Last Updated on March 20, 2020
Basque country is one of those fascinating “liminal” spaces that crosses cultural and linguistic borders. Straddling France and Spain, the area is in fact an aggregation of several distinctive regions and cultural identities. On a recent visit to Hendaye, a coastal town in France that’s right over the border from Spanish Basque country, I discovered just how rich and complex the area is– and how much it has to offer.
My partner and I had never been to the region before, and we decided to spend two days on the Atlantic coast, hopping between France and Spain.
Rather than head to more famous destinations such as Biarritz, Bayonne, San Sebastien or Bilbao, we were intrigued by two border towns that have a quieter presence.
Hendaye and Hondarribia are situated at the very edges of the French and Spanish borders, respectively, with the former located at the southwestern tip of France.
You can easily travel from one to the other on an inexpensive ferry that takes about 15 minutes, crossing the calm waters of the Bidassoa estuary and Txingudi Bay.
Both rather quiet, humble towns– at least when compared to the glamorous surfing hub of Biarritz and the much-fussed-about art and restaurant scene of Bilbao— Hendaye and Hondarribia have much to offer travellers looking for something a bit off the tired tourist path.
In what follows, I mostly concentrate on Hendaye, since this is a site about France.
But you’ll also find a quick look at what lies just beyond the border in a Spanish Basque town whose architecture, cuisine and medieval walled city are genuinely alluring and interesting.
Keep reading for my full travel tips, and a few notes on enjoying the local culture, architecture and food.
A Bit of History
While it’s a peaceful and even slightly sleepy place these days, this border region has been the center of numerous wars, conflicts and subsequent peace treaties over the centuries.
Hendaye, a city that’s far newer than Hondarribia with its some 5,000 years of settlement and development, gained independence from the Basque parish of Urrugne in 1598, establishing the Saint-Vincent church.
It was the site of intermittent wars between the French and the Spanish. The fortified “Pheasant Island” in the middle of the Biddasoa river was the site of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, ending the conflict for a time. To this day, the island switches between Spanish and French control every six months.
But continued military campaigns across the borders made peace a difficult task to achieve. A new war erupted in 1793, and the then-settlement at Hendaye was entirely destroyed.
This is one of the main reasons why it looks so much “younger” than the medieval walled city over the Spanish border: it was simply decimated.
Meanwhile, the Battle of Fuenterrabía in 1794 saw Revolutionary French forces attack the fortifications of the old city in Spain, destroying part of it.
(For more on the history of Hondarribia, a well-preserved 13th-century city with roots that stretch as far back as the Roman Empire, see this page). And just a side note that may help you avoid considerable confusion: it’s called “Fontarrabie” in French and “Fuenterrabía” in Spanish. You may see all three used in signs around the region.
The End of Basque Home Rule & Cross-Border Fluidity
Despite the fact that a struggle for control over Hendaye and Hondarribia had been going on for centuries, the end of Basque “home rule” on the Spanish side ended the fluid borders between the two towns.
If previously the Basque-speaking inhabitants on both sides had enjoyed cross-border trade and cultural co-existence, a rigid Spanish-French border was enforced from 1841.
In 1863, a railway line opened in Hendaye, leading to a new burst of development in the coastal town and the arrival of the resort industry.
Nineteenth-century travellers began favoring the town for its lovely beaches and cliffs, and it suddenly became an international hub modeled on nearby Biarritz.
What to See & Do in Hendaye, France: My Suggestions
When we arrived in Hendaye, we had done very little research on what to focus our attention on, deciding to explore somewhat spontaneously. The town is divided into three main areas– the train station and Old Town, the seafront, and the port/marina.
It’s certainly easy enough to navigate and discover au nez (a French expression that roughly translates to “intuitively” and literally means “by nose”.) But you’ll still likely need a bit of direction to take full advantage of the area’s lovely beaches, architecture, coastal paths, restaurants and bars.
Your first port of call for maps, suggested walks and information on beach/watersport activities is the Hendaye Tourist Office (67 bis Boulevard de la Mer, 4700), which is located on the seafront.
Beaches & Seafront Area
Hendaye is a popular swimming and watersports destination on the Atlantic Coast, owing to its 3km of wide, sandy beaches and moderate waves.
Even those who aren’t the strongest swimmers can feel comfortable wading near the shore, and the beach here (called Ondarraitz) is considered ideal for learning to surf, kitesurf or boogie-board.
The water does tend to be cold (I took a dip in June and it was bracing), given that this is the Atlantic Ocean, not the more clement Mediterranean. It will come as no surprise that the best times of year to swim are the warmer months, roughly June through early September.
The long beachfront area is also pleasant for a long, leisurely walk, either on the sand or on the boardwalk known as the Boulevard de la Mer.
It’s fronted in numerous places by pleasant restaurants, bars and shops, some housed in grandiose buildings from the nineteenth and early 20th century.
The sunset views over the water can be arresting, especially on days with partly cloudy skies. From many points, you can see the newer part of Hondarribia in the distance.
Old Town & Basque Architecture
While much of old Hendaye was destroyed by the Spanish military in the late 18th century, some lovely traditional Basque buildings and pleasant shopping streets lined with bars and restaurants can be found around the train station, as well as in the main streets behind the waterfront area.
The Place de la République lies in the center of town, and boasts several terraces where locals enjoy drinks and dinner, especially in the warm months. This is also the site of a lively farmer’s market, which opens on Wednesday mornings.
Also check out the Eglise Saint-Vincent, a 16th-century church that is Hendaye’s most important (and is associated with its newfound independence).
Built in a traditional Basque style with white walls and vibrant red shutters, it boasts a cross in the chapel that dates to the 13th century.
Coastal & Bay Walks
Walkers and hikers should enjoy the relatively easy but rewarding coastal strolls around Hendaye, which can be completed in a couple of hours and offer a picturesque encounter with local flora, fauna and landscapes. I suggest stopping by the tourist office on the main seafront for info and maps, or see this page.
The moderate loop walk we took was about two hours at a leisurely pace, and was mostly situated within the reserve known as the Domaine d’Abbadia.
It extends further east along a national coastal path (look for signs reading “sentier du littoral” in French) to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, via Ciboure. That longer walk is also known as the Corniche Coastal Path.
Travel note: Much of the long coastal path stretching from Hendaye to San-Sebastien and beyond is part of the pilgrimage route known as the Santiago de Compostela (Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle in French). You may well see signs and symbols along the path that reference it.
Aside from its lush wildlife and sea views, the Domaine’s central attraction is a neo-gothic “folly” castle built by architect Viollet-le-duc (famous for restoring Notre-Dame Cathedral during the same period.)
It was commissioned by a wealthy French astronomer and linguist named Antoine d’Abbadie in the 19th century. We admired it from afar as part of the walk. It’s also home to an observatory.
Our walk started from the far eastern edge of the beach via a clearly marked path, ascending slowly through a woody area before emerging into green, grassy bluffs with spectacular sea views. If you’re driving, you can also use the parking lot at the Domaine d’Abbadia and start from there.
Along the path, which moderately ascends and descends hills at certain junctures, you can notably see Hendaye’s two famous twin rocks from various vantages. When the sun emerges from behind the clouds, the water turns an inviting bluish-green.
It also leads you through more bucolic inland stretches, where horses graze on the grass, a Basque-style house and former farm now serves as an information point for hikers, and bees hum around teeming yellow wildflowers.
In addition to the walk above, consider the less challenging but equally pleasant walk around the Bidassoa Bay, which stretches for 14 km from the eastern edge of the beach to a bridge leading you to Irun, across the Spanish border. You can even take it as an alternative way of getting to Hondarribia, but that would involve a very long stroll.
One of the more interesting parts of this walk is that it crosses through an area lined with the ruins of old fortifications and cannons, reminding you of the area’s long history of military conflicts (see the “History” section above).
From here, you can enjoy further lovely perspectives of Hondarribia across the bay.
Eating, Drinking & Basque Culture
One of the more interesting aspects of Basque Country– both on the French and Spanish sides– is encountering its distinctive culture, language, and cuisine.
You can easily explore all of the above simply by enjoying a drink, pintxos (Basque-style tapas) or dinner at one of Hendaye’s many laid-back restaurants and bars.
Cultural note: You’ll quickly notice the abundance of “xs” and “ks” in signs written in the Basque language, which is often considered an enigma by linguists since it has no known relationship to other European languages. French and Spanish speakers tend to be just as disoriented by the fascinating local second language as everyone else is. But as you’ll notice if you visit both French and Spanish Basque country, the language tends to be a bit less prominent on the French side.
The best way to choose a place to eat is to explore the main streets behind the Boulevard de la Mer, including the Avenue des Mimosas which is lined with restaurants and bars.
For some authentic French-inflected Basque cuisine in a relaxed setting, I recommend Txirimiri (9 Avenue des Mimosas, 64700 Hendaye), whose extensive menu of pintxos, fresh seafood and Basque specialties makes for a pleasant meal.
I also tried a traditional gateau basque (basque cake) there that was delicious. Filled with cherry, it had a balanced sweetness and rich, buttery texture.
Meanwhile, Restaurant Battela (5 rue Irun) is regularly praised by locals and tourists for its excellent, creative regional cuisine, freshly caught seafood and fine wines. You can find a list of other good places to eat and drink in Hendaye here.
More Sights & Attractions in Hendaye
For more on what to see and do in the area, see the Hendaye tourist office page (in English) .
This page also offers a very helpful and detailed breakdown of the town’s most interesting attractions, as well as helpful links and info on getting there and getting around.
A Few Hours (or an Overnight Stay) in Hondarribia
Most curious travellers will feel an itch to go explore the Spanish side, if only for a morning or afternoon. Luckily and as mentioned earlier, it’s a quick hop across the border via ferry, making even a few hours in Hondarribia feasible.
Taking the ferry/service boat from Hendaye to Hondarribia is easy. Simply walk from the beaches or train station to the port (map) and board the ferry. Cash payments only; the ticket is currently around 2 Euros per person, each way. Boats run several times a day.
Enjoy seeing the bay from a different perspective once across; Hondarribia’s own marina is lovely and filled with picturesque vessels.
As you’ll have gathered, Hondarribia is a maritime town with a longstanding and important fishing industry. It’s also a seaside resort town, although its beaches are generally considered to be a bit less desirable than those of Hendaye.
But the real allure of this 5,000-year old Basque town is arguably its well-preserved medieval fortifications, pretty streets lined with traditional, multicolored and shuttered houses, and distinctive local culture.
While younger locals have opened hip cafés, tapas restaurants and bars in recent years (see below under “eating and drinking”) in many places Hondarribia feels quite traditional, as if its local Basque culture and language has been allowed to flourish in spite of its minority status. This is much less true of Hendaye– at least from my strong impression.
Old Walled City
Taking a walk around the perimeters of the old walled city, dating to at least the 10th century, is essential to get a sense of the town’s long history.
Start at the Charles V Castle, named after the King who rebuilt a heavy fortress atop the foundations of a medieval castle. Today, the hotel Parador occupies part of the interiors (see my review of this remarkable hotel below under “Where to Stay”.
Several pretty plazas, traditional Basque houses and medieval buildings form the interiors of the walled city. You can see particular highlights at this page from the official tourist office.
The grandiose Plaza de Armas (pictured just above) is especially photogenic, not to mention pleasant to stroll through.
Eating, Drinking & Basque Culture
Hondarribia is well-known for its authentic, lively tapas bars, wineries and relaxed but superb sit-down restaurants.
Many of these can be found spontaneously by walking through the central parts of the town, including the Calle San Pedro (San Pedro Kalea in Basque) which is lined with eateries and terraced bars.
For excellent wines and a rather gourmet sit-down meal featuring Basque traditions, I recommend the Restaurant Jaizkibel, housed in a modern hotel situated in a quieter part of Hondarribia.
While the setting was certainly not rustic or particularly “traditional” here, the excellent set menus, friendly service and lovely wines were worth our slight detour from the town center.
The next day, we enjoyed a simple Basque-style lunch of pinxtos (tapas) and local beer from Gran Sol, whose informal counter service and pleasant outdoor terrace afforded a last couple of hours to people-watch, enjoy delicious food and relax.
On a terrace, we indulged in what might be our favorite pintxo: generously salted, fried and charred green peppers (pimientos de Padrón in Spanish).
Other pintxos bars reputed to be excellent include the Vinoteka Ardoka at 32 Calle San Pedro, whose extensive list of wines can pair beautifully with small plates.
Finally, we stopped into a colorful local bakery and grocery whose array of traditional cakes, cookies, cheeses and other Basque items was certainly tempting. We bought a few of these for the train ride back to Bordeaux (and the fridge in our rental apartment there).
I highly recommend visiting one of the town’s numerous traditional bakeries (panaderia in Spanish) to procure a few treats (and explore more of Spanish Basque culinary culture).
See more suggestions from fellow travelers on where to eat and drink in the town here (at TripAdvisor).
In addition to tasting a bit of local cuisine, make sure to take some time to stroll through the town’s main commercial streets, lined with humble, colorful traditional houses and locals going about their day.
At heart, this is probably the best way to soak in a bit of culture: taking your time, exchanging a bit with the generally friendly shopkeepers and bar owners, and indulging in some people-watching.
Walks Around Hondarribia
Outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty of inspiring hiking trails (and cycle paths) to explore in the area; you can see a good list with some guidance here.
Walks around Jaizkibel mountain take you through dramatic cliffsides with beautiful views over the Atlantic, cool, fern-filled forests, wetlands, islands and a picturesque lighthouse.
We took a longer walk that skirted the beach area before ascending a trail alongside the cliff, leading to a photo-worthy lighthouse (you can have lunch at the nearby restaurant if desired).
Taking around three hours, our summer hike was a bit bracing at times due to strong winds that we at one point worried might precede a storm. We did get a bit wet. But the perspectives were dramatic, and well worth the soak.
The landscapes shifted rapidly as we moved inland, with cool forest paths filled with trees that extended for what seemed like miles.
Later, we again skirted the coast, peering down at cliffs pummeled by vigorous waves. The path descended further down the mountainside, leading us to and past the Guadeloupe Monastery (Ermita de Guadeloupe) and its ornate chapel.
As we reached low ground and approached the walled city again, we passed a farm “guarded” by a friendly donkey.
Despite the less-than-ideal weather conditions, our afternoon trek around Mont Jaizkibel and back to Hondarribia proved both eye-opening and enjoyable, broadening our sense of the region.
More on What to See & Do
See the official tourist office page (in English) for more on local sights and attractions, beaches, walks, restaurants and bars and other activities.
Places to Stay on Either Side of the Border
As a general rule, prices tend to be quite advantageous during off-season (roughly mid-October through mid-March). But even during the summer months, we found prices to be quite modest for the standing of the hotels where we stayed.
Part of the reason may be that the two towns are less in demand with tourists than nearby Basque country heavyweights, bringing prices and crowding down in decidedly pleasant ways. But that’s really a matter of speculation.
In Hendaye: Hotel Valencia
Lured by its TripAdvisor certificate of excellence, we decided to stay at the Hotel Valencia in Hendaye, a comfortable three-star beach hotel situated right across from the water.
The cheerful hotel in off-white is modern and comfortable, with friendly staff and good amenities.
Our room was comfortable and functional, if not particularly romantic (we had a basement-level room with “views” of the parking lot. Still, we slept beautifully and appreciated the in-room perks, including tea and coffee.
The morning of our check-out began on a rainy note, which sadly meant we didn’t get to sit out on the ocean-view terrace for breakfast. Still, on a sunny day, it looks like it would be a genuine high point in a stay at the Valencia.
And the indoor seating area in the breakfast room has large windows, allowing one to appreciate the maritime setting even on windy or cold days.
You can read traveller review and book a room here (via TripAdvisor).
In Hondarribia: Parador
We stayed at the Parador de Hondarribia for our second night in the area, an impressive 4-star hotel built on the premises of a 10th-century fortified castle.
This was a bit of a splurge– but one that proved well worth it, not least because it helped us to better appreciate the centuries-old walled city.
If, like we do, you enjoy all things authentically medieval, a stay here isn’t likely to disappoint. Inside, enormous stone walls and ridiculously high ceilings grace the entrance hall.
Walking up the imposing central staircase leads you to grandiose banquet halls and other function rooms with arched entranceways, long tables and lavish wall tapestries.
There’s even a mezzanine-level bar where we sipped cava (Spanish sparkling wine) and munched on pre-dinner nuts, seated around large wooden tables nestled within the imposing stone walls.
The actual guest rooms here are comfortable and quiet, although the lack of air conditioning in ours seemed a bit of an oversight for a summery day. Our room did offer nice views over the bay, though, as well as an excellent mattress and bedding.
We especially enjoyed the generous, fresh breakfast the next day in the light-filled courtyard, and even snuck out into the seated terrace era beyond to enjoy our morning coffee while taking in views of the “new”marina and its many boats.
Rental apartments & Holiday Lettings
If you want to rent a holiday apartment or book through Air B n’B in the area, there are plenty of options. But do make sure to read my guide on avoiding bad hotels in Paris to make sure you don’t get a lemon.
I wrote it based on one of my unfortunate experiences with Air B n’ B in Paris, but the advice I impart arguably applies to the rest of France, too.
Getting There & Getting Around the Region
To get to Hendaye, taking the train is probably the easiest unless you’re comfortable renting a car and travelling around the region that way.
- From Bordeaux, you can switch “TER” trains at Facture-Biganos and then travel onward to Hendaye. The journey takes about two and a half hours.
- From Arcachon, you’ll have to backtrack to Bordeaux.
- From Biarritz, the train only takes about 30 mn.
- From central Paris, a high-speed TGV train serves Hendaye in roughly five hours.
Read related: 5 best spots for wine-tasting in central Bordeaux
By bus/coach: A coach company called Basque Bondissant also offers service six times daily to Hendaye, connecting cities including Biarritz, Bayonne and San-Sebastien. “Blabla” buses from the same company stop in several locations around Hendaye, making it potentially easier to get around there.
By panoramic train: One unusual and picturesque way to see some of the region is to hop on Le Train de la Rhune, an old-fashioned cog railway circa 1924 that climbs high along the clifftops and offers breathtaking perspectives over the Atlantic coast, the Pyrenees mountains and numerous Basque cities and towns.
The train departs from the small town of Sare, close to Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
For more information on tickets and operating hours, see this page. Note that the line only operates from late March through the beginning of November.
Courtney Traub is the Founder and Editor of Paris Unlocked. She’s a longtime Paris resident who now divides her time (as well as she can manage) between the French capital and Norwich, UK. Co-author of the 2012 Michelin Green Guide to Northern France & the Paris Region, she has been interviewed as an expert on Paris and France by the BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Le Figaro, Matador Network and other publications. Courtney has also written and reported stories for media outlets including Radio France Internationale, The Christian Science Monitor, Women’s Wear Daily and The Associated Press. In addition to pursuing an insatiable interest in French culture, history, food and art, Courtney is a scholar of literature and cultural history whose essays and reviews have appeared in various forums.