Beyond Paris: Sights and Bites of Northern France Cities

Liked the post? Please show some sharing love.
Chantilly Chateau, Northern France

France is hailed as one of the guard posts of fine dining with its UNESCO-listed French cuisine, and no one takes this fact more seriously than the French themselves. For centuries, they have believed that nothing is so fine, so culturally gratifying, so spiritually stirring as indulging in a good meal with family and friends. What is more, the meal is one of the most important parts of French identity. Recently when I visited Northern France it was nothing short of a gourmet pilgrimage for my taste buds. Food was my entrée for connecting with the rich French culture as I embarked on an unforgettable journey of sights and bites of Northern France. Every dining experience, be it at an upscale Michelin star restaurant or a tiny food stall, offered a gateway into a new land of gastronomy.

Why did I choose Northern France?

When it comes to travel, especially for good food and wine, France always tops the list. But most visitors stick to Paris and French Riviera. While I had visited the city of love and Côte d’Azur several times before; I had never explored the northern part, which is often dubbed as French Flanders. The 200-year old border region between France and Belgium was historically a part of the ‘County of Flanders’ (modern Belgium). As a result, everything from the food, language to architecture has a strong Flemish influence and looks distinctly different from the rest of France. This difference in façade and character led me to explore Northern France.

Sunset in Le Touquet, Northern France

How is North’s cuisine different?

“The atmosphere in our Estaminets (local cafes of Northern France) is so warm and welcoming you wouldn’t want to leave even after finishing your meal. Moreover, the food of the North mirrors the region – full of generousity, variety, creativity, and flavour. Don’t believe me? Just take a bite of the carbonnade. I bet, a riot of flavours will be triggered in your mouth! And the best thing is, it pairs perfectly well with a local beer!”

He further continued,

“The food here represents the marriage of land and sea. The dishes aren’t the easiest to pronounce (for foreigners, of course) but mouth-watering to gulp down! Some of the main ingredients of Flemish cuisine are beer, meat, cheese, raisins, prunes, brown sugar, and chicory. A long marinade and slow cooking are crucial for flavour and tender meat.

This delicious explanation of the Flemish food was good enough to start my epicurean excursion. However, Northern France is not as small as it may appear on the map, so I decided to focus on four cities renowned for their unique sights and bites – Lille, Le Touquet, Amiens, and Chantilly.

A must-try trio of classic Flemish entrees

  • Carbonnade (beef braised in dark beer)
  • Waterzooi (chicken, cream, egg, carrots, leeks, onions, and celery)
  • Pot’je vleesch (boned rabbit, veal, pork, and chicken) 

Lille: France’s fourth largest city is an overlooked gem

Lille, Northern France

Despite being the fourth biggest city in France, Lille doesn’t behave like a grand French city – snobbish and hoity-toity arrogance. With chocolate-box-pretty town squares, cobblestone streets lined with steeply gabled houses of brick and golden sandstone from the 17th and 18th century; Lille is an overlooked gem. Its architecture and cuisine proudly showcase its Flemish roots. After all, the city only became French when Louis X1V captured it in 1667. Today it’s a hotpot of French and Flemish culture garnished with the charming medieval town square, renowned art museums, stylish shopping boulevards, exceptional cuisine, and a buzzing nightlife.

If Bordeaux is the capital of wine, then Lille is definitely the hub of France’s beer culture. There are plenty of brewpubs, beer shops, and breweries to explore in the region. I start from a family owned brewery – Celestin’s Beers. Amaury d’HERBIGNY, the Brasseur (Brewer), took me through their epic journey of beer brewing since 1740. As per him, their specialty is brewing beers with different types of hops and spices like La Dix (a blonde with 10 hops varieties), Wal (Tripel with pepper and coriander seeds) and citrusy Hoppy Yuzu (IPA with yuzu) among others, which they source from different parts of the world.

After beer tasting, I continue navigating through the labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets of Vieux-Lille to reach a landmark address – 27 rue Esquermoise. My local guide, Akine Babinet, explains,

“No visit to Lille is complete without visiting Méert, a legendary pasty shop that has delighted kings, viceroys, generals and gourmands since 1761.”

As I take the bite of the world famous gaufre (waffle) filled with the divine Madagascar vanilla I realise why Méert was frequented by Charles de Gaulle (First President and a national hero) and Léopold I (first king of Belgium). Today, the former confectionery is an elegant patisserie, teahouse and a gourmet restaurant.

Charles de Gaulle once famously quoted, “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?” And, Lille is filled with good cheese shops everywhere. Just across the Méert patisserie lies the famed Fromgerie Philippe Olivier shop that has been selling over 300 varieties of Cheese since 1907.

Fromgerie Philippe Olivier shop, Lille, Northern France

The setting sun was a perfect time to try the favourite lager of Lille inside the Gare Saint Sauveur neighbourhood. Ch’ti, the local beer at Bistrot St So, brought a thousand-watt smile on the faces of two weary souls — myself and Pierre, my favourite French dining companion and a bona fide Ch’ti — the nickname for a native of Northern France. La Gare St. So Sauveur is an upcycled train station that is home to various art expos, concerts, parties, film projections, and hip bar-restaurant.

Gastama, Lille, Northern France

Lille must-try places

  • Pastries and waffles: Méert, Les Merveilleux
  • Traditional Flemish food: Les Compagnons de la Grappe, De la vielle bière Goudale, Le Barbier qui Fume
  • Vegan food: Itsy Bitsy Café
  • Cheese: Fromgerie Philippe Olivier shop
  • Beer bars/café/brewery: Celestin’s Beers, Bistro St So, Gastama

Le Touquet: where the rich come to relax

The next day, we headed west, to the colourful affluent coastal seaside town of Le Touquet. Driving through lush pastures and occasional windmills, we soon arrived at seven kilometres long soft golden sand beach dotted with rainbow-coloured beach huts. While walking on the beach, Pierre-Yves shared the historic relevance of the town, 

Le Touquet, Northern France
Luxury at display, Le Touquet, Northern France

“Le Touquet has long been a playground of the rich, not just from France but from all over the world, where famous figures like French President, Emmanuel Macron, owns a home. In the past, frequent visitors included Winston Churchill, Prince Edward, and even James Bond’s creator Ian Fleming, who lived here and drew inspiration for Casino Royale from the town’s Casino. There’s no dearth of action here – endless sandy beach, horse riding, tennis, golfing, racing, gambling, and sand-yachting.

I spent a few hours strolling along the promenade and beach before moving away from the seafront to explore famous sites like Phare Le Touquet (a red-brick lighthouse), Eglise Sainte-Jeanne d’Arc Church and Marche Couvert (fresh food covered market). Lastly, I arrived at the Rue St Jean I, which is the most happening part of the town lined with classy French boutiques, specialist food shops and classy eateries serving the wealthy Parisians who now own most of the villas and come here for the weekend.

Pierre and I settle down to have lunch at Cafe des Sports, a traditional and the busiest brasserie in the whole town that has been serving a wide variety of French and English dishes since 1915. The Menu is extensive and we order the local specialties – ‘Le Welsh’ (toasted bread, ham, egg and cheese melted in beer), Choucroute de la Mer (sauerkraut and fresh seafood) along with mussels and fries (mussels are to Northern France what Butter Chicken is to Punjab). The restaurant had a huge VIP cocktail bar and a wine bar that offered a selection of more than 48 wines by the glass.

Cafe des Sports, Le Touquet, Northern France
Cafe des Sports, Le Touquet, Northern France

After visiting the two drop-dead gorgeous towns of Lille and Le Touquet it was time to visit the historical town.

Le Touquet must-try places

  • Traditional French: Café des Sports, Le Jardin, and Le Pavillion
  • Traditional seafood: La Coupole
  • Crepes, waffles, ice creams, and sorbets: Aux Mignardises

Amiens: Venice of the North

The charming town of Amiens marries the watery beauty of Venice with French small town elegance. My camera couldn’t stop clicking the Saint-Leu district and Hortillonnages (2000 years old floating gardens). One building that blew my mind, was the UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage site of Notre Dame Amiens, a gargantuan cathedral about twice the size of Notre Dame Paris. We climbed 307 stairs of the cathedral to soak in the panoramic view of the city, which was destroyed over sixty percent in the two world wars.

Notre Dame, Amiens, Northern France
Notre Dame, Amiens, Northern France

A day full of sightseeing was complemented by an equally alluring night spent in the most happening part of Amiens – Saint-Leu district. The district adjoining the Notre Dame Cathedral and situated on the banks of the Somme canal reminded me of other canal cities like Venice and Amsterdam. 

For dinner, we decided to stick to the most renowned riverside brasserie of the town, Le Quai. A great place to sample traditional French and Picard dishes with a spectacular night view of the cathedral and canal. The famed dishes of the brasserie include Pâté en croute (a duck pâté baked in a thick pastry crust), Potjevleesch (boned rabbit, veal, pork, and chicken), Ficelle Picarde (savoury pancake stuffed with cheese, mushrooms, and ham), and the homemade ‘Special Quai Hamburger’. We order ‘Special Quai Hamburger’ and Ligurian Trofie pasta along with the local beer. We wind up the delectable meal with the celebrated ‘macaron d’Amiens’. 

After spending two hearty days in Amiens, I continue my journey to the last destination.

Amiens must-try places

  • 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

Chantilly: France’s Horse Capital

Just 50-km North of Paris I found a Renaissance gem and the Horse Capital of France, Domaine de Chantilly. The city is famous for two things – Château de Chantilly and Crème Chantilly. The elegant and very well restored château is surrounded by an artificial lake and magnificent gardens, designed by André Le Notre, the landscapist of Versailles. The Château de Chantilly contains a superb collection of paintings (next after the Louvre) and handwritten manuscripts (next after the National Library). The estate’s Grandes Écuries (Grand Stables) and the racecourse is one of the most prestigious hat-and-dress addresses in Europe.

Beyond Paris: Chantilly, Northern France
Chantilly Chateau, Northern France

However, it’s not just the historic heritage and horses that Chantilly is famous for. Beneath the vaulted stone ceiling of the Château de Chantilly Kitchens, La Capitainerie restaurant captures and showcases the palace’s splendour and romance through its dishes. The fare is traditional French food made from the fresh produce and included the regional signature whipped cream – Chantilly Crème. I was lucky to witness its live demonstration while relishing a sumptuous meal.

My trip had come to an end but I had learned a new secret – Northern France is called “The best-kept secret of France”. After exploring the sights and bites of Lille, Le Touquet, Amiens, and Chantilly; I find it difficult to disagree. 

Chantilly must-try places

  • French food: La Capitainerie, La Table du Connétable 
  • French and vegetarian food: Château de la Tour 
  • French and street food: Couleurs Café 

So, when are you booking a trip to Northern France? Have you ever visited the region? If yes, I would love to hear from you.

Beyond Paris: le Touquet, Northern France
Mystery Man, Le Touquet, Northern France

PS: I am sure many of you are following my ongoing #OffbeatEuropeWithTSW journey on my social media channels. In case you want to know more, do read

Published on

An edited version of this story was published in Food and Wine Magazine – Dec 2018-Feb 2019 issue

Inspired? Pin these to your Pinterest boards

23 Comments

  • ANITA says:

    I have been on the North of France just a bit, don’t know all the places you mention. However, Lille made a good impression on me. Above all I enjoyed reading and watching all about food as I love to eat French food. My favortie are the pattiseries 😀

    • Hi Anita,

      I too had no clue about this treasure trove. It was such a great find. And, now I can’t wait to return. I barely touched the tip of an iceberg. There’s so much more to explore in the region. You must plan a trip here soon. It’s truly France’s best-kept secret.

  • Daniel says:

    I visited the north of France a couple of years ago and I agree with a lot of your points. It’s a lot less frequented than the South (except for Paris of course) but that’s why there are more hidden gems and fewer tourists. Lille is indeed relatively unfrequented too despite being the fourth largest city. Thank you for this article, it was a really interesting read.

    • Thanks, Daniel for your kind words. Lille, because of it’s favourable position is still visited but the rest of the areas are so underexplored. I had a blast visiting them. Did you get a chance to visit more places than Lille?

  • Sinjana Ghosh says:

    Loved this post about Northern France. I didn’t know this information that northern France was earlier a part of the country of Flanders. Being a Belgiophile this gives me all the more reason to visit this part of France. The food looks great, and I would especially love to bring some cheese home from here.

    • Yeah, I too was surprised by the Belgian influence. It could be seen in everything – food, architecture, and culture. On my next trip, I am definitely doing a story on Flanders.

  • Debjani lahiri says:

    OMG when it comes to discussing Wine and dine, I think France happens to tops the list for listing out to be the best of best. And yes if we can come out of discussing Louvre, Eiffel Tower or French Riviera. the whole of France is a wide array of so much more .. let’s just say hub of sophistication, which definitely comes at a price. Loved the article vibe. And I write and read this while sipping on some wine and hear Jazz.

    • Reading an article with a glass of wine and hearing jazz music in the background is the best way to enjoy the sights and bites of Northern France. This place was truly magical. Even after four months I still remember it every day. Can’t wait to return. You should plan a trip soon to this place.

  • aareeba says:

    Wow, there is so much to learn and know about the Northern France here.I really would like to check the northern part of the france as there are less tourists and more hidden gems.Your pictures are really amazing and they definitely make me plan a trip ASAP.

  • Tales of Travelling Sisters says:

    These are truly the hidden gems of France with each being beautiful and exciting to visit in its own way. With its mouthwatering dishes, historic sites Nothern France is going to be high on out wish list!

  • Clarice / Camping for Women says:

    I have never visited the Northern France area and I believe this would be a wonderful idea since I have always stayed in Paris only.

    The food looks really delicious and yes, I would love to try the classic Flemish entrees. Thank you for sharing this. You just inspired me to visit this part soon.

  • amanda says:

    OH MY GOODNESS. So first of all, I had no idea that France has such a huge beer scene. My partner would absolutely love that! I’ll definitely have to use that to lure him in haha. I think where I should be is in Chantilly and / or Amiens and I most certainly will not forget about trying the waffles! All the food just looks so delicious!

  • Jane Dempster-Smith says:

    Great article. What a great part of France to visit. I have not visited but what with the beer, cheese and the gaufe I am planning already. Thanks for sharing all those great tips and places to visit.

  • Brooke says:

    I also love to explore the regions beyond Paris and St Tropez type areas when I go to France. Though I haven’t been to any of these cities, I’m very interested in Lille and Amiens. I tend to stick closer to wine regions (the main thing I set my travels around in France typically) but I did get to spend a month in both Normandy and Provence doing mostly non-wine things and simply chasing beautiful views, historic sites and of course great outdoor markets! this looks like a great trip and am noting Amiens in particular for the future

  • Kavita Favelle says:

    I love France, and have spent most time in the Northern regions, so this post really was a delight to read and enjoy. As you say, it’s not as much visited as Paris, and of the other regions, people focus on Bordeaux, Loire, and the southern regions more. So it’s great to have an itinerary taking in the wonderful cities of the north. The cuisine too is quite distinct, with its Flemish influences. Delicious! We went to Lille again this summer, after a long absence, and had some great food and chocolate. I’m also a big fan of the coast at, above and below Le Touquet. Amiens is one of the first cities I visited in the region, as a kid on a school language exchange!

  • Shreya Saha says:

    Lille, Le Touquet, Chantilly are places I have never heard of. I am really interested in visiting this Northern French places when I visit the country. I really love to visit of big places commercial these are definitely going to be on my list. And I’m surely not going to miss Flemish cuisine when I’m there.

  • Yukti says:

    France is always enchanting and I too agree that north Indian French towns are much more beautiful than Paris. Amiens is looking beautiful more than Venice as it has lovely canals with flowers and colorful houses beside them. Also France’s horse capital Chantilly looks interesting and worth visiting. Thanks for sharing all offbeat destinations.

  • Parnashree Devi says:

    I am completely sold on Northern France. Such offbeat places with breathtaking landscapes, food culture and architecture. I am so keen to visit Lille only for my love for architectures. The cheese will be another reason to stick to this beautiful destination. If I talk about scenic town, I would love to spend a few days in Amiens. You have captured these destinations so well. Loved the photographs as well.

  • Emilio Marcos Sierra says:

    I am a huge fan of the south of France and not really ventured that much into the North. However, your article shows this area in such a good light! Lille and Amiens looks fab!

  • MEENAKSHI J says:

    Glad to read this post that shows and talks about France beyond Paris. The architecture, food and sights are quite impressive. Reminded of my hubby’s trip to this region though I could not travel along with him on that tour. The cathedral’s architecture is super stunning and congratulations on getting your story published 🙂

  • Vaisakhi Mishra says:

    Before today I thought I will need a busy jam-packed week to just explore the history and a little bit of nature in France. Your post has convinced me that I would need that time just for north France! Your pictures and words made me fall in love with Amiens!!! Such a beautiful city! I am not a foodie but Lille with its still preserved 18th-century architecture is so on my list now! 😀

  • Diana says:

    I’ve always thought of France as a wine country and not a beer country, so I loved reading about all the beer available in northern France, as I’m a big beer girl! I love that not only can you find tasty beers in the region, but that they incorporate it into their foods as well. I still haven’t made it out of Paris yet (though I’ve been there many times) to see the rest of France, so when I do you know northern France will be on my travel list!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.