More tons of fish are landed at Boulogne than any other fishing port in the country.
The sea is the soul of this city; the Romans launched their invasion of Britain from here, and Napoleon would have done the same in the first years of the 19th century, while a few decades later there was a British invasion, of holidaymakers to Boulogne’s beach.
The big tourist attraction these days is Nausicaä, France’s National Sea Centre and a first-rate aquarium that young ones will be wild for.
There’s loads of history too, at the marvellous cathedral crypt or in the intact walls of the Ville Fortifiée.
When the weather’s good in summer the beaches are as good as ever, and packed with facilities to make things even more comfortable.
Lets explore the best things to do in Boulogne sur Mer:
It’s fitting that France’s National Sea Centre should be in Boulogne, where ambitious seaborne invasions have been plotted and where France’s most productive fishing port is located.
Nausicaá is directly on the harbour and is among the largest aquariums in Europe.
Kids will get the most from the attraction, being able to go face-to-face with sharks, caiman in the mangrove area and tropical fish on a coral reef, and now they can also see what certain species feel like in the “tactile pool”. In the last decade or so Nausicaá has also added spaces for African penguins and Californian sea lions, both definite crowd-pleasers.
2. Boulogne Cathedral
As happened to many cathedrals Boulogne’s strictly ceased to be a true cathedral in 1801 when the Concordat restructured France’s dioceses after the Revolution.
This was the least of its problems, as the glorious old gothic building was pulled down during the upheaval and much of its interior decoration burned.
What greets us now is an imposing neo-Renaissance minor basilica, that went up between 1827 and 1863. Benoît Haffreingue, the architect, was a priest with no formal training, and his unusual design started suffering structural problems not long after it was built.
This led to it being reinforced with concrete, which, ironically, helped it survive the war.
3. Cathedral Crypt
When work started in 1827 the workmen happened upon a crypt of astounding dimensions that had been sealed up for as much as 300 years.
The crypt measures 128 by 42 metres, making it the largest in France, and the oldest vestiges are from the 3rd century.
It’s a labyrinth of subterranean chambers and passageways, with painted walls, ceilings and columns in romanesque and gothic styles.
In 2015 the crypt reopened with new lighting, museography and fabulous liturgical treasures and sculpture dating from the 1100s.
4. Ville Fortifiée
Encasing the upper town where the Boulogne Cathedral and the Château Comtal are found is an intact wall, roughly in the outline of a large rectangle.
The current walls may have gained their current appearance in the 1300s, but the layout goes back to Roman “Bounonia”, when this castrum would have had a key role in the Claudian invasion of Britain, and hasn’t deviated since then.
The walls go on for 1.5 kilometres and it’s a simple, not very taxing walk with lots of engaging things to see, including 20 towers, stone passageways, gates, a moat and a the gorgeous arched bridge that connects to the Château Comtal.
There are also loads of cute little parks where you can pause on a bench to soak up the views.
5. Beffroi de Boulogne-sur-Mer
The belfries of northern France and Flanders are one UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Boulogne has a fine one, attached to Boulogne’s town hall.
This was in fact a keep for a castle, built for the Count of Boulogne in the 1100s and is all that is left of it.
The belfry was also one of the only historic monuments in the city to get through Second World War unscathed.
In medieval days the bell in the tower had a vital social function, while the city seal and charter would be stored in the tower for safe-keeping.
The uppermost floors have an octagonal shape, and this section was added at the start of the 18th century to replace a timber spire that burned down.
6. Musée de Boulogne-sur-Mer
The Château de Boulogne-sur-Mer has its origins in the 1200s and is in the eastern corner of the fortified upper town.
The appearance has changed a lot since then, mostly because of the advent of artillery in the 16th and 17th century.
In the basement you’ll find the stonework of those original Roman walls, while the museum’s very diverse treasures go back to the old cabinets of curiosity from the 17th and 18th centuries.
There are Grecian urns, a Theban Mummy, together with medieval and Roman artefacts more local to Boulogne.
As for fine art, you have two bronzes by Rodin and paintings by Marten de Vos, Adriaen Brouwer, Boudin, Corot and Courbet.
7. La Maison de la Beurière
Boulogne is anchored in the fishing industry and near the water across from Nausicaa is what was once the port’s fisherman’s quarter.
Sadly a lot of the old cottages were wiped out in the war, but this one is standing strong and gives you an uncommon insight into the life of a fisherman and his family in Boulogne at the start of the 20th century.
Up to 15 people would have to live in a home like this, and you’ll get to see their furniture, everyday belongings, tools of the fishing trade and a variety of photos and videos documenting the port at this time.
8. La Plage
Sweeping out between Nausicaa and the yachting club is Boulogne’s sandy beach, which has been attracting bathers since the 1830s.
By the middle of that century the city would be the most populous in Pas-de-Calais, drawing some 30,000 Brits in summer, all visiting for the waters and sea air.
There are lifeguards in July and August, and if you decide to come on an impulse you can hire deckchairs, beach huts, parasols and even towels.
Some days can be pretty blustery, and this is when the sand-yachters and kitesurfers are out in force.
9. Fish Market
One for the early risers, on Quai Gambetta, close to the Pont Marguet is Boulogne’s daily fish market.
Get there at 7.00 to see the fishermen unloading their trawlers, and wander around the stalls where 70 varieties of fish and seafood are on sale and you’re allowed to pick up live crabs and lobsters to inspect them.
You also have a grocery market close by, which is a handy place to stock up on cheese and charcuterie to take home with you.
For a glimpse of Boulogne’s wholesale fish industry, in summer the tourist office offers guided visits to La Criée, the high-tech morning fish auction in the port.
10. Opal Coast
Boulogne is right on the protected Opal Coast, which runs both north and south from the city.
It’s a natural park of widescreen sandy beaches, dunes and most beloved for the giant cliffs that are capped with pasture bright with wildflowers like thrift and sea pink in spring.
Things start to get dramatic a few kilometres north of Boulogne: Cap Gris-Nez protrudes into the channel and is the closest point in mainland France to England.
This is an ancient vantage point, where on clear days you can identify every large vessel sailing through the Straits of Dover and make out the white sliver of the Cliffs of Dover in the distance.
The awesome Cap Blanc-Nez is a little further and peaks at 132 metres.
11. Colonne de la Grande Armée
Between 1803 and 1805 more than 200,000 troops were assembled in Boulogne and neighbouring ports for an invasion of Britain that never took place.
At this time the port in Boulogne was also revamped in preparation for a flotilla of invasion barges.
The Colonne de la Grande Armée was erected in 1804 at Wimille on the site of the camp on the northern edge of Boulogne to bolster the morale of the troops.
The column is 50 metres, with Napoleon at the top looking over the channel towards England.
You can scale the stairway for a panorama of Boulogne.
12. Hôtel Desandrouin
Despite being compact, the walled upper town packs a number of monuments that you could add to your walking tour.
The most intriguing is the Hôtel Desandrouin on Place Godefroy de Bouilloy.
Also known as the Palais Impérial, it was built in the late 1770s in the neoclassical style that was en vogue in the reign of Louis XVI. In the days of the Camp de Boulogne this building was the staff headquarters for the army, and Napoleon stayed several times between 1803 and 1811. Guided tours are available with an advanced booking in summer.
13. Casa San Martin
You may not know that one of South America’s most revered and important 19th-century military figures spent the last two years of his life in Boulogne.
José de San Martín was the Argentine general who helped bring about the liberation of his own country in 1816, as well as Chile in 1817 and Peru in 1812. He and his family had their apartment on the second floor, and the building is still decorated with furniture, uniforms and a variety of the general’s other possessions.
14. Dunes d’Écault
For those craving immense seascapes, just go ten minutes down the coast to Équihen-Plage, at the northern limit of the Écault dunes.
The GR 121 walking trail meanders through this protected environment, into forest, marshes and up dunes that rise sharply to heights of 90 metres.
Needless to say, the views of the massive Écault beach at low tide are invigorating and a trek in the natural park is an ideal prelude to a hearty meal in autumn and winter.
War-time bunkers are also an eerie mainstay of the dunes.
As France’s foremost fishing port it follows that Boulogne’s diet should draw on the sea.
Kipper (smoked herring), mackerel in white wine and rollmops (herring rolled around a pickle) are as authentic as it gets.
But many people come to the coast specifically for the mussels, simmered either with shallots and muscadet, or tomato and Provence herbs, accompanied with fries and a dry white wine.
In traditional brasseries you could tuck into an indulgent “Welsh”, literally a Welsh rarebit (melted cheese and mustard on bread), which are served all over the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.