Are you planning a trip to France and want something off the beaten path for a unique experience? Or maybe you’ve visited before and don’t want a repeat of your last vacation? Either way, we’ve got you covered. Many people don’t include Northeast France in their travel plans, but this is a great mistake. From century-old cathedrals to towns straight from a fairy tale, Northeast France is like nowhere else. Ready to discover what makes this underrated region so unique? Then let’s get started!
First, what do we even mean by “Northeast France”? To keep it simple, we’ll limit the content of this article to the two most northeastern regions: Grand Est and Hauts-de-France.
Regions of Northeast France
The Grand Est region of France was created in 2016 by merging Lorraine, Alsace, and Champagne-Ardenne. It’s the only region in France that borders four countries: Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Switzerland. As a result, it’s the perfect place to experience a unique blend of cultures.
Forests, plains, vineyards, and lakes dominate the region’s natural environments. As such, it’s most known for its agriculture and wine production. In fact, it has the second-largest industry in France and thousands of acres of vineyards. Six regional national parks and 25 regional nature reserves demonstrate this region’s dedication to environmental protection.
Hauts-de-France is north of Grand Est and emerged in 2016 after combining the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy regions.
As the northernmost region of France, Hauts-de-France has strong connections to England and Belgium. You’ll notice Flemish influences on the food and architecture here, especially near the Belgian border. If you’d like to make the most of your time in Europe, you can also travel through the Channel Tunnel to London or head to Brussels as many tourists do. Traveling between Paris, London, and Brussels has never been easier!
This region’s 135-mile coastline and cliffs make for a beautiful view. And, just like Grand Est, this area is known for its impressive agricultural industry. In fact, over two million hectares of land are dedicated just to agriculture! It also supports green tourism, with four national parks and many magnificent gardens.
Cities of Northeast France
Now that we’ve covered the basics, here are the cities that especially capture the charms of each region.
Strasbourg, the capital city of Grand Est, is worth visiting for its sturdy cobblestone roads, half-timbered sixteenth-century homes, and winding river. It lies just west of Germany, meaning you’ll likely hear some German or even Alsatian, the indigenous language of Alsace. You’ll also notice Germanic influences in the architecture and traditions since the city changed its nationality four times!
We recommend La Petite France, Strasbourg’s tourist hotspot and historic quarters. It’s easily the city’s most picturesque region, with cobblestone streets and medieval houses. Admire the homes that belonged to tanners, fishers, and millers in the Middle Ages, and take in the colorful flowers and stately trees.
Can’t get enough of this fairy tale land? Alsace is home to many similar villages, like Colmar, the inspiration behind Beauty and the Beast, and Riquewihr, one of the most beautiful villages in France.
Strasbourg is also known for its German-style Christmas market, lasting from the final week of November through the end of December. As France’s largest and oldest Christmas market, it’s a must-see (and taste). The food here is limitless. Cheese, gingerbread, baguettes, hot cocoa, pastries – you name it, they have it! Plus, you can try authentic Alsace food, sweets, and drinks from local producers and bakers. Enjoy warm pretzels and a cup of the famous vin chaud (mulled wine) while admiring the spectacular, vibrant decorations and a 30-meter Christmas tree! The market also sells unique hand-crafted Christmas decorations, perfect for bringing home or gifting to loved ones.
We can’t move on without mentioning the most iconic building in the city: the Strasbourg Cathedral (Cathédral Notre-Dame de Strasbourg). This Catholic cathedral is the pinnacle of Gothic architecture. Construction of this gorgeous tower took more than 424 years, and it was the tallest building in the world for over two centuries!
Metz is a provincial city south of Luxembourg and west of Germany in the Lorraine region. It’s nicknamed the “Garden City” for its flower beds and green spaces everywhere. It’s also very pedestrian-friendly, with many shopping streets and riverside pathways. You can feel the city’s lengthy history as you admire the stunning buildings and architecture.
Perhaps the city’s most notable building is the Cathedral of Saint Stephen (Cathédral Saint-Étienne de Metz), an iconic example of Gothic architecture. Century-old statues and designs cover the walls with detail. The most stunning feature is its vast display of stained-glass – with nearly 70,000 square feet (0.65 ha), it’s the largest in the world!
To view Metz’s lovely green space, visit the Jardin Botanique. There’s free admission to stunning rose gardens, curious cacti, and many other vibrant greenery, with panels providing names and other details. In case it’s raining, you can tour the greenhouse and discover over 4,500 plants!
Are you a fan of champagne and French wine in general? Then visiting Champaign is a must! Here, you’ll enjoy world-renowned and local wines while taking in charming vineyards and rolling hills.
You can even make a road trip out of it! Simply follow the Champagne Route, which stretches 700 kilometers across the Champagne region. You’ll tour the region’s best wine cellars, learn about the wine-making process at your own pace, and get to taste delicious wine as well!
Hauts-de-France’s bustling capital city lies far up north, near Belgium. As a result, you’ll notice many Flemish undertones – it’s even been nicknamed the “Capital of Flanders”!
In the heart of Lille, you’ll find the Lille Palace of Fine Arts (Palais des Beaux-Arts), the largest museum in France after the Louvre. It features art from the thirteenth through the twentieth century by famous artists like Donatello, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Monet. History and art lovers could easily spend a whole day here.
Another place we recommend is the Citadel, Lille’s star-shaped military fortress. As you walk along, you might spot Soay sheep mowing the grass, ducks, and frogs playing in the lily-covered ponds, and other amusing animals. There’s even a small zoo with over 400 animals and a mini park for children! With over 123 acres to explore, you’ll feel like you’ve entered a peaceful paradise.
Lille also offers many guided tours, from self-guided excursions to Belgian beer car trips. We recommend taking a tour through the ancient Old Town of Lille. In an hour, you’ll witness breathtaking architecture from a vintage car. It’s like a museum tour but through the entire city! You might even sample French champagne and other authentic food, including pâté, waffles, and cheese. And most tours have an English option, so you won’t need to worry about a language barrier.
Want to see one of the most important landmarks in World War II history? Then visit the beaches of Dunkirk, where over 338,000 British and French soldiers were evacuated. It’s the northernmost city in France and only a few minutes from Belgium. Also, as France’s third-ranking port city, life here revolves around the sea.
For a panoramic view of the city and beach, visit Belfry Saint Eloi. Simply take the elevator and climb the narrow staircase to reach the top. You’ll see Dunkirk from a stunning perspective, 190 feet (ca. 58 m) above ground. Inside, you’ll also find another beautiful French cathedral. If you’re lucky, you might even hear the bells chime!
To learn more about the Battle of Dunkirk, take a tour of the Dunkirk 1940 Museum – a must-see for history buffs. It provides a complete overview of the Battle of Dunkirk and many artifacts, including uniforms, weapons, and vehicles. Plus, everything is in French and English.
Then, stop by the Plage de Malo-Les-Bains, and witness where it all happened! It’s a long, wide beach that stretches as far as the eye can see. As a result, there’s a great sense of privacy. The cute colorful buildings lining the street from behind add to the calm and enchanting atmosphere.
Just west of Dunkirk lies Calais, another port city. Its scenic cliffs, like the Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Gris Nez, and impressive sand dunes make this a remarkable city. Soft golden sands line the city and provide the perfect place to relax. Plus, the beaches and water turn beautiful colors at sunrise and sunset.
If you continue about six miles west along the coastline, you’ll discover Cap Blanc Nez, chalky white cliffs that reach an impressive 132 meters at their peak. Go southwest instead, and you’ll find Cap Gris Nez, the closest point between France and England. You can even spot England’s Cliffs of Dover on a clear day!
When you’re done touring the beaches, stop by local restaurants for some Moules-Frites (mussels and French fries) and delicious beer or white wine.
Too many people rush past Northeast France toward the balmy French Riviera in the south, or luxurious cities like Paris and Bordeaux. However, with two distinct regions and dozens of quaint villages and landscapes to explore, there’s no shortage of places to see and things to do here. Plus, it is a convenient stopping point between Belgium and London. Give Northeast France the attention it deserves. You won’t experience another trip like it!