the regimented vineyards in the Gironde.

You get the picture; it’s a versatile region that will capture everyone’s imagination in a different way.

Lets explore the best things to do in Aquitaine:

1. Bordeaux

BordeauxSource: JeanLucIchard / Shutterstock

The world’s wine capital, Bordeaux has more historic buildings than any other city in France apart from Paris.

The centre is a World Heritage site for its assortment of architecture from the 1700s, a time when the city started expanding out from its medieval walls.

A case in point is the staggering Place de la Bourse, now made even more inspiring by Michel Corajoud’s  Mirroir d’Eau, a thin layer of reflective water that is magical when the square is illuminated at night.

There’s a great deal more to see than just this, like the medieval gate Port Calihau, the Grosse Cloche belfry, the iconic Pont-de-Pierre and the striking Monument aux Girondins, with its rampaging horses.

2. Dordogne

DordogneSource: Peter Adams Photography / Shutterstock

The valley of the Dordogne River was a bloody battleground during the 100 Years’ War in the 14th and 15th century, furnishing the region with tough, military castles brooding over the river from the tops of limestone cliffs.

One of the great ways of seeing fortresses like Beynac and Castelnaud, as well as the historic little villages on the riverbanks is to hire a canoe for a few hours and let the gentle currents do the work.

The Dordogne’s malleable limestone also gave homes to Palaeolithic cave-dwellers who left behind paintings that still have the power captivate nearly 20,000 years later.

3. Beaches

Grande Plage in BiarritzSource: Boris Stroujko / Shutterstock
Grande Plage in Biarritz

On Aquitaine’s 270-kilometre-long Atlantic coast there’s exhilaration and relaxation in equal measure.

If you want to recharge your batteries then Hendaye just on the border with Spain would be an obvious choice, with a flat, spotless beach at the mouth of the Bidasoa River.

As with most beaches in the region, the conditions are fabulous for watersports like body boarding and kite-surfing.

Further up, Grande Plage in Biarritz is world-famous and offers ample room for sporty types and those who want to do nothing.

Elsewhere, Montalivet is France’s oldest naturist resort, having been in business since 1949 and offering campsites, chalets and sweeping beaches.

4. Dune du Pilat, La Teste-de-Buch

Dune du PilatSource: GrebnerFotografie / Shutterstock
Dune du Pilat

An hour west from Bordeaux and just south of the Aranchon Bay is a natural wonder that you really should try to visit.

It’s Europe’s tallest sand dune, forming a seascape that almost defies belief.

The dune gets up to more than 100 metres and at the crest the views on either side are astounding.

You’ve got the Banc d’Arguin sandbank and the Atlantic, glinting in the west, and to the east is a massive pine forest extending out to the horizon.

On a clear day you can even spot the Pyrenees from up here.

5. Wine Experiences

Wine ExperiencesSource: dauf / shutterstock
Wine Experiences

Recently France’s most famous wine region has started coming up with creative ways to attract people beyond the typical cave visits and tasting sessions.

Château La Dominique for instance has bold contemporary architecture and if you come for a meal you’ll have a table on their high terrace with a perfect views of the vineyards.

And in the Atelier-B laboratory at Haut-Sarpe you can even take part in a workshop to create a wine blend to your own taste, which you’ll then be able to take home with you.

6, Jardin Eyrignac, Salignac-Eyvigues

Jardin EyrignacSource: Pack-Shot / Shutterstock
Jardin Eyrignac

If you’ve got a soft spot for the French formal topiaries these gardens attached to a 17th-century manor house will be right up your street.

There are ten hectares of boxwood sculptures that requires tens of thousands of man-hours a year to maintain.

You can get an audio-guide that explains the gardens’ five different sections, each with a limitless diversity of creative shapes and demarcated to make it feel like you’re entering rooms with furniture rather than something that’s alive.

As you go you can also find benches in quiet little nooks where you can read a book for a while without being disturbed.

7. Boulevard des Pyrénées, Pau

Boulevard des PyrénéesSource: PHILIPIMAGE / shutterstock
Boulevard des Pyrénées

Set at the top of bluffs on Pau’s Gave River, this balustraded walkway is like a giant balcony with a glorious view that you could study for hours.

In the near distance are rolling hills, some capped with châteaux, and further on are the sky-scraping peaks of the Pyrenees individually identifiable as a widescreen panorama.

Right before you are gardens terraced onto the steep slope, and you can explore these and amble down to the Ousse River via the zigzagging Sentiers du Roy footpaths.

8. Rocher de la Vierge, Biarritz

Rocher de la ViergeSource: Alberto Loyo / shutterstock
Rocher de la Vierge

Set between Biarritz’s Port-Vieux and Port des Pêcheurs is a natural curiosity, a rock that looks like the upturned hull of a ship.

The rock is exposed to the Atlantic and crowned with a statue of the Virgin Mary, and in the 19th century Napoleon III ordered a tunnel to be bored through it.

At this time it was used as a whale-watching platform, and today it’s just one of those things that you have to do when you’re in Biarritz.

There’s a late-19th-century bridge connecting it to the mainland, and you can carry on through the tunnel to get some sea air and watch the Atlantic crashing against the rock below.

9. Saint-Émilion Monolithic Church

Saint-Émilion Monolithic ChurchSource: Joaquin Ossorio Castillo / shutterstock
Saint-Émilion Monolithic Church

This church is carved into the limestone hillside, and almost 15,000 cubic metres of rock had to be extracted to build it.

It was constructed in the middle ages to house the relics of Saint-Émilion, an 8th-century Breton monk who had come here as a hermit to escape persecution by the Benedictine order.

You can borrow a key to climb the tower by yourself but to see the three underground naves and catacomb you have to take a 45-minute guided tour, showing you stunning medieval carvings and frescoes on the church walls.

10. Château de Bonaguil, Saint-Front-sur-Lémance

Château de BonaguilSource: chrisatpps / shutterstock
Château de Bonaguil

When you visit this jaw-dropping castle you’ll be looking at cutting-edge 15th-century defences.

After the Hundred Years’ War the whole site was rebuilt to deal with the new threat of artillery, and gun placements were added to the top of the towers.

But the irony was that these would never be needed as the castle was never attacked again.

It’s great for us though, because there’s enough to keep you fascinated for several hours as you work your way up spiral staircases, through grand halls and to the roof of the keep to survey the Lot-et-Garonne countryside as a feudal nobleman might have done.

Everywhere you go there’s something cool to see, like the tunnels and caves you can enter via the moat or pieces of medieval graffiti uncovered in restorations.

11. Cycling

Arcachon BasinSource: Cowez Eric / shutterstock
Arcachon Basin

If there’s a region to be seen on two wheel’s it’s Aquitaine.

Whether you’re in the vineyards, on the coast in the foothills of the Pyrenees you’ll be spoiled with networks of cycling trails with soft gradients.

This goes for the green way on the tow path next to the Canal de Deux Mers, which runs from coast to coast in south-western France with a remarkable 17th-century waterway for company.

All of the beach destinations in Arcachon Basin are connected by a system of paths that stretches almost 90 kilometres between Arcachon and Cap Ferret.

And wine tours can be done on bike too, such as in Madiran where there’s a circular route with châteaux, hills grooved with vineyards and the Caves des Crouseilles, where you can learn about award-winning wines.

12. Food

black trufflesSource: grafvision / shutterstock
black truffles

It’s impossible to do justice to the abundance of culinary specialities and regional produce in one paragraph.

There’s black truffles from Périgord, foie gras, oysters from Arcachon, French caviar from Le Teich, Ossau-Iraty sheep cheese, poultry from  Landes, and that’s really just for starters.

Every town and village is blessed with a market where you can find out what foods generate local pride.

And it seems like every place has a festival for its produce: Take Etauliers, where in late-April you can go to the Aquitaine Asparagus Festival to celebrate the Asperges du Blayais, or Espelette, where there’s a festival in honour of its red peppers at the end of October.

13. Surfing

Plage de LacanauSource: Cowez Eric / shutterstock
Plage de Lacanau

Landes is Europe’s undisputed surfing capital, but it has some beaches and experiences that rank it high in the world too.

One phenomenon that you’ll never forget is the tidal bore at the Gironde Estuary.

At high tide the ocean rolls inland against the river’s current, causing waves that never quite break and can carry you and your mates a couple of kilometres up the river.

Plage de Lacanau in Médoc is one of the big surf beaches and in August it hosts the Lacanau Pro, the oldest surf tournament in the country.

Also on your radar in this area should be La Gravière, La Piste and Les Estagnots.

14. Villa Arnaga, Cambo-les-Bains

Villa ArnagaSource: Sasha64f / shutterstock
Villa Arnaga

Conserved as a French historic monument, this plush stately home was built for the Cyrano de Bergerac  author Edmond Rostand at the very start of the 20th century.

With timber framing, stained glass windows, wooden shutters and sash windows it’s a handsome piece of Basque revival architecture.

From the outside the villa might look rustic, but the interior has a sophisticated, Belle Époque design (with hints of the baroque too) and Rostand had it equipped with state-of-the-art amenities like a telephone, early electrical appliances and a heating system.

The pruned formal gardens are an indispensable part of the tour in summer when they’re in bloom.

15. Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Saint-Jean-de-Luz

Église Saint-Jean-BaptisteSource: Francesco Bonino / Shutterstock
Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste

This sumptuous Basque church was the site of one of history’s most important political weddings, when Louis XIV, married Maria Theresa, the daughter of the king of Spain here in 1660. Apart from the wooden galleries on the sides of the church, what draws everyone’s gaze there is the extravagant baroque gilded sanctuary.

This was finished in the 1630s, reflecting the wealth this seaside community had generated through whaling, cod fishing and trade in the West Indies.

Before that time the church had suffered a lot of damage, most of all during the Hundred Years’ War when Saint-Jean-de-Luz was repeatedly burned down and rebuilt.

15 Best Things to Do in Aquitaine (France):

  • Bordeaux
  • Dordogne
  • Beaches
  • Dune du Pilat, La Teste-de-Buch
  • Wine Experiences
  • 6, Jardin Eyrignac, Salignac-Eyvigues
  • Boulevard des Pyrénées, Pau
  • Rocher de la Vierge, Biarritz
  • Saint-Émilion Monolithic Church
  • Château de Bonaguil, Saint-Front-sur-Lémance
  • Cycling
  • Food
  • Surfing
  • Villa Arnaga, Cambo-les-Bains
  • Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Saint-Jean-de-Luz