15 Best Things to Do in Calais (France)

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
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A major port for centuries, and France’s historic gateway to England, Calais hasn’t always been in the news for the right reasons. Many people rush by on their way to Paris or more picturesque places in northern France. But if you have an open mind there’s a lot to keep you occupied.

The ever-present belfry is a UNESCO site, and just opposite is one of Auguste Rodin’s most acclaimed works. You can immerse yourself in the history of Calais’ lace mills and go underground in a preserved Nazi bunker.

Lets explore the best things to do in Calais:

1. Town Hall

Town HallSource: Josh Carter / shutterstock
Town Hall

Calais’ town hall has a 75-metre-high belfry that is part of a UNESCO site straddling the French and Belgian border, made up of towers within the old Duchy of Burgundy and the historic County of Flanders.

It may look historic from a distance, but it’s actually from the  20th-century, designed in a renaissance revival style.

Inside you can see working models of the Port of Calais, and you can also catch a lift to the observation platform in the belfry for far-reaching vistas.

Most agree that the belfry’s chimes are among the most beautiful in France.

2. Burghers of Calais

Burghers of CalaisSource: Marc Bruxelle / Shutterstock
Burghers of Calais

In front of the Town Hall on the edge of the Parc Saint-Pierre is one of Auguste Rodin’s best-known works.

It was unveiled in 1895 and was designed to honour the self-sacrifice of six of Calais’ leaders after a year-long siege from 1346 to 1347 that was part of the 100 Years’ War.

When Calais finally surrendered, Edward III promised that the townspeople would be spared if six burghers agreed to present themselves to him, for what they assumed would be their execution.

The sculpture depicts them beginning their walk of shame, with nooses around their necks, in a sober, unromantic way.

There are several casts of the Burghers of Calais on display around the world, but this is the original.

3. La Cité de la Dentelle et de la Mode

La Cité de la Dentelle et de la ModeSource: Serge Ottaviani / Wikimedia | CC-BY-SA-3.0
La Cité de la Dentelle et de la Mode

The City of Lace and Fashion reveals the past and present of lace manufacturing.

The museum is set in one of Calais’ last collective lace factories, established in the 1870s.

By 1902 there were 80 looms in operation here, and such was the weight and power of these iron and steel machines, the walls of the U-shaped building had to slope outwards to serve as a counterbalance.

The galleries have 3320 pieces of machine and hand-made lace fashion throughout the years, with collections by designers like Iris van Herpen and Cristóbal Balenciaga.

Expert tullists demonstrate their craft on a working loom that you can see in action on the hour every afternoon.

4. Musée de la Guerre de Calais

Second World War MuseumSource: Ale Grutta foto / shutterstock
Second World War Museum

Also in the Parc Saint-Pierre is a Nazi bunker almost 200 metres in length.

When you get to the entrance you’ll understand how it could have escaped bomb damage in the war, as the structure is completely cloaked by the park’s foliage in summer.

When Calais was taken the Canadian forces attacking the bunker used flamethrowers in their assault.

The bunker was a communications centre for the entire northwest of France, built in 1941, and now has 21 galleries with artefacts, photography, uniforms and newspaper cuttings.

Posted warnings and propaganda posters shed some light on life in Calais during the occupation.

There’s an audio-guide and the tour will last 90 minutes.

5. Calais Lighthouse

Calais LighthouseSource: Daniel M. Silva / shutterstock
Calais Lighthouse

The city’s 53-metre high lighthouse was completed in 1848 and also managed to escape damage in the Second World War.

The main attraction is at the top, where on a clear day you can make out the White Cliffs of Dover.

That’s provided you’re feeling spry, as you have to scale 271 steps to get up there.

In the adjoining building a diverting little museum that tells you about the former lighthouse keepers who worked here up to 1987, and there are maps of the Channel that illustrate the weight of traffic that passes through every day.

6. Musée des Beaux Arts de Calais

On the upper side of Parc Richelieu, Calais’ main art museum has some exciting pieces in an airy interior that belies the building’s stern and unwelcoming appearance from the street.

The museum concentrates on French, Dutch and Flemish art from a variety of eras, with Gerrit van Honthorst and Balthasar van der Ast from the Dutch Golden age, and Eugène Boudin perhaps the most important French painter on display.

You can get some wonderful insights about how Rodin’s Burghers of Calais came about, as there’s a whole room filled with the figures in terracotta, plaster and bronze.

7. Courgain Maritime

Fort RisbanSource: kristof lauwers / Shutterstock
Fort Risban

The Art Museum and Lighthouse are both in Courgan Maritime, Calais’ historic fishing district.

Like most of the city there isn’t much evidence of medieval architecture because of the considerable destruction during the wars, but eagle-eyed and informed visitors can find lots of exciting vestiges.

One is the Tour du Guet, a medieval watchtower erected in the early-13th century with a height of almost 40 metres.

It was used as the city’s lighthouse until the current one was built.

Fort Risban has controlled the harbour since the middle ages, and in its time has been controlled by the English, French, Spanish and Germans.

The legendary military engineer Vauban visited the fort in the late 17th-century and made some minor alterations, but much of these were lost when the building was wrecked by an accidental explosion in 1799.

8. City Parks

Parc Saint-PierreSource: kristof lauwers / shutterstock
Parc Saint-Pierre

Many people waiting for their ferry, or fresh off the boat, will stop in Parc Richelieu to get some fresh air and stretch their legs.

It’s a well-tended green space with a pond in the centre and paths through thickets and next to shrubberies and flower beds.

Parc Saint-Pierre has more of a French feel, as you’ll notice from the locals playing pétanque.

There are pergolas, balsustrades and an ornate fountain.

In all it’s a perfectly pleasant place to have a picnic, and is moments from the Town Hall and Rodin’s sculpture.

9. Calais Beach

Calais BeachSource: Josh Carter / Shutterstock
Calais Beach

On a hot day you could do a lot worse than head down to the city’s beach, a little way to the west of the port.

Many bathers might find the waters a bit brisk, but they’re shallow and safe, as the beach has a very low gradient.

For the rest there’s a big spread of soft golden sand to relax on and rows of charming beach huts painted white.

As you go west the scenery behind the beach becomes more rural and you enter the Parc Naturel Régional des Caps et Marais d’Opale a large protected area that stands in marked contrast to the industry and strip malls east and south of Calais.

Further towards the port is a promenade with mini golf, bars and restaurants.

10. Cap Blanc-Nez and Escalles

Cap Blanc-NezSource: Maelick / shutterstock
Cap Blanc-Nez

Continue west along the seafront and things get a bit more spectacular.

Just over ten kilometres from Calais is Cap Blanc-Nez, a headland with soaring white chalk cliffs that are the mirror image of those in Dover.

The highest point is 134 metres and above the sheer chalk bluffs is grassy moorland cratered occasionally by Second World War bombs.

There are bunkers up here from the war and a monument to the Dover Patrol, an Allied First World War operation to defend the straits.

Escalles beach, a bit further on has a vast widescreen beauty, set off by the magnificent cliffs.

Come for unforgettable bracing walks at any time of year.

11. Boulogne-sur-Mer

Boulogne-sur-MerSource: Steve Allen / shutterstock

Easily reached in half an hour from Calais, Boulogne-sur-Mer is France’s largest fishing port and has an altogether quainter feel to it than its neighbour to the north.

This can be explained by its lovely old walls, which encircle the upper town for 1.5 kilometres.

You can walk along the ramparts, which are from the 1200s and pass four gates and 17 defensive towers.

Like Calais, Boulogne has a UNESCO-inscribed belfry, but this city’s is much older, dating to the 1100s.

It started out as the keep to the Castle of the Counts of Boulogne, and you can enter to see rooms decorated with antique furniture and historic stained glass windows illustrating the 11th-century Godfrey of  Bouillon an eminent knight of the House of Flanders who died on the First Crusade.

12. Nausicaä Centre National de la Mer

Nausicaä Centre National de la MerSource: Rudi Vandeputte / shutterstock
Nausicaä Centre National de la Mer

Rated as one of the best and largest aquariums in Europe,  Nausicaä deals with man’s relationship with sea, and walks that line between education and entertainment.

There are seven main sections to enthuse both kids and adults: A thrilling feature of the shark aquarium is that you can see 12 different species of this fish from above and then below the waterline.

And If you’ve ever wondered what a sting ray feels like, there’s a “touch pool” where you can feel these tame creatures’ backs as they swim past.

Family picks will be the penguins and sea lions, all in thoughtfully designed enclosures.

13. Saint-Omer

Saint-OmerSource: Traveller70 / shutterstock

Also easy to reach from Calais is Saint-Omer, a delightful old city with broad streets and sophisticated architecture from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

You’ll be able to go inside one of the grander townhouses, Hôtel Sandelin, which has free entry on Sundays and contains renaissance and baroque art, a sumptuous collection of ceramics, and a numismatics department with more than 16,000 coins.

Don’t leave without seeing the cathedral inside and out, where there’s medieval sculpture, stained glass windows and a 19th-century organ designed by Arsitide Cavaillé-Coll, France’s greatest organ maker.

14. La Coupole

La CoupoleSource: Massimo Santi / shutterstock
La Coupole

In the countryside close to Saint-Omer is an attraction that marries wartime history with science.

La Coupole was a V2 launch centre built by the Germans towards the end of the Second World War.

Had it been completed this compound would been able to rain ballistic missiles on south-eastern England but was taken out by bombing raids in 1944. You enter along a slightly sinister tunnel and under the imposing concrete dome are galleries relatingnot only the history of the V2 project, but also lighter, child-friendly shows at the museum’s newly-installed planetarium with 3D shows.

15. Moules-Frites

Moules-FritesSource: Plateresca / shutterstock

The most accessible local dish is the delicious mussels and French fries.

The mussels can be cooked in a variety of ways, but the most popular is also the simplest: In a sauce with white wine, shallots and parsley.

The real way to eat the fries on the side is with a dollop of mayonnaise.

Beer is the main alcoholic beverage made in the Pas-de-Calais region and happens to go very well with mussels.

Sharp whites and rosé wines are just as good, but reds not so much because the tannins clash with the shellfish.

15 Best Things to Do in Calais (France):

  • Town Hall
  • Burghers of Calais
  • La Cité de la Dentelle et de la Mode
  • Musée de la Guerre de Calais
  • Calais Lighthouse
  • Musée des Beaux Arts de Calais
  • Courgain Maritime
  • City Parks
  • Calais Beach
  • Cap Blanc-Nez and Escalles
  • Boulogne-sur-Mer
  • Nausicaä Centre National de la Mer
  • Saint-Omer
  • La Coupole
  • Moules-Frites