5 Must-visit Places in Northern France
Heading to Paris this summer? It’s time to explore France beyond the City Of Love and the glamorous south (think Provence, Cannes, and The Riviera). Northern France is truly an underrated part of the country, full of charming cities, medieval towns, and pretty beaches.
So take a day trip from Paris or plan a weekend getaway to experience its unassuming charm and friendliness.
Lille’s cobbled streets belie the fact that it is France’s fifth largest city and the largest in Northern France. Its beautifully preserved city centre is the perfect place to begin exploring.
The Place du Général de Gaulle or the Grand Place is the city’s main square. It sports an impressive collection of townhouses in a mix of Flemish and Renaissance architecture. La Vieille Bourse is the most eye-catching with a flamboyant façade adorned with cherubs. This used to be the stock exchange in the 17th-century. Today its cloistered courtyard hosts a different sort of exchange – a thriving second-hand book market.
A great way to see all the main sights of Lille is to hop into a vintage car with Tradi’Balade.
Drive around with a dashing beret-sporting Frenchman who will regale you with the history and culture of the city.
Drop in at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, which has an extensive fine arts collection, second only to that of the Louvre. Here you can see works by Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt, and other illustrious artists.
Don’t miss visiting Maison Méert, a Lille institution that has been around since 1761.
Entering this charming patisserie and tea salon is like stepping back into time. Admire its mosaic flooring, elegant chandeliers, painted wooden panels, and gilded filigree work.
Then order the patisserie’s specialty – gaufres – thin, oblong waffles filled with rich Madagascar vanilla. They were quite a favourite of Lille-born Charles de Gaulle.
If you visit Lille on the first weekend in September, you’re in for a treat. The city hosts the Braderie de Lille, the biggest flea market in Europe. There are hundreds of stalls where you can find vintage furniture, second-hand clothes, curios, household wares etc.
Amiens is called ‘Little Venice of the North’ because of the many canals in its medieval district of Saint-Leu. Colourful houses line the canal-sides and make a perfect photo-op.
But what takes the cake are the Hortillonnages or floating gardens. These are islands of reclaimed marshland that were originally market gardens where all the fruits and vegetables for Amiens grew. Now, only a handful of farmers grow produce here.
They are now stunning gardens that you can visit on a leisurely ride in a traditional barque à cornet (a large, flat-bottomed boat).
Amiens’ claim to fame is the imposing 13th-century Amiens Cathedral, the biggest Gothic cathedral in France.
Gape at its elaborately carved and richly decorated façade and portal. Come back in the evening (through summer & in December) when the cathedral is lit up in a light show that mimics the original colours on the façade.
Literature fans, make a beeline to Maison de Jules Verne where the great writer lived for the last several years of his life. The house has a display of Verne’s personal effects.
Chantilly is a little jewel in Northern France, just an hour’s drive from Paris. Its main attraction is Château de Chantilly, an imposing sandstone castle on an artificial lake surrounded by landscaped gardens and sprawling woodlands. It houses the Condé Museum, which showcases an impressive collection of artworks and artefacts amassed by its last owner, the Duke of Aumale. Pop in at the Grandes Écuries (great stables) where you can watch a demonstration of horses training for elaborate show performances.
The town’s claim to fame is crème Chantilly, a thick whipped sweetened cream that originated here. Most restaurants in town will serve desserts with this cream.
You can see a demonstration of how it is made if you have a meal at La Capitainerie restaurant at the Château.
Hotel Auberge du Jeu de Paume, the uber-luxe hotel located next door to Château de Chantilly, even offers a spa treatment that includes a decadent Chantilly Cream body mask! Read my detailed post on Chantilly here.
Le Touquet is a posh seaside golf resort. Many wealthy Parisians own summer homes here, including the current French President Emmanuel Macron. The town centre is a colourful pastiche of different building styles that veers from interesting to plain kitsch.
If you’re an avid golfer, you will love the 18-hole La Fôret golf course in the pine forest or the Le Mer course, which is by the beach.
If you’re the adventurous sort, go sand yachting on the beach. You hop into a canoe on wheels and zip around while trying to manoeuvre the tall sail with a complicated series of rope pulls.
If you’re travelling with children, take them to Nausicaä National Sea Centre, a huge aquarium that has seals, sea lions, and even an African penguin colony.
Saint-Valery-sur-Somme couldn’t be more different from Le Touquet. A thriving medieval town now a popular seaside resort, Saint-Valery is located on the estuary of the Somme.
Hike up to St. Valery’s Chapel where the monk who gave the village its name is buried. Explore the crumbling hilltop ramparts where Joan of Arc was held as a prisoner in 1431 before being taken to Rouen to be burned at the stake. Don’t miss the Herbarium des Remparts, a walled garden from the medieval time, where rare plants and herbs are still cultivated.
Walk through the ‘upper town’ where narrow alleys snake up and down, lined on either side by colourful houses with pretty flower displays.
The waterside promenade is another lovely place to walk and take in the views of the marina and the Bay of Somme. Somme is home to the largest seal colony in France and you can go canoeing out to spot them.
So, will you be including Northern France in your itinerary? Which place are you most excited to visit? Leave us a comment below.
This article was commissioned by Jet Wings and was published in their issue of July 2018. Read it here.