Discover 8 Unmissable Northern France Cities (As Day Trips From Paris)

A trip north of Paris isn’t the first thing you plan when visiting France – after the capital, you’ll probably want to head for Provence and the Côte d’Azur, or to the Alps for skiing, the Dordogne or Loire for some very French scenery or perhaps Biarritz and southwestern France if you’re heading towards Spain.

Lovely as these regions are, you’d be making a mistake bypassing the North – several cities in north France are so worth including in your bucket list!

Northern France destinations have been slightly under the radar for foreign visitors, although they’re well known to travelers from the UK, Belgium, and the Netherlands, who use the north as a gateway to the Mediterranean. Parisians, on the other hand, are well aware of the delightful region on their doorstep and head northward the second they escape work on a Friday. And rightly so.

The North has long been the butt of local jokes; the popular French comedy, Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks) is a side-splitting example of the stereotypes people in southern France cities have of their northern cousins. Many of those stereotypes include excessive drinking, strange accents and languages, and a rural lack of sophistication.

But that’s before they actually go exploring northern France.

Once they visit and see for themselves, they’ll graft new images onto their old stereotypes: these will be images of extraordinary culinary experiences, grandiose landscapes, impressive Gothic cathedrals, and incredibly rich history.

When foreign visitors do head north of Paris, it’s often for the beautiful gardens that inspired Monet in Giverny, the beaches of Brittany, or such iconic sights as Rouen (where Joan of Arc died), or one of the most beautiful castles in northern France – Mont Saint-Michel (not actually a castle but it does seem like one!).

So rather than focusing on the expected destinations, today we’ll look at eight underrated cities – stunning, fascinating, and largely neglected.

The best bit? These North France cities can all be reached as a day trip from Paris. Read on about the loveliest northern cities in my guide to northern France.

The Top 8 Best Places to Go in Northern France

1. Amiens

Amiens: one of the best towns in northern France

The city of Amiens, one of the iconic cities to visit in northern France, sits in the Somme Valley 120 km north of Paris. Graced with France’s largest cathedral,  a network of canals, and a clutch of museums, Amiens has been nicknamed the “Venice of the North” because of its waterways and floating gardens.

You must see…

  • The Basilique Cathédrale Notre -Dame d’Amiens, a Gothic Cathedral with a magnificent façade and impressive stained glass windows and now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • Saint-Leu medieval district, whose small colorful houses line the canals, with water-side cafés and restaurants and a beautiful view of the Cathedral from Pont de la Dodane bridge.
  • The House of Jules Verne, in which he wrote most of his “Extraordinary Voyages” between 1882 and 1900. It, has been turned into a museum that displays his collection of books from famous writers and an odd assortment of flying machines.
  • Les Hortillonnages are floating marsh gardens that can only be visited by a special type of boat that has been used in the marshes since the Middle Ages.
  • Samara Prehistoric Park just outside Amiens will take you over 600,000 years back in time. The Bronze Age riverside village is now a living museum set in over 5.5 hectares of wetland.

You must try… Macarons d’’Amiens

This little cake is different from the traditional colorful macaron we know and love and is made with almond paste, eggs, sugar, honey, and vanilla. The bite-sized cakes are crispy on top and soft inside and are the perfect accompaniment to a good cup of coffee.

You can’t miss… Chroma, ‘the cathedral in color’

Each year, throughout the summer and in December, the Amiens Cathedral lights up for a stunning 20-minute light and sound display. 

(Contributed by Suzanne Jones aka The Travel Bunny)

Click here to book a hotel in Amiens

2. Caen

Caen: one of the must see places in northern France

Caen is the third-largest city in the region of Normandy (the northern coast of France), after Le Havre and Rouen. The city of William the Conqueror and Matilde is also known as the city of a hundred bell towers due to its numerous churches.

The city was badly damaged during the Battle of Caen in WWII and many of these churches were destroyed, but the city remains one of the best places to see in northern France, especially if you are interested in history and architecture.

You must see…

  • Caen Memorial, an excellent museum about WWII, the French occupation, the Holocaust, and the post-war era. The museum has a room dedicated to the D-Day Landing Beaches in Normandy, which are not far from Caen.
  • Caen’s Citadel (Château de Caen), built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century. Today, the remains of the ramparts are the perfect place for locals to relax when the weather is pleasant.
  • Abbey of Saint-Étienne. This religious building was founded by William the Conqueror and built in the Norman Romanesque style. Inside lies the tomb of the Duke of Normandy who later became William I King of France.
  • Normandy Museum, hosted in what used to be the governor’s residence, covers the region’s history from prehistory to the present.
  • Traditional architecture. Caen still has a few half-timbered houses downtown that date back to the 15th century.

You must try… Tripes à la mode de Caen

True, these are not for everyone but they are one of the most popular dishes in Caen. Made with the four parts of a cow’s stomach and a cow’s trotter, this was William the Conqueror’s favorite dish, which he used to enjoy with apple juice.

You can’t miss… Cabourg

The cute small village of Cabourg is only 25km from the city. In Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, the seaside resort of Balbec is supposedly a fictionalized version of Cabourg.

(Contributed by World In Paris)

Click here to book a hotel in Caen

3. Colmar

Colmar, highly popular and one of the northern France best places to visit

Colmar is one of the most popular and attractive north of France cities, with its pastel-hued, half-timbered buildings flanking a network of small canals – the jewel of France’s Alsace region.

You must see…

  • Petite Venise and the Old Town on a walking tour. Pick up a map from the Tourist Information Office and use it − and the helpful pavement plaques− to guide you.
  • The magnificent Madonna of the Rose Bush (1473) by Martin Schongauer, a Renaissance masterpiece you can admire at the Dominican Church (Église des Dominicains).  
  • Colmar’s 14th-century covered market (Marché Couvert), is the perfect place to buy a gift for the foodies in your life and to stop for a delicious and inexpensive lunch. 
  • One of the city’s six Christmas Markets (reputed to be among Europe’s finest) if you happen to be visiting between late November and the end of the year. Drink mulled wine at one of Colmar’s Christmas markets.
  • Count the stone heads at La Maison des Têtes. Completed in 1609, this merchant’s palace is named after the 109 stone head sculptures gracing its Renaissance façade. 

You must try… Tarte Flambée

Also known as “Alsace Pizza”, this is a sublime artery-clogging cream, ham and cheese-topped flatbread, preferably washed down with a glass or two of local Riesling. 

You can’t miss… a boat ride along Colmar’s canals

Explore this northern city in France on the water! Get up close and personal to Colmar’s medieval buildings by taking a 30-minute journey along the Old Town’s network of canals.

(Contributed by The Flashpacker)

Click here to book a hotel in Colmar

4. Le Mans

Le Mans, one of the cool places to see in northern France

Le Mans is a fantastic city in north France, particularly if you’re road-tripping around France and love classic vehicles. It is, after all, the home of the world-famous race Les 24 Heures du Mans.

You must see…

  • The breathtaking Cathédrale de Saint Julien du Mans took centuries to complete and contains an unusual mix of Gothic and Romanesque architecture.
  • The Cité Plantagenet, where 4th-century Roman walls encase 20ha of cobblestone streets, with half-timbered houses that are still inhabited in.
  • La Nuit des Chimères, evening projections in summertime that light up the cathedral, ancient walls, and even foliage with extraordinary images.
  • The Arche de la Nature, an oasis of calm located a mere ten minutes from the bustling city core.
  • The Musée de Tesse, with an Egyptian gallery that has to life-sized Egyptian tombs you can enter to get a sense of what the real tombs were like.

You must try… a Potirone

This pumpkin casserole dish with chestnuts is made with a special ‘red’ pumpkin, giving the dish its unusual red tint.

You can’t miss… the Abbaye Royale de L’Épau

This Cistercian monastery was founded by Queen Berengaria of Navarre, widow of King Richard I aka the Lionheart. She remained there until her death and it contains her tomb. Visit for a strong sense of peace and serenity.

(Contributed by Wandering Bird)

Click here to book a hotel in Le Mans

5. Le Havre

Le Havre, one of the nice places to visit in northern France

Le Havre is not typically included on lists of “pretty cities in France” − during WWII much of the German-held city was bombed by the Allies so little historic architecture is left.

But it is definitely one of north France’s places to visit − at least UNESCO thinks so, having placed it on its World Heritage List as an “outstanding post-war example of urban planning and architecture”. And it is a seaside city of northern France.

You must see…

  • Musée Malraux. Spanning five centuries of art history and home to France’s second-largest collection of Impressionist paintings (the Musée d’Orsay in Paris is in first place), this innovative museum made from glass and metal will delight art lovers.
  • The Jardins Suspendus (Hanging Gardens). Le Havre isn’t all somber concrete buildings, as evidenced by this old fortress, transformed into a beautiful city garden whose greenhouses feature plants from five continents. 
  • On a sunny day, stroll along Le Havre’s pebbly northern France beaches and boardwalk and watch the sailboats, kite surfers, cruise and cargo ships, or rent a bike or play a game of pétanque with some locals.
  • Les Halles Centrales. The indoor market is loved by locals and features fresh produce, baked goods, local seafood, and other regional specialties. Pick some up for a picnic lunch!
  • Bassin du Commerce. Perfect for an evening stroll when the sun is setting and casting its glow on the surrounding buildings, this area features a unique pedestrian bridge, a cultural center called “Le Volcan” (the volcano), and Le Havre’s beautiful World War II memorial.

You must try… the 4 c’s

Le Havre may not have a unique food specialty, but sits firmly in Normandy, known for the must-try “4 C’s” − cheese, cream, cider, and calvados. You will find dishes made with one or more of these ingredients at most traditional French restaurants in the city.

You can’t miss… St. Joseph Church

This modern church (built between 1945 and 1964) is a refreshing sight after so many French Gothic and Romesque cathedrals! With its octagonal spire rising 107 meters (350 ft) into the sky, it is the dominant structure on Le Havre’s skyline. Although the church appears austere from the outside, it will delight you inside when the light shines through its thousands stained glass panels and reflects on the walls like a kaleidoscope.

(Contributed by Lee and Stacey of One Trip at a Time)

Click here to book a hotel in Le Havre

6. Lille

Lille is one of the top 10 places to visit in northern France

Lille is considered one of the best places to visit in northern France, and its compact city center makes it easy to explore on foot. Located close to the border with Belgium, this beautiful town was once the capital of French Flanders and Flemish influences remain, many of which can be seen in the architecture.

You must see…

  • The Grand Place is at the heart of this northern France city and is surrounded by grand and beautiful places and buildings. Look for La Vieille Bourse, built in 1652 as the city’s stock exchange; the Grande Garde, built in 1717 to house the soldiers of the guard; and the Goddess monument, which commemorates the 1792 Austrian siege of Lille.
  • Vieux-Lille, the Old Town, is the neighborhood for a taste of Lille’s Flemish soul. Key sites include the Cathédrale Notre- Dame de la Treille and the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle, but the true charm lies in wandering its pretty cobbled lane full of trendy boutiques, cafés, and restaurants.
  • The city’s renowned art museums, which include the Fine Arts Museum (Palais des Beaux-Arts), the LaM (Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary, and Outsider Art) located within a huge, green sculpture park, and the Sacred Art Center right next to Lille cathedral.
  • Lille’s Braderie, the city’s world-famous annual flea market, is a major draw for bargain hunters the first weekend in September. With over 10,000 sellers and millions of visitors, it is a busy and popular event. 
  • The Citadelle military fort was built in the 17th century to defend the city. Today, the fort and its surrounding woods are popular with those seeking a peaceful green space to relax, picnic, jog, or play. 

You must try… an estaminet

Northern France food is super tasty if you know where to eat! The estaminets are traditional tavernas that focus on classic dishes such as black pudding and apple tart, poulet au Maroilles (chicken baked with Maroilles cheese), and carbonnades flamandes (beef stewed in brown beer, spices, and beet sugar).

You can’t miss… La Piscine Museum of Art and Industry

Twenty minutes away in Roubaix, this stunning venue is housed in a spectacular 1932 Art Deco swimming pool, designed by Lille architect Albert Baert.

(Contributed by Kavey Eats)

Northern France accommodation – Click here to book a hotel in Lille

7. Nancy

Nancy is one of the best cities to visit in northern France

Nancy is a laid-back city with so many students − one-fifth of the population − that it can feel empty at the height of summer. You’ll find it refreshing to visit this northern French city in summer and not be swamped by crowds.

You must see…

  • Place Stanislas, which dates back to the 18th century, is a large well-decorated square on the UNESCO World Heritage List. A statue depicts Stanisław I Leszczyński, who held a variety of titles including King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania, Duke of Lorraine, and Count of the Holy Roman Empire – before becoming Louis XV’s father-in-law. Place de la Carrière is a tree-lined square separated from the Place Stanislas by an Arc de Triomphe and is also under UNESCO protection.
  • Nancy is famous for its architecture and museums, and the Art Nouveau School of Nancy art movement.
  • Parc de la Pépinière is a large forested park that borders both of these squares and was originally designed as the Royal Nursery of the Duchy of Lorraine before it became part of France.
  • La Ville Vieille, or the city’s old town, is a maze of small picturesque streets, with some of the oldest structures dating back to the 11th century.
  • Saint-Epvre Basilica is a 19th-century neo-Gothic masterpiece. Some of the stained glass was destroyed during WWI and storms also damaged the basilica, requiring extensive restoration.

You must try… Watermelon pizza

This strangely named item is a thick round slice of watermelon topped with feta cheese and balsamic vinegar.

You can’t miss… day trips

Nancy is so well situated that it is easy to hop on a train and visit Strasbourg or Luxembourg.

(Contributed by TravelGeekery)

Click here to book a hotel in Nancy

8. Rennes

Rennes is a delightful city in northwest France

Rennes is perhaps the most attractive capital city in northern France. The vibrant heart of Brittany has impressive architecture, excellent shopping, and gastronomic delights, with a wonderful mix of old and new.

You must see…

  • The ever so photogenic leaning half-timbered houses you’ll discover as you wander around the cobbled streets. 
  • In summer, take a guided tour of the 18th-century Palais du Parlement de Bretagne.
  • Thabor Gardens is the perfect spot for a picnic. Home to 3000 species of plants spread over 24 acres, it hosts events throughout the year that include classical concerts, theatrical shows and poetry readings.
  • Les Champs Libres, a futuristic complex that houses the Museum of Brittany, City Library and Science museum.
  • Enjoy kayaking, paddle boarding, or taking a boat trip on the Vilaine River.

You must try… a crêpe

A traditional savory buckwheat Breton crepe, or galette as it is called in France. They are usually topped with cheese, a fried egg, and mushrooms.

You can’t miss… the Saturday morning market

The Saturday morning market at Place des Lices is one of the largest markets in France, where 300 producers from all over Brittany come to sell goods from fruity cider to shellfish.

Contributed by The Wanderlust Within

Click here for both luxurious and budget-friendly hotels in northern France, Rennes

FAQ: Best places to visit in northern France

What are the beautiful cities in northern France?

The entire north of France is quite beautiful – you’ll find spectacular views wherever you go. Along with the 8 cities included in our map of north France (at the top of this article), beautiful cities in northern France list Chantilly, Arras, Rouen, Laon, Bayeux, and many many others.

What large city is in northern France?

The largest cities in France are mostly located in the south, but a few northern France cities are large enough to deserve a mention – mainly Strasbourg, Lille, Rouen, and Dunkerque.

Is Northern France worth visiting?

Absolutely! Northern French cities are home to enchanting little towns, breathtaking nature, and plenty of high-end art. The sights in northern France are just as memorable as those in the south, so it’s totally worth visiting at least for a few days. As is the case in the rest of the country, – there are plenty of things to do in northern France.

What is the northern region of France called?

Looking at the map of north France, we see it’s divided into four administrative regions: the northernmost Hauts-de-France, the seaside Normandy, the populous Île-de-France (also known as “The Paris Region”), and the northeastern Grand Est. The western region of Brittany may also be considered a northern region.

Is Paris in northern France?

Paris is considered a north-central city. It’s part of the French region known as Île-de-France. All the top France cities to visit are accessible from Paris, especially if you want to travel by train, airplane, or rental car. 

How to reach the beautiful towns in northern France?

You can visit all the best cities in Northern France regions as a day trip from Paris or other large towns. Book your tickets through Trainline for affordable solo Northern France travel, with trains traveling from Paris to all listed North France cities.

What countries are north of France?

If you take a look at a northern France map, you’ll notice it borders Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany (and of course England across the Channel).

Which city in northern France has a spectacular carnival?

The carnival, also known as Mardi Gras, is celebrated across France, but the northern city of Dunkirk is especially famous for its huge processions and crazy costumes.

What cities are in north France?

There are many small towns in northern France and a few big cities. The large cities northern France flaunts include Calais, Reims, Strasbourg, Le Havre, Brest, and Rennes. Of course, Paris is the largest city in northern France and France overall.

When is the best time to visit northern France?

North France has a mild climate, so tourists come and go year-round. However, you’ll be welcomed with perfect weather if you come between late spring (May) and early fall (October).

And please – don’t forget your travel insurance before you go! I recommend SafetyWing if you’re 69 and under. If that birthday has come and gone, click here for travel insurance that covers you at any age.

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