A visitors guide to Hauts-de-France

Hauts-de-France in France covers an area of more than 31,813 km2 (12,283 sq miles), and comprises the departments of Nord, Pas-de-Calais, Aisne, Somme and Oise.

The region borders Belgium (Flanders and Wallonia) to the north-east and the English Channel to the north-west. To the south-east lies the French region of Grand Est while Île-de-France is to the south, and Normandy to the southwest.

Places to visit in Hauts-de-France

The principal towns and cities are:

Lille – the capital of the region and an appealing ex-industrial city with vibrant culture and lots of students.

Abbeville – small cathedral city with numerous gardens and parks.

The coastline of Hauts-de-France

Amiens – beautiful small city with a UNESCO-listed cathedral and picturesque canals to explore. The hometown of Jules Verne and Emmanuel Macron.

Arras – (see below) is a good base for touring the battlefields of the Western Front, known for its wide market squares and typical Flemish architecture; the Christmas market is worth a look, too.

Beauvais – has a Gothic cathedral and an international airport.

Boulogne-sur-Mer – pretty coast and the Nausicaa aquarium.

Calais – Britain’s gateway to France, home to a large seaport and the continental end of the Channel Tunnel. Many hypermarkets for those wanting cheap food and wine to take back to England

Laon – an early Gothic cathedral perched on a hill overlooking the rather elegant town in Aisne.

Things to do in Hauts-de-France

Picardy – somewhat contentiously deleted from the modern map of France following the creation of the new regions. Picardy is sometimes claimed to be the home of Gothic architecture, and there is no shortage of buildings to choose from: the cathedrals of Notre Dame d’Amiens and Beauvais are two shining examples, as is the basilica in Saint-Quentin.

Read our Visitors Guide to Picardy

Thiepval – the memorial to the missing of the Somme is monolithic and sombre.

La Coupole – This underground bunker near St Omer, Pas-de-Calais, was once home to Nazi Germany’s V2 rocket programme, and now hosts a museum dedicated to the history of the programme, including its links to the space race.

Vimy – The site of the famous World War I battle, now a Canadian National Memorial, just outside Lens (read more below).

Beaches – The best beaches are along the 25-mile stretch of coast from Equihen-Plage in the north to Fort Mahon-Plage in the south. The main resort on this coast is Le Touquet, but there are several smaller seaside towns or villages with shops, cafés, promenade, as well as access to the beach.

Audomarois marshes – The marshes are home to unique flora and fauna and offer a different experience to the usual tourist activities. Great for bird-watchers, lovers of nature and still a relaxing and interesting experience for anyone else.

Parc Astérix – A theme park based on the world-famous comic series.

Why you should visit Hauts-de-France

Suffering significant damage during both world wars, the region is home to heavy industry, and climatically cold by French standards; it is not commonly regarded as a major tourist region.

But that is probably doing the region a disservice it doesn’t deserve, not least because there are large tracts of beautiful countryside, fine local foods and beers, and many historical landmarks.

Read our Guide to Discovering Rural France

War history buffs and those simply seeking to remember will find much to see. The lack of crowds is a plus for people in search of a slower pace.

Too many people passing through on the way to Paris and the south miss out, and yet there is a huge market for English-speaking tourists because of the location (across the water from England and UK airports), and military interest (Allied war cemeteries and memorials).

Unlike most of France, this area is better known for its beer than wine or its liqueurs . Luckily the beer is cheap. A particular local favourite is “Bière de garde,” a type of French pale ale. Other good ones to try are 3 Monts and anything from Brasserie de Clerck.

Arras in Hauts-de-France

Arras, although not the largest settlement, is the capital of Pas-de-Calais department, and is located on the Scarpe river.

Established during the Iron Age by the Gauls, the city of Arras was first known as Nemetocenna, which is believed to have originated from the Celtic word nemeton, meaning ‘sacred space’. Unlike many French words, the final ‘s’ in the name should be pronounced.

Arras is the third most populous city in Pas-de-Calais after Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer, and located 182 kilometres (113 miles) north of Paris.

It is the historic center of the former Artois province, and the city is well known for its architecture, culture and history, once part of the Spanish Netherlands, a portion of the Low Countries controlled by Spain from 1556 to 1714.

The centre of the city revolves around two large squares: the Grande Place and the Place des Héros, both of which are graced by buildings restored to the pre-World War I condition, and in particular the Gothic town hall and the cathedral.

Each year the town attracts thousands of visitors. Tourists come to visit the splendid Town Hall, or make the ascent of the Belfry (listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005).

Then there are the squares (La Place des Héros and La Grand’Place), the Art District (the Theatre and the Hôtel de Guînes), the Abbey District (the Saint-Vaast abbey and the Cathedral of Arras), the Vauban Citadel, and the Nemetacum site (the ancient town founded by the Romans 2,000 years ago).

The main square in Arras – La Place des Heros

Arras is one of a number of towns and cities in northern France that holds an outstanding Christmas Market, one that is easily accessible from the UK.

Arras architecture

Numerous descriptions have been thrown at this northern city – “Decor unique in Europe”, “jewel of Flemish architecture”, “Gothic pearl in a Baroque setting”…

But none can do justice to the sensations aroused when viewing for the first time the town squares and the splendid Town Hall. To further heighten the thrill, what could be better than a dizzying ascent of the Belfry, a plunge into the hidden ways of the town on a tour of the Boves, or an awestruck stroll through the magnificent rooms of the Town Hall itself?

Of special interest is the Wellington Quarry (Rue Arthur Deletoille: open daily 10am-12.30pm and 1.30pm-6pm; guided and audio-guide visits (1 hour) Tel: 03 21 51 26 95).

This is a site immersed in memory and emotion, an underground museum to the memory of thousands of men of the Allied forces who lived under the streets of the town during the First World War.

These medieval tunnels, linked and greatly expanded by the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, became a decisive factor in the British forces holding the city.

Visit St-Valery-sur-Somme

St-Valéry-sur-Somme is a joyous revelation, a jewel along the Somme, and built around a walled and gated medieval city, where, in 1430, Jeanne d’Arc was held prisoner en route from Le Crotoy to her trial at Rouen.

More significantly, and almost 400 years earlier, it was from St-Valéry that William of Normandy set sail to conquer England – clearly, St-Valéry didn’t have then the qualities of indolence it instils now. Since then, the seafront houses along the Quai Blavet have been built, and rather smart they look, too, brightly painted and attractive with not a modern architectural blemish in sight.


In reality, there are two towns here, an upper town, with half-timbered houses, and a lower town beside the port. It is the capital of the Vimeu region, and enjoys a lush and comfortable setting overlooking the Bay of the Somme. Like so many places, it began as an abbey founded by a monk called Valéry, from Luxeuil in Lorraine.

From the seafront, the light plays tricks on the imagination, shimmering, beguiling and, at times, thunderous, but always capable of producing something a little magical. Often it is difficult to distinguish where the sea ends and the sky begins, and it was this opaque luminescence that inspired painters and writers alike. Today, it provides a pastel backdrop to an unhurried pastis and bowl of moules.

The bay, not surprisingly, is a huge and dangerous place to be, though it does seem to be suffering from coastal erosion.

In 1878, it comprised 86 sq km; in 1993 that was down to 73 sq km, and today is about 70 sq km – one estimate puts it at 40sq km, but I suppose it’s how and what you are counting.

Either way, it’s big, and visitors wanting to walk across the bay are strongly advised to engage the services of a local guide (information available from the Office du Tourisme).

The tide goes out as much as 14 kilometres, the second largest ebb in France, leaving behind tricky sandbanks, muddy channels and large expanses of sea grass; when it comes back in it does so rather more quickly than it went out.

Vimy Ridge

Vimy is a farming town, situated 6 miles (9.7 km) north of Arras, on the crest of Vimy Ridge, a prominent feature overlooking the Artois region. The town was first mentioned in 1183 as Viniarcum and was the scene of much fighting during the 14th, 17th and 18th centuries among the French, English, Dutch and Spanish forces.

The ridge was also the scene of fierce fighting in the First World War. Seized by the Germans in 1914, it was the subject of a French assault in 1915. In 1917 the Battle of Vimy Ridge took place southeast of Vimy and was an important battle of the First World War for Canadian military history. The town was practically destroyed during the fighting in the area.

On the highest point of Vimy Ridge is the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, the largest of Canada’s war monuments. In 1922, use of the land that contains the memorial was granted, in perpetuity, by the French nation to the people of Canada in recognition of Canada’s war efforts.

Five major battles were fought around the town of Arras during World War One. This was because the town had an important railroad junction in it and if the Germans controlled it, the rail line could be used to help supply her troops. If the Allies controlled the rail junction, they could supply their own men.

Vimy Ridge is about 10 miles north of Arras and it was considered an important strategic area. Both the French and Germans wished to control it as it gave an army height in that area.

However, Vimy Ridge won fame for the battle fought there in April 1917. The attack on Vimy Ridge started on April 9th 1917.

The Germans were cleared from their trenches but between April and May a series of violent attacks took place. It was at this battle that Canadian troops won much praise for their bravery and success in keeping Vimy Ridge for the Allies.


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