The beach and its promenade
The main highlight of St Jean de Luz is, without a doubt, its beautiful beach and the promenade along it. The main beach is known simple as the “big beach” (“la grande plage” in French). It is a beautiful crescent-shaped beach that is protected from waves by three huge dikes, which makes it the perfect place for families with children. Furthermore, there are many activities and games that are hosted on shore.
A walk along the elevated promenade of the “big beach” is a must. There, it is possible to enjoy the beautiful views – the Cantabrian Sea on one side and the Basque architecture on the other. The houses that line the beach are probably the most iconic symbol of St Jean de Luz. Many of these houses are connected to the promenade via a bridge, which adds to their charm.
Moreover, “la grande plage” is not the only beach in town. There are actually four more sandy beaches that belong to the municipality of St Jean de Luz: Erromardi, Mayarco, Lafiténia and Cénitz. All of them are close to camp sites and are popular among surfers. If you are an expert surfer, you can head to Lafiténia, while if you are a beginner, Cénitz is probably a better choice.
Grand Hôtel & Casino La Pergola
When walking along the beach promenade, there are two buildings that stand out. The first is the Grand Hôtel. This majestic building from 1909 was constructed in neo-romantic style. Today, it is still a 5 star hotel with spa facilities (Loreamar Thalasso Spa), maintaining the atmosphere of the Belle Epoque.
Not so far and right in front of the water is the Casino La Pergola that was built in art deco style. Apart from a casino, it also houses a hotel and spa (Hélianthal spa center).
The main pedestrian street in Saint Jean de Luz is called the Rue Gambetta. There you will find many stores, most of them cute boutiques selling chocolate & sweets, local produce, clothes and shoes. Many stores sell what is referred to as “Linge Basque,” which are solid fabrics that feature brightly striped patterns. Linge Basque is a deep-rooted tradition from the Basque Country and there are several stores selling napkins, kitchen towels and other cotton and linen products.
The most important building on the Rue Gambetta is, without a doubt, the Church of St. John Baptist. It was built between the 15th and 17th centuries and is considered to be one of the most representative churches of the Basque Country. Its austere exterior hides a large single nave that features a monumental baroque altarpiece from the 17th century. Typical from churches of the French Basque Country, wooden galleries stretch along the side and back walls of the building. These galleries were originally used by men attending mass, while women sat separately on the bottom level.
This church is especially important in St Jean de Luz because of the royal wedding of June 9th, 1660 between Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain. The marriage is one of the most important political marriages in history and brought an end to a bitter war. Although it is not proven, it has been said that the door the couple passed through was later bricked-up to represent the closing of the troubles between France and Spain.
Place Louis XIV & Maison Louis XIV
At the western most end of the Rue Gambetta is where the main square of the town, Place Louis XIV can be found. The two most prominent buildings in the tree-lined square are the town hall (“Mairie” in French) and the Maison Louis XIV.
The maison is just one of the many homes, located between the church and the port, that was funded by the wealth brought back by Basque corsairs. It was built in 1643 by Johan de Lohobiague, a shipowner and mayor of Saint Jean de Luz. The Maison Louis XIV is of course named in honor of Louis XIV, who stayed in the house for 40 days while he waited for his bride, Maria Theresa to arrive from Spain.
The exterior of the maison is elegant and a good example of the style of the time. It is both symmetric and well proportionated. The interior decoration has a more traditional Basque style and gives visitors a view into the way rich families lived in Saint Jean de Luz during the 17th century.
In the summer, there are several restaurants with terraces in the Place Louis XIV. Artisans and painters also fill into the square, making for a very cozy atmosphere. Moreover, there is a music bandstand located in the middle of the square where traditional Basque music is often played.
From the Place Louis XIV, you can walk to the port, which is located right beside the square and where you can see fishing boats coming and going. Although difficult to imagine today, this was once one of France’s largest fishing ports.
In the past, fishermen lived in the surroundings of the port, such as the street called Rue de la Republique. Today, that street is lined with seafood restaurants and, if you want to eat seafood or fish, it is a great place to check out.
Joanoenia, la Maison de l’Infante
Another elegant building from the 17th century is the Maison Joanoenia, which is named after the wealthy corsair, Joannot de Haraneder, who ordered its construction in 1640.
The Maison Joanoenia stands out in Saint Jean de Luz due to its style. Inspired by palaces in Venice, its facade is covered with pink bricks and adorned with golden stones. The building is located right next to the port and has a watch tower from which the owner could see the movement of the ships.
The Maison Joanoenia is also known as the House of the Infanta (“Maison de l’Infante” in French) because the Infanta of Spain, Maria Teresa stayed there when she came to Saint Jean de Luz in 1660 to get married to Louis XIV.
Market - Les Halles
The market of St Jean de Luz is very popular in the region and is open all year round, every day of the week. With the stands selling fish, horse meat, vegetables, baked goods and much more, it is the perfect place to discover the fresh ingredients that make the Basque gastronomy so famous.
There is always a nice atmosphere at the market, and the variety of local produce, such as cheese, is quite impressive. If you decide to try some cheese, look for the Ardi Gasna, which actually means “sheep cheese” in Basque. This is a typical cheese from the Nive Valley which is uncooked, pressed and matured for about 6 months before being sold.
Moreover, the market is surrounded by small bars with terraces.
Although a visit to this market is always recommended, if possible, visit on a Tuesday or a Friday since those are the busiest days with more local farmers gathering to sell their local produce.
Basque pelota is quite a popular sport in St Jean de Luz and is played by people of all ages. It has the status here equal to that of baseball in the US or cricket in the UK and it is typical for a dad or grandpa to take the children out to “hit the ball.”
July and August are some of the best months to catch a game of cesta punta. During this time, it is played every Tuesday and Thursday at 9 pm at the Jai Alai Fronton (located at Avenue André-Ithurralde). You can also check the GuichetNet website or ask at the Tourism Office for more information.
You may also see some locals playing while wandering through the town, since there are multiple frontons around. For example, the Trinquet Maitena is a covered fronton located in the center of St Jean de Luz (at 42 Rue du Midi). The cool thing about the Trinquet Maitena is that there is also a normal bar attached to it and it is possible to grab a drink while watching locals play a game of pelota.
If you would like a more hands-on experience and want to try the sport out yourself, then St Jean de Luz also has you covered. Check out the following activities.
Ciboure & Fortress of Socoa
The bay on which St Jean de Luz sits is divided in two by the mouth of the Nivelle River. On the opposite side of St Jean de Luz, you find the town of Ciboure (“Ziburu” in Basque).
Ciboure is a nice town, smaller and quieter than its neighbor across the river. It also has a couple of sandy beaches. At the end of the bay stands the Fortress of Socoa (“Fort de Socoa” in French). The Fortress was originally built by Louis XIII at the beginning of the 17th century to protect the port of Ciboure from Spanish invaders. It was destroyed and rebuilt many times during the Spanish and British occupations. However, in some ways this adds to the buildings appeal, since it is responsible for the mixture of different military architecture styles.
Although the building itself is closed and is actually starting to fall apart, it still has a lot of charm. You can walk around it, admire the building itself and imagine the battles that took place there. It is also a great place to enjoy the nice views of the bay, the waves breaking against the Socoa dike and the Basque coast where flysch rock formations can be seen.