The best day trips in France and Belgium

Ghent

Even if you’re short on time, you don’t have to miss out on a trip to France or Belgium with these fantastic day trip ideas!

Whether you’re looking for something a little different to do at the weekend, or have a spare holiday day that you don’t know what to do with, a day trip to the continent might be just the answer. It only takes 35 minutes to get from Folkestone to Calais, and from there, there are myriad little towns and cities within easy driving distance that you can explore in a day.

Ghent
Where: East Flanders, Belgium
Drive from Calais: 1h 40m / 147km
Admire the medieval architecture of Gravensteen castle in Ghent
Admire the medieval architecture of Gravensteen castle in Ghent.

Ghent is one of Belgium’s best-kept secrets, and as such, is relatively light on tourists. But that’s not to say that there isn’t plenty to do to keep you entertained. As a city, Ghent is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace, so once you’ve parked up, explore the city on foot or hire a bicycle and join the locals on the cycle paths.

There are a number of bicycle tours you can do, such as Bike Ghent which offers an ‘insider’s tour’, but if you’d rather explore the city off your own back, there are a couple of highlights that you simply can’t miss. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in Saint Bavo's Cathedral attracts art-enthusiasts the world over, and for good reason. It’s one of the earliest known oil paintings, dating from 1432, and has an illustrious history. It has almost been destroyed by fire, both accidentally and intentionally, and is the most-stolen piece of art in history – in fact, one panel that was stolen in 1934 is still missing.

Ghent is also famous for its medieval architecture, and there’s no finer example of this than the 12th century castle Gravensteen, which means ‘castle of the counts’ in Dutch. To look at, Gravensteen is very much what you’d imagine a castle to be, with its turrets, crenellated parapets, and surrounding moat. The castle was once used as a mill, but has been lovingly restored since, and there’s a great video tour you can take round with you that tells a fun story to teach the history of the place.

Saint Quentin
Where: Aisne, Hauts-de-France
Drive from Calais: 1h 49m / 177km
The historic Basilica of Saint Quentin still shows signs of damage from the war
The historic Basilica of Saint Quentin still shows signs of damage from the war.

Another lesser-visited city which is perfect for a day trip is that of Saint Quentin, and if you or your party are interested at all in military history, you should definitely pay it a visit. Saint Quentin is the site of many significant WWI battles, but is less well known than Ypres and the Somme. The central square is the location of one of the most famous retreats in British military history, when the British Expeditionary Forces were forced back from Mons by the Germans. They later redeemed themselves, however, in September 1918 with the Battle of St Quentin Canal, which was one of the most pivotal battles of WWI.

Because of its significant involvement throughout the Great War, there’s an impressive war memorial in the town near the railway, and plenty of historical sites to visit nearby. Just to the north, you can visit the canal where the Battle of St Quentin Canal took place, and to the south you can see some of the original Hindenburg Line bunkers, where the allied forces broke the German defensive line.

Saint Quentin is also well situated for exploring other important WWI battlefields, such as the Somme, Arras, and the Aisne, but it’s so full of its own interesting history, you may prefer to just stay put. If you do, be sure to visit the impressive Basilica Saint-Quentin, which was originally built between the 12th and 15th centuries. It was very badly damaged during WWI and almost actually blown up – you can still see the holes made in preparation for explosives – but thankfully it was saved in the nick of time, and has since been restored and is open to the public.

Saint Omer
Where: Pas-de-Calais, Hauts-de-France
Drive from Calais: 0h 42m / 46km
 canals and wetlands surrounding Saint Omer
Explore the beautiful canals and wetlands surrounding Saint Omer.

You don’t have to travel far at all to visit the town of Saint Omer, and also one of France’s most popular tourist attractions. Just to the south of the town, nestled amongst the trees, is the sweeping concrete dome of La Coupole, which was once the location of Hitler’s secret V2 rocket base. Today, La Coupole now stands as a museum examining the fascinating history of the bunker, as well as the science of flight and space travel.

There are plenty of other draws to Saint Omer, aside from La Coupole, however. The entire surrounding area is part of the Parc Naturel Régional des Caps et Marais d’Opale, which is home to the famous Audomarois marshes. They are the only cultivated wetlands left in France, and as such, are recognised by UNESCO. There is a museum in Saint Omer, La Maison du Marais, dedicated to the marshes and their fascinating history dating back over a thousand years, and you can even go on a boat tour of the area.

With its proximity to the Audomarois marshes, and the 50 or so local farmers tending to the area, Saint Omer benefits from an abundance of incredible local produce. There is a farmers’ market on Saturday mornings, which is definitely worth getting up early to travel for, where you’ll find it all too easy to fill your entire car with fresh jams, cheeses, vegetables, and wine.

You don’t have to travel far to enjoy some of France’s most charming little towns and exciting tourist attractions. It’s so easy to pop over for a fun-filled day out, or even extend your trip for a spontaneous weekend away, so book your tickets with us in advance to guarantee yourself the best price.