The Pyrenees are renowned for their spectacular sunsets, ample hiking opportunities, and unique landscapes – truly a vast, beautiful playground for lovers of the outdoors. But don’t sleep on the picturesque little towns nestled between the peaks, they’re full of cherished traditions, cultural delights and eccentric festivals.
With so much on offer, it’s hard to know where to start when planning a trip to this part of southern France. Luckily we’ve got the insight you need on the top things to do in the French Pyrenees.
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1. Stand beneath the highest waterfall in France
See one of Europe’s most powerful waterfalls up close. The Cirque du Gavarnie is home to multiple towering cascades, the highest reaching a drop of 422 meters. The Gavarnie is a Unesco heritage site and the waterfalls flow down from one of the Pyrenees’ last remaining permanent glaciers. Victor Hugo once described it as “the Colosseum of nature” and the tumultuous noise, and dizzyingly spectacular views, are sure to stay with you.
Detour: Visit during late July / early August to take in Le Festival de Gavarnie. Head down the valley with the sunset for open-air Shakespeare and other performances.
2. Take part in the Montee du Geant cycling festival
Join thousands for a different angle of the Tour de France, with the annual ceremonial ride up the Tourmalet accompanying the Geant. The Geant is a 3-meter tall statue of the first race rider to crest the pass, more than a century ago. Every summer the statue is relocated from its winter home at the foot of the Tourmalet to the top for four months. The flotilla keeping him company on the way often includes past Tour champions, including five-time winner Miguel Indurain. The spectacle isn’t just for pro cyclists though; all ability levels are welcome and some don 1910 clothes – and bikes!
It’s free to join, everyone gets a souvenir, and local cake, wine and cheese are typically available.
Planning tip: The event takes place on the first Saturday of June, starting in alternating towns. This year it starts from Pierrefitte Nestelas on 3rd June 2023, at 9 am.
Scale the heights of the Pyrenees without breaking a sweat on the little yellow train © Bart Dubelaar / Getty Images
3. Traverse sheer cliffs on the Yellow Train
If you’re looking for a relaxed way to explore the Pyrenees, take a trip on The Little Yellow Train (Le Petit Train Jaune). Nestled at the foot of the eastern Pyrenees, the journey sweeps along vertiginous bridges, past dramatic cliffs, through forests and gushing streams, while clinging to hillsides as it climbs 1200 vertical meters. The three-hour journey heads up to Latour-de-Carol, though you can get out at various points along the way.
Local tip: The journey costs €10 for a return and starts from Villefranche-de-Conflent; arrive half an hour early to get a good seat. It’s just over three miles from Vernet-les-Bains, a natural starting point for climbing the Canigou on foot.
4. Go canyoning in the moonlight
If you want some adrenalin, try canyoning in the moonlight. Canyoning is very popular in the Pyrenees in summer and you can navigate your way down a natural gorge via a fast-flowing mountain stream. At the site in Saint-Lary-Soulan, zip lines take you through the more technical parts, alongside natural water slides, some nifty footwork, and optional jumps. Tours are available by day as well, but it’s something special under the beauty of the stars.
Planning tip: Bring suitable clothes, towel, shoes and a picnic – other essential equipment is provided.
Watch life-size puppets take over the charming streets of Mirepoix during the marionette festival © Getty Images
5. Enter the strange world of life-size puppet theater
Puppetry has evolved into bizarre new shapes and worlds. The Mirepoix Festival of Marionettes brings together puppets and their creators from around the world, ranging from the strange and eerie to the graceful and hypnotic. Over four days at the start of August, the streets come to orchestrated life with dance, theater and puppet circuses for plenty of memorable moments, followed by cabaret as night falls. There are even workshops in case you’re inspired to turn your hand to creating your own puppet!
Detour: Mirepoix is just over an hour’s drive from Ax-Les-Thermes, which holds its Grands Chemins Festival hosting street performers around the same time. Both have easy access to hiking, as well as thermal baths.
6. Come face to face with multi-colored fish
The Pyrenees’ rugged eastern seaboard drops suddenly and precipitously into the calm Mediterranean, where you’ll find France’s first underwater marine reserve. Situated in the calm waters of Cerbères on the cusp of the Spanish-French border, the reserve covers 6.5km (4 miles) of coastline with five observation stations for snorkeling. Children and adults will love discovering multitudinous colorful fish and starfish.
Detour: There are nearby wine cellars where you can attempt the traditional art of drinking wine from a porro – think delicate glass watering can!
7. Experience deer-bellowing, forest bathing and a moonlit picnic
Across the border in the Spanish Pyrenees, the Parc Natural de l’Alt Pirineu is a chance to reconnect with nature. A particular highlight is summer stargazing with telescopes during a moonlit walk with a locally sourced picnic, where you can view galaxies and planets free of light pollution. Or reconnect with yourself and nature by forest bathing. Using the traditional art of “Shinrin-yoku”, spend time listening, watching and breathing to immerse yourself in the tranquility of the forest.
Detour: If you visit during the fall, there are dawn treks to observe deer from a distance and hear their bellowing mating calls.
The towering natural stone structures known as the Orgues d’Ille-Sur-Têt © Getty Images/500px Plus
8. Wander amid nature’s carvings, the Cheminées de Fees
See nature’s own intriguing carvings in the form of “Fairy Chimneys” or Hoodoos.
The Pyrenees’ best example of these is probably the Orgues d’Ille-sur-Têt. The Orgues, or organs, are named to reflect their resemblance to the pipes of church organs.
Reaching up to 15 meters in height, the chimneys are made of sand and clay and have been shaped by the weather over millennia. The maze of imposing yet fragile towers gives a different perspective on the vastness of the surrounding landscape.
9. Follow the route of the Cathars who sought refuge in the Pyrenees
Discover a new side to the Pyrenees and walk in the shoes of refugees past by following the Cathar Trail. Crossing the border from France to Spain via the GR 107, the route was taken by Cathars in the 13th century as they fled the Inquisition. Starting from Foix, the entire route takes around two weeks for the average walker. Sights include chateaus, nature reserves, and a good chance of seeing small and stocky Merens horses in the Arieges.
Planning tip: Setting out from June onwards will reduce the risk of bad weather, though check for unseasonal thunderstorms. En route, take the chance to refresh your feet in thermal baths in the spa town of Ax-les-Thermes.
10. See a town awash with chilies!
The Pimient Festival in Espelette, in the Basque region of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques, is a sight not to be missed. The festival sees the whole town decorated with scarlet chili peppers. The houses are all wattle and daub – whitewashed plaster with very dark beams. Over the summer, the giant peppers are hung out to dry in chains draped down the houses, so the town becomes a flood of red and white. The peppers are sold during the Festival on the last weekend of October.
Detour: The rolling fog gives the hills in this part of the country a special, velvety quality of light. The views from La Rhune (open from June to November) are incredible, although plan ahead as the area can be prone to rain.