When planning a summer vacation to France, finding the perfect stretch of coastline or a nice secluded beach is an essential part of any successful itinerary, and there are plenty of destinations to choose from in northern, western, and southern France.
From Nord-Pas de Calais along the English Channel to the Mediterranean hotspots of Provence-Alpes-Maritimes-Cote-d'Azur and the Antibes peninsula, this country is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe.
Whether you're traveling the southern French Riviera, along the western Bay of Biscay, or on the northern coastline of Normandy, you're sure to find a fantastic beach escape.
Most vacationers arrive in Calais or Dunkirk on the English Channel and head south, ignoring the sandy beaches nearby in favor of more-secluded destinations along the Opal Coast.
The Opal Coast runs 75 miles (120 kilometers) from the northern Belgian border down to the Somme estuary and includes a long headland, perfect for walks along the cliff tops. Here, you'll encounter places like Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Blanc Gris (White Nose and Grey Nose), each featuring concrete bunkers built during World War II.
Along the shore, resorts like Wimereux, the huge sweep of Berck-Plage (which has a fabulous balloon festival each April), and Mers-les-Bains offer swimming for the hardy and plenty of sand sports and shrimping for the little ones. Le Touquet-Paris-Plage is a chic resort with casinos and horse riding, and the "Pearl of the Opal Coast" also has a great sandy beach stretching to the mouth of the River Authie.
In Dunkirk, you can check out the beaches where the World War II shipwrecks of Operation Dynamo during the evacuation of allied soldiers in May 1940 lie half buried in the sand. Additionally, exploring Le Touquet-Paris Plage offers a number of non-beach attractions in case the weather isn't favorable for a day on the sand.
Normandy's long and varied coastline, along with its history, makes it a great destination for the summer holidays and easily accessible from either the United Kingdom or Paris. The Cote Fleurie includes smart Deauville and more laid-back Trouville followed by a long coastline stretching up westwards beyond Dieppe to Le Treport, two of the best known English Channel destinations in northern Europe.
The more southerly Normandy beaches, famous for the World War II D-Day Landings, stretch from Utah Beach at St. Vaast-la-Hougue to Ouistreham just north of Caen. Once witness to the carnage of World War II, today the long sandy stretches are perfect for sandcastle builders.
To the west, the rocky Cotentin Peninsula, with the port of Cherbourg at its tip, sticks out into the English Channel. Around the northern coastline of the Cotentin, you'll eventually arrive at Le Mont St-Michel, one of the greatest sacred sites in France and Europe. Travel a little further north to Avranches, which is a good place to stay to explore the beaches of the western Cotentin Peninsula.
The second most popular beach destination for French holidays after the Mediterranean, Brittany has enough coastline to accommodate the influx of visitors each summer. With 1,243 miles (2,000 kilometers) of coastline, Brittany is in the northwesternmost portion of France, with beaches along both the English Canal and the Bay of Biscay.
The Pink Granite coast on northern Brittany features clifftops plunging down to the sea while the westernmost points of Finistere offer pounding breakers of the Atlantic that challenge surfers. Southern Brittany features the Cote Sauvage (Wild Coast) whose mix of fierce seas and calm inlets offer something for everybody, young and old, sports enthusiast and relaxed vacationer.
The French Atlantic and Bay of Biscay
From St-Nazaire down to the Spanish frontier, the long French Atlantic coast is one long expanse of gorgeous sandy beaches, long rolling breakers and plenty of sunshine in the Bay of Biscay.
The beaches in the Vendée bring the crowds in July and August to go sand-yachting and speed sailing. Surfers flock to the coastline, and some of the major surfing competitions like the AQS World Qualifying Series are held here. The major city of Nantes has access to the beaches at places like Les Sables d'Olonne as well as some of the best entertainment, dining, and accommodations in the country.
There are over 100 beaches in the Charente-Maritime and each offers a little something different and special to visitors. Islands like Noirmoutier and Ile de Re offer chic alternatives to traditional beach destinations while Ile d'Aix is a gorgeous, traffic-free oasis. Meanwhile, the beaches of the Cote Sauvage are the place for bodyboarders and surfers, and the Gironde Estuary has Michelin-rated sandy beaches that are sheltered from the Atlantic’s mighty waves.
If you tire of the beaches, then La Rochelle and Rochefort offer welcome diversions. Further south, chic Biarritz combines a sophisticated nightlife with some of the greatest surfing on the coast. Even further south lie the quieter but equally sought-after and elegant towns of St-Jean-de-Luz and then Hendaye.
The most popular beaches in France and for much of Europe lie along the gorgeous, azure blue Mediterranean coast. The Mediterranean coastline runs along the south of France, stretching from the Basque country and the Pyrenees next to Spain to the Italian border. Here you'll come across long stretches of sandy beaches but also little inlets that offer private escapes.
The western part of the Mediterranean coast is shaped like an arc that starts in the Basque country in the Pyrenees, the mountain range that divides France from Spain just below Perpignan. From the Cote Vermeille, you can travel along the coast in the Herault and through cities like Montpellier, Nimes, Arles, and Avignon before continuing around to Marseille.
Surrounding Marseilles is the mysterious Camargues area where cities like Aigues-Mortes feel like walking through the past, and to the east lies the naval port of Toulon and the wonderful Iles d’Hyeres, which offer white sandy beaches away from the crowds. You'll also find Cap d'Agde here, which is the best-known naturist resort in France.
The eastern Mediterranean coastline is often referred to as the French Riviera, Cote d’Azur, or Provence-Alpes-Maritimes-Cote-d'Azur (PACA), but whatever you call it, this stretch of beaches is one long playground. Stretching from St. Tropez via the elegant coast towns of Cannes, Antibes, and Nice, the eastern Mediterranean coast is the most popular destinations for tourists and French citizens alike.
Although the pressure of high property and land prices have brought villas all along the coastline, taking up some of the shore, there are still some small, hidden beaches if you're looking for an intimate getaway during your trip. Little villages like Villefranche-sur-Mer cling to the rocky landscape, offering unique accommodations with waterfront views. Further east, Monaco bustles with nightlife, and the French Riviera finishes at the more-conservative village of Menton.