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Visit Northern France
In general, Northern France is still rather unknown among international tourists, as its offer differs somewhat from the “classic” holidays in France. However, once you visit Northern France, it’s difficult not to fall in love with this part of the country, with a rich and diverse historic heritage and a range of natural environments unrivaled by any other regions in France.
Whether you plan to spend your holiday sightseeing, road tripping, or simply relaxing by the sea, the north of France is an ideal destination.
Ile-de-France is the cultural and political heart of France and it offers a unique backdrop for any trip to Paris, with countless historical monuments, magnificent châteaux, picturesque villages, and beautiful countryside.
Normandy offers visitors a stunning coastline, picturesque harbors, and elegant seaside resorts. It is also the land of Impressionism, a movement inspired by Monet’s “impression” of the sunrise at Le Havre.
Hauts-de-France is a region of awesome cathedrals, belfries, castles, and WW sites but it is also a land of wide-open spaces, wild coasts, and beautiful countryside.
For this article, we asked some fellow travel bloggers and friends about the best places to visit Northern France. From Northern France cities and top sights to hidden gems, here are the best things to do in Northern France.
Best Things to Do in Northern France
If you’re wondering where to go, and what to do in Northern France, this list of best things to do in Northern France may give you some holiday inspiration.
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Eiffel Tower (Paris, Ile-de-France)
The Eiffel Tower is the most iconic site of Paris and France and a must of any first trip to Paris. Built between 1887 – 1889 for the 1889 World’s Fair, the Eiffel Tower had such a success that the City decided to keep it. Today, the Eiffel Tower is one of the most visited sights in Paris, with more than 7 million visitors annually.
Is it worth going up the Eiffel Tower? We say yes! Apart from the great views of Paris from above, the permanent exhibition about its construction and the most curious facts is very interesting, plus there’s always something cool going on on the second floor.
If you want to visit the Eiffel Tower during your next trip to Paris be sure to book your tickets well in advance.
Versailles Palace and Gardens (Yvelines, Ile-de-France)
Another of the best places to visit in Northern France is the Palace of Versailles and its surrounding gardens.
Versailles is one of the most popular day trips from Paris, and for a reason. The Palace, home to three French Kings is a jewel of French Baroque architecture and the center of the royal power from 1682 to 1789.
When visiting Versailles keep some time to explore the beautiful gardens, with its fountains, grooves, and the Grand Canal. Versailles Gardens are a masterwork of André Le Notre and one of the finest examples of French-style gardens in France.
Dunkerque (Nord, Hauts-de-France)
Dunkirk (Dunkerque), the northernmost city of France just 10km west of the border with Belgium boasts a number of attractions that make this itself a destination rather than just a ferry port.
Widely known as the scene of an incredible evacuation of over 330,000 British and French soldiers during World War II the town of course has military and maritime connections. The fabulous and recently refurbished Operation Dynamo Museum is one particular highlight but do also head to the town’s harbour area.
Dunkirk also boasts the magnificent 4km long Malo Les Bains beach and adjacent Digue de Mer promenade. Linking Dunkirk to the neighboring village of Leffrinckoucke these are perfect for family days out, followed by a hearty meal in one of the many splendid restaurants and a leisurely stroll. For the more active these are also ideal for cycle rides or even sailing and kitesurfing.
Other cultural highlights include the LAAC Modern Art Museum and FRAC collection of over 1,500 contemporary artworks.
For more on this charming town of northern France do read 7 Reasons Why You Should Visit Dunkirk.
Suggested by Paul | thetwothatdo.com
Giverny (Eure, Normandie)
Just over an hour northwest of Paris is Giverny in Normandy, the home, gardens, and water lily pond of French impressionist painter Claude Monet.
A day trip to Giverny makes a great excursion from Paris and you can see so much in a little amount of time. At Giverny, you’ll be able to tour Monet’s house and painting studio, visit his overwhelmingly beautiful flower gardens and walk around his famous water lily pond. It was here at his home in Giverny where Monet painted his famous Water Lilies series and you can see that exact pond for yourself.
During this quick and easy day trip, you’ll be able to learn all about Monet’s life and his quest for artistic perfection, as well as get to appreciate his love of gardening. There are over 100 varieties of trees, plants, and flowers on Monet’s property, and different times of year yield different blooming experiences. However, the most popular times to visit are in May to see the Japanese Bridge covered in purple wisteria, and July to see the water lilies in full bloom.
Suggested by Ashley |My Wanderlusty Life
Amiens (Somme, Hauts-de-France)
Amiens is the main town of Picardy and only 120 km from Paris. This lovely place is known by its flower canals or floating gardens, and the largest cathedral in France.
Flower canals or hortillonnages are interwined around the river Somme and can easily be visited by foot or by boat. The path is filled with the artistic bridges, educational trail and some artistic installations through the islands that happen at the Festival of gardens. It’s 7 km long starting near the Saint-Leu district and the cathedral where the boat can be arranged also. At this spot the water market takes place every Saturday.
Amiens cathedral is characterized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the stained glass makes a colorful impression. Not only Amiens deserves a visit but also Samara, an archeological park in the surroundings which takes you in prehistoric times.
Amiens can easily be reached by train or by bus specially Flixbus which takes 3 hours.
Suggested by Gabi |Underflowerysky.com
Lille (Nord, Hauts-de-France)
Lille, the so-called capital of French Flanders, is one of the most under-the-radar cities in Northern France.
This criminally underrated city owes much to its location near the Belgian border, feeling more Flemish than French, from its architecture to its food. Picture large cobblestoned squares lined with extravagant Flemish Baroque buildings you will have the measure of the place.
Take a self-guided walking tour of Lille to discover the best that the city has to offer. Browse the bookstalls in the porticoed courtyard of La Veille Bourse, formerly the city’s stock exchange. Pay your respects at the Notre Dame de la Treille, an intoxicating mix of Gothic and contemporary architecture, and Lille’s spiritual beating heart. In stark contrast, L’Église Saint Etienne, one of France’s largest Jesuit churches, is the epitome of elegant simplicity.
Art aficionados won’t be disappointed: Lille is home to the Palais des Beaux-Arts, a fine art gallery, second only to Paris’s Louvre in size and stature.
Finally, no visit to Lille is complete without sampling merveilleux, little cakes of melt-in-the-mouth meringue liberally covered in fresh cream and chocolate shavings.
Suggested by Bridget | The Flashpacker
Etretat (Seine-Maritime, Normandie)
One of the most beautiful natural sights in Northern France is Etretat, located in Normandy. The small town is niched in a valley ending on a beach, where, on both sides, magnificent white cliffs are sculpted by the sea. There are arches, seastacks and tunnels cut into the 50 to 80m high walls of chalk.
It is easy to understand why it has inspired many artists through the centuries, such as Claude Monet.
Wear walking shoes to go explore some of the most beautiful sights:
- The top of the cliffs and their impressive views to see the rock formations: l’Aiguille Creuse (the Hollow Needle) and the arches such as Manneporte…
- The pebble beaches at the bottom of the cliffs, reaching the hidden ones via tunnels (at low tide only)
- The old town with brick houses typical of the region
- The fun gardens mixing art and nature
Etretat is 2h30min away from Paris by car and not easily accessed by public transportation. It deserves at least 2 days for you to discover its beauty.
Suggested by Claire | Zigzag On Earth
Bayeux (Calvados, Normandie)
No trip to Northern France is complete without a visit to Bayeux. This pretty town may not be large but it boasts plenty of worthwhile sights.
The town’s attractive center is dominated by the imposing Cathedral de Notre Dame, which dates back to the 11th century. The Gothic-style cathedral features two massive spires and its interior houses a crypt with restored frescoes from the 15th century.
A bigger drawcard, though, is the Bayeux Tapestry, a 70 meter-long embroidery that depicts the Battle of Hastings, when William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066.
Housed in a special glass cabinet in a purpose-built museum, the Tapestry consists of 50 scenes stitched on linen panels. It served as a pictorial book to explain the events of the battle to a largely illiterate population. The Tapestry was commissioned in 1077 and remarkably, has survived for over 1000 years. It has been classified by UNESCO as a ‘memory of the world’.
You can visit the Bayeux Tapestry in the Centre Guillaume-le-Conquerant-Tapisserie de Bayeux, close to the center of Bayeux and just a 10-minute walk from the train station. Entry costs less than €10 per adult and audio guides with commentary are available.
Suggested by Carolyn | Holidays to Europe
Mont Saint-Michel (Manche, Normandie)
Perched on top of a rocky island just off the coast of Normandy, this Benedictine abbey enjoys without a doubt the most spectacular location of any abbey in France.
It seems like a more appropriate spot for a fortress than for a place of worship, and over the centuries Mont Saint-Michel has served as both. Attacked by English soldiers on multiple occasions in the Hundred Years’ War, it was never conquered.
A small medieval town grew up around the abbey, and it became one of the most important places of pilgrimage in Europe, second only to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979, it has long been recognized as one of the most important landmarks in France.
The waters around Mont Saint-Michel have silted so much that it’s only really an island at high tide. Nevertheless, you are strongly recommended not to attempt to reach the Mont by crossing the mudflats, as the deep mud and quicksand can be very dangerous. Use the designated footbridge instead. The nearest train station is at Pontorson, and from there you can continue by bus to Mont Saint-Michel.
Suggested by Wendy | The Nomadic Vegan
Vaux-le-Vicomte (Seine-et-Marne, Ile-de-France)
The castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte has a troubled history in France. Its past is scattered with conflicts, rumors, and jealousy.
The castle’s construction finished in 1661. Fouché, its owner, was then Louis XIV’s Finance Secretary. During a party, guest Louis XIV discovered that Vaux-le-Vicomte was more beautiful and expensive than his own castle of Versailles and retaliated: Fouché was sent to prison two months later.
Visiting Vaux-le-Vicomte is a great experience. Everything is in perfect condition in the castle. You wander from room to room jumping back centuries. You get the same luxury and details as in Versailles but without the crowd. The gardens are wonderful in the summer.
Vaux-le-Vicomte is easy to access: you can drive or take the P train from Paris, get off at Verneuil-l-Etang about an hour later and hop on a shuttle aligned on the train schedule.
You can find more information about the castle with this guide to visiting Vaux-le-Vicomte.
Suggested by Kenza | Cups of English Tea
Compiègne (Oise, Hauts-de-France)
Just 45 min train outside of Paris, the imperial city of Compiègne is well known for its palace, its spectacular forest, and for the role it played in both World Wars.
In the center of the town is the Château De Compiegne, the summer residence of former French royalties. Adjacent to the palace, the 700 hectares parc is crossed by the Beaux-Monts alley, a 5km promenade leading to a hill with a spectacular view of the forest and the palace.
In the Compiegne forest also took place 2 major events of the 20th century. In 1918, the Armistice was signed in a train wagon on the Clairiere de l’Armistice, ending the 1st World War. And in 1940, Hitler chose that same location to impose his terms on the defeated France. The train carriage is now a memorial.
In the city center, don’t miss the imposing Hôtel de Ville, and the Unesco World Heritage Saint Jacques Church. In between the two, stop by Les Picantins, a pastry store selling the delicious local specialty of the same name: three hazelnuts covered in caramel and chocolate.
Suggested by Emma | Bonjour Sunset
Honfleur (Calvados, Normandy)
One of the most picturesque towns in Northern France, Honfleur is known for cobbled streets and half-timbered houses typical of the Normandy region.
Honfleur’s beauty inspired artists over the centuries and in particular the masters of Impressionism including Monet. They painted the colorful town centered around its safe harbor – Le Vieux Bassin – on the Seine estuary where reflections shimmer in the water. Later they would retire to the cafes and bars and no doubt enjoyed some of the famed local seafood dishes and cider.
When you visit Honfleur, make time to visit the Sainte-Catherine church. This is the largest wooden church in France and has stood in place for over 400 years. The separate bell tower keeps watch over the town and its regular produce markets where you can pick up delicacies of the region especially the famed Normandy Camembert.
On the last Sunday of each month, Honfleur hosts a wonderful brocante market where, if you’re lucky, you can find wonderful antique bargains.
Suggested by Kathy | Untold Morsels