15 Best Things to Do in Dunkirk (France)

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
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The world’s northernmost Francophone city is just minutes from the border with Belgium. Life in Dunkirk has always been oriented towards the sea, whether through historic whaling and fishing or trade. The port remains active today and also shuttles passengers across the channel to Dover.

But for you and me the sea also brings fun at the beach or exhilarating walks in dune landscapes. The name “Dunkirk” is also synonymous with the withdrawal of the Allied armies from France in 1940, and there’s a top-notch museum set right where this operation was coordinated. In the city don’t miss the UNESCO-listed belfry and museum of the port with its historic ships.

Lets explore the best things to do in Dunkirk:

1. Musée Portuaire

Musée PortuaireSource: flickr
Musée Portuaire

Dunkirk’s 19th-century tobacco warehouse is one of the few historic buildings spared by the war and offers an evocative home for a museum that will tell you the long and absorbing story of the port.

Among the many exhibits are those devoted to the city’s whaling and cod fishing industries in the 19th-century that required six-month expeditions to the waters around Iceland.

There are three heritage ships moored at the quay next to the museum, the largest of which is the three-mast Duchesse Anne, built at Bremerhaven in Germany in 1901 and the only tall ship you can board for a tour in France.

2. Beffroi de Dunkerque

Beffroi de DunkerqueSource: flickr
Beffroi de Dunkerque

All the belfries of Flanders are protected as on UNESCO site, and Dunkirk’s is no exception.

It was built in the 15th century to replace an old watchtower and was originally the campanile of Saint-Eloi church, which is next door.

The church was destroyed in a French attack on the city in the 1500s, and only this tower remained.

It’s almost 60 metres tall and you can go to the top for a fabulous panorama of the city.

It’s a view you have to earn, because even after taking an elevator five floors up you still have to climb 60 steps.

You’ll see the carillon of 48 bells up here, and the mechanics controlling them.

They chime every 15 minutes and on the hour they play a snippet of La Cantate à Jean Bart, a song with special meaning for Dunkirk.

3. Plage de Malo-les-Bains

Plage de Malo-les-BainsSource: commons.wikimedia
Plage de Malo-les-Bains

East of the port begins Dunkirk’s gigantic sandy beach, one of the greatest in the north and a must on summer days.

Malo-les-Bains behind it was once a different town but has been part of Dunkirk since the 1960s.

Next to the promenade are a string of ice cream shops and restaurants where you can order mussels and French fries and watch the beach disappear over the horizon.

If you have little ones with you, treat them to a pedal-kart ride along the waterfront.

You can get a four-seater, each with pedals, and make it a family thing.

These vehicles are a trademark of the resorts on the Flemish coast.

4. Dunkirk 1940 Museum

Dunkirk 1940 MuseumSource: facebook
Dunkirk 1940 Museum

Bastion 32 was a coastal defence constructed in 1874 after the Franco-Prussian war to strengthen France’s border.

And so it was that the Allied forces coordinated Operation Dynamo from this structure in May and June of 1940, when more than 330,000 soldiers were evacuated from France.

The galleries tell you everything you need to know about how the operation was planned and executed, and some of the events that took place in a dramatic chapter of the Second World War.

There’s a 15 minute reel shot during the evacuation, authentic “militaria” like weapons and uniforms, and scale models.

5. Parc Zoologique de Fort Mardyck

Parc Zoologique de Fort MardyckSource: parc-zoologique
Parc Zoologique de Fort Mardyck

Not the largest zoo, but big enough to be able to introduce kids to all types of animals without them getting bored.

There are 40 species here and among them are brown bears, lynxes, seals flamingos, macaws, beavers, dwarf goats and griffon vultures.

One resident you may not know much about is the collared peccary, a South and Central American mammal, distantly related to pigs, and able to withstand a bite from the most venomous snakes.


LAACSource: flickr

Opposite Dunkirk 1940, in the green surrounds of the sculpture garden, is this modern art museum housed in a striking building clad with white ceramic tiles.

There are more than 1,500 pieces to see, dating from between the 1940s and 1980s, with an accent on pop art (Andy Warhol is represented) and works by CoBrA artists from the 40s and 50s.

One member of this short-lived movement was Karel Appel, whose bright, childlike sculptures are on show inside and outside.

LAAC’s Cabinet d’Arts is also a pleasure, with drawers to pull out containing some 200 prints and drawings.

7. Tour du Leughenaer

Tour du LeughenaerSource: flickr
Tour du Leughenaer

The oldest monument in Dunkirk is an octagonal tower, 30 metres tall next to the fishing craft on Quai des Américains.

It was completed in 1450 as a beacon but was modified over the next few centuries.

In the 1700s the brick tower was adapted into a viewing platform for the harbour, and then in the early-19th century a lantern was added and the tower became a lighthouse.

The name in old Dutch means “liar”, and it got this nickname because several ships ran aground while guided by its beacon.

The theory grew that this was done intentionally so that the town could plunder them!

8. Dunkirk Carnival

Dunkirk CarnivalSource: flickr
Dunkirk Carnival

Dunkirk’s bonkers carnival has a reputation that goes far beyond Dunkirk.

The party runs from mid-January to the end of March, but the time to be here is for the three days before Ash Wednesday.

These are the “Trois Joyeuses”, when 40,000 revellers take to the streets in crazy costumes (normally unflattering drag for men). On Sunday the “visscherbende” band  parades through Dunkirk wearing yellow rain hats, playing songs for people to join in and dance.

They represent the fishermen who used to embark on trips to Iceland to catch herring.

And to commemorate this the mayor throws almost half a ton’s worth of smoked herrings (wrapped, thankfully)  onto the gathered crowd from the crowd on the Sunday afternoon.

9. La Dune Marchand

La Dune MarchandSource: flickr
La Dune Marchand

Right up against the border with Belgium is an 83-hectare nature reserve protecting one of a number of dune systems on coast of Flanders.

In an ever-changing environment there are more than 400 plant species, including marram grass, buckthorn and dunegrass.

In the spring you may recognise the song of the nightingales in the park, while in autumn migratory birds will make their nests in the long grass, shrubs and woodland.

The beach, Plage à Bray-Dunes is awe-inspiring at low tide when the sands seem to go on forever.

Come for windy rambles in winter or timeless fun with the family on sunny days in summer.

10. Gravelines

GravelinesSource: flickr

In the 17th century the town of Gravelines was on the border between France and Flanders, then under the control of the Spanish.

After being captured and then liberated it became heavily fortified, and most of this architecture is still visible.

Inevitably, the man called upon to beef up the town’s defences was the esteemed engineer Vauban, who turned Gravelines into a citadel, setting up bastions and digging a network of moats that continues to bear the shape of a star today.

The fun of Gravelines is walking the ramparts and checking out the arsenal, now a museum for drawing and engraving.

The town’s belfry is one of the 23 on UNESCO’s list.

11. Bergues

Bergues BelfrySource: flickr
Burgues Belfry

Less than ten kilometres south of Dunkirk is a cute town defended by ramparts also designed by Vauban, but integrating earlier medieval defences.

Go for a soothing walk on the leafy banks of the zigzagging moats and canals, though you may have to share them with pushy flocks of geese.

The big attraction in Bergues is the 47-metre belfry, which is made of yellow sandstone and takes its place in UNESCO’s inventory.

Since the first one went up in the 12th century there have been a few different versions of the tower, but the present design was settled in the 16th and 17th centuries.

12. Platier d’Oye

Platier d'OyeSource: flickr
Platier d’Oye

On the way to Calais look for signs for this natural reserve.

The Platier d’Oye is a system of low-lying wetlands known for being the first feeding zone for migratory birds on their way to their winter quarters.

The ponds and lagoons are fed by the River Aa and at high tide the sea can even come over the top of the beach and inundate the park.

So the differing levels of salinity in the soils allows a large diversity of plant species in such a small area.

At all times of year you can spot waterfowl and shorebirds, but if you call in during the winter for a windswept stroll you should spot choughs, snow buntings and skylarks.

13. Jardin du Mont des Récollets

Jardin du Mont des RécolletsSource: flickr
Jardin du Mont des Récollets

In the summer take a country drive south to the Mont des Récollets, a high rolling hill with views over the a landscape of windmills, cereal fields and hedges.

From Thursday to Sunday the Jardin du Mont des Récollets welcomes visitors to take a turn around its topiaried boxwoods, orchard, flower beds, lawns and avenues of expertly trimmed yews.

The gardens are bordered by a gorgeous farmhouse with a crow-stepped gable, and you’ll find it hard to believe that this site was a total ruin just 25 years ago.

14. Saint-Omer

Pas de Calais, Sain-OmerSource: flickr
Pas de Calais, Saint-Omer

Visiting this city 40 kilometres from Dunkirk you’ll be in no doubt that it has always been an affluent place.

The centre is one of Flemish-style mansions and pilastered neo-classical townhouses.

The museum inside the 18th-century Hôtel Sandelin makes clear the wealth enjoyed by the city’s merchant class and nobility, with copious paintings and period ceramics.

Then there’s the sublime gothic cathedral, regarded as one of the most richly-decorated in France.

The astronomical clock inside has a mechanism from 1558 and an organ designed by the 19th-century master organ-maker Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.

15. Cuisine

carbonnade flamandeSource: flickr
carbonnade flamande

The traditional food in Dunkirk has a Belgian flavour and is all the more delicious for it.

Beer comes into play for a lot of dishes, like coq à la bière (chicken cooked in beer) and carbonnade flamande, the popular braised beef and onion stew.

Potjevleesch is a pork, rabbit and chicken terrine in jelly served cold.

Always a crowd-pleaser is mussels, simmered either with onions and white wine or in a provençal sauce.

All of the meals above go great with French fries, accompanied with a big dollop of mayonnaise.

15 Best Things to Do in Dunkirk (France):

  • Musée Portuaire
  • Beffroi de Dunkerque
  • Plage de Malo-les-Bains
  • Dunkirk 1940 Museum
  • Parc Zoologique de Fort Mardyck
  • LAAC
  • Tour du Leughenaer
  • Dunkirk Carnival
  • La Dune Marchand
  • Gravelines
  • Bergues
  • Platier d'Oye
  • Jardin du Mont des Récollets
  • Saint-Omer
  • Cuisine