12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Nord-Pas-de-Calais
On a map of France, the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region forms the northernmost tip of the country's emblematic Hexagon. At the border of Belgium and facing the English Channel, Nord-Pas-de-Calais boasts beautiful sandy beaches, as well as serene expanses of marshland, rolling hills, and pristine forests. The region corresponds with the historic provinces of Artois and French Flanders and overlaps with parts of Picardy.
Despite being one of France's most important industrial areas, there are still pastoral farms, historic towns, and quaint villages untouched by modernity. Many cities are famous for their lively atmosphere and festive events. Discover the best places to visit in this diverse region with our list of the top attractions in Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
See also: Where to Stay in Nord-Pas-de-Calais
Lille is the largest city of French Flanders and has a distinctive Flemish character. Known for its vibrant culture, happening ambience, and friendly people, Lille is a surprisingly pleasant urban destination with lovely architecture.
The main town square, Place du Général de Gaulle, is lined with elegant Flemish Baroque monuments such as the Vieille Bourse (Old Stock Exchange). The nearby Rang du Beauregard buildings exemplify an ornate Lilloise Neoclassical style. The Flemish influence is also seen in the hearty local cuisine, featuring typical Belgian dishes like moules-frites (mussels and French fries) and gaufres (Belgian-style waffles).
Art enthusiasts will have plenty to explore in Lille at the Palais Beaux-Arts and several museums outside the city: the Musée Louvre-Lens, which shares its collection with the Louvre Museum in Paris; the Lille Métropole Musée d'Art Moderne in Villeneuve d'Ascq, which displays works by Braque, Modigliani, and Picasso; and a unique collection of fine arts and decorative arts in the town of Roubaix.
The first weekend of September, the Braderie de Lille (Flea Market) brings together hundreds of stalls selling vintage items and antiques. Bargain hunting at the Lille Flea Market is one of the most popular things to do in the city.
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The historic capital of the Artois province, Arras has the architectural heritage to prove it. Arcaded squares, high-gabled burghers' houses, and exquisite old churches reveal the authentic character of this Flemish town.
The Cathédrale d'Arras, originally the abbey church of Saint-Vaast, was rebuilt in the 18th century in awe-inspiring Neoclassical style. Another building of the former Benedictive monastery of Saint-Vaast now houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts. This museum has a diverse art collection, from medieval sculptures to Dutch and French paintings. Highlights are the masterpieces by Jean-Baptiste-Camille, Corot, Charles Le Brun, Delacroix, and Rubens.
During World War One, the area around Arras was the scene of heavy fighting, which is now commemorated by several military cemeteries and memorials. The Vimy Memorial pays homage to the Canadian Expeditionary Force members (more than 11,000 men) who fought and died in France during the First World War. A grandiose and evocative limestone monument, the Vimy Memorial stands on the Vimy Ridge, where the pivotal Battle of Vimy Ridge took place; this 107-hectare piece of land (12 kilometers north of Arras) was granted by France to Canada for its accomplishment of capturing Vimy Ridge during the April 1917 Allied offensive.
Calais provides a gateway to England as a port on the English Channel and the starting point for Channel Tunnel (or "Chunnel") train rides to England. The high-speed Eurostar train travels through the Channel Tunnel (crossing the English Channel's Strait of Dover in a 50-kilometer undersea tunnel) and takes one hour to arrive in London. The English Channel crossing by ferry takes one hour and 30 minutes from Calais to Dover, England.
In this spectacular seaside location along the Opal Coast, the area around Calais boasts expansive sandy beaches, which are popular for surfing and sailing, as well as other outdoor activities like hiking and cycling.
For those spending time in Calais (rather than simply traveling through), must-see attractions are the UNESCO-listed Flemish Renaissance-style Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) and the nearby group of Auguste Rodin's sculptures, Les Bourgeois de Calais, which commemorate the siege of Calais in 1347 by the English, and occupation until 1558.
Next to the leafy Parc Richelieu, the Musée des Beaux Arts displays paintings and sculptures from the 16th century to the 21st century. Among the masterpieces are works by Auguste Rodin, André Derain, and Pablo Picasso. The Cité de la Dentelle et de la Mode (on the Quai du Commerce) has a superb lace and fashion collection.
As France's largest fishing port, it's fitting that Boulogne-sur-Mer has a superb aquarium and sea museum. The Nausicaá aquarium is the largest in Europe, home to 58,000 sea creatures, including 1,600 different species. Nausicaá especially appeals to families with kids, who are sure to enjoy the touch pool and entertaining sea lion performances.
Near the Nausicaá aquarium is access to a wonderful sandy beach, along the Boulevard Sainte-Beuve. The beach has a yacht club and a promenade, which is ideal for taking a seaside stroll. During summertime, beach tents, lounge chairs, and parasols are available for rent; in July and August, lifeguards are on duty. The town host the Fêtes de la Mer (Festivals of the Sea) every year in July.
The oldest part of Boulogne-sur-Mer is the Ville Haute (Upper Town), a medieval walled town. This historic area brims with old-world charm, seen in its atmospheric cobblestone streets and picturesque squares. Highlights of the Ville Haute include the UNESCO-listed belfry, dating to the 12th century; the Notre-Dame Basilica, which incorporates a Romanesque crypt; and the 13th-century fortifications with four gated entrances.
Tourists will enjoy walking along the "Promenade des Remparts" (ramparts path) to admire panoramas of the city and its gardens. Another interesting spot to explore is the Rue de Lille, a pedestrian street lined with restaurants, antique shops, and small boutiques.
With its tranquil, bucolic setting; pedestrian alleyways; and charming half-timbered houses, the medieval village of Gerberoy is one of the "Plus Beaux Villages" ("Most Beautiful Villages") of France. Many buildings throughout the town are adorned with rose vines. Gerberoy is also famous for its Fête des Roses (Festival of Roses), which has been held in the village every year since 1928.
In keeping with the village's love of flowers, the post-Impressionist painter Henri Le Sidaner (who settled in Gerberoy) created magnificent Italian terraced gardens that he used as an outdoor art studio. Classified as a "Jardin Remarquable" (Remarkable Garden), the Jardins Le Sidaner are open every day except Mondays from April through September.
Near the garden is another must-see landmark, the Collégiale Saint-Pierre, which is adorned with 17th-century Aubusson tapestries. The church dates to the 11th-century but was renovated in later centuries.
Surrounded by remnants of medieval walls, the picturesque town of Bergues is traversed by winding canals, which lend a typical Flemish ambience. Bergues is most famous for its belfry, considered one of the finest in France. The UNESCO-listed Beffroi de Bergues features an unusual open design, with 50 bells that chime to mark the hours. As the town's top tourist attraction, the Beffroi de Bergues also has an exhibition space and music room.
Housed in the old Mont-de-Piété (municipal pawnshop), the Musée du Mont-de-Piété displays paintings and drawings by Flemish and French masters, including George de la Tour, Charles Le Brun, Nicolas Poussin, Anthony van Dyck, and Maerten van Heemskerck.
7. Musée Louvre-Lens
The Musée Louvre-Lens is an ultramodern museum space in a tranquil park. The Musée Louvre-Lens does not have its own collections, instead the museum exhibits different rotations of masterpieces from the Louvre Museum in Paris. The museum's 3,000-square-meter gallery features natural lighting and an innovative presentation of artwork. Many exhibits focus on specific themes or highlight the common denominators of artwork spanning different time periods and artistic styles.
It's easy to get to the museum from Lille ( a 30-minute drive) or Paris (90 minutes by train). The train station in Lens offers free shuttle bus rides to the museum.
Address: 99 Rue Paul Bert, 62300 Lens
Official site: http://www.louvrelens.fr/en/home
Cambrai is a quiet historic town with remnants of medieval fortifications and an impressive cultural heritage. A relic of the old ramparts, the 14th-century Porte de Paris once provided an entrance into the previously walled town. The Eglise Saint-Géry is noteworthy for its blend of French classical and Dutch Baroque architectural styles, as well as the famous Entombment painting by Rubens.
Not-to-be-missed are Chapelle du Grand Séminaire, renowned for its Baroque facade, and the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, which contains exceptional works of art, including trompe-l'oeil paintings by Martin Gheeraerts and marvelous stained-glass windows.
Art lovers will appreciate the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which has an excellent assortment of 16th- to 19th-century Dutch and French paintings, and the Musée Matisse, which displays over 80 paintings by Matisse (donated to the museum by the artist).
Many cultural attractions are found just outside of Cambrai, including the Musée des Dentelles et Broderies de Caudry (Museum of Lace and Embroidery), housed in a 19th-century lace factory in Caudry (15 kilometers from Cambrai). This museum presents the local history of lace fabrication and embroidery arts along with craft demonstrations and fashion exhibits.
9. Saint-Omer and the Marais Audomarois
Cobblestone streets and stately old townhouses reveal the traditional character of this historic market town. One of Saint-Omer's most elegant 18th-century townhouses, the Hôtel Sandelin, is now a museum with an excellent collection of European paintings, as well as decorative arts. Other must-see landmarks are the 13th-century Eglise Saint-Denis, which has a majestic Gothic tower, and the Cathédrale Notre Dame, a splendid Gothic monument built between the 13th and 16th centuries.
In the surroundings, the Marais Audomarois (marshland) is among the best places to visit in northern France for fishing (allowed with a local fishing association card) in the gentle rivers. Taking a boat ride through the marshland's waterways is another way to discover the wetland scenery, with its lush plant life and market gardens. There are several options for tourists: traditional artisan-crafted wooden boats led by a local boatman, row boats and canoes for rent, and guided boat tours.
For those who'd like to explore the terra firma aspects of the area, the Audomarois Forest has scenic trails for hiking and cycling.
Just 14 kilometers from the Belgian border, Dunkerque (Dunkirk) is France's northernmost town, on the North Sea near the Strait of Dover. Dunkerque has an important commercial port, as well as ferry boat access to Dover, England. During the Second World War, Dunkerque was the scene of a dramatic military rescue as boats of Allied troops were brought to safety.
Every year before Ash Wednesday, the Dunkirk Carnival transforms the town into a wild and crazy scene of unbridled celebration. Thousands of revelers show their festive spirit, wearing colorful costumes; some carry whimsical umbrellas on long handles. The three-day carnival includes gregarious processions, musical entertainment, and joyful balls.
Douai is an old university town, originally founded by the Spaniards. The central features of the town are the UNESCO-listed Belfry, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture that dates to the 14th and 15th centuries, and the Place d'Armes, also called the Grand Place.
Douai also has a renowned museum, the Musée de la Chartreuse, housed in a 17th-century convent. The museum's fine-arts collection includes masterpieces of Flemish, Dutch, Italian, and French painting. Highlights are the works by Véronèse, Rubens, Courbet, Renoir, Sisley, Corot, and Pisarro, as well as the precious Polyptyque d'Anchin by Jean Bellegambe (created between 1509 and 1513).
12. Abbaye de Vaucelles
The Abbaye de Vaucelles is a remarkable 12th-century abbey founded by Saint Bernard, which was one of the largest Cistercian monasteries in the world. Two of the original buildings remain: the Monks' Quarters (an 80-meter-long wing with a chapter house, oratory, and chapel) and the Palais Abbatial (Abbot's Palace); both buildings have been beautifully restored.
Among the most prestigious historical monuments in northern France, the Abbaye de Vaucelles is open to the public from March through October. Art expositions and other events are held here throughout the year. The abbey is located 12 kilometers from Cambrai.
Where to Stay in Nord-Pas-de-Calais for Sightseeing
We recommend these delightful Nord-Pas-de-Calais hotels in Lille, Arras, and Calais:
- Clarance Hotel: luxury Lille boutique hotel, 18th-century townhouse, bright rooms, Michelin-starred restaurant, vegetable garden.
- Hotel L'Arbre Voyageur, BW Premier Collection: mid-range Lille hotel, near the old town, contemporary building, serene rooms.
- Holiday Inn - Calais: 3-star Calais hotel, harbor views, five-minute stroll to beaches, secure car park.
- Ibis Arras Centre Les Places: budget-friendly Arras hotel, central location, friendly staff, sleek decor.
Nearby Attractions in the Picardy Region
Amiens is the historic capital of Picardy and was long famous as a center of linen, wool, and cotton industries. The Second World War took its toll on the city. Fortunately, the magnificent Cathédrale Notre Dame d'Amiens was spared any damage.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this is one of the largest Gothic cathedrals, built in the 13th-century. The construction represents a classic example of French Gothic architecture, distinguished by the harmony and coherence of its interior. Visitors marvel at the intricacy of the facade with its exquisite details.
Beauvais has a distinctive old-world character and noteworthy historic churches. Soaring towards the heavens, the Flamboyant Gothic Cathédrale Saint-Pierre boasts the highest roof vaulting in the world. Among the oldest churches in Beauvais is the Eglise Saint-Etienne, built in the 12th century with some later additions.
It's worth taking time to admire the church's stained-glass windows, especially the 13th-century Arbre de Jessé (The Tree of Jesse). Behind the cathedral is the Galerie Nationale de la Tapisserie, a center of tapestry, which displays exceptional pieces dating from the 16th century and presents workshops on tapestry weaving.
About a 30-minute drive north in the village of Folleville is the UNESCO-listed Eglise Paroissiale Saint-Jean-Baptiste. This historic church was on the medieval "Way of Saint James" pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Château de Chantilly
In the small village of Chantilly, the Château de Chantilly is one of the few castles in France that is still completely furnished with its original decor and precious antiques. The lavish reception rooms of the Princes of Bourbon-Condé are adorned in sumptuous 18th-century French style. The château's Cabinet des Livres (Book Cabinet) contains 19,000 volumes, including rare books like the Duc de Berry's illuminated manuscript from the 15th century.
In the old kitchen of the château, the famous chef, François Vatel, invented whipped cream called "crème Chantilly." The château's restaurant serves a simple menu for lunch and afternoon tea featuring desserts made with the famous Chantilly whipped cream.
The château's Musée Condé boasts France's second-largest collection of paintings by the Old Masters (after the Louvre). The art galleries present works by Italian, Flemish, French, and British masters from the Renaissance to the 19th century. Noteworthy masterpieces include the Portrait de Madame Duvaucey by Ingres, the Massacre des Innocents by Poussin, and Concert Champêtre by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, as well as paintings by Raphaël, Delacroix, Véronèse, and Philippe de Champaigne.
Also worth exploring is the enchanting 115-hectare park with a formal French garden designed by André Le Nôtre (landscape architect of Versailles) and the Grandes Écuries horse stables that present entertaining equestrian shows.
Official site: http://www.domainedechantilly.com/en
Surrounded by majestic forests, Compiègne defines itself as a "royal village" because of its regal past. Here, French Kings and the Emperor Napoleon I have left their mark. Evidence of the town's rich heritage are several prestigious monuments, such as the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), a unique example of secular Gothic architecture, and the Palais de Compiègne, the palace of Louis XV and Louis XVI, as well as Napoleon I and Napoleon III.
Visitors will be dazzled by the palace's opulent First and Second Empire-style Imperial apartments and the gorgeous Théâtre Louis-Philippe. The palace also has three museum collections.
For those interested in World War I history, a must-see attraction is found 10 kilometers from Compiègne in the Compiègne Forest. Here, in a clearing of this dense woodland, the Armistice Carriage Museum is located in the railway carriage, where the Armistice of 1918 was signed. The museum displays stereoscopic (three-dimensional) photographs that bring scenes World War I to life. Around the site are monuments dedicated to war heroes. The surrounding area has hiking trails that wind through the tranquil forest.
In the heart of Picardy, Noyon is an interesting tourist destination with a glorious Romanesque-Gothic cathedral built in the 12th century. With its purity of lines, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame reveals a solemnity and, at the same time, a brightness that inspires spiritual worship. Protestant reformer John Calvin was born in Noyons, and the house of his birthplace is now the John Calvin Museum, dedicated to the history of Protestantism.
About 10 kilometers from Noyons, the 12th-century Abbaye d'Ourscamp was a Cistercian abbey on the medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Today, the abbey is the property of the Serviteurs de Jésus et de Marie religious community and is open to the public for visits, as well as spiritual retreats.
The landscape of Somme is the site of a significant WWI battle that took place from July to November in 1916. Visitors can learn about the Battle of the Somme and discover the history of the war through the Remembrance Trail, a 92-kilometer-long itinerary, which includes battlefield sites, cemeteries, and memorials.
In the town of Albert at the site of the Battle of the Somme, the Musée Somme 1916 (Somme Trench Museum) documents the history of the First World War and gives visitors a realistic insight of the trench battle experience, with recreations of scenes showing soldiers in the trenches.