Ideas for first timers

The best places to visit in northern France

UNESCO World Heritage sites, awe-inspiring art and the largest aquarium in Europe – where to go and what to see when touring northern France by car.

The sun-drenched glamour of the south gets a lot of attention, but there are so many things to do in northern France. The north offers such a mix of history, culture, architecture, and stunning scenery. Follow the historic path of Joan of Arc and photograph your own Monet along the beautiful coastline. To help you plan your holiday in northern France, here is our pick of what to do and see on your next road trip.

Places to visit close to Calais

You may be surprised to find there are some spectacular and beautiful places near Calais, with many top spots within an hour’s drive of the town. LeShuttle takes you to Calais in just 35 minutes, so touring northern France by car is an easy and fun way to explore.

You can reach any of the following destinations in under 2 hours.


Distance from Calais: 35 km / 35 min

A city of art and history, this coastal town with its leading fishing port will let you sample the northern coast’s finest fish and seafood, relax on the beach, and visit a castle.  Boulogne-sur-Mer is home to Europe’s largest aquarium, Nausicaá, which is one of the best things to do in northern France for families. It’s home to 1,600 species, and kids will love watching the sharks, giant manta rays, and sea lions.

Outside, the old town of Boulogne has pretty cobbled streets, wooden shopfronts, and 13th-century buildings that look like the backdrop to ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Be sure to call in at Fromagerie Philippe Olivier to pick out some delicious cheeses to take home.

Huge stretch of golden sand dotted with yellow buoys with a row of buildings in the distance and cliffs under blue sky

The Saint-Omer region

Distance from Calais: 45.1 km / 45 min

Just 45 minutes from Calais this ‘town of yellow bricks’ has it all, from abbey ruins to boutique shops, restaurants to beautiful public gardens. France is peppered with historic World War II sites, but La Coupole war museum is possibly the most impressive. The abandoned bunker, hidden in the hills, has 5.5m-thick walls made from more than 55,000 tonnes of concrete. Built by the Nazis as a key site to launch rocket missiles, the bunker now houses a fascinating exhibition that tells the story of its dark past. For the kids, there is an immersive 360-degree planetarium that they’ll enjoy as much as exploring the underground tunnels.


Distance from Calais: 99 km / 1 hr

Lens is former mining territory, awash with places of industrial interest including railway stations and mining villages. In contrast to this history, the modern Louvre-Lens museum displays prestigious collections on loan from the Louvre in Paris, as well as major temporary exhibitions that make it a must-see museum in its own right.

Beer lovers may be surprised to find the city of Lens is packed with independent breweries; just outside the city, the Saint-Germain Brewery offers a tour and tasting on selected days.


Distance from Calais: 109.2 km / 1 hr 15 min

Packed with amazing restaurants, Arras is particularly popular in winter thanks to a wonderful Christmas market. But you can visit its French, Flemish, and Spanish architectural highlights year-round. These include the 2,000-year-old cathedral and town squares, lined with shops and restaurants. La Faisanderie is possibly the most famous example of this, with a sumptuous wine list and a seasonal menu that includes local produce.


Distance from Calais: 109 km / 1 hr 8 min

Lille has an impressive citadel, town hall (complete with belfry), and is a fantastic place to shop with markets of all shapes and sizes selling traditional French treats. Lille Zoo is also popular as three-quarters of the 400 animals are endangered species, making it a fascinating place to spend an afternoon. A popular Lille delicacy to try is the merveilleux: mini meringues sandwiched together with whipped cream and topped with chocolate shavings.

art deco style swimming pool with stained glass windows and marble statues lining the pool edge


Distance from Calais: 121.4 km / 1 hr 20 min

Here you’ll find former swimming pool, La Piscine, now home to the André Diligent Museum of Art and Industry. The building, which was constructed between 1927 and 1932, is a work of art itself, but also houses paintings by Picasso, Giacometti and Hervé Di Rosa.

There is also a botanic garden to explore and Parc Barbieux which has an interesting origin story: The water channel that meanders through the centre is what remains of an attempt to link the centre of Roubaix with the Marque River. The project began in 1840 but was abandoned half-way though. The banks and mounds that the works left behind were turned into the garden at the turn of the 20th century.


Distance from Calais: 157.3 km / 1 hr 36 min

Amiens is a surprisingly quaint and colourful town, often overlooked when planning things to do in northern France. Canals wind through the picturesque streets and visitors can shop for fruit, souvenirs, and art from the floating markets that line the water’s edge.

The absolutely-can’t-possibly-miss attraction in Amiens is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens. The stunning Gothic cathedral is the largest in France. Beautiful stained-glass windows light the interior with a rainbow glow when the sun shines and if you happen to be visiting in the summer or at Christmas, the incredible sound and light show that illuminates the building will be the highlight of your trip.

Large stone cathedral with decorative details and large red doors looming up into a blue sky

A slightly longer trip from Calais – but worth the drive!

If you’re happy to drive a little further from Calais, plenty of exciting destinations await you.


Distance from Calais: 336.7 km / 3 hr 40 min

The region of Normandy is filled with things to see and do. From the beaches where the Allied forces launched a surprise attack that was to mark the beginning of the end of WWII, to the Bayeux Tapestry, this is also a wonderfully rich historical area. Le Havre, Caen, and Rouen are the three main cities in this region, each with its own unique features, but if you prefer your surroundings a little more natural there is the beautiful Lyons-la-Forêt, a postcard-pretty village surrounded by the hush of the trees.

Reims, Champagne-Ardenne

Distance from Calais: 273.9 km / 2 hr 28 min

There’s no better way to toast to your holiday in northern France than with some of the best Champagne in the world, freshly poured in the region it was created. One of the most beautiful places near Calais, Reims is a curious city with a mismatch of architecture, set in the picturesque verdant landscape of vineyards.

Tour the historic houses and discover the fascinating history and process of growing, making, and storing Champagne. Choose from famous brands such as Laurent-Perrier and Veuve Clicquot or explore some of the family-run companies that have been in Reims for hundreds of years.

Pommery is probably the most impressive; guided tours will take you through the incredible Gallo-Roman cave, said to store almost 25 million bottles. But be cautious not to overindulge if you are driving. In France, the alcohol limit is 0.05mg/ml (as opposed to 0.08mg/ml in England, Wales and Northern Ireland) and penalties are severe. Check out our post on this and other road rules when touring northern France by car.

A lush green vineyard stretching out and down over a hill towards fields with hills in the distance


Distance from Calais: 348.2 km / 3 hr 36 min

Founded by William the Conqueror (who’s final resting place is the Abbaye aux Hommes), Caen is one of the main points of interest in northern France for history fans. It was destroyed during the Battle of Normandy and later WWII, but lovingly restored. Chateau de Caen and the Caen Memorial are particular places of interest, especially the latter which is considered one of the best memorials in Europe.

To the northeast of Caen is Deauville, where the rich and famous have graced its beach for decades. If you are visiting from April to September, you can rent one of the famous beach umbrellas, only available here, to shelter from the sea breeze.


Distance from Calais: 260.0 km / 2 hr 31 min

Chantilly is one of the most popular day trips from Paris. The train Paris leaves from Gare du Nord train station hourly and only takes 20 minutes, so it's a fantastic place to stay if you're looking for accomodation outside of the city. This is of course, the place where Chantilly cream and Chantilly lace are made, and there’s also a history rooted in equestrian sports.

The beautiful Château de Chantilly, featured in the James Bond film A View to a Kill, attracts many visitors as one of the top castles in France (and unlike these it isn’t haunted). It may not be a royal residence but this fairytale palace hosted Kings and Queens and was home to Henri d’Orléans, son of the last King of France. Henri was exceptionally cultivated man and a compulsive collector, resulting in the Château de Chantilly hosting the second largest collection of artwork in France, only beaten by the Louvre.


Distance from Calais: 217.0 km / 2 hr 13 min

Just an hour and half drive from Paris, this town came into fashion in the 1800s when it won the approval of Napoleon and Joséphine, who extravagantly redecorated the Château, which was initially conceived for Louis XV. He had used it as a royal hunting lodge for the nearby forest of Compiègne. It’s well worth a visit to see the opulent interiors and art collection.

The forest makes for a natural escape but is also attractive to history buffs. Here, in the Glade of the Armistice (known as Clairière de l’Armistice in French) is where Germany and the Allied soldiers of the First World War agreed to end their battles on land, sea, and air. Adolf Hitler selected the same spot to sign the Armistice of June 22, 1940. It’s a poignant war memorial that includes the railway site where the armistice took place and a replica of the carriage in which it was signed.

A beautiful French castle next to water with people riding horses in the foreground


Distance from Calais: 460.5 km / 4 hr 23 min

Lorraine’s graceful capital, Metz (pronounced ‘mess’) sits where the rivers Moselle and Seille meet, offering a stunning Gothic cathedral, museums filled with rare art, and Michelin star restaurants. Wander the riverside parks or make a stop at the historic market, one of the oldest in France and home to over 40 different stalls. Many of the locals buy their food here, so the freshest produce is guaranteed. Even better, you don’t have to worry about the weather as this market is held underground.

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