A fairy-tale-like region of towering cliffs, medieval villages, and ornate chateaus, Northern France is packed full of beautiful sights and enriching experiences that are rich in culture, history, and natural beauty.
Encompassing the regions of Normandy and Hauts-de-France, Northern France features the picturesque cities of Rouen, Lille, Amiens, Caen, and Le Havre which are all much smaller than Paris and therefore feature a much more leisurely pace of life with cityscapes of gothic cathedrals, chateaus, and timber framed architecture.
The countryside is dotted with quaint villages and farms and is known for having some of the most intense fighting of both world wars with somber battlefields, cemeteries, and memorials open for travelers to visit.
To visit and experience the charm and joys of Northern France, here are some of the best things to do.
Wander the Ramparts of Mont-St-Michel Abbey
Located atop a tidal island of the same name off the coast of Normandy, the abbey of Mont-St-Michel offers an expansive network of ramparts, chapels, and halls dating back to the Middle Ages and featuring some of the best examples of French gothic architecture.
The exact date of its construction is not known, but it is believed to have been built in the late 8th century or early 9th century. According to legend, the archangel Michael appeared to the bishop of Avranches, Aubert, and instructed him to build a church on the rocky island in the middle of the bay.
The first church on the site was a simple wooden structure, but over the centuries, it was gradually expanded and replaced with a more substantial stone building.
To access the island, visitors can cross from the mainland to the island on foot with a guide at low tide. Otherwise, there is a bridge as well.
Upon entering the island, visitors find a small village featuring a collection of shops and restaurants. From there, they’ll begin the ascent into the abbey, and as they climb higher and higher, they’ll learn about the abbey’s storied history and be met with stunning views of the surrounding area.
Sip on French Apple Cider Along la Route du Cidre
Normandy is famed for its cider, and you can experience it with a trip along the 25-mile La Route du Cidre crossing through quaint villages and scenic farmland where visitors can discover and taste for themselves what makes Norman cider so special.
Along the route, whether visitors go independently or on a tour by bike or by car, they’ll come across a dozen local producers where they can sip and buy these perfectly fruity concoctions that are much different from their American and British counterparts while also learning the journey the apples take from the orchard to the bottle.
Walk in the Footsteps of French Nobility in Chantilly
The imposing 16th-century Château de Chantilly is a marvelous gem from France’s bygone days of kings and queens that was rebuilt after the destruction of the French Revolution for locals and travelers to enjoy its lush gardens, ornate architecture, and elaborately decorated interiors.
Visitors will take a step back in time upon entering the chateau where can walk in the footsteps of some of French history’s most notable figures. Tour the breathtaking art galleries, lavish suites, and the reading room, one of France’s most extensive libraries, for a glimpse into the incredible lives of those who once lived here.
Be sure to try some of the famous vanilla cream, Crème de Chantilly, while in town!
See Where Claude Monet Lived in Giverny
The house of Claude Monet in Giverny, France is open to visitors who want to discover the famous artist’s home and gardens. Walk in Monet’s steps by touring the residence of the renowned Impressionist painter, Claude Monet.
The house is located in the charming village of Giverny, about an hour’s drive from Paris. The site is open to visitors from April to November each year and is a popular destination for art lovers and tourists from around the world.
Monet lived and worked in Giverny from 1883 until his death in 1926. During this time, he transformed the house and gardens into his own personal oasis, filled with flowers, trees, and colorful landscaping. The house and gardens were an important source of inspiration for Monet’s iconic paintings, including his famous Water Lilies series.
The grounds have been carefully restored to look exactly as they did during Monet’s time. In the house, you can see Monet’s private rooms, including his bedroom and studio, as well as his collection of Japanese prints and other works of art. In the gardens, you can wander through the famous Water Lily pond, the Japanese bridge, and the various flower gardens, including the famous Clos Normand flower garden.
Learn about French Fashion in Granville
Granville is a charming town in Normandy, France that is known for its stunning coastal views, rich fashion history, and cultural heritage. Some of the best things to do in Granville include visiting the famous Christian Dior Museum, dedicated to the life and work of the famous fashion designer, Christian Dior, who was born in Granville. Visitors can learn about Dior’s creative process, see sketches of his designs, and view a collection of haute couture gowns.
Walk along the Plage du Plat Gousset afterward, a stunning elevated walk offering breathtaking views of the sea and the nearby islands.
Granville has a beautiful sandy beach that is perfect for sunbathing, swimming, and other water activities. During the summer months, the beach is bustling with visitors and locals alike.
Go for a Swim at Deauville Beach
Located in Deauville, one of France’s most popular resort towns and the subject of many impressionist paintings, Deauville Beach is the ideal place for a beach day right on the English Channel perfect for swimming and wading with a long stretch of sand to lay out in and catch some sun.
The beach is situated right off the boardwalk and near plenty of shops, hotels, bars, and restaurants that cater to beachgoers making it the perfect destination for a weekend trip. For some excitement, visit during the Deauville American Film Festival when the red carpet comes out and both American and French film stars flood the city.
Explore Calais’ Tradition of Lacemaking
When lace dominated fashion, Calais was the epicenter of its production, and the Museum for Lace and Fashion presents this history in an authentic 19th-century lace factory featuring state-of-the-art exhibits covering the history and production of the precious textile with demonstrations, special exhibits, and plenty of pieces showcasing its beauty and ornateness.
After touring the museum, visit the gift shop for your own piece of lace with a variety of clothing and accessories featuring it, and dine at the museum’s cozy restaurant Les Petites Mains featuring a loft atmosphere and a variety of refreshments and meals.
Pay Your Respect to History in Colleville-Sur-Mer
Upon the sandy beaches of Normandy, a somber atmosphere hangs over visitors as they stand upon the very ground where in 1944, Allied forces first stepped foot on French soil during “Operation Overlord” or the Battle of Normandy. Though the soldiers are gone, the legacy and significance of the battle are still present on the war-torn Beaches of Normandy.
The cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer is the American Cemetery and Memorial in Normandy, France. It is located on the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach, one of the landing beaches of the Normandy Invasion during World War II.
The cemetery is the final resting place of 9,380 American soldiers who lost their lives during the war, and it serves as a memorial to the soldiers who gave their lives in the service of their country. The cemetery is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, and it is one of the largest American military cemeteries in Europe.
Visitors to the cemetery can walk among the pristine white headstones, each marking the grave of an American serviceman. The cemetery also features a Wall of the Missing, which lists the names of 1,557 soldiers who were missing in action and were never found.
The cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer is a powerful reminder of the sacrifices made by American soldiers during World War II and a testament to the enduring friendship between the United States and France.
Visitors can also visit the remnants of bunkers and other Nazi defenses that line the beach. Pay your respects to WWII soldiers here.
Take a Religious Pilgrimage to Rouen and Learn About Joan of Arc
Rouen is perhaps best known for its association with one of France’s patron saints, Joan of Arc, as it was in Rouen’s ancient market square that Joan of Arc was martyred at the age of 19 in 1431. On the very site of her martyrdom, stands the church of Joan of Arc with its beautiful stained glass windows and a massive curving roof symbolizing the flames that consumed her. Here, visitors can pray, meditate, and pay their respects to this patron saint of France in this holy space.
Joan of Arc was a legendary figure in French history who lived in the 15th century. She is best known for leading the French army to victory against the English during the Hundred Years’ War and for her role as a national heroine of France.
Visions from God called her to lead the French army against the English and to crown the Dauphin (the future King Charles VII) as the rightful king of France. Despite her lack of military experience and youth, Joan was able to convince the Dauphin to give her an army, and she quickly gained a reputation for her courage. Joan of Arc became a symbol of French nationalism and a revered figure in French history.
To learn the full story of Joan of Arc, there is a nearby museum, L’Historical Jeanne d’Arc, retracing her life, trial, and martyrdom through interactive and state-of-the-art exhibits and galleries housed in the centuries-old Palais where her death trial took place.
Another religious site in the city is the beautiful and ornate Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen, one of the best examples of gothic architecture in all of France.
Savor Fresh Seafood at France’s Largest Fishing Port
Along the Quai Gambetta in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France’s largest fishing port, is the city’s massive fish market where guests can stroll down rows and rows of fishermen’s stalls displaying their latest catches, fresh from the sea. Here visitors can admire their work, interact with the fishermen, learn about France’s fishing industry, and receive advice as to where to get the best seafood meal in town.
And of course, surrounding the market are plenty of seafood restaurants where guests can sample these catches themselves with gourmet meals. If planning to visit, be sure to visit the market in the morning, as the best catch is always brought in early.
Admire Towering Sea Cliffs at Étretat
Across the English Channel or La Manche, from the White Cliffs of Dover, are the towering chalk cliffs and arches of Étretat known as the Alabaster Coast, one of France’s best and most beautiful natural features.
To get a good look at this rugged and pristine landscape, hiking is the way to go. A number of trails offer visitors an up-close glimpse of this geological wonder. The GR 34, or Chemin des Douaniers, is one of the more popular trails and though a lot of it is uphill, it’s not very long making it ideal for people not accustomed to hiking but wishing to see the cliffs.
Take the Kids to Parc Astérix
One of Europe’s most popular theme parks, Parc Astérix is based on the popular French comic book series, The Adventures of Astérix, and features an assortment of adrenaline-inducing roller coasters and live entertainment ideal for children and the young at heart.
Located in the commune of Plailly, the park offers a fun-filled day where visitors can ride the loops of OzIris, get soaked on the Romus et Rapidus, watch dolphin shows, and learn about the iconic comic book series with plenty of dining options as well.
I hope you enjoyed this list of the best thing to do in northern France!