With 2,000 miles of coastline, it’s no surprise that there are such a huge number of French coastal towns worthy of our attention. From Northern France coastal towns like Etretat, jutting up against the English Channel, to coastal cities in Southern France such as Marseilles, basking on the edge of the Med. It’s fair to say you’re spoilt for choice.
The landscape varies from chic urban harbours to quaint fishing villages with remote beaches. With this variety, there’s definitely a French coastal town for everyone. You can find spots to surf as well as sunbathe, shop or dine on the finest seafood, as well as explore fantastic architecture. With so much choice, you may need some help pinning down the best French beach towns for your chosen objectives. And that’s where I come in!
To make it easier to plan and explore, I’ve divided my list into the best beach towns in the South of France and my selection of favourite Northern France coastal towns. The result is a complete guide to the best coastal cities and towns in France.
Best beach towns in Northern France
Best for: An utterly charming seaside resort
Trouville-sur-Mer is somewhat underrated when compared with the better known Deauville, just along the coast. However, this is one of the best Northern France coastal towns, with vast expanses of beach backed by rolling hills bursting with natural life. The boardwalk, which dates from the 19th century, is an enjoyable place to hang out as you dip in and out of the flea markets and shops.
Of course, the sea here is chillier than you’ll find in the French Riviera. But it’s still such a wonderful place to be in summer. And, of course, it’s so much more reachable if you head over the Channel from the UK by car. The beach is gloriously sandy.
Trouville-sur-Mer is also an excellent spot for visiting the D-Day landing sites and you can also easily visit Le Havre if you wish.
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Best for: A traditional French beach town
Honfleur in Normandy is the place to come if you want a French beach town that feels absolutely and traditionally French. This place, where the Seine meets the sea, is a mishmash of intriguing alleys, quaint shops (nip into one selling Calvados) and restaurants, characterised by half-timbered facades.
If you like to spend your trip exploring then Honfleur has plenty to keep you enthralled. There’s the Old Basin, the Lieutenancy, the wooden 15th century Sainte-Catherine Church and Chapel Notre Dame de Grace. The vibrant market also beckons. Without a doubt, you will want to spend some time at the 16th century harbour simply watching the comings and goings.
Nonetheless, when the sightseeing has exhausted you, there are still plenty of exceptional beaches waiting for you. Here you can explore rock pools, or you could relax in the fantastic coastal Botanical Gardens.
Think you recognise Honfleur? Monet adored this picturesque town and its environs, painting it on several occasions.
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Best for: Breathtaking chalk cliffs
Etretat is a beautiful Normandy coastal town characterised by its impressive chalk cliffs that are reminiscent of Kent. There are plenty of captivating photo opportunities to be had as you amble along the small pebble beach bookended by majestic chalk faces at each end. Take a picnic and watch the world go by.
The cliffs provide the backdrop, but Etretat is also a wonderful place to explore for its half-timbered houses in the Anglo-Norman style. These now play host to an array of excellent restaurants. Expect classical French fare with an understandable focus on seafood and fish.
Get the blood pumping by heading up to the Notre Dame de la Garde church on the headland. Another interesting place to explore is the Gardens of Etretat with its intriguing sculptures. It’s also worth heading out to explore some of the caves in the nearby area.
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Best for: History & culture
Northern France is excellent for delivering a heady blend of cultural heritage and stunning natural beauty. Saint-Malo is an excellent example of this.
The history of Saint-Malo is impressive, dating back to Celtic times before the Romans moved in. The town then became a monastic refuge.
When in Saint-Malo, there are two absolute must-dos: an exploration of the Saint-Malo walls and an excursion to the Grand Aquarium. If you enjoy rock pooling and crabbing then you’ll also be in your element here.
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Best for: Fresh mussels & a view
Barfleur is a beautiful coastal town in the department of Manche in Normandy, Northern France. Jutting out into the English Channel, Barfleur is a lovely fishing port with cute granite houses. The fortified church is an interesting place to visit with its octagonal domed chapel and bell tower.
Barfleur does many things well but you absolutely have to come here for a bowl of fresh mussels. They are naturally harvested from east of the Cotentin Peninsula. All you need to do is sit out in the sun with a bowl of mussels in white wine and watch the world go by in the port area.
Barfleur is also an excellent base for coastal hikes and bike trips, and it’s popular for sea fishing and sport.
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Best for: World-renowned oysters
Cancale in Brittany boasts a picturesque port and is famous the world over for its oysters. The sandy beach is beautiful, not least because it has impressive views over Mont-Saint-Michel.
There are lots of hiking trails in the area, but you could just as easily spend your day building sandcastles on the beach.
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Best for: Less tourists
Arrive into Calais or Dieppe and you probably dash away, but it’s worth heading to Ault. Traditionally French, off the tourist trail, and characterised by its white cliffs, it’s definitely not to be missed.
This is a place where you can enjoy French seaside food designed for locals not tourists, but you’ll be spoiled with wonderful scenery too.
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Best beach towns in the South of France
Best for: Boat trips and watersports
For a quaint and quintessential Mediterranean town perfect for dining on seafood and heading out on boat trips, you want to visit Sete. It’s a busy port at its heart, but it boasts 13 kilometres of quiet and undisturbed coastline to the west of the town. This area separates the sea from the Étang de Thau, a saltwater lake.
It is definitely one of the most beautiful French coastal towns and calls out for a post-dinner stroll as you watch the day quieten down in the harbour. The seafood available here is, of course, superbly fresh.
Bizarrely, Sete has a tradition of water jousting! It’s also a wonderful place for beach life and watersports.
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2. Saint Jean De Luz
Best for: Historical sites & local markets
Wander along one of the three seawalls at Saint Jean de Luz, gazing out at the Atlantic, and you’ll definitely be full of holiday vibes. This is a fascinating town, with a history that will immerse you in tales of intrigue. Saint Jean De Luz in south western France is definitely one of the best coastal towns in Southern France if you’re looking for historical sites in a picture-postcard location.
Foodies will be in heaven in Saint Jean De Luz. Discover fresh food and fine wines, as well as local markets that will entice you to move here forever! You can also easily nip up the coast to Biarritz.
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Best for: Large sandy beaches & a lively atmosphere
Marseille is, of course, one of the best coastal cities in France, sitting splendidly on the Mediterranean. It gets its name as one of the best beach cities in France quite fairly, even though it’s a considerably more affordable area compared with wealthy Cannes or Saint-Tropez.
Marseille is actually France’s second largest city in population terms. As you’d expect, there’s plenty to see and do. You can quench your cultural thirst at attractions such as the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, or simply by wandering the different historic neighbourhoods.
Instead, you can enjoy one of the large sandy beaches popular with families. There are excellent diving spots to discover too. That said, if you’re looking for some partying, then Marseille is sure to provide this too.
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Best for: Rich cultural heritage
Martigues is a fascinating place to see geography in action as the various tributaries merge together to enter the sea. The town’s canals direct the water through the streets before ending at the Etang de Berre Lake, a beautiful coastal spot. Perfect for relaxing or a game of volleyball.
Martigues is renowned for its fishing and this is reflected in the town’s character but also the delicious food you’ll find, seemingly around every corner.
Martigues history has also ensured that it is dotted with a sizeable number of churches and chapels. Enough to keep even the most enthusiastic busy and immersed. Mix it up with a visit to the fine art museum Musee Ziem.
It is worth having access to a car if you visit Martigues because some of the best beaches, such as La Couronne, are within easy reach. You can find a different spot to suit your mood every day.
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Best for: Coastal walks and vineyards
With its colourful harbourfront buildings and awnings, Cassis is a stylish town on the Côte d’Azur. It is easily within reach of Marseille. Cassis is a really picturesque town and undoubtedly one of the best coastal towns in southern France.
What’s truly fabulous about Cassis is the variety of different things on offer here, making it an ideal destination for so many different people. There are some of the most stunning coastal walks, as well as plenty to keep history-buffs intrigued, such as the Château de Cassis. While wine lovers will enjoy exploring the area’s vineyards. Lots of places offer watersports or, if you fancy taking a more leisurely approach, then the beach is calling you for a spot of sunbathing.
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Best for: Surfing spots
It would be impossible to put together a list of the best French coastal towns without due mention of Biarritz. Jostling up towards the border with Spain, Biarritz has a fascinating history dating from 1854 with tales of royalty and rulers. Due to its proximity to Spain, there’s a gentle blend of French and Spanish characteristics here. This is evidenced in many ways, but not least the food.
Biarritz is famous for its sweeping sandy shores. However, this is truly a surfer’s paradise on the Atlantic coast. Indeed, every year there is a surfing festival in July which draws the crowds.
Biarritz is all about sophistication and it seems to be as fashionable now as it was when Napoleon III first alerted tourists to the town. Spend some time walking the promenade that runs between the two main beaches and make sure you stay in one of the fabulous boutique hotels.
For a pampering treat with a difference, visit the thalassotherapy centre and feel your aches and pains soothed away through the use of seawater, algae and mud!
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Best for: Sophisticated lifestyle and colourful buildings
Nice is of course one of the best beach towns in the French Riviera, but head just a little out and you’ll find the splendid Villefranche-sur-Mer. This wonderful coastal town makes its way onto my list because it sits within easy reach of the hustle and bustle of Nice and also the wild escape of Cap Ferrat, but it’s worthy of attention in its own right.
What I really love about Villefranche-sur-Mer are the colourful houses and buildings. I’m not alone because this is a sought-after spot amongst millionaires. This is certainly a town characterised by wealth and sophistication. The port adds to the rainbow of colour with colourful boats bobbing up and down on the turquoise Med.
The Old Town beckons you for a wander, with tiny stairways and narrow streets. The 16th century Citadel and the Chapelle Saint-Pierre are both worth a visit.
Cap Ferrat is within easy reach of Villefranche-sur-Mer and here you can explore wild beaches and acres of forest. The scenery and laid back vibe are worth your time.
Best for: A relaxing Mediterranean beach town
A list of the best French coastal towns isn’t complete without a mention of Corsica. Close to Italy, Corsica is French and offers some of the most wonderful coastal towns capable of competing with the mainland.
Pigna is one such town, nestled up to the azure waters of the Med, making it one of the best French Mediterranean beach towns. The mountains roll down to meet the beaches at Pigna and it’s a relaxed place to be.
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If you’re looking for a sandy spot to wile away the hours in the sunshine, have a read of my guide to the best beaches in the South of France.