7 key differences between the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of France
France is blessed with three very different coastlines that hug the country on three sides and stretch for more than 2,000 miles. To the north is the English Channel, a coastline made up of a mix of white sandy beaches to the east and rugged rocky coves to the west. Along the entire west coast of France, the country connects to the Atlantic Ocean, and from Saint-Nazaire towards the south, this coast is mainly made up of endless white sand beaches, with beautiful welcoming sand dunes big ocean waves. Then there is the Mediterranean, bordering the southern coast of France. This is where the famous resorts of Saint-Tropez, Nice and Cannes are located, and society tends to congregate. The three coasts could not be more different from each other, but in this article we can only compare two, so I have opted for the two most popular with foreign visitors: the Atlantic coast and the Mediterranean coast.
Growing up in Germany, France was only a short drive away, and I spent many summer weeks of my childhood on the French Atlantic coast, with most French holidays spent along this stretch endless sandy area south of the Garonne estuary which runs down to Saint-Jean-de-Luz and the Spanish border. I didn’t visit the French Mediterranean coast until later in my teens, but have since made up for lost ground.
Both coasts offer great reasons to favor one over the other; it really is a very individual thing to decide which ticks your boxes and which to choose for a holiday. You can, of course, if you have time, visit both and perhaps even travel along the water all the way between them, as the Atlantic coast is connected to the Mediterranean coast by the Canal du Midi, which goes through Toulouse.
Here I highlight some of the key differences between the two coasts to try to help you decide if you belong on Team Atlantic or Team Mediterranean.
1. Location, size and population
The Atlantic coast stretches between the Loire estuary at Saint-Nazaire, passing through the islands, the most famous of which is the magnificent Ile de Ré, across the Garonne estuary which leads to Bordeaux, passing via beautiful Cap Ferret and Arcachon, famous for its oysters, ending at chic Biarritz near the Spanish border, with the foodie paradise of San Sebastian a short drive away. It is the longest of the coasts, and also probably the least populated – with many small seaside resorts surrounded by thick pine forests that almost reach the beach and form beautiful dunes and campsites. The beaches are long and wide, offering plenty of space for everyone.
The Mediterranean coast meanders from Perpignan at the foot of the Pyrenees through Montpellier, the Camargue to Marseille, then becomes more chic and more expensive with each city, from Saint-Tropez to Cannes, from Antibes to Nice, then ends at the border with Monaco. It is a very busy territory, which in summer is completely overbooked with beaches divided into segments the size of a solarium that you can rent at a high price.
The Atlantic coast is hot and sunny in the summer, reaching high temperatures of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but because it is open to the ocean it can be windy and generally has lower temperatures than the Mediterranean coast, while the Atlantic open is significantly colder than the calmer waters of the Mediterranean. The Côte d’Azur at the eastern end of the Mediterranean coast is on average the hottest place in France, with warm to hot summer weather reaching temperatures of 80 degrees and above.
On both sides, you would greatly benefit from having a car to allow you to discover hidden beaches and less visited areas. That said, France rail network is nothing if not vast and fast. You can go down the Atlantic coast from Nantes to La Rochelle, but then you have to go around the Garonne estuary via Bordeaux to then return to the coast at Arcachon and south to Bayonne and Biarritz. These train lines roughly follow the coastline but do not take you directly to the beaches.
On the Mediterranean coast there are many more trains, and not only fast connections (TGV), but also local connections, which bring you closer to the beaches. In fact, one of the most scenic train journeys in Europe takes you from Antibes via Monaco in Italy, along the coast with fantastic views.
4. Good basics along the way
Of course, you can pick a spot along either coast and stay there for your entire vacation, which is fine, as there are beautiful beaches on both coasts. But if you want to take day trips and explore the area a bit more, it’s good to have a base that gives you everything you need, plus access to beaches and other attractions.
On the Atlantic side, La Rochelle is perfect for the islands and the northern stretch of the Garonne. From here you have interesting towns such as Poitiers, Tours and Limoges, as well as easy access via bridges to the islands of Ré and Oléron. Arcachon is perfect for exploring Cap Ferret, while Bordeaux is not far from the coast either, and has the vineyards nearby. Further south, stay in Mimizan or Saint Jean de Luz.
Along the Mediterranean, the choices are nearly endless, budget permitting. I love Montpellier, from where you can take the tram and local bus to fabulous beaches while still being in the beautiful city and close to Nimes and Avignon. Hyères is cute and not as overgrown as Saint-Tropez, and you can explore the coast up and down from there; then there are the big centers like Nice and the super cute Menton, ideal for taking a trip to Monaco and Italy.
5. The atmosphere
The atmosphere is very different on the two coasts, the Atlantic coast being family friendly, many campsites nearby under the pines, with incredibly wide and long beaches that come most of the time without the possibility of renting deck chairs or a waiter bringing you a cocktail.
In contrast, on the good beaches along the Mediterranean this is the norm, and you should also dress up rather than down. Of course, there are also plenty of “normal” beaches outside the expensive hotspots, where you can just bring your own picnic, but overall think posh and expensive along the Mediterranean, and relaxed and impromptu along the Atlantic.
6. Suitable for travelers of all ages
If you’re traveling with older grandkids, would-be surfers, and real water babies, I’d definitely suggest the Atlantic coast, where the waves are spectacular and you can tumble all day. That said, there are more secluded beaches on the islands that are perfect for all ages. Likewise, while it’s hot on a perfect summer day, the water is still refreshing, so if you tend to overheat, this could be the coast for you.
For the little ones, the Mediterranean is a little safer and there is a large water park in Frejus for a fun day. In Cannes you have the Underwater Museum, which is great to visit for snorkelers and snorkelers.
If you need wheelchair access, look for the sign that says ‘handiplage’, which means beach for the disabled, offering wheelchair access. The two best wheelchair beaches around Nice are Plage du Centenaire and Plage de Carras, but there are plenty of good wheelchair beaches along both coasts, with this card give you a better idea.
All in all, you can do France as cheaply or as expensively as you want. When I was young, my father and I often camped in Vieux-Boucau-les-Bains, under the pines, with the magnificent beach just behind the high dunes. In turn, when my daughter was still small, we all used to go down to the Ile de Ré and stay either in a motorhome or in a small chalet on a campsite by the beach , with relatively cheap restaurants on site and we just indulged ourselves when the funds allowed him to do a few evenings in Saint-Martin-de-Ré.
But I’ve also stayed in some pretty cool hotels along the French Riviera, had cocktails along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, cocktails that cost more than a night at the campsite on the other side . I really enjoyed both; each was appropriate for the time and suitable for the travel budget of the time.
For both coasts, you can save a lot of money and enjoy much smaller crowds if you avoid July and August and arrive in early September instead. The weather is still great, the water still warm, and you can actually find a seat at a sidewalk cafe and treat yourself to a night or two in an exclusive hotel, or upgrade your chalet to one with a balcony and a view.
Whether you choose the Atlantic or Mediterranean coast, there is no doubt that you will take full advantage of it. The French love beach holidays, and good restaurants even on a beach, and café terraces for coffee and the all-important aperitif can be found everywhere. You can’t set foot anywhere near the edge of France without stumbling upon a stunning beach, so don’t worry about picking the perfect one from afar. Go ahead, you will find one not far from your home.
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