From the culture-packed Basque Country to the surf and sand dunes of the Atlantic Coast beaches and the rambling peaks of the Pyrénées mountains, southwest France is home to some of the country’s most sought-after vacation spots. Here’s our pick of the best places to visit in southern France, all of them easily reached by overnight ferry from the UK.
An added bonus: ferries dock at either Santander or Bilbao, so you’ll get to see some of northern Spain as you drive over the border, too.
Everyone from Queen Victoria to Emperor Napoleon III holidayed at this glitzy seaside resort in its 19th-century heyday. Today, the elegant coastal villas, sweeping seafront walks, and golden sands still pull in the crowds each summer, along with the balmy temperatures and world-class surf.
If you tire of beach days and water sports, check into one of the area’s renowned thalassotherapy spas for a day of R&R, watch a game of Basque pelote, and sample the region’s delicious Basque cuisine.
Portsmouth to Bilbao, Spain (1-hour 45-minute drive to Biarritz)
Portsmouth to Santander, Spain (2-hour 45-minute drive to Biarritz)
Plymouth to Santander, Spain (2-hour 45-minute drive to Biarritz)
One of Europe’s most visited Catholic pilgrimage sites, Lourdes makes an impressive inclusion on any southern France itinerary, regardless of your religious beliefs. Once you’ve soothed your ailments with holy water, visit the magnificent Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, peek inside the sacred Grotto of Massabielle, or join a moving candlelit procession.
The town sits pretty at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains, so there are plenty of opportunities to hike, bike, and explore the surrounding hills. Start with a ride on the Pic du Jer funicular and drink in the views from the hilltop Château Fort.
Portsmouth to Bilbao, Spain (3-hour drive to Lourdes)
Portsmouth to Santander, Spain (4-hour drive to Lourdes)
Plymouth to Santander, Spain (4-hour drive to Lourdes)
With miles of golden sandy beaches hemmed in by the coastal pines of the Landes forests, it’s easy to find a slice of seaside paradise around Arcachon Bay. Explore the resort town of Arcachon with its neighbourhoods named after the four seasons, climb the Dune du Pyla, Europe’s highest sand dune, then hop aboard for a cruise around the bay, stopping to sample the region’s famous Arcachon oysters.
The forests and beaches of the Cap Ferret peninsula and the vineyards and chateaux of Bordeaux are all within a short drive, making this the ideal basecamp for exploring.
Portsmouth to Bilbao, Spain (3.5-hour drive to Arcachon)
Portsmouth to Santander, Spain (4.5-hour drive to Arcachon)
Plymouth to Santander, Spain (4.5-hour drive to Arcachon)
Whether you check into a boutique hotel in the heart of the city or rent a gite amid the vineyards, Bordeaux is the historic and cultural epicentre of southwest France. Spend time admiring the UNESCO-listed monuments of the city centre, which is brimming with shops, markets, and museums, then escape to the surrounding countryside to discover France’s largest wine region.
Wine-tasting tours, chateaux visits, and leisurely bike rides through the vineyards are all on the agenda around Bordeaux. Don’t miss the medieval hilltop town of Saint-Émilion and the Grand Cru wineries along the Route des Châteaux in the Medoc region.
Portsmouth to Bilbao, Spain (3.5-hour drive to Bordeaux)
Portsmouth to Santander, Spain (4.5-hour drive to Bordeaux)
Plymouth to Santander, Spain (4.5-hour drive to Bordeaux)
The Pink City of Toulouse – so-called for its rose-hued architecture – is the gateway to the south. From here, it’s easy to head south into the Pyrénées, take a day trip to the tiny country of Andorra, or visit historic French towns like Castres, Carcassonne, and Albi.
In the city itself, highlights include the grand Place du Capitole, the Cité de l’Espace (Space City) (a must for fans of aviation and aeronautics), the scenic Canal du Midi, and the show-stopping Trail of the Giants.
Portsmouth to Bilbao, Spain (4.5-hour drive to Toulouse)
6. Pyrénées National Park
The sprawling wilderness of the Pyrénées National Park forms France’s mountainous final frontier, hugging the Spanish border. With plenty of tranquil campsites and rural gites dotted around the park, this is the place to bring your campervan or caravan along with your hiking boots and a sense of adventure.
Miles of hiking and mountain biking trails provide activities suitable for the whole family, while seasonal activities include rock climbing, skiing, and water sports at one of the many lakes.
Portsmouth to Bilbao, Spain (about a 3-hour drive to Pyrénées National Park)
Portsmouth to Santander, Spain (about a 4-hour drive to Pyrénées National Park)
Plymouth to Santander, Spain (about a 4-hour drive to Pyrénées National Park)
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