Biarritz is one of our favorite places to send our travelers who book one of our Basque Country tours. Biarritz lies on the Atlantic coast in the southwest of France, not far from the Spanish border.
It was once a small whaling town on the Atlantic coast. Then Napoleon III’s wife, the Empress Eugénie de Montijo, discovered it in the 1850s and ordered the construction of a luxurious vacation home on the sand dunes. This later became the luxury Hôtel du Palais.
And thus Biarritz became one of the preferred holiday destinations for the French nobility. Nowadays it still has its glamor, but also has a hippy surfer vibe, and it's become one of the world's most popular international surfing destinations.
Here we list some of the most popular things to do in Biarritz, including some of our insider tips!
Rocher de la Vierge
Enjoy views down to the Côte des Basques or up to the Bay of Biarritz from the top of this landmark rock. You'll be in the company of a Virgin Statue, and might be able to see as far as the Pyrenees mountains in the background, on a clear day.
In the past, this was a whale-watching platform. The virgin was erected upon the rock in the 19th century, when Napoleon III also ordered the construction of a wooden bridge to connect the rock to the coast.
In 1887 the wooden bridge was replaced with a metallic one, and named after Gustave Eiffel, the architect of the Eiffel Tower (though he did not design this bridge).
Rocher de la Vierge, Biarritz (Gordito1869 CC BY 3.0)
The main beach in Biarritz is lined with buildings that reflect the city's glamorous past, as it was a top vacation destination for the French nobility. Look out for the Hôtel du Palais (formerly Napoleon III's (nephew of Napoleon I) vacation home!) and the Casino Barrière.
Although this beach is very touristy, it can be a lovely place to hire a beach chair and relax with a book and an ice cream. Occasionally you can look up and admire the skills of the surfers that flock to this part of the Basque coast.
Then enjoy a leisurely stroll along the promenade and soak up the atmosphere.
Grande Plage, Biarritz, Basque Country (Fred Romero CC BY 2.0)
Hôtel du Palais
Now a luxury hotel, this was once the 'vacation home' (in fact, a palace!) of Napoleon III's wife, Eugénie. The resort of Biarritz grew around this striking building, and once the Second Empire collapsed it was converted into a luxury hotel and casino. The hotel was restored in the 1950s and has hosted golden age celebrities such as Coco Chanel, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. You can admire the hotel from your beach chair on La Grand Plage!
You may like to visit Napoleon and Eugenie's private chapel just by the hotel, built in 1864. The neo-Mudejar arches and painted tiles reflect the styles of Eugenie's home country, Spain. Look out for the painting of the Virgin inside, and the medallions on each side of the apse, showing members of the Bonaparte family.
Surfers in Biarritz, with the Hotel du Palais in the background (Pixabay)
Port des Pêcheurs
Unlike the extravagant hotels along the seaside, Port des Pêcheurs more humble. Napoleon III ordered the construction of this harbor for the town’s fishermen in the 19th century. If you're visiting the Musée de la Mer, you can access the harbor from the scenic path near the museum.You'll find a row of fish and seafood restaurants in the buildings along the harbor, which used to be the fishermen's cottages. It's a lovely place to have dinner.
Insider tip: try to get a table Crampotte 30 restaurant. You'll enjoy some delicious wine and pintxos (like small tapas dishes). Find out more about Basque cuisine here.
The Fishermen's Port, Biarritz (Harrieta171 CC BY SA 3.0)
La Côte des Basques
Apparently, when American screenwriter Peter Viertel was making the film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's novel 'The Sun Also Rises' in Biarritz, he was enchanted by the magnificent waves on the La Côte des Basques. He arranged to have his surfboard shipped over from California so he could surf in Biarritz.
Legend has it, this was how Biarritz became Europe first surfing destination. The beach is wild and exposed, so Biarritz has become Europe's Surfer's Paradise! If you want to try surfing in Biarritz, be sure to check the time of the tides (surfing will only be possible at low tide). There are five different surf schools, where you can also rent surfing gear.
Insider tip: The magnitude of the beach on this part of the coast at low tide is clear from the cliff-top around the Avenue de Notre Dame. Take a seat on the bench and take in the incredible seascape. Even better - go there at sunset.
Sunset in Biarritz (CC0)
The lighthouse at Pointe Saint-Martin has been guiding seamen since the mid 19th century. You can go inside and climb the 248 steps to the viewing deck at the top, if you want. It's also a wonderful spot to watch the sun set.
Biarritz Lighthouse (Pikist CC0)
Aquarium de Biarritz
The town's aquarium, the Musée de la Mer, is housed in an art deco building dating back to 1933. If you climb up the Rocher de la Vierge you'll have a great view of the museum from there. Learn about Biarritz's whaling history, view the tanks, enclosures, and shark cave, and try to be there to see the seals at feeding time!
Seal at the Biarritz Aquarium (MuseeMer CC-BY SA 1.0)
Cité de l’Océan et du Surf
If you're in Biarritz with kids, they will love the interactive exhibits at the Cité de l’Océan et du Surf. Check out the virtual reality surfing experience and the 3D movie that takes you on a virtual journey 3,500m under the water into the Gouf de Capbreton, an underwater chasm not far from Biarritz. If you plan to visit the aquarium too you can buy a joint ticket and get a small discount.
Cité de l'ocean et surf, Biarritz (Pixabay)
Église Russe de Biarritz
At the invitation of Napoleon's wife, Eugénie, the Russian nobility would spend their summer vacations with her in Biarritz, bringing their wealth with them. This was what helped transform Biarritz into a luxury vacation destination at the time. Eventually the Russian community needed their own church where they could worship.
Thus the neo-byzantine style Église Russe de Biarritz was built in 1892. You'll see many icons from Russia's past, as much of the decor inside was brought over from St Petersburg.
Russian Orthodox church in Biarritz (O. Morand CC BY-SA 1.0)
If you are interested in architecture, the Casino Municipale, built in 1929, is another example of art deco and a reminder of Biarritz's glamorous past. There's a smart dress code if you want to go inside and admire the art deco skylights and floor mosaics (or place a bet or two!).
Casino Municipal (Fred Romero (CC BY 2.0)
Les Halles de Biarritz
Food markets in France are a hive of social activity and the place to discover and try the best regional delicacies. Even if you're not buying groceries, the market hall in Biarritz is still worth a visit. In fact, you might be inspired to prepare for a beach picnic when you see the vast selection of cheeses, fresh and cured meats, pates, fruits and vegetables laid out before you. And if you have a taste for the finer things in life, head next door to the seafood market for some fresh oysters.
Biarritz Food Market (Harrieta171 (CC BY-SA 3.0)