When visiting France, the go-to places are Paris, the Provence or the Cote-d’Azur. But the culture-rich European country has a lot more to offer than that. From an abundance of fresh seafood, traditional herbs, and spices, to excellent regional wine; follow the coastline of Aquitaine and you can have it all. In fact, the Atlantic coast of France is so vast and diverse that you could write a book about each city along the way. We don’t have that much space, of course. We’ll try to give you a good idea on how to enjoy the French Atlantic coast, anyways.
Where to go on the French Atlantic coast
This guide will assume an itinerary flying into Bordeaux and then work your way up the coast. I’d highly recommend renting a car, as this will allow you to explore small cities along the way without much hassle. Of course, you’re free to change this route however you like. If you do follow along, you’ll explore most of the Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes. This is a new French region as of January 2016, composed of Aquitaine, Poitou-Charentes, and Limousin. The most southern area is the French Pyrenees, and its coastline stretches all the way to the stunning Renaissance city of La Rochelle.
This is our starting point for the journey, but you should plan to see more than the Bordeaux–Mérignac Airport. 18 square km of this city are declared UNESCO world heritage, and with a population of only around 240,000, it’s quite small and scenic, compared to major European cities. Think castles, Renaissance buildings, and tiny coffee shops. Despite being quite the distance from the coast, it carries the salty and vibrant flair of a port city. Bordeaux has also put its name on the wine labels of the area and rightly so. Bordeaux and Merdoc wine ranges from excellent table wine to the most prestigious and expensive bottles in the world.
While here, plan a day to visit the major tourist attractions. Start your day with a coffee at the Pont du Pierre and the nearby riverbank, then go for a stroll to the jaw-dropping St. Andres Cathedral and Tower of Pey-Berland. From there, go to the impressive Place des Quinconces, and Monument aux Girondins. On your way, you will pass the historical city center. Here you’ll find delightful alleys and cobblestone streets, shopping and small restaurants.
If the timing is right, maybe see the ballet or opera at the Grand Theatre, which is notably one of my favorite experiences in Bordeaux. If not, spend the afternoon in Chatrons, the wine district. You could also slurp some oysters at the district’s center, at which lies the Chatrons market square. On Sundays, visit the Organic Market at the Riverfront for some excellent cheese and salami.
In Bordeaux, the list of attractions is endless, and just wandering around will give you a sublime experience of French culture. Beware, it’s very easy to fall in love with this city!
Biarritz to Arcachon
On the very southern tip of the French Atlantic coast lies Biarritz, a mere two-hour drive from Bordeaux. Depending on your needs, this is worth a trip.
Biarritz is known for its great surf and splendid beaches, therefore presenting the optimal destination if you’ve got your board strapped to the top of the car. Of course, it’s architectural abundance and seaside stroll also make it attractive for the regular tourist. From here you could also take trips to Bayonne and other nearby towns, or catch the Train De La Rhune from Col de Saint-Ignace (30 min by car), which will take you on an authentic and picturesque ride through the hills. Don’t plan too long for a stay, though. I found it cute for only a few days. There can be quite the crowd at the beach, too.
Next stop on my list would be Arcachon, but I’d stretch the three-hour ride along the Atlantic coast out over the day. Instead of taking the A63, which is the quick and pain-free route, bear with the more rural roads and visit the beaches of Hossegor. Stock up on baguette and tarama at the Mimizan street market and have a picnic at the Aureilhan Lake. If there’s still time, enjoy the dunes and pine forests in Biscarrosse. If not, don’t worry about it and go directly to Arcachon.
In Arcachon, stay in Le Moulle, a smaller part of town, and enjoy the as-far-as-the-eye-can-see beaches, the beautiful pier, and active little Le Moulle Center. After exploring the vivid streets, check out the CHURCH OF NOTRE DAME DES PASSES. When you don’t tan on the pristine beaches, take the cheap ferry to Arcachon. For some palatial architecture see the Ville d’Hiver and Basilique Notre-Dame. And in case it’s still there once you read this, definitely see the Dune, du Pilat. It is the tallest dune in the world, moving landward while burying houses and forests. While a dune might not sound too exciting, I found it’s sheer mass to be quite impressive.
Arcachon to Soulac-sur-mer
After a couple of days of leisure and perhaps checking out the rest of Arcachon Bay, our journey continues on further north. This part of the itinerary is my personal favorite.
If you want to take a break throughout the drive, stop for some coffee and croissant in Lacanau. Otherwise skip right ahead directly to Soulac-sur-mer. Plan at least a couple days here to check out the city and surrounding towns.
When you arrive, go for a bucket of mussels and fries, the Atlantic coast equivalent of fish and chips, then enjoy the Plage Central and stroll through the little town. While not exactly the most bustling place on earth, Soulac-sur-mer is a great starting point to explore the nearby villages.
There’s plenty to see in the area, even if the sleepy villages don’t seem too promising at first. The roads are also great for biking and bonfires you can have bonfires on the beaches, but beware, they’re not legal everywhere. After taking a look around, dedicate a day or a half to the Montalivet Market, where you can feast on local produce, bread, salami, and cheese, or just indulge in the atmosphere. On the entire French Atlantic coast, this is always a highlight for me. The mix of traditions and relaxing surfer-vibes is so great that I pay multiple visits each stay.
Once you’ve had enough, visit the surrounding vineyards and wine villages of Pauillac and Saint Estephe. Maybe even take a trip back towards Bordeaux and see Margaux. Out of these cities ship some of the most prestigious wines of the French Atlantic coast, and the rest of France for that matter.