15 Best Things to Do in Nord-Pas-de-Calais

This region in the far north of France has been fought over for centuries, and so has all sorts of little reminders about the cultures that have controlled it.

In Lille and Arrras there’s exquisite Flemish baroque architecture, while the 20th century deposited bunkers, launch sites, memorials and other military infrastructure across the landscape – great news for urban explorers and military historians.

On the coast are photogenic little towns and fishing ports, while here and there you can check out some first-rate visitor attractions, such as big-hitting art museums, one of Europe’s largest aquariums and even a subterranean town.

Lets explore the best things to do in Nord-Pas-de-Calais:

1. Old Lille

Lille Old TownSource: flickr
Lille Old Town

Nord’s capital has a different look and feel to most large French cities, and that’s partly because for long periods in its history it wasn’t strictly French: In medieval times it belonged to the County of Flanders and then Burgundy, and wasn’t recognised as part of France until the reign of Louis XIV.  That Flemish influence can be seen in the brown and red brick buildings in the older part of the city, such as at the stately Place aux Oignons.

On Grand Place, check out the mid-17th-century Vielle Bourse, a glorious Flemish Mannerist complex of 24 identical buildings around an arcaded courtyard.

Inside locals can be found playing chess, and there’s also a second-hand book market here.

2. Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille

Palais des Beaux-ArtsSource: flickr
Palais des Beaux-Arts

One of the largest art museums of its kind in France, the Palais des Beaux-Arts is not to be missed.

Its huge inventory of medieval,  renaissance and baroque paintings is founded on the 1801 decree of Jean-Antoine Chaptal, which selected the 15 cities around France that would receive artworks seized from France’s religious institutions in the revolution.

All in a sumptuous Belle Époque palace are ceramics, sculptures and paintings by Goya, Rubens, Donatello, van Dyck  and El Greco.

Also riveting is the assortment of plan-reliefs, which are military scale models of cities in the region from the 17th and 18th centuries.

3. Vimy Memorial

Vimy MemorialSource: flickr
Vimy Memorial

This First World War memorial honours the members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force that were lost but have no marked grave.

The monument is at the highest point of the Vimy Ridge and was designed by Canadian architect, Water Seyour Allward.

All around this structure is a park where the Battle of Vimy Ridge battlefield is left untouched.

It’s easy to see how the landscape is still scarred by artillery, and the trenches and tunnels have been reinforced with concrete to keep them intact.

There is so much unexploded ordinance here that the park’s grass can’t be mowed by humans; rather sheep graze here instead.

Canadian students volunteer at the Vimy Memorial, and provide insightful tours around the monument and its park.

4. La Piscine Museum, Roubaix

La Piscine Museum, RoubaixSource: wikipedia
La Piscine Museum, Roubaix

This art and industrial museum has a remarkable setting, in the building of an art deco former swimming pool.

This was built in the 20s and 30s in lavish style by the architect Albert Baert, who blended masonic symbols into his design.

The pool was shut down in 1985 but reopened as a museum in 2000, incorporating the body of an old textile museum next door.

The galleries have textile samples gathered from the area’s factories over a two hundred year period, as well as paintings and sculptures, most from the first few decades of the 20th century.

5. Nausicaä Centre National de la Mer, Boulogne-sur-Mer

Nausicaä Centre National de la MerSource: flickr
Nausicaä Centre National de la Mer

This vast aquarium is set in a repurposed casino and opened in 1991. It’s a sea life centre, with an exhibit area 5,000 square metres in size.

Most people want to see the predators in the Open Sea and California Pools, where sand tiger sharks, grey reef sharks and leopard sharks can be viewed in menacing detail.

There’s a “touch pool” too where little ones can touch the backs of harmless catsharks.

You can get up close to a wealth of other marine species too, including penguins, caiman and sea lions, and daily feeding demonstrations are a fun way to see them in action.

6. La Coupole, Saint-Omer

La Coupole, Saint-OmerSource: flickr
La Coupole, Saint-Omer

Taking its name from the large concrete dome covering the site, this museum is in a former Nazi bunker and V2 base.

The complex was never completed, but had the infrastructure to launch a constant stream of ballistic missiles at London.

After the war it lay idle until becoming a combined war museum and planetarium in the 90s.

You enter via the bunker’s own railway tunnel, audio guides will shed light on how the facility was built and there are displays about life in Nord-Pas-de-Calais during the war, the French resistance and military innovations made during that time.

7. Cité Souterraine de Naours

Cité Souterraine de NaoursSource: naours
Cité Souterraine de Naours

In a region that has been on the path of innumerable invading armies, it’s hardly surprising that villagers looked underground for shelter in some places.

The medieval tunnels and galleries at Naours add up to more than two kilometres, and were able to accommodate 650 people.

As you tour the 28 galleries 30 metres beneath this verdant hill in the Somme department you may be surprised by the temperature, which is a steady 9.5°C year-round.

As you go you’ll discover wells, ventilation shafts, chimneys, living quarters and even stables, and there’s constant evidence that they were used in both World Wars thanks to historic graffiti.

8. LaM, Lille

LaM, LilleSource: flickr
LaM, Lille

With 4,500 works in two sleek buildings this museum  presents a superb overview of 20th and 21st-century art.

The LaM was founded in the early 80s after a big donation by the Masurel family, who has been prodigious collectors.

Over time this has been expanded and the LaM now holds masterworks by Picasso, Paul Klee, Georges Braque, Joan Miró and André Derain.

Later the museum also received a large donation of Art Brut works, and so now has the largest collection of outsider art in the country.

In the grounds you can take in the sculpture garden, with pieces by Alexander Calder and Picasso.

9. Boulogne Ramparts

Boulogne - City WallsSource: flickr
Boulogne – City Walls

The cobblestone streets of Boulogne’s pretty Haute Ville are defended to this day by a ring of medieval walls erected by the Count of Boulogne between 1227 and 1231. They were built on even older defences going back to the Roman period.

Despite their age and great condition the ramparts and their four hulking gateways are relatively quiet on most days, frequented mostly by joggers and dog-walkers.

On the east side is the Château, also from the 13th century, protected by a moat and now housing the Museum of Boulogne.

10. Saint-Omer Cathedral

Saint-Omer CathedralSource: flickr
Saint-Omer Cathedral

One of the many compelling things about this handsome cathedral is that it was constantly under construction throughout the medieval  period, and so fuses romanesque with the three phases of the French gothic style (primitif, rayonnant and flamboyant). Inside, take a look at the astronomical clock, built by the Saint-Omer watchmaker Pierre Enguerran in 1558. Ingeniously, the clock mechanism synchronises with the cathedral’s bells and astrolabe.

The organ is also noteworthy, dating to 1717 but with 19th-century additions made by the feted organ craftsman Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.

11. Arras

Arras, France
Arras, France

Arras has its share of Flemish heritage, and nowhere is this more evident than the beautiful Place des Héros.

This 70-acre cobblestoned square has rows of splendid gabled townhouses on three sides.

The city’s UNESCO-listed gothic belfry is also on the square, dating to the 15th century and definitely meriting a tour.

It’s the tallest building in the city at 71 metres: A lift followed by a spiral staircase will get you to the top for the best panoramas of the city and its countryside.

Arras also saw a lot of conflict in the First World War, and at Carrière Wellington you can visit the tunnels dug in a former quarry by British forces in 1917 and now kept as a museum.

12. Le Touquet

Le TouquetSource: flickr
Le Touquet

Escape to coastal resorts like Le Touquet for one of Nord-Pas-de-Calais’ favourite dishes, Moules Frites.

The mussels are cooked in a sauce made with white wine, cream and shallots and the crispy chips are served with mayonnaise on the side.

Le Touquet has a wonderful beach too: It’s absolutely massive, with clean golden sands that seem to go out to horizon at low tide.

If you follow the beach down the coast the town is replaced by forest and sand dunes.

Rue Saint-Jean is a charming street for a relaxed saunter, while in summer kids you can hire a segway or play mini-golf on the beachfront.

13. Villa Cavrois, Roubaix

Villa Cavrois, RoubaixSource: flickr
Villa Cavrois, Roubaix

After lying derelict for decades, this wondrous modernist villa has recently been opened to the public following a multimillion-Euro restoration.

It was built in 1932 by Robert-Mallet-Stevens for Paul Cavrois, whose wealth came from the Roubaix textile industry.

As with the best homes in the International style, Villa Cavrois is impossibly bright, airy and sleek, and had a load of conveniences, like air-conditioning and towel heaters, that were generally unavailable at the time.

The villa was used by German forces in the war, and was ransacked and gutted in the 80s after Madame Cavrois died, which makes you appreciate the painstaking restoration effort even more.

14. Cap Blanc Nez, Wissant

Cap Blanc Nez, WissantSource: flickr
Cap Blanc Nez, Wissant

For a blast of bracing sea air, follow the path up to the crest of these 134-metre-high chalk cliffs.

They’re the most northern cliffs in France, and are just along from Cap Gris Nez, the closest point in the country to mainland Britain.

From this perch you realise just how busy a shipping lane the Channel is, as the freighters glide by.

The landscape is fabulous, whether you’re looking down on the vast sandy beach below or back at the rolling green farmland.

At the headland is the Dover Patrol Monument, celebrating the naval cooperation between Allied forces to safeguard the Channel against U-boats.

15. Blockhaus d’Éperlecques, Saint-Omer

Blockhaus d'ÉperlecquesSource: flickr
Blockhaus d’Éperlecques

A military attraction to combine with nearby La Coupole, this is a gargantuan Second World War bunker, intended as another launch centre for the V2 rocket.

Had it been completed it would have been able to launch 36 missiles a day, but construction was interrupted by the Allied bombing campaign.

Even in its incomplete state the bunker is pretty fearsome to behold, and remains completely shrouded by the forest until you are almost upon it.

There’s an audio-guide explaining how the installation was built by slave labour, and displays indicate how the site might have looked had it been finished.

Where to stay: Best Hotels in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France
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15 Best Things to Do in Nord-Pas-de-Calais:

  • Old Lille
  • Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille
  • Vimy Memorial
  • La Piscine Museum, Roubaix
  • Nausicaä Centre National de la Mer, Boulogne-sur-Mer
  • La Coupole, Saint-Omer
  • Cité Souterraine de Naours
  • LaM, Lille
  • Boulogne Ramparts
  • Saint-Omer Cathedral
  • Arras
  • Le Touquet
  • Villa Cavrois, Roubaix
  • Cap Blanc Nez, Wissant
  • Blockhaus d'Éperlecques, Saint-Omer