While Paris and the South of France are undoubtedly the country's most popular tourist destinations, if you want to experience France in a totally different way, Northern France is the perfect place from which to do so. This region was perhaps the most affected by the First and Second World Wars, and scars are visible all around to this day. Formerly Belgian territory, much of the North remains culturally Flemish, including its architecture and its cuisine. That is not, however, to say that it has not modernized. Indeed, cities such as Le Havre and Lille combine the modern with the traditional, to create beautiful, vibrant spots to spend a weekend or longer.
Lille, France's fourth largest city, is a must-see for visitors to the North of France. Its charming old town, stylish shopping district and vibrant nightlife give it something for everyone to enjoy. Largely untapped by the tourism industry, the Capital of Flanders remains something of a mystery to many outside of Pas-de-Calais. It has three major art museums, including France's second, displaying works by Rembrandt and Rubens to name just a few. A European Capital of Culture in 2004, Lille has promoted its cultural heritage alongside its status as a market town, with La Grande Braderie, the city's famous flea market, now an important national event, attracting visitors from across the country in early September.
Alongside Lille, there are a number of other lovely towns and villages that are certainly worth a visit on your trip to Northern France. In Lens, for instance, you have the Louvre-Lens, an art museum with close connections (including some attractions) to its Parisian namesake, designed to bring culture to those outside of Paris. Le Havre, a port town with wonderful coastline walks and an incredible 16th century cathedral, is another highlight of the region. Spend an afternoon exploring the commune at Mont Saint-Michel, just one of a large number of UNESCO world heritage sites in the region. There are several picturesque seaside towns, such as Boulogne-Sur-Mer, a leading fishing town combining nautical trade with more traditional, beautiful architecture, and Le Touquet, the charming, art-deco-laden holiday destination of such iconic figures as Winston Churchill and Noël Coward.
This area of France is also known for the way in which it remembers its past: most specifically, its comparatively recent past. War memorials, both from the First and Second World Wars, are commonplace in the region, and are respectfully maintained, attracting thousands of visitors annually. Entry to these is charged at a small rate, just enough to cover maintenance costs. As well as day entry to these sites, small guided tours are available to book, at varying lengths and prices. As both the Normandy D-Day landings and the Battle of the Somme took place here, areas in Northern France have been used for the filming of notable movies such as Saving Private Ryan and Dunkirk, amongst others, meaning some areas will be easily recognizable to film buffs.
Food and Dining
The Northern part of France is known primarily for its Flemish cuisine, its roots in the former ownership of the area by the Flemish people. Carbonnade flamande, a type of beef stew, is one of the most popular dishes, and can be enjoyed at restaurants across Lille and beyond. Another such specialty is gaufres (waffles), enjoyed in both sweet and savory form, especially the savory version flavored with pumpkin. Outside of Flemish cuisine, Northern France is known for its meat-based dishes, such as andouille and andouillette sausages, as well as tripe a la mode de Caen, beef intestines in a cider and vegetable broth. The region has a number of Michelin starred restaurants, the highlight being Le Meurin restaurant, named after its 2-starred chef. Normandy is one of the world's most important cider-brewing regions, and the home of calvados; indeed, apples are very important in the regional cuisine, with moules a la normande another regional delicacy: mussels with apples and cream. The tarte tatin, famously difficult for English-speakers to pronounce, is another favorite here.
The Northern part of France shares borders with both Belgium and the United Kingdom, making transport relatively easy. The Eurostar service goes directly from London to Lille, a journey taking less than two hours. Travelling from the UK, if you have use of a car, it could perhaps be better to use Le Shuttle, a tunnel beneath the Channel, the journey on which takes just 35 minutes from Folkestone to Calais, as well as the ferries operated by several companies between Dover and Calais.
The region is also served by Lille airport, a small, regional airport, in which a number of major airlines operate, including Ryanair, Easyjet and Vueling, flying from North Africa and other Mediterranean countries, as well as a number of internal airlines.