Nuzzled away deep in the south of France, Sète is a salt-of-the-earth little fishing town dedicated to ‘la joie de vivre’ (the joy of living).
If you like to travel slow, eat copious amounts of seafood and skip the crowds, a trip to Sète (from Barcelona or pretty much anywhere in France) really should be on your itinerary.
Living anywhere in Europe is to live everywhere in Europe.
Nothing excites me more than the thought that I could get up in the morning, stroll to the local train station and be in a different country in time for brunch.
And my day-trip to Sète in southern France, less than three hours away from Barcelona on the high-speed RENFE SNCF train, confirmed to me that life in Europe really is as good as it gets.
With its saltwater lagoon (the Étang du Thau) and countless canals, Sète is often referred to as the ‘Little Venice of Languedoc’.
But it’s less pretentious than anywhere I’ve ever been in Italy and, unlike Venice proper, there simply were no crowds to contend with.
In fact, Sète was one of those places I’d never even heard of. It was never even on my radar, let alone my bucket list.
Maybe that’s because Sète isn’t really a tourist town. The French go there for little weekend escapes of course, but other than that it seems to exist purely for the pleasure of its residents.
They’re the sort of residents that gaze curiously at outsiders not with malice or contempt, but with curiosity. “How? No, why are these people here?” They don’t quite seem to realise how lucky they are.
“Who needs the pomp of St. Tropez when you could be here instead!”
Sète doesn’t have major sights and landmarks to explore, doesn’t have “thrilling things to see and do”. But that’s kind of the point.
How wonderful it is to travel somewhere without the burden of having a list of “must-sees attractions” to tick off.
No, Sète is the sort to place you go to to do as little as possible, to simply schmooze and loiter, to eat and drink well and often.
You go to Sète to pursue the ‘joie de vivre’, the joy of living.
With that said, you don’t really need to read on. But if you would appreciate a little more advice, here are my recommendations on the best things to do, see and indeed eat in this little coastal jewel in southern France.
I thought about drinking water yesterday. But, no, only aperitif here in Sète!
~ Our driver in Sète
Things to Do, See & Eat in Sète
1. Amble Around La Pointe Courte (The Old Fishermen’s Quarter)
Sète’s ‘Pointe Courte’ (Short Point) is a ramshackle fishermen’s quarter perched on the banks of the Thau lagoon.
But unlike so many fishing districts in Europe, La Pointe Courte hasn’t been gentrified. It remains little more than a jumble of wooden huts and a small grid of colourful houses – a few jaunty looking bars thrown in for good measure.
The street names hint at how the locals like to spend their name: Traverse des Pêcheurs (Fisherman’s Way), Rue de la Pétanque, Traverse des Rameurs (Rower’s Way), Traverse des Jouteurs (Jouster’s Way).
You have arrived.
2. Eat Sète Famous Oysters and Linger at Les Halles De Sète Market
When you think of French oysters, you probably think of Normandy. But many gourmands argue that the naturally high salt levels of Sète’s lagoon produces the finest oysters in France. I’d probably have to agree.
You’ll find oysters on the menu of most, if not all, of the local menus, but at the Les Halles De Sète (market) you can order them by the dozen and eat them straight off the ice – with a few giant prawns and a frosty bottle of chardonnay thrown in for good measure.
That’s brunch sorted!
3. Explore Sète’s Famous Canals
Sète’s network of canals is its raison-d’être, its ‘Eiffel Tower’, if you will, so much of your time should be squandered here.
Begin your tour with a stroll along the Canal Royal, which is the main canal that connects the sea to the Thau lagoon.
The Pont-de-la-Civette (Civette Bridge) leads to the Quai de la Résistance, Quai Général Durand or Quai Maximin Liccardi, where you’ll find the the main stretch of canal-side bars and restaurants, all of which are worth making a pitstop.
It’s also worth taking one of the fun boat tours to see and learn about the waterways and its historic importance.
If you have time, there are even some tours that visit the Thau Lagoon’s famous oyster and mussel beds.
4. Climb the Môle Saint-Louis Lighthouse
Everything about life in this relatively sleepy little town revolves around the sea, from the vibrant murals of sharks and sailors that adorn the walls to the octopus statues and thriving oyster industry.
To get a good eyeful of the lot, I suggest climbing the charming lighthouse. From here you can watch the trawlers trundling in and out of the bay, pursued by swarms of kamikaze seagulls, and look out across the baked terracotta rooftops of the town.
5. Hit Sète’s Blissful Beaches
Within walking distance from the town centre (or a quite jaunt on the No. 9 bus), Sète’s 10 blue flag beaches that cover a 12-kilometre stretch of golden sands.
Lazaret and Corniche are the closest beaches to the city centre, while Villeroy beach has is known for its beach bars and restaurants.
The Fontain and Lido beaches are nice and wide, although the sea can get pretty rough along this stretch of coast due to the wind (Sète is a popular kitesurfing destination).
6. Indulge in a Seafood Lunch on the Beach
Having lunch right on the sand was one of the highlights of my time in Sète. Naturally, you simply must eat fish and seafood in a setting like this, and I can’t imagine a better place than Le Cabanon de la Plage.
Order the set lunch menu (typically a mix of fish and seafood with dessert and coffee included) and a bottle of local plonk. It’s not the cheapest place to eat in Sète, but, hell, if this isn’t a time to splurge, I don’t know what is.
I don’t think you need to worry about making a reservation, but you can call them on: +33 6 77 35 02 38.
7. Schmooze Around the Espace Georges Brassens (Museum)
Poet and songwriter Georges Brassens is perhaps Sète’s most famous son. This interactive museum celebrates his life and work from the post-war years to his death in 1981.
Whether you’re familiar with his work or not (I certainly wasn’t), I think the museum offers a fantastic insight into what it means to be from this part of France, both then and now.
Address: 67 Boulevard Camille Blanc, 34200 Sète, France
8. Climb Up to the Mont Saint-Clair Viewpoint
Situated 183 metres above sea level, the summit of Saint-Clair is a leafy viewpoint offering impressive panoramas of the city and the channels that stitch their way through it to the Thau Lagoon and sea.
On a clear day you can spot the villages that tumble their way up and down the Languedoc mountains.
Get there: Get on your rental bike, hop on the No. 5 bus, or splurge on a taxi.
Eat and Drink at the Best Bars and Restaurants in Sète
Le Paris-Mediterranée / Les Demoiselles Dupuy / Bar de la Marine / Café Le Social
Celebrate Sète’s Annual Fête de la Saint Louis
Every August, Sète honours its patron saint during the Fête de la Saint Louis with water jousting tournaments on the Canal Royal and various other forms of tomfoolery. The tradition dates back to the formation of the city, when the 1666 inauguration celebrations were marked with water jousts.
Spend a Night at Théâtre de la Mer – Jean Vilar
Sète’s main theatre and music venue is an open-air jewel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Definitely catch a show if you have time!
Visit the Musée International des Arts Modestes (MIAM)
Despite its, well, modest name, Sète’s main art gallery is home to an impressive collection of art.
Make it Happen
How to Get to Sète
Sète is particularly well connected by rail and I would suggest visiting as part of a larger train tour of southern France. So far I have travelled from Barcelona to Sète, Montpellier and Marseille on the RENFE SNCF high-speed trains and absolutely adored it.
Not only is it more comfortable and scenic than air travel, but it’s also significantly better for the environment.
The nearest airport to Sète is Béziers or Montpellier – I would suggest flying into Montpellier and taking the train from there.
Where to Stay in Sète
Your best bet in Sète is to book an apartment as there’s far more choice than there is for hotels. There aren’t many 4 or 5-star hotels in Sète itself so be aware that you will have to stay outside of the city centre if you need a fix of luxury. There are however plenty of great 3-star hotels in Sète.
Budget Hotels in Sète: The Hotel Sables D’or is an excellent budget hotel for travellers who want to be by the beach (250 metres from the sea)
Luxury Hotels in Sète (4*): The Résidence Odalys Terra Gaia is located about 3km out of the main commercial core but is only 400 metres from the beach.
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Disclaimer: I travelled to Sète on a press trip with RENFE SNCF. All opinions are however my own. I highly encourage you to travel as much as possible overland and keep your air travel (and carbon footprint) as low as possible.