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The coasts of France

An inside guide to the coastlines and beaches of France

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Seaside areas around France - from the best beaches to the most secluded coves

Map of French coastWhat 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. From popular crowded resort beaches to vast empty expanses of golden sand, France has beaches for all tastes. This also means that 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 above 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.
The Channel coast near Cap Gris Nez
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. Between Calais and Boulogne, the Opal Coast, as it is known, is part of a regional park area, with its coastal footpath and other hiking opportunities.   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, and the pretty historic port of Honfleur,  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.

brittany coast
Coast in the west of Brittany 
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 coast; the Jade Coast, the Emerald Coast near Saint Malo, 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 above)

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.
    Known as the "Côte d'Argent" or Silver Coast, the shoreline between the estuary of the Gironde and Capbreton, 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 via Bayonne and Biarritz 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.
Collioure, near the Spanish border - popular in all seasons
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, though there are some attractive small beaches. The Camargue itself has long beaches, not always very accessible as this is a protected wetland area. The main tourist beaches, with their long expanses of sand, lie between the western end of the Rhone delta and Argelès sur Mer, south of Perpignan. There is then a short section of rocky coastline from Collioure to Cerbère and the Spanish border. At actual resorts, beaches can be busy in summer time; but between the resorts, there is plenty of room for everyone, even at the peak of the holiday season.

Riviera hotels from
East of Marseilles, it is a different story. This is the start of the Provence 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  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; but for good measure, here is a selection of ten of the many great beaches to be found in France.

The Mediterranean by train

Many Mediterranean resorts and smaller towns can be reached directly by train. These include Marseilles, Nice and Cannes - but also smaller resorts like Cerbère, Collioure, Anthéor, le Trayas, where the train stations are just a few hundred meters from the beach.

Ten of the best beaches in France

Code d'Azur NiceThis list is in anti-clockwise order, going round the coast of France from Calais in the North, via the Atlantic coast, then across the Mediterranean coast to finish at Nice. These are all large spacious beaches; The beaches at Le Touquet, La Baule, Chatelaillon, Biarritz and Nice are in popular seaside resorts, and may become relatively crowded in peak season; the others are in small resorts or between resorts, and are liable to have plenty of space for all even during the busiest time of the holiday season.

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

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French coast - Cliffs of Etretat

Stunning cliffs  at Etretat, Normandy -

French coast - near Cassis

The Mediterranean coast in the Calanaques  area, near Cassis.

La Trinité sur Mer, Brittany

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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.

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Photos :
Dune du Pilat  by Ronnie Garcia.   Licence  creative commons.

Etretat by Phenix 928
Brittany coast by Eaozone

All other photos copyright About-France.com

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