Sète is a down-to-earth port city, planned and built in one go in the 1660s as a Mediterranean terminus for the ambitious Canal du Midi.
The city still has a lot of sea traffic and has carved waterways that are great for walking or boat trips.
A cherished group of French artists, poets and musicians, such as Georges Brassens and Paul Valéry, were born in Sète.
Their lives are celebrated with sights like the Musée Paul Valéry on the water terrace.
If there’s an ideal time to book your tour, it’s August, when the whole city comes to the marina to watch the 350-year-old tradition of gripping water races.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Sete:
1. The Old Port of Sète
With its grid of streets, canals and bridges, the city’s streetscape is unmatched anywhere in France.
You can spend an afternoon lounging on the marina, stopping every now and then to admire the painted houses and historic warehouses, and have lunch by the water.
The Royal Canal is the eastern apex of the Southern Canal, which allowed ships to travel from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean as early as the 17th century.
See the gladiator statue on the Pont de la Civette, and watch trawlers and yachts come and go in and out of the harbour.
2. Paul Valery Museum
Located on a terrace near the summit of Mount St. Clair, the museum is named after the famous early 20th century poet and philosopher Paul Valéry, who was originally from Set.
The galleries cover everything from the history of the city to the fine arts: in-depth descriptions of famous fighting games, all results since 1666 are recorded, and antique shields and spears are displayed.
You can also peruse Paul Valéry’s special room, which houses manuscripts, recorded recitals of his works and rare copies of his texts.
Afterwards, enjoy the view of the Mediterranean Sea and the sea cemetery from the café on the terrace, or stroll through the gardens, which host musical, theatre and literary events on summer evenings.
3. Cimetière Marin
After perusing the museum that bears his name, you can pay your respects in Paul Valéry’s tomb, right where he glorified in his poem “Le Cimetière Marin”. The setting is the reason for this sight, as the maritime cemetery is in a unique location, on top of a cliff in the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean.
Valéry’s final resting place was actually named after Grassi, his mother’s family.
Another famous citizen of Sete was Jean Vilar, a highly influential stage actor and director of the 20th century who upended the French theatre scene from the 1940s.
4. Water sports
Every August Sète commemorates its patron saint during the Fête de la Saint Louis.
The heart of the festival is water gladiatorial combat, which takes place in the Royal Canal, where two big men face off on a platform attached to a crew rowing boat, using spears and wooden shields to ram the other into the water.
The race was so box-office that a stand was erected on the pier next to the canal, and the crowd poured into the depths.
Competitors participate in a tradition of returning to its urban roots, since the inauguration of the Sète in 1666 was marked by a water race. There are also various street performances and outdoor bars (called wine cellars).
5. Espace Georges Brassens
Another son of Sète who became a beloved cultural figure was poet and songwriter Georges Brassens, whose career spanned the postwar years until his death in 1981. This exhibition dedicated to his life and career challenges the monument to play songs with the help of a multilingual headphone guide.
So as you walk through these galleries, Brassens’ text and music are always there.
If you’re a fan, you’ll learn about his childhood, the writers who influenced him, and the stories behind songs like “L’Auvergnat,” “La Gorille,” and “Les Copains d’Abord.”
6. Musée International des Arts Modestes (MIAM)
In an old waterside warehouse on the Royal Canal, MIAM handles “Art Modeste”. It’s a bit like outsider art or naive art: it’s essentially celebrating even the most mundane man-made objects, like Barbie dolls, and placing them in a different setting to give them a soul.
The product tends to be imaginative and whimsical, or at least challenging and thought-provoking, and comes in a variety of formats, from video to sculpture.
Temporary exhibitions are updated every few months and there is a full programme of lectures and workshops.
7. Theater of the Sea
Fort Saint-Pierre was built near the entrance to the port in the 1740s to protect Sète from regular attacks by foreign navies.
The fort had a military function until the end of World War II before being converted into an extraordinary performance venue in the late 1950s.
At first it was mainly used for stage productions, but over time music dominated the show.
Whether it’s a touring artist or a festival, Fiest’A Sète or Jazz à Sète, you should come here.
You can watch the play while watching the sea, and the moon is reflected in the water, which is really amazing.
8. Mount St. Clair
The slopes of Mount Sète are almost steep in places, but this only makes the panorama of the 175-meter summit even better.
If you don’t like walking, then you can use public transport or drive.
This mass was once an island of its own, flanked by villas and art studios built for Italian fishermen.
Meanwhile, the western slopes are wooded and peaceful, ideal for strolling.
The views from the top are almost unbelievable and there is a platform with benches where you can observe the harbour, canal and Thau lagoon.
After fighting to the top, you may not be in the mood (or shape) to get back to sea level so soon.
What distracts you is this odd little chapel frequented by fishermen before sailing to pray before the Virgin Mary.
Consecrated in 1864, this chapel is where a 17th-century fort once stood and incorporates part of the fort into its design.
Go inside and see the vibrant modern frescoes that echo 20th-century religious frescoes painted elsewhere in France by the likes of Cocteau, Fujita and Matisse.
10. St. Louis Lighthouse
Some of the fun of this landmark is getting there: the lighthouse near the tip of the western harbour wall, the Môle Saint-Louis.
It is 650 meters long and gives you a view of the marina with its mast forest and Mount St Clair.
The trail is as old as the city, and the lighthouse at the end is not young, dating back to 1680. It was destroyed by German mines in the war, but bounced right back and is open to tourists.
You can ascend 126 steps and enjoy 360-degree views of the city, harbour, sea and commercial port.
Starting west of Mount St. Clair, is a continuous 12km strip of golden sand, with no fewer than 10 beaches awarded the coveted Blue Flag in 2016. These beaches sit on a 1.5-kilometer long sandbar known as the Lido, which has nothing but ancient salt flats and vineyards.
So the farther you go, the quieter it gets.
But to get all those blue flags, the facilities have to be top-notch and have toilets, showers, six lifeguard stations and disabled equipment.
12. Boat tour
You might feel that you don’t fully understand Sète’s reliance on the sea until you board a boat and take a small voyage.
You’ll realize right away that many of the city’s bridges are so low from the water that you may even be asked to take shelter at times! Warehouses and whitewashed apartment buildings are fun on the water, along with commentary in French, often printed material for non-speakers.
There are also dedicated tours such as visits to the giant oyster and mussel beds in Thau Lagoon.
13. Water sports
With the sea, the Thau Lagoon and the Canal du Midi, if you want to get into the water, you can choose from a variety of activities.
This can be a canoe trip in a lagoon or an open sea kayak adventure on or off the coast.
It’s okay if you’re new, as most of these experiences are guided.
However, if you’re afraid of the sea, you can head to the Canal du Midi or try paddling on Thau’s buoyant salt water.
14. The little train
Most of those who land on Sète arrive on cruise ships, and they have limited time to get their bearings and sightseeing.
So in those cases, or if the calf isn’t quite ready for an afternoon of lounging around the city, a tourist train might be a worthwhile option.
It departs from Quai Général Durand and circles the new commercial and historic ports, as well as sights such as the Theater of the Sea and the Saint-Louis Lighthouse.
If you like fish and seafood, you’ve come to the right place.
Thau Lagoon, the largest and deepest lagoon in the Languedoc, has been fishing for mussels, oysters, clams, conch and sea urchins since ancient times.
So your “fruit of the sea” couldn’t be more fresh in Sete.
Monkfish, cuttlefish, snapper, squid and octopus from the sea are the stars or a variety of authentic local recipes such as stuffed squid or the traditional “tierles” fishermen bring to sea with their octopus patties.
Where to stay: The best hotels in Sète, France
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