Northern France itinerary
Discover hidden gems in Northern France beyond the usual tourist routes. Explore enchanting towns, serene landscapes, and lesser-known places in this detailed guide.
I thought I’d share some hidden gems in northern France. So I’ve written some of my memories of a trip I took some time ago and hopefully it may inspire some of you to take on a similar itinerary.
I set off with some friends for a week away in the car to try and pack in as many sights and sounds as we could without spending most of the time in the car. It worked out pretty well all in all.
So read on to discover the delights of northern France.
Northern France guide
Here I will guide you through my trip day by day, and give you some ideas on where you could visit on your trip to Northern France.
Day 1: Dover – St Omer
Having dodged the baulk of the traffic en route to Dover, we spent an hour aboard the ferry before the joy of seeing Calais and its roads free from cauliflowers or cabbages courtesy of the permanently disenchanted farming community.
St Omer lay just a few minutes away, along with our first alfresco refreshment of the trip. St Omer is an ideal pit stop, especially if you’ve already had a long drive to the Kent coast. It has plenty of hotels, a decent town square, some pretty landscaped gardens to stroll around and plenty of places to eat.
We arrived mid-afternoon and after checking in to our hotel we enjoyed the gardens then settled in for a well-earned drink in the square, followed by a typical dinner of the region; savoury pancakes stuffed with ham and cheese, some simply cooked fish in beurre blanc and chocolate mousse. All in all, a solid start.
If you have more time to explore St Omer you will find that St. Omer is a charming commune in the Hauts-de-France region of northern France, particularly noted for its rich history and distinctive culture. This unique locale is known for its stunning architectural landmarks, including the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saint-Omer, a Gothic architectural marvel that stands as a testament to the city's historical and cultural heritage. The winding, cobblestone streets of the city center are also home to many traditional shops and delightful bistros, offering an authentic taste of French culture.
Adding to its appeal is the Marais Audomarois, a remarkable marshland and a UNESCO world heritage site, which has a recognized biosphere reserve, located near by. The green, tranquil waterways of this marshland are often explored on traditional wooden boats, offering a picturesque and tranquil escape from the bustling city life. With its combination of history, culture, and natural beauty, St. Omer is a testament to the diverse tapestry that makes up France.
Day 2: St Omer - Arras
Our next leg of the journey was short, just a few miles south to the town of Arras.
Arras another one of my hidden gems, nestled in the heart of the Hauts-de-France region, is an alluring city known for its historical richness and striking architecture. The city's most iconic sights are its two magnificent squares, the Grande Place and the Place des Héros, both framed by a stunning array of ornate Baroque buildings.
These squares, with their striking Flemish-Spanish style facades, are among the most beautiful in France and serve as lively gathering places for locals and tourists alike.
Arras is also renowned for its wartime history, most notably World War I. The Wellington Quarry, a network of underground tunnels built during the war, now serves as a moving memorial and museum. Just outside the city, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial stands on the site of a significant WWI battlefield, paying tribute to the soldiers who fought and died there.
Beyond its poignant history, Arras is a vibrant city with a lively arts scene, excellent dining, and a yearly carnival that's one of the oldest in France. Its blend of history, culture, and modern vitality make it a compelling destination in the north of France.
Similar in size to St Omer, Arras has the same feel to it and has plenty of spots to stay and eat in. We first headed out to visit the First World War monument at Vimy Ridge and the nearby trench works that have been maintained as they were a hundred years ago.
The sight of the narrow trenches and the crater pocked landscape is very moving and thought provoking. The many, many names inscribed on the walls of the monument itself are every bit the same. For anyone who has an interest in history or who wants to pay some respects to a generation that endured so much, it’s well worth a visit.
Lunch in Arras followed and then a lazy afternoon and a just a couple of drinks around the town.
Beautiful towns in Northern France
There is no doubt that there are many beautiful towns in northern France and the great news for us is that makes them easier to drive to then the south of France, going as far as the southern coast of France will add many hundreds of miles to your journey.
Day 3: Arras - Epernay
The next stage of our journey was around 90 minutes and took us to the heart of Champagne country.
Epernay, often referred to as the "Capital of Champagne", is an exquisite town situated in the northeastern part of France, in the region of Grand Est. This town is renowned worldwide for its extensive vineyards and grand champagne houses that line the famous Avenue de Champagne. This illustrious boulevard, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to prestigious champagne producers such as Moët & Chandon and Perrier-Jouët, whose historic cellars offer guided tours and tastings of their esteemed vintages.
In the heart of Epernay, you'll find the magnificent Town Hall, a testament to the 19th-century architectural splendour, set within the beautifully manicured gardens of the Parc de la Mairie. Furthermore, the town is famed for its gastronomy, boasting a number of excellent restaurants that perfectly complement its champagne heritage. While Epernay's allure is undoubtedly its sparkling wine, the town's charm extends beyond the vineyards with its rich history, striking architecture, and the warm hospitality of its inhabitants, making it a must-visit destination in the Champagne region of France.
While we were in Epernay we took in a quick guided tour round the Dom Perignon cellars. However, to actually buy a few bottles of the legendary fizz we headed off the beaten track and into the hills to find some local smallholders. It didn’t take long.
An elderly lady was stooped over her broom, sweeping her drive as we pulled over and in some rather ghastly schoolboy French I inquired about the possibility of a “petit degustation” nearby. The old lady looked up and beckoned us in.
Thirty minutes later we left with several bottles for a pittance. The champagne was crisp and as good as anything six times the price. We tasted madame’s local version in her garage and as we began to leave, she tugged on my friend’s sleeve and handed us a bottle of pink. “Un cadeau” she said, smiling and thanked us for visiting. If you are going to buy while you are in the region, I couldn’t recommend this approach enough.
It beats the prices in Epernay or Rheims and it brings you into contact with some lovely people so if that isn't a hidden gem I don't know what is!
Don’t worry if you’re French isn’t great; as long as you make some sort of token effort you’ll be welcomed as a friend and treated to some delicious wines. If you are ever stuck for an idea for a day trip, then a look round the cellars of Dom Perignon would be a great place to discover.
Three and a half days in and all going well….in part 2 I’ll take you from dinner in the world’s smallest hamlet, to glorious chateaux and the rolling landscape of Normandy before the boat takes us home once again.
Following on we travelled from Calais to Champagne via St Omer and Arras. An amazing dinner, one of the most picturesque and complete Chateaus in all of France and a dalliance in the capital await before the home leg across Normandy and the boat back to England.
Day 3: Moussy
I've already told you how we took in trips to the Dom Perignon caves and bought ourselves some less pricey fizz out in the sticks. After loading the car up with the tempting refreshments we set off for our night in the region in the tiny hamlet of Moussy.
Moussy is a small but charming commune located in the Marne department in the northeastern Grand Est region of France. Despite its size, Moussy is an integral part of the region's globally renowned champagne production. It is nestled amidst lush vineyards, and some of the most esteemed Champagne houses source their grapes from this verdant area, making it an essential stop for wine enthusiasts.
While in Moussy, you can indulge in a delightful exploration of the champagne-making process from grape to glass, with several wineries offering insightful tours and tastings. The town itself exudes a tranquil ambiance, with quaint houses, narrow streets, and the quiet beauty of rural France.
As a less famous than some of its neighbouring towns like Epernay, Moussy really quailifies as a hidden gem in France. It offers a more intimate, peaceful experience of the Champagne region's rustic charm and timeless tradition of winemaking.
Moussy is just a few kilometres south of Epernay and we stayed at the Auberge Champenoise. The hotel is a basic, no frills affair but the restaurant….oh the restaurant.
Having dumped our bags and freshened up, we headed downstairs to eat and were greeted by a beautiful dining room situated in a conservatory. White linen adorned the tables and bow-tied waiters buzzed through the room.
We dined on oysters, sea bass, duck (in a delicious peach sauce), bourgoyne aligote, delicious desserts, coffees, and a couple of cognacs. I’ve visited France many times and this remains one of the very best meals I’ve eaten there.
We retired for the night happy (wine/cognac) and almost as full as the day itself had been.
Day 4: Moussy – Pierrefonds
Next up was a change of direction as we swung west towards Paris. On the way we took in the small village of Pierrefonds.
Pierrefonds is one of the most beautiful, and captivating villages nestled in the northern region of Hauts-de-France, France. Its most prominent and enchanting feature is undoubtedly the Château de Pierrefonds, a strikingly beautiful medieval castle.
This architectural hidden gem in France, was restored in the 19th century by the renowned architect Viollet-le-Duc, is characterized by its soaring towers, intricate stone carvings, and imposing defensive walls. It has been the backdrop for numerous films and television series, adding to its international fame.
Surrounding the village, the enchanting Forest of Compiègne offers visitors an extensive network of walking trails and scenic beauty, perfect for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Pierrefonds, with its tranquil lake, charming local shops and eateries, completes the picturesque setting.
This small village, rich in history and bathed in natural beauty, is a haven of tranquillity and a step back into France's medieval past. It offers a unique blend of architectural grandeur and serene countryside charm, making it a delightful detour off the beaten path.
The chateau avoided the terrors of the religious wars and 20th century conflicts and remains in all its near complete glory as the centrepiece of the area.
The view is breath-taking, and the town has hotels to accommodate the curious, so you can stay over as well as just pass through. We took in a lazy day and a break from the car and could not have spent it in a more gorgeous setting, a real hidden gem in France.
Day 5: Pierrefonds - Paris
We had planned some time in Paris to take in the sights and legendary cuisine and we clambered back into the car that morning with a full itinerary. Having arrived at our hotel we did the usual touristy things, seeing Notre Dame, Concord, Arc and Eiffel Tower. We ate in a bistro in Montmartre and enjoyed the buzz of the capital with all its easy charm and spectacular architecture.
Day 6: Paris – Honfleur
The day began with a gentle drive through the Norman countryside before we ambled in to Honfleur for our final gastronomic treat, lunch by the famous quayside. The sun shone brightly, and we relaxed and laughed about the week we’d had.
Honfleur, (Normandy region) of northern France, is a picturesque port town that has inspired artists, musicians, and writers for centuries. Its old, colorful harbor, Le Vieux Bassin, is particularly enchanting with its mirror-like waters reflecting the charming slate-covered houses and bustling sidewalk cafes.
Honfleur's rich maritime history is evident in its old docks, wooden Saint Catherine's Church—the largest church in France to be made from wood by shipbuilders—and the Musée de la Marine, which offers insight into the town's historic naval exploits. The town is also the birthplace of the impressionist movement, with artists like Claude Monet and Eugène Boudin having drawn inspiration from its unique light and captivating scenes. The Eugène Boudin Museum, located in the town, houses a collection of the artist's works, showcasing the region's artistic heritage.
From its idyllic narrow streets filled with art galleries and shops to its excellent seafood restaurants offering the bounty of the sea, Honfleur presents an alluring mix of history, culture, and coastal charm. It's a delightful testament to Normandy's diverse offerings.
Honfleur was the perfect way to round things off. Some sightseeing afterwards helped to walk off a few calories and then we bedded in for our final night. After that it was a quick jaunt round Le Havre’s hypermarket and onto the ferry home.
Weekend in Northern France
Our trip took us a week but you could certainly have a great weekend in Northern France if that is all the time you can afford. With a bit of careful planning you could get to experience some great sights, sounds and culinary delights that France has to offer. It really is one of the best places to visit and I highly recommend you try it.
You can contact me via our Facebook page (see below) and please do if you have found a hidden gem in France that I've missed, I'd love to hear about it.
Other hidden gems to try
We didn’t visit these places on this particular road trip but over the years these places listed below have been favourites of mine. They are not too far from Paris.
So if you are looking for a hidden gem in France you should certainly consider these places in close proximity to Paris, as they make for fantastic day trips.
Here are a few options:
Versailles: Just a short train ride from Paris, the Palace of Versailles is a stunning masterpiece of French Baroque architecture, and its gardens are equally impressive. Versailles was the seat of political power in the Kingdom of France from 1682 to 1789.
Giverny: This small village is famous as the home of Claude Monet. You can visit his beautifully preserved home and the gardens that inspired many of his most famous paintings, including his Water Lilies series.
Fontainebleau: This town is home to the Château de Fontainebleau, one of the largest French royal châteaux, surrounded by a former royal hunting park.
Reims: If you're interested in champagne, consider a trip to Reims in the Champagne region. It's home to some of the world's most famous Champagne houses, such as Veuve Clicquot and Taittinger, which offer cellar tours and tastings.
Mont Saint-Michel: While it's a longer day trip, this island commune in Normandy is one of the most iconic sights in France. It's known for its stunning abbey, quaint shops, and picturesque views.
Chantilly: This town is famous for the Château de Chantilly, a historic château featuring an extensive art collection and a park. It's also renowned for its horse racing and whipped cream.
If you are planning a French road trip you should check out these important resources.
The trip is only an example of course and if it’s inspired you to undertake a similar journey you can always tailor it to visit some places that we did not. Le Touquet, Amiens, the Normandy beaches all spring to mind but the choice is yours.
There are so many places to visit in Northern France as it is certainly one of the most beautiful places in the world. If you plan ahead and sort out your hotels and have the ferry sorted it’s a low cost, low stress option for a week away with a few friends. I hope you enjoyed reading about my experiences and that you feel enthused to try something similar.
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Authored By: David Griffiths
David is passionate about driving in France. His first visit was a Eurotunnel trip just after it opened in 1994. David started his first motoring related website 10 years later in 2004.
The idea for the Drive-France website started in 2008 and he has owned and run it ever since. He now has the reputation of being one of the foremost authorities on Driving in France.
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