Ideas for first timers

Explore the Saint-Omer region

Wonderful wetlands and astonishing wartime heritage: the Saint-Omer region is the first port of call for many visitors when they leave our Calais terminal.

Explore the Saint-Omer region

One of the first places to go upon leaving our Calais terminal is Saint-Omer. This delightful market town in northern France has much to offer the weekend visitor or daytripper. 

Known as the “town of yellow bricks” because of the golden colour of many of its buildings, Saint-Omer has plenty of riches for the art, architecture and history lover to explore. Nearby you can visit the eerie Nazi bunkers and the airfields where the RAF was born. It was also in this area that the British wartime pilot Sir Douglas Bader was shot down. 

Take in a play at the recently restored Italian Theatre, or wander round the ruins of l’Abbaye Saint-Bertin. Saint-Omer’s famous marshes – Marais Audomarois – make for an idyllic boat ride on a summer’s day.     

A pavilion-style white building with a clear blue sky behind it.

Where is the Saint-Omer region?

Saint-Omer is located in the Pas-de-Calais department, at the northern tip of the province of Artois. 

Driving to Saint-Omer from Calais

It is only a drive of just over an hour to Saint-Omer from Eurotunnel Le Shuttle Calais Terminal. If you want to avoid tolls take the slightly longer route via the A16 and D943 roads. 

Things to see and do in Saint-Omer

The Saint-Omer region is steeped in wartime heritage, while the town itself throngs with specialist shops, markets, flea markets and cafés. 

Admire the richly decorated facades of its town houses, the elegant Hôtel Sandelin, the ruins of Saint-Bertin’s abbey, the “coffee mill” (the nickname given to the former town hall by the locals), the majestic tower of Notre-Dame cathedral and the magnificent public gardens. 

Visit the town of Saint-Omer

Saint-Omer more than justifies its official classification as a ‘Town of Art and History’, whether it be its stunning medieval architecture, historic religious sites or its astonishing wartime bunkers. 

The Helfaut-Wizernes Dome

A few kilometres south of Saint-Omer is a powerful reminder of how war has scarred this area of France. Also known as ‘La Coupole’ (the cupola), the Helfaut-Wizernes Dome is an underground bunker complex that the Nazi regime tried to build in 1943-44. Chillingly, its primary purpose was to have been a launching pad for V2 rockets destined for Britain. The bunker became a target for Allied bombings and was mercifully never completed. 

Today one of the best museums in France is housed within the subterranean space, and the dome overground has been rebuilt to show how it might have looked. The museum is full of fascinating insights into the history of the V1 and V2 weapons programme, and the occupation of France during World War II. There is also a 360-degree planetarium with a 3D space experience perfect for the kids! 

La Coupole is open all year round and during the summer months has extended opening hours. Read more about La Coupole.

The Second World War bunker at Blockhaus d’Éperlecques

An ugly featureless and windowless military building in a forest clearing. A person stands in front of it.

Blockhaus d’Éperlecques is another V2 bunker – the largest site of its kind in northern France. It is an incredibly powerful wartime monument – a huge, brutal concrete block, built to house a complex where these early ballistic missiles would be manufactured and launched. Like ‘La Coupole’ the bunker was bombed heavily in 1943 and it failed to fulfil its purpose, although what remained of the building was later used as a liquid oxygen factory by the Nazis. 

Visitors can walk around the bunker park in the Éperlecque forest, taking in structures like a reconstruction of a V2 launch pad, real shells embedded in the ground and WWII vehicles. It is designed to put the bunker into the context of the war itself. 

Douglas Bader Trail

The British pilot Douglas Bader was shot down over Saint-Omer on a bombing raid in 1941. Bader, a double amputee, lost one of his metal legs bailing out from the plane. Not only did he persuade his German captors to ask the RAF to airdrop a replacement leg for him, but he then escaped from the military hospital where he was being held in the town. 

He was recaptured, but after several more escape attempts eventually Bader was sent to Colditz. The residents of Saint-Omer look on him fondly, and the trail in the town tells you the Bader story as it takes you around the landmarks associated with the remarkable pilot. 

Notre-Dame-de-Saint-Omer Cathedral

Majestic centrepiece of the religious sites in Saint-Omer is the gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame. Built between the 13th and 16th centuries, the interior houses several magnificent treasures, including a 115-pipe organ, a ‘Descent from the Cross’ by Rubens, an astronomical clock dating from 1558 and a bas-relief of the Last Judgment.  

Ruins of St. Bertin Abbey

The ruins of a religious building at dusk or dawn, as the sun’s rays are glimpsed low in the cloudless blue sky

Saint-Omer was named after Bishop Audomar of Therouanne, who founded a Benedictine abbey on the banks of the Aa river in the 7th century. One of the monks he sent out to spread the gospel was called Bertin, and the abbey became one of Europe’s great monasteries for a time. The abbey’s golden age was brief and it suffered badly during the Revolution, when much of its stone was plundered for other buildings in the town. 

The remains that still stand of the abbey today are evocative, and it is atmospheric to walk among them, especially at sunset. 

The Rando-Rail Trotti-Trail of the Pays de Lumbres

Now for something completely different … 

Fancy pedalling along a disused rural railway line, then back again, but not on a bike? You can do this at the Rando-Rail, an attraction located around half an hour’s drive from Saint-Omer. 

The ‘bike trains’ run on the single line track passing old stations, through woods and farmland. One way is slightly uphill so needs a bit of fitness, but only two people have to pedal at one time, so others can rest and take in the surrounding countryside along the 9km round trip. There are also mountain bike and treasure hunt walking trails in the area. 

Audomarois Marshes-St-Omer

Three flat bottomed boats are moored on a canal with several other boats moored further up the water. Bushes and foliage line the banks.

The Audomarois marshes are a series of waterways extending from Saint-Omer across nearly 4,000 hectares. They are the only remaining cultivated wetlands in France, hosting all manner of marine life and vegetation, and keeping around 40 market gardeners busy cultivating the land. 

It is a pleasant walk along the many footpaths and trails in the area, and flat-bottomed boats or ‘bacôves’ can be hired for a leisurely row up and down the canals and rivers. Look out for the stalls on the banks where people sell fruit and vegetables grown in their riverside gardens.

La Maison du Marais

The marshes of Saint-Omer have their own museum! La Maison du Marais is more than just an exhibition – it is your gateway to the Audomarois. You can hire a bacôve and glide through the channels, find out about the flora and fauna of the marshes and even have a sub-aqua experience! The museum is open from 10am-7pm during the summer months.  

Explore the marshes by submarine

Something for the kids! 

At La Maison du Marais you can book a seat on a static 24m long submarine which will take passengers on a virtual adventure into the swamp. Portholes reveal the watery world outside, and the crew of colourful characters will show you what goes on in the marshy depths. Tickets need to be bought separately for the submarine experience.

Start your adventures in Saint-Omer with Eurotunnel Le Shuttle

Saint-Omer is the perfect place to spend a day or two at the start of your French holiday. You could be there in just a few hours! Here are some more ideas on what to do in northern France. Your journey starts with a crossing in just 35 minutes from Folkestone via Eurotunnel Le Shuttle.

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