When we first fell in love with our kind of holidays, it was Northern France we fell for. That love affair, nearly 50 years later, is as strong as ever. From the coves of Brittany to the meadows of Picardy, let us show you some of our favourites. You really don’t have to travel too far to reveal the very best of France.
Normandy and Brittany’s rich pastures, protected waters and gentler way of life reveal themselves in the region’s lovingly produced cheeses, fabulous shellfish, heady Calvados and delicious sweet-or-savoury crepes. You can sample them all at the region’s brilliant markets. Try Bayeux’ vibrant centuries-old affair, and pop in to see that tapestry when you’re done. Visit Saint-Pierre-Sur-Dives, a market that’s been going since William the Conqueror’s day, or Brittany’s wonderful ‘Halles Saint-François’ in Quimper.
Who needs St Tropez and Cannes? Northern France has always been the cooler of the coasts – a place where the Parisian elite escape the heat of the summer in their pastel-coloured bathing huts and Art Deco summer houses. Visit Le Touquet in Picardy, Honfleur (main pic above) in Normandy or Dinard in Brittany, where casinos, soft sands, fine dining and elegant promenades add a well-heeled air. Deauville in Normandy is as chic as they come – and has been welcoming tourists since the 1800s with its golf, horse racing and fabulous beaches.
Try: Chateau Lex Eaux, Normandy
Fossils and fun
There are terrific beaches at Arromanches les Bains near Houlgate – itself a wonderful holiday resort with plenty of sporting action, both on and off the water. The cliffs on either side of the town were called “Black Cows” by sailors, as the rocks tumbling down to the sea are covered with black algae. They’re also good places to come looking for fossils. Head to the cliff top lookout spot known as ‘Chaos’. It’s a sublime, peaceful spot, and perfect for a picnic.
Try: La Vallée, Normandy
Climb the ramparts
Saint-Malo is an impenetrable fortress of a town. Fortunately, they’ve left the gates open and you can walk right in. Its sheer ramparts are ravaged by the waves of the English Channel twice a day, but inside all is calm. Kids will love the town’s Grand Aquarium, which has hundreds of species of fish and a large touch pool where you can get to grips with some of the less prickly creatures. Saint-Malo sits at the heart of 29kms of pristine coastline, with terrific beaches.
Try: Domaine des Ormes, Brittany
If ever a coastline was designed for terrific beaches it’s Brittany’s. So scalloped and dog-toothed is it, on one peninsula you’ll find sandy coves facing in every direction: ideal to chase the sun, or dodge the breeze! Try the Crozon peninsula for wonderfully remote beaches and tussocky grass, or the Pink Granite coast of the north (pic), for rock pooling and gentle paddling for little ones. For sporty types, hit the surf at the aptly named Côte Sauvage, just past Carnac, or stylish Benodet for surf and spa treats!
Try: La Baie, Brittany
A rich culture
Brittany is justifiably proud of its rich Breton culture – it’s not just a flag, it’s a rich melting pot of language, song, dance and food. Quimper’s the place to head for a real immersion in the Breton way of life, with its summer-long programme of family festivals. A walk through Concarneau’s walled citadel is another richly atmospheric experience. Normandy’s Caen is a wonderful city with historic bones everywhere you look, and in Picardy, the 800 year old Cathedral at Amiens is simply breathtaking.
Try: La Grande Metairie, Brittany
They started early around here – around 5,000 years BCE to be precise. The Carnac stones comprise more than 3000 Menhirs (standing stones) as mysterious as they are powerful. Unlock some of their mysteries at the Musée de Préhistoire de Carnac. Then see how those stonemasonry skills developed into something altogether more elevated at the sublime Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. A spellbinding tidal island topped by a towering abbey. Rightly protected by UNESCO, this is a major pilgrimage destination, and a Northern France must see.
Try: Des Menhirs, Brittany
It’s surprisingly sunny in Northern France, so beach days are bound to take up much of your time. But away from the sands, Nausicaa, in Boulogne-sur-Mer, is the largest aquarium in Europe and an absolute gem. Oceanopolis in Brest, Brittany features an aquarium with marine wildlife in tropical, temperate and polar zones. La Cité de la Mer in Cherbourg is a must see attraction, dedicated to all things nautical too. Explore Le Redoutable the largest submarine in the world open to the public, or the Abyss – the deepest aquarium in Europe!
Try: Les Mouettes, Brittany
…and there’s always Paris
Still geographically in Northern France, Paris is always a good bet. Yes, there are the big hitters, and the view from the Eiffel tower never disappoints. But if time’s tight, try the lesser known (and quieter) views from Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, full of waterfalls, bridges, and great city views in Canal Saint-Martin. Visit the quirky shops and pretty streets of trendy Marais district for history and cool all wrapped up in a stylish Parisian package. And don’t forget Disney: Disneyland Paris, now 30 years old, is ever-more magical with each passing year.
Try: La Croix du Vieux Pont, Paris