Eight reasons to visit north-east France

When most people think of the north of France they picture Normandy, or the beaches of Le Touquet or Boulogne, not the département of Nord. But there are plenty of reasons to visit this overlooked part of the country.

Lille is the largest city in the Nord département of France.
Lille is the largest city in the Nord département of France. Photo: PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP.

Even for people who grew up in France, the Nord is often associated with terrible weather, economic deprivation and support for the far-right. Or, partly thanks to the hit film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, a funny accent.

But if you’ve never considered visiting the area, you could be missing out. Here’s why.

It’s strategically placed

It sounds like an old joke – the only reason to come to the north is so that you get to leave – but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the Nord département’s proximity to other European countries is a major selling point.

From Lille, you can be in Brussels in 34 minutes by train, or in London in under an hour and a half (that’s 70 minutes quicker than the Eurostar from Paris to London).

Plus, as we will see later on, the Belgian influence is what gives the area much of its charm, and what sets it apart from the rest of France.

The food

Nowhere is that influence more evident than in the culinary tradition – here you’ll find delicious chips wherever you go, and mobile baraques à frites (chip vans) serve even the smallest towns.

The area is also known for its gaufres fourrées, waffles filled with either brown sugar or vanilla, made famous by the Maison Méert waffle house in Lille where you can still enjoy the delicacy today.

If you want a more consistent meal just head to one of the region’s many estaminets – traditional restaurants serving regional dishes such as carbonade flamande (beef stew cooked in beer and gingerbread), welsh (a local take on Welsh rarebit ), or tarte au maroilles made using the strong local cheese.

The drink

Of course, proximity to Belgium also means beer, so if you prefer a cold pint over a glass of red, then this is the place for you. While breweries have recently been multiplying all across France, there is a long tradition of enjoying beer in the north.

In bars and on supermarket shelves you’ll find delicious local beers such as Jeanlain, Lil, and Anosteké, which was recently named “world’s best pale beer” at the 2021 World Beer Awards.

Beer is a culture in the north, whether enjoyed in a local estaminet, in a taproom where you can taste the beer directly on the premises, such as the one at the Brique House brewery on the outskirts of Lille, or at the annual BAL festival in the city.

An employee of "La Chicoree" restaurant empties a bucket of empty mussel shells onto a pile during the annual Braderie de Lille in 2018.

An employee of “La Chicoree” restaurant empties a bucket of empty mussel shells onto a pile during the annual Braderie de Lille in 2018. Photo: FRANCOIS LO PRESTI / AFP.

The street parties

If you’re not afraid of a crowd, look at planning your trip around one of the huge, annual events which take place in the north. The Braderie de Lille is Europe’s largest flea market and attracts around 2 million visitors every year, although it has been cancelled the last two years because of Covid concerns.

Usually during the first weekend in September, the city centre becomes one large pedestrian zone given over to 100km of stands selling antiques, vintage clothes, food, and pretty much anything else you can imagine.

In regular times, 30 tons of chips are consumed over the course of the weekend, along with 500 tons of mussels whose shells are piled high in the streets.

Then there is Dunkirk Carnival, a three-day long street party where people dress up in extravagant costumes, dance in the streets, and gather in front of the town hall to catch the herring thrown at them by the mayor. Yes, really.

IN PICTURES: Dunkirk – France’s craziest carnival

The architecture

With its red brick houses so emblematic of the industrial north, visiting the area will feel more like you’re in the north of England than in France. Perfect if you’ve become accustomed to grey stones and want to discover another side to France.

Take a walk around Place du Général-de-Gaulle, the main square in Lille, and you’ll discover a wonderful mix of French and Flemish influences. There aren’t many public squares in France that can rival it, with its restaurant terraces and colourful buildings lined with gold.

And just like Belgium, the area’s skyline is defined by tall belfries built between the 11th and 17th centuries. Along with 33 across the border, 23 belfries in the north of France are listed as a combined UNESCO World Heritage Site. 11 of these, including some of the most striking examples, are to be found in the Nord département. Lille and Douai are good places to start.

The history

As a former mining region, the north has played a key role in France’s development. The traces of this past can be found in the architecture – many of the area’s red brick houses were built as corons to house miners and their families – and in the slag heaps which mark the landscape itself.

The Nord-Pas-de-Calais Mining Basin is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was described in heart-rending detail by Emile Zola in his novel Germinal. There are several museums you can visit to discover what life was like in this difficult part of the country, while La Manufacture in Roubaix will plunge you into the textile industry, historically one of the pillars of the local economy.

People visit the Louvre-Lens on the first day of its opening to the public, in 2012, while Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People" was on loan at the museum.

People visit the Louvre-Lens on the first day of its opening to the public, in 2012, while Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” was on loan at the museum. Photo: PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP.

The museums

If museums are your thing, then you’re in luck. The area is home to the Lens-Louvre, a satellite museum for the Louvre in Paris which lends its smaller cousin objects from its collections – meaning that people outside the capital can enjoy art without the crowds of tourists usually found at the Paris gallery.

Then hop on over to Roubaix and its La Piscine Museum, where you’ll find paintings, sculptures and textiles from the 19th and 20th centuries, all housed in a former Art Deco municipal swimming pool.

Lille is also home to the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle, his house has been converted into a museum you can visit to learn more about the man who to this day holds a unique place in the French national psyche.

The people

We’re all familiar with the stereotype that the French are rude and unwelcoming. Whether you find that to be true or an unfair generalisation, the same cannot be said for the inhabitants of what used to be the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. On the contrary: they are famous for being welcoming.

That’s part of the reason Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, despite poking fun at them, was well-received by people in the north. Many saw themselves in the film, in which the local postman played by Dany Boon is always drunk by the afternoon because every time he delivers the post he is invited inside for a drink, and a sceptical southerner is eventually won over by the local hospitality.

As Enrico Macias sang, “Les gens du Nord ont dans le cœur le soleil qu’ils n’ont pas dehors” – People from the North have in their hearts the sun they don’t have outdoors.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Weekend travel warning on French roads as summer getaway continues

The roads will be packed over the weekend France's roads watchdog has warned as tens of thousands of holidaymakers escape the cities and head for coast or countryside. 

Weekend travel warning on French roads as summer getaway continues

The Bison Futé service has classed traffic levels across most of France on Saturday as red – its second highest level, meaning travel on roads out of all major French cities will be “very difficult” – with those in the eastern Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region classed as  “extremely difficult”, the highest level.

But the problems begin earlier, with traffic levels on France’s major arterial routes rising from lunchtime on Friday, as some holidaymakers set off early to avoid the rush.

Image: Bison Futé

Bison Futé advises road users heading away from major cities in France to:

  • leave or cross the Île-de-France before 12noon;
  • avoid the A13 between Paris and Rouen from 5pm to 9pm, and between Rouen and Caen from 3pm to 9pm;
  • avoid the A10 between Orleans and Tours from 4pm to 7pm;
  • avoid the A63 between Bordeaux and Bayonne from 3pm to 7pm;
  • avoid the A7 between Lyon and Orange from 4pm to 10pm, and between Salon-de-Provence and Marseille from 3pm to 8pm;
  • avoid the A8 between Aix-en-Provence and Nice from 12pm to 8pm;
  • avoid the A9 between Montpellier and Narbonne from 4pm to 7pm;
  • avoid the A62 between Bordeaux and Toulouse from 4pm to 8pm;
  • avoid the Mont-Blanc tunnel in the direction of Italy from 1pm to 7pm (waiting time greater than 1 hour).

Meanwhile, those heading back to the cities from popular French holiday resorts should:

  • avoid the A13 between Rouen and Paris from 5pm to 8pm;
  • avoid the A10 between Bordeaux and Poitiers from 1pm to 8pm;
  • avoid the A7 between Orange and Lyon from 3pm to 6pm;
  • avoid the A8 near Aix-en-Provence from 4pm to 9pm;
  • avoid the A62 between Toulouse and Agen from 3pm to 8pm.

On Saturday, the busiest day of the weekend on France’s roads, Bison Fute says motorists heading away from major cities should:

Image: Bison Futé
  • leave or cross Ile-de-France after 4pm;
  • avoid the A13 between Rouen and Caen from 1pm to 3pm;
  • avoid the A11 between Paris and Le Mans from 11am to 1pm;
  • avoid the A10 at the Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines toll area from 8am to 12pm, and between Orléans and Bordeaux from 10am to 6pm;
  • avoid the A63 between Bordeaux and Bayonne from 1pm to 5pm, 
  • go through the Fleury toll area on the A6 after 12pm;
  • avoid the A7 between Lyon and Orange from 10am to 3pm and between Salon-de-Provence and Marseille from 1pm to 6pm;
  • avoid the A9 between Orange and Montpellier from 8am to 10am;
  • avoid the A75 between Clermont-Ferrand and Montpellier from 11am to 1pm;
  • avoid the A62 between Agen and Toulouse from 11am to 5pm;
  • avoid the Mont-Blanc tunnel in the direction of Italy from 10am to 1pm (waiting time greater than 1 hour);

Those heading the other way on Saturday should:

  • return to or cross Ile-de-France before 2pm;
  • avoid the A10 motorway, between Bordeaux and Poitiers, from 1pm to 3pm;
  • avoid the A7 motorway, between Marseille and Salon-de-Provence, from 9am to 3pm and between Orange and Lyon, from 12pm to 3pm;
  • avoid the A8 motorway, between Nice and Aix-en-Provence, from 10am to 2pm;
  • avoid the A9 motorway, between Montpellier and Orange, from 11am to 1pm.
  • Travel becomes much easy on French roads on Sunday, Bison Fute said.
Image: Bison Futé

But it has still issued the following advice for those travelling to holiday destinations

  • avoid the A10 between Poitiers and Bordeaux from 3pm to 5pm;
  • avoid the A63 between Bordeaux and Bayonne from 5pm to 8pm;
  • avoid the A7 between Lyon and Orange from 12pm to 4pm.

Transport Minister Clément Beaune reminded holidaymakers that motorway operators were offering 10 percent reductions in the price of tolls holders of holiday vouchers for the whole of the summer holiday period.