Why You Should Plan a Trip to Biarritz, France

When I arrived in Biarritz on a sun-dappled morning in late September, it had been nearly 170 years since Napoleon III chose this stretch of seaside in southwestern France as the site of his summer residence. Yet it took little effort to imagine the place as the emperor knew it. Villa Eugénie, the lavish estate named after his wife, still rises conspicuously from a bluff overlooking the main beach: a testament to how imperial extravagance turned what was once a remote Basque whaling village into a haven for European high society. It is now the unapologetically baroque Hôtel du Palais Biarritz, where I would be staying. So for all I knew, my first moments in town — standing on the balcony of my chandeliered guest room, feeling as if I’d sneaked into a royal retreat — unfolded in what was once the bedroom of the last monarch of France. 

This little spell did not last long. Or, I should say, it was quickly replaced by another. Staring down at the Grande Plage, as the beach below the hotel is known, I spotted two lanky young men. Clad in wet suits, surfboards tucked under their arms, they stood surveying the waves breaking off a rock jutting out of the sea. Suddenly, it could have been 1956, the year an American screenwriter named Peter Viertel came to Biarritz and altered it as dramatically — if a little more accidentally — as Napoleon III had done a century before. 

From left: The patio at Cheri Bibi; trout tartare and tuna tataki with edamame at Le Néo-Bistrot, a restaurant at Hôtel Le Garage.

Ambroise Tézenas

In town for the filming of his adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, Viertel noticed the waves, experienced an urge familiar to anyone with a surfing habit, and sent for his board back in Los Angeles. Before long, word had spread, and surfers, famously motivated by rumors of sublime breaks, were soon arriving in droves. By the 1970s, Biarritz had evolved into Europe’s first full-blown surf scene: a rollicking little corner of the world where barefoot vagabonds mixed it up with the aristocratic old guard.

The sun was setting, leaving a band of neon orange clinging to the horizon; around us, raffish cliques sipped esoteric cocktails, shared platters of roast chicken, flitted between languages, and seemed, to my eyes, immune to worldly stress.

About 10 years ago, while indulging my own addiction to riding waves, I met a surfer in the U.S. who described Edenic summers spent in Biarritz: days bobbing in the ocean; evenings feasting on tapas; impromptu road trips into Spain, just 18 miles to the south. I wanted to go immediately. But the whirl of life meant almost a decade would pass before my trip — a period during which Biarritz began exerting a pull over an ever-wider subset of travelers. Art aficionados were making pilgrimages, as were fashion types and foodies. When I arrived, the Hôtel du Palais had recently emerged from a two-year renovation, and a number of chic hotels were opening up — signs, perhaps, that Biarritz was gliding into yet another new era. 

“It’s definitely an interesting moment here,” said Diane Ruengsorn, a recent transplant. “This town that was under the radar and hadn’t really changed in many years is being embraced by a lot of people at once.” We met up at Jack the Cockerel, a restaurant with a terrace overlooking the Grande Plage. The sun was setting, leaving a band of neon orange clinging to the horizon; around us, raffish cliques sipped esoteric cocktails, shared platters of roast chicken, flitted between languages, and seemed, to my eyes, immune to worldly stress. “It’s kind of the opposite of the bling and the yachts of the Côte d’Azur,” Ruengsorn remarked. 

From left: A mussel-and-sweet potato soup at Cheri Bibi, in Biarritz; Casa Juan Pedro, a classic Basque-style fish restaurant in Biarritz, is owned by twin brothers Jean and Paul.

Ambroise Tézenas

Like most people I met in Biarritz, Ruengsorn has led a number of interesting lives. Originally from California, she worked in New York’s magazine world, at Gourmet and Saveur, before decamping to Paris. There she spent a decade teaching at the Paris College of Art, got married, and launched Bordeaux in Bites, a company that specializes in bespoke culinary tours. Stifled by strict lockdown measures in Paris during COVID, she and her husband relocated to Biarritz. Now she does her grocery shopping at Les Halles, the town’s central market: a marvel of cheesemongers, specialty butchers, and oyster stands. Captivated by French Basque culinary tradition, which is less globally recognized than its Spanish counterpart, Ruengsorn began offering tours in her new backyard.

“It’s an area that still feels ripe for discovery in so many ways,” she said. “The mash-up of cultures — the surfers, the Basque, French, and Spanish — make it like no place else.” 

From left: The pool at Hôtel Le Garage; La Rotonde Côté Maison, the restaurant at Hôtel du Palais Biarritz.

Ambroise Tézenas

I’d spent the day getting an education in this, largely through aimless wandering — the ideal method for absorbing Biarritz’s gauzy allure. It is a disarmingly picturesque town: cockeyed streets, ornately shuttered buildings, enticing boutiques, everything salt-tinged and hydrangea-scented. Walking around, it was easy to conjure the days when Coco Chanel established her first couture house in the city, back in 1915 — around the same time a young Pablo Picasso was painting sunbathers on the beach. Add in the influence of surf culture and the result is some seriously choice people-watching. On one block I passed an elegant septuagenarian sporting a silk ascot, followed by a tattooed dude with his wet suit pulled down around his torso. 

Related: 15 Best Places for a Girls’ Trip in Europe

After lingering over lunch at Club Sandwich, a groovy little spot heavy on natural wines that opened in 2022, I strolled the serpentine path carved into the cliffs that line the coast. This led me to the Côte des Basques, the town’s most famous surfing beach — and, with its view of the Pyrenees to the south, arguably its most dazzling. Dozens of people sunbathed on the seawall; others sipped Spritzes at the cafés lining the promenade. I rented a board from one of the numerous outfitters along the beach and surfed until my face had morphed into a permanent grin. 

Villa Belza, in Biarritz.

Ambroise Tézenas

Now, seated with Ruengsorn, my wet suit drying on the adjacent barstool and my hair damp with salt water, I was debating between the burrata and the tuna tataki before heading off to sleep in a literal palace. 

“Crazy what passes for real life here,” Ruengsorn said. “Isn’t it?” 

While Biarritz is a destination in its own right, the city is best appreciated in the larger context of the surrounding Basque Coast — the brightest star in a constellation of sparkling towns and villages, many still deeply rooted in ancient Basque culture. Ludmilla Balkis, a ceramic artist, offered to give me a tour of a few one evening, picking me up at the Hôtel du Palais’ wrought-iron gates and heading south into a landscape of bucolic hills and red-roofed cottages.

From left: The reception desk at Les Hortensias du Lac; owners Ada Zitouni and Edouard Mineo at Sunburn Store, a surf shop in Biarritz.

Ambroise Tézenas

Raised in Paris, Balkis worked for most of her adult life in fashion, ending up in London, where she designed for Celine under Phoebe Philo. “And then I burned out and came here,” Balkis said with a laugh. After spending some time on the coast, she now lives inland, in a small enclave at the foothills of the Pyrenees, with her husband and young children. “Here everything is more elemental and I am more sane,” she went on. “Instead of the craziness of a big city you have instead all these places that have their own little personalities. And they’re so close you can do lunch in one, followed by dinner in the other.” 

Indeed, in mere minutes we were in Guéthary, just six miles south of Biarritz but seemingly a very different world. With its weather-ravaged wooden boats dry-docked on a stone wharf, it appeared to have changed little in the centuries since it was a Basque fishing village, though a trendy café on a cliff overlooking the ocean and a food truck situation down at the beach hinted at the arrival of a glossier cohort. (Clothing company founder Shawn Stussy is said to be one of the town’s 1,300 residents, as is Bryce Dessner, guitarist for the National.) 

While Biarritz is a destination in its own right, the city is best appreciated in the larger context of the surrounding Basque Coast — the brightest star in a constellation of sparkling towns and villages, many still deeply rooted in ancient Basque culture.

We met up with her friend Filipe Jardim, a Brazilian illustrator who’d been out surfing the town’s famously powerful break, Parlementia. The three of us drove farther south, arriving 10 minutes later in Ciboure, a town of cobblestoned walkways and elegant timber homes that sits across a harbor from its equally idyllic neighbor, St.-Jean-de-Luz, where Louis XIV was married in 1660. Dining with Balkis and Jardim at La Table de Megumi, a newish Japanese restaurant that specializes in gyoza, I could understand how a visit could easily become the start of a new life. 

I had begun my trip in another town, Hossegor, which sits 25 miles north of Biarritz, technically just outside of Basque Country but still strongly influenced by its spirit. Developed in a swath of pine forest at the beginning of the 20th century, the place once served as a sedate refuge where the upper crust hunted and played golf, took contemplative walks around the saltwater lake, and built stately villas in a style known as Basques-Landes — a hybrid of Spanish and Art Deco influences unique to the town. More recently, its rugged beaches and excellent waves have made it Europe’s primary surfing hub. (When I arrived, the town’s mellow tangle of café-lined streets was gearing up for a weeklong festival thrown by the surf brand Quicksilver.) 

From left: Ostalapia, a restaurant and farm stay outside Biarritz; mountain views from the terrace of Ostalapia.

Ambroise Tézenas

The plan had been to spend the bulk of my time in Hossegor as so many do: alternating between chasing waves on the water, soaking in the sun on the sand, and drinking crisp beers at the first bar I saw come sunset. The skies, however, had a different agenda. I was greeted by whipping winds and beating rain — a taste of the erratic weather that, from the 1960s on, drove many of the glittering masses away from Biarritz and the Basque Coast, down to the more constant climate of the Côte d’Azur. But in addition to amplifying the wabi-sabi romance of the area, the rain had the benefit of allowing me to fully appreciate where I was staying: Les Hortensias du Lac, an extraordinary property that has brought a whole new sensibility to Hossegor. 

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The 25-room hotel, which opened in 2019 in what had been an aging lakeside inn, is a study in luxe, earthy minimalism. The lobby, which is filled with eclectic furniture, is as ideal for a matcha latte as for a martini; the airy rooms have thoughtful accents, like the wooden swing that hung from the rafters of my spacious suite. The hotel operates a stylish bar on the nearby beach, and has an indoor-outdoor spa where I went full stupor, spending the bulk of the drizzly day cycling between the hot tub, the sauna, and the cold plunge.

From left: The lounge at Les Hortensias du Lac, a hotel in Hossegor; contemporary art at the gallery Champ Lacombe.

Ambroise Tézenas

“And you feel incredible right now, do you not?” said one of the property’s owners, Guillaume Foucher, when I met him for dinner that evening at the hotel’s restaurant. Chef Phillipe Moreno had prepared seared white asparagus and langoustines flecked with shavings of foie gras, plus grilled mullet served with an avocado-stuffed zucchini. “This is kind of the point of this place,” said Foucher, who ran art galleries in Paris before developing hotels with his husband and business partner, Frédéric Biousse, under the umbrella of Les Domaines de Fontenille. “You come here, maybe you surf, maybe you stroll the lake, and then you eat an incredible meal. Whatever you do, you leave feeling better than when you arrived.”

Before long, word had spread, and surfers, famously motivated by rumors of sublime breaks, were soon arriving in droves. By the 1970s, Biarritz had evolved into Europe’s first full-blown surf scene: a rollicking little corner of the world where barefoot vagabonds mixed it up with the aristocratic old guard.

The rain let up the following morning, allowing me to tour Hossegor on one of the hotel’s e-bikes. After winding through leafy streets, admiring the villas, and circumnavigating the lake, I eventually arrived at Capbreton, a neighboring seaside town, where the sky again opened up; seeking shelter, I ran under the awning of what turned out to be a restaurant, Le Bar Basque, where I waited out the downpour with croquettes, moules frites, and red wine. Later that evening, after the rain had stopped, I rode along the darkened streets, tracing the bluffs of enormous dunes until I arrived in La Centrale, Hossegor’s coastal neighborhood, which has evolved into a lively pocket of restaurants and bars. I found dinner at La Nord, a restaurant with a charmingly slapdash interior that specializes in seasonal small plates. Taking in the crowd around me, a dynamic mix of ages and aesthetic choices, I thought back to something Foucher had told me the night before about the ephemeral vibe that first drew him to the region.

Surfers on the beach near Les Hortensias du Lac hotel, in Hossegor.

Ambroise Tézenas

“There is an attitude in this part of the country that is very different from the rest,” he had said. “The French can still be snobby and classist, which I can say as a Frenchman. But what makes this region unique is that in the restaurants you will see the bourgeoises sitting next to young surfers who are living out of a van.”

In Biarritz, after a few days indulging in old-world splendor at the Hôtel du Palais, I moved to another hotel, Le Garage, a property that has introduced a modern and slyly louche interpretation of glamour to the city. An oasis of stylish rooms tucked behind the turquoise glimmer of a pool, it opened in 2021 in a structure that once stored automobiles for the adjacent Regina Hotel & Spa, a cliffside tower of Belle Époque grandeur built in 1907. The Experimental Group, the hospitality company behind Le Garage, now runs that property as well: rechristened as the Regina Experimental Biarritz, it houses an outpost of Frenchie, the rustic-chic Paris restaurant that has become a celebrity haunt. To spend a morning at Le Garage lounging poolside, as I did, is to understand how these two hotels have transformed a corner of a town long known for its historic lighthouse, paths lined with tamarisk trees, and nearby golf course into a magnet for the urbane and artfully disheveled. 

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This energy — part polish, part patina — percolates throughout Biarritz these days. It is particularly evident in the many new restaurants that have elevated and diversified an already rich dining culture. Some are modish and casual, like Cheri Bibi, where I whiled away an evening at the outdoor communal bar, making small talk with strangers and snacking on chef Adrien Witte’s creative tapas: a tartare of caramelized beets and grapes; an octopus stew made with cherry tomatoes and coriander. Others are curiosities, like Ardi Beltza, its name Basque for “black sheep,” where the Chilean-born chef Aldo Rioseco serves family-style feasts in a building that shares space with a court for Basque pelota, a ball game dating back to the 1600s. Then there are the more highbrow newcomers, like Sillon, where the chef, Mathieu Rostaing-Tayard, approaches local produce and seafood in a manner that is at once provincial and theatrical. Sitting at the bar one night, I surrendered to an artfully plated seven-course tasting menu — a shimmery slice of smoked mackerel kissed with lemon leaf, tiny shrimp I was informed were alive moments before arriving, a wedge of grilled cabbage topped with grated tuna heart — that felt not so much like a meal as a multisensory regional tour. 

Hôtel du Palais Biarritz.

Ambroise Tézenas

Coming up alongside such restaurants is an art scene that has also been attracting a new type of visitor. One day, after spending some time on the beach, I ambled into La Pâtisserie Graphique, a funky gallery that puts on monthly shows by local artists; the space also doubles as a photo studio and informal trading post where surfers sell their boards during an event in the summer. Not far away I found Champ Lacombe, the contemporary gallery responsible for putting Biarritz on the itinerary of the international art set. Opened in 2021 by Lucy Chadwick, who was formerly the director of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, the pioneering New York gallery that closed in 2020, Champ Lacombe has brought a version of that blue-chip experience to Biarritz — in many ways connecting the town to Bilbao, the Spanish city less than two hours’ drive away that’s known for its vibrant art scene. When I visited the catacomb-like space, a show titled “Baroque” featured provocative works by Matthew Barney, Sylvie Fleury, and Mike Kelley.

Wherever Biarritz may be heading, I found in Pioche Projects, an arts space that opened in 2013 at the edge of the city, an antidote to some of the most self-conscious gloss. Housed in a building that has been many things over the years — a laundromat, a parking garage — Pioche is today a scrappy, multipronged institution run by a collective of creative misfits. Outside I met two of them, Maïa Ibar and Tristan Martineau, an artist couple. It was Ibar’s mother who found the space. “And we basically thought, ‘Let’s get weird,’ ” said Ibar, a citizen of both the U.S. and France who had been living in Brooklyn. “Tristan and I had been doing the long-distance thing for too long. We were ready for a change, so we took this over.”

“Yes, Biarritz has changed,” she said. “But it is still a place where you can surf and get weird.”

They led me inside: Exposed rafters and cement floors. A tattered Persian rug. Stacks of paintings in every corner. The space held a number of studios rented out by artists, along with their own; Martineau explained that he was making prosthetic eyes out of precious metals and stones. I hadn’t realized he used one himself until he showed me a few of his creations, including one with a rose-quartz iris. “This is for special nights,” he said. “For when you want to show off and have some fun.” 

Maïa Ibar, Lee-Ann Curren, and Tristan Martineau at Pioche Projects, a Biarritz artists’ space.

Ambroise Tézenas

A high-ceilinged main room is where Pioche Projects invites the public for some of that fun: art shows, yoga sessions, sound baths, dance parties, performance art, and weekly drawing classes. “It’s not your normal version of those things,” Martineau said. “It’s punk rock meets New Age. Like, with our drawing classes our models have been a bodybuilder, bondage people, that kind of thing.” 

As we spoke, we were joined by another partner in the space, Lee-Ann Curren, whose roots to Biarritz go deep; her father, Tom Curren, a surfing legend, moved from Santa Barbara to the city in the 1980s. Lee-Ann herself is an expert surfer, a two-time European champion sponsored by Vans. “But now I am also focused on music,” she said, showing me the area of the space she uses as a recording studio. Not long before my visit, she had released a new EP, Who Knows?, which they celebrated at the space with a raucous party that spilled into the street — a variation, as I imagined it, of the sort of night that has been a fixture of the town since the days of Napoleon III.

“Yes, Biarritz has changed,” she said. “But it is still a place where you can surf and get weird and…” She trailed off, a slight grin on her face. “And that’s not changing anytime soon.” 

Where to Stay

Hôtel du Palais Biarritz: Built by Napoleon III and later a favorite of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, this property, newly renovated and now run by Hyatt, overlooks Biarritz’s main beach.

Hôtel Le GarageA chic, intimate property that has helped transform a quiet nook of the city into a magnet for the cosmopolitan and artfully rumpled.

Les Hortensias du Lac: This small hotel — which overlooks Hossegor’s saltwater lake and houses one of the best restaurants in the region — features an exquisite day spa and operates a bar on a nearby beach.

Regina Experimental Biarritz: The owners of Hôtel Le Garage have turned this Belle Époque gem with ocean views into a haven of low-key luxury.

Where to Eat

Ardi Beltza: Family-style feasts are served in a rustic-chic room that shares space with a court for pelota, a traditional Basque racquet sport.

Cheri Bibi: This casually hip restaurant has a boisterous outdoor patio and bar, where it serves a modern take on Basque tapas.

Club Sandwich: A funky little spot offering natural wines and elevated takes on classic sandwiches. Come dusk, they often bring out a DJ and throw a party in the street.

Frenchie: An outpost of the popular Paris restaurant, tucked inside the Regina Experimental hotel.

Jack the Cockerel: With a terrace facing the Grande Plage, this sleek bar-restaurant is hard to beat for cocktails and plates of tuna tataki and roast chicken.

La Nord: This nook of a restaurant in Hossegor adds a touch of Asian flair to Basque classics like 12-hour roast pork shoulder.

La Table de Megumi: A quaint, unexpected Japanese-influenced spot set along the picturesque harbor in Ciboure.

Le Bar Basque: An old-school haunt in Capbreton, this is where you go to wash down a plate of moules frites and croquettes with a carafe of the house red.

Les HallesBiarritz’s central market is a paradise for both picking up specialty foods, like cheese at 1001 Fromages, and having a quick snack of fresh oysters at L’Écaillerie.

SillonThe epic, multisensory meals created by chef Mathieu Rostaing-Tayard change depending on what is freshest from the region’s farms.

What to Do

Champ Lacombe: The 2021 opening of this white-cube gallery put Biarritz on the international art circuit.

La Pâtisserie Graphique: Wander into this surf-inspired gallery for affordable prints and exhibits of work by local artists.

Pioche Projects: This eclectic arts space rents out studios, puts on shows, hosts sound baths, and offers drawing and yoga classes. Check their Instagram for what’s on tap.

Surfing: You’ll find outfitters renting boards and offering lessons along the Côte des Basques, Biarritz’s premier surf beach.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 2024 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline “Crest of the Wave.”

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