If you're coming from the U.K. by car, then the best route to cross the Channel is via Dover, taking 90 minutes. DFDS runs an excellent service, and the port is also served by P&O Ferries. It is also a great value as prices for travel with DFDS from Dover to Calais or Dunkirk start from 39 pounds each way for a car and nine people. You can upgrade to include premium lounge access for an additional 12 pounds per person each way and with a complimentary glass of bubbly, coffee and snacks as well as a great lunge, it is well worth the small extra.
Some Eurostar London to Brussels trains stop at Calais Frethune, 10 kilometers (6 miles) outside Calais. There is a free shuttle bus (navette) between Calais Frethune and the main Calais Ville Station in central Calais.
Morning Day 1: The Lace Makers of Calais
10 a.m.: Start with a trip to the Lace Museum, officially the Cité Internationale de la dentelle et de la mode de Calais (International Centre of Lace and Fashion), housed in a former lace factory in the area of Calais that dominated lace making in France in the 19th and 20th centuries. You get a fascinating walk through the history of lace, starting in a darkened space with displays about the history of lace and fashion from the Renaissance when no female or male attire was without those glorious hand-made lace skirts and ruffs.
On the second floor the story moves into the Industrial Revolution which began in England and changed the world. In France in 1816, an English mechanic Robert Webster with two others brought an English-manufactured machine into Calais and installed it in Saint-Pierre-les-Calais, at that time a small village. A whole colony of English workers arrived to teach their French counterparts how to work the new machinery, making the huge and complex Jacquard designs, which successfully imitated hand-woven lace. It’s rather incongruous to see the vast machine shaking the floor and drowning out conversation as it makes the gossamer-thin, elegant lace.
Then it’s on to videos showing all stages of lace making, from the designer to the draughtsmen who drew the designer’s inspiration onto the papers that are then turned into a wooden pattern of holes that is loaded into the machines. It’s very complicated, time-consuming, and involves skills which are now dying out.
12.30 p.m.: There’s a good café, Les Petites Mains, serving lunch and snacks throughout the day. There’s also a good museum shop where you can buy lace products, books, and gifts.
Afternoon Day 1: Reminders of War Ancient and Modern
2 p.m.: Walk out of the Lace Museum and turn left along the Quai du Commerce that runs beside the canal. You can’t miss the road that leads to the flamboyant Town Hall. Rodin’s famous Monument of the Burghers of Calais stands outside, commemorating the six burghers condemned to death but saved by queen Philippa of Hainault.
If you’ve come into Calais by ferry from the UK and driven out or if you’ve gone past it by train, you can’t miss the high belfry that dominates the landscape, listed as one of France's UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2005. The flamboyant Flemish neo-classical style makes the building look much older than it is; it was begun in 1911 and finished in 1925. Check with the tourist office on opening times (it’s closed for lunch from noon to 2 p.m. for instance) as it’s worth a visit. The grand staircase takes you up to the wedding room where the future war leader and President of France, Charles de Gaulle, and local girl Yvonne Vendroux married in 1921. Stained glass windows decorate the rooms, showing the story of the liberation of Calais from the English in 1558. You can either take the lift or walk up to the top of the belfry, 75 meters high, with a view taking you across the flat landscape to Flanders and on a clear day to the white cliffs of Dover.
4 p.m.: Walk across the little park to a blockhouse built by the Germany Navy and now housing the Musée Memoire, 1939-45. Right in the heart of the town, it was well camouflaged and hidden by the trees. It’s a small but effective museum from the point of view of the locals living through the war plus references to the concentration camps.
Evening Day 1: Traditional Bistro Food
7 p.m.: Walk to Au Calice on Boulevard Jacquard. This reliable brasserie with its wooden floors and banquette seating and an outdoor garden hits the spot for traditional eating. With an estaminet type menu, choose from Flemish stew or mussels and chips. This place is cheap and cheerful.
Morning Day 2: A Medieval Tower and a Modern President
Spend today in the central, old part of Calais, originally a fortified town on an island but rebuilt after World War II.
9 a.m.: Start with a brisk walk north, over the Pont Henri Henon and up Avenue R. Pouncaré and you’ll reach the beach with its little cabins and brave swimmers, where the energetic walk with Nordic walking sticks or jog past you while the cross-channel ferries pass in and out of the busy port. Walk back past Fort Risban, its serious defenses bearing witness to the importance of the port for both the French and the English.
10 a.m.: Cross back over the bridge and make a left. Straight ahead you see the column dedicated to Louis XVIII to mark the return of the monarchy to France on April 24, 1814 after the fall of Napoleon. It sounds like an accolade for the town, but in reality, the new king came via Calais because it was the quickest route.
Take the road down to the 19th-century lighthouse where you’re rewarded for climbing the 271 spiral steps with a fabulous view over the Channel to the white cliffs of Dover.
11 a.m.: Walk back to the Place des Armes which has been renovated from its rather dire condition and is now a lively square which buzzes on Wednesday and Saturday mornings with an open air market. Once the heart of medieval Calais, all that is left is the Tour du Guet. The town has recently added a life-style statue of Charles de Gaulle and his wife, who in 1921 were married in the Notre-Dame church that was built in the 13th and 14th centuries when it was under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It has now been restored, so look at the Tudor-style garden outside then walk in for its mix of English and Flemish styles, 17th-century altar and its tower which was used as an observation point in the late 18th century to calculate the precise distance between the Paris Observatory and the Royal Greenwich Observatory.
The Place des Armes is full of cafes and restaurants, but consdier Du Vignoble au Verre at No. 43. It’s a cozy restaurant with classic French cooking. Dishes like seafood crepe, pepper steak, and scallops in a cider and apple sauce keep the locals and visitors happy.
Afternoon Day 2: A Surprising Discovery
2:30 p.m.: The Fine Arts Museum (Musée des Beaux-Arts) is a surprising discovery. The works range from 17th century paintings through Impressionism and Picasso to today. There’s an exhibition on Rodin juxtaposed with works by British artist Anthony Caro and everywhere in the museum, the centuries and styles are mixed and contrasted. There are delightful themes like "A Mad Tea Party" from "Alice in Wonderland" where a tea set, hot chocolate pot, and plates with motifs from China, Japan, and popular iconography give a strange disjointed feel, just as Alice felt. It’s all beautifully laid out, giving you a snapshot of art through the centuries.
Evening Day 2: Shopping and Dining
5 p.m.: Calais has some good shops, mostly open until 7 or 7:30 p.m. As you’re next to the Place des Armes, shop for cheese and wine at La Maison du Fromage et des Vins and La Bar a Vins. Then have a quick drink in any of the bars that line the Rue Royale where you'll find my recommended restaurant.
7 p.m.: Dine at Histoire Ancienne, a bistro-style restaurant owned and run by chef Patrick Comte with his wife managing front-of-house. Expect classic dishes from snails and pan-fried scallops with mushrooms and smoked duck, to sea bass, a proper pepper steak, and rack of lamb.
Morning Day 3: Serious Shopping or the Start of a New Trip
If you have come over to visit Calais from the U.K., then a trip to one of the hypermarkets outside the center must be your last port of call before going back. Read the detailed guide to shopping in Calais here.
If you are using Calais as a base for a longer trip, read about the towns, attractions, and glorious beaches along the coast from Calais down to Dieppe, taking in the Somme, making a great road trip of North France.
A Little History of Calais
For the Brits Calais has a special resonance. It was captured by Edward III in 1346 and under English control until 1558 when the Duc de Guise reclaimed the city as French. Mary Tudor mourned the loss: “When I am dead and opened, you shall find Calais engraved on my heart.”
In the 17th century, King Louis XIV employed the great military architect Vauban to reconstruct the Citadelle and build a series of forts, of which the impressive Fort Nieulay is the best example. In 1805 Napoleon turned up, seeing the town as necessary for his proposed invasion of Britain which never took place.
Much of Calais was destroyed by the British in World War II to stop the Germans using it as the obvious port for an invasion of England. Happily much of the Old Town was rebuilt after the war and it is hear you will find the historic buildings on what was originally a fortified town built on an island.