Picture France. What do you think of? Baguettes, bicycles, and the Eiffel Tower? Now, think of French life away from Paris. I’m guessing you’re probably conjuring up images of the picture perfect azure blue French Riviera, and the endless stretches of Provence beaches in your mind’s eye. Well, there’s also a whole load of France worth visiting in the North of l’Hexagon as well! And so here are 11 gorgeous and breathtaking places to visit in Northern France.
The walled city of Saint-Malo has seen plenty of events and history over the years; including pirates during the middle ages and inhabitation by the Gauls in the 1st-century. The fortified city was even the birthplace of Jacques Cartier, the man who claimed modern Quebec for what is now France. Today you can visit the Breton city for yourself; wander the ramparts, explore ancient buildings, and soak up the historic atmosphere.
Read more: A quick guide to the best of Saint Malo.
Bayeux may well be one of the best places to visit in Northern France, but it is often overshadowed by its more famous wall hanging of the same name, that of the Bayeux Tapestry. Situated 30km northwest of Caen, Bayeux was first founded during the Gallo-Roman period and is filled with plenty of museums, making this city the perfect French destination for history enthusiasts.
With its timber-framed houses and links to Joan of Arc (who was allegedly burned at the stake in the centre of the city), you can’t go wrong by dedicating at least a day or two to exploring Rouen on any Northern French adventure. Capital of the Normandy region, the old part of the city is dominated by one of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals in France, if not all of Europe, as well as plenty of cobbled lanes to meander along.
Read more: In search of medieval France in Rouen.
Le Havre, Seine-Maritime
The fishing city of Le Havre is situated at the very mouth of the River Seine (yep, the same waterway which flows its way through Paris) and Le Havre’s name literally means ‘the Harbour’ or ‘the Port’. Founded in 1517 by Francois I, the city was constructed to cope with the ever-increasing maritime needs of the tiny towns of Harfleur and Honfleur. Today, it is filled with plenty of things to do; including traditional French eateries and various museums.
Mont Saint Michel, Manche
Of course, no Northern France bucket list would be complete without a mention of the ever-iconic and ever-famous conically shaped tidal island that is Mont Saint Michel. Once there, you’ll find an impossibly peched Gothic-style abbey (thanks to renovations by Viollet-le-Duc- a man who also had a go at altering Notre Dame and Carcassone, with varying degrees of success).
An ecclesiastical building has been situated on the mount for well over a thousand years and is just as impressive today as it must have been centuries ago. Today, a small village has sprung up around the abbey and the fortified church can be visited throughout the year.
This medieval city was once home to author Jules Verne, writer of Around the World in Eighty Days, and today his house can be visited in the centre of Amiens. Elsewhere, the city is filled with medieval architecture, as well as plenty of museums, and one of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals in Europe. In December each year, the largest Christmas market can be found in the centre of the city, a real treat for those of us who never really grew up!
Known in the language of Breton as ‘Karnag’, Carnac is home to one of the largest Neolithic sites in the world and is filled with menhirs, stone circles and dolmens aplenty. In total, there are 10,000 slabs of granite; all aligned in various ways and each of varying size and form.
No one knows why they were erected and so the mystery surrounding these UNESCO world heritage protected stones remains. Nearby there’s the town of Carnac, and in a forest closer still, is said to be the birthplace of Merlin from Arthurian Legend.
Pretty and picturesque, Honfleur is situated by the sea and filled with fairytale-like houses; exactly the kind of scene you’d expect to find on a vintage French postcard, or perhaps in an old movie. While much of the attraction of Honfleur lies in its old world charm and picture-perfect views, there are also a few museums in town, as well as some excellent coastal walks nearby.
While England has the White Cliffs of Dover, France has Etretat. This stunning stretch of coastline comprises of the village of Etretat, a set of chalky sea pillars, and an outstanding area of natural beauty encompassing ancient churches and winding coastal paths.
Just remember though, Étretat is where all the Parisians come to holiday, and so if you’re expecting some of the cheaper prices that can be found in the rest of Northern France, you’ll be in for a shock- the accommodation and restaurants in Etretat and its surrounds are all Parisian prices.
Read more: How to spend one perfect day in Etretat.
A pretty city with plenty of history, Lille is located right on the border with Belgium, and the resulting blend of French and Belgian cultures means that the city is full of Flemish influences. A trip to Lille can easily be combined with a visit to Brussels or Ghent, although you’ll likely want to spend at least a day or two dedicated entirely to exploring this fascinating city.
While more West of France than East, Dinan is still Northern French enough to make the list! And just as well, because this is the French fairytale town you’ve never heard of, but should most definitely visit. Filled with pretty houses, a steep medieval high street, and plenty of local bakeries, no trip to Brittany, or indeed Northern France, would be complete without a visit to the walled city of Dinan!