From Bordeaux to Biarritz: Top City Breaks in Southwest France

Montpellier architecture – Best Things To Do In Languedoc Roussillon South Of France – A World to Travel

Discover some of the most famous wines in the world, medieval architecture, surf culture, Roman ruins, and magnificent views. Then there are thriving foodie scenes, artistic heritage, and world-class museums – the southwestern corner of France does have so much to offer! 

If you’re all about natural beauty, there’s plenty to see and do in this area, too. Whether it’s spending time on the beautiful beaches of Biarritz, admiring views of the Pyrenees from a city center boulevard, or visiting the rolling vineyards of the finest French wine regions. 

Whether you’re traveling solo for the first time, visiting as a couple, taking the family along, or meeting up with a group in summer, here are the best cities in southwest France to visit. 

10 Best Southwest France Cities to Visit

Bordeaux

Best for fine wine

Located by the banks of the ​​Garonne River, Bordeaux is at the epicenter of the wine region of the same name. In this southwestern city, fine wine and fine dining go hand in hand, and there are nine Michelin-starred restaurants. As well as three more in the nearby towns of Bouliac, Lormont, and Martillac. I can attest – I certainly ate well in Bordeaux!

It’s not all about the city’s wine and foodie pedigree. Bordeaux also offers some stunning architecture, including the Gothic cathedral and mansions dating from the 1700s and 1800s. The Three Graces fountain also takes center stage in Place de la Bourse. 

Covering almost 3,500 square meters, the Miroir d’Eau is the biggest reflecting pool on the planet and sits in front of Place de la Bourse by the quayside. This area is also lined with numerous historic and listed buildings. Be aware that if you visit in winter months like I did, the reflecting pool may be ‘off’ for the season. Plan accordingly!

Other reasons to visit Bordeaux include the fact that it’s a huge urban UNESCO World Heritage site. It also offers pedestrianized streets perfect for strolling around – and the area is a hub for the production of French caviar, too. 

If you want to find a hotel in Bordeaux, I can personally recommend the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hôtel. It’s located extremely centrally, right across from the beautiful Opera building, and with a tram line on either side of it. 

Saint-Émilion

Best for ancient vineyards

Saint-Émilion is located in the Bordeaux wine region and is therefore one of France’s premier wine destinations. It makes a great day trip from Bordeaux by train. Saint-Émilion also offers medieval architecture, so you can discover ancient sites while visiting world-class wineries. 

What’s lovely about Saint-Émilion is the setting, among rolling vineyards. It makes a top-notch alternative to Bordeaux, particularly if you prefer a more peaceful setting over a city. Saint-Émilion is one of the region’s most attractive villages and is postcard-worthy. 

Wine-making heritage and local history are very much intertwined in Saint-Émilion, and the relationship between man and grapevines here dates back around 2,000 years. Its name even comes from an 8th-century monk from Brittany, who started as a cave-dwelling hermit and ended up as an iconic religious leader.

Toulouse

Best for pink architecture

Known as the “Pink City,” La Ville Rose, Toulouse is a wonderful place to be. I recently spent a week in this part of southwestern France, and discovered that there are so many fun things to see and do in Toulouse!

Taking a walking tour is, for me, the best way to see the city’s pretty pink architecture. Alternatively, I also enjoyed admiring the architecture from the rooftop terrace at Galleries Lafayette. 

Or if discovering local cuisine is your thing, make sure you try cassoulet, a meaty French stew with beans that originated locally. As I found out, brunch is also a big thing in Toulouse, so you’ll be in heaven if you love to tuck into a hearty meal acting as both breakfast and lunch! Just make sure you ask for a chocolatine, rather than a chocolate croissant, here. 

Toulouse was initially only on my radar as a university town, because I have cousins who attended school there. But based on my experience Toulouse is definitely worth visiting even if you’re not a student! Plus, university towns in Europe feel quite different from college towns in the US.

Carcassonne

Best for medieval history

This was the best day trip I took from Toulouse. The hilltop town of Carcassonne in the Languedoc region is most famous for its medieval heritage. It’s a fortified city with a fascinating old town to explore, plus a very impressive Gothic cathedral. Not surprising, then, that it’s listed by UNESCO as the Historic Fortified City of Carcassonne.

The city looks surreal, like something out of a fairytale. La Cité is packed with watchtowers, and some of its double walls date back to the Gallo-Roman era. Don’t miss Château Comtal when visiting the complex, which dates back to the 12th century. 

Ancient architecture aside, compact Carcassonne is a joy to discover on foot or by bike. The Medieval Camp is worth stopping by, as it offers a free introduction to life during the Middle Ages. Wander to bustling Bastide Saint-Louis, at the center of life here, or stroll along the banks of Canal du Midi. Just beyond the city walls, you can also find Cavayère Lake, a playground offering boats, water sports, picnic spots, and three beaches.  

While I enjoyed it thoroughly as a day trip, I’ve also heard it recommended as a magical overnight destination. If you decide to sleep over, opt to stay within the fortified walls!

Biarritz

Best for surfing

Biarritz is a refined seaside town on the Basque coast, in southwestern France. It first became popular during the 19th century, among royalty from across Europe. As it’s just over 20 miles (or 35 kilometers) from the Spanish border, Biarritz is great if you’re interested in combining two countries in your itinerary.

The elegant resort has now grown into one of the most popular surf spots on the continent. It’s packed with surf schools, and the long stretches of sandy beach provide the perfect playground for anyone from beginners to pros. As you might expect, it’s a great place to learn to surf – or to watch others while they ride the waves – especially at Côte des Basques.

Other things to do in Biarritz include spending time at Grand Plage; visiting the fine aquarium, swimming at Port Vieux, seeing Neo-Medieval Villa Belza, discovering the beautiful local churches, and dining out on French and Spanish specialties – including tapas. Shopping at boutiques, Galeries Lafayette, and designer stores is also worthwhile. 

Cross the footbridge to the rocky promontory of Rocher de la Vierge, for breathtaking panoramas over the Bay of Biscay. The Phare de Biarritz lighthouse also offers sweeping ocean views. 

Collioure

Best for artistic heritage

The coastal French town of Collioure is one for the art fans. It’s known as the “City of Painters,” and you can find Matisse paintings at the Modern Art Museum there. This area is said to have inspired other big-name artists, too, including André Derain.

Collioure can also go head-to-head with Carcassonne when it comes to medieval architecture. Château Royal de Collioure occupies a commanding position and offers breathtaking coastal views. It dates from the 1200s and is a popular family attraction. 

If you’re into art, then the Collioure Art Trail will take you on a trip through the creative history of the area. Several early Fauvist painters called the area home, and Spanish artists Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso also spent time living and working there. Matisse remains the most important locally, as he painted various harbor views while residing in Collioure. 

Montpellier

Best for riverside living

Just over six miles (or 10 kilometers) from the Mediterranean coastline of southern France is Montpellier. As well as the lovely unspoiled beaches of the area, the city itself is well worth a visit. Two of the main attractions here are Saint-Pierre Cathedral and Musée Fabre. Cathédrale Saint-Pierre dates back to the mid-1300s, while Musée Fabre features works by Old Masters from France and Europe. 

Another place not to miss is the Antigone district, which was born in the 1980s. This connects city squares, a shopping mall, 1990s office blocks, and the Lez River. Pubs and restaurants can be found all over the Antigone district, so it’s the ideal place to sample Montpellier’s foodie scene. 

Montpellier is also at the heart of a major French wine-producing area, the Languedoc. So it’s not surprising that the city hosts a couple of major international wine fairs, too! 

Narbonne

Best for an underground labyrinth

Narbonne is one of the unsung heroes of the French Riviera. While it lacks the glamor of other Côte d’Azur spots, it’s home to some interesting sights. These include an unfinished cathedral, underground warehouses, and some fine museums. 

Though Cathédrale Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur dates back to the 1200s, it remains incomplete. As one of the tallest churches in France, the Gothic structure dominates the city skyline. 

Once, Narbonne was a Roman port, and The Horreum reflects those days. It’s a subterranean complex of old warehouses. Or for an overdose of art and culture, head to the Archbishop’s Palace, which houses various galleries and archeological museums. 

In Roman times, Narbonne was renowned for producing rosemary honey, a favorite Roman sweet treat. Julius Caesar also developed Narbonne’s port.

Nîmes

Best for Roman remains

Like Montpellier, Nîmes is more centrally located than other cities in southwest France, but you cannot miss this one! It’s known for having more Roman remains than anywhere outside Italy, which is a pretty bold claim. But it’s one that Nîmes can easily live up to.

You only need to see the astonishing Arena of Nîmes to encounter the city’s rich Roman heritage. For many, this is far more impressive than the Colosseum in Rome, even though it’s relatively unknown by comparison. 

And there’s more, including Maison Carrée, a limestone temple around 20 centuries old, and the tri-level Pont du Gard aqueduct. Most of the Roman remains in Nîmes are incredibly well-preserved. This is why the city is known as the “French Rome”, or the “most Roman city outside Italy.”

Pau

Best for Pyrenees panoramas

If mountains are more your thing than architecture or beaches, then put Pau at the top of your list of places to visit in southwestern France. On a cloudless day, the views of the Pyrenees from the Boulevard des Pyrénées, in the center of the city, are jaw-dropping. You can also savor sweeping vistas over the surrounding green countryside and the Gava de Oau River.

Pau also offers wonderful weather, which in the past was said to cure common colds and other minor ailments, even in winter. Pau is also a historic royal city and was once home to the Renaissance King Henri IV.

If you want to explore all that southwest France has to offer, it’s hard to pick a better base than Pau. Nestled between the Pyrenees and the ocean, by the river, and enclosed by lush green countryside, it’s a truly lovely place to be. 

These southwest France cities offer so much variety and charm, and you should absolutely make an effort to explore the region!

Nausheen Farishta is a blogger and author who focuses on solo female travel on her blog, Globe Gazers.