Top Attractions in North France and Where to Stay

  • 01 of 10

    Top Attractions in North France

    Inside the main exhibition, Louvre-Lens. Mary Anne Evans

    The Louvre-Lens, opened in December 2012, is one of France's impressively grand schemes. It was designed both to send great art from Paris to this region of France, and also to revive the fortunes of Lens. The former mining town fell on hard times after the mines closed and the area has had a fairly bleak few decades. But being so close to Lille, to Belgium, to the Netherlands, and to the U.K., the idea is to revitalise the area much as the Pompidou Center did in Metz in Lorraine.

    The Louvre-Lens is housed in a striking low building with different galleries fanning out from the centre. Inside, you're offered works of art from 3,500 BC to the mid-19th century, which is an ambitious scheme. The main exhibition shows you masterpieces from each era; there's a second exhibition hall and an annually changing major temporary exhibition.

    Allow at least half a day if you can to see both exhibitions. Lens itself is a town with some surprisingly good Art Deco buildings, and worth a...MORE stroll through. Otherwise there's plenty in the area to see.

    Museum website (in French)

    Where to Stay

    One possibility is to stay in either nearby Lille or Arras.

    If you want a more local option, try the Hotel Lensotel at Vendin Le Vieil just to the north of Lens. Good-sized rooms are decorated with bright modern colors; bathrooms are well equipped. There’s a swimming pool and free WiFi. Rooms start at 90 euros per night. There’s a good restaurant with views over the delightful and extensive garden. Menus start at 20 euros per person.

    Hotel Lensotel
    Rue des Canadiens
    Vendin Le Vieil
    Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 79 36 36

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  • 02 of 10

    The Lace Museum in Calais

    Sexy fashion at the Lace Museum, Calais. © F. Kleinefenn

    The past comes to life in this museum which is as much about fashion as it is about lace making. You start with the delicate hand-made lace worn only by the aristocracy, then move onto the 18th-century Industrial Revolution when looms had to be smuggled into France from neighboring England to escape the punishing laws on industrial espionage.

    The story goes on to the present day with designers like Christian Dior and the ‘New Look’. Lace-making machines, videos showing you the long and complex process, and a series of beautiful dresses and accessories fill the former collective lace factory in Calais.

    Where to Stay
    The Meurice is a delightfully old-fashioned hotel with good-sized rooms from 92 euros, a well-regarded restaurant and a friendly, late-night bar. It’s in a quiet side street just off Rue Royale which is full of restaurants.

    Le Meurice
    5 E-Roche
    Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 34 57 03
    Hotel website

    More about Calais

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  • 03 of 10

    The Museum of Flanders in Cassel

    Museum of Flanders, Cassel, North France. Philippe Houze

    Charming little Cassel stands high on the flat plain that stretches up to Belgium. The pretty village has a large, imposing square, a great hotel and a charming windmill and local estaminet, and is well worth an overnight stop. But the blockbuster here is the Museum of Flanders. The museum highlights the depth, richness and variety of Flanders’ cultural and artistic identity. It’s housed in the splendid Hôtel de la Noble-Cour and apart from the interesting permanent collection, puts on a series of excellent temporary exhibitions.

    Where to Stay
    Originally an 18th-century small chateau, the Chatellerie de Schoebeque offers a delightful mix of just 15 rooms, from the Edith Piaf-inspired room to a gypsy caravan in the garden. Rooms are from around 180 euros per night and the restaurant looks out over the countryside.

    Chatellerie de Schoebeque
    32 rue Foch
    Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 28 42 42 67
    Hotel website

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  • 04 of 10

    Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambresis

    The Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambresis. Matisse Museum, Le Cateau-Cambrésis, Coll, Conseil général du Nord P.Houzé

    Henri Matisse was born in Le Cateau-Cambrésis in the north of France and it was the influence of textile design that he saw in his daily life that was to prove such an influence on his work.

    The museum, in the former arch-bishop's Fénelon Palace, shows how Matisse developed and changed as an artist. It holds a wide varietyof his work and includes room settings asThe works of Auguste Herbin, born in 1882 in a village near Le Cateau, and the magazines and books published by the editor-poet, Tériade, add two more collections.

    Where to Stay
    Le Clos St-Jacques, is a quiet chambre d'hote in the middle of Cambrai which is a short drive north west. All the rooms are different so you can sleep in a rustic-style room or one that is for the romantic. The 4 rooms are from around 100 euros per night including breakfast. No restaurant but there are plenty nearby.

    Le Clos St-Jacques
    9, rue St Jacques
    59400 Cambrai
    Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 27 74 37 61

    ​Read On...

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  • 05 of 10

    La Coupole near St-Omer

    la coupole
    La Coupole Nazi Rocket Launch Base, St. Omer.

    Built in World War II as a launch pad for Hitler’s V2 rockets that were designed to annihilate London and Antwerp, La Coupole is a monster, a huge concrete dome near St-Omer and the French coast. But inside is one of the best museums in the country. It tells the story of the occupation of France, the holocaust and concentration camps like Auschwitz, and the build up of the German war machine. With films, interactive exhibits and artefacts, it takes you through World War II and into the Cold War and the Space Race with its triumphs and disasters.

    • Read more about La Coupole

    Where to Stay

    Stay near Saint-Omer at Chateau Tilques. The 19th-century red-brick chateau, now very extended, is set in a delightful park with swans and peacocks. Comfortable, well decorated rooms with chintz to the fore in the main building and a more modern decor in the annexe. There’s also a good restaurant.

    Chateau Tilques
    Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 88 99 99

    More about St-Omer and the surrounding countryside

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  • 06 of 10

    Nausicaa Sea Center in Boulogne-sur-Mer

    Penguin at Nausicaa. © Alexis Rosenfeld

    The Nausicaa Sealife Center in Boulogne has everything – a shark tunnel, lagoon, and an open-air sea lion reserve where the lithe creatures perform. And don’t miss the beautiful Perspex column full of graceful jelly fish.

    There's a serious purpose behind all the attractive exhibits, which is to teach all of us and particularly the young, why we should respect and protect the seas around our coastlines. But it’s all so well done that you’re entertained as much as educated.

    Where to Stay

    The delightful Chambres d’hote (bed and breakfast), Les Terrasses de l’Enclos is within the medieval walls of the old town. The five large rooms are each differently decorated and all have great bathrooms. You either look over their courtyard or onto the ramparts in the distance. Excellent, quite pricey restaurant and great breakfast.

    Les Terrasses de l’Enclos
    Enclos de L’Evêché
    6 rue de Pressy
    Tel.:03 91 90 05 90

     Read more about Boulogne-sur-Mer

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  • 07 of 10

    Wilfred Owen Memorial at Ors

    The canal where World War I poet Wilfred Owen was killed in 1918. © Mary Anne Evans

    Interest in World War I is huge with the commemorations of the war which started in 2014. Particularly moving is the stark, impressive and moving Memorial to the soldier poet, Wilfred Owen. It's in a forest clearing and has been constructed around the old forester's house where Owen and his soldier companions spent their last night.

    Where to Stay
    Try nearby Cambrai and Le Clos St-Jacques. See page 4 and the Matisse Museum at Le Cateau-Cambresis for more information.

    More about World War I in North France

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  • 08 of 10

    The Palace of Compiegne in Picardy

    The Ballroom at Compiegne Palace. © Palais impérial de Compiègne/Marc Poirier

    In the 17th century, Louis XIV decided that Compiègne was the perfect distance from Paris to become the playground of the Kings of France. The royal family and their friends flocked here to hunt, feast and dance the night away. It was the place where Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette of Austria met. After the Revolution Napoleon decided to follow the royal example and the Palace was restored in flamboyant style.

    It’s a lovely place, rather domesticated and now a bit dusty and faded but very enjoyable to visit. Apart from the extensive historic apartments, there’s a museum of historic vehicles which is pretty comprehensive, taking in Napoleon III’s train carriage and a De Dion-Bouton of 1898.

    Where to Stay

    The Hotel des Beaux-Arts is right by the river and near the town center. It has comfortable rooms, some looking out onto the river, and a good Bistro restaurant,

    Hotel Les Beaux-Arts
    33 cours Guynemer
    Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 44 92 26 26

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  • 09 of 10

    The Armistice Memorial in the heart of Compiegne Forest

    Alsace-Lorraine Monument, Armistice Museum, Compiegne, Northern France. © Ossi Laurila

    The forest stretches out west from Compiègne, a huge swathe of tall trees and paths. It’s a beautiful place for walking. It’s also the setting for the impressive Armistice Memorial at the Clairiere de l’Armistice right in the middle.

    Park in a small car park and walk along a wooded path and you're in an extraordinary clearing. In front of you railway tracks lead to the center of the memorial, tracks that were used to bring two railway carriages here in 1918. The Museum is housed in a small white building. Inside is a replica of of the railway carriage where Marshal Foch and his officers, met with the Germans to sign the Armistice to end World War I. It was signed on November 11th at 5.10am.

    The museum covers both World War I and World War II, with objects, old films and newspapers from Raleigh, Virginia, where many US soldiers came from.

    More about World War I in northern France

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  • 10 of 10

    La Piscine Museum of Art and Industry in Roubaix

    Sculptures at La Piscine, Roubaix, Lille. © Mary Anne Evans

    The Museum of Art and Industry is housed in a former swimming bath complex, hence its name of La Piscine (swimming pool). The museum covers fine and applied art, with pafrom 1927-1932 in flamboyant Art Deco style. It was modeled around the Abbey of Cluny with a cloister and garden in the center and a chapel and restaurant, reflecting the old refectory idea.

    Where to Stay
    Roubaix is effectively a suburb of Lille, one of northern France’s liveliest cities. If you’re pushing the boat out, go for L’Hermitage Gantois. It’s in a former hospice, founded in 1460. It’s very beautiful with inner courtyards and superb rooms. There’s a gastronomic restaurant as well and a good more casual estaminet.

    L.Hermitage Gantois
    224 rue de Paris
    Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 20 85 30 30

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