No Francophile would skip the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the glamourous coastline of the sun kissed French Reviera of the south. But in their rush to hit the France’s tourist trail, they miss out some of the best bits of La Belle France, especially a region that is most accessible not just from Paris but from the UK and Belgium too. Northern France is rightly called the best-kept secret of France. So, if you are in search of non touristy France, here’s an alternative bucket list, 10 hidden gems of France that you may not have even heard about.
Just 60 minutes away from Paris, 35 minutes from Brussels and 90 minutes from London, Lille could quite easily have lost to its illustrious neighbours, but instead it decided to nurture and showcase its unique identity! Boasting a spectacular heritage of cultures from its Flemish, Burgundian and Spanish past before it became French, Lille is now infused with the memories of the past, interweaved with its visions for the future. The European Capital of Culture in 2004 and the World Design Capital of 2020, Lille lives and breathes culture in everyday life. While there’s always something going on in Lille, next year will be of a far bigger scale because of being the World Design Capital of 2020.
And, the best way to explore the artistic and the medival beauty of Lille is in a vintage car by Tradibalade. With Christmas approaching, Lille is decked out in beautiful decorations of lights and colour. No wonder the Christmas market in Lille is among the top 15 Christmas Markets of Europe.
Best places to see in Lille:
- Palais Rihour
- Rue Rihour
- Place du Général de Gaulle (Grand Place)
- The Vieille Bourse (old stock exchange)
- The Goddess Column
- The Opera House
- Vieux Lille (Old Town)
- The Townhall and its Belfry
- The CitadelLille
- La Piscine Museum of Art and Industry
- Gare Saint Sauveur
Best places to eat and drink in Lille:
- Pastries and waffles: Méert, Les Merveilleux
- Traditional Flemish food: Les Compagnons de la Grappe, De la vielle bière Goudale, Le Barbier qui Fume
- Vegitarian or Vegan: Itsy Bitsy Café,
- La Bellezza for authentic Italian
- Cheese: Fromgerie Philippe Olivier shop
- Beer bars/café/brewery: Celestin’s Beers, Bistro St So, Gastama, Bloempot, Bierbuik- Bloemeke
The charming town of Amiens marries the watery beauty of Venice with French small town elegance. The city is called ‘Venice of the North’ for its canals and the 2000 years old floating gardens (hortillonnages). However, Amien’s showstopper attraction is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens, the jewel of classical Gothic architecture. Twice conferred as UNESCO World Heritage site, it can fit two Notre Dame Paris in its premise.
The best time to visit thsi offbeat place in France is either during summers or in winters when the whole city is soaked in the Christmas spirit. Every day during this period there is a sound and light show on the giant facade of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens. The town has got a great youthful vibe too and is a happening place when it comes to nightlife.
Best places to see in Amiens:
- Hortillonnages (Floating gardens)
- Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens
- Saint-Leu district
- The House of Jules Verne
- Les Halles du Beffroi
Best places to eat and drink in Amiens:
- Traditional French and Picard cuisine: Le Quai
- Riverside restaurant with a great view: Au fil de l’eau
- Lively bar with great local beers and cocktails: Le Living
In 2017 Christopher Nolan incepted the idea of visiting this French coastal town in my head through his Academy Award winner namesake film – Dunkirk. France’s 3rd-largest port town, Dunkerque is not just a hypnotising harbour town and beach resort: there are two UNESCO World Heritage sites – the Belfries of Saint-Eloi church and the Townhall. And, who can forget the haunting WWII memory – the famous heroic evacuation of 30,000 Allied troops during Operation Dynamo retreat in 1940.
When I finally landed here, it was nothing short of magic, especially at the golden and blue hour. It won’t be wrong to say that it is a goldmine for photographers and history lovers.
Best places to see in Dunquirk
- Plage de Malo-les-Bains
- Musee Dunkerque 1940 – Operation Dynamo
- Musee Portuaire
- Le Beffroi de Saint-Eloi
- Mairie de Dunkerque
- Mémorial du Souvenir
- Phare de Risban
- Dunkirk British Memorial
For more info about Dunquirk and other offbeat nad hidden gems of France check out Dunkirk Tourism.
A tiny hilltop village that most people outside of France might have never heard about. However, in 2018 Cassel became an overnight sensation when it won the country’s favourite village award. Standing majestcally on top of Mont Cassel, it is often dubbed as the Everest of French Flanders. Standing since the Roman era, this sleepy little town sparks to life during its annual carnivals – Easter Monday and Mardi Grass.
Best places to see in Cassel
- Musee Departemental de Flandre
- Jardin du Mont des Recollets
- Moulin de Cassel
- Centre Historique de Cassel
- Must take a detour: if you are a foodie and want to have something pathbreaking you must visit Auberge du Vert Mont in Boeschepe. Read the full story here.
For more info about Cassel and other hidden gems of France check out Cassel-France’s favourite villagge
A charming little town full of character with its elegant Flemish-style houses, and the remains of the medieval ramparts. Like Amiens and Dunkerque, Bergues too has a UNESCO World Heritage site to its credit, the Belfry, a bell tower with a carillon composed of 50 bells. As you climb the top of this building, you see a beautiful panoramic view of the city and around.
A new craze for Brugues was born after the 2008 release of the blockbuster French film ‘Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis.’ Visitors can take the Ch’ti Tour in the footsteps of Dany Boon (the lead actor & director of the movie) and relive the magic of the locations shown in the film along with a local who essayed the role of a ‘bellman’ in the film. This tour is organised by the Tourist Office. Being a small town, it can be easily explored within a day.
Best places to see in Bergues
- Beffroi de Bergues
- Les Remparts de Bergues
- Office du Tourisme de Bergues
- Le Musee du Mont-de-Piete
- Bergues Tourist Train
Travel Tip: Monday morning market in the town centre is a must. In Summer, take a cruise to Dunkirk on the oldest canal in France the Canal de Bergues. Try the cheese Bergues, sausage or Bergues Potsch’ vleech
If you are as hopelessly romantic as I am and believe in fairy tales, you’ll fall in love with, Gerberoy, a medieval village that is a dream destination for lovers of flowers and roses. I wasn’t surprised to know it is officially listed as one of the ‘most beautiful villages in France’.
A walk in this well-kept medieval fairy tale village of just 50 residents is sheer joy. With every step, I took in the 17th and 18th-century cobblestoned lanes lined with dollhouses of cob and colourful timber framing, vivid rose trimmed doors, wisteria canopies and leafy green trims; my heartbeat raced faster. Every spot in the village is an instagrammable spot, and it was next to impossible to stop clicking.
Besides the beautiful alleys in the village, I loved the extraordinary three-tiered (white, pink and yellow-blue) Rose Garden created by the post-impressionist painter Le Sidaner. The garden is home to 25 varieties of rare and antique roses, and it even has the ‘Temple of Love’ on the ruins of the old castle that the gardens stood on, which was inspired by the one found at the Petit Trianon at Versailles. ⠀
Best places to see in Gerberoy
- Henri le Sidaner Gardens
- Office de Tourisme de la Picardie Verte et ses Vallees
- Collegiale Saint Pierre
- La Poterie de Gerberoy
Travel Tip: If possible, plan your trip around Rose Festival, which is held on every 3rd Sunday of June or attend the Marché du Terroir, a special end-of-year celebration held on the last Sunday of November.
For more info about Gerberoy and other hidden gems of France Jewel of North France.
The Château de Pierrefonds is one of France’s most imposing yet most underrated medieval castles. Originally constructed as a fortress in the 12th century, the château was destroyed in the 17th century then restored by Napoleon III in the 19th century. The majestic château is one of the very few castles where romantic medieval design fuses with the modern 19th-century flair.
Travel Tip: After visiting the castle from inside, take a panoramic view by going on the sloping top of the Pierrefonds town from where the full view of the château is visible as the road snakes in.
Cap Blanc-Nez and Cap Gris-Nez
When two majestic capes collide, you get an exceptional and dramatic landscape of a craggy, green, undulating and spectacular coastline. The beautiful palette of colours is so stunning that the site has been classified as a ‘Grand Site of France’ and is also the windiest place in France. This site is the closest point of France to England, and on a clear day, you can clearly see up to the white cliffs of Dover.
Just an hour drive from Paris, Chantilly is a Renaissance gem and the Horse Capital of France. Home to two of France’s most prestigious races – the Prix du Jockey Club and, the Prix de Diane, it even has the Living Museum of the Horse. Steeped in history, it’s a perfect place to experience the French ‘art de vivre’ at two of its beautiful castles – Château de Chantilly and Chateau Tiara Mont-Royal. The latter is set in the heart of the Chantilly Forest.
What’s more, you can organise significant events like marriages, pre-wedding shoots and high-profile dinners in the grounds of the castle. The place is so regal that even our Prime Minister Narendra Modi was hosted here on a state dinner by French President Macron.
Best places to see in Chantilly
- Château de Chantilly
- Le Potager des Princes
- Pavillon de Manse
- The Living Museum of the Horse
- La porte Saint-Denis
Travel Tip: Every month, there are two horse races, plan your trip keeping those races in mind. And, don’t forget to see the demonstration of making of ‘Chantilly Cream’ or at least taste it that was discovered here only.
Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, business launches, winning triumphs, and the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve; no celebration (of whatsoever size) is complete without the celebratory glass of champagne. And, when in Northern France, it would be blasphemous to not visit the place where it was born.
If you are a fan of bubbly, you cannot miss the region from where the best sparkling wine in the world comes – Champagne region of northeast France. Only bottles produced here can legally carry the region’s name. The UNESCO listed Champagne region with its magnificent vineyards, impressive heritage and world-class champagnes, is worthy of a day excursion from Paris. Moreover, the area earned the coveted title not just for stunning vineyards and ancient cellars that produce an elite product synonymous with refine taste but for the work the region has been doing tirelessly to create awreness, distribute, and protect a truly unique product. The sparkling wine from this area is served in the Elysée Palace, the French president’s house, and on Air France’s first and business class services.
One of the best places to try Champagne is Champagne Pannier, a prestigious house in the scenic Marne Valley of France. Here during a guided tour yoiu can visit the historic underground medieval cellars built in the limestone quarries as old as the 12th century. Visiting a Champagne house is like getting a crash course in champagne making and the crucial role it played in power dynamics of the region. So, thirsty for some bubbly?
Northern France essentials:
- Getting there: Direct flights from India to Paris, London and Brussels. From there take a train, or hire a car
- Local transportation: While public transport is excellent, the best way to explore the region is by self-drive vehicle. The city cards work out as an excellent option to travel economically and get entry to crucial attractions.
- Festivals. Attend the annual carnivals or exclusive festivals like the ongoing ‘Eldorado’ cultural festival in Lille
- Must try: Flemish delicacies like Carbonnade Flamande, Welsh, pot’ je vleesch and Mussels
- What not to forget: Rain gear and a light jacket
Edited and dedicated stories on several Northern France cities have been published in the following publications:
- Mail Today, India Today: Jewel of North France
- The Tribune: Amiens: Little Venice of the North
- The Hindu Businessline: France’s favourite village
- Sakal Times: Why I cried in Northern France
- Sakal Times: Florent Ladyen
- Asiaville News: Northern France: A land of culinary and cultural discoveries
- Food and Wine: Sights and Bites of Northern France
I was in Northern France on the invitation of Hauts-de-France region. Everything expressed above is based on my personal experience and conversations I had in the region. All images used were shot by me. Please don’t use any image or text without written permission.