Known as Donibane Lohizune in Basque, is a charming, lively, sophisticated, but extremely busy in summer, tuna, sardine and anchovy fishing port with 5 sandy beaches, turned tourist draw. Take a walk atop the seawall on the Promenade Jacques Thibault. Survey the sardine boats moored in the small, protected harbor, or stroll along the soft sandy beach, la grande Plage, which is the very best way to appreciate the town’s fine architecture. The beach promenade runs from the end of Rue de la République to the elegantly restored Edwardian-style Grand Hôtel, which overlooks the beach and where you can have afternoon tea.
Saint-Jean’s beaches are family friendly with several children’s beach clubs, plenty of tents and lounge chairs for rent and fine, soft sand, making for a perfect family beach day and safer swimming than you’ll find in nearby Biarritz. But go very early in the day during July and August, as it will be packed with sun seekers. You can even have spa thalassotherapy (seaweed) treatments at the Hélianthal Hotel, Place Maurice Ravel. And golfers can play at the historic Golf de Chantaco, 66€ for 18 holes (July-October), 46€ for 9. Rates vary by season. Book your tee time 24 hrs in advance. Golf clubs and carts can be rented.
Once the center of Basque corsairs during the 17th-century, Saint-Jean-de-Luz became famous as the setting of an historic royal event when in 1660 a twenty-two year old Louis XIV married the daughter of Phillip IV of Spain, the infanta María Teresa, in the Église-Saint-Jean-Baptiste (while still under renovation). After the royal wedding, the main church door was walled up forever.
Don’t miss seeing this lovely Basque church with its 3-tiered wooden balconies, scale models of traditional sailing ships hanging from the ceiling and the most beautiful altarpiece in the entire Pays Basque. In summer there are often evening concerts offered by the Maurice Ravel Academy of Music (9:30 pm) in the church, and there are Basque choral CDs for sale at the information desk.
You can also visit the beautiful 17th-century shipowner’s mansion on a guided tour. It was built for a wealthy ship owning family, the Lohobiagues, during the “Golden Age” of Saint-Jean-de-Luz (1640-1660), and was used by the Sun King as his temporary residence in the days preceding the extravagant wedding. Sitting beside the Hotel de Ville, it is closed annualy, opening the beginning of Easter Week and will close again from November 5, 2018, until April 5, 2019. Opens daily at 11:00 am, but closed on Tuesdays during the season. Admission is 6,50€ for adults.
The principal shopping area is along the pedestrian, boutique-lined Rue Gambetta, which connects the fishing port to the beach. Unfortunately in and among the sophisticated shops, one will now find an abundance of tourist trinkets, and trying to get around in July and August can mean complete gridlock. Nonetheless, there are lovely handicrafts and delicious Basque gourmet treats to be found.
Look for caramels at “La Maison du Kanouga”, the house of caramels, Maison Pariès pastry shop at 9 Rue Gambetta. There are all sorts of wonderful gourmet products down the street at No. 32, Maison Thurin. White, red, and blue pottery and table linens can be found at Jean-Vier, No. 48, with a another beautiful store at the port on 1 Rue d l’Infante.
Stylish t-shirts and casual sportswear can be found at Boutique 64, 79 Rue Gambetta. Soft, cream colored Helena table linens and towels, robes, slippers are available at 8 Rue Louis-Fortuné Loquin, and a branch of Bayonne’s L’Atelier du Chocolate is at No. 13. And let’s not forget Chocolaterie Henriet, 10, boulevard Thiers, a 2-minute walk away.
And try the world famous macarons, made here since 1660, at the Maison Adam on the main square, Place Louis XIV, which for me, taste even better than at Ladurée in Paris. These macaron were served at Louis XIV and María Teresa’s wedding. The maison also sells a delicious gâteau basque and gourmet chocolats.
Don’t forget to visit the terrific, popular, covered farmers' market, particularly on Tuesday and Friday mornings all year long and on Saturdays in July and August when the purveyors of fine farm produce set up stands outside. Renovated in 2012, the market now has space for 43 stalls inside, including 8 for fishmongers, where you can buy fresh line-caught hake every morning. Go early, before 9:00 am, to be able to park in the public lot across from the train station, or try the underground parking garage on Boulevard Victor Hugo, at the theatre acoss from the Market. Be sure to pick up some fresh bread and Ossau-Iraty cheese at the market. Irouléguy wine is available across the street at the Nicolas wine shop for that lunchtime picnic in the park.
Nota bene: Although Saint-Jean-de-Luz has everything one could want in a Pays Basque coastal fishing village; pretty setting, interesting history, lovely beach with play areas for children, nice dining, upscale shopping, water sports, golf, spas, a lively market, painters at work on the leafy square, complete with bandstand, surrounded by outdoor cafes, little tourist train, cesta punta (jai alai) at the frontón, and on and on… it suffers from tremendous crowds in July and August. It’s the Laguna Beach of the French Basque coast. Rue Gambetta will be as crowded as the wait to ascend the Eiffel Tower during high season! Go in early June or better yet, off-season!