Biarritz has been attracting visitors for two centuries. Napoleon III and his Empress Eugenie made the little fishing village fashionable when they built a summer residence (now the sumptuous Hôtel du Palais) above one of the glorious beaches. European royals and members of the British aristocracy followed in their wake. By the early 20th century, Biarritz was a town of stylish and flamboyant houses – villas, châteaux and haciendas.
After the Second World War, Biarritz was a playground for movie stars – think Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Jayne Mansfield and Rita Hayworth. King Farouk of Egypt squandered a fair amount of his fortune at the Casino gaming tables. Many of the splendid villas are still there, and it takes little imagination to conjure up the lavish parties and wild nightlife of yesteryear.
This is French Basque country – the border with Spain is a mere half hour’s drive away – and its influences can be found in the food (try the tapas bars), the language (Euskara) and the fast-paced local ball game, pelota.
For all its glamorous history, you might think ‘the Queen of beaches and the beach of Kings’ would be stuffy or too smart. But it is neither. The pretty town of tree-lined streets has a relaxed air, there are some interesting things to see, tempting shops, plenty of beachside cafés and bars for people-watching, long scenic walks along the beaches or cliff top among hydrangeas and fluffy tamarisk trees, good restaurants and a lively nightlife.
You could indulge in some thalassotherapy spa treatments, watch a game of pelota, or play golf at the Le Phare course in town, founded by the British in 1888. But don’t miss a day out at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a brilliant little seaside town you can reach by local bus.
With six kilometres of coastline, long stretches of spectacular sandy beaches are interspersed by jagged curves and rocky cliffs. The promenade-backed Grand Plage is the big favourite for swimming, sunning and lazing. It’s in the centre of town with the shops nearby.
Surfers head for the wild Côte des Basques beach, where the sand gets completely covered at high tide. Tamarisks and rhododendrons line the zig-zagging paths down to this beach. Suitably placed seats along the trail afford picture-perfect views. Famed for its surf, Biarritz has a collection of surfing schools so it’s a good place to learn or brush up your skills with qualified instructors.
Port des Pêcheurs (Fishermen’s Harbour)
A picturesque cove with colourful crampottes (seamen’s huts) stacked up into the rock between narrow paths. A great place for tapas bars and seafood restaurants, it’s on the route of the Petit Train that trundles merrily between the Grand Plage, town centre and the Côte des Basques.
Rocher de la Vierge
A statue of the Virgin stands atop one of the red rocks tumbling out into the sea between the Fishermen’s Harbour and the Port Vieux (Old Port). You walk out there via a metal footbridge, said to have been built by Gustave Eiffel of Tower fame. The nearby beach is small, shady and ideal for families with young children.
Musée de la Mer
In an ocean-side Art Deco building, this four-level aquarium is filled with the fishy inhabitants of the Bay of Biscay. There’s a sharks’ cave for close encounters, a seal pool with underwater viewing window – try to be there for feeding time at 10.30am or 5pm – and an interesting exhibition on Biarritz’s fishing and whaling history. Plateau de l’Atalaye. Tel: +33 (0)5 59 22 33 34.
La Chapelle Impériale (Imperial Chapel)
Built in 1864 for the Empress Eugenie, this church is a striking mix of Roman-Byzantine and Spanish-Moorish styles. It is dedicated to Our Lady of Guadaloupe, the Black Madonna of Mexico.
For opening times, tel: +33 (0)5 59 22 37 10.
Spanish and Portuguese Jews brought the tradition of chocolate making with them when they were expelled from the Iberian peninsula during the Inquisition. Overlooking the spectacular Côte des Basques beach, the museum explores history, traditions, secrets, displays impressive chocolate sculptures – and you get a tasting. Avenue Beaurivage. Tel: +33 (0)5 59 41 54 64.
High spot of Biarritz’s fashionable high-rolling days, the renovated Casino is a splendid building in Art Deco style. As well as the gambling rooms, there’s an excellent restaurant with beach and sea views, a theatre, conference rooms and a swimming pool that looks out onto the ocean.
Avenue Edouard VII. Tel: +33 (0)5 59 22 77 77
Busy and colourful, the daily food market is well patronised by locals. Snack on some tapas while you’re there.
More than a thousand works of Oriental art, from pre-history to modern times. With an important collection of masterpieces from India, Nepal, Tibet and China, it is known as one of the top five Oriental Art museums in Europe. Rue Guy Petit. Tel: +33 (0)5 59 22 78 78.
Le Phare (Lighthouse)
Climb up the 248 steps and you’re rewarded with panoramic coastal views – but there’s a pleasant park at its feet from which to admire the length of the Grand Plage and Biarritz town. Note the smart reflector-like design of the street lamps. The 73m-tall lighthouse is the focal point on Cape Hainsart, a peninsula that separates the sandy Landes coast from the rocky Basque coast.
Musée Historique de Biarritz (Historical Museum)
In the former Anglican church, Biarritz’s history, from early whaling port to fashionable seaside resort and ‘the taking of the waters’, is displayed through paintings, costumes, artefacts, documents and videos.
Rue Broquedis. Tel: +33 (0)5 59 24 86 28.
Take a bus ride to this delightful, picturesque town and fishing port. It has a long, sandy sweep of beach, is packed with tempting shops, there are good restaurants, some lovely Basque buildings and the traditional Basque church where Louis XIV and Marie-Thérèse of Spain were married in 1660 is superb. ATCRB coaches leave from the Square d’Ixelles, journey time about 35 minutes. St-Jean-de-Luz is a must-see!
Take the Eurostar train from London St Pancras to Paris (Nord) to connect with the high speed TGV from Paris (Montparnasse) to Biarritz. An alternative is to travel by Eurostar to Lille, connect with the TGV to Bordeaux and change trains there for the onward journey to Biarritz. The railway station in Biarritz is about 3km from the town centre.
Easyjet have just started a service from London Gatwick to Biarritz. The new four-times weekly service (Sunday, Monday, Wednesday & Friday), will provide easy and low-cost access to some of the most beautiful beaches, breathtaking landscapes and mouth-watering nouvelle cuisine in the Basque Country.
Biarritz Tourisme, 1 Square D’Ixelles, tel: +33 (0)5 59 22 37 10.www.biarritz.fr