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Hauts-de-France is the northernmost region of France, formed by the merging of the historical regions of Picardy and Nord Pas de Calais. It is bordered by the English Channel, the Northern Sea, Belgium and the French regions of Grand Est, Normandy and Ile-de-France.
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.
Thanks to the excellent ferry connection Dover – Calais, Hauts de France is Britain’s main gateway to France, and British road-trippers will find in this region many great excuses to stop for a break on the way to Paris and the south.
Its proximity and good train connections with the French Capital, make of Hauts-de-France also an attractive region to explore on day trips from Paris by train.
The Region of Hauts-de-France is divided into 5 departments: Aisne, Nord, Oise, Pas-de-Calais and Somme and the capital of this new region of France is Lille. There’s so much to see and do in Hauts-de-France that you cannot miss this wonderful region when visiting Paris or the north of France!
Top Things to See in Hauts-de-France
Let’s explore the best things to do in Hauts-de-France. The list of main attractions in Hauts-de-France includes sightseeing, wild beaches, lots of architecture, and history.
Lille, the Capital
Lille is the capital of Hauts-de-France and an interesting cultural hub with a large student population.
The city lies on the Brussels-Paris-London train connection, and all the TGV and Eurostar trains stop in Lille.
In the middle ages, Lille was part of the County of Flanders and it was a rich and prosperous fair town. Many Flemish influences still remain from that period, especially in the city’s architecture and gastronomy.
Vieux Lille is the city’s historic center, characterized by 17th-century brick townhouses, and cobbled pedestrian streets. Vieux Lille’s beating heart is the Grand Place, a beautiful, large central square.
Other interesting sights in Lille are Le Palais des Beaux-Arts, the Old Stock Exchange, the Citadel designed by Vauban, and Musée de l’Art et de l’Industrie de Roubaix with its beautiful Art Déco swimming pool. All these sites are included in Lille’s City Pass (24 or 48 hours) a museum + transportation card that makes you save money!
Its direct and fast train connection with the French capital (only 1 hour by TGV) makes of Lille an attractive destination for a day trip from Paris by train. We recommend, however, spending at least a couple of days in Lille and use it as a base camp for visiting other sites in Hauts-de-France.
Les Grandes Cathédrales of Picardy
Hauts-de-France, and more specifically the historical region of Picardy, is probably the region with more awesome gothic cathedrals per square meter in the world!
The first Gothic buildings appeared around 1130-1150 in Île-de-France and especially in Picardy. At that time, demographic growth (linked to agricultural and commercial growth) required an increase in the size of religious buildings so it was the perfect moment to try new techniques that allowed higher buildings with more natural light, and wider spaces.
From Laon, one of the first cathedrals inspired in this new Gothic art, to the cathedrals of Amiens or Beauvais, visitors can witness the main steps of the evolution of Gothic architecture in France, awesome buildings today all classed UNESCO heritage and usually surrounded by charming historic centers.
The Côte d’Opale
Stretching from the Belgian border to the river mouth of Somme, Côte d’Opale (Opal Coast) reveals sublime landscapes of sand dunes, picturesque seaside villages, rugged chalk cliffs, green meadows, and pine forests.
The beaches of the Côte d’Opale are among the most beautiful beaches in France, proposing visitors days of relax, shore fishing, water sports and more.
Don’t miss Cap Gris-Nez – explored from the top -, and Cap Blanc-Nez – perfect for beach walks during the low tides. Go to see the seals at Baie d’Authie – on sunny days and low tides – and enjoy the superb sunsets of Plage de Berk.
Montreuil-sur-Mer is a picturesque fortified town located about ten kilometers inland whilst Wimereux et Ambleteuse are two seaside resorts that have been welcoming British tourists since the Victorian era.
This beautiful town in the Oise department is the capital of the horse in France, home of a beautiful château and birthplace of crème chantilly.
In the 17th century, Les Grandes Ecuries (the Grand Stables) was built for the Prince of Condé, a horse-passionate, and they could host 240 horses and 500 hounds. Since then, Chantilly’s world turns around horses, being home to the largest racehorse-training community in France. Les Grandes Écuries host today the Horse Museum and also a prestigious center of dressage for the best horses in the world.
Château de Chantilly is a great alternative to busy Versailles Palace and Gardens. It was built in the 16th century for the House of Montomercy and later it was owned by the princes of Condé, cousins of the King of France. The château has a beautiful library and an important collection of French artwork. The surrounding gardens were designed by Le Notre, the same landscape designer that created Versailles Gardens.
Grand’ Place and Petite Place in Arras
The beautiful capital of the historic Artois region has a strong Flemish accent, especially in architecture, art, and food.
The arcaded Grand’ Place and Petite Place (also called Place des Héros) are the two main squares in Arras and they boast a splendid collection of unique façades of Flemish baroque architecture, beautiful cafes, and bars.
On Petite Place, you can climb the belfry for a bird’s eye view 75 meters above the center of Arras. The belfry is in the flamboyant gothic style and it was completed in 1554.
Don’t miss the Saturday market on Petit Place, perfect for a morning stroll and food tasting.
Hauts de France has also cute small towns and they are perfect to visit on a day trip from Paris. Leave the hustle and bustle of the French capital for a day and get a taste of the French countryside in picturesque towns like Senlis or Gerberoy, in the Oise department, or Montreuil-sur-Mer, a little bit further in Pas de Calais.
Gerberoy is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France, and it is a dream destination for lovers of flowers and roses. A walk in this village is a real delight, with its narrow cobbled streets, 17th and 18th-century houses, climbing roses, wisterias, plants, and flowers
Boasting Gallo-Roman ramparts, the medieval town of Senlis is the perfect place for a stroll with its paved streets lined with mansions and beautiful residences. Incredibly charming, the old town has been used as a set on numerous films.
Senlis is a royal town, cradle of the Capet dynasty. Hugh Capet was lord of Senlis before becoming the first king of House of Capet in 987 and all his successors until Henry IV spent some time in the royal palace of Senlis.
Montreuil-sur-Mer is a picturesque town perched high on a hill, a pretty place of cobblestone roads, squares, narrow alleys, ancient houses and a lovely walkway all around the town on the ramparts. It is best known for being one of the scenarios of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, based on the scenes he saw when he visited this town.
Forest of Compiègne & the Armistice Clearing
Today, the Compiègne national forest is the third-largest deciduous forest only after Orléans and Fontainebleau. It consists of 41% beech, 27% oak, 9% charms, 7% pine and it is crossed by 900 kilometers of geometric paths.
Since medieval times, Compiègne was the favorite hunting ground of the French kings and later of the French aristocracy under Napoleon III.
Apart from its beauty, the Compiègne Forest was the witness of a very important chapter of our history: it was in Compiègne Forest where the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, bringing the First World War to an end. Illustrating this event are a statue of Marshal Foch, commemorative monuments, and a museum containing the railway carriage in which the Armistice was signed.
Château de Pierrefonds
The Castle of Pierrefonds is situated on the southeast edge of the Forest of Compiègne. It was built in the 14th century, by Louis d’Orléans, the brother of Charles VI, dismantled in the 17th and forgotten for almost two centuries.
It was not until the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, with the onset of Romanticism and renewed interest in national monuments and the past, that the Château de Pierrefonds became once again the center of attention. Napoléon I bought Pierrefonds for less of 3.000 francs and Napoléon III appointed the Architect Viollet-le-Duc for its restoration.
Viollet-le-Duc‘s restoration was a free interpretation of a building of the medieval period and on the whole, corresponds to what Louis d’Orléans fortress must have looked like (according to him). In Pierrefonds, the decoration in general and imperial apartments are great to see. There’s also a permanent museum dedicated to Viollet-le-Duc’s life and work.
The Bay of Somme
The Bay of Somme is the largest estuary in northern France, an unspoiled place composed of dunes, marshes and salt meadows.
Situated on the route of the migrating birds, with more than 250 different species of birds spending a part of the year in the area, the Bay of Somme is a paradise for birdwatchers.
The bay is also home to the largest colony of French seals. The seals can be spotted resting on sandbanks which emerge as the tide recedes. This is where they recharge their batteries, give birth, feed their young and moult.
The Belle Époque steam train connecting Le Crotoy to Cayeux-sur-Mer (Le Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme) is a trip back in time and a wonderful way to discover the landscapes of the Bay of Somme. Visitors can also ride a bike along the cycle paths of the bay.
Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme is a very pretty town with a good accommodation choice and makes a good base for organizing birdwatching, kayaking or air-ballooning activities and exploring the bay in general.
Architecture-passionates will love Saint-Quentin, a listed Town of Art and History in the Picardie. Saint-Quentin boasts an impressive collection of architecture with buildings of Gothic, Neo-Classical and Art Déco styles.
The Flemish-inspired Main Square is dominated by the Flamboyant Gothic-style façade of the Town Hall. This façade is adorned with 173 sculptures illustrating scenes from the life of the town!
Don’t miss the Art Déco circuit, which takes visitors through the city’s Art-Déco heritage in facades like the post office, the music school or the lighthouses on Isle Bridge.
Finally, pay a visit to the Gothic Basilica of Saint-Quentin, constructed in stages between the 12th and 15th centuries. Inside, there is a beautiful Tree of Jesse from the 16th century and the floor of the nave has an octagonal labyrinth of black and white paving stones from the late 15th century. Pilgrims were invited to follow the complex course of black stones before opening his soul to God.
Sadly, Hauts-de-France also hosts a large number of battlefields, war cemeteries and memorials of WWI and WWI. Some of these sites are very easy to visit on a full-day WW tour from Paris.
During the First World War, the Battle of the Somme lasted four and a half months during which more than one million men and women lost their lives.
The Armistice which marked the end of the First World War was signed in the Forest of Compiègne, and visitors still can see the railway carriage in which the Armistice was signed.
The Remembrance Trail, a circuit linking Albert and Péronne (two symbolic towns of the Great War), enables visitors to discover the main sites of remembrance on the Western Front in the Somme.
Meters below the ground in Arras there’s is an old labyrinth of chalk tunnels where the citizens took shelter, but also where Allied forces coordinated the Battle of Arras in 1917. And just outside the city are memorials, cemeteries and thought-provoking museums.
During the Second World War, Dunkirk in the Nord department was the site of the famous evacuation of British and French forces to the UK in Operation Dynamo in 1940.
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