If you are looking for the South of France with fewer tourists, head to the Occitanie instead. The town of Sète in Occitanie famous for its nickname La Venise languedocienne or the “Venice of Languedoc”, because of its many canals in the heart of the city.
Located in the Languedoc-Roussillon dept. in the Occitanie, Sète is a beautiful port city with a historic old town and long beautiful beaches. Its location just outside the Provence-Côte d’Azur (French Riviera) region, has kept it relatively hidden from tourists, even though it has some of the finest beaches in this part of the world.
The town has a population of around 45,000 and is part of the Montpellier-Sète urban area. A large fishing town, it has a rich heritage of maritime history as well as gastronomy.
The Occitainie is gorgeous region that spreads from the Mediterranean coast to the Pyrenees and the Rhone Valley, which is full of history, culture and natural wonders. The town of Sète is near the towns of Carcassone, Montpellier, Arles, Albi, and Nimes, making it a popular stop for visitors to the area.
Now, I should mention that the well-known cosmetics shop L’Occitanie en Provence, which translates literally to “Occitanie in Provence” is misnomer since these are two separate regions next to each other. The name Provence is added for advertising, but Occitanie is a region that indeed can stand for itself.
And if you’re looking for a city that has a lot to offer, Sète in Occitanie is a wonderful place to visit. It is the perfect destination for a summer trip with a great mix of the old and the new, with its old town area surrounded by water and its beaches along the coast.
It also has plenty of culture including fun festivals such les joutes nautiques. It is a water jousting festival, where the adversaries, carrying a lance and protected only by a shield, stand on a platform on the stern of a boat.
The aim of the sport is to send the adversary into the water whilst maintaining one’s own balance on the platform. It runs several times between the months of June to September so check the calendar before you go.
Even if you are visiting outside the festival, Sète is a must for any vacationer who wants to escape to a seaside town and enjoy the fresh maritime air with a glass of wine and plate of oysters. So let’s see the top things to do in Sète, shall we? Allons-y!
Things to see and do
1. Old port
It is one of the biggest fishing ports in France, regularly catching enough fish to transport to markets like Rungis outside Paris and all over the country.
In the afternoons you will see trawlers and fishing boats come into the port unloading a wide variety of fish, from monkfish to red mullet, and capelin to octopus.
The ancient port was on the edge of the Mediterranean, until breakwaters were built in the 17th century, to provide the city more protection from the tides.
You can also visit the Saint Louis lighthouse that is open visitors for views all across the harbor. The original lighthouse was built in the 17th century, but was destroyed by the Germans in 1944. It was eventually rebuilt as it stands today.
During the tourist season, you will see several pleasure boats taking visitors out into the Mediterranean for a bit of fresh seaside air.
2. The town
One of the first things you notice in Sète is its Royal Canal, the main artery of the city. With lovely pastel buildings lining the canal, dating from the 19th century, you will quickly fall in love with this part of the south of France.
With its narrow alleys and its canals, the comparison to Venice is evident. There are many small squares in the city center of Sète, and the streets are full of charming little shops, restaurants and cafés. Wander around, and don’t hesitate to get lost.
3. The Beaches
Just outside the town center of Sète, lies the plage de la Corniche, or Corniche beach. A fine sand beach, in the distance you have turquoise waters as far as the eye can see.
The beach is a few meters away from the Canal des Quilles. It is a familial beach, with plenty of activities like paddling and peddleboats. With vendors selling food and drinks, you can easily spend a day here, sunning yourself, with family and friends.
Other large beaches nearby include the Plage des Quilles and Plage Baliene, which are also much appreciated.
4. Théâtre de la mer
If you have a free night in Sète, check out the evening’s lineup at the Théâtre de la mer. It is an open air theatre on the coastline, with the Mediterranean for a backdrop.
There is usually a show on, including the periods of festivals such as:
- Fiest’à Sète – Music festival in July
- Quand je sais à Fernande – eclectic local music in June
- Le Demi-Festival – Rap and hip hop in August
- Jazz à Sète – jazz festival in July
Other shows and theatrical works are also regularly featured at the theatre.
5. The boats
Unlike the huge luxury yachts in nearby Saint Tropez and Monaco, the boats in Sète harbor are of a taille humaine (normal human size) as we say in French.
There are plenty of sailboats and fishing boats in the harbor and it is certainly a sight to see. In the tourist season, there are several boats going out into the seas. Some might even go out to the Calanques in nearby Marseille.
6. Local specialities
If you enjoy seafood, Sète has several excellent seafood restaurants due to its proximity to the Mediterranean.
Try specialities like moules frites façon brasucade (mussels and fries) in which the mussels are cooked on a wooden fire with garlic, olive oil, and persil in provençale style. Other specialties include the salmon tartare, or a traditional bouillabaisse.
For an apéro, a particular favorite in the area is to order large seafood platters with a large assortment of shellfish, crabs, lobsters, and shrimp that you can share with friends and family.
Other popular dishes in the area include:
- Tielle au poulpe – a round pie filled with octopus and onions. Looks a bit like a large spanish empanada with fluted edges.
- Zezettes – long thin biscuits that are usually served with a white wine like a muscat or a rosé.
- Macaronade – a penne pasta dish made with meat and tomato sauce.
You can read more about the local specialities in the Occitanie here.
7. Canal du Midi
The Canal du Midi is a man-made river constructed from in 1681, located in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in France.
This canal crosses the region starting in Toulouse and arriving at Sète, to end in the Mediterranean Sea. It ranks as one of the greatest feats of engineering of all time.
It is also exceptionally beautiful, with houseboats along its tree-lined quays and working locks that still adjust water levels. Go for a stroll, a bike ride, or take a boat ride onto its waters. You can read more about the Canal du Midi here.
How to get to Sète?
Sète is about 18 miles 30km from Montpellier, which has both high-speed TGV train access and and airport for connections from all over Europe.
How many days should you spend?
I would recommend spending one day in Sète. It is a beautiful city that you can mostly cover in a day trip.
Where should you stay?
Visitors to Sète will enjoy staying Montpellier, which is a great place to base your trip to this region of Occitanie, visiting other nearby towns as well like Aigues Mortes, Carcassone, etc.
Hotels in Montpellier:
€€€ – Hôtel du Palais
€€€€ – Grand Hôtel du Midi
€€€€€ – Domaine de Verchant & Spa – Relais & Châteaux
If you enjoyed that post, you may want to read more about traveling around Provence and the French Riviera. A bientôt!