Welcome to historic Hauts-de-France

Hauts de France is the northernmost region of France, situated just 20 miles from the South-East coast of England and around 70 miles north of Paris.

Bordering Belgium to the east, this region is especially well known for its many World War battle sites, such as the Somme and Dunkirk. It has plenty more than history to offer visitors, with its stunning coastline and beautiful architecture that attracts tourists from all around the world.

Read our in-depth travellers guide to Hauts de France, and we’ll show you some of our favourite highlights of this fascinating region of northern France.

Haut de France
Map of Hauts de France

How to get to there

By Plane

Fly directly to Beauvais–Tillé Airport (sometimes called Paris Beauvais) from Manchester. There are usually four or five flights a week, depending on the time of the year. The only other airport in the region, Lille Lesquin, receives only domestic or mainland European flights.

Two major airports, Paris Charles de Gaulle and Brussels, are within easy reach of the region by high-speed rail and have more frequent direct flights from the UK.

By ferry

Take the Dover to Calais or Dover to Dunkirk ferry service. They take around 1hr 30 mins – you can use that time to take in views of England, France and Belgium.

By rail/road

Get from Folkestone to Calais in just 35 minutes on Le Shuttle – the quickest and easiest way to get from the UK to Hauts-de-France.

Alternatively, take the Brussels-bound Eurostar from London St Pancras – it stops at Calais and Lille.

Getting around

By Road

An extensive network of motorways and major roads makes driving around Hauts-de-France a pleasant experience. The A2 runs through the region and connects it to both Paris and Belgium, while the A1 connects the north of the region to the south. In the Hauts-de-France region, the A1 and the A16 are toll free, but the rest have tolls with costs ranging from €10-€50.

By Public Transport

An extensive train network serves the region. TGV provides a high-speed service that connects Lille to Arras and Picardy in the south and Calais in the north-west. A TER Hauts-de-France regional network runs between the other towns and cities in the area.

The local bus network is reliable, but as timetables change regularly, it is best to check the local tourist office for times. The moovit app is a very helpful resource for planning journeys on public transport.

How big is Hauts de France?

With a population of just over 6 million, Hauts-de-France covers 31,813 km². The coastline on the north of the region measures 200km, where it meets both the North Sea and the English Channel.

It is the third most populous region of France, and the second most densely populated region after Île-de-France, which it borders to the south.

Departments

Five departments form Hauts-de-France: Aisne, Nord, Oise, Pas-de-Calais and Somme. Nord and Pas-de-Calais are in the north, forming the picturesque Opal Coast, while the historically significant Somme is to the West. Oise and Aisne are in the region’s south, each home to some stunning gothic architecture and exquisite chateaux.

Towns and Cities of the region

Lille

A former industrial powerhouse, the city has reinvented itself as a centre for the arts. You’ll find three high-quality art galleries here, with the Palais des Beaux arts being the standout, featuring works of Raphael, Rembrandt, Picasso and Rubens. It is not to be missed.

Lille is a young and vibrant city. Wander the cobbled streets of the old town and visit one of the many independent cafes and bars.

Amiens

The hometown of President Macron, Amiens should be high on your list of cities to visit in Hauts-de-France. The region’s capital is the perfect place to use as a base to visit the many First World War battle sites nearby, but there’s plenty on offer in the city itself.

The cathedral, Basilique Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens, is a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site – one of the most impressive examples of Gothic architecture in the world. And don’t leave without taking in Les Hortillonnages, the floating gardens in the centre of the city.

Arras

You’ll find spectacular examples of both Gothic and Flemish architecture in the beautiful little town of Arras. The two huge town squares in Saint-Quentin, each measuring 17,000m², are both lined with unique facades – have a coffee outside one of the many cafes in Arras, and while away the morning taking it all in.

Make sure you don’t miss the Citadel of Arras – a pentagonal fortress built by Vauban in the 17th century and another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Boulogne-sur-Mer

A coastal town and port, Boulogne-sur-Mer, is a town that seems to have historically significant buildings around every corner. From the towering Basilica of Our Lady, which looms 100m above the town, to the Count’s Castle, one of the few remaining castle forts in the region.

Beauvais

Home to another stunning Gothic Cathedral, Beauvais is a beautiful city that has so much to attract visitors. The 19th century astronomical clock, which measures 12 metres and comprises up to 90,000 parts, needs to be seen in person. Don’t forget to spend some time in the magnificent National Tapestry Manufactory, a fascinating place to spend an afternoon.

History, culture and everything you need to know before visiting

The history of Hauts-de-France as a region only dates back to 2016, when the areas of Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy merged as part of a territorial reform in France. As one of the most strategically important areas in mainland Europe, though, the region has a long and fascinating history that dates back to prehistoric times when it was first inhabited. 

As French historian Jules Michelet once said of northern France, “The entire history of France seems to be concentrated here”.

For the Romans, the port city of Boulogne had major strategic importance, and the rest of the region, including Grand Est, was used to provide a safe passage from here into Cologne. This led to heavy Germanic influence in the area’s north, which is still clear today.

During the Middle Ages, many countries divided and conquered the area. France controlled Boulogne, England possessed Calais, whilst the Duke of Burgundy ruled over much of the area until France annexed Burgundy in 1477. The Spanish, who had control of the Netherlands, then fought the French for territory in Hauts-de-France throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

Things settled down in the 18th century, following the establishment of borders at the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, and during the 19th century the region underwent rapid industrialisation to become one of the most important economic areas of France.

During the First World War, the region held huge strategic significance, largely because of the vast mining resources. Neither side could afford to lose control of the area, and so relentless fighting took place there for four years. There are over 650 military cemeteries in Nord-Pas-de-Calais alone.

The area was again the stage for heavy conflict during the Second World War. The evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk in 1940 is one of the great military operations.

After the wars, the region suffered from severe economic difficulty because of the damage suffered, but the opening of the Channel Tunnel has brought more money and people to the area to give it a much-needed boost.

Culture (museums, historic ruins, architecture)

This varied and complex history has given Hauts-de-France a wonderfully diverse and unique culture – a veritable melting pot of northern European influence.

In terms of architecture, you’ll find some of the finest examples of Gothic, Flemish and contemporary buildings in Europe. Similarly, while the dominant language spoken in the region is France, you’ll also find people speaking Dutch (a dialect known as West Flemish) and most people will have at least a basic understanding of English. Most cafes and restaurants in tourist areas will offer menus in French, English or German.

The cuisine of the region has benefited from this diversity too. Carbonade flamande, a dish originally from Belgium, is one of the signature dishes of Hauts-de-France, while the wines, beers and ciders take influence from all over Europe.

As an industrial region that has seen more than its fair share of war over the centuries, this is a rugged area and that’s reflected in the people. Not that they’re unfriendly, though. There are comparisons drawn to the north of England – people with a tough exterior, but a warm, friendly centre.

Accordion music is very popular in the region, and it is home to the world’s only accordion festival in Wazemmes. You can expect to hear a lot of traditional accordion music during your visit to Saint-Quentin.

What’s the weather like?

As the French region that is closest to the UK, you can expect a similar climate to that in the South of England when you visit Hauts-de-France.

The winters are cold, averaging around 3°-5°C in December, with reduced sunshine, and the summers are warm, averaging around 20°. Rainfall, like in the UK, is constant all year, which contributes to some of the stunning green countryside that you can find throughout the region.

When packing for your trip to Hauts-de-France in 2023, pack as you would for a UK holiday, ensuring you have a decent raincoat!

Best time to visit 

In order to make the most of the stunning coastline in Hauts-de-France, the best time to visit is between May-September where you will experience some decent weather without it ever getting too hot. May and June are probably the best months to travel if you want to avoid the school holidays.

Why you should visit the region

Haut-de-France is one of the most overlooked regions of France for tourism – don’t make this mistake.

The World War sites are clearly a huge draw for people to visit, and they are both fascinating and poignant – well worthy of your time. However, I think part of the problem the region has faced is that it‘s been seen as nothing more than a battleground – this couldn’t be further from the truth.

On top of the historical landmarks, there is an abundance of culture, architecture, cuisine, and coastline for you to enjoy. This is an area that should not to be defined by what happened here, but what has grown out of the devastation that the First World War reaped. The museums, the art, the rebuilt cities, the food and the drink.

There is so much more to Hauts-de-France than people think – experience it firsthand to see for yourself.

5 places you must visit

Grand Place – Arras

The central hub of the city, the Grand Place, is one of the huge market squares in Arras. Lined with beautiful Flemish buildings that loom large over the restaurant tables in the street, you’ll find street performers entertaining the crowds and locals meeting friends in this bustling town square. It’s the perfect place to spend a summer’s evening, taking in stunning architecture and getting a genuine sense of life in the city.

Basilique Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens

On a slight ridge, with the River Somme flowing beneath it, Amiens Cathedral is one of the most beautifully preserved examples of Gothic architecture in the world. Dating back to the mid-13th century, the cathedral is is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Each of the sculptures and statues that adorn the exterior of the building are worthy of your attention – you’ll find you just don’t have enough time to see everything in one visit.

Vieille Bourse (Old Stock Exchange) – Lille

This magnificent example of Flemish architecture is in the heart of the Old Town. The detailing on the facade and the leadwork on the roofs are something to behold, so allow for plenty of time to just sit back and admire the majesty of this impressive building.

Cap Gris-Nez

Literally translated as ‘Cape Grey Nose’, Cap Gris-Nez is the closest point of France to England. The views from here are stunning and well worth the trip if you are based in Calais or Boulogne-sur-Mer. On a clear day, you can see the White Cliffs of Dover.

Château de Chantilly

Described as “one of the finest jewels in the crown of France’s cultural heritage”, this unspoilt chateau will take you on a journey back in time. The unashamed splendour on show is mesmerising, and be sure to take time in the art galleries to see the exceptional collections on display.

Things to do

A boat tour through the Audomarois marshes

The only cultivated wetlands left in France, Marais Audomarois, is a biosphere reserve that covers 22,300 hectares. It’s home to 450 species of plant, 26 species of fish and 230 types of bird – and most notably their world famous cauliflower!

There are 700km of waterways to explore. Walk or cycle on the paths or take to the water on a motorboat, canoe or a ‘bacove’ – a traditional long wooden boat. A unique tourist experience.

Park Astérix

Reignite the child within with a trip to Astérix Park – a theme park based on the comic book series. It is the second biggest theme park in France, after Disneyland Paris, and has plenty to offer visitors of any age – with rides, food and shows. Make sure you go outside the school holidays though, as it can get incredibly busy.

Visit Cassel

Hauts-de-France boasts many beautiful villages, but our pick of the bunch is Cassel. Nestled amongst the Flanders hills, this pretty little village is home to a 10th century church, the Museum of Flanders, a windmill and a public garden, as well as some delightful cafes and restaurants. Hauts-de-France region is the perfect base for a hike in the hills, or to just indulge in some fantastic food and drink.

Take a tour of Château de Pierrefonds

This majestic 15th century gothic chateau is everything you want a chateau to be. It has loopholes, ramparts, towers, gruesome gargoyles, footbridges and porticoes. Used in the BBC drama, Merlin, it is the picture-perfect French castle – don’t miss it.

Relax on the beach at Le Touquet

This fashionable seaside resort in Nord-Pas de Calais, part of the Hauts-de-France region, has a reputation for attracting affluent visitors from Paris – expect to see glamorous beach goers enjoying the fine sand, which stretches as far as the eye can see. Famed for its water-sports and casinos, this is a great destination for those that seek thrills and adventure.

Local markets

Boulogne Fish Market – in Gambetta quay, this market is open all year round, but the hours vary depending on what time the boats get in – that is how fresh the fish is. What’s on offer depends on that day’s fishing, which just adds to the experience.

La Grande Braderie de Lille – Right in the centre of the city, this flea market has something for everyone: antiques, collectibles, a funfair and all the Moules Frites (mussels with fries) that you can eat!

Wazemmes Market – This wonderfully diverse marketplace is the focal point of the Wazemmes area of Lille. You’ll find a farmer’s market with local produce, bric-à-brac, flowers, fabrics and antiques here.

Eating out in Hauts de France

La Liégeoise (6 Rue Notre Dame, 62930 Wimereux): One of the many Michelin star restaurants in the area, La Liégeoise is dining at its finest. With stunning views of the sea in Hauts-de-France region, you’re treated to some of the finest seafood here in a glorious setting. A meal you won’t forget in a hurry.

Bloempot (22 Rue des Bouchers, 59800 Lille): Set in an 18th century carpenter’s workshop, this trendy foodie hotspot was opened by Florent Ladeyn – a finalist in one of France’s most popular cooking TV shows. It’s relaxed fine dining, made using fresh, seasonal ingredients. Book early to avoid having to queue.

L’Oeuf ou la Poule (13 rue des Balances, 62000, Arras): This delightful gastropub serves some great chicken dishes and is a huge favourite amongst the locals. Enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and the excellent selection of drinks to complement your meal.

Conclusion

It feels strange to describe the area of France that is closest to the UK as a ‘hidden gem’, but that is exactly what Hauts-de-France is. Anyone that studied history at school will know all about the history of the place, but there is so much more to it than that. The art, the culture and the food are all worthy of your attention. I hope this article has given you a glimpse into what it offers.

Alex Whybrow
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