The city is split into three main areas: Grand Bayonne, home to most of Bayonne’s attractions, the Saint-Esprit district surrounding the train station, and the stylish Petit Bayonne. It’s also close to the luxurious town of Biarritz, and the stunning Basque coast, with numerous surfing hotspots. Here’s our rundown of 10 things to do in this quaint city of culture.
The cathedral and the adjoining cloisters should be top of your list of things to do in Bayonne. The imposing exterior alone is worth a look, set in a square in the heart of the Old Town, with a beautiful gothic façade, buttresses, and a glorious rose window. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, it's also worth a visit inside to marvel at the towering, colourful ceiling and stained glass windows. The mediaeval cloisters are some of the biggest and best-preserved in France; honey coloured arches with impressively detailed stone carving work. Keep an eye out for concerts and events held regularly here during weekends.
Wander up the cute, cobbled streets behind the cathedral and you’ll soon come across the Old Castle. Unfortunately, it’s no longer open to the public as it’s owned by the military, but it’s still very impressive from the outside and leads nicely to a walk along the green and peaceful ramparts. These stretch for several kilometres, past former moats and entrance gates, with lovely views of the city and its stone terraced houses with their colourful shutters and intricate iron balconies.
A visit to the botanical gardens, nestled in the city’s ramparts, is one of the top things to do in Bayonne in summer. It’s a lush and romantic spot that’s free to enter, with several pushchair/wheelchair-friendly paths. Admire the sculpted terraces, tropical blooms, hanging gardens and towering palm trees. Enjoy the serenity of the Japanese-style garden with its carp pond and redwood bridges. It’s a great place to find shade from the summer heat, and watch terrapins sunbathing near the ponds.
No trip to Bayonne would be complete without simply wandering the streets, marvelling at the architecture and soaking up the laid-back atmosphere. Either side of the Nive river is a good choice – the Petite Bayonne side is pedestrianised for quiet and uninterrupted views across the water. The esplanade where the Nive joins the Adour River is glorious on a sunny day, with a stunning view of the white walls, red rooftops, and impressive train station on the opposite side of Bayonne. The streets around the cathedral are also some of the best for shopping, and food options in a picturesque setting.
The Leon-Bonnat Garden is another lovely spot to stop for a rest in the spring or summer, especially in July, when the city’s streets are bustling with visitors and packed with events for the Les Fêtes de Bayonne (Bayonne Festival). Here, you’ll find beautifully kept gardens with colourful flower beds, an ornate bandstand, and an arboretum’s-worth of trees. Pause on a bench, or spread out a picnic of local delicacies on the neatly manicured grass and enjoy a moment’s peace.
Les Halles is a 19th-century covered marketplace, surrounded by al fresco dining tables served by local vendors. The large, open square at the front is a popular place with locals and tourists alike, and a great place for some people-watching. Inside the market you’ll find French Basque produce sellers purveying everything from ham, cheese, fish, fresh fruit, to cakes and local tipples. Many sellers have countertops where you can pull up a bar stool, indulge in some pintxos (Basque tapas), and enjoy the lively atmosphere.
Cross the river Nive from Old Town via bridge and enter the Petite Bayonne district with its narrow, cobbled streets. Set back from the riverfront, the district has a charming, traditional feel with quaint shops and cafes. Petit Bayonne is also home to the Museum of Basque Traditions & Arts – a must for anyone curious about Basque culture. It’s packed with paintings, sculpture, artefacts and regular exhibitions focussing on the region’s rich history.
From the impressive Pont Saint-Esprit you have a stunning view along the Adour River, with Bayonne tucked neatly along both banks. It’s certainly worth a walk in the sunshine, but you’ll also want a picture of this pretty bridge and its beautiful arches from one of the banks. It’s also worth catching during sunset, when the city’s lights are illuminated onto the shimmering river.
Bayonne is famous for its ham, chocolate and Gâteau Basque – a light, fluffy cake with vanilla crème or preserved cherries. Be sure to visit the wider variety of Bayonne restaurants focusing on local produce while you’re here. For brunch options, check out the highly rated AM Bayonne in Petit Bayonne, or Coffee Muxu, conveniently located right in front of the cathedral and serving several vegetarian and vegan options. The town is also the spiritual home of French artisan chocolate, and there are various establishments offering photo-worthy sweet treats, including Monsieur Txokola, or the famous L'Atelier du Chocolat . For something more substantial, then look along the river for an evening meal in a romantic setting. Restaurant La Grange is a highly rated, haute-cuisine establishment – expect something delicious and appropriately priced. Chez Txotx, Bajadita, and La Table Sébastien Gravé also specialise in Basque cuisine. For an atmospheric evening with a slightly lower price tag, try cosy Bakera, or Bistro Toqué Bayonne.
There are several day-trip worthy destinations within an hour’s bus or train ride from Bayonne. The glitzy seaside-haven of Biarritz is popular, with its scenic harbour, promenade, and great shopping and food scene, not to mention the long stretches of golden coastline. Surfers might also want to hop further along the coast to check out the waves in the right season, and the beaches of Anglet, just north of Biarritz are no less stunning. Another great summer excursion is to bike or walk through the forest of Pignada – the perfect place to escape the crowds and enjoy a peaceful afternoon in nature.