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The coasts of France

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A guide to the French seaside and beaches

Map of French coast
Cette page en français: ► Guide du littoral de la France
Nice - photo About-France.com

French coast - Cliffs of Etretat

The French coast at Etretat, Normandy - 
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Photos :
Dune du Pilat  by Ronnie Garcia.  Etretat by Dan Powell
.
Licence  creative commons.

All other photos copyright About-France.com .



What is the French seaside like? What are the seashores and beaches like? Where are the best beaches in France? These are questions that tourists often ask; but with over 2000 miles of coastline, continental France (i.e., excluding Corsica) has plenty of coastline and beaches of different sorts to satisfy the millions of tourists and holidaymakers who flock to them each summer. But for the foreign visitor, a holiday on the French coast can sometimes be a disappointment if the resort or region chosen has the wrong kind of seaside or seashore.
The map opposite divides the French coast very schematically into two types: in pink, coasts that are predominantly rocky, often with cliffs; in yellow, the flatter areas of coastline, where there are plenty of long sandy beaches.

Here, in greater detail, is a description of the French coastline, taken in an anti-clockwise direction, and starting at the top, on the Belgian border.

The North coast

The extreme north coast of France, from Belgium to Calais, borders on the North Sea, and is characterised by broad sandy beaches and sand dunes.
Beyond Calais - reflecting the English coast opposite - the Channel coast round and south of Cap Gris Nez has chalk cliffs, with small harbours and beaches of shingle or sand. The cliffs give way to a flat coastline with beaches and estuarine shores in Picardy, round the mouth of the River Somme. The resort of Le Touquet is famous for its sand dunes.

In the north of Normandy, the chalk cliffs return, culminating in the famous cliffs of Etretat, the highest in France. The small seaside resorts, tucked into creeks, were once very popular with Parisians.
Beyond the mouth of the Seine, the Normandy coast is generally a mix of broad sandy beaches with, here and there, low cliffs and pebbly beaches. This mixed shoreline, the site of the Second World War Normandy landings, carries round and up the Cotentin peninsula.
The northern end of Cotentin is marked by another rocky area, with granite cliffs and sandy beaches, rather like the Channel Islands which are close by.

At the western base of the Cotentin peninsula, Normandy becomes Brittany, and after the flat shores surrounding the Bay of Mont Saint Michel, the coastline is then very rugged and rocky right round the Breton coast, as far as the department of Morbihan, in the south. The variety of the rocky north Breton coast is reflected in the names of sections of this Beach on the south coast of Brittanycoast; the Jade Coast, the Emerald Coast, the Pink Granite coast (sounds better in French!), and the Wild Coast. But along with the rocks and cliffs, this coastline, like that of North Cornwall, offers a wealth of sandy coves and beaches. Click here a carefully selected choice of hotels on the coast of Brittany.
   The south Breton coast is warmer and less rugged than the north, and in the department of Morbihan, the coast is characterised by fine sandy beaches. (photo right)

The Atlantic coast

Southwards from the mouth of the Loire, from Vendée, through Charentes and as far as the Gironde, the Atlantic coast is largely made up of long sandy beaches; coastal towns and villages, such as La Rochelle, Les Sables d'Olonne and Rochefort, have tended to spread along behind the shoreline, but in many parts, the beaches are backed by a band of pine forests, and can be remarkably uncrowded even in summer.
Arcachon South of the Gironde, the Aquitaine coast is famous for its long sandy beaches, but also for its forests that come right up to the coastline, or at least up to the band of sand dunes behind the beaches. At the entrance to the Bay of Arcachon, the Dune du Pilat (photo left) is the highest sand dune in Europe - over 300 ft high, and almost two miles long. From Arcachon southwards towards the area of Biarritz, the coast offers mile upon mile of unbroken sandy beaches, often accessible only on small tracks through the forest.. This all changes as one reaches the Basque country, where the seaside is quite built up from Capbreton to the Spanish border.

The Mediterranean coast

Languedoc beachThe south coast of France is conveniently divided into two sections, west of the Rhone (Languedoc), and east of the Rhone (Provence - Riviera). Languedoc offers mile upon mile of sandy seashores - though the Mediterranean being non-tidal, these sandy beaches are not generally as broad as those of the Atlantic coast. On the other hand, the water is usually warmer. The Languedoc coast is a popular tourist destination. Around the Rhone delta, between the Camargue and Marseilles, the coast is not particularly touristy; with the proximity of shipping ports - Fos and Marseilles, and the water coming from the River Rhone, this is not the best part of the French coast.

Code d'Azur NiceEast of Marseilles, it is a different story. this is the start of the Provence coast and the French Riviera, a rocky jagged coast characterised by its small inlets, shingly or sandy beaches, and beautiful landscapes. It should be noted that a lot of the beaches here are of shingle or fine pebbles, including the famous beach beside the seafront at Nice. This is the region with the most famous of French seaside resorts - Saint Tropez, Juan les Pins, Saint Raphael, Cannes, Nice (photo right) and many others. It is an area that is extremely popular in summer, and holidaymakers thinking of going here in July or August should make sure that they have booked up their hotel - or campsite - well in advance.
As for the "best beaches in France", that's really a matter for individual choice. Hopefully the guide above will help point you in the right direction, if that is what you are after.

East coast of France?
In spite of a surprisingly high number of  searches on Google for "East coast of France", France does not have an east coast ! The only stretches of water on the eastern borders of France are the river Rhine and some waterfront on the shores of Lake Geneva.
   The Riviera from Saint Tropez to the Italian border is sometimes known as the southeast coast of France - but not the east coast.  The only length of east-facing coast in Metropolitan France is the east side of the Cotentin peninsula, in Normandy, and the eastern shores of some islands, including the east coast of Corsica.

Click here for a detailed map of France, which you can scroll and zoom on any area.


About-France.com - France for visitors and travellers
Normandy visitor guide
Languedoc visitor guide
Brittany regional guide




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