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 to bypass the North!
It has remained slightly under the radar for foreign visitors, although it is well known to travelers from the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, who use it as a gateway to the south. Of course, many Parisians head northward the second they can escape work on a Friday. And rightly so.
The North has long the butt of local jokes; the popular French comedy, Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks) is a comedic example of the stereotypes non-northern French have of their septentrional 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.
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 and an incredibly rich history.
When foreign visitors do head north of Paris, it’s often for the beaches of Brittany or such iconic sights as the Mont Saint-Michel. That’s why today, for a change, we’ll focus on eight cities that are stunning, fascinating – and largely neglected.
The best bit? These North France cities can all be reached as a day trip from Paris.
The city of Amiens, one of the iconic places 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 UNESCO World Heritage site whose Gothic façade and impressive stained glass windows are magnificent.
- 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 has been turned into a museum that displays his collection of books from famous writers and an odd assortment of flying machines.
- Les Hortillonages are floating marsh gardens that can only be visited by a special type of boat that has been used to traverse the marshes since medieval times.
- Samara Prehistoric Park just outside Amiens will take you over 600,000 years back in time. The Bronze Age riverside village was discovered by archaeologists and 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 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, from 15 June-16 September and again from 24 November to 31 December, the Amiens Cathedral lights up for a stunning 20-minute light and sound display.
Contributed by Suzanne Jones aka The Travel Bunny
Caen is the third-largest city in the region of Normandy, only after Le Havre and Rouen. The city of William the Conqueror and Matilde is also known as the city of hundred bell-towers due to its numerous churches. Caen 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 located not far from Caen.
- Caen’s Citadel, 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 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 history of the region of Normandy, 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 located 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
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), 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 from late November to 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
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
Le Mans is a fantastic city to visit, particularly if you’re road tripping around France and love classic vehicles. But there is a lot more to this city than automobiles…
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 Roman walls encase 20ha of cobblestoned streets, with half-timbered houses that are still lived in.
- La Nuit des Chimères, evening projections in summertime that light up the cathedral and walls with extraodinary 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 stayed there until her death and it contains her tomb. Visit for a strong sense of peace and serenity.
Contributed by Wandering Bird
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 the north France 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 town.
You must see…
- Musée Malraux. Spanning five centuries of art history and home to France’s second-largest collection of Impressionist paintings, this innovative museum made from glass and metal will delight art lovers.
- The Jardins Suspendus (Hanging Gardens). Le Havre isn’t all sombre 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 beach 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 specialities. 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 the 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 it is 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
With its octagonal spire rising 107 metres 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 thousands stained glass panels and reflects on the walls like a kaleidoscope.
Contributed by Lee and Stacey of One Trip at a Time
Lille is considered one of the best places to visit in northern France, with its compact city center easy to explore on foot. Located close to the border with Belgium, it 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 the 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, erected in 1845 to commemorate the 1792 Austrian siege of Lille.
- Vieux-Lille, the Old Town, is the neighbourhood to explore 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 streets full of trendy boutiques, cafés and restaurants.
- The city’s renowned art museums, which include the Fine Arts Museum (Palais des Beaux-Arts), the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art (known as LaM, located within a huge, green sculpture park), and the Sacred Art Center.
- 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
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
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 a French town 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.
- 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.
- 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’s 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
Rennes is one of the most attractive capital cities north of Paris. 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 slanting 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 and enjoy a live classical music show in the Grand Chambre.
- 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 savoury 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
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