In northern France’s mining country, Béthune is a cultured town that has come through the turmoil of the 20th century with a lot of poise.
Whether you’re a casual visitor or in town for the Christmas market, music festival or spring fair, the central Grand’Place will be your first stop.
It’s a picture postcard scene with quaint old houses in a mishmash of styles around a medieval belfry, itself a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The coalmines had all shut down by the 1990s, but traces remain at more than a hundred locations in the region.
If old heavy industry is your thing then you can have a field day at the old mines nearby.
Lets explore the best things to do in Bethune:
This marvellous central square is where it all happens in Béthune.
The Christmas market sets up here, as do town’s various celebrations in spring and summer.
There’s the imposing town hall, the medieval belfry and rows of lovely Baroque-style houses.
Many of these are implausibly narrow, and each one has its own personality; there are gables in all styles and materials.
Some houses have sculpted stone, others have bricks, and yet more have a combination of the two.
But what may surprise you most is that nearly everything you see was levelled in May 1918. The square was rebuilt in a Neo-Regionalist style between in 1923-27.
Béthune’s belfry is at the centre of the Grand’Place and one of 23 belfries in the region to be classed as a World Heritage site.
You can tell at first glance that it’s a very old monument: The first belfry was made of wood in 1346, but was replaced by this sandstone tower 40 years later.
Amazingly this same building survived the devastation of 1918, needing only restoration to its clock, charred stones and campanile.
Béthune’s tourist office organises regular guided visits to look inside, go to the top for the best view of Grand’Place and see the 35-bell carillon.
3. Hôtel de ville
If there’s a building that encapsulates that fusion of historical and 20th-century architecture it’s the town hall.
Like the rest of the square it was reduced to rubble in the First World War, and the replacement, built in the late 20s, is both dainty and imposing.
The Town Hall has the highest gable of any building on the square, fashioned from stone with ornamental reliefs that mix Art Deco and Regionalism.
Get up close to see the ironwork on the doors and balcony, and if you get the chance to go inside there’s some beautiful Art Deco stained glass to see.
4. Église Saint-Vaast de Béthune
That trend of old and new continues at the town’s church, the enormous brick bell-tower of which looms behind the houses at Grand’Place.
This tower is 67 metres tall in a Gothic Revival style but at the tower’s base the church takes on an eastern, Byzantine appearance.
The entire edifice was built from scratch in the mid-1920s to replace a Renaissance church ordered by Charles V. Sandstone from that building was actually recycled after the First World War to help restore the belfry and houses on the square.
If you need an excuse to go in it’s to see the phenomenal stained glass, fashioned by the master glassmaker Charles Champigneulle, recounting the history of Béthune and the story of Saint-Vaast.
5. Lab Labanque
The town’s old branch of the Bank of France is a grand edifice on Place Georges Clèmenceau.
After shutting down permanently some years back, this grand mansion has been turned into a stylish contemporary arts venue.
It’s a multidisciplinary space, with studios and galleries hosting exhibitions of photography, illustration, graphic design, painting, video art, sculpture and applied art.
The galleries are open in the afternoon, so if you fancy a dose of local culture you can pop in or find out what’s on at Béthune’s tourist office.
6. Théâtre de Béthune
The fate of Béthune’s theatre mirrors the rest of the town.
The first building was finished in 1912 but didn’t survive the First World War.
It was rebuilt in the 20s, but then destroyed again in the Second World War.
But finally, the current version has been in place since 1961 and can hold close to 1,000 spectators.
It’s a fine Neo-Baroque building, in keeping with Béthune’s style.
And if you’re up for an evening out there’s live music (classical or new), dance, humour, as well as both serious plays and bawdy “Boulevard theatre” (think farces and sex comedies).
7. Musée de la Mine de Noeux-les-Mines
Béthune is on the edge of a massive coalfield, stretching across much of the east side of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.
There were no collieries in the town, but the nearest were a few kilometres away and several mining companies were headquartered in Béthune.
There’s an interesting piece of this heritage at a former apprenticeship centre.
Kids aged 14 years old would take their first steps underground , learning the mining trade in these tunnels.
Around 200 metres of galleries have been preserved, and there’s an exhibition room with tools, models and minerals, as well as a 20-minute video about the site and mining in the Nord region.
8. More Mining Heritage
The UNESCO-listed Nord-Pas de Calais mining basin consists of more than 100 individual sites.
If you’re fascinated by industrial heritage you’re in for a treat in Béthune as there are headframes, slag heaps (some ridiculously huge), yet more mines, company headquarters, entire villages and preserved homes, all easy to reach.
This could be the enormous mine at Lewarde, now reopened as the outstanding Centre Historique Minier.
Or it might be a much more intimate, but no less moving attraction, like the humble Maison du Minier next-door in Annezin.
Here an early-20th-century miner’s cottage has been frozen in time.
There are three more mining museums close by in Auchel, Bruay-la-Buissière and Marles-les-Mines.
9. Musée Régional d’Ethnologie de Béthune
If you have some time to kill in Béthune you could spend it at the town’s ethnology museum.
This is in the red brick Chapelle de Saint-Pry.
The museum paints a clear picture of regional identity, traditional trades and day-to-day life in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais over the last few centuries.
After decades of donations there’s now a collection of 30,000 objects here, mostly from the 1700s to the present day.
There are also local artefacts, discovered in excavations and dating to the Greco-Roman, Merovingian and Medieval periods.
10. Parc d’Olhain
Parents with kids in tow in summer could bring them to this 450-hectare activity park to cut loose for a few hours.
The park is free to enter and then you pay for individual activities like mini-golf, a luge ride, swimming and a cool adventure course suspended by nets above the forest floor.
If you’re feeling sporty you could rent the tennis courts or play nine holes at the golf course.
There are also hiking and cycling trails in the forest, with bikes, segways and other equipment for hire.
11. Louvre Lens
The city of Lens is under 20 kilometres down the road, and merits a day out for its brand new visitor attractions.
As a former mining centre it has found a new identity following the industry’s demise in the 20th century.
And in 2012 the Louvre opened its first ever satellite museum on the site of an old mine.
Loucre Lens is in a surreal glass building, and has temporary loans from the Louvre in Paris.
Over the last few years there have been shows for Leonardo da Vinci and Rubens.
There’s also a fantastic permanent gallery charting thousands of years of art, from a Babylonian bust to 19th-century French sculpture.
12. Lens 14-18 – Great War Museum
This show-stopping war museum opened in 2015 and maps the First World War in Artois and French Flanders.
It’s a wonderful complement to the various war memorials and cemeteries in the region.
The museum handles a historic subject in a contemporary way, with innovative museography and minimalist design.
You’ll pore over 3D maps, archive footage, photography and artefacts like guns, personal items and fragments of lost civilian structures.
The building deserves a mention, as the galleries are housed in sombre black concrete cubes, described as “chapels”. Entry is also totally free, and you rent an audioguide in English, French, Dutch and German.
If you can’t get enough of Béthune’s Grand’Place, the central square in Arras is not to be missed.
But where Béthune’s Grand’Place is a pleasing muddle of styles, Arras has gone for uniformity.
At the Grand-Place d’Arras there are 155 houses in a 17th-century Flemish Baroque style, with graceful curving gables.
These all have a continuous arcade on the ground floor, with bars and restaurants adding extra life and sociability.
Grand-Place’s smaller sister, Place des Héros is also beautiful, and you can check out the Gothic town hall and belfry and go underground in Les Boves, medieval chalk caves that became a place of refuge in the First World War.
In the opposite direction, to the northwest, Aire-sur-la-Lays is a very cute town, with its own belfry and a clutch of delightful Flemish architecture.
See Le Baillage, built at the end of the 16th century and facing the Grande Place.
It’s a blend of brick and stone, with intricate carvings and an arcade on its ground floor.
The belfry is in the Baroque style and is among the 23 listed by UNESCO, and was reconstructed in the 1920s.
Be sure to see the sublime Church of Saint-Pierre, which has a Flamboyant Gothic design and is like a cathedral in miniature.
15. Regional Cuisine
Something very specific to this town is Fort de Béthune: This is a sort of savoury paste made with powerful maroilles cheese, seasoned and blended with brandy and spices like cumin.
It was rocket fuel miners who would spread it on bread in the morning and chase it with strong black coffee! In Arras the local delicacy is the andouillette (there’s even a festival for it here), a coarse tripe sausage eaten with French fries and a mustard sauce.
Also try flamiche au maroilles, a tart made with bread dough, crème fraîche and strong mairolles chees.
Always popular are Flemish specialities like carbonade flamade (beef and beer stew) and moules-frites (mussels with French fries).