The best sights and towns in the French Pyrenees

What do to in the French Pyrenees in every season

The French Pyrenees are simply exquisite. It’s hard to believe that scenery so stunning is not in the Rockies or the Himalaya, but so easily accessible in this part of France. Fans of the Tour de France will be familiar with the steep, winding roads and breath-taking vistas.

  1. Pau
  2. Tarbes
  3. Lourdes
  4. Col du Tourmalet & Pic du Midi Observatory
  5. Eaux-Bonnes
  6. Cirque de Gavarnie
  7. Pont d'Espagne & Lac de Gaube

A trip here is a bucket-list venture, so we’ve gathered the top things to do in the French Pyrenees to make sure you don’t miss any. The three main places to stay are Pau, Tarbes and Lourdes, and you’ll find plenty of activities in town and in the mountains beyond.

1. Pau

Pau is a regal-looking town with grand architecture, wide boulevards and a pretty river. It’s at the foot of the French Pyrenees, so you can be in the mountains within thirty minutes, and you’re only an hour and a half from Bayonne and the coast if you feel the call of the sea. While here, you’ll want to stop at the picturesque castle and national museum, home to stunning recreated interiors, gorgeous tapestries and great views across town and beyond. Get your dose of culture and history at the exquisite fine arts museum and the Museum of Resistance and Deportation, before taking a stroll through the Beaumont botanical gardens and finishing up at pretty Place Clemenceau square. Within a 30-minute drive from Pau the scenery transforms and you are catapulted to a Pyrenean nature paradise. The communes of Izeste and Bielle give easy access to breath-taking natural areas for hiking, biking, or simple road-tripping and stopping for photos. The Vallée d'Ossau natural reserve is a wonderful place to stretch your legs and get stunning views.

Château de Pau: Adults €7, <18s free. 1st Sun of every month free.

Museum of Fine Art: Free. Tues–Sun, 11–18:00.

2. Tarbes

Tarbes is a historic commune, forming a geographical triangle with Pau and Lourdes. It’s the perfect base for exploring the French Pyrenees (which you can see in the distance) and soaking up some culture. Your first stop in spring, summer and early autumn should be the Jardin Massey, a stunning botanical gardens designed in the 19th century and designated a “Jardin Remarquable”. It’s also home to the Musée Massey, hosting exhibitions on military history, fine arts and ethnography. Just across the street in the Le Carmel modern art gallery, you can catapult yourself into this century, exploring more abstract exhibits. You can also visit the museum and home of Martial Foch, documenting his time in charge of the Allied Forces. For something utterly unique, spend an afternoon touring the Haras de Tarbes stud farm, commissioned by Napoleon I to breed the famous Anglo-Arabian horses. You’ll see some stunning steeds in the 200-year-old stables, as well as the saddlery and blacksmith forge, set in hectares of parkland. For a beautiful walk without even leaving the city, head to Caminadour, a protected ribbon of parkland and trails hugging the banks of the Ardour River. Alternatively, make for the Échez tributary trails and walk all the way to Lourdes (less than 20km) with stunning views across the plains to the Pyrenean foothills.

Musée Massey: 10–12:30 & 14–17:30, €5, kids free.

Haras de Tarbes: Guided tour Weds/Sun, 10:30 & 14:30. Adults €7.

3. Lourdes

Nestled in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, Lourdes is a pilgrimage destination in its own right. No visit to Lourdes would be complete without a trip to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, the grotto and basilicas. The architecture is stunning and the atmosphere is charged, as millions each year visit the Grotto of the Apparitions and the water. From April to the end of October, you can also witness the spectacular Marian Torchlight Procession every night at 9pm. You can also follow the story of Bernadette Soubirous throughout the town in the Chachot museum, the Musée du Petit Lourdes and the Musée Sainte-Bernadette. It’s easy to feel reverence here, with the breath-taking mountains almost touching-distance away. In fact, for a taste of the hills without even having to walk, you can ride the Funicular to Pic du Jer for a stunning vista. The Fortress of Lourdes is the town’s secular attraction; a well-preserved medieval castle set atop a rocky outcrop and housing a Pyrenean culture museum. Just a few kilometres from the centre of town you find yourself immersed in the awe-inspiring views of the Pyrenees at the Réserve naturelle régionale du massif du Pibeste-Aoulhet. The hikes up the Pibeste are worth the effort for the incredible views and to be surrounded by nature at its best in spring, summer and early autumn. You’re also a short drive from Pic du Montaigu, the blue lake and Pic du Midi de Bigorre.

Pic du Je funicular: Return adult €12.50, young person €10, <6s free.

Fortress: Adults €7.50, kids €3.50, <6s free.

4. Col du Tourmalet & Pic du Midi Observatory

Just an hour from Lourdes and Tarbes, and 1.5 hours from Pau, you’ll find the mountain resort of La Mongie. The drive or cycle to the resort town is stunning enough, along the famous Col du Tourmalet, but what awaits you at the top is even better. In winter, you’ll find yourself in a ski paradise boasting around 30 lifts, 60 runs and 100km of piste skiing. In summer, a hiker's Eden opens up before you. Atop Pic du Midi de Bigorre – accessed via cable car – is a popular observatory. During the day you can spot peaks from the viewing platform, explore the space exhibition and watch a planetarium show, as well as see the sun live through the observatory telescope. The brave can also edge out along the 12 m metal footbridge to the glass end, giving you a dizzying but impressive view of the gorge, or the ice falls in winter. You can also book a breath-taking evening atop the peak, watching the sunset and then seeing the stars in all their glory. A luxurious option is booking a night’s stay in the observatory hotel, catching sunset on the cable-car ride, followed by dinner, stargazing and a sunrise you’ll never forget.

Observatory rates: Day adult €47. Evening/dinner adult €119pp.

How to reach: Car (free parking), bus from Tarbes.

5. Eaux-Bonnes

Get right into the heart of the Pyrenees with a visit to Eaux-Bonnes, a commune nestled amongst the hills, close to the Spanish border. Laruns, right next door, is also a great stop. Both are pretty to wander around but the main draw is the access to the fabulous mountains. In winter the town’s ski resort comes alive, offering powder lovers a selection of blue, green, red and black runs, as well as the more sedate activity of snow-shoeing and sledding for kids. The Ger massif is also the perfect starting point for ski-touring, or Nordic walking, to see the mountains at a slower pace. Station Gourette and Eaux-Bonnes are just as lively in the summer, with the resort offering climbing, mountain biking, canyoning and a Via Ferrata. This is the perfect spot from which to start your hike or trail run too, with various self-guided routes ranging from 10km to over 20km, taking in peaks and valleys, villages, lakes and even stone circles.

How to reach: Car or Line 806 bus from Pau (1.5 hrs).

Ski pass: Day adult €39, kids €33.50.

6. Cirque de Gavarnie

Right on the border with Spain, the Cirque de Gavarnie is known as nature’s amphitheatre. It was named a World Heritage Site in 1997 and, standing at the base of the glacial ravine looking up, you can see why. In summer, the trail fills with keen hikers and the best time to visit is from May to October. You can take a bus or drive in less than an hour from Lourdes to arrive at the trailhead. You’d expect something this stunning to be reached via a tricky hike, but the walk is easy – a few hours on an easily accessible track (most of the way is even buggy-suitable). It’s largely flat, with an unforgettable view all the way. In winter, of course, the ravine is blanketed in deep, fresh snow, tempting skiers to this well-established, family-friendly resort.

Parking: Gavarnie-Gèdre, paid ~€5–10.

Top tip: Arrive early as village is closed to traffic from 09:00–17:00.

7. Pont d'Espagne & Lac de Gaube

If you’re staying in Pau or Tarbes, and looking for things to do in the French Pyrenees, save a day for the Pont d’Espagne. It’s just an hour and a half’s drive, or under an hour from Lourdes, and you’ll find yourself in the heart of the Pyrenees mountains, surrounded by epic beauty. You’ll drive through the spa and ski town of Cauterets, on past the stunning Cascada du Cerisey waterfalls (which are best in late spring), until you reach the Pont d’Espagne. These waterfalls are wide, full and magnificent, surrounded by pine-clad mountains reaching for the sky. You can head on the winding trails into nature or hop on a chair lift for more exceptional views and speedy access to the lake. Keen hikers will relish the 1.5-hour walk through the rocky, wooded valley towards Lac de Gaube. In summer, the pines open up onto a green pasture and the stunningly aquamarine lake.

Parking: €7–10, up to 12 hrs.

Access: Car/bus from Cauterets bus station. On foot via waterfall path from La Raillère.

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