Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie put the “ritz” into Biarritz when they built a palace on the headland in 1854. Since then, the town has drawn idle loafers and surfers in equal measure to enjoy the architectural hallmarks of its Belle Époque golden age and the briny surges of its wild coastline.

When the whole coast goes into grandes vacances mode in August, Biarritz's Grande Plage and Plage Miramar are their beaches of choice. Join the French families with their shrimping nets and lap dogs at the candy-striped beach huts.

Dominating the northern end of the Grande Plage is the fabulous art deco Hôtel du Palais, built for Empress Eugénie and now a luxury hotel. Opposite are the Église Alexandre Newsky and the Chapelle Impériale, both originally built for the Russian aristocracy before the Soviet revolution.

Set on the Pointe Saint-Martin, which separates the beaches of the Landes from the shores of the Basque country, is the Phare de Biarritz, the town's 1834 lighthouse. Climb the 248 twisting steps inside to enjoy sweeping views of the coast (10am-12pm & 3pm-7pm Jul & Aug, 2pm-6pm Sat & Sun Sep-Jun; £2).

Constructed in 1928, Casino Municipal is southwest France's largest casino, with over 200 gaming machines. There are also three on-site restaurants, a cinema and disco (+33 559 227777; 1 Av Édouard VII; 10am-3am).

The nearby towns of Ciboure and Saint-Jean-de-Luz sit around a sheltered bay and feature pretty, Basque-style half-timbered houses, with low roofs and stone lintels, painted in eye-catching red, white and green (ATCRB buses run regular services; +33 559 260699; £2.50; 30 minutes).

Eat and drink
Take a seat on the terrace at Café Bleu to dine on Poilâne bread sandwiches stuffed with fresh vegetables while watching surfers battle the rollers (+33 559 223453; Grande Plage; lunch and dinner Jul-Aug, 9am-5pm Sep-Jun; mains £6-£7).

For fish plucked straight from the bay, head to the seafood restaurants at Port des Pêcheurs. You can sit at the water's edge on the terrace at Le Corsaire, and dine on great-value Basque dishes such as grilled cod with chorizo (+33 559 246372; Port des Pêcheurs; lunch and dinner Tue-Sat; mains £10-£20).

Wander around the market on Rue des Halles between peppers and hams, then dine on the same at Bistrot des Halles. The daily menu is chalked up on the blackboard (+33 559 242122; 1 Rue du Centre; lunch and dinner; mains £12-£14).

Le Clos Basque, with its tiles and exposed stonework, could have strayed into France from Spain. The cuisine, however, is emphatically Basque: try stuffed aubergine with saffron. Book ahead to secure a terrace table (+33 559 242496; 12 Rue Louis Barthou; lunch Tue-Sun, dinner Tue-Sat; mains £12-£14).

The cut-glass class of Hôtel du Palais' La Rotonde restaurant makes commoners feel like royalty. Tackle the coquilles St Jacques, venison and a grand cru Bordeaux, and you'll barely notice the euro notes slipping out of your wallet (+33 559 416400; 1 Av de L'Impératrice; mains £22-£34).

La Maison du Lierre is a stylish budget option, with its shuttered exterior hiding high-ceilinged rooms with polished wooden floors. Most rooms have garden views and are decorated with linens and curtains featuring botanical prints. Breakfast is an additional £7 (+33 559 240600;; 3 Av du Jardin Public; from £50).

Hôtel St Julien has great bone structure: spacious, high-ceilinged rooms with large French windows and original parquet flooring. The third-floor rooms are best, with views of both mountains and sea (+33 559 242039; 20 Av Carnot; from £55).

For that comfortable, house-guest feel, Maison Garnier has seven boutique rooms, some with wrought-iron balconies. Dating from 1876, the villa is in the art deco style and has original features, such as the stained glass doors in the dining room (+33 559 016070; 29 Rue Gambetta; from £84).

Villa Le Goëland is simply unique. A mini-château perched on Pointe Atalaye, this family owned house is lavishly furnished with antiques, king-sized beds and family mementoes. All four rooms have views of the town, the sea and across to Spain. Booking is essential (+33 559 242576; 12 Plateau de l'Atalaye; from £110).

Hôtel du Palais dominates Biarritz. Glide through the gardens into a lobby of imperial presumption. Then make like holidaying aristocrats in the sumptuous rooms and award-winning restaurants (+33 559 416400; 1 Av de L'Impératrice; from £265).

How to go
Ryanair, EasyJet and Air France run services to Biarritz from UK airports. The Biarritz-Anglet-Bayonne airport is just over a mile southeast of Biarritz centre. STAB bus No.6 links it with the city, while a taxi costs £12-£16.

Find your way
Car hire is available at the airport through Avis, Europcar and Hertz (£25 per day). STAB buses link Bayonne, Biarritz and Anglet - a single ticket costs £1, while a carnet of five costs £8.


The article 'Mini guide to Biarritz, France' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.