St Jean Pied de Port : A Guide for Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago
Created by Colleen Sims * 22 September 2023 * Updated 22 September 2023
St Jean Pied de Port : A Guide for Pilgrims
Imagine embarking on a journey that sees you walking 800 kilometres across a country. A journey that offers a chance to meet strangers who become life long friends. This is the Camino de Santiago and for many this journey begins in St Jean Pied de Port.
On my first Camino, a decade ago, I passed through St Jean Pied de Port, arriving at midday and starting my walk immediately. This was a mistake and on subsequent visits I’ve stayed overnight.
St Jean Pied de Port : Is it Worth a Visit?
Saint Jean Pied de Port is probably one of the most well-known town in the French Basque region. Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, it’s steeped in history and famous for its ancient citadel and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Whilst thousands of pilgrims arrive in St Jean each year, it’s also a popular tourist destination and considered one of the most beautiful villages in France. Whether you’re a pilgrim or not, it’s worth making time visit to this pretty little Basque town.
Where is St Jean Pied de Port?
Situated in south-west France, St Jean Pied de Port is close to the Spanish border in the French Department of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Commonly known as the capital of the Basse Navarre, it is part of the large administrative region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine.
Good to know : Each French department has a number and this number forms part of your postcode. I live in the Dordogne and my department number is 24. St Jean is in department 64.
This picturesque town, re-founded in the 12th century, serves as a gateway to Spain making it historically a very strategic and fought over location. Whilst now part of France, locals still identify with their Basque roots. My neighbour was born in St Jean and he is very proud of his birth town and his Basque heritage.
Walk around the town and you’ll see typical Basque architecture, locals wearing the traditional Basque beret and the frequent use of the unique Basque font on shop fronts and business displays.
The History of St Jean Pied de Port
St Jean Pied de Port’s history dates back centuries. This fortified town has witnessed numerous historical events, including battles, medieval trade, and the passage of countless pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.
Its well-preserved architecture and cobblestone streets really can transport you back to a different age.
Called Donibane Garazi in Basque, St Jean takes its name from its patron Saint, John the Baptist. Pied de Port is literally translated as foot of the port or pass, referring to the route through the Pyrenees to Spain.
St Jean was rebuilt in its present location after the original town, Saint-Jean-le-Vieux, (meaning St Jean the Old) was destroyed by Richard the Lionheart in the 12th Century. Just eight kilometres from the Spanish Border, and originally part of the kingdom of Navarre, the new village was fortified, as its strategic position made it vulnerable to attack.
St Jean’s popularity rose when one of the original pilgrim routes from France moved from the Somport Pass (Camino Aragones) to St Jean. This diversion cemented the town’s position as one of the most important stages for pilgrims and trade en route to Spain and Santiago de Compostela.
The Camino de Santiago and Saint Jean Pied de Port
The Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James, is a network of pilgrimage routes leading to the shrine of the apostle St James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. When the Kings of Navarre diverted pilgrim traffic to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port they forever changed the fate of this small village.
St Jean Pied de Port has been an important staging point since medieval times and again since the 1980’s with the revival of the modern Camino. It is now considered the starting point of the most popular route, the Camino Frances. Pilgrims from across the globe find there way to St Jean Pied de Port to start their journey over the mountains and onwards through Spain.
I know from my own experience that arriving in St Jean, with its narrow cobbled streets, brightly painted houses, joyful bunting and streets filled with pilgrims, really adds to the feelings of anticipation and excitement.
There is a pilgrim office in St Jean, the church holds a pilgrim’s mass and there are plenty of shops offering Camino memorabilia as well as outdoor equipment. The restaurants and bars are full of pilgrims and the sense of camaraderie is palpable.
There are two routes to Santiago from St Jean, crossing the Pyrenees and moving onwards to the next stage at Roncesvalles (Roncevaux in French).
- The Napoleon Route is perhaps the most challenging but equally such a beautiful route. However weather conditions in the mountains means that it is not open all year.
- From November through to March/April pilgrims must follow the alternative Valcarlos Route, avoiding the more remote snow covered mountain trail.
Top Tip : The Pilgrim’s office and your pilgrim accommodation will advise you on weather conditions on the trail, and you should always heed their recommendations.
St Jean Pied de Port: Un Plus Beaux Village de France
There is an organisation in France called Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. When our children where young and we had our campervan we tried to visit as many of these little gems as possible; although we never made it to St Jean Pied de Port.
To attain the Plus Beaux Village status (meaning most beautiful), villages must meet very high standards and offer significant historical monuments. It’s for this reason that tourists flock to Beaux Villages such as St Jean.
Because of its status as a Beau Village, St Jean hosts many cultural events. Drop into the Tourist Information Office for details of guided walks, events and opening times for important monuments.
Top Tip : If you’re travelling through France you should seek out other Beaux Villages. They are full of history, very quaint, offer smart restaurants and often have short hikes around the area. We’ve always managed to while-away several hours at a Beaux Village.
Exploring Saint Jean Pied de Port: Things to do and Places of Interest
The more time I spend in Spend in St Jean the more I discover. As a first time visitor there are iconic sites that you should visit, but equally there are some wonderful little craft shops and green spaces worth exploring too.
In Rue d’Espagne there’s a little artisan potter where I’ve bought several small gifts for my fellow pilgrims and there’s a little artisan chocolate maker in the same street. Most visitors stop at the famous Vieux Pont or old bridge, but keep walking and you’ll discover a several shops worth a visit.
The Zitadela or Citadel
This amazing building was built on the ruins of the ancient medieval castle. Originally built by the kings of Navarre , if you’re familiar with French castles you’ll recognise the work of Vauban, who redesigned the site in 1685. The Citadel was completed in 1728 and listed as a French Historic Monument in 1963.
The views from the top are amazing, you’ll get a birdseye view of the village below, the surrounding mountains and even the vineyards of the region.
Rue de la Citadelle
You can’t miss this beautiful cobbled street. It is the heart of the old town. At one end is the UNESCO Porte Saint-Jacques and at the other the ancient church of Notre Dame du Bout du Pont.
Spend some time looking at the beautiful buildings, in particular Arcanzola House (Number 32) which has the oldest engraving on it’s lintel dating from 1510. You’ll also find the Prison des Évêques (Bishops’ Prison) at 41 Rue de la Citadelle
As a pilgrim you’ll find yourself wandering up and down this street as a number of pilgrim hostels are located here as is the Pilgrim’s Office at 39 Rue de la Citadelle.
The Church of Notre Dame du Bout du Pont
Literally translated as Our Lady of the end of the bridge, the church is more recently called L’Assomption de la Vierge (Assumption of the Virgin) and has a famous Gothic doorway.
The origins of the building are from a church built by Sancho the Strong of Navarra to commemorate an important battle in 1212 . It was rebuilt in the14th century from local rouge coloured sandstone and has been integrated into the ramparts at 2 Rue de la Citadelle. It’s the most important Gothic Basque building of the region, after the Cathedral of Bayonne.
It’s worth taking some time to sit inside the cool dark interior and contemplate not only the journey ahead, but of the countless thousands of pilgrims who have gone before you.
Port de Saint Jaques
This is the historic entrance for pilgrims on their way to Compostela, arriving from other Camino routes throughout France and Europe. It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1998.
I’d recommend you walk up along the modern main street, past the Tourist Information Office on the D933 and enter the old town though this gate on the city walls. It leads you to the Rue de la Citadelle and the rest of the old town.
The Tourist Office
Although you may be visiting St Jean Pied de Port as a pilgrim, I still recommend dropping in to the tourist office and collecting a map of the city (and a sello if you wish).
They can also update you on any local events or guided walks happening during your stay and can even help with accommodation. More importantly, they can tell you when the town’s cultural attractions are open.
You’ll find it just outside the old city walls on the main street of the town.
- Address : 14 place Charles de Gaulle, 64220 Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port
- Tel : +33 (0)5 59 37 03 57
- Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
The Bishop’s Prison
This building, in French called the Prison des Évêques, is another historical monument with a rather unique history. It has served as both the home of the Bishops of Bayonne and as a prison.
The entrance opens onto a guardhouse followed by a narrow staircase down to the vault and the prison cells. You really get a feel for how this would have felt for poor prisoners held here.
Petit Train Touristique
Anyone who knows me well will know that I love a Train Touristique. I cannot tell you how happy I was to see this little train driving up through the old town.
Let the train take the strain and guide you through the narrow, cobbled streets of the old town, taking you by the city walls, the Citadel, Notre-Dame church, the bridge over the river Nive and the Bishops Prison.
Commentary is in French but you will still get a flavour of St Jean.
The City Walls
Remarkably, I only discovered this walk by chance on my last visit to St Jean; another reason to simply follow your nose and go exploring.
If you walk to the top of the old town (Rue de la Citadelle), pass the Pilgrim’s Office and instead of turning right to the citadel take the next left turn and you’ll be able to walk along the city walls, classified as an Historic Monument in 1986.
Built in the 13th century, the walls offer a walkway from the Porte de Navarre to the Porte Saint-Jacques. The walk is easy and you get to enjoy not only views of the city but also the back gardens of the town houses.
Le Vieux Pont
I’ve seen this bridge also referred to as Porte de Notre Dame and the Porte d’Espagne. It is perhaps the most famous view and the most photographed bridge in St Jean Pied de Port.
It is across this icon bridge that you’ll leave the Rue de la Citadelle and the old town and start your journey along the Camino de Santiago. If you’ve watched the film The Way you’ll recognise the bridge as where Martin Sheen starts his own Camino, bidding farewell to the French Gendarme.
Every visitor to St Jean must surely cross this famous pont, although it’s better photographed from the more modern bridge opposite.
Shopping in St Jean Pied de Port
St Jean is a tourist destination and as such there are a great many shops offering local souvenirs, art and artisan produce. Whilst in Saint Jean Pied de Port, leave time to explore these glorious little craft shops of the Basque Region.
As you wander through the old town you will find some really wonderful stores, tempting you to part with your cash. There is a fabulous spice shop not far from the church which is worth a visit and I really love the Potter in Rue d’Espagne; he makes small ceramic (clay) shells which are a fabulous pilgrim souvenir.
A few of the pilgrims I’ve taken over the mountains have purchased jewellery and of course we’ve purchased bottles of the local wine to take home with us. (Luckily we can drive from home so have no concerns about carrying extra weight in our rucksack).
Top Tip : Do also wander beyond the old town. You’ll discover a few artisan grocery shops with a selection of glorious local produce which is often less expensive than in the Rue de la Citadelle.
If you are searching for outdoor gear or hiking equipment there are many shops offering services to pilgrims. I know that pilgrims like to purchase hiking poles in town as low cost airlines in Europe do no allow hiking poles in carry-on luggage.
Local Markets and Gastronomy
There is a weekly food market on Monday’s in St Jean and several gastronomic fetes and fiestas that take place in the summer months from June to September.
The region is famous for it’s hams, cheeses and peppers but also jams, honey, and a very nice Irouléguy wine. And if you like sweet treats then Basque cakes, pastries and artisan chocolate can also be found.
Local restaurants will tempt you with regional dishes such as locally made sausage, lamb and chicken dishes.
On Thursday evenings in the summer the town hosts a night market. These are so common during the summer months in France. Whilst you can buy local produce, you can also buy meals; street food French style. In our area in the Dordogne, it’s common for villagers to arrive with their cutlery and plates and set up their tables for a full five course dinner.
Top Tip : Check dates and times of Night Markets and local Fetes with the tourist office to ensure that you don’t miss out.
If you’d like to sample the local wine, on the edge of town you’ll find a large showroom for Brana Wines, one of the town’s more famous wineries.
I have a friend with this name, which is what attracted us initially. Four generations of the same family have produced wine here and a range of Brana wines and spirits are available for tasting in this fabulous shop.
Festivals and Events in St Jean
France comes alive as spring starts. Expect spring festivals with plants and strawberries and a host of spring produce. On the 21st June all of France celebrates the Fete de la Musique, where you should expect lots of live music and dancing until late.
In summer, especially in August, expect plenty of local events where communities come together for evenings of music and food and local traditions are celebrated. And expect fireworks on the 14th of July, when France celebrates it’s Fete National.
Autumn brings harvest and again another opportunity for celebrating the end of the harvest season.
St Jean will be no exception to these local traditions so check with the tourist information for what’s on during your visit.
Saint Jean Pied de Port : Pilgrim Office
Whether you have last minute question about the Camino de Santiago, or you would like a sello for your credentials, or you are simply looking for a little support, the Pilgrim Office is St Jean Pied de Port is there to help you.
In April 2020 I was scheduled to spend two weeks as a volunteer in the office but sadly COVID changed those plans. I certainly hope to be back in 2024, doing my bit to help new pilgrims to take their first steps.
Multilingual volunteers will provide trail updates, weather forecasts and provide the first stamp in your Credencial del Peregrino or Pilgrim Passport.
The pilgrims office is at the top of the hill in the old town, just keep walking up the cobbled street to number 39 Rue de la Citadelle. The office isn’t always open so do check their website for opening times (or take a look at my more detailed post about the Pilgrim Office in St Jean).
Where to Stay in St Jean Pied de Port
Whether you prefer a cozy albergue, a traditional guesthouse or a comfortable hotel, St Jean Pied de Port offers a range of accommodation to suit every pilgrim’s needs.
You’ll find a large selection of authentic pilgrim albergues (hostels) providing simple and affordable accommodation; my favourite hostels are Gite de la Porte Saint Jacques or Gite Ultreia in Rue de la Citadelle.
If you prefer more comfort, you’ll find a variety of guesthouses and hotels throughout the town. We loved our stay at Les Chemins d’Elika; it’s a great location and offers a really comfortable stay.
Whichever option you choose I recommend two things :
- Book ahead. St Jean is small and hundreds of pilgrims arrive every day. Whatever type of accommodation you choose book your bed before you arrive.
- St Jean is old. The town was founded in the 12th century, and most accommodation offers the chance to enjoy a stay amongst this history. You will be comfortable but rooms may be small and the buildings quirky.
Popular Restaurants in St Jean Pied de Port
There are some excellent restaurants in St Jean offering the chance to savour traditional Basque cuisine.
We’ve enjoyed meals at all of the restaurants below and would happily go again.
I would strongly advise that you make reservations, especially at lunchtimes. Many of the old town restaurants are small and day visitors will certainly book in advance!
Top Tip : Do remember that lunchtimes in France will be busy. Not all restaurants open in the evening so if there is a particular restaurant you want to try, check their opening times and book ahead.
Travelling to St Jean Pied de Port
People travel from across the world to St Jean Pied de Port. Tourist will often arrive as part of a tour on coaches or like us, they drive. Pilgrims though (if they haven’t walked in), will have to research how to get to St Jean Pied de Port.
If travelling from France make your way to either Biarritz or Bayonne where there are regular trains, buses or shared pilgrim transportation options. Express Bouricot runs a shuttle from Biarritz airport to St Jean, sometimes sharing the cost with other pilgrims. Check out their website for costs.
Bayonne is a major hub for pilgrims; if you arrive here you can simply follow the backpacks.
From Spain most pilgrims head to Pamplona and from there take the daily Alsa bus to St Jean. The ALSA bus doesn’t run all year but check on the ALSA website for times and schedules.
A taxi will cost around 130€ for the journey to St Jean for 4 passengers; often you’ll find others who are looking to taxi share.
TOP TIP : In September 2023 I travelled from Pamplona to St Jean with my walking club with TAXI ASIER. They were recommended by the pilgrim Albergue in Roncesvalles and were excellent. It’s a local small taxi company and so easy to contact via WhatsApp and they speak English. Contact then direct on +34 670 61 61 90
Parking in St Jean
If like us you can drive to St Jean, finding somewhere secure to park can be a challenge. There are several public car parks around the town, but few allow overnight or extended stays and those that do offer little security.
The St Jean Pied de Port town website provides information on public car parks, but be aware that illegal parking in France will 9 times out of 10 result in a hefty fine. And Blue Zones are different from disabled parking spaces; they are for Blue Permit holders only and you are limited to how long you can stay.
Private Parking at Garage Donibane
During our last couple of stays in St Jean Pied de Port we parked at Garage Donibane. It is a garage which also offers parking for a nominal fee. We paid 3 euros a day but with a 7 day minimum. It gave us peace of mind that we were not parking illegally and that we had a certain level of security.
Weather in St Jean Throughout the Year
Whilst in the foothill of the mountains, St Jean Pied de Port isn’t at elevation so snow isn’t as common as you might expect. Of course, if you travel higher to Orisson or Borda then snow is much more common (and expected) in winter.
I’ve researched historical data from weather sites and I’m not sure they show the entire picture, as I would expect St Jean to be colder but the data below is a useful guide as to what you may expect.
I’ve visited St Jean Pied de Port in April, May, August, September, October and November and not once have I had rain whilst visiting the town. I have walked the Napoleon route eight times and the higher you go the more changeable the weather is and I would say that 50% of those days were under grey or wet skies.
For local up to date weather you can also check the St Jean town website for their Meteo information.
Winter in St Jean Pied de Port
Winter in St Jean isn’t as cold as you may expect but it can be very wet. A few years ago the town suffered badly from flooding when heavy rains caused the river Nive to burst its banks.
We’ve walked and stayed in St Jean in early November under clear blue skies but gosh it was cold with a biting wind as we walked beyond Orisson.
Spring in St Jean Pied de Port
From March and April things are certainly warming up. It may still snow higher up on the trail and the Napoleon Route may still be closed, but St jean will be displaying its spring flowers and the town will be getting busy again with pilgrims.
Like us in the Dordogne, spring also brings April showers, so expect some rainy days too!
Summer in St Jean Pied de Port
France comes alive in the summer with long hot sunny days and warm evenings. You can still expect showers, there’s a reason why St Jean is so green! But nonetheless the temperatures rise and the weather is generally wonderful.
Autumn in St Jean Pied de Port
Onwards through September and October expect warm sunny days and still lots of visitors. Moving into October the air is noticeably cooler, especially in the evenings but during the day it is still hot and sun protection is needed.
By November the days are much shorter and expect much colder temperatures, although you can still walk under blue skies.
A Note of Caution : If you are walking from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles over the mountains you should expect all kinds of weather from hot sun to fog to driving cold rain. ALWAYS be prepared and don’t take fine weather for granted. ALWAYS check the weather forecast with the Pilgrim’s Office before starting your journey.
Having walked from St Jean Pied de Port many times, I am often asked questions on forums and on my Then We Walked Facebook page. Here are some frequently asked questions.
Can you Walk the Camino in Winter from St Jean Pied de Port?
Yes, you can walk the Camino in winter. However, you would need to take the Valcarlos route as the Napoleon route over the mountains will be closed.
Whilst planning your winter Camino it is important that you prepare for potentially challenging weather conditions. You should also check-in with the pilgrim office before leaving St Jean and also ensure you have accommodation reserved for the end of the day.
Winter weather in the Pyrenees can be unpredictable and it is essential that you have experience of walking in winter conditions.
Can You Camp in St Jean Pied de Port.
Yes, camping is an option in St Jean. There are several campsites, including municipal camping : Le Camping Municipal Plaza Berri
- Campsites are not open year round and booking ahead is recommended
- Wild camping is prohibited in Spain and France
Can you hire bicycles in St Jean for use on the Camino?
Yes, you can hire bicycles in St Jean Pied de Port for use along the Camino Frances.
There are several businesses in town that offer bike rental services. One of the most popular is Bicigrino although I’ve never used their services. You should contact them directly and in advance to arrange bike rental.
Why is it called the Napoleon Route?
The Napoleon Route is named after the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
The path, which starts from St Jean Pied de Port, was the route over the Pyrenees, that his army took during his campaign in Spain.
The Napoleon route is beautiful and challenging, taking you over the mountains to Roncesvalles and is considered the first stage of the Camino Frances.
Is there a hiking or outdoors shop in St Jean?
Yes, St Jean Pied de Port has several shops where you can find all the essentials you need for your journey along the Camino de Santiago.
The Boutique du Pelerin Pilgrim’s shop on Rue de la Citadelle is a popular option, close to the pilgrims office and offering a wide selection of last-minute gear, including walking sticks, hats, and of course the famous shell that most pilgrims choose to carry.
Is there a bank in St Jean? And will I be able to change currency?
There are banks in St Jean Pied de Port and most offer ATMs for cash withdrawal and banking services.
However you will not find a currency exchange so ensure that you have euros when you arrive. Alternatively investigate a Revolut or Wise currency transaction bank account.
Is it easy to find the first camino markers from St Jean?
Yes. Finding the first Camino markers from St Jean Pied de Port is straightforward and chances are you’ll be following many other pilgrims out of town. I tell people who walk with me that it’s difficult to get lost.
Two things worth noting as you leave town
- Remember that the Camino is also a road. Walk on the left side the road, facing oncoming traffic and use pavements whenever they are provided.
- Follow the yellow arrows and other Camino markers. There are a few GR routes that cross in this area so don’t follow just the red and white GR Markers.
I know the Camino Frances well but regardless I still hike with trail maps. My app of choice is Wise Pilgrim and for a few euros you too can have your own Camino Map to follow if you need it.
Is there a Tourist information office?
Yes and I recommend you pay them a visit. They can provide you with local event information along with weather reports. I’ve even collected a sello from here for my pilgrim passport.
The office is in the main street, outside the city walls at 14 Place Charles de Gaulle, 64220 Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
Where can I buy pilgrim credentials in St Jean
The best place will be the Pilgrims office. This document serves as your official credential for the Camino de Santiago and is an important part of your journey.
You will need your credential to gain entry to Pilgrim accommodation and you must collect two stamps or sello each day in order to obtain your Compostela in Santiago.
Top Tip : It’s a sad fact that credentials get lost. To increase the chance for it being returned include your phone number or an email address on the credentials.
So Is St Jean Pied de Port Worth Visiting?
Yes. St Jean is so much more than a starting point or transit stop. St Jean Pied de Port, with its rich history, stunning scenery, and the Camino de Santiago, is a great destination.
The town gets very busy so if you’re walking the Camino do book your bed in advance.
If you’re planning to walk the Camino De Santiago you may find these posts useful too :
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