Arcachon is the main town on the Bassin d’Arcachon, a bay of the Atlantic ocean that attracts many visitors from Bordeaux. Less than 60 km separates the capital of the Southwest from Arcachon and its beautiful villas, clear blue beaches and delicious seafood. This is also one of the main osticulture (oysters farming) centers of France so eating oysters is a “must” when coming to the area. I know many of my readers are less enthusiastic about oysters than the French are, but don’t worry, this place is a gem even if you’re not a fan of “huitres“. In this article, I will walk you through the best things you can do in Arcachon, where you should eat and even how to get there.
I have to warn you though, Arcachon is one of the most popular sea resorts in France and in the summer, it’s flooded with tourists and locals alike. The best time to go there is either May-June or September. To avoid the crowded places you can visit one of the other charming villages on the Bassin d’Arcachon, such as la Teste de buch and Gujan Mestras. There are other amazing towns in the north and west parts of the bay, such as Andernos les Bains and Cap Ferret. However, in my opinion, if it’s your first time in Arcachon, you can by no means miss the incredible Dune du Pilat, south of the bay, and so I’ve focused my recommendations on that area.
If you’re looking where to stay in Arcachon here’s my article about the best camping sites in Arcachon and Cap Ferret.
Arcachon is divided into 4 regions: the summer city is the city center with walkways and restaurants; the winter city is adorned with beautiful 19th-century villas; the autumn city includes the fishing area; and the spring city covers the most beautiful beaches in the Southern part of the bay. In most cities, people usually get to visit only the city center, but in Arcachon each part offers something completely different and you have to visit at least three to fully discover it. To help you do just that I’ve made a list of all the places I think you should visit and things you should do while in Arcachon. Hope you enjoy it 🙂
Best things to do in Arcachon
La Ville d’Eté – the main beach and the Arcachon market
The summer city is the touristic center of Arcachon. Typical to most towns in the region it has a nice pedestrian area with plenty of restaurants and boutiques. You can start your visit directly on the waterfront, just stroll along the beautiful promenade next to the main beach (Plage d’Arcachon). Its location on the Arcachon bay protects it from the threatening waves of the Atlantic Ocean and makes it the safest beach for kids. During the summer this beach tends to be very crowded so you might consider searching for a quieter one in Ville de Printemps (see below).
One of the main attractions in Arcachon’s city center is the main market, Marché d’Arcachon. Like many towns in the area, Arcachon too has a fantastic covered market gathering plenty of food stands with local delicacies. The best thing is that the market is open daily from mid-June to mid-September and from Tuesday to Saturday the rest of the year so you can rely on it for great home-cooked meals or just a breakfast snack. In the summer, a night market takes place several days a week, with stands of clothes, accessories, jewelry and more. The night market is open until 23:00 (for the dates click here).
La Ville d’Hiver – Beautiful villas and the main park of Arcachon
The Architecture of La Ville d’Hiver
This neighborhood might not be the city center but La Ville d’Hiver is definitely the most beautiful part of Arcachon. The winter town, built on the hills of the city in the late 19th century, attracts many visitors thanks to its gorgeous architecture. Strolling the calm – green streets you will discover beautiful villas, each designed with different elements, giving the neighborhood an elegant yet eclectic style. Among the 300 villas, there are a few that should not be missed, among them Villa Tolledo, Villa Teresa, Villa Alexandre Dumas, and Villa Bremontier. If you can read some French, here’s a site with a short history of the most famous villas in the winter city.
Parc Mauresque – a beautiful park with a panoramic view
Overlooking La Ville d’Eté you will find the charming Parc Mauresque, built in 1843. It’s located on a hill which you can spot right from the city center. If you don’t want to climb too many stairs, there’s a lift that will bring you all the way up to the park’s center. That’s also the best way to pass from the summer city to winter city. The park is equipped with great playgrounds for kids and many cute spots for a picnic. This would be a great time for a picnic before heading to the beach.
Just next to the park, you’ll find the Observatoire de Sainte Cécile, a belvedere built from metal on which you can climb to see an incredible panoramic view of the Arcachon Bay. If it reminds you of the Eiffel Tower, that’s because Gustave Eiffel took part in the project!. The site is open daily and is free.
The beaches of La Ville de Printemps
The best beaches of Arcachon are located in “Spring town”, the western part of the city. The most famous beach is Plage Pereire, which starts right after the pedestrian promenade (bordered by Jetée de la Chapelle). It’s a beautiful three km beach with white sand and a view of the Cap Ferret peninsula on the other side of the bay. This beach is equipped with many sports facilities, a cycle path and green lawns for people to have a picnic on.
If you walk south on the beach line, you’ll get to Plage des Abatilles and des Arbousiers, the last one attracting the windsurfers and kite surfers coming to the area. Most beaches in Arcachon are supervised and well-equipped, so you just have to choose between the calmer beaches on the bay or the big ocean waves.
A visit to Le Moulleau
Le Moulleau, located in the far west, is officially a part of the city of Arcachon. However, in reality, it feels like a completely separate little resort town with its own center, beaches and restaurants. Le Moulleau is built around the beautiful Notre Dame des Passes square and its pier. There are several restaurants on the main street (Boulevard de la côte d’argent) and the Chemin des Pères promenade. The hotels and some restaurants in Le Moulleau are quite pricey as the area attracts a lot of wealthy French tourists. The resort is located mid-way between the center of Arcachon and the famous Dune du Pilat, so this could be a nice stop on the way there. If you’re coming by public transport, line 1 (Baia company) will take you from the Arcachon train station to the main street of Moulleau.
Take a boat to go eat lunch in Cap Ferret
If you’re around Le Moulleau during lunchtime, you can upgrade your lunch to a fun adventure. Just in front of Le Moulleau beach lies the peninsula of Cap Ferret. It’s one of the most charming villages on the Bassin d’Arcachon and is known particularly for its oyster farming. Many people go there from Arcachon just for a few hours to eat the freshest oysters in one of the restaurants on the beach. The village is located on the other side of the bay so going there by car will take more than an hour. But you can totally skip the long route and go by sea. From April to mid-September there’s a ferry that takes you from le Moulleau to Cap Ferret in just 20 minutes (leaving from Jetée du Moulleau). You can also take the ferry from the center of Arcachon, which takes 30 minutes to reach Cap Ferret. For the schedule and tickets reservation click here.
A boat trip to Iles aux Oiseaux and the Cabanes Tchanquées
Arcachon Bay is not just another resort town. The biodiversity and natural conditions which helped its famous oyster farming industry also make for fascinating adventures. If you really wish to discover the Bassin d’Arcachon beyond its beautiful beaches visit two of its landmarks, Les Cabanes Tchanquées and L’Ile aux Oiseaux. Les Cabanes Tchanquées, the two wooden huts decorating almost every postcard in Arcachon, are one of the most emblematic symbols of the bay. They were originally used for supervising the oysters’ farms but are no longer in use and can only be seen from outside. L’Ile aux Oiseaux, the birds’ island, owes its name to the many birds that reside in the Island yearlong.
There are several companies that offer both group and private tours to these and other parts of the bay. You can go by regular boat or by pinasse, which is a traditional boat from Arcachon. The tours are usually in French but many of the guides speak some English and can easily explain the most important details. The tour leaves from Jetée Thiers, located on the main beach of Arcachon. You can also get more information about different tours in the tourist office.
Dune du Pilat – the amazing sand dune
If there’s one thing in this list I consider a “must” it’s definitely this one. The gigantic sand dune is one of the wonders of the area, with its 60 million metric cubes of sand it’s quite astonishing the first time you see it. Dune du Pilat is Europe’s tallest sand dune, rising to an impressive 110 m high. It’s also 500 meters wide and 2.7 km long so you’ll have plenty of room to wander. You can climb the dune by stairs that are installed from the end of May to early November. If you come during the low season or just feel energetic, you can just climb straight up the sandy slopes.
Once you reach the top, a stunning panoramic view will be revealed with the Cap Ferret peninsula on one side a huge pine forest on the other and the magnificent Banc d’Arguin nature reserve just in front. After working so hard climbing the dune, you can slide to the other side (when the sand is not too hot of course) and go straight to the beach. If you’re not in a rush you can easily spend the day here, have a nice picnic and swim in the crystal clear water. It’s hard to describe the beauty of this site in words, you really must see it yourself.
If you’re coming by public transport, line 1 (Baia company) will take you from the Arcachon train station to Dune to Pilat.
Discover Arcachon by Bike
There are many bike paths and roads with very little traffic in the Bassin d’Arcachon which makes it a perfect place to discover by bicycle. The bike lanes go along most of the waterfront and lead from one beach to the other quite easily. You can also take the circuit from the center of Arcachon to Dune du Pilat and go through le Moulleau and Pyla sur Mer, the village where Dune du Pilat is located. To follow the path see the map here. There are many bike rental places in Arcachon where you can rent a bike for a few hours or for the whole day, see their details here.
Have a drink at la Co(o)rniche
La Co(o)rniche is a 5-star hotel designed by Philippe Starck with the most amazing view of the bassin. The hotel is luxurious and expensive so it’s for special occasions, but you can still enjoy the stunning view with a cocktail in the terrasse. The Co(o)rnice is just a few minutes by car from the Dune du Pilat.
Theater and Casino
If you want to finish your day with an artistic program, go ahead to Theater Olympia. This great theater hosts a variety of shows and concerts almost every night. For more details and tickets click here. If you’re staying the night in Arcachon you can also check out the Casino located in the city center.
Where to eat in Arcachon
There’s quite a few restaurants in Arcachon, but you should know where to go in order to avoid tourist traps. A few good places are located right at the market.
Le Bouchon du marché is located in the heart of the market with plenty of tables outside as well. The restaurant serves excellent local food, is open daily and has a great vibe to it. The market is also a good opportunity to taste some of the best oysters in Arcachon. l’Oyster Bar is an excellent spot to taste the local delicacies as well as other seafood. If you want to enjoy a better view, go to Chez Pierre located on the main beach of Arcachon.
You don’t have to stay in the city center for Lunch, there are some nice spots in Le Moulleau as well, among them is Le Jardin with the magnificent terrace and the Royal Moulleau on the riverfront. For desserts head to the center of Moulleau where you can find plenty of great ice cream on every corner.
For special occasions, there are several fine dining places worth mentioning, among them Thierry Renou’s Le Patio on the port of Arcachon. You can also stop for lunch at the Haaitza hotel which has an amazing restaurant, located just a few minutes by car or bicycle from the Dune du Pilat.
How to get to Arcachon and where to park?
By public transport
The easiest way to get to Arcachon is by train from the Saint-Jean station in Bordeaux. The train leaves every 30 to 60 minutes depending on the hour (with a break of two hours between 9:00 and 11:00). It takes about 50 minutes to get there and if you want to avoid traffic this is how I recommend getting to Arcachon. However, the train tickets aren’t cheap so if you’re more than two people, renting a car is a better option. It’s a local train without seat reservation and tickets can be bought online or at the station. See the hours of the trains here.
It can take about an hour to get from Bordeaux to Arcachon, depending on traffic. During the summer, the bay is packed with locals and tourists so the traffic can be a bit heavy. If you’re planning to visit only the town of Arcachon and the dune, getting there by train would be the easiest option.
However, if you also want to visit some of the other magical spots on the bay, a car is a more practical way to get around. Except Dune du Pilat mentioned above, there are plenty of other fascinating places you can visit on the way, such as the oyster capital Gujan-Mestras and the Teich bird reserve.
The Bordeaux airport in Merignac is less than an hour drive from the Bassin d’Arcachon. You can rent a car at the airport and avoid entering the city if you’re planning to go straight to Arcachon. If you want to do everything by public transport, take bus number 1 from the airport to the train station and a train to Arcachon from there, as explained above. There’s also an airport for private jets if you want to make a classy entrance to the bay 😉
If you’re coming in low season parking is not a big issue. Between October 1st and March 31, you can park in most of the streets of Ville d’hiver which is only a few minutes walk from the city center. However, during the summer, finding free parking is nearly impossible and you should get familiar with some of the parking spaces the city proposes. On July and August, the cheapest way to park in Arcachon is to leave your car at the Parking Relais, and then take their Navette to the city center and other parts of Arcachon. Some other parking places in the city include the Parking du centre ville, Parking de la gare, Parking place de Verdun, Parking place Peyneau and Parking place Carnot.
The main events
Arcachon is a very lively place with plenty of entertaining events. Besides the local small events taking place throughout the year, there are several big ones you should pay attention to when planning your visit.
Andernos Jazz Festival at the end of July – a jazz festival in one my favorite towns on the bay (Andernos les Bains). This place was not mentioned in the article as it’s located a bit far from the city of Arcachon but if you come during the festival I highly recommend going there.
Music O Teich in July – a world music festival with free concerts every night on the port of Teich.
Fêtes de la mer in August – the city celebrates the sea and its maritime traditions. Festival Arcachon en Scéne at the end of July, beginning of August – a big music festival you should check out
Festival Cadences in September – a dance festival on the beach and at the Olympia theater.
Cabanes en fete in December – another fun event celebrating oysters, taking place in Andernos les Bains.
To be honest, this area is pretty amazing even without any special events but those definitely add to the fun atmosphere of the Bassin d’Arcachon.
That’s it, that’s my first article about the Bassin d’Arcachon. As someone who lives close by I know that there’s plenty more to do around the bay. However, some of the other towns deserve a separate article, that’s exactly what I intend to do in the future. For now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this list!
If you’re also visiting Bordeaux be sure to check out my post about the best things to do in the city and the best hotels in Bordeaux. Arcachon is not the only day trip you can do from Bordeaux. The area is full of historic villages and beautiful nature. If you want to discover some of them, I invite you to read my article about the best day trips you can do by train from Bordeaux.
Finally, if you are looking for a fun and delicious activity in Bordeaux, check out my food tours in which I’ll take you through a three hours journey in the culinary scene of the Southwest of France.
Need more ideas for things to do in and around Bordeaux? you should definitely join my newsletter where I share a lot of info about the area – sign up here.