“Venice of the North” sounds like an nickname that would be hard to live up to. But Amiens, with its floating gardens and pretty canal district, does a fantastic job.
You could catch a barge and cruise through the Hortillonnages, historic farmland reclaimed in the middle ages from former marshes, or stop at a canal-side cafe on a cobblestone street in Saint-Leu.
And we haven’t even mentioned Amiens’ World Heritage cathedral yet, which has the tallest nave in France and is rammed with priceless gothic and renaissance art.
In Amiens you can go even further back in time, as humans have been living here since the middle Pleistocene epoch, around 350,000 years ago. You can get anthropological at the Parc de Samara, which recreates prehistoric dwellings, or at Musée de Picardie where local artefacts are displayed.
Lets explore the best things to do in Amiens:
1. Amiens Cathedral
All kind of ingredients come together to make this one of the world’s great cathedrals, and it’s no wonder that the monument is a UNESCO site.
First, the dimensions: Amiens Cathedral was built when the goal was to flood the nave with light, and to do this the structure needed to be as high as possible.
At over 42 metres, the nave at Amiens is only surpassed in France by Beauvais Cathedral, which couldn’t support its own weight.
You have to see the renaissance oak choir stalls inside, and the sublime polychrome sculpture from the 15th and 16th centuries.
But even before you enter you may lose minutes in awe at the gothic carvings on the western facade and southern portal.
On summer evenings these are rendered in colourful light for Amiens’ “Son et Lumière” shows.
2. Les Hortillonnages
On the western side of Amiens, within walking distance of the cathedral, the city gives way to a 65-kilometre network of canals coursing through reclaimed farmland with small houses.
These floating gardens are the vegetable plots of the “hortillons”, market gardeners who have been working these lands since medieval times.
The real way to see this idyllic man-made landscape is on a flat-bottomed “barque” tour, which takes about 45 minutes and gives you titbits about the how the gardens were formed.
You could then strike out on your own on foot and take extra time to photograph the pretty little bridges that cross the canals.
A few steps from the cathedral the streets are laced with waterways branching off the River Somme.
You could pass a gentle afternoon ambling by the canals with painted old houses that would have had waterwheels attached in the middle ages.
Rue d’Engoulevent, Rue du Don and Rue du Pont À Moinet are supremely pretty, but the whole area warrants exploration.
For a long time this district of Amiens was down at heel, but now there are cafes, restaurants and trendy bars, and a buzzing, young atmosphere thanks to the many students.
On the third Sunday in June the hortillons punt their way along the Somme in their “barques à cornet” to sell their flowers and vegetables from the dock in Saint-Leu.
4. Maison de Jules Verne
The red-brick Maison à la Tour at 2, Rue Charles Dubois was Jules Verne’s home for 18 years until his death in 1905. The building is named for a quirky tower, capped by a domed skylight that illuminates the spiral staircase you’ll use to make your way around this riveting attraction.
Fans of Verne’s books will get chills knowing he wrote 30 novels right at this address, and the house is filled with his personal items, memorabilia and an archive of his writings.
The house’s third floor has been designed to look like the bridge of the Nautilus submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
5. Musée de Picardie
Since it opened in 1867 the Musée de Picardie has been held as a provincial museum without rival.
As well as the usual sumptuous collection of paintings from the 1400s to the 1900s there are exhibits that tell you more about Picardy’s ancient past and prehistory.
You’ll see Palaeolithic hand-axes, Neolithic pottery and weapons from the Bronze Age, all excavated close by.
More recent are the everyday glassware and a legionary’s pack from Roman times, and there’s a stunning 13th-century enamel dove made in Limoges.
And as for the art collection, it’s as good as you’d hope, with pieces by El Greco, Courbet, Jacob Jordaens, Anthony van Dyck and Camille Corot, just by way of an introduction.
Albert Roze was a sculptor who was born in Amiens and worked here for his whole career.
In 1897 he created his most famous work, “Marie-sans-Chemise” (Marie, shirtless) , which created a stir at the time: The statue is an allegory of Spring and now sits at the corner of Rue des Sergents and Rue des Crignons.
Roze also created the sculpture for Jules Verne’s tomb, which you can visit in Amiens.
The beautiful rococo-style clock that accompanies Marie-sans-Chemise was made by the architect Émile Ricquier and has three faces that were once lit with gas lights.
7. Zoo d’Amiens
You won’t need to look far for things to do with kids in Amiens as the city’s zoo is right next to the centre.
The setting is as green as can be, in 6.5 hectares of woodland with many trees more than 100 years old.
Enclosures are along nature trails and feature anything from African elephants to dwarf goats.
There are 300 animals in total, from around 70 different species.
Where possible the enclosures are bounded by natural obstructions like moats, and by 2019 the park expects to have created even more enclosures.
For now it will take you about two or three hours to see everything.
8. Parc de Samara
You can have the anthropological outing of a lifetime at this educational attraction just west of Amiens.
Starting with Cro-Magnon Man and leading all the way up to Roman times you’ll get to know how our distant ancestors lived and track the evolution of human technology.
It’s a thoroughly hands-on attraction too, as each little settlement has huts with workshops, where enthusiastic staff demonstrate prehistoric or ancient crafts like pottery, smithing, basket-weaving, wood-carving and even the basic skill of starting a fire.
The park covers 100 hectares and also includes a hedge labyrinth inspired by the one at Amiens cathedral, and an arboretum with reindeer from Scandinavia.
9. Cimetière de la Madeleine
Jules Verne’s resting place is one of the things to see at this 19th-century cemetery on the nothwestern outskirts of the city.
But that’s not the only reason to come, as the graveyard is in 18 hectares of hilly woodland and is presented to the public as a calm and leafy place to learn about the kind of wealth that Amiens enjoyed in the 1800s.
There are many ornate tombs and funerary statues belonging to industrialists and other wealthy families, some the worse for wear after 150 years of erosion.
Verne’s memorial, with that sculpture by Albert Roze, has been restored and looks brand new, a physical manifestation of his lasting memory.
10. Tour Perret
This 110-metre residential skyscraper looks like nothing else in Amiens, and was built right after the war as part of a plan to redevelop the area around the city’s train station.
Auguste Perret was a pioneer of modern architecture, and was also called on to rebuild the entire centre of Le Havre.
His work there has since earned UNESCO status, and the tower in Amiens deserves a closer look, even if it has been closed to the public for many years.
If by day the concrete tower looks a little austere, at night it’s awash with colour due to an LCD lighting system added in 2005
11. Cité Souterraine de Naours
About 20 minutes north of Amiens is the town of Naours, where for more than a millennium the population would seek refuge underground in a sophisticated network of limestone tunnels.
They were begun in the year 800 and would be needed on and off long into the future because of the catalogue of invasions and wars that beset this much fought-over region of the country.
You’ll be guided 33 metres beneath a hill into more than 2 kilometres of galleries, learning about the salt smugglers who used the system to avoid Louis XVI’s salt tax and how the German and British armies used the tunnels in both wars.
12. Musée Lombart
A few minutes past Naours you can stop in Doullens for this enthralling museum created by Jules François Lombart, a 19th-century chocolate manufacturer.
The attraction, with a purpose-built venue, opened in 1908 to great fanfare: The Minister of Agriculture and other dignitaries from Paris made their way to the event.
There are paintings by great French School artists such as Camille Corot, Jean Siméon Chardin and Charles-François Daubigny.
But what’s also fun about the museum is how eccentric the collections are, ranging from samurai armour and ancient weapons to Egyptian mummies from the 18th Dynasty, 3,500 years ago.
13. Cycling in the Noye Valley
If you’ve brought your bike or want to rent one the tourist office in Amiens can set you up with some smart ideas for days out.
One would be a 31-kilometre way-marked trail in the bucolic landscapes along the Noye River, just to the southeast of Amiens.
You’ll ride through disarmingly pretty villages like La Faloirse, Chirmont and Sourdon, all with traditional houses and locations rich in local folklore.
At Folleville there’s a UNESCO-listed church and the haunting ruins of a medieval castle, while the lake at Berny-sur-Noye has pedalos and crazy golf in summer.
14. Somme River Trips
Guided canoe excursions are offered on the Somme in summer, and a favourite trip is to float down the river for two hours from Ailly-sur-Somme to Picquigny, both just a few minutes in the car from Amiens.
You’ll be struck by the calmness of the countryside as you go, and if you’re quiet the river’s wildlife will make an appearance.
Herons, little grebes, kingfishers, deer, dragonflies and all sorts of amphibians make a habitat on the banks.
And when you’re on dry land in Picquigny the medieval village will be yours to explore: Ramble up to the ruins of the castle, which reign over the village and the green valley that cradles it.
Thanks partly to this lush, fertile countryside around the city, Amiens has a serious culinary pedigree.
Of the many local delicacies to try are duck pâté, made with brandy, truffles, apple and pork belly, or on the sweet side, Macarons d’Amiens, composed of almond paste, eggs and honey.
The vegetable gardens in the local wetlands have given rise to the Soupe des Hortillons, a spring vegetable soup with broccoli, carrots and cabbage.
And for a warming main course see if you can find Ficelle Picarde, a regional crêpe stuffed with ham, onions, mushrooms, covered with grated cheese and baked in the oven.