Things to do in the French Pays Basque
Discover everything that the French Basque Country has to offer.
When you cross the border into France from Roncesvalles (Navarre), the first village you encounter is Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. This charming town is a true gem, and visiting it will definitely leave a lasting impression, I assure you! It is a walled village, with its old town featuring two main streets: Rue d’Espagne and Rue de la Citadelle.
Explore these streets to discover places like the Old Bridge and the Church of Notre-Dame du Bout du Pont, as well as numerous artisan shops and restaurants. Then, make your way up to the Citadelle de Mendiguren, from which you can enjoy beautiful views. Don’t miss the lovely walk to Pont d’Eyheraberry along Allée d’Eyheraberry.
2. Biarritz, a must-see in the French Pays Basque
If you have only one or two days to visit this area of France, my recommendation is to visit Biarritz, an elegant yet youthful coastal town. Biarritz used to be a famous vacation destination for the European bourgeoisie, a vibe that can still be felt in the atmosphere of its streets. However, it’s also a popular destination among surfers and young people drawn to its entertainment offerings.
In Biarritz, you’ll find expansive beaches where you can spend hours by the sea, tempting shops you won’t be able to resist, a wide variety of restaurants, and a charming seaside promenade with beautiful ocean views. Be sure not to miss the Les Halles market as well.There, you can discover a diverse range of local foods and products. If you prefer to explore all the details of this town with a guide, I encourage you to take this guided tour of Biarritz.
3. Bayonne, a city of art and history
At the junction of the Nive and Adour rivers, you will find the city of Bayonne, the capital of the French Basque Country. One of its mottos is “city of art and history,” and indeed, this Franco-Basque town boasts a rich artistic and cultural heritage, which is reflected in its architectural legacy. One of the prime examples is Bayonne Cathedral and its exquisite cloister.
Furthermore, in the streets of Bayonne, you’ll come across charming Basque-style houses, shops where you can purchase local products (like Bayonne chocolate or ham), and a diverse culinary scene. Be sure not to miss Les Halles market, take a stroll on both sides of the Nive River, visit the botanical garden, or explore Saint-André Church. If you’re interested, don’t hesitate to book this guided tour of Bayonne.
4. Sare Caves
One of the most popular natural sites to see in the French Pays Basque is the Sare Caves, located at the base of Mount Larrun. Since the sea left this place over two million years ago, the caves have served as a refuge on various occasions, such as in the case of José Miguel de Barandiaran, who hid here during the Spanish Civil War. Over 10,000 years ago, they were also a hibernation spot for bears.
To visit the Sare Caves, it’s necessary to book tickets in advance. You can do so on the Grottes de Sare website. The guided tour lasts approximately 45 minutes. The cost is €10. During the visit, topics related to geology, prehistory, mythology, and the origins of the Basque people will be covered.
5. Hendaye, on the other side of the Bidasoa River
Another of the coastal towns that must not be missed on your trip is Hendaye, located near the border with Spain. In this little village, you’ll find an immense 3-kilometer beach, perfect for surfers, swimmers, and families or groups of friends looking to spend the day by the sea. It also features an appealing seaside promenade.
Another of awesome place to visit in Hendaye is the Abbadie Castle. In its surroundings, you’ll find the Domaine d’Abbadia, a natural area full of walking trails where you can enjoy the views of the cliffs of the Basque Corniche.
This town is one of the most beautiful villages in the French Basque Country. It has a relaxed atmosphere and stands out for its charming old town, where you’ll enjoy strolling while discovering its lovely shops, restaurants, and hidden gems. You can explore it on your own or join a guided tour of Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
Don’t miss out on its famous port, the seaside promenade, and the beach, ideal for swimming during the warmer months of the year. Another must-see is the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church, where Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Austria were married. If you visit this beautiful Franco-Basque town during sunset, I recommend going up to Sainte-Barbe Hill. The views are stunning.
7. Ride the Larrun Train, one of the best things to do in the French Pays Basque
If you want to enjoy this region from above, there’s nothing better than taking the Larrun Train. It’s a 35-minute ride on a cogwheel train that departs from Col de Saint-Ignace (between Sare and Ascain). Traveling at an average speed of 9 km/h, it reaches the summit of Larrun at an altitude of 905 meters. From this point, you can enjoy beautiful views of the French coast, the Spanish coast, and the Pyrenees.
This activity is available during the spring and summer months. The excursion has a total duration of 2 and a half hours: 35 minutes to go up, a little over an hour of free time at the summit, and 35 minutes to descend. You can check prices and the schedule on their website.
8. Espelette and its famous peppers
The town of Espelette is one of the most charming villages in the interior of the French Basque Region. This town is particularly known for its Espelette peppers, a product that has spread throughout the region and is a part of numerous local dishes. During your stroll through Espelette, you will be struck by the beautiful white and red facades adorned with these famous peppers hanging from them.
In addition to wandering through its streets and shops, I recommend heading down to Saint Etienne Church and taking a stroll around the area. Furthermore, if you want to take home some quality local products, I suggest buying them at a stall located just outside the Ttipia store. I got some cheese there, and it was delicious.
9. Ainhoa, a lovely village
Another charming village located in the interior of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques is Ainhoa. This locality features a single main street that runs through the village. On both sides of this picturesque avenue, you’ll find numerous houses with red-painted wooden frameworks. It’s also worth mentioning the Church of Notre-Dame de l’Assomption and the old fronton (a traditional Basque pelota playing area).
10. Guéthary Port
Despite being a very small coastal village, Guéthary has a hidden gem that makes it worth a visit. I’m talking about the small and old Guéthary port. Don’t expect to find large ships or yachts here, like in other ports in Iparralde. Quite the opposite. There’s only room for small fishing boats. I visited this place at sunset and loved it.
11. Holzarte Footbridge
Near the town of Larrau, you’ll find the Holzarte Footbridge, a suspension bridge built over a century ago over the Olhadubie Canyon. It’s suspended over 150 meters high, making it unsuitable for everyone to cross. To reach it, you need to hike through the forest. It takes about 50 minutes to get there.
12. Bidart, on the coast of the French Pays Basque
Let’s continue with Bidart, another village on the French Basque coast that, at first glance, might not seem to offer as much as its neighboring towns of Biarritz and Saint-Jean-de-Luz. However, Bidart boasts a captivating historic center and some of the best beaches in the area.
Make sure to check out the Church of Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Sauveur Atchoarena Square, and the Sainte-Madeleine Chapel. Another one of the best things to do in Bidart is stroll along the Coastal Path, a trail that runs alongside the coast and connects this town with San Sebastian.
13. Sare, discover its surroundings
Another stop you should add to your itinerary through the French Basque Country is Sare, classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France. Besides strolling through its charming streets lined with typical houses and visiting the Saint-Martin de Sare Church, I recommend exploring its surroundings, as they host very interesting places.
Beyond the already mentioned Sare Caves and Larrun Train, in the vicinity of Sare, you can visit the Basque Cake Museum and Ortillopitz, a former Basque house that you can visit to learn about the interior of these houses and what life was like inside them. It was very interesting.
14. Urtubie Castle, for history lovers
Just 3 km away from Saint Jean de Luz, on one side of the road, is the Urtubie Castle, built in 1341 and expanded in the 16th and 18th centuries. A curious fact is that this castle has been owned by the same family since its construction. During your visit, you can explore the interior, adorned with period furniture, and the gardens. You can check rates and schedules on the Urtubie Castle website.
15. Kakuetta Gorges, a natural wonder in the French Pays Basque
A visit to the Kakuetta Gorges is a must for nature lovers. Here, you’ll find a trail that winds through the bottom of this canyon, crossing wooden walkways and bridges. Along the way, you can enjoy lush landscapes while discovering various waterfalls and a cave filled with massive stalactites and stalagmites.
16. La Bastide-Clairence, a charming village
Although it’s a bit farther from other must-see places in the French Pays Basque mentioned in this list, it’s well worth visiting La Bastide-Clairence, another one of the most beautiful villages in the region. This town is made up of a main avenue and narrow streets that branch off from it. Also, it features a covered square, artisan shops, and white houses with red and green wooden frameworks.
17. Villa Arnaga, in Cambo-les-Bains
Villa Arnaga is a Neo-Basque-style farmhouse built by Edmond Rostand in Cambo-les-Bains. It served as the family residence for the renowned writer, who envisioned and designed it down to the smallest detail. While it may appear as a traditional house from the outside, its interior resembles more of a theater set than a home.
The combination of the house and the expansive French and English-style gardens, with more than 15 hectares, has been classified as a historical monument. Currently, it is a museum and receives thousands of visitors every year. The general admission fee is €9.
18. Isturitz and Oxocelhaya Caves
If, after visiting the Sare Caves, you’re eager to explore more underground sites, I recommend paying a visit to the Isturitz and Oxocelhaya Caves. These caves offer a unique experience for those seeking to explore nature and history. Inside, you’ll find stalactites and stalagmites, cave drawings, and other geological curiosities.
Furthermore, if you want to make the most of your visit to this area, you can explore some of the nature trails that you’ll find in the vicinity of the caves.
19. L’Hôpital-Saint-Blaise Church
The L’Hôpital-Saint-Blaise Church is a place with a rich history, and not just because it was built in the 12th century. It was the site of an old hospice, which was very important for pilgrims doing the Camino de Santiago.
The architecture of the church stands out for blending Romanesque and Hispano-Arabic styles. This is one of the reasons why this building was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. Don’t miss it!
20. Pas de Roland, nature in the French Basque Country
My last recommendation is for hiking and nature enthusiasts. If you’re up for an easy but lush trail in the French Basque Region, I suggest heading to the village of Itxassou and walking along the Pas de Roland. This charming trail follows the Nive River. The hike is 3 km long and has a low elevation, making it perfect for the whole family.
Map of things to do in the French Basque Region
On the following map, you can see all the places to visit in this area of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques mentioned in this article. Additionally, I have marked the two hotels where I stayed and recommend, along with their respective links to Booking.com.
Don’t miss my France travel guide to keep planning your journey through the country.
I hope this article about things to do in the French Pays Basque has been very useful for planning your trip to this beautiful area of Aquitaine, France. If you have any questions or recommendations, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email me. Until next time!