Arcachon Bay is a jewel in the French Atlantic coast. Blessed with superb scenery, thriving on outdoor adventures, and sustained by the best oysters in France, there’s a host of wonderful things to do at Arcachon Bay.
When Napolean III declared Arcachon an autonomous municipality in 1857, the tiny town was little more than a clearing in a pine forest inhabited by fishermen enjoying the regions oyster-harvesting credentials. Encouraged by its new independence, investors set about flogging the health benefits of the sea to the bourgeoisie.
Enchanted by sheer beauty and medicinal advantages, the wealthy flocked to Arcachon Bay, and a new seaside resort was born.
Today, it’s easy to be captivated by Arcachon’s allure. Bordered on one side by the ridge of the Dune du Pilat and on the other by the slender stretch of the Cap Ferret isthmus, Arcachon Bay is a beautiful slice of France. Powder soft beaches in blonde, pine forests in luminous green, and pristine azure waters complete a colour pallet perfect for switching off and unwinding.
But if you’re looking for more than a relaxing break, there are plenty of great things to do in Arcachon Bay. Take a surfing lesson in the Atlantic rollers, cycle trails that whisk you along villages lining the beach, explore the bay by boat or dine on some of the freshest oysters imaginable.
You won’t have Arcachon to yourself in July and August, but either side of summer, when the weather is still good and the crowds are thinner, the relaxing beauty of this gorgeous destination gently simmers.
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1 – EXPLORE EUROPE’S LARGEST SAND DUNE – DUNE DU PILAT
Just south of Arcachon, Dune du Pilat – the highest sand dune in Europe – rises 100 metres over the Atlantic Ocean in a magnificent sweep of golden blonde.
From the summit, views stretch across Arcachon Bay towards the isthmus of Cap Ferret, with the oyster-rich island of L’Île aux Oiseaux caught amidst the glimmer of the ocean. With the surf on one side and a luminous pine forest on the other, it’s a magical place to visit at any time, but is particularly special at dawn or dusk.
In the morning, the sun rises over the pine forest, casting shadows over the dunes which have been swept free of footprints from the overnight winds. Morning is a quieter time on the Dune du Pilat, and with the cooler temperatures, it’s perfect for hiking along the undulating ridges of pristine sand.
At dusk, the dunes glow a vibrant orange as the sun sets over the Atlantic Ocean. Bring a picnic and your choice of beverage, find a spot on the ridge and absorb one of the best sunsets you could hope to find.
You can find more detailed information on our guide to visiting Dune du Pilat, including how to get there and the different hiking options.
2 – ENJOY THE FRESHEST OYSTERS AT LA TEST-DE-BUCH
L’Île aux Oiseaux, or Bird Island is a small island in the centre of the Arcachon basin and the only salt meadow on the Atlantic Coast untouched by human intervention. The mineral-rich bay, unique microclimate, and extensive salt meadow create the perfect biodiversity for oysters to thrive.
As a result, Arcachon Bay provides around 10,000 tonnes of oysters every year. Many oyster farmers open their huts to the public for tasting. Perched on the edge of the bay, often on stilts, the Arcachon degustation huts combine a passion for the local environment with superb views and the freshest of oysters.
While the huts are spread around the bay some of the most accessible are at the port of La Test-de-Buch. Over-looking the quay in a charming and relaxed setting, take your pick from oysters, periwinkles, whelks, or shrimp. Wash it all down with a glass of white Bordeaux. We loved the local attitude and small selection at La Cabane Du Pirelon.
After lunch, explore the quay then take a stroll over the salt meadows of Pres Salés Ouest looking back at the cabins over the water.
3 – CYCLE ON THE CAP FERRET ISTHMUS
Opposite Arcachon and across the mouth of the bay, the thin isthmus of Cap Ferret has miles of desolate beaches pounded by the Atlantic surf. Bayside, a row of eleven beautiful villages overlook the tranquil waters of the shallow lagoon basin.
The drive from Arcachon around to Cap Ferret can take around 2 hours, and much longer in the peak summer period. The best way to explore the headland is by getting the boat shuttle from Arcachon to Cap Ferret then hiring a bike to explore at your own pace. The cycle lanes are quiet, the residential areas chic, the beaches untouched, and the villages picturesque. Take a break by grabbing lunch at a local oyster farmers hut overlooking the water.
Don’t miss L’Herbe, which, in our opinion, is the most interesting village on the isthmus. Sandy lanes connect tightly packed colourful beach houses and there are several huts perched on the water for lunch. We also recommend a quick stop at the ornate Chapel of the Algerian Villa and make sure you allow enough time to swim on a secluded beach.
There are plenty of bike hire shops near Jetée de Bélisaire (see our map below) where the boat docks. The tourist office at Cap Ferret has maps of the routes.
4 – SEE ARCACHON BAY ON A BOAT TOUR
One of the best ways to explore the natural beauty of Arcachon Bay is via a boat tour. Various group excursions focus on different areas of the bay each with their own unique charms.
In the centre of the bay, Île aux Oiseaux or Bird Island, is the only salt meadow on the Atlantic Coast never to have been touched by humans. It’s home to 150 different species of bird and equally special plant life. On its edge, two cabins (Cabins Tchanquées) perched high on wooden stilts, were originally built to house guards to protect the oyster farms. Today they are an iconic image of Arcachon, and a popular focal point of boat tours.
The other option is to hire a private captain on a Pinasse. Meaning pine in French, Pinasses are boats crafted from the local forests that allow you to explore the bay on a tailored schedule. Visit the oyster farms, hop off and meander some of the villages on the isthmus, pick a nice spot to stop for lunch or swim from the deck.
L’Entre Deux Events organises private cruises for up to 12 people with prices starting at €275 for 2 hours and €100 for each hour after that. The captain, Alex, has a wealth of knowledge to share about the bay.
5 – SURF AT PLAGE DE LA SALIE NORD
Just south of Arcachon, the powdery white sands of Plage de la Salie-Nord is one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve encountered in Europe. On a sunny day, the turquoise waters shimmer as Atlantic rollers rise majestically before breaking onto the gently sloping sands. Those with experience don’t need our advice, but for beginners (like us) it’s an excellent place to take a surfing lesson.
Seven Seas runs a surf school from the hut on the beach every day during school & public holidays. Lessons can also be arranged any day between March and November. We had a great two hours and by the end our instructor, Lucca, had us standing and riding the waves all the way to the shore.
Even if you’re not up for a surfing class, Plage de la Salie-Nord is a wonderful beach to visit. With minimal facilities, it’s often less busy than you would expect a beach of this quality to be. With a 30-minute drive from Arcachon (buses run Apr-Sep), then a 10-minute walk from the car park, you could be enjoying the soft sand, remote beauty, and big skies in a cool 40 minutes.
6 – SWIM, SAIL & SUP AT LAKE CAZAUX
Just south of Arcachon, the placid, shallow waters and idyllic setting of Cazaux Lake is the perfect place to connect with nature in this beautiful part of France. Surrounded by several gently sloping sandy beaches and overlooked by restaurants and cafés tucked into the trees, Cazaux is a wilderness area with just the right amount of facilities for a fun day out.
Laze on one of the beaches, take a dip in the water, and relax in front of a cabin so you can grab a beer just in time to watch the sunset. If you’re feeling more active, take to the water in a sailboat, catamaran, or kayak and venture further around the lake. The still and shallow waters are also the perfect place to try stand up paddle boarding.
The Cercle Voile Cazaux Lac Sailing club rents equipment and short wetsuits by the hour or for the whole day. Chez Juliette is great for a relaxed and tasty lunch, right on the beach. Alternatively, the nearby La Caza Nomade has innovative tapas and a cool atmosphere in a reclaimed service station.
7 – SPEND AN EVENING IN ARCACHON
Arcachon town is more than just a hopping off place to explore the bay. The sweeping beachfront promenade, lined with cafes and restaurants, is a lovely place for an early evening wander and pre-dinner aperitif.
A few streets back from the port (on Boulevard de La Plage – D650) a range of independent shops have all the produce you need to fill an artisanal picnic basket. Find a traditional Saucisson sec, a tasty pâté, local cheeses and of course, a bottle of wine to wash it all down. After gathering your selection, head to Dune du Pilat for a sunset picnic.
Alternatively, stick around Arcachon for a livelier evening. For a good value dinner, join the locals at Le Bistro du Port. The chalkboard menu and busy service gives it that French bistro feel bursting with joie de vivre. For something pricier, try a seafood restaurant along the front. You’re generally paying for the views, but what a view it is.
MAP / THINGS TO DO IN ARCACHON BAY
We have included our favourite things to do in Arcachon Bay on the below map so you can hit the ground running when you get to this beautiful corner of France.
HOW TO GET TO ARCACHON, FRANCE
Arcachon is located in southwest France in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region around 66 kilometres from Bordeaux. As a popular spot for locals and international tourists, there are plenty of good transport connections.
There are regular flights to Bordeaux-Mérignac International Airport from many European destinations. From the airport, a shuttle bus can deliver you to Bordeaux Train Station from where there are hourly trains to Arcachon. The major car rental companies operate from Bordeaux.
The high-speed rail network in France has connections from many destinations across the country to Bordeaux St-Jean Station. From here, it’s under 1 hour to connect to Arcachon Station.
TRAINS TO ARCACHON
52 minutes | 26 trains per day
3 hours | 15 trains per day | connect in Bordeaux
2 hours, 17 minutes | 11 trains per day | connect in Bordeaux
HOW TO GET AROUND ARCACHON BAY
While hiring a car is the most convenient way to explore Arcachon Bay, if you base yourself in the town, it’s certainly not essential.
The boat shuttle carries school children and tourists all year between Arcachon and the Cape Ferret isthmus, with other boat shuttle destinations operating in the summer months.
Buses run from Arcachon to Dune du Pilat (Ligne 1) all year round and to Plage de la Salie Nord from April to September (Ligne 1). There is a train from Arcachon to La Teste-de-Buch, or it’s only a quick hop in a taxi. In the peak months of July and August extra bus services and a Dune Express are added.
Finally, there are plenty of bike hire shops and a plethora of cycling routes to take advantage. In half an hour you can get from Arcachon to either La Test-de-Buch or Dune de Pilat, and in about 1 hour you could be at Cazaux Lake or Plage de la Salie Nord..
All in all, it’s a pretty good destination for those wanting to use public transport.
WHERE TO STAY IN ARCACHON BAY
There are great accommodation options around Arcachon to suit all budgets, but here are a few suggestions from us. If you intend to visit in July and August, we suggest you book a long way in advance as Arcachon Bay a popular destination for locals.
T BOUTIQUE HOTEL
Right next to the harbour in Arcachon, this good-value hotel has freshly renovated rooms in modern and clean stylings. The location is perfect for exploring without a car as the centre of town, train station and beach are all just a short walk away.
HÔTEL VILLE D’HIVER
Located in the centre of Arcachon yet somehow creating a secluded haven of luxury, Hôtel Ville d’Hiver is modern and totally unexpected. Transformed from a sewage works (the old water tank is now the pool) it’s only a ten-minute walk to the station or fifteen to the seafront.
HÔTEL LA CO(O)RNICHE
Addresses in Arcachon don’t come any posher than this. This chic hotel designed by Philippe Starck and backed by forest is a 5-star extravagance in white minimalism. The infinity pool offers panoramic views of the Dune du Pilat and the terrace peers over the Atlantic Ocean.
This cool hotel is bedecked in seventies memorabilia with vintage film posters and raunchy artwork. Bursting with red, the bar and restaurant has an American diner vibe. It’s a short walk over the road to a thin stretch of sand or 15 minutes to the pretty beach at Le Moulleau.
BEST TIME TO VISIT ARCACHON BAY
The best time to visit Arcachon is during the shoulder seasons of May to June and September to October when the temperatures are lovely, the summer crowds are absent, hotels are a bit cheaper, and most things are still open. In particular, the autumn months often deliver an Indian summer and the oysters are at their tastiest.
In summer its prime time with great weather but the beaches can get very busy and getting around can be slow. In winter temperatures drop to 5 to 10 degrees turning Arcachon into more of a beautiful landscape to admire, rather than a beach town to party in.
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If you’re interested in a jaunt to the Atlantic coast in France, here are some other guides you might find useful.
3-day itinerary for Paris
A guide to visiting the Dordogne
Tips for visiting Dune du Pilat
Our 2-week European itinerary
The best things to do in Vienna, Austria
// This guide was produced in partnership with Atout France and Destination Nouvelle-Aquitaine.
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