Guide to Boulogne-sur-Mer northern France

Written by on December 4, 2019 in Nord-Pas de Calais

Cobbled street at dusk, lined with brightly lit restaurants in Boulogne-sur-Mer, northern France

Boulogne-sur-Mer is where you’ll find a beautifully preserved old town and the Basilica Notre Dame which has the longest crypt in France (dating back to Roman times). Cobble stone streets, ancient buildings, a chateau museum, quirky shops and fab restaurants. And, don’t miss the UNESCO listed Belfry where you’ll see cannon balls fired on the town by King Henry VIII.

Julius Caesar took off from here to invade England in 55BC. Napoleon mustered an Armada for the same purpose centuries later. The history of Boulogne-sur-Mer is long and rich. In our guide to Boulogne-sur-Mer, you’ll find there’s plenty to do and see in the lively town…

Guide to Boulogne-sur-Mer

Historic centre

Cobbled streets, castle ramparts, ancient stone houses in Boulogne-sur-Mer, northern France

Looking like something out of a film set, Boulogne-sur-Mer’s Ville Haute, a perfectly preserved medieval city, is a must-see.

Head to the tourist office to find out what’s on in town. And, while you’re there, climb the UNESCO listed Belfry which dates back to the 12th century. There are 183 steps going right to the top from where there are stunning views over the city.  The tower contains a museum of Celtic remains dating from the Roman occupation of the City. Don’t miss the cannon balls fired on the city by Henry VIII when he laid siege to the town in 1544. The inhabitants closed the gate, Porte de Degrés and it stayed that way until 1895! Now you can walk through the gates, climb the stairs and stroll around the ancient, boulevard-wide ramparts. Guided tours are provided in both English and French languages.

There are seventeen towers around the ramparts. From Gayette tower, near the Porte des Dunes, you’ll spot a plaque dedicated to Pilatre de Rozier, the first person to fly a Montgolfier balloon over Paris. In 1785 he attempted to cross the Channel from the ramparts. It was not successful. He is buried at Wimille a little way around the coast.

Basilica Notre-Dame

Inside the Basilica of Notre Dame, Boulogne-sur-Mer, painted columns, sculptures and miraculous brass hand

The Basilica of Notre-Dame in the old town is astonishing. Built on the site of other churches dating to AD636, it doesn’t matter what your beliefs are, this place is unique, unusual and utterly fascinating. Taking a pinch from Rome’s Pantheon, London’s St Paul’s Cathedral and Les Invalides in Paris it was designed by a priest with no architectural experience – and it is magnificent.

There is a brass hand in the church and visitors are invited to place their hands over it and pray for a miracle. Inside it is a sliver of wood said to come from a statue of the Virgin Mary which, legend claims, was pushed ashore at Boulogne-sur-Mer by Angels.

In 1477, Louis XI declared it a “true Madonna”. The prized relic bought pilgrims and Kings to the town. Alas the statue was destroyed in the French Revolution, only the slither remains. The walls of the church are adorned with plaques sent by those who prayed here and were granted their wish.

The crypt is astounding and enormous. In fact it’s one of the biggest in France at over 100m long and truly beautiful. Decorated in Romanesque style, the walls are covered with frescoes and there are precious relics on display. Here Edward II of England married Isabelle of France in 1308. Their son Edward III later started the 100 years war.

Market

Cheese in the famous fromagerie of Boulogne-sur-Mer

The Saturday morning market at Place Dalton is buzzing and has plenty of stalls selling local produce wicker baskets, table-cloths and more. (Also held Wednesday though not quite as big). Take a break in one of the many cafés on the square.

If you love cheese, nip to Philippe Olivier’s famed fromagerie, just follow your nose as this shop stocks all your smelly favourites!

Just down the road you’ll find Casa San Martin, the former home of Argentinian-born General José Francisco de San Martín y Matorras. Better known as José de San Martín, he liberated Argentina (1816), Chile (1817) and Peru (1812) from Spanish rule and is considered the “Father of Argentina”. He lived in this house from 1848 until his death in 1850 and it is today a museum and a place that honours his memory. Read more about it here…

Chateau Museum

The Chateau Comtal was built during the medieval period. However, its foundations date back to Roman times and it was strengthened by Louis XIV’s military engineer the great Vauban. Napoleon III was imprisoned here in 1840. After WWI the body of the British Unknown Soldier lay here in state on the way to be buried in Westminster Abbey. It is now home to a museum displaying many artefacts that include an Egyptian art collection. It’s a little dated but good for a rainy day visit and there are some fascinating exhibitions.

Nausicaa

Monumental fish tank at Nausicaa, Europe's biggest aquarium, Boulogne-sur-Mer

Nausicaa, the National Sea centre of France is listed by UNESCO as a “Center of Excellence”. It opened a brand new state of the art extension in spring 2018 which has made it one of the largest aquariums in the world, certainly the biggest in Europe – and it is spectacular.

Giant tanks fill the new space, and we mean giant. The “Big Tank” holds 10,000m³ of water – that’s enough water to fill four Olympic swimming pools. It is an awesome sight. You can walk right up to it and come face to face with shark, manta rays and shoals of fish. Or you can sit and watch, mesmerised, from benches in front of the tank, it’s strangely relaxing and hypnotic.

There are almost 60,000 creatures, 1,600 species, living in the huge underwater world of Nausicaa, as well as a few above water too – including penguins. The oldest resident is a sand tiger shark and the biggest resident is the wonderfully intelligent sea lion Speedy. It takes 7km of piping to move all the water round, a massive 17,000 m³ in total.

You’ll often spot divers in the tanks cleaning the copious amount of glass with sharks, sea lions and fish of all sorts swishing close by. You get a real feel for what life is like under the ocean.

Beach

Breezy for sure but the long sandy beach is great for a breath of fresh air. In fact Charles Dickens came here for the sea air and stayed for three years, bringing his family out to join him. He claimed it was his “favourite watering hole in France”.

It was once a very popular beach though less so now and in the 1700’s hordes of Britons flocked to Boulogne to enjoy the sea air and the laissez faire attitude of the locals.  If the tide is out, wander to the Napoleonic fort on the beach at Le Portel and collect mussels for your dinner as people have for centuries.

Climb Napoleon’s column

Napoleon's Column at Boulogne-sur-Mer Napoleon Bonaparte spent three years in Boulogne planning an invasion of England. He stayed in a mansion called the Imperial Palace, now a university building, at the Place Godefroy de Bouillon,

Napoleon built 2000 boats and was so sure of success he had a victory column erected. His ambitions didn’t go to plan, but the colonnade remains, topped by a statue of the Emperor. You can climb the 296 stairs for a fabulous view across the Channel with the White Cliffs of Dover clearly visible on a fine day. A short walk away, a stone marks the spot where Napoleon issued the first Legion d’Honneur, in fact 2000 of them, sat on a throne, surrounded by 100,000 soldiers.

If you’ve no head for heights check out the little museum at the base of the Column which is full of fascinating documents, medals and the original Napoleon statue which was damaged by bombs in WWII.

La Maison de la beurière

Step back in time at an authentic ancient mariner’s cottage. Climb the steps up the rue du Machicoulis, near Nausicaa, and you’ll find a fisherman’s 19th century house furnished, and with staff dressed in costume.

Where to Eat out in Boulogne-sur-Mer

Street with tables and chairs on the cobbled street outside restaurants Boulogne-sur-Mer

Enjoy the local favourite, mussels and chips, at any number of restaurants here. This is France’s biggest fishing port so as you’d expect – fish features high on the menu.

Rue de Lille with Place Godefroy Bouillon (named after a local lord who departed from the port of Boulogne in 1096 to lead the first Crusade and was made King of Jerusalem) at one end and the Basilica at the other end, is lined with shops and restaurants, some of which are open all day.

Wine & Dine. Michelin Starred La Matelote. Father and son chef team Tony and Stellio Lestienne (above) cook the most classic dishes as well as delicious and innovative food. The restaurant has held a Michelin star for an astonishing 40 years and is famous for its seafood platters. It’s also a lovely hotel with great views over the harbour.  www.la-matelote.com

Fishermen’s favourite

Authentic and fishy. Le Chatillon. Rub shoulders with fishermen, port workers and sailors at the legendary and authentic Le Chatillon. This quirky restaurant, decked out to look like a ship with wood panelled walls, ships lamps and sails on the ceiling is an institution. It’s famous for its fishy melange called “Parillada”, mixed grilled fish and seafood marinated in garlic and olive oil. The bar opens at 04.00 – early birds take note! Check the website for details (the restaurant is closed Saturdays) and book in advance if you can as this place is very popular with locals. Find it in the fishing district called Capécure. www.Le-Chatillon.com

Locals love: Chez Jules, Place Dalton where the market is held.

Aperitif hour: The Vole Hole in rue de Lille is tiny but perfect. It’s housed in the oldest building in the town and has tables spilling onto the pavement . You’ll find it opposite the Basilica.

Where to find the best fish and chips near Calais in northern France

Useful websites

Boulogne Tourist Office website: www.boulonnaisautop.com/en; www.pas-de-calais-tourisme.com/en; www.french-weekendbreaks.co.uk

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