Arcachon is a popular bathing location on the Atlantic coast 55 kilometres (34 mi) southwest of Bordeaux in the Landes forest. It has a fine beach and a mild climate said to be favourable for invalids suffering from pulmonary complaints.
Arcachon is known for the "Arcachonnaise", the local name for an Arcachon villa, which is the architectural style of many of the older houses built there. It is a type of Victorian architecture, and was criticized for generations, but is now considered to be charming and deeply human.
The town of Arcachon is only 150 years old. Not long before 2 May 1857, when Emperor Napoleon III signed its official "birth certificate", it was just a forest of pine trees, oaks and strawberry trees (arbutus), with no road links, and home - mostly when the weather was expected to be warm, and more in wood huts than in real houses - to fewer than 400 people, mostly fishermen and peasants.
In earlier years, when some hygienists began to recommend sea bathing, three sea establishments were laid out by some entrepreneurs (the Pereire brothers) especially for the Bordeaux bourgeoisie and other wealthy people. This was the beginning of a new lifestyle, and some of the locals got the opportunity to claim their independence from La Teste-de-Buch, which owned their properties, in order to found a "free" new town, Arcachon.
The town was initially built around four districts, each corresponding to a season of the year: the Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter cities. The Winter city was especially prized by wealthy people coming from all Europe to enjoy Arcachon's mild climate during winter. It however fell out of fashion after World War I.
Starting in the 1970, as elsewhere in France, Arcachon and its surroundings have undergone a massive wave of urban development, with high-rises and urban sprawl somewhat spoiling the original architecture and natural landscape, though fortunately not to the same extent as on the Mediterranean coast.
To this day, Arcachon remains a somewhat wealthy resort, living mostly off tourism and being home to a sizeable retiree community. Several French celebrities and famous people have villas in the neighboring town of Cap-Ferret, though they tend to remain hidden and secluded from public view, in stark contrast to the glamourous Mediterranean resorts of the French Riviera.
Arcachon is an important fishing port and is quite proud of its maritime history. Arcachon is also famous for its oysters which are grown in special oyster farms visible all around the Bay.
Arcachon lies on the southern bank of Arcachon Bay, a large triangle-shaped bay of the Atlantic Ocean, linked to the sea on its south-west corner by a narrow channel which has a reputation of being quite challenging to navigate. The landscape of the Bay is strongly dependent on tides and may change dramatically during the course of a single day.
The Bay is home to a rich and diverse wildlife, especially birds and waterfowl, which can be observed year round. Many parts of the Bay are protected by natural preservation reserves and restricted-access areas.
At its southern entrance from the Atlantic ocean, Arcachon Bay is crowned by Europe's largest sand dune, the Dune du Pilat (also spelled Pyla), nearly 3 kilometres long, 500 metres wide, reaching 107 metres in height, and moving inland at rate of 5 metres a year.
The Bay is surrounded by the Landes forest and its vast expanses of maritime pine trees.
The weather is generally mild and comfortable with abundant sun during the entire year. Rain is frequent year round; annual precipitation varies around 900mm. Summers tend to be moderately hot and dry, with a temperature rarely exceeding 30°C. Winters are mild and somewhat rainy, with occasional strong winds. Snowfall is almost nonexistent.
The tourist season reaches its peak from June to late August, during which the population swells considerably. Many people from Bordeaux own vacation houses here and the place is very popular with locals, to the point that on sunny days it feels as if the entire population of Bordeaux has left the city and spilled into Arcachon Bay. Late May and September are lovely times to visit Arcachon, as the weather is quite pleasant and most locals have returned to work or school.
Coming from Bordeaux, the best way to enter Arcachon is to drive down the A63 highway until exit 22 and then follow the A660 highway. The A660 highway is the main road artery serving southern Arcachon Bay and thus is extremely congested during peak hours and during the entire summer season.
Long distance intercity bus service is provided by major European bus companies such as Ouibus or Flixbus, at least during summer.
A local public transportation system between Arcachon and the surrounding areas is operated by TransGironde.
There are regular train connections from Bordeaux (typically one train per hour in each direction) operated by SNCF as part of the regional TER Nouvelle-Aquitaine network. In some circumstances, regional trains may be replaced and/or supplemented by intercity buses, operated by the same company, which run along the same route and usually stop at the same railway stations. The price is the same, however some restrictions may apply (e.g. carrying bicycles is often impossible in buses).
In summer, Arcachon is also served by TGV high-speed trains coming from Paris Montparnasse station.
Boat shuttles are operated year round between Arcachon and the neighboring town of Cap-Ferret. Tickets can be bought online in advance and until 15 minutes before departure. Boarding takes place at the 2 Jetée Thiers pier.
Lovely surroundings of Arcachon becomes horrendous in summer if you try to drive anywhere — it takes nearly 3 hours to get from Arcachon to Andernos Les Bains in the early evenings. In fact, if you want to go anywhere in the area in summer, you'd better start early in the morning before 8:00. This is not a place for those preferring laziness in the mornings while on vacations.
The town is easy to explore on foot and there are many pedestrian-only avenues in the old town and along the waterfront.
Bicycles are a good alternative for moving around the Bay and beyond.
There is also a small local bus network operating under the name Baïa.
- 1 Dune du Pilat (Bus From Arcachon, line 1). Europe's tallest sand dune. More than one million tourists each year. You can climb the side or the stairs to its 107m-high peak. The long side faces the Atlantic, and there is a small cafe on the beach. Be careful if you are barefoot or in sandals, the sand gets pretty hot in the sun.
- 2 L'Île aux Oiseaux (Bird Island). One of the landmarks of Arcachon Bay. Guided tours are possible by boat.
- 3 Ville d'Été (The Summer city). This is the heart of Arcachon, with its waterfront boulevards lined with palm trees and its busy streets filled with boutiques, cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops. Of note is the recently renovated covered marketplace selling food from local producers.
- 4 Ville d'Hiver (The Winter city). One of the historical districts of the town, atop a small hill, and famous for its Arcachonnaise wealthy villas. The area offers scenic views over the entire bay.
- 5 Notre-Dame-des-Passes. A 19th-century Catholic church built in a neo-byzantine architectural style and dedicated to local sailors
- 6 Cap-Ferret lighthouse.
- Casino d'Arcachon, 163, boulevard de la Plage.
- 1 Plage Thiers. This is the main beach, centrally located right next to the town centre. Usually very busy and overcrowded.
- 2 Plage du Moulleau.
Nature and hiking
- 4 Réserve ornithologique du Teich, ☏ . A large bird sanctuary with many observation cabins for birdwatchers and photographers.
- 5 Domaine de Certes. A 400 hectare public natural reserve on the eastern edge of Arcachon Bay with many hiking trails and viewpoints.
- 6 Tennis Club Arcachon, 7, avenue du Parc.
- 7 Golf d'Arcachon, 35, boulevard d'Arcachon, Pyla-sur-Mer, ☏ .
- 8 Hippodrome de la Teste (Horse racetrack), Le Bequet, La-Teste-de-Buch.
Arcachon is well served by all French telecommunication operators and there is usually good mobile coverage (GSM, 3G and 4G) as long as you stay in the urbanized areas. Obviously coverage may be quite spotty in the surrounding forests or at sea.
As everywhere in France, public phone booths have been completely removed several years ago.
Many restaurants, hotels and campings usually provide WiFi access.
- Main Post office, 1, place Franklin Roosevelt (bus route 1).
Arcachon is rather safe and there are no major crime-related issues, although usual common sense applies.
When swimming in the Atlantic ocean (though not in the Bay itself), great care must be taken regarding the Baïne, a unique local natural phenomenon occurring during rising tide and which has claimed many lives over the years. Even experienced swimmers may be taken by surprise. Always be mindful of the information and warnings given by the local lifeguards.