Dunkirk is famous historically for Operation Dynamo, the mass evacuation of allied soldiers in May 1940 when Britain and the Allies seemingly faced defeat from the Germans. But the town has a lot more going for it. There’s an excellent Port Museum, good contemporary art, a wonderfully long seafront with restaurants and bars looking out onto the sandy beaches and some excellent events throughout the year. Then there are the memorials and reminders of World War II both in Dunkirk and the surrounding countryside. All in all, it makes for an attractive town to visit.
France’s 3rd largest port after Le Havre and Marseille
In Nord Department, part of Nord Pas de Calais
Gateway to French Flanders
Rue de l’Amiral-Ronarc’h
Getting to Dunkirk from the UK
I traveled from Dover to Dunkirk with DFDS Seaways. They have regular sailings daily throughout the year for cars and passengers. The trip takes 2 hours and fares start from £39.
DFDS Seaways Information and Bookings
- More information on Getting to France by Ferry from the UK
From Calais it's 30-minute drive via the A16 and exits 54-62
There’s a train service from Lille Europe station taking 30 minutes.
Buses from Calais-Ville Station take around 30 to 40 minutes.
The local bus service is good with buses leaving from the bus station (DK Bus Marine, pl de la Gare, tel.: 00 33 (0)3 28 59 00 78. www.dkbus.com, in French). The free summer shuttle bus, the Etoile de Mer, leaves from the Port du Grand Large and runs along the Digue de Mer to Malo-les-Bains. There’s also a regular bus service to Malo-les-Bains all year round from Place Republique.
More About Dunkirk's Famous Wartime History
- Operation Dynamo and the Little Ships Story
- Operation Dynamo and World War II Sites in Dunkirk
- Operation Dynamo and World War II Sites in the countryside near Dunkirk including shipswrecks on the beach and a massacre
Dunkirk, Its History and Its Famous Local Hero
In the 11th century, Dunkirk was founded as a fishing port where the all-important herring was the main catch. Dunkirk's position in the North Sea and its proximity to the rich region of Flanders meant the town inevitably changed hands several times: in 1659 it belonged to the English; in 1662 it was bought back by Louis XIV.
Dunkirk has always flourished as a port, with herring then cod-fishing off Iceland bringing wealth to the town, a tradition that lives on today with the rather mad Carnival that takes place each year from January to March. With its wealth came the expansion of the town; in the 19th century the rich showed off their prosperity by building delightful Art-Nouveau style villas beside the sea along the coast from Dunkirk to Malo-les-Bains.
World War I saw Dunkirk under attack, but it was during World War II that Dunkirk was largely destroyed. The Battle of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo, the mass evacuation of allied soldiers in May 1940, brought almost total destruction to the town targeted by the German army and particularly the Luftwaffe. The citizens suffered considerably and continued to do so throughout the war; Dunkirk was the last town in France to be liberated, on May 10, 1945.
The Local Hero
You’ll need to know a little about the local hero, Jean Bart, as he pops up everywhere in the town, from a rather grand statue in the main Jean Bart Square, to a special kind of biscuit, called Jean Bart’s fingers (Doigts de Jean Bart) which you can get at Aux Doigts de Jean Bart, Patisserie Vandewalle, 6 rue du Sud, tel.: 00 33 (0)3 28 66 72 78; website.
Jean Bart was born in Dunkirk in 1650. Being a mere fisherman's son so unable to get a commission in the French Navy, he became a privateer, a maverick pirate given protection by the monarch to attack warships and merchant vessels of the enemy. He led what can only be described as a swashbuckling life, captured by the English and escaping from Plymouth and becoming an immensely successful scourge of the enemy. You can see his statue in the Place Jean Bart, looking as debonair and brave as any fair damsel could hope for.
Top Attractions in Dunkirk
Start with the 58 meter-high Belfry (Beffroi St-Eloi, same details as the Tourist Office which is housed on the ground floor of the belfry). It’s one of the few buildings in Dunkirk that wasn’t destroyed in World War II, and is now ranked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in the 13th century and heightened in the 15th, it, inevitably, became the town's watch tower. It should be linked to the church opposite but with those strange cards that history deals us, a fire and the road between the two led to the separation.
You can visit the tower via a lift then 64 steps for a view over the town and the massive harbor complex. It costs €3 and is open Mon. to Sat 10-11.30am, and 2-5.30pm; Suns and bank holidays 10-11.15am & 2-3.15pm.
Just opposite, St-Eloi’s church is worth going into for its stained glass windows and 16th and 17th Flemish paintings as well as the grave of Jean Bart, reburied here in 1928.
The Port Museum (Musée Portuaire) is a must for all the family. Housed in a former tobacco warehouse opened in 1869, it has a great collection of models of all kinds of ships, as well as period film footage, panoramas and interactive exhibits that bring the colorful history of Dunkirk to life.
Outside, the three ships that make up the Port Museum's exterior Musée du Port are tied up along the quayside. The Duchesse Anne is a square-rigged, 3-masted tall ship used by the German Merchant Navy for training in the early 20th century and handed over as part of war reparations. The Sandettie (1949) is the last French light-ship and the Guilde (1929) is an old barge.
Port Museum Information
9 quai de la Citadelle
More information on the Tourist Office website
Open daily except Tues in French term times 10am-12.30pm & 1.30-6pm
July and August daily 10am-6pm
Admission adult €6; Floating museum boat tours adult €7.50
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Like many museums in France, you’ll be surprised at what is in the collections of the Fine Art Museum: notable Flemish, Dutch, French and Italian paintings and sculptures from the 14th to the 20th centuries, including works like Corot’s A Dune at Dunkirk. There’s a room dedicated to Jean Bart which includes a death mask of the English King James II who died in exile in France in 1701.
Musée des Beaux-Arts Information
Pl de General de Gaulle
Open daily except Tuesday
Modern and Contemporary Art in Dunkirk
Dunkirk is surprisingly well served for modern art with both museums in the same area of the town.
LAAC (Lieu d’Art et d’Action Contemporaine) is located in a sculpture park looking out over Dunkirk beach in the Pont Lucien-Lefol section. It puts on good changing exhibitions; its permanent collection contains works from the 1940s to the 80s including Car Crash by Andy Warhol and pieces by Karel Appel and César. there's also a good graphic arts collection.
Jardin des Sculptures
Open daily except Monday
Apr-Sep additional evening opened late on the 3rd Thursday of the month
FRAC (Regional Collection of Contemporary Art), a few minutes away, is the place for international works of art and design from the past as well as today’s pieces. It has some art from well known names and some bought from up and coming artists, which is part of its remit (all the regions must spend a percentage of their income on new art). Many of these deal with present day concerns from globalization to sustainable development. At the least, it’s surprising.
503 Ave Bancs de Flandres
Open Wed-Sun noon-6pm
Dunkirk's World War II Sites
The Tourist Office produces a good map, information, and a trail to take you to the major World War II Operation Dynamo Sites.
Where to Stay and Eat in Dunkirk
.The Tourist Office can help you with accommodation. Also note the chains operating in Dunkirk such as the B&B Hotel near the station; Ibis and Formula 1 (hotel f1) just outside the main center in St Pol-sur-Mer.
The Hotel Borel is well situated just around the corner from the Port Museum. Its 48 rooms are comfortable and conventionally decorated with good bathrooms. There’s a good breakfast, but no restaurant. From around €97 per room for 2.
6 rue l’Hermite
The Apart Hotel Dunkerque is new and is in the university district. The 126 apartments, from studio to family, are well sized, with basic kitchen utilities and equipment for longer stays and many of them look out onto the water. There are a good breakfast, sports room, and outdoor terrace. From around €62 per night.
1 avenue de l'université
Restaurants in Dunkirk
Along the seafront book for one of the best restaurants in Dunkirk. Comme Vous Voulez is at 58 Digue de Mer and looks out onto the sea. The long room buzzes with contented customers, mostly local, here for the excellent value cooking. The €28.50 menu is the one to go for if you can’t make up your mind. It’s open for lunch and dinner daily in July and August and daily at other times except for Wednesdays and Sunday evenings.
In the center of the town, just south east of the Bassin de Commerce, L’Atelier de Steff (3 place Jeanne d’Arc is another local favorite. Choose from a regularly changing menu or pick from the fixed price suggestions at €30 for an excellent 3-course meal.
La Cambuse is definitely a local place, a fun bar and restaurant in an old container, complete with suitable industrial-style décor. The food is basic: hamburgers, salmon and local specialities, and there’s a good beer list. Watch out for special evening events, and if you feel like letting go, visit on an evening when they’re offering karaoke. 25, Rue du Gouvernement.
Brasserie L’edito is a large glass-fronted restaurant located in the former Le Corsaire. It's part of a small chain of fun, bustling, brasserie-style venues. The series of rooms are usually full, and its menu runs from fish soup or smoked salmon as starters to generously sized salads, pizzas, hamburgers and local dishes as mains. Good beer list and reasonable prices. 97 entrée du Port, place du Minck
Where to Shop in Dunkirk
La Cremerie la Ferme is the cheese shop to make for. Choose from over 300 cheeses, and try the local Bergues cheese, a local cow’s milk variety washed in beer for 3 weeks.
22 rue Poincare
Aux Doigts de Jean Bart, Patisserie Vandewalle is the best-known patisserie in the region. For more than 100 years, the Vandewalle family has been making cakes, biscuits, pastries and the famous Jean Bart fingers. These finger-shaped cakes are extremely tempting, filled with coffee cream and covered in chocolate.
6 rue du Sud
Le Grenier du Lin is just outside Dunkirk at Hondschoote (2 rue des Moëres). It's a specialist shop where everything is made from linen woven from flax from the local farms. The shop has a good selection of clothes, as well as gifts like bag, household linen and soaps.
For supermarket shopping, make for Auchan outside the center at 40 Rue de l'Ancienne Rn 40, 59760 Grande-Synthe.
Dunkirk’s weekly market takes place in the town center on Wednesdays and Staurdays.
Try to make the annual flea market (brocante) which takes place on Ascension Day in May or June. It’s a huge event with around 1,000 stalls in the city center.
Events in Dunkirk
The Dunkirk Carnival runs for almost 3 months from January to the beginning of March. It’s a riot of a carnival with fish and fishermen to the fore. It dates back to the 18th century and marks the special feast before the fishermen set sail for Iceland and its precious harvest of cod.
Tour de France à la Voile. The Tour de France by sailing yachts is one of France’s great events, starting in Dunkirk and going all round the coasts of France to finish in Nice.
October: 1st Weekend: Oyster Festival
October: Last weekend: Wine and Beer Festival
More information from the Tourist Office