France’s northernmost region is Hauts-de-France, home of strong beer, world war battlefields, incredible Gothic cathedrals, and some of Europe’s busiest ports. The region borders Belgium in the north, and the Atlantic coast on the west, with connections to England via the Channel Tunnel. The region has a strong Flemish influence, with UNESCO listed Belfry towers found in many cities, as well as Flemish houses that line grand town squares.
An important strategic and economic centre, Hauts-de-France was the location of many of France’s most important battlefields. It is the location of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, some of WW1’s most devastating operations such as the Battle of the Marne and the Battle of the Somme, as well as the astonishing Dunkerque naval evacuation in WW2.
The capital Lille is one of France’s largest cities, renowned for its extravagant architecture, and a major transport hub in the region. Visitors enjoy Hauts-de-France for the Asterix theme park, bird watching in the Bay of the Somme, getting close with sharks and rays in Europe’s largest aquarium, and to admire opulent castles like the Châteux de Chantilly.
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Cities of Hauts-de-France
Despite the damage done to the cities of Hauts-de-France during the World Wars, many still retain architectural masterpieces that form part of their history and identity. Belfries dominate the skyline of many cities, with colossal Gothic cathedrals, charming town squares, and Flemish style houses adding to the charm of France’s north.
Capital of the Hauts-de-France region, and just a stone’s throw from the Belgian border is Lille, nicknamed La Capitale des Flandres. The Métropole Européenne de Lille (metropolitan area) is one of the top 5 largest in France, and forms a conurbation with the Belgian cities of cities of Kortrijk, Mouscron, Menin, and Tournai. Lille is well connected to cities such as Brussels, Paris, London and Amsterdam via the Eurostar train.
Lille is known for its charming old town, Vieux Lille, it’s grand historic architecture, and Flemish roots. The city of home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Beffroi de Lille (Lille Belfry). At 104 metres (341 feet), it is Europe’s highest belfry, and was completed in 1932 as part of the city’s post-war rebuilding. Vieux Lille is one of the most picturesque places to explore, with streets of ornate red-bricked Flemish buildings. Notable sights include the Hospice Comtesse Museum, the Cathedral Notre Dame de la Treille, and La Maison Natale de Charles de Gaulle, birthplace of the famed French general and president.
Other exceptional sights include the Lille Stock Exchange (La Vielle Bourse), often considered one of the city’s most beautiful buildings; the bustling square of the Grand Place; and the Palais des Beaux-Arts, one of France’s largest museums. At the start of September, one of the city’s biggest events is the Braderie de Lille, a street flea market that dates back to the 12th century.
The port city of Calais on the Atlantic coast is the closest French city to England, separated by the English Channel (La Manche) at its narrowest point. Just 34km (21 miles) away, the white cliffs of Dover can be spotted on a clear day. While Calais is most commonly known for its ferries to England, and the Channel Tunnel that arrives at nearby Coquelles, it is also an important historical city in its own right, with many notable sights.
Calais’ landmark building is the stunning Hôtel de Ville and Calais Belfry (Beffroi de l’Hôtel de Ville de Calais), part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Belfries of Belgium and France. In the Place d’Armes, the Tour du Guet is an imposing medieval century watchtower, completed in 1214. The 53 metre (174 feet) octagonal lighthouse is another of Calais’ superb structures.
An interesting look at the history of Calais is La Cité de la Dentelle et de la Mode, the museum of lace and fashion. For history lovers, the Musée de la Guerre is housed in a WW2 bunker, and details the story of Calais during the war.
The capital of the Picardy territory, Amiens is a historic city most known for its spectacular Cathedral (le Notre Dame d’Amiens), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city was fought over and occupied during both world wars, and large parts were rebuilt in a modern style.
In the pretty quarter of St Leu are a network of still canals that border small floating gardens known as hortillonnages. Traditional boats known as barque a cornet are a great way to see the gardens, and the birdlife that lives there. St Leu is packed with charming cafes and restaurants.
Elsewhere in Amiens is the Maison Jules Verne, known for its distinctive dome. The author lived for 18 years at the address, and wrote more than 30 books during his time there. Art lovers will also enjoy the Musée de Picardie, the most extensive collection of prehistory to 19th century art in the Picardy region. Other sights include the incredible Marie-sans-Chemise sculpture, and the Samara Arboretum, a prehistory park that educates visitors about the history of mankind.
Arras is a city in the north of France with a strong Flemish influence, seen in its historic Baroque townhouses. Like many cities in Hauts-de-France, Arras has an impressive UNESCO listed Belfry, Le Beffroi d’Arras, which stands adjacent to the city hall in the Place des Héros public square. Many of the townhouses that ring the square – 52 in total – are classified as historic monuments of France.
The city’s other UNESCO Site is the Citadelle d’Arras, a vast fortification on the city’s edge, designed by French military engineer Vauban. For history enthusiasts, Arras is a good jumping off point for many WW1 historical sites and cemetaries, which are found in the countryside outside Arras. Within the city is the Faubourg-d’Amiens War Cemetery, which has the graves of many combatants.
The coastal city of Dunkerque (Dunkirk) is perhaps best known for its spectacular – perhaps miraculous – rescue operation during WW2, to evacuate allied armies. However, the city has many historic landmarks, beaches, ships and museums to explore.
Dunkirk’s UNESCO World Heritage listed belfry, the Beffroi du Dunkerque is one of the city’s most beautiful sites, which stands alongside the Église Saint-Éloi church, which dates to 1567. The city’s oldest building is also a tower, the 30-metre high octagonal Tour du Leughenaer, which was built around 1450 as a lighthouse. It has the nickname the Liar’s Tower, with the legend going that the operators would intentionally use the lights to run ships aground to plunder them.
Dunkerque has a long beach which is popular with tourists, La Plage de Malo-les-Bains, known for its long stretches of sand and boardwalk perfect for walking. For those looking to learn more about the Dunkerque evacuation during WW2, the Dunkerque 1940 – Opération Dynamo Museum is filled with vehicles, uniforms and exhibitions.
Landscapes and Historic Regions in Hauts-de-France
The forests, maritime regions and coastal areas (and even industrialised landscapes) give Hauts-de-France a unique geography that is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs alike.
Le Côte d’Opale
Running for over 120km (75 miles) down the Atlantic coastline of Hauts-de-France is the area known as Le Côte d’Opale. Beginning at the Belgian border and stretching down to around the mouth of the Somme, the Opal Coast is known for its varied landscapes of beaches, sand dunes, cliffs, marshes and estuaries, as well as being a protected area for many species of wildlife. For visitors, it’s a popular area for walks, watersports, sailing, swimming and photography.
The Côte d’Opale has lots of impressive natural formations to visit. The Cap Blanc Nez is the northernmost cliff in France, made of white chalk stone and housing WW2-era bunkers; and Cap Gris Nez, the closest French point to England. Calais, Boulogne-Sur-Mer and Dunkerque lie on the coast, as do the seaside towns of Wimereux and Le Touquet, popular for their wonderful beach resorts and Belle Époque houses. The coast has much more to explore, such as the majestic castle of Château Hardelot, the Nausicaā Aquarium, and Musée du Mur de l’Atlantique (Museum of the Atlantic Wall).
Nausicaā Centre National de la Mer
Located on the Côte d’Opale is the Nausicaa Aquarium, Europe’s largest aquarium. Located in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, the aquarium’s most spectacular tank is the 10,000m³ tank filled with sharks, manta rays and fish. Glowing tanks of jellyfish, sea lion shows, penguin enclosures, and the shark tunnel are all highlights.
Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin
One of the region’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites is the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin, an area of 3,943 hectares (9,740 acres) near the Belgian border. It is a coal mining basin which was active from the 1700s to the 1900s during the Industrial Revolution. It encompasses 108 structures such as mining villages, stations and coal transport infrastructure, hoist frames, and spoil heaps, as well as social buildings such as churches and schools. With cities such as Lens as a base, tourists can visit the sites, seeing mining remnants such as the Loos-en-Gohelle twin slag heaps, the Mining History Centre, and the Mission Bassin Minier.
Compiègne Forest and the Armistice Clearing
In the Picardy region, north of Paris and near the city of Compiègne is the Forêt de Compiègne. A natural forest of beeches and oaks, it is home to many species of wildlife that include boar, deer and rabbit, making it a historic hunting ground for French kings. The forest is perhaps best known as the location of the signing of the Armistice of 11 November 1918, which ended WW1. Known as the Glade of the Armistice (Clairière de l’Armistice), the armistice was signed in a train carriage, of which a replica is now housed in a museum. The site was again used by Hitler to sign the 1940 Armistice after defeating France. The Alsace-Lorraine monument was destroyed, and the carriage brought to Berlin. The original carriage was destroyed towards the end of the war.
The Baie de Somme
One of France’s most beautiful natural sites is the Baie de Somme, a stretch of coastline marked by sandy islets, biodoverse swampland, dunes, and salt meadows. The bay is particularly rich in birdlife, such as water birds, birds of prey, and waders. The Park Marquenterre is a great place to see them.
The Bay of the Somme is a great place for outdoor activities, such as sand sailing on the sand flats, kayaking, boating, and hiking. The bay is also known for the scenic Somme Bay steam train, which connects Crotoy with Cayeux-Sur-Mer. The Baie d’Authe is a smaller bay with a selection of wild edible plants, and outstanding scenic walks.
Architecture of Hauts-de-France
Several of the buildings across Hauts-de-France are proudly recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and for good reason. Some of France’s most unique medieval and Renaissance buildings are located in the cities and towns of the region.
Belfries of Belgium and France
The Belfries of Belgium and France form a collective UNESCO World Heritage Site, with 56 belfries included in the list. The belfries are civic bell towers, distinct from castle keeps and church towers, built between the 11th and 17th centuries. They also served as watch towers, prisons, and were symbolic of wealth and prestige in the cities that built them.
Château de Chantilly
Located about 50km (30 miles) north of Paris, the Château de Chantilly is one of France’s most opulent castles. It was built around 1560 for Anne de Montmorency, in two parts, le Petit Château and le Grand Château. Le Grand Château was destroyed during the French Revolution, and rebuilt between 1885 and 1872. Today, the Château houses the 2nd largest collection of paintings in France, after the Louvre.
Château de Pierrefonds
One of the most impressive castles of the Hauts-de-France region is the Château de Pierrefonds, a castle which was renovated from a ruined state. The Castle was built between 1393 and 1407, and razed in 1617. For centuries it was a ruin, and was even purchased by Napoleon in 1810. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte commissioned its restoration in 1857 to bring it back to its former glory.
Battlefields of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme was fought during the First World War, between 1st July and 18th November 1916, north-east of Amiens. With over 3 million combatants, and an estimated one million wounded or killed, the Somme was one of the largest, costliest, and most destructive battles in human history.
Visitors who are interested in history can learn more about the battle, and pay respects at many of the commemorative sites. The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme near the village of Thiepval honours 72,337 British and South African servicemen with no grave. Known as the Remembrance Trail, other notable sights include the Péronne Historical Museum of the Great War, the Somme 1916 Museum in Albert, the Lochnagar Crater (the crater of one of the largest mines ever detonated in history), the Ulster Tower Memorial, and the Pozières memorials, to name a few.
One of France’s most popular amusement parks is Parc Asterix, based on the Asterix series of comics. France’s second most popular theme park after Disneyland, it was opened in 1989 in Plailly, about 35km (22 miles) north of Paris. Asterix is known for its theme of Gallic, Roman, Egyptian and Greek cartoon design, as well as its thrilling rides, which includes the fast wooden rollercoaster Tonnerre de Zeus (Zeus’ Thunder), OzIris (an inverted roller coaster with an Egyptian theme), and the Goudurix rollercoaster.
The Underground City of Naours (Cité Souterraine de Naours)
The limestone rock that makes up the plateau of Picardy proved to be ideal for quarries over the centuries, as well as tunnelling during the First World War. Naours was originally dug as a quarry in antiquity, and by the 17th century it was used to shelter as many as 3000 people at a time during the 30 years war. It functioned as a small city, with chapels, livestock and chimneys for smoke. Rediscovered in the 19th century, it was later used as a form of tourist attraction for soldiers during the WW1. Today, it is open to visitors, who can explore the tunnels, and view WW1-era soldier graffiti scrawled on the walls.
Eating And Drinking In Hauts-de-France
Drinking in Hauts-de-France
Owing to its proximity to Belgium, Hauts-de-France is a big producer of strong beer, known as Bière de Garde (beer for keeping). Historically, these strong pale ales were brewed in farmhouses during winter and autumn, and kept until spring. Many beers are still produced in farmhouses to this day. Notable brands include Ch’Ti, Brasserie de Saint-Sylvestre, Brasserie Theillier, and Brasserie Duyck.
Eating in Hauts-de-France
Dishes in Hauts-de-France are influenced by Belgian tastes, including using beer in cooking. Carbonnade Flamande (also known as Stoofvlees) is a dish made with beef, onions, and a generous amount of dark beer to create a strong, rich flavour. Thyme, mustard and juniper berries are often added as well. Ficelle Picardy (Picardy String) is another popular dish, a savoury pancake filled with cheese, mushrooms and ham, with a creamy sauce. Maroilles tart, salted lamb and mussels with fries are also popular regional dishes.
Hailing from Lille, Mimolette is one of the most famous cheeses of the region. It is a hard cows milk cheese with a parmesan-like taste. It is known for its distinctive spherical shape, bright orange colour and rind, often compared to a cantaloupe. Maroilles is a cheese that dates back to 962CE, created by monks in the Abbey of Maroilles. It is a soft cheese with a strong smell and a moist orange rind. One of the region’s stinkiest cheeses is Gris de Lille, a strong, salty cow’s milk cheese often enjoyed with a glass of beer.
Desserts of Hauts-de-France
Hauts-de-France is the birthplace of one of the most famous French dessert ingredients – Crème Chantilly. The fluffy, vanilla flavoured whipped cream is said to have originated in the kitchens of Château de Chantilly in 1671. It’s invention is usually attributed to chef François Vatel, who is said to have committed suicide in angst as supply problems threatened his preparations for a 2000-person banquet. Indeed, there are mentions of the cream centuries before, and Vatel’s tale is legend.
Popular desserts in Hauts-de-France include Palets des Dames, small vanilla-flavoured cookies with glazed white tops; macarons d’Amiens, a soft macaron made with ground almonds and fruit compote; and gaufres fourrée Lilloise, a sandwich of thin waffles filled with vergeoise (a filling of butter, sugar and rum).