Ideas for families

Family Holidays in northern France

Northern France is the perfect destination for a family, whether you have toddlers or teens in tow

Rachel Ifans and her family have taken a few holidays in the north of France, and whether they’re after art and culture, gastronomy or family-friendly activities, it always delivers.

A perfect family holiday in northern France

They returned this summer, now that their kids are full-blown teens, and it still didn’t disappoint, so here’s Rachel’s compilation of the best bits of the north for families.

Get active with watersports, beaches, wildlife, tree-climbing and more

Smiling cyclist takes a picture of her teenage son cycling behind her and punching the air in joy

A hit with our teens was the new 1,500KM bike path from Dunkirk to Roscoff. Okay, we only did about 3% of it but a hit is a hit. Full disclosure: we cheated by a) choosing a flat stretch of coastline and b) hiring e-bikes. I know, it’s shameful, but listen – it was great fun, there was no moaning and we got way further. However, if you want to take on adventurous sections of La Velomaritime, try Les Deux Caps and Étretat. We’ve also hired e-bikes in the 7 Vallées region; starting in Montreuil and letting a guide lead us through the windy lanes and river paths. 

Try Longe-Cote, a local exercise that sees you wading out to sea in wetsuits with a guide. We’ve done it in Dunkirk and Le Touquet but it’s also popular in Wissant and Étretat. For the derring-do, try paddleboarding at sea. Everyone else stood up on their boards effortlessly but, even on a millpond Le Touquet sea, I wibbled and wobbled and stuck to kneeling in the end. For inland SUP, hire boards in Beaurainville on the Canche river.

For a real adventure, take a guided trek across the Somme Bay at low tide. We crossed from Saint-Valery-sur-Somme to Le Crotoy with our guide, Maxim, the most enthusiastic nature lover I’ve ever met. He told us how the tidal landscape is always shifting, pointed out interesting birds, plants and sand-dwelling creatures, and showed us how to dance on quicksand.

Eight seals bask on a spit of sand surrounded by see in the Somme Bay

10KM on from Saint Valery, you’ll find Pointe du Hourdel, the best place to spot the Somme Bay’s seal colony. Sometimes you get a better view from the pebbly beach; we set up camp with a thermos flask next to the blockhaus for a while and got our binoculars out.

Got someone who loves steam trains with you? Head for the Baie de Somme Railway, which meanders around the bay between Le Crotoy and Cayeux-sur-Mer. It’s all beautifully restored with gleaming engines and authentic detailing in the passenger compartments. Get there early to avoid the wooden seats – we didn’t and even the teenagers had numb bums by the end!

We’ve done Accrobranching – or tree-climbing – in many centres in France and we find them to be safe and imaginatively designed for all levels. Almost always a success is the new Happy Park in the beautiful Crécy forest. It opened this year and has a few routes, as well as archery and bike hire on offer.

A woman and young son examine their shrimp catch in a big handheld net on the shoreline

A few years ago, we joined a group organised by the Dunkirk tourist office to fish for shrimps on Malo-Les-Bains beach. You’re given big nets and wooden sifting trays, and the catch is surprisingly bounteous.

Skateboarding made the headlines in summer 2021, but it’s not only Tokyo with a new Olympic-sized skate park. The excellent one in Calais is 4000m2 and free to access; spectate or take part – it’s up to you.

Person sitting in a wheeled three-wheeled buggy with a sail, racing on flat sand

It’s yachting, but not as you know it. Sand-yachting at Fort-Mahon-Plage is great fun (for 7 and up) and you can get going in minutes. Beware the speed demon in your family; being told the top speed was 90KPH can become something of a personal challenge.

Finally, another beach tour, but this time on horseback. I have to admit we haven’t tried this one, but friends tell me it’s a great way to see the wildlife of Le Marquenterre park. The Henson horses are small, sociable and great for new riders.

Learn about the authenticity, heritage and history of northern France

The Operation Dynamo Museum is a good hub for exploring that historic Dunkirkian day over 80 years ago. It describes the evacuation of more than 300,000 men with a film (in English) and an interesting collection of war paraphernalia. I recommend taking a tour of the Dynamo shipwrecks that dot the coastline nearby to bring the day to life and in the evening, relax with a family film; Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan, anyone?

Right, concentrate. There are two fantastic marine attractions south of the Eurotunnel Calais Terminal. Firstly, Nausicaá. It’s wrong to think of it as an aquarium, it’s the French national sea centre and the environmental and sustainability messages are really strong. The newer exhibition, Journey on the Open Seas, is mind blowing and you can sit for ages in front of the 100m2 viewing window watching rays, shoals of fish and sharks glide by. 

And then there’s the newly-opened Maréis in Etaples: it deals with the lives of the fishermen and the local fish. I recommend taking one of the tours (no extra cost); they’re done by former fishermen or members of a fishing family and give an authentic view of life in the English Channel and the North Sea.

For a bit of WWII history, head to La Coupole, an underground bunker near Saint-Omer. Built as a launch base for V2 rockets, all you can see from outside is a giant concrete dome but step inside and you soon realise the scale of the place. We only had time for one of the audio tours, a fascinating account of Wernher von Braun’s development of rocket weapons and subsequent transition into space travel in the USA. 

Coal mining used to be huge in northern France and the landscape it created has now been listed as a world heritage site. We headed to Oignies to visit the Fosses du 9-9bis coalmine and to climb up an UNESCO listed slag heap! We were guided and given a gentle history lesson by Serge, a greeter who volunteers with the local tourist board. The walk was lovely, through woodlands and round a lake, then circling up the slag heap to far-reaching views.

Visit vibrant cities and lively towns

Love playing games? Check out Hall U Need on the outskirts of Lille. Housed in a renovated factory, it’s plush, with an upmarket French restaurant, bowling alley, karaoke, virtual reality, arcade games and a ball pit for younger kids. I was dubious about going to a games arcade, but it’s so well done – the décor is great and the areas away from the games are quiet enough to have a drink or meal and chat.

A side view of a young man throwing a ten-pin bowling down an alley with the words Hall U Need lit up behind him

For shopping, head to Lille – it has a thriving centre, packed with international and French chains, but also plenty of indie shops. We all enjoyed touring a few of the vintage clothes shops – there are getting on for 20 of them! – and snapped up some cool iron-on patches to upcycle a teen’s denim jacket.

A dragon lives and breathes (fire) in Calais. He watches over the lands and seas of the north. He’s 12 metres high and 25 metres long and weighs 72 tonnes. Every bit of him moves. No, I’m not hallucinating. This unusual attraction by artist François Delarozière is a thrill for both adults and children; hop on a ride and see for yourself.

Boulogne-Sur-Mer is a mini mecca for street art, counting 32 masterpieces on its walls that depict its rich heritage by artists from near and far. We downloaded a walking route from the internet and used it as a way to see the city with points-of-interest along the way.

Tasty treats and award-winning bakeries

Okay, here’s a dental warning. Things get a bit sugary from here on in…

The Cornet d’Amour is a Dunkirk institution; owner Monsieur Verschave is one of 50 Maitre Glaciers in France and runs the family ice cream business set up by his great grandfather who washed up on these shores from Chicago. He has 64 flavours in his display freezers at any one time and runs tasting sessions twice a week.

Sophie Farrugia is a creator of little cakes; it says so on her apron. She speaks good English and if she is baking when you’re there, she might well pop out to have a chat and – wait for it – give you some samples. Definitely worth a stop and Wimereux is a gem of a resort.

There’s also Le Succes Berckois, a sugary institution which has been producing bonbons since 1922. It’s fascinating to see how the sweets are shaped and made, and if you’ve still got a nose for something sweet, how about the chocolate factory in Beussent? You need to book a visit (tours in French and English) but the smell alone is worth the trip. 

And finally, go to the gastronomic capital of Montreuil for one of the top 10 (or 15 – I’m not sure which, but does it frankly matter?!) pain-au-chocolats in the whole of France. I’m all heart and tried one for you; believe me, it’s silky and light and the chocolate is just so rich. I also bought a pricey brioche in the same boulangerie but oh my goodness, we still coo about the buttery fineness of it now. Go to Au Gré des Blés and treat yourself.

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About the Author

I am a journalist and editor, covering a wide range of lifestyle and travel subjects but always returning to my first love, France. Born unfortunately to non-French parents, I have spent my life trying to make up for it by spending as much time as I can in France or writing about it, studying the language, tirelessly dragging my children round all six sides of l'Hexagone, and endlessly chuntering to my husband about moving there.

To read more from Rachel, click here.

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