15 Best Places to Visit in Northern France

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
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It’ difficult to encapsulate the sheer variety in France’s Northern Regions, and how somewhere like Brittany can have such a different character to its neighbour Normandy.

If you’re pondering where to go, this list may give you some holiday inspiration.

There’s a mixture of famous cities with spectacular monuments, and old villages in which hardly a brick has been moved in hundreds of years.

You’ll also find out about the historical figures associated with each place, from William the Conqueror and Joan of Arc to Claude Monet and Jules Verne.

Lets explore the best places to visit in the North of France:

1.  Lille

LilleSource: MisterStock / Shutterstock

Right against the border with Belgium, Lille wasn’t even part of France until a siege by Louis XIV in 1667. Up to then it had been firmly Flemish, within the Duchy of Burgundy.

This Belgian influence manifests itself in the architecture of beautiful Vieux-Lille, at Grand’Place and Place Rihour.

See the 16th-century Vieille Bourse, with its Flemish mannerist style, and the neo-Flemish building for the Voix du Nord newspaper.

As you wander these cobblestone streets you’ll be enticed by another Belgian hallmark: The sweet smell of waffles.

The cuisine is Flemish too, an nothing beats carbonnade flamande (beef stew) on wintry days.

2. Quimper

QuimperSource: makasana photo / Shutterstock

In an idyllic green valley where the Steir and Odet Rivers join, this dreamy city is the capital of Brittany’s Finistère department.

You could pass a carefree afternoon simply walking the streets, admiring the 17th century colombage houses or taking in the city from the bridges on the Odet.

If you need refreshment after walking these cute, pedestrianised streets, just plonk yourself at a crêperie or bar for a glass of Breton cider.

A lot of the architecture is from a time when Quimper generated a lot of wealth through its hand-painted faience ceramics, still sold by many shops in the historic centre.

But there’s an obvious sight you have to tick off: The medieval cathedral with its famous twin spires.

3. Arras

ArrasSource: Production Perig / Shutterstock

You could come to this city just to see its great squares: The Grand’Place and the Place des Héros, will tell you almost everything you need to know about Arras.

They total 17,000 square metres and have rows of exquisite houses in the Flemish-Baroque style.

These are from the 17th and 18th century, and have arcades on the ground floor.

You’ll want to inspect each one closely, as there’s always a piece of sculpture or other unique feature to meet your gaze.

Beneath these squares is a large system of tunnels dug in the sandstone over centuries and used as shelters during the many wars that have beset this part of France.

You can explore these, as well as the UNESCO-listed belfry – if you don’t mind climbing the 326 steps to the top!

4. Honfleur

HonfleurSource: RossHelen / Shutterstock

Chances are you may already know Honfleur, even if you’ve never been there.

That’s because the harbour at this seaside town in Normandy has been the subject of paintings by Monet, Courbet, Eugène Boudin, among many others.

It’s an image you need to see for yourself from Quai Saint-Etienn, gazing across at the implausibly narrow old fishing houses, many clad with slate.

This isn’t the only wonder in Honfleur ; another is the all-wood Sainte-Catherine Church, built by ship carpenters in the 16th-century and separated from its equally endearing bell-tower in case of fire.

Both were crafted without the use of saws, as the shipbuilders of Honfleurs preferred axes, in a Norman tradition that went back to before William the Conqueror.

5. La Roche-Guyon

La Roche-GuyonSource: Ekaterina Pokrovsky / Shutterstock
La Roche-Guyon

On  a bend in the River Seine, La Roche-Guyon is a lovely old settlement at the foot of a château built into a cliff in the 1100s to control the river crossing.

It’s open to the public, and you can get a sense of the ingenuity here, with a keep connected to the lower fortress by tunnels cut from the rock.

The view from the tower, and the path on the ridge behind will be the pride of your facebook page! A few minutes away in Giverny is Monet’s house, which is exactly how the famous artist left it.

Even if you’re not a student of his art you’ll know many of the scenes in the gardens, which Monet painted many times.

6. Amiens

AmiensSource: zjtmath / Shutterstock

One building that can’t be avoided in Amiens, visually or otherwise, is the enormous gothic cathedral.

It’s a World Heritage site, and is one of the largest medieval churches in the world, filled with precious sculpture, both on the jaw-dropping west facade and inside, and with a soaring nave and choir that are flushed with light by the innumerable stained glass windows.

There’s also no denying the charm of the Saint-Leu quarter on the north side of the cathedral.

It’s where much of the city’s nightlife can be found, in a neighbourhood of little brick or timber houses next to canals.

Jules Verne also lived in the city for the last two decades of his life, and his house is now a museum, full of little curiosities to thrill fans of his work.

7. Rouen

RouenSource: Catarina Belova / Shutterstock

A weekend is not nearly enough to see and do everything in Rouen: This city on the Seine is Normandy’s cultural and historic capital, a historic river port where English kings held court in the middle ages, and where Joan of Arc met her end at just 19. There’s a new museum to this French heroine in the city, appropriate given the medieval feel of the place.

The old quarter is an evocative maze of creaking timber-framed houses ushering you to sights like the Gros Horloge, an astronomical clock from the 1300s, or the cathedral, once the tallest building in the world.

Monet famously painted the cathedral in a series of works done in different lights and seasons of the year.

8. Saint-Valery-sur-Somme

Saint-Valery-sur-SommeSource: Ropi / Shutterstock

Joan of Arc is the thread between Rouen and this seaside commune at the mouth of the Somme in Picardy.

She was held here before being dispatched to Rouen for her execution.

Saint-Valery was host to a number of interesting events like this because of its strategic position, on a promontory next to the Estuary.

The high old quarter, a former citadel, still has its ramparts, and the original gates still mark the entrance to this part of the town.

On the water Saint-Valery is equally quaint with a boardwalk that goes on for a couple of kilometres, passing painted fishing cottages and plush old villas, while giving perfect vistas of the Somme Estuary all the way over to Le Crotay on the other side.

9. Lyons-la-Forêt

Lyons-la-ForêtSource: Joao Paulo V Tinoco / Shutterstock

In Haute Normandie, this small town is surrounded by the kind of idyllic farmland that people dream of when they think of the Norman and Breton countryside.

This is known as “bocage”, pasture for cattle and orchards bounded by thickets.

Lyons-la-Forêt is also one of those classic villages with timber-framed houses, kept almost exactly as it was in the 1600s after it was rebuilt following a fire.

What’s great about Lyons-la-Forêt is that it also feels lived in: The covered marketplace and its wooden columns still shelters market stalls on Thursdays and the shops all around buzz with trade.

10. Beuvron-en-Auge

Beuvron-en-AugeSource: Borisb17 / Shutterstock

Normandy is loved for its many towns and villages with half-timbered (colombage) houses, but few are as beautiful as the little village of Beuvon-en-Auge.

The star here is a 15th-century manor house, with cream-coloured daub and a jaunty turret on one corner.

There’s a small square where you could sit for a few moments, and every direction you look there’ll be a charming old house with a cafe, restaurant or village amenities, all decorated with geraniums and other flowers.

You’re in Normandy’s cider country in Beuvron-en-Auge so there’s no excuse not to have a glass of cider or Calvados, apple brandy.

11. Le Havre

Le HavreSource: Yuryev Pavel / Shutterstock
Le Havre

Where most of Northern France’s favourite tourist destinations are medieval settlements with ramparts and wooden houses, Le Havre is one for those who appreciate modern architecture.

After this port city was badly damaged in the war, the city consulted the architect Auguste Perret whose designs recently earned the city World Heritage status.

One that mesmerises all-comers is St.

Joseph’s Church, the 107-metre tower of which is held up only by the concrete’s internal reinforcement.

You can pause beneath this hollow structure, lit by geometric stained glass windows, and just stare in awe! The modernist Hôtel de Ville has a lookout from its gallery, while you’ll also struggle to miss Oscar Niemeyer’s Cultural Centre, known as “The Volcano”.

12.  Vannes

VannesSource: DaLiu / Shutterstock

Set in Morbihan, this old city is blessed with nearly all the things people associate with the best of Brittany.

It’s a walled city, with ramparts still in place and enclosing quaint streets and squares with overhanging half-timbered houses.

Some of these are five storeys tall, with beams buckled from the weight, and you’ll be left wondering how they’re still standing.

The suitably grand entrance to old Vannes is the baroque Porte Saint-Vincent, named for the city’s patron saint.

Equally splendid are the Jardins des Remparts, flawless parterres on the west side of the walls.

13. Bayeaux

BayeauxSource: Julian Gazzard / Shutterstock

The first thing many will picture when they think of Bayeaux is the tapestry, and with good reason.

It’s a lasting piece of medieval storytelling, and the purpose-built museum presents it such a way that you can see the individual stitching made almost 1,000 years ago.

As you come to the city, the tapestry may dominate your plans, but what dominates the city is the gothic and romanesque cathedral completed in 1077: William the Conqueror was here for the consecration.

There are also several sites relevant to the Normandy Invasion in 1944, including the British War Cemetery and the Museum of the Battle of Normandy.

14. Reims

ReimsSource: Boris Stroujko / Shutterstock

As with Bayeaux you may have only one thing on your mind when you come to this city in Champagne.

Most of the most vaunted champagne houses are headquartered in Reims, and nearly all open their doors for walking tours of the caves, and tasting sessions.

Reims’ chalky foundations has a part to play in this, as the man-made caves underneath the city provide just the right environment for champagne to ferment in the bottle.

Start with Maison Veuve, Clicquot, Tattinger and Lanson, and you’ll still hardly have popped the cork! In between tastings, you have to spare some time for the cathedral, not least because it was where almost every King of France was crowned.

15. Beauvais

BeauvaisSource: Arndale / Shutterstock

The highlight of this city in Picardy is the exquisite “unfinished” cathedral, which would have been the largest building in the world had it been completed.

Unfortunately the design was too ambitious and there were fatal structural problems, though it does still contain the highest gothic vault ever built.

Around this buildings are lots of intriguing old sights from the 1100s to the 1500s, like the Episcopal palace, which now contains exhibitions about the history of the Oise Department, of which Beauvais is the capital.

On Rue de Paris to the south of the city,  spend some time at the Maladerie, a 12th-century hospital for plague and lepers victims, run by monks.

15 Best Places to Visit in Northern France:

  • 1.  Lille
  • Quimper
  • Arras
  • Honfleur
  • La Roche-Guyon
  • Amiens
  • Rouen
  • Saint-Valery-sur-Somme
  • Lyons-la-Forêt
  • Beuvron-en-Auge
  • Le Havre
  • 12.  Vannes
  • Bayeaux
  • Reims
  • Beauvais