Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in the French Pyrenees
With its heavenly natural setting and sacred pilgrimage sites, the Pyrenees region is a spiritually inspiring place. Prime attractions are the Cirque de Gavarnie, nature's cathedral, constructed of granite rock walls rising 3,000 meters, and the sanctuaries in Lourdes, the biggest Catholic pilgrimage shrine in France. The region also has an abundance of Romanesque churches that were stops along the medieval pilgrims' trail to Santiago de la Compostela in Spain. After welcoming travelers for centuries, the Pyrenees region is still a perfect destination for soul-searching or adventure.
The Pyrenees offers a gorgeous landscape of high mountains, green valleys, dramatic gorges, pristine lakes, and rushing waterfalls. The important towns lie along the rivers, creating a peaceful ambience. The Hautes-Pyrénées encompasses the Parc National des Pyrénées (National Park of the Pyrenees Mountains) that borders Spain. This high-altitude terrain has wonderful hiking trails through forests and gorges, past streams and waterfalls, and during winter, it's a popular ski area. The Pyrénées-Bernaises is the historic Béarn region, a traditional province where vine-covered rolling hills are dotted with storybook villages and ancient castles. Every corner of the Pyrenees is worth exploring, from the high-mountain peaks to the tiny picturesque towns.
Top Sites of the Hautes-Pyrénées (Pyrenees Mountains)
1 Cirque de Gavarnie
Experience the joy of visiting a truly spectacular sight. The Cirque de Gavarnie is nature's version of a cathedral and offers a soul-inspiring encounter with nature. The Cirque is a circular ring of mountainous granite walls, which seem to enclose the valley as if it were the gigantic nave of a church. The sheer rock walls of the Cirque were formed by the erosion of glaciers millions of years ago. The highest summits are the Pics du Marboré au Taillon, which rise to over 3,000 meters. Adding to the beauty of the scene are a pristine mountain stream that rushes down the valley, crossed by small footbridges, and numerous waterfalls. The Grande Cascade, which has its source in Spanish territory, is the highest waterfall in Europe, with a drop of 422 meters.
There is a pleasant walking path that begins in Gavarnie village, runs past the Hôtel du Cirque, and follows the stream to the head of the valley. The trail has almost no incline, offering a gentle stroll rather than a hike. Enjoy the scenery of small alpine chalets and grazing goats, listen to the gurgling stream and the chirping birds, and admire the grandeur of the Cirque's soaring snow-dusted peaks. The circular walk takes about one hour. For those seeking a more challenging trail, head to the Brèche de Roland (2,804 meters) that is better suited for advanced hikers. The Cirque de Gavarnie is part of the Parc National des Pyrénées (National Park of the Pyrenees Mountains). Encompassing 45,707 hectares of protected land, it is one of France's ten national parks.
For the faithful, Lourdes is a glorious sight. Today, it is one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage destinations in the world. Yet Lourdes was just a small town in the woods until 1858 when a poor shepherd girl named Bernadette received visions of the Virgin Mary. Bernadette was told to bath in the local waters. Then other townspeople joined in and noticed the waters' healing effects. For more than a century, pilgrims have come to Lourdes to see the Grotto where Saint Bernadette received her visions and to bathe in these reputedly healing waters. The Catholic Church documents the official miracles after a thorough process of investigation, and so far, 67 miracles have been validated.
Every year around six million visitors come to Lourdes. Some visit in hopes of a miracle cure. Others come to pray or to volunteer to help the sick and disabled pilgrims. The Grotto where Bernadette received her visions is the most holy site, and mass is held here. Another place of worship is the 19th-century Basilique du Rosaire, an over-the-top Byzantine church with an interior space of 2,000 square meters. Be sure to see the Marian chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary and decorated with exquisite Venetian-style mosaics. The sacred waters of Lourdes flow freely from spigots outside the Basilica. During the summer, candlelit processions take place at 9pm, and at 11pm, there is a mass in the Grotto. An underground sanctuary accommodates 20,000 for occasions such as a visit from the Pope.
3 Saint-Bertrand de Comminges
An inviting place to spend a leisurely afternoon, Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges sits on a hill above the Garonne River. This historic village was the site of an ancient Roman town, Lugdunum Convenarum, which at one time had a population of 60,000 inhabitants. Excavations have brought to light the forum, a temple, baths, a theater, an amphitheater, and many other buildings. The Galerie du Trophée, housed in an annex of the Musée du Comminges, displays statues of the first and second century AD. The 13th-century Romanesque church, the Eglise Notre-Dame, was an important stop on the medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de la Compostela in Spain. Take time to admire the little Romanesque cloister, which has a famous pillar with figures of the four Evangelists. The village is known for its annual music festival, the Festival du Comminges, held during several weeks of the summer. The festival focuses on sacred and Baroque music but also includes contemporary compositions. The church's renovated organ is used for the organ concerts.
Surrounded by the peaks of the Hautes-Pyrénées, this charming mountain village became an elegant spa town during the 19th century. The grand Belle Epoque hotels are testimony to the town's fashionable heritage. In winter, Cauterets is a busy holiday destination since it lies near ski resorts such as the Lys Plateau. In summer, the town is a perfect base for hiking and nature walks. The spa is open February through November; the thermal springs are said to improve many health conditions. Cauterets is also a good base for a trip to the Pont d'Espagne waterfall about seven kilometers away in the Parc National des Pyrénées and the Lac de Gaube, about ten kilometers away. This area is wonderful for mountain hikes and climbs.
5 Grotte du Mas d'Azil: A Prehistoric Cave and Prehistory Museum
A worthwhile detour from Tarascon-sur-Ariège ( 47 kilometers away) is the Mas d'Azil Cave. This fascinating place offers a peek into the prehistoric world. During the last Ice Age, the cave provided shelter for animals including bears, mammoths, and woolly rhinoceros. The cave was inhabited by prehistoric man during the Aurignacian, Magdalenian, and Azilian periods, as evidenced by the weapons, tools, and artwork found in the cave. The Mas d'Azil Cave even provided refuge for early Christians during the first centuries, for the Cathars during the Albigensian Crusade and the Protestants during the Siege of 1625.
The Mas d'Azil Cave is an exceptional nature site found in the limestone mountains at an altitude of 310 meters. The Ariège River flows through the immense 50-kilometer-wide cave, and the entrance to the cave is a vast 100-meter-wide terrace. A road runs through the cave, winding around the impressive 410-meter-long structure. (It's possible to drive right through the cave.) Visitors can discover the cave on a guided tour, which features geology and paleontology presentations in multiple galleries. Prehistoric drawings have been found in the cave, but these areas are off limits to ensure their preservation. A ticket to the Mas d'Azil Cave includes entry to the Musée de la Préhistoire (Prehistory Museum) where visitors can view reproductions of the prehistoric cave paintings and engravings. The museum also has an extensive collection of prehistoric artifacts found in the Mas d'Azil Cave, such as weapons, tools, and engraved art objects. Be sure to see the famous Faon aux oiseaux (Fawn with birds) throwing stick, considered to be a masterpiece of Paleolithic art. The Prehistoric Museum lies in the village of Le Mas-d'Azil, which is two kilometers away from the Grotte du Mas-d'Azil site.
6 Font Romeu
Praised for its sunny weather, Font Romeu is a popular summer and wintertime holiday destination. In summer, it's a great place for nature walks and hikes through the extensive forests. In winter, the skiing area caters to many different skiers with its wide range of terrain. In the Ermitage de Font-Romeu, there is a famous statue of the Virgin Mary that has been said to bring miracles. There are annual pilgrimages to venerate this statue. Nearby is a stunning Calvary on a site that offers exceptional views of the surrounding mountains. Another excellent viewpoint six kilometers from Font-Romeu is at Belvédère 2000, which offers breathtaking panoramas on clear days.
Rejuvenate the body and spirit with a visit to this spa in the Adour Valley about 20 kilometers from Lourdes. In the old town is the 15th-century Tour des Jacobins, the remaining part of the cloister of Saint-Jean and the 15th- to 16th-century Eglise Saint-Vincent. The town's thermal springs at Place des Thermes are surrounded by expansive gardens. Right next to the spa, the Musée des Beaux-Arts Salies features noteworthy pieces by the "Petits Maîtres Barbizonniers" (Barbizon Painters) who specialized in country landscape scenes. About two kilometers from Bagnères-de-Bigorre is the Grotte de Médous, discovered in 1948, with stunning stalactites and stalagmites.
Saint Savin is a sleepy village nestled in the Pyrenees foothills, surrounded by hillside pastures where sheep graze. About 15 kilometers from Lourdes, this tiny town consists of a main square with a fountain; a 12th-century abbey church; a few streets of old houses; and a post office, which is usually closed.
The main reason to visit is to dine at Le Viscos or to stay overnight here on the way up to the Pyrenees Mountains. Le Viscos is a charming small hotel that has been run by the same family for generations. The restaurant at Le Viscos is renowned by French tourists and local clients who are willing to drive out of their way just for a meal here. The chef Jean-Pierre Saint-Savin is one of the "Maitres Cuisiniers de France" (Master Chefs of France). He prepares traditional French cuisine of the terroir based on seasonal ingredients. In the spring and summer and early fall, guests may sit out on the restaurant terrace that overlooks the Pyrenees Mountains.
9 Luz Saint-Sauveur
A fashionable spa town in the 19th century, Luz Saint Sauveur lies about 30 kilometers from Lourdes on the Gave de Pau. At an altitude of 685 meters, the town is just past the Pont Napoléon (a breathtaking bridge that spans a deep ravine) where the Pyrenees begin to ascend into high mountain terrain on the route up to Gavarnie. The town has an interesting church, Eglise St-André, built by the Hospitaliers de Saint-Jean de Jérusalem (Knights of Malta). This 12th-century to 14th-century fortified church features an ornate Romanesque doorway. The town also has a small museum of religious art at the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-la-Pitié. The collection includes noteworthy paintings such as the 18th-century Annunciation and Assumption piece from the Duchess of Angoulème.
A rejuvenating place to visit, this spa town lies at the junction of two rivers, under the highest Pyrenean peaks. This remote town sits high in the Pyrenees Mountains about 90 kilometers from Bagnères-de-Bigorre and less than 20 kilometers from the border with Spain. The springs of Bagnères-de-Luchon were frequented in Roman times, and three ancient Roman baths have been excavated. The 17th-century spa was made popular by Cardinal Richelieu. Near the town is the noteworthy 11th-century Romanesque church, the Eglise Saint-Aventin, with two impressive towers and intricate carved sculpting around the doorway. Bagnères-de-Luchon is also a good base for an excursion to the Vallée du Lys as well as the Superbagnères ski resort 19 kilometers away.
For an escape into nature, travel deep in the Pyrenees Mountains to Tarascon-sur-Ariège. This quaint little town lies on the Ariège River in the Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Ariégeoises (Regional National Park of the Ariegeoise Pyrenees Mountains), which is a 95-kilometer drive from El Serrat in Andorra. Tarascon-sur-Ariège was built around the Eglise Saint-Michel; this parish church still has the original tower and Gothic doorway from the 14th century.
12 Grotte de Niaux: Prehistoric Caves
Take a 15-minute drive (along four kilometers of country roads) from Tarascon-sur-Ariège to see the incredible Grotte de Niaux. A top tourist attraction of the area, the Grotte de Niaux is a fascinating cave with rock paintings from the Magdalenian period (14,000-10,000 BC). The cave is open to the public for guided visits; advanced reservations are required. Wear warm clothes and sturdy shoes. The area around Tarascon-sur-Ariège also has other prehistoric caves including the Grotte de Bédeilhac, the Grotte de Lombrives, and the Grotte de la Vache.
Perched on a formidable crag, an imposing castle dominates this ancient town about 17 kilometers from Tarascon-sur-Ariège at the edge of the Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Ariégeoises. The town was the capital of the historic County of Foix. There are three remaining towers of the castle; the free-standing round tower now houses the Musée de l'Ariège. The 12th-15th century former church, the Eglise Saint-Volusien, is noteworthy for its lovely choir stalls. Near the church are many handsome old half-timbered houses. The area surrounding Foix has many Romanesque churches of the 11th and 12th centuries as well as caves with prehistoric rock drawings, notably the Grotte de Niaux and the Grotte du Portel.
Standing alone on a sheer crag between Bélesta and Lavelanet are the impressive ruins of Montségur, an infamous site during the Albigensian wars. There are some who believe that Montségur is the fabled Montsalvat where the Holy Grail, the vessel containing Christ's blood, is hidden. Montségur lies near the Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Ariégeoises, about 25 kilometers from Tarascon-sur-Ariège.
15 Les Eaux Bonnes
In a breathtaking setting, the elegant spa town of Les Eaux Bonnes offers refreshing alpine air, relaxing thermal baths, and lovely English gardens. The town lies in the Gourzy Forest of the Upper Ossau Valley encircled by the Pyrenees Mountains. During summer, shepherds take their flocks out to the valley's green pastures and meadows, while hikers and mountain bikers enjoy the scenery. During winter, skiers flock to the snow-covered mountain slopes. Gourette ski resort, the oldest ski area of the Pyrenees lies eight kilometers away from Les Eaux Bonnes.
16 Skiing at La Mongie
The Grand Tourmalet nature reserve is one of the leading winter sports resorts of the Pyrenees Mountains, with several different ski areas, including La Mongie. This resort is well equipped with many lifts and cableways. Northwest of La Mongie is the Pic du Midi de Bigorre at 2,865 meters, which commands magnificent views of the landscape. La Mongie ski resort lies 25 kilometers from Bagnères-de-Bigorre.
Top Sites of the Pyrénées-Béarnaises (Historic Béarn Region)
This pleasant small town is the most important city in the Béarn Region and has a renowned university. Pau was originally a small village based around the hunting lodge of the Counts of Béarn, however eventually, it developed into a larger town and became the capital of Béarn in 1464. The town is most famous for being the birthplace of Henry IV, King of France. He converted Pau's austere 14th-century fortified castle into a magnificent Renaissance palace in the 16th century.
Take a tour of the château (2 Rue du Château) to see its opulent decor, such as the fine tapestries and the apartments of Jeanne d'Albret and Henry IV. The château contains the Musée National du Château with around 12,000 artworks, including interior decor, tapestries, and paintings that belonged to Henry IV. The museum has an impressive assortment of 16th-century and 17th-century tapestries and an extensive painting collection with works from the 16th to 20th centuries. Highlights include masterpieces by Jacob Bunel and Ingres, a precious Gobelin tapestry, and sculptures of Henri IV by Pierre de Franqueville and Bosio. The château is set in a pleasant park with beautiful gardens. Another must-see sight is the palm-tree lined Boulevard des Pyrénées, which was created by Napoléon. The boulevard is almost two kilometers long and affords sensational views of the Pyrenees Mountains.
18 Oloron Sainte-Marie
This elegant town lies 33 kilometers from Pau at the junction of the Gave d'Aspe and the Gave d'Ossau rivers, with many historic houses along the river banks. Oloron Sainte-Marie was the capital of the historic Haut Béarn region. The town has an important religious heritage seen in its glorious UNESCO-listed Cathedrale Sainte-Marie, which was a stop on the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de la Compostela. Built from the 11th to 14th centuries, this spectacular cathedral is richly decorated both on the exterior and in the interior. The ornately sculptured Romanesque doorway depicts the taking of Jerusalem by the Count of Béarn. Visitors are stunned by the jewel-box of a sanctuary with its lavishly painted columns and frescoes featuring gilded details.
The Foire du 1ere Mai (traditional fair of May 1st) is an important annual event that brings many regional farmers, food producers, and flower vendors to Oloron Sainte-Marie. Visitors can taste locally made cheese and regional gastronomic specialties. On the hill between the Gave d'Aspe and the Gave d'Ossau is the 12th-century Eglise Sainte-Croix (c. 1080), with a Moorish-style dome of the 13th century.
An ancient fortified village, Sauveterre-de-Béarn lies about 65 kilometers away from Pau along the Gave d'Oloron, a wide slow-flowing river lined by ancient plane trees. The Gave d'Oloron river is popular for salmon fishing and rafting. The town's history dates back to the 11th century, and in the 12th century, the Eglise Saint-André was constructed. This Romanesque-Gothic church became a stop on the medieval pilgrimage trail to Santiago de la Compostela in Spain.
Less than ten kilometers away from Sauveterre-de-Béarn is the Chateau de Laàs, which is open to the public (by guided visit). This splendid 17th-century chateau is surrounded by 12 hectares of parkland. The chateau's lavish rooms are decorated with precious Aubusson tapestries and exceptional paintings by Breughel, Fragonard, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, and Rubens.
On the Nive River, about 26 kilometers from Sauveterre-de-Béarn, the tranquil little town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port was a stop on the medieval pilgrims' road to Santiago de Compostela. The old upper town, which has many 16th and 17th century houses, is still surrounded by 15th-century walls. To enter the old town, visitors must pass through a gate under the tower of the Eglise Notre-Dame-du-Pont. The town's Citadel was rebuilt by Vauban in 1688 and offers panoramic views. The nearby Oxocelhaya cave and Isturitz cave have prehistoric rock drawings as well as fine stalactites. Also nearby is the Forêt d'Iraty, one of most beautiful forests in the area.
Offering panoramic views of the Pyrenees Mountains in the distance, Moumour is a quaint, historic village on the Gave d'Oloron river. Mostly undiscovered by tourists, this quiet town offers a sense of serenity. The main attraction is the Château de Lamothe, which was the summer residence of the évêques d'Oloron (bishops of Oloron) from the 13th century through the 18th century, for almost 600 years. This historic property has been completely renovated, while retaining the character of the original building. The Château de Lamothe is now a luxurious small hotel and offers guests access to the expansive garden with swimming pool. There are also gourmet dining options. Moumour is six kilometers from Oloron Sainte-Marie and well worth the detour.
This small village in the Jurançon region is most famous for its church, the Eglise Saint-Girons. This 16th-century church is classified as a historic monument because of its unique construction. It has a wooden roof structure made entirely of oak. The framework is so enormous that it required wood from 1,000 trees. Monein is an easy drive from Oloron Sainte-Marie, about 20 kilometers away.
Orthez is a small town on the Gave de Pau river (about 45 kilometers from Pau) and was the capital of the County of Béarn from 1194 to 1460. The town later became a Protestant stronghold with a Calvinist university. The most remarkable sights are the Pont Vieux with its imposing 13th-century tower and the 13th-century to 14th-century Tour Moncade (this tower is a relic of the old Chateau of the Counts of Béarn). Also take time to admire Orthez' historic houses: the 16th-century Maison de Jeanne d'Albret, the 14th-century Hôtel de la Lune (once the guest-house of the Counts of Foix), and the many handsome burghers' houses. The medieval Eglise Saint-Pierre, which was incorporated in the town's defenses, was restored after the wars of religion.
24 Jurançon Countryside and Montagnes Béarnaises
The historic Béarn region is an idyllic countryside of gently rolling hills and storybook towns. An especially picturesque area of Béarn is the Jurançon, the sun-dappled foothills that are blessed with a mild climate year-round. Springtime is pleasant and autumn brings warm days of Indian summer. There are many gorgeous hiking trails through the verdant vine-covered hills in this area.
By continuing further south and higher up into the Montagnes Béarnaises (Béarn Mountains), the scenery becomes more alpine and remote. Along the single-lane country roads, travelers will notice a patchwork of small farms and animals grazing on the hillside pastures. It is possible to discover family-owned farms that produce goat cheese and other artisanal products. This pristine alpine area has many peaceful nature paths. Enjoy a walk through beautiful wooded areas past rushing waterfalls.