It is believed that the Aquitaine region in southwest France was given its name by the Romans (aqua meaning water in Latin). They were likely referring to the gentle rivers, lakes, sea access, and fertilizing rains common in the area. They couldn’t have imagined children splashing in the Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux, traffic and trams whizzing by. Or kids staring in awe at colorful surfers cutting through the waves in Biarritz …
And yet that’s exactly what my family experienced when spending a few spring days in the cities of Bordeaux and Biarritz with our sons, ages 2 and 5. If you crave a French experience outside the frenzy of Paris, but still long for the energy and amenities of city life, it’s well worth incorporating these two destinations into your France itinerary.
Known more as a hub for the area’s famous wine industry, your cup will runneth over with ideas for entertaining the kids while still indulging in fun for parents. Here are a few ideas for families planning a visit:
Chartrons Market: Be sure to be in Bordeaux on a Sunday so as not to miss this weekly market. It is like marching through a parade of French produce and delicacies stretched across several blocks along the Garonne River. What makes the morning stroll through this area even better for families is that it is dotted with playgrounds and skateparks, meaning the kids will love it as much as you do.
Sightseeing: Most of Bordeaux’s city center is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, meaning there is no shortage of historical sites to see. A few of our favorites were Place de la Bourse, a large open square mirrored by a pool of very shallow water; Place des Quinconces, which is one of Europe’s largest open squares; the Grand Theatre, a stunning opera house open for tours; and Jardin Public, a gorgeously landscaped garden with a large playground. All of these sights are within an easy walk of each other, and you’ll likely even stumble upon a carousel or two for the kids to enjoy while you admire your surroundings.
Visio Tour: If your legs need a break, hop aboard the Visio Tour, a 70-minute double decker bus ride through the city. This is not a hop-on, hop-off style, so be sure your kids can sit still for the duration, but you’ll be treated to a helpful audio guide explaining Bordeaux’s interesting history and significance in world affairs. My 5-year-old didn’t pay much attention to the audio, but he enjoyed the ride, as did the other school-age children I saw on board. It runs three different times each day and can be picked up in front of the Bordeaux tourist office.
Wineries: It’s natural to want to experience a bit of the wine culture when coming to Bordeaux. While we didn’t have the time to tour any wineries during our brief visit, there are several in the area that have created family-oriented experiences. Chateau d’Agassac in Ludon Medoc offers visiting families a video tour on iPads designed for children. Chateau St. Ahon in Blanquefort has a family promenade and nature garden on the estate.
Biarritz was put on the map as a popular tourist destination primarily by two quite different people. Empress Eugenie (wife of Napoleon III), grew up vacationing in Biarritz and convinced her husband to build a palace here. This launched an influx of European aristocrats who also built magnificent homes all along the seaside. About 100 years later, Peter Viertel, a California screenwriter in town to film a movie, had his surf board shipped over when he saw the size of the waves.
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Biarritz remains an interesting mix of the posh and the surfer classes, but families will feel equally at home here, too.
Here are a few ways to enjoy Biarritz:
The Best Views: One of the most intriguing things about the city is the variety of architectural styles you’ll see in the homes and palaces that have been built along the coast. Each aristocrat or royal who built a property here put their own unique stamp on it. (The centerpiece remains Empress Eugenie’s palace, now the Hotel du Palais). The best spot to appreciate this is at the base of the lighthouse at the far northern point of the city. If you’ve got the energy, you can even climb the 200+ steps to the top.
Aside from this man-made beauty, Mother Nature will delight you with vibrant blue water dotted with craggy rocks. The bridge and viewing platform around Virgin Rock, Biarritz’s most famous landmark, is the perfect vantage point to admire it. You’ll want to gather your crew to snap that perfect family photo.
Train ride: Young and old alike will enjoy a leisurely ride around the city aboard Le Petite Train de Biarritz. The ride only lasts 30 minutes, making it perfectly suitable for children of all ages. You can board at the Grand Plage or the Virgin Rock.
Beach hopping: It was nearly impossible to tear my kids away from the Grand Plage. The wide sandy beach and waves were irresistible to them (not to mention the ice cream stands!). But Biarritz offers several quieter, tucked away coves for swimming, and the striking Cotes des Basques beach, should you want some variety in your sunbathing locations.
Surf lessons: If you have older kids, they’ll love the adventure of learning to surf in one of the world’s most famous destinations for it. All of Biarritz’s surf schools will give lessons or offer camps for children (a full list here). Biarritz Surf Training and Biarritz Association Surf Clubs both come highly recommended for families.
Rainy day? If the weather doesn’t cooperate for the duration of your visit, there are several fun indoor options. Given the young age of my kids, we headed to the Musee de la Mer, an enjoyable aquarium conveniently located directly across from the Virgin Rock. Time your visit to coincide with the feeding of the seals. If your kids are a bit older (around 8 years and up), then target the Cite de l’Ocean, which explores the science behind the sea, like waves, tides, and currents.
Many historical figures have left their mark in the Aquitaine cities of Bordeaux and Biarritz. It’s time to add your family’s, even if it is just in the form of giggles on carousels and footprints in the sand (with a few sips of wine for mom and dad in between!)
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Editor’s Note: Nicole and her family were hosted by the Aquitaine tourism bureau. As always, our opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino.
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