This region of north France takes in the two departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais that are now in the new Hauts de France region.
Nord is a wedge-shaped department which borders the English channel to the west, then runs along the Franco-Belgian border from the northernmost point just outside Dunkirk, the 3rd largest port in France. It borders Luxembourg to the east and Pas-de-Calais to the south.
Pas-de-Calais has Nord as its northern and eastern border and Champagne-Ardennes and Picardy to its south. It also looks out onto the English Channel.
The two departments are historically interlinked; the only major difference being the very distinct Flemish influence in Nord where you’ll find different names and spellings, some pockets where Flemish is spoken along with French), slightly different architecture and a great beer culture.
Nord–Pas-de-Calais is an area that many people ignore, taking the ferry or Eurotunnel to Calais or Dunkirk, then racing down south. But it’s a fabulous, unexpected region, great for a short break from both the UK and from Paris. When I am driving south, I always spend a night in the area discovering new things on every trip.
Major Attractions in the Area
France and England at War
For centuries, England and France fought over the territory nearest England, that is this part of France. You can trace the Hundred Years War with the family on this 3-day tour, which includes one of the greatest English victories, the Battle of Agincourt fought in October, 1415.
The Two World Wars
This was a region ravaged by the two world wars so there’s plenty to see. The explosion of interest in ‘memorial tourism’ in the years up to 2014 led to new memorials being built, trails opened and former war sites revitalised.
In World War I, the first tank battle took place at Cambrai and the area around there has numerous sites and memorials, large and small to British, Australian and Canadian troops. A tank was discovered in 1998 and dug up. Mark IV Deborah is now displayed in a barn.
The region is also the place for the moving American memorials and cemeteries testifying to the vital part the U.S.A. played in the war. Here's a great tour of the main sites in the area. Many of them like Wilfred Owen's memorial are recent, the result of world-wide interest in World War I.
World War II
England was dangerously close to Nord–Pas-de-Calais and was prime territory for attacks on England with Hitler siting La Coupole here to launch the V1 and V2 rockets onto London. Today the huge concrete bunker is a spectacular museum which starts with the war and takes you through the Space Race. La Coupole is well known; less famous is the secret base of Mimoyecques where the secret and spectacularly unsuccessful V3 rocket was developed and built. Today it's an echoing, strange site, shut for months of the year as it houses a protected bat population.
Dunkirk featured as the most important site for the mass evacuation of British, French and Commonwealth troops in 1940, code-named Operation Dynamo.
- More about Operation Dynamo and Dunkirk
- More about the wrecked ships and World War II sites around Dunkirk
Major cities in the Nord–Pas-de-Calais
Lille is northern France’s biggest city, a lively, exciting city which earned its wealth being the main stop of the trading routes between Flanders and Paris. Today it has both a remarkable historic quarter, great museums and top restaurants. Go for the blockbusters, but don't miss places like the historic Museum of the Hospice of the Countess where you feel you have stepped into an Old Master painting.
Contemporary art fans get a treat at the various exhibitions put on at the TriPostal in Lille; Villeneuve d’Ascq is the main Museum of Modern Art in Lille in the area.
Roubaix, once a great Flemish textile city, is a short tram ride away and you can see the past at the splendid La Piscine Museum in a former Art Deco swimming pool complex.
Arras was completely rebuilt after its destruction in World War I so that it looks like the medieval city it once was with arcaded streets and large squares. Every winter, Arras holds the best Christmas market in north France.
St-Omer is a delightful small city with an old quarter, a spectacular Saturday market, a marshland which you can take a tour through where the postmen deliver by boat, a Jesuit college where some of the founding fathers of the U.S were educated and a first folio of Shakespeare, discovered in 2014.
Stay nearby at the Chateau Tilques Hotel. It has a good restaurant, swimming pool, walks and some great deals on its room prices.
- Read guest reviews, check prices and book the Chateau Tilques on TripAdvisor.
Coastal Towns and Ports
Calais is the best known and most used port for this part of France. Again, it’s well worth stopping at for the now well renovated main square and the church where Charles de Gaulle married Yvonne Charlotte Anne Marie Vendroux, who was from Calais, in April 1921. Don’t miss the fabulous Lace Museum, a must for all the family.
- Calais Visitor Guide
- The Lace Museum in Calais
- Shops and Shopping in Calais
Boulogne-sur-Mer is smaller with a delightful old walled quarter above the port which makes a great place to stay overnight. It's also home to Nausicaa, a sea center that draws international visitors.
Stop at the now inland port of Montreuil-sur-Mer, abandoned long ago when the sea silted up. It's a delightful place with hauntingly beautiful fortifications. The top hotel in the region is the fabulous Chateau de Montreuil, so book a stay here.
- Read guest reviews, check prices and book at the Chateau de Montreuil.
Hardelot is a charming resort, less well known but quite delightful. Charles Dickens stayed here with his mistress and the English connections resulted in the fairy-tale castle where a theater offers Shakespeare and an English summer program.
Just to the south, Le Touquet-Paris-Plage is much posher. The lovely, chic resort is popular with the English and with Parisians who come here to sail and chill out.
Attractions in Nord–Pas-de-Calais
The region has some delightful places to visit that have no echoes of the wars. Included here is one of my favourite gardens in France, the private and secret gardens at Séricourt.
Don’t miss the Louvre-Lens, the outpost of the Louvre museum in Paris for an overview of French art from the ancient civilisations to today in a permanent exhibition as well as a series of important temporary shows.
Henri Matisse might be associated with the south of France, but he was born and spent much of his formative life here in north France. Visit the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambresis for a different perspective on the famous Impressionist painter.
Walk along the cliffs between Calais and Boulogne, past Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Gris Nez, looking down at the breakers below you and across to the old enemy of England.
Climb the former slag heaps in the mining area around Bethune; it has been made one of France's newest World Heritage Sites.