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Best Things to Do in Western France

06/06/2020

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Those who venture into Western France are rarely disappointed. Whether you plan to spend your holiday sightseeing, surfing, or simply relaxing by the sea, the west of France is an ideal destination.

Mythical Brittany offers immense beautiful sea landscapes, Celtic festivals, magic forests, and mysterious prehistoric sites.

Nouvelle-Aquitaine is dotted with great beaches, cities steeped in history, many picturesque villages, medieval fortified towns but it is also a place with mountains, vineyards, and the Landes Forest.

Pays de la Loire boasts a stunning coastline, charming towns, and villages, and other beautiful natural landscapes. Here, we are never far from the Loire River, flowing from east to east across the region.

Last but not least, people who visit Western France will enjoy an excellent and varied gastronomy, some of the best French wines and other famous French drinks.

For this article, we asked some fellow travel bloggers and friends about their favorite things to do in Western France. From Western France cities and top sights to hidden gems, here’s what they suggest.

Hike the GR34 (Brittany)

Le Sentier des Douaniers

The GR34, also known as Le Sentier des Douaniers, is a great way to explore the wild sea landscapes of Brittany with its impressive cliffs, lonely beaches, and picturesque coastal towns. This multi-day hike borders all the coastline of Brittany for over 2,000 kilometers and it is a wonder.

Created in 1791, the path was crossed day and night by customs patrols – hence its name – to prevent smuggling. Having fallen into disuse at the beginning of the 20th century, the trail experienced a second life from 1968, when some hike enthusiasts decided to make it a hiking path. Today, the GR34 is one of the most popular GRs in France and the preferred long-distance footpath of the French.

Add a couple of GR34 sections to your next Western France itinerary and you will want to come back for more!

Suggested by Norbert | France Bucket List

Les Machines de l’Ile in Nantes (Loire Atlantique)

Sea World Carousel - Nantes

Nantes is a wonderful city in Western France, great for a weekend getaway from Paris. If you visit Nantes you cannot miss Les Machines de l’Ile, the new must-attraction in the city. Located in the industrial wasteland of the Nantes’ former shipyards, on an isle in the middle of the Loire River, Les Machines is an artistic project that brings together a set of crazy machines that seem straight out of Jules Verne’s imagination and Leonardo Da Vinci’s invention.

Ride the Sea World Carousel on the back of the strangest marine creatures or wander around the isle on a crazy elephant who likes to shower all the kids he finds on his way! Finally, visit the Galerie des Machines, where a team of crazy inventors and machinists are creating and testing the new machines for the most incredible project, The Heron Tree. This project (inauguration expected for 2022) consists of a giant metallic and vegetal tree where people will be able to walk along its branches and interact with the different creatures that populate it.

Suggested by Elisa | France Bucket List

Click here to book your hotel in Nantes

Bordeaux (Gironde)

Bordeaux - France

Bordeaux is one of the top cities in Western France, a beautiful city made famous for the wine regions surrounding it. The historic center of the city is a UNESCO world heritage site for its beautiful 18th-century buildings. These buildings reflect the wealth of the city when it was the busiest port in France trading in goods from all over the world in addition to wine. 

When you visit Bordeaux you really need to take a wine tour and sample some of the wines in the region. The Bordeaux Tourist Office is also helpfully next to a small store which sells wine from the region at very reasonable prices. Another must-visit is the Bordeaux Wine Museum which is full of interactive and fun exhibits. We took my kids with us and they found the museum fascinating. 

Bordeaux is also known for its local specialty – canneles which are a small pastry with rum and vanilla perfected by nuns in the area more than 200 years ago.  The most famous canelles shop is Ballardran which has multiple locations in the city but the most convenient has to be the store right across from the Bordeaux Tourist Office.

Suggested by Shobha | Just Go Places

Click here to book your hotel in Bordeaux

The Cave Paintings at Lascaux (Dordogne)

Lascaux Paintings in France

Located in the Dordogne region of south-western France, the cave paintings at Lascaux barely need any introduction. Discovered by local teenagers in the 1940s, Lascaux’s cave paintings are probably the world’s most famous and recognizable examples of pre-historic art and one of the best places to visit in Western France.

Although experts still disagree on the exact age of the paintings in Lascaux’s caves, the current consensus places them at about 17,000 years old. There’s a fascinating mixture of art here, including depictions of bulls, horses, cattle, deer, cats, a bear, and even a rhinoceros! Also depicted are human figures, and geometric designs as well. The bulls depicted in the Hall of the Bulls are enormously impressive, up to five meters long in some cases. The area has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.

As you’d expect, the cave interiors are highly sensitive and closed to the general public. However, there’s a series of fantastic replica caves located just near the original caves, where you can explore the artwork in your own time, and without fear of damaging the precious originals. To access the site, head for the village of Montignac. Car is the best transport option here, as public transport in the area is very limited.

Suggested by Joel | World Heritage Journey

Sarlat-la-Canéda (Dordogne)

With its honey-colored buildings and lamp lit streets, it’s easy to fall for the village of Sarlat.

Sarlat is the perfect base to explore the Dordogne Valley.  It takes about 2.5 hours to get there by car or train going east from Bordeaux.

Be ready for foodie heaven.  Sarlat is famous for its foie gras, truffles, cheese, and wine.  Locals gather these delicacies on market days on Saturdays and Wednesdays.

Enjoy getting lost in the impossibly romantic laneways and relax in one of the cafes on the main square, Place de la Liberté.  For a panoramic view of the town, take the glass lift to the top of the bell tower at the church of Saint-Marie (open in summer).

Spring or fall is the best time to visit to avoid the tourist crush. Stay at the lovingly restored Les Suites Sarladaises for a real taste of the past.

Suggested by Cindy | Travel Bliss Now

Click here to book your hotel in Sarlat

Île d’Oléron (Charente-Maritime)

Oleron Beach - France

Often overshadowed by it’s glitzier sister (Île de Ré), Île d’Oléron has a more laid back, understated vibe with its white-washed bungalows and low-key beaches. Cycle-ways criss-cross the island, but there is also ample parking should you choose to drive around; the island is 30km long after all.

The lighthouse (Phare de Chassiron) at the far tip of the island is a must-do. You can climb to the top for superb views across the Atlantic and back across the island. Entry for the viewing point only is €3 per adult.

The villages across the island don’t really offer much to do unless it’s market day, but they are pleasant to stroll or cycle around and to pick up an ice-cream. Take a visit to La Cotiniere around 3:30 pm when the daily catch is unloaded, or feast on oysters at Saint-Trojan.

As for the beaches, those to the northeast offer views across to the mainland and Île de Ré. Here the water is shallow and calm. On the other side of the island, the waves are a little stronger, but the beaches boast a tropical vibe with clear turquoise water and long stretches of sun-drenched sand.

Suggested by Jenny | Peak District Kids

Click here to book your hotel on Île-d’Oléron

Cairn de Barnenez (Finistère)

Cairn Barnenez

The Cairn de Barnenez is one of the first megalithic monuments in Brittany. The Cairn is composed of 11 dolmens, with a length of 70 meters and 10 meters in height. The grave chambers are fully covered and accessible through a covered corridor. There’s a visitor center where objects are displayed, next to that the results of scientific excavation and a large mock-up of the monument.

You enter through the visitor center, after that you walk up the hill on a path, where the monument is. The cairn is surrounded by grass.

The Cairn is located on the peninsula Kernélèhen in Brittany. 17 Kilometers north of Morlaix, just off the D76, in Plouezoc’h.

There’s a combination ticket possible with the Château du Taureau. You can visit the cairn with a self-guided tour, which takes approximately 30 minutes. Guided tours are in French and take 45 minutes.

On the hill, there are benches to sit on, from here you can enjoy the beautiful view of the sea and the Cairn. Further, you can stroll around the monument and go through one opening and walk out on the other side. You have to bend since its just one meter in height.

Suggested by Cosette | Kars Travels

Dune du Pilat (Gironde)

Dune du Pilat

Europe’s largest sand dune, the Dune du Pilat, can be found hugging the Atlantic coast in Western France. It’s an impressive sight, spanning around 3 km in length, 600 m in width, and a lofty 100 or so meters high. Although, these measurements are constantly changing as the dune ebbs with the tides and gets swept into the nearby forest with the wind.

Dune du Pilat is the perfect place to appreciate the nature on offer in the Arcachon Basin – a place most famous for its colorful Oyster huts and Belle Époque architecture.

To make the most of your visit, arrive early and pack everything you need for the day. There are a selection of eateries and snack bars at the entrance to the dune, but if you decide to venture up and over the expanse of sand to the seaside, you won’t want to be ‘popping back’ just for an ice cream!

Adventure seekers may like to book in for a paraglide over the dune to gain a bird’s eye view, while families can take advantage of the campsites on-site to extend their stay…

Suggested by Nadine | Le Long Weekend

Explore Dune du Pilat with this top-rated Arcachon Bay Tour from Bordeaux

Cognac Tastings at Cognac (Charente)

Remy Martin Cognac Tour

The medieval city of Cognac may be small but it is bursting with wonderful things to do. Located 400 kilometers to the south-west of Paris, the city is divided into two by the Charente River. 

The left bank showcases the beautiful old town, with its narrow cobbled streets and historically significant buildings. Many of them are in the half-timbered medieval style, like the Maison de la Lietuenance built in the 15th-century.  The St Jacques Towers and St Léger Church should also be visited.

Cognac is also the namesake and heartland of one of France’s most famous liqueurs.  The major Cognac producers of France all have their houses in the city.  Names like Rémy Martin, Camus, and Hennessy can be found here. 

Whether you are a Cognac drinker or not, spending time at one of the leading Cognac producers is a great experience.  The production occurs in age-old buildings using production methods that are both controlled by the French appellation process and also by tradition.  On a tour, you will learn what Cognac is and how it is made and visit the very interesting aging rooms.  Finally, you will taste the Cognac and learn different ways of drinking it. 

All Cognac houses offer basic tours with Cognac tastings.  They also offer more exclusive tours for Cognac connoisseurs, including tastings of special editions.  It is recommended to book ahead of your visit, especially in summer.

Suggested by Kerri | Beer and Croissants

Saint-Jean-de-Luz (Pyrénées Atlantiques)

Saint-Jean-de-Luz - Basque Country

When driving the west coast of France, Saint-Jean-de-Luz is a must stop. Saint-Jean-de-Luz is not only a beautiful natural place with a picturesque little harbor, a lovely and quiet seafront, and awesome views of the Pyrénées mountains, but it’s also a village with a strong soul.

Its history was marked by the wedding of King Louis XIV. We can still find the souvenirs of the wedding through Maison Louis XIV where the couple spent his first night; Maison de l’Infante where Maria-Theresa spent her last night before getting married; the church that was specially renovated for their wedding, and Macarons Adam shop who invented the macaron for the event. Anne d’Autriche, King Louis XIV’s mother, liked this little cake so much that she offered her rosary to the servant of Adam shop!

It’s very easy to travel to Saint Jean de Luz by train. The railway station is situated 2 minutes from the harbor, with the view of the Rhune mountain. From the harbor, you can see the pink Infante house and on the opposite side the village of Ciboure and the house where Maurice Ravel was born. Follow the harbor and you will arrive on Louis XIV square, where you will see Maison Louis XIV and Macarons Adam. Take the little restaurants street to the ocean and enjoy the seafront. Return by the church that you can visit.

Suggested by Séphanie | Ethno Travels

Click here to book your hotel in Saint-Jean-de-Luz

La Rochelle (Charente-Maritime)

La Rochelle - France

La Rochelle is a historical seaport in the Bay of Biscay along the sandy west coast of France which would be on par with other port cities of the time like Bordeaux and Nantes. And while it does share a variety of tourist interest and attractions like the aquarium, gardens and the natural-history museum.

The main feature and attraction of this seaport town has to be the old harbor area which is central to nightlife, restaurants, and perfect views over the ancient port on the coastline. This is known locally as the Vieux Port, and the old harbor is the site of three medieval towers that keep the entrance to the harbor bay.

Unlike most of the Vendée coastline, La Rochelle itself doesn’t have the same sandy beaches, but not far down the coast finds Châtelaillon-Plage (15km south) which has a bustling promenade and some of the most perfect beachfront sands.

Suggested by Allan | It’s Sometimes Sunny in Bangor

Click here to book your hotel in La Rochelle

Saint-Émilion (Gironde)

Saint-Emilion France

Saint-Émilion is a fabulous place to explore wine tourism in the Bordeaux region of France. The city is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so there’s plenty of great reasons to visit even if you’re not a wine enthusiast. Though even if you don’t plan on drinking, you can still enjoy learning about how  Bordeaux became a wine region. 

Make sure to book your visits to the chateaus ahead of time if you plan to do wine tours and wine tastings. Many are booked up far in advance. However, if you do show up to the village without any bookings, the tourism office can help you to find which chateaus have last-minute openings available for you.

I also suggest you go on the city’s free walking tour to learn about the town’s amazing history and what makes this World Heritage Site so special. The tour will take you through the historic town center’s most important sites. Other fabulous things to do here include dining outside in one of the town squares, shopping for cheese and wine in the town shops, and simply exploring the gorgeous area on foot. You can stay for a few days or you can visit the town by train as a day trip from Bordeaux.

Suggested by Stephanie | History Fan Girl

This Saint Emilion Guided Winery Tour & Wine Tasting always has excellent reviews!

Seafood in Port-des-Barques (Charente Maritime)

Oysters at Port des Barques

The Atlantic seaside town of Port-des-Barques west of Rochefort boasts an idyllic location. Its peninsula location providing panoramic sea views and sandy beaches perfect for fishing from stilted pontoons, cycling tours or simply bathing in the coastal water.

However, another side to Port des Barques also related to its location on the Charente Estuary is our favorite thing to do in this region of Western France.

The waters of the estuary and its changing tides are why Port des Barques is rightfully known as the ‘Land of Oysters’.

Along the banks of the estuary are dotted numerous oyster farms all specializing in the local Marennes-Oléron oyster. Their enviable quality a result of the combination of beds located 5 km out at sea and land-based shallow ponds or ‘claires’. This mixture of salt and freshwater together results in a delectable seafood treat.

The only way to savor this is to head to one of the farms such as Les Fontaines on Chemin de la Grande Échelle. Also, a France Passion stop their small stall selling them accompanied with a simple dressing and cold glass of white wine makes for an ideal end to your day.

Suggested by Paul | The Two That Do

Castles of Dordogne (Dordogne)

Château de Beynac - Dordogne

France’s Dordogne region is magical! So many lovely Dordogne castles dot the landscape here. Not far from Bonneviole, Château de Castelnau-Bretenoux makes a worthy stop.

Fortified high on a cliff, its dramatic six towers cut an impressive profile against the skyline. If it’s Renaissance castles you’re in search of, look no further than Château de Montal. Or see the lush riverside setting of Château de Becastel.

My favorite Dordogne castle,  Château de Beynac is just minutes from Saint Cyprien. This majestic stone fortress is the best-preserved fortress in the Perigord. Carved out of a cliff, it dominates the horizon. In fact, to reach it, you’ll need to wind your way up a long steep hill and then enter its stone walls from the back. Once you do, you’ll wander through the little village before entering the castle itself. Inside, 17th-century paintings adorn the ceiling and 15th-century frescos bring the Renaissance fireplace to life.

Whatever you do, be sure to climb all the way to the watchtower for stunning views of the Dordogne Valley! For the full effect, consider a canoe paddle or guided boat trip on the Dordogne River to look back at the facade. 

Chris | Explore Now or Never

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