Get into the summer spirit with some French beach vocabulary!

In a summer mood? Whether you’re planning a trip or armchair traveling, why not brush up on your French beach vocabulary?

Let’s look at some words, phrases, and expressions related to the seashore in French – and learn some interesting facts about beaches and beachgoing in France along the way! You will also learn how to say “beach” in French.

French beach vocabulary

A pebble-covered beach. In the foreground we see a small stack of pebbles that someone has made. In the middleground is the pebbly shore, and in the background is the ocean, whose water is dark green to gray.

la plage – the beach. Note that this word can also mean “seashore” and “seaside”. For instance: On va à la plage can be translated as “We’re going to the beach” or “We’re going to the seashore.”

le sable  – sand

un château de sable – a sandcastle. Ex : Les enfants ont fait un château de sable. (The children made/built a sandcastle.)

(la) marée haute – high tide

(la) marée basse – low tide

une vague – a wave.  Ex : C’est hypnotisant de regarder les vagues de la mer. (It’s hypnotising to watch the ocean’s waves.)

un bateau – a boat

un ballon (de plage) – a (beach) ball

un maître-nageur/un sauveteur/maitre-nageur sauveteur – a lifeguard. Note that until recently, this job title was exclusively masculine, but now you can also see it feminized: une maître-nageuse/une sauveteuse/une maître-nageuse sauveteuse.

Ex: Un maitre-nageur surveille les gens qui se baignent dans la mer. (A lifeguard watches the people who are swimming in the ocean.)

des rochers – big rocks

des galets – pebbles. Many French beaches are entirely or partially covered in pebbles or other types of rocks or stones, rather than sand.

un phare – a lighthouse 

un coquillage – a seashell.  Ex : Quand elles vont à la plage, Christine et sa mamie aiment chercher des coquillages. (When they go to the beach, Christine and her granny like to look for seashells.)

une brise marine – a sea breeze

le soleil – the sun

un coup de soleil – a sunburn  

prendre un coup de soleilto get a sunburn Ex : Ex : Oh là là, j’ai oublié de mettre ma crème solaire et maintenant j’ai pris un sacré coup de soleil ! (Oh no, I forgot to put on my sunscreen and now I have a terrible sunburn!)

un bronzage – a suntan

le contre-courant – undertow

la côte – coast

le littoral – coastline

Ex (from  this source): Le littoral français compte 5 401 km de côtes sableuses (35,2 % du linéaire total), 1 316 km de marais et de vasières (23,7 %) et 2 269 km de côtes rocheuses (41 % dont 13 % de falaises). (The coastline of France counts 5401 km of sandy coasts (35.2% of the total amount of coastline), 1316 km of marshland (23.7%) and 2269 km of rocky coasts (41% of which 13% are cliffs). )  Note that this source is probably referring to mainland France as well as French overseas territories.

une plage naturiste (sometimes called une plage nudiste) – a nude beach. France counts about 500 legally permitted nude beaches, making it the country with the most nude beaches in the world!  That said, the common idea that all French women bathe, if not nude, at least topless, isn’t true.  Generally speaking, while topless bathing is allowed on French beaches, it tends to be practiced mostly by older women.

une plage de galets – a pebbly beach. That is, a beach covered by pebbles and rocks rather than sand.

une plage de sable – a sandy beach. A beach covered in sand (or mostly sand) rather than pebbles.

une mouette – a seagull. The iconic beach animal!

l’écume – sea foam

un gilet de sauvetage – a life jacket

une bouée – a buoy

une station balnéaire – a seaside resort/resort town. Ex : La ville de Cannes est une station balnéaire. (The city of Cannes is a resort town.)

How to say “ocean” and “sea” in French

In general:

la mer means ‘the sea’

and

l’océan means “the ocean”

But as in British English especially, “sea” can be used to informally refer to the ocean. For instance, you could say Je vois la mer ! at any French beach, whether it’s on the Mediterranean or the Atlantic coast. But if you were in a geography class, you would specify, for example: L’Océan Atlantique sépare l’Europe de l’Amérique du Nord. (The Atlantic Ocean separates Europe from North America.)

Beach activities

Il fait du surf près de Biarritz.

nager – to swim

se baigner – to bathe in the water (be in the water without actively swimming)

faire du surf – to surf

le surf –surfing

surfer/faire du surf – to surf. Surfing is very popular in some parts of France, including Biarritz, which is known for its high waves.

faire de la planche à voile – to windsurf

bronzer – to tan. Ex : Pour beaucoup de gens, le but principal d’une journée à la plage est de bronzer. (For many people, the main goal of a day at the beach is to tan.)

faire un château de sable – to build a sandcastle. You may also see construire un château de sable. This seems to indicate that the sandcastle is really elaborate and thought-out.

faire de la plongée sous-marine – to go scuba diving. Sometimes, this can simply be said faire de la plongée.

la plongée (sous-marine)  – scuba diving

faire du snorkeling – to snorkel

le snorkeling – snorkeling

Things you bring to the beach

A view of a beach. A group of people lay on beach towels beneath two blue sand black, yellow, and green striped beach umbrellas. A short distance from there, we see a sandcastle. In the background, we see the ocean, which the people under the umbrella are looking towards.

la crème solaire – sunscreen. The French also use ‘SPF’ to indicate the protection level of a sunscreen.

les sandales (f) – sandals

les tongs (f) – flip-flops. Also sometimes called des claquettes or des nu-pieds (although claquettes tends to refer more commonly to slip-on sandals), flip-flops aren’t very popular in France. It’s almost shocking to some French people if you wear them when out and about, especially in a non-seaside setting. This is changing a bit with the younger generation, but even so, flip-flops are far from embraced in France.

des claquettes – slip-on sandals or possibly flip-flops (see above). Note  that claquettes can also mean “tap shoes”, but normally the context should mean there won’t be any confusion.

un chapeau – a hat

un chapeau de paille a straw hat, in this sense usually a woman’s hat with a large brim for sun protection.

un bob – a bucket hat.  Ex: En France, beaucoup de petits enfants portent un bob à la plage. (In France, lots of little children wear bucket hats at the beach.)

des lunettes de soleil – sunglasses

un maillot de bain – a bathing suit. As in English, this general term can be used to refer to a man or woman’s bathing suit.

un bikini – a bikini

un slip de bain – a speedo. These are very popular in France because they’re required attire for men in French public pools. On the beach, younger generations tend to opt for swimming trunks instead. If you want to say “budgie smuggler” or “banana hammock” in French, the rough equivalent is un moule-bite or un moule-burnes (literally, a dick mold). As the translation suggests, this is a fairly obscene term, so avoid using it in polite company!

un short de bain – swimming trunks. As previously explained, although swimming trunks aren’t allowed in French public pools, they’re what younger generations of Frenchmen wear to the beach.

un parasol – a beach umbrella

une serviette (de plage) – a (beach) towel

un tapis de plage – literally ‘beach mat’, this mat, usually made of a thin layer of wood or bamboo, is the perfect way to sit on a rocky beach if you don’t have access to a chair. They’re common in France and can be bought fairly cheaply.

un seau – a bucket or pail

une pelle – a shovel

un masque de plongée – a diving or snorkeling mask

un tuba – a snorkel. Note that the word tuba can have several other meanings, depending on the context.

Some French ocean life vocabulary

un poisson – a fish Ex: Tu préfères regarder les poissons ou manger du poisson ?  (Do you prefer to watch fish or eat fish?)

un crabe – a crab

un dauphin – a dolphin

un hippocampe – a seahorse

une méduse – a jellyfish. Ex : Zut ! Sarah s’est fait piqué par une méduse !  (Darn it, Sarah got stung by a jellyfish!)

une baleine – a whale

un requin – a shark

une sirène – a mermaid. Ex: La prochaine fois que vous allez à la plage, peut-être que vous verrez une sirène ! (The next time you go to the beach, maybe you’ll see a mermaid!)  

Beaches in France

A view of Les Calanques, a series of rocky cliffs near Marseille that are some of the most popular places to tan and swim in France.
Les Calanques

Mainland France has nearly 3500 km (2175 miles) of coastline, and many of its beaches are beloved vacation destinations for the French as well as visitors from abroad.

Even in the summer of 2020, just after the first major wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, 54% of French people were planning a beach vacation (mostly in France). Although those numbers might be a little less than usual in the year or so to come, according to the same source, every year about 35 million people head to French beaches.

If you’d like to learn more about these beaches, this article lists some of the most famous beaches in France.


I hope this vocabulary list has put you in une ambiance estivale (a summery vibe). And I hope that things will get better and soon you’ll be able to visit a French beach. In the meantime, enjoy this classic French missing-the-beach song, Coquillages et Crustacés, sung by the iconic Brigitte Bardot!

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.