When you find yourself in downtown Biarritz, you get the impression of a much larger city. Believe it or not, it has a permanent population of less than 30,000, but when you count the adjacent towns of Anglet and Bayonne it is closer to 120,000.
It was a traditional fishing and whaling settlement until Empress Eugenie (the wife of Napoleon III) arrived and built a Palace here in 1854. Through her connections the town became popular with Queen Victoria and Edward VII, so to keep the hangers-on occupied, a casino was built in 1901 which remains a big attraction to this day. The Palace is now the Hôtel du Palais, one of France’s most famous and luxurious hotels. The Palais sits on a privileged position looking west along the beach, with large-scale portraits of the Emperor and Empress inside.
More recently, Biarritz has become a Mecca for surfers, owing to its magnificent waves, drawing many thousands of people from all around the world to sample its waters, and the nightlife that goes with it. The surfing company Quicksilver has its worldwide base in Biarritz and holds an annual surf event here.
Surfing is just one of the obsessions of the locals. The other is Biarritz Olympique, the notoriously hard-to-beat titans of French rugby, and last, but not least is the ancient Basque sport of Pelota. Pelota is now played in a number of countries across the world owing to the Diaspora of Basques who travelled for work over the years, mostly to the Spanish-speaking countries of South America.
Anyone who was not aware of Basque heritage on arriving in Biarritz will be by the time they get home. The Basques are a tremendously proud people. When you mix that Basque culture with rugby, surfing and Pelota, you then get an idea of what to expect from Biarritz.
Things to do in Biarritz
The main draw for most visitors to Biarritz is the magnificent Grand Plage where surfing was born in Europe. It’s about 6km long, with clean white sand, but most importantly, enormous waves that come crashing in from the Atlantic out yonder. You see surfers walking down to the beach at 9am as if they’re on the way to work, throughout the day, and after hours in the evening. Surfing is an obsession in Biarritz, so where better to learn. There are no less than ten surf schools in Biarritz, so you have plenty of choice although there may be times of the year when you need to book ahead. The beach gets rammed in the summer, where everyone stays is a mystery, as Biarritz is such a small place. There are only 2300 hotel rooms in Biarritz, only enough to accommodate a small corner of the beach at peak summertime.
Along the beach are a number of Thalossatherapy joints, includingMercure Thalassa Regina et du Golf, Thalacéane, the Spa Impérial at the Hôtel du Palais, and the Spa Kémana. You may see some notable French faces from the world of media and sport, recovering from their busy lifestyles. Serge Blanco, the legendary French international rugby player and Biarritz resident has his own “Thalasso Blanco” at the small town of Hendaye, just down the coast and close to the border with Spain.
Don’t miss the Musee de la Mer, at the Esplanade de la Vierge, with its impressive display of exotic fish and sea animals from around the world. While you’re there take a walk down the Esplanade to the headland to get a superb view of the Grand Plage and town of Biarritz.
You don’t have to walk far in Biarritz before getting the idea that Basque culture dominates this small town. Just go to Les Halles, or the town market on Rue des Halles to see what I mean. Not only are there the finest local foods but each market stall is draped with the Basque flag, Biarritz Olympique Rugby banners, or both. The place is buzzing on match day and full of post-match diagnosis the day after. Alongside the Rue des Halles are a couple of bars offering traditional Basque fare and beer. Try Le Comptoir le Fois Gras at lunchtime, where the lunch will can include the finest Fois Gras but also a wide range of local snacks and of course a bottle of “EKI”, the Basque beer.
Fine foods are very much part of the Biarritz shopping experience, you’ll notice a few “Mille et un Fromage” stores around town and one in the market, where you can find the very best olive oils, pastes, sauces, ingredients, meats, pate’s, breads and cheeses.
If the fine foods on show didn’t satisfy your need for more, try visiting the Planète Musée du Chocolat at 14 Avenue Beaurivage, where you can trace the story of chocolate back 3000 years to the Aztecs who first started making it from Cacao.
The clothes stores have a strong rugby influence, like “64” named after the region’s car number plate, and you’ll find an “Eden Park” store here, founded by Frank Mesnel, the former French fly-half, who named his store after the famous ground in Auckland. There’s also a branded Biarritz Olympique store where you can buy rugby shirts t-shirts and other branded goods from the local rugby team.
The Asiatica Museum at Rue Guy Petit has displays of important ancient Asiatic art from India, China and Tibet, but unlike to more well-known museums holding these kinds of artefacts this one offers substantial information on leaflets about the interpretation of the works. See also the Musée Historique just around the corner from Les Halles, where you can learn more about the development of the town from small fishing village to a destination for royalty.
Remember you are not very far from the Basque cities of San Sebastian and Bilbao. Bilbao is some 140 km away if you wanted to savour the world-famous Guggenheim Museum there. San Sebastian is said to be the finest town in all of Spain.
The Basque Hinterland
It doesn’t take much driving to get into what is very much north Basque country. Within half an hour of driving east past Bayonne, towards Hasparren, and then past Saint Esteben and Saint Palais, you will find hilly, windy roads weaving their way through the lush green countryside. The further you get from Biarritz, the quieter it will be. You’ll find places like Cambo les Bains to be pretty crowded in comparison to Saint Palais, and even quieter still when you travel further east towards the Béarnese town of Monein on the way to Pau. Pau has a significant English heritage. Wellington left a garrison there on the way back from the Peninsular wars in 1814. The English were so taken by the stunning views of the Pyrenees that the word passed on, leading to Pau being a prime destination for the English gentry. The first ever “Grand Prix” was held in Pau.
Where to stay
*****Hotel du Palais
The Hotel du Palais was built as a private Palace for Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III. It became a regular destination for European royalty including Queen Victoria of England, while Biarritz was transformed from the sleepy fishing village it once was to a destination of choise for the powerful and wealthy. This was enhanced by the opening of the Casino in the early 20th century. The Hotel du Palais is one of the most legendary and famous hotels in all of France, and you can certainly see why the site it occupies was chosen for a Palace, it a panoramic view over the Atlantic Ocean and over the Grand Plage. It has two swimming pools, but rest assured, the quality of service you get here is second to none.
This is a very smart and fashionable hotel built in the centre of Biarritz in a converted large private house. It’s just across from the legendary markets of Biarritz where all the local gossip is exchanged. The rooms have been individually designed to an extremely high standard, and so has the reception and restaurant area. There’s a large garden at the rear of the building to stretch your legs with some rooms opening out onto it. This is one of the coolest boutique hotels you can find – it beats the socks off similar attempts at coolness in London and you’ll probably pay half the price. The service is great without any hint pretence. Simply must be considered if you don’t want to stay at the Palais.
The Hotel 7B is just around the corner from the Hotel de Silhouette, therefore in the centre of town and really accessible to the beach and the market. Again, a newly refurbished hotel, but most notably one that gets all the simple things a guest needs done right. There is no pretence, an informal atmosphere and a really nice chilled out back garden area where you sip a cold beer after a day on the beach. The rooms are spotlessly clean, just couldn’t fault it.
The Hotel Bellevue is just behind the Casino on Rue Edouard VII. Parking outside is nigh on impossible, but further down the road is a ramp which takes you to a public car park below the road where you can park for 8 Euros per day (at the time of writing). The steps up from the car park land you right at the door of the hotel. The road is a busy one but of you get one of the rooms to the rear all you get when you open the window is the roar of the sea and in many cases a good view as well. The rooms are well-presented, clean, with WiFi, and a Basque-designed bed cover which we thought was a nice touch. It’s really well located, and it takes no more than a couple of minutes to reach the beach and even less of you want to use the Casino itself. The staff were friendly, polite and attentive, the breakfast was good too.
The Bellevue would be our choice of mid to budget standard hotel for Biarritz.