The Pyrenees Mountains: Planning Your Trip

A stunning green valley in the Pyrenees Mountain Range in France

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The Pyrenees Mountains form a natural border between France and Spain, respectively known as Les Pyrénées and Los Pireneos in each country. Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, this international mountain range is snowcapped for most of the year and is home to some of the most renowned ski resorts in both France and Spain, but activities here aren't limited to just winter sports. Some of Europe's most picturesque hiking trails can be found in these slopes, peppered with small villages that are made up of different cultures, speak different languages, and serve their own unique gastronomies.

While the cultures all begin to mesh around the border, this guide focuses on the French side of the Pyrenees, covering towns from Biarritz on the Atlantic side all the way to Perpignan on the east coast.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: The Pyrenees Mountains are an all-season destination, so the best time to visit depends on what you're looking to do. Summer is one of the busiest times, but comfortably warm mountain temperatures are great for hiking. The warm weather lasts through fall but with far fewer crowds. The ski resorts open their doors in winter and early spring, while late spring is when the wildflowers come into bloom and bring pops of color to the already breathtaking landscape. In November, most local places close down because it's the slowest month for tourism, so think twice before going in November.
  • Language: The Pyrenees straddle three different countries and multiple cultures, so the language spoken shifts based on where you are, but the main languages are French, Spanish, Catalan, and Basque. You can expect most people on the French side to speak French and on the Spanish side to speak Spanish, but in Andorra the main language is Catalan. On the eastern side of the Pyrenees, many locals in France and Spain also speak Catalan, while on the western side of the Pyrenees is French Basque Country. In small villages around the Pyrenees, you'll also find locals who speak Aragonese and Occitan.
  • Currency: The currency used all around the Pyrenees, regardless of whether you're in France, Spain, or Andorra, is the euro.
  • Getting Around: The Pyrenees stretch across a huge area of 310 miles from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea, and traveling from place to place is best done in your own vehicle. During the winter, many ski resorts arrange transportation from the nearest big cities so travelers can get to the mountains.
  • Travel Tip: Most travelers who want a European mountain adventure go directly to the Alps, but the Pyrenees are an under-the-radar option with amazing landscapes, fascinating villages, and at a fraction of the price of the Alps.

Things to Do

What you do primarily depends on what time of year you're visiting, with winter sports dominating in the colder months and hiking through the mountains when it's warm. But you're hardly limited to just skiing or hiking in this rich region. You also have beaches on either end of the mountain range, whether you want the turquoise Mediterranean water on the east or the surfing waves on the west. You can also explore centuries of history in the medieval towns and villages that are scattered around the region, where residents still live a bucolic alpine lifestyle.

  • Surf the Atlantic at Biarritz. Biarritz is the main city of the French Basque Country and a destination for surfers. The best beaches are the Grande Plage, followed by Plage Marbella and Plage de la Côte des Basques.
  • Visit the castle of Montségur. The Cathars who once lived in this area disavowed the Catholic Church in favor of a more simplistic and humble lifestyle. Considered heretics by the church, the last Cathars held out against Catholic persecutors in the 13th century in this castle before eventually surrendering.
  • Summit the Pic du Midi. Look down on the world from the pure air of Pic de Midi de Bigorre at 9,438 feet (2,877 meters). From the ski resort of La Mongie, take the 15-minute ride in a cable car to the summit, where you can see 186 miles (300 kilometers) of Pyrenees summits between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. For a real treat, book the nighttime experience to see the sunset, stargaze from the summit, spend the night, and wake up for sunrise from the mountain peak.
  • Hike the Parc National des Pyrénées: Created in 1967 to protect the Pyrenees from tourist developments of ski resorts, car parks, accommodation, and more, the Pyrenees National Park is a great natural habitat for wildlife. It contains part of the GR10 hiking route which runs for 434 miles (700 kilometers) through the Pyrenees from coast to coast.

Best Hikes & Trails

From day hikes to multi-day treks, here are the best trails in the Pyrenees Mountains:

  • Tour of Lake Génos-Loudenvielle: This 1.6-mile loop trail, near the village of Loudenvielle, promises lovely lake views. Perfectly suited for families, hikers of all skill levels are welcome.
  • Gaube Lake via Pont d'Espagne: Located in the Pyrenees National Park, this moderately challenging, 5-mile loop trail passes waterfalls and meadows en route to Gaube Lake. The views here are no short of dramatic: Surrounded by craggy mountains, the lake reflects an imposing mirror image of the 10,820-foot Pic du Vignemale, the tallest peak in the Pyrenees.
  • Cirque de Gavarnie: The Cirque de Gavarnie, a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated in the national park, is a crescent-shaped, three-terraced cliff face that's 5,577 feet tall and 2.5 miles wide (writer Victor Hugo called it "the colosseum of nature"). On its eastern side, La Grande Cascade de Gavarnie—Europe's tallest waterfall—dives 1,385 feet down two tiers, while Mont Perdu, Marboré Peak, and Taillon border the cirque. There are a few hikes that will get you there, including this 4.9-mile, moderately challenging loop trail.
  • Cagire Loop: A 6.8-mile loop trail over some of the Pyrenees' highest peaks—including Pic de I'Escalette (6,089 feet), Sommet de Pique Poque (6,227 feet) and Pic de Caigre (6,273 feet), the Caigre Loop offers unparalleled views of the region. Despite the high elevation, the hike has only about 2,297 feet of elevation gain.
  • Camino de Santiago: Hike the beginning of the famed Camino de Santiago on this nearly 15-mile trek from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France to Roncesvalles in Spain.

Best Ski Resorts

With miles and miles of pistes and gorgeous scenery, the Pyrenees Mountains are a great (and more affordable) alternative to the Alps. Here are the best places to ski, whether you're a beginner or expert.

  • Grand Tourmalet: Encompassing the villages of Barèges and La Mongie, Grand Tourmalet is the largest ski area in the French Pyrenees. Featuring more than 60 miles of terrain and 68 pistes, Grand Tourmalet attracts both alpine and cross-country skiers.
  • Pieau-Engaly: At nearly 2,789 feet, this ski resort near the Pyrenees National Park is the highest in the French Pyrenees. There are 40-plus miles of slopes here, with ski tracks to suit all skill levels.
  • Baqueira Beret: Spain's most visited winter resort, Baqueira Beret boasts 5,350 acres of ski terrain, with more than 100 miles of marked pistes and 4 miles of marked off-piste. When you're ready to call it quits, cozy up in the five-star AC Baqueira Autograph Collection, nestled at the bottom of the slopes.
  • Vallnord Pal-Arinsal: The ski areas of Pal and Arinsal, located in the larger Vallnord ski domain in Andorra, are connected by cable car and together offer about 40 miles of ski runs. Great for beginners and families, Pal-Arinsal features seven green and 14 blue slopes, in addition to two excellent ski schools.
  • Pas de la Casa: Part of the Grandvalira ski area in Andorra, Pas de la Casa ("The Pass of the House" in Spanish) is right on the French border. It is an affordable option for intermediate skiers, with 62 miles of pistes and 31 lifts.

What to Eat and Drink

As you travel across the different cultural regions of the Pyrenees Mountains, you'll see how the local cuisine changes with it, from the seafood stews typical of Catalonia to the traditional Basque pintxos you'll find on the Atlantic side. Within the mountain villages of the French Pyrenees, however, there are a few staple dishes you're likely to encounter. Warm and hearty casserole dishes are often made with local fowl and in-season produce (sometimes still carried up to the higher elevation towns by donkey or horse).

Magret de canard is perhaps the most classic Pyrenean dish, made up of seared duck breast and a prime example of haute cuisine. Another typical dish in the area is aligot, which is essentially a cheesy mashed potato dish with garlic and yes, it is just as delicious as it sounds.

Small and family-run hotels or bed and breakfasts, especially those with a focus on local agriculture, often make their own liquors, spirits, and cordials using berries and other fruits. Since each family produces their own, the types and flavors of each drink are as diverse as the people who make them.

Where to Stay

Charming mountain villages are easy to find in the Pyrenees Mountains, so it's just a matter of taking your pick. Even the "big cities" around the Pyrenees are relatively small and still very enchanting, and make for great bases to explore the rural areas around them.

If you're visiting in the winter, the options within the actual Pyrenees Mountains are more limited to ski resorts since many of the mountain passes and roads are closed down. Cities closer to the coast, however, are reachable all year long.


Biarritz has a history of fluctuating fortunes. Napoléon III put the resort on the map after he regularly came here to party with kings and queens, aristocrats, and the wealthy in the mid 19th century and it remained the place to be until the 1950s. In the 1960s the Mediterranean and the Côte d’Azur took over as the place for the young to visit and Biarritz settled into a genteel decline. A decade later, it was rediscovered by the young from Paris and from the rest of the world as a great surfing destination and its character once again changed. Biarritz is a lively city, with the splendid Art Deco Casino Municipal, a reminder of its rakish past, taking pride of place on the Grande Plage beach. Visitors can also see the Biarritz Aquarium, wander around the lovely streets, and dine in the delicious Basque restaurants.


Three miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Bayonne is one of the most important cities in the French Basque Country along with Biarritz. Located where the Ardour and Nive rivers meet, the city has a real Spanish flavor to it. The Musée Basque gives tourists some insight into Basque history both on the land and at sea. Also worth seeing is the old quarter around the fortifications built by the great military engineer Vauban in the 17th century, the cathedral, and the botanical garden.


St-Jean-de-Luz is an attractive resort commune with a lovely sandy beach and an old town with half-timbered houses. Once a vital whaling and cod-fishing port, it is still the main place for landing anchovy and tuna. Also located in the French Basque Country, St-Jean-de-Luz is much smaller than Bayonne or Biarritz and still maintains the charm of a small fishing town. It's also just a couple of miles away from the Spanish border, making it easy to reach San Sebastian.


A famous French poet once said that the city of Pau has "the world's most beautiful view of the earth," and with the backdrop of the Pyrenees, there's no question as to why. Pau has been an important city in southern France since it was the capital of the Kingdom of Navarre in the 15th century. It’s an attractive city with a large university, so there's a young in this centuries-old town. Visitors can also see the château museum and the nearby cave grottos of Béharram with its stalactites and stalagmites.


Lourdes is most known for the cave where a young girl in the mid-19th century saw visions of the Virgin Mary, turning the small village into a tourist phenomenon practically overnight. The city is still visited by millions of religious tourists every year, but the natural beauty around Lourdes is reason enough to visit even if you aren't going as a pilgrim. Staying in Lourdes is convenient for travelers who want to visit anyway and it has many accommodation options, but it's also one of the most touristy options in the Pyrenees. If you're purely going for nature, then staying outside of Lourdes is a better option for disconnecting.


Foix is a small city that sits in the valley at the base of the Pyrenees, and the main site to see is the hilltop castle that dates back to the 12th century. You can easily reach hiking trails that traverse the neighboring regional park, so summer or early fall are the best times for visiting this natural area. Foix is very much off of the tourist route and is mostly visited by French travelers who want to explore the nearby mountains. For a truly authentic Pyrenean experience, Foix checks all of the boxes.


On the Mediterranean coast, Perpignan is an important Catalan city. Although people often associate Catalonia with Spain and Barcelona, the Catalan culture actually crosses the border into France as well, and Perpignan retains a strong Catalan identity through its culture, language, and cuisine. It has some remarkable buildings, including the Loge de Mer, built in 1397, and the museum of Casa Païral, the place to find out more about the local Catalan culture. Plus, the Mediterranean beaches are right next-door.

Getting There

Getting to the Pyrenees Mountains depends a lot on which part you plan to visit. For trips to the French side, you'll likely have to start in Paris and then either fly or take a train to somewhere closer (the closest international airport to the Pyrenees is in Toulouse). However, if you're planning to stay near the coastal regions, you may be better off starting your trip in Spain. To get to Biarritz, Bayonne, or Saint-Jean-de-Luz, the nearest airport is in San Sebastian, while a flight to Barcelona is the quickest way to get to Perpignan.

Cheapest Times to Travel

  • Outside of the ski resorts, summer is the busiest season in the Pyrenees Mountains, and tourists book up mountain getaways from June through August. If you can travel in September or October, you're still likely to get good weather and save a lot on accommodations.
  • For deals on accommodations, especially during ski season, try to plan your trip for the middle of the week instead of the weekends.
  • To save money on food and still eat good, pick up some cured meats and fresh cheese in the local markets or—depending on where you are—right from the farm. With a baguette from the bakery, it's the perfect picnic to bring along on a hike.
Article Sources
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  1. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. "Gavarnie Cirque. Pyrénées - Mont Perdu (France, Spain)." Retrieved on February 4, 2022.