Exploring the old town of Boulogne-sur-mer

posted in: France | 26

France has many amazing cities, towns, pretty little villages in the countryside and many of them are visited by the hordes of visitors which come to the country every year. In the north of the country in the region of Hauts-de-France is the fishing town of Boulogne-sur-mer. This sleepy town on La Manche (or to us British known as the English Channel) does have visitors coming here, mostly people from Netherlands and Belgium who travel on the nearby autoroute with their campervans and look for somewhere to relax for a few hours and Boulogne makes this a great pit stop. However in the last few decades, a lot of British people do not stop here compared to the dizzy heights of cross-channel tourism where a lot of people would day trip here, take a look at the markets, sample the food and walk the cobble streets of the old town. It was time for the Curious Explorers to check out why the town needs to be on anyone’s interiny, if just passing by the town for a few hours, a day trip over from England or on a road trip around Northern France.

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Ready to explore the town of Boulogne-sur-mer

As mentioned, loads of Brits would flock here during the 1960’s and 1970’s, well in fact until the late 1990’s (when air travel became cheaper and package holidays with tour companies became the norm and off we would go to Spain or Greece leaving northern France a place not to visit unless a visit to the local supermarket or duty free shopping for a day trip was necessary as the goods were cheaper on mainland Europe back then). There would be ferries crossing the English Channel from here to Folkestone or Dover (Dovres) but these days, no ferries go to England. In fact the harbour looks very quiet, only fishing boats can be seen. For ferries these days, Brits would have to drive down from Calais or Dunkirk (Dunkerque). This is probably another reason why a decline in tourism from the United Kingdom. Another factor is that tourists would need a car. Coming over as a foot passenger on the ferry can be struggle as there is no port bus at the ferry terminal at Calais (but visitors can bring a bike). Then there would have been a long walk into the centre of Calais from the ferry port due to some roads blocked off due to the crisis there with migrants and then the local trains don’t run as often between the towns. So, traveling can be a pain in the ass to get to Boulogne.

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Boulogne-sur-mer

However, if owning a car, then the doom and gloom is lifted and the town is definitely worth a visit. Parking up on the outskirts of the old city (also known as ‘Haute Ville – High Town’ or ‘Ville Fortifiée – Fortified Town’), this area is a few minutes walk up the hillside from all the car parks (or about fifteen – twenty minutes from the seafront). A little hint: our favourite car parking spot is the secure underground car park called St Louis which is cheap as well and can be found on Rue Saint-Louis.

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Square Auguste Mariette Pacha

From the car park and walking up the hill, the first sights to see in this town is Square Auguste Mariette Pacha, a nice little garden area which as an Egyptian mini-pyramid as well as two sphinxes looking directly across from the western gates of the old city walls. Not quite sure what the connection is with Egypt and Boulogne-sur-mer, however it looks pretty in this park.

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Square Auguste Mariette Pacha

Walking underneath the gate – Pont des Dunes – and turning right up a small staircase, this took us to the top of the walls to which we could walk all the way around, taking in views of the buildings in the new part of the town down below, the skyline of the old town and in parts, the sea. There is huge walking path in places but its best to walk this on a dry day as the ground is gravel and mud.

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Pont des Dunes
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Walking on the town walls

From the Pont des Dunes and walking eastwards along the cobbled street known as  Place de la Résistance, this took us to the Belfry which has stood here since the 12th century and is one of fifty-six belfry towers dotted around Northern France and Belgium which has UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Belfry of Boulogne

At the end of the street is the main square of the old town where the town hall is located. In the heart of the square is the Jardin Ephémère on Place Godefroy de Bouillon where the locals take a seat on the bench, look at the pretty flowers and watch the world go by. Around the square there are cafes and restaurants which are also an ideal location to do one of France’s number one pass-time, people watch.

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Jardin Ephémère
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Jardin Ephémère with the town hall and belfry in the background

From the square heading north along on Rue de Lille there are many restaurants to choose from and we decided to eat in ‘Le Swan’ where we found the price for a set menu (three-course meal) a fantastic deal and the food to be very tasty and feeling. The fish was fresh from the sea and the meat cooked how it should be. The excellent customer service and the decor was even more pleasing and we left feeling very satisfied.

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Le Swan on Rue de Lille
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Le Swan on Rue de Lille
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Le Swan on Rue de Lille

On the Rue de Lille is also a fantastic opportunity to capture one of Boulogne’s most photographed scene, the cobbled street with the shops and the beautiful Notre-Dame cathedral in the background which is located at the end of the street.

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Rue de Lille and the Notre-Dame in Boulogne

The cathedral is located on top of the hill where the old town is situated and can be seen from all over town. The dome reminded us of the dome on top of St Paul’s cathedral back home in London . The full title of this cathedral is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Boulogne, however this basilica is not actually an cathedral but a church. The locals call it a cathedral and to be honest, a lot of tourist’s called it a cathedral and it has somehow stuck. The church has stood here since 1875 and took nearly fifty years to build.

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Inside the Notre Dame cathedral of Boulogne-sur-mer
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Inside the Notre Dame cathedral of Boulogne-sur-mer
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Inside the Notre Dame cathedral of Boulogne-sur-mer

However the history of this church is amazing, like there has been a church stood here since the days of the Roman Empire. Later on in the 12th century, a new church was built on the site of the old church and lots of changes happened over the year. Now, what interested us (well, mainly Danik as he loves his history) that in the year 1308, the church was the location of a royal wedding! Yes, a royal wedding, between King Edward II of England and Isabella of France (one reason for this was to dampened down tensions between the two countries). After more research, Isabella gave birth to a son back in England (Edward III of course) and then was blamed for the murder of her husband (long story)!. Then she died in Hertford Castle which is located in the small historical town of Hertford in Hertfordshire (north of London) which is very close to Danik’s hometown of Stevenage. We never knew this and found this really interesting to learn.    

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Inside the Notre Dame cathedral of Boulogne-sur-mer
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Inside the Notre Dame cathedral of Boulogne-sur-mer

The current church as previously mentioned started to get built in the early 19th century, however whilst workmen were digging the foundations, they discovered a crypt which had been lain unknown for many centuries. After the ‘clear’ out, the historians found out that the Romanesque columns are from the 11th century, the crypt itself is 128 meters long and is the longest crypt in the country. There is also many rooms inside this crypt which also includes the foundations of a Roman temple (yes, Roman!) and cannonballs from the siege of 1544 (where historians think this is when the crypt got buried).

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
The crypt underneath the Notre-Dame
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
The crypt underneath the Notre-Dame
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
The crypt underneath the Notre-Dame
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
The crypt underneath the Notre-Dame
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
The crypt underneath the Notre-Dame
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
The crypt underneath the Notre-Dame
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
The crypt underneath the Notre-Dame
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
The crypt underneath the Notre-Dame
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
The crypt underneath the Notre-Dame
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
The crypt underneath the Notre-Dame

After the fascination of walking around the church and discovering the crypt, we walked around the corner to the castle which has a fantastic wide moat going around it and the brickwork on the facade is immense. The courtyard is circular and probably could be a great venue to host a tennis tournament (if the nets were raised), however imagination aside, the castle hosts a museum on the history of the town. Just taking a walk around the courtyard and the castle walls did it for us. It has charm, it has beauty and blends in very well with the surrounding buildings.

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Boulogne-sur-mer castle

Away from the old city, Boulogne’s seafront and ‘new town’ has plenty of restaurants and shops to look at and on some days, roads are shut off for a street market. Walking along the seafront is a great idea (but only when the sun is out, the rain and wind of the sea can be awful at times) and the beach north of the town is wide, sandy and golden and is a great place to go to when the sun is out. Also in the beach and harbour area is the NAUSICAA sea life aquarium which is also of the region’s tourist attractions.

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Boulogne-sur-mer castle
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Boulogne-sur-mer castle
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Boulogne-sur-mer castle
Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Boulogne-sur-mer castle

Outdoor activities is also highly popular on this part of the Cote d’Opale (The Opale Coast) and cycling seems to be the number one sport. The number one ride to do is through the national park just north of the town and follow the coastal road or other cycle tracks through the pretty villages to Calais. Even Danik has done a ride through here. Running is second around here and the nearby countryside is a great place to train on a Sunday morning if doing a long run.

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Running through the countryside south of Boulogne

Boulogne-sur-mer is a great place to stop off for a day trip (or even a weekend break if exploring more of the local area) and we would highly recommend visiting this beautiful city overlooking the city. It has history, culture, great food and the locals are welcoming. We hope you have enjoyed our reasons for visiting the town and would love to hear your views? Has anyone else been here? What would you recommend?

Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France
Boulogne-sur-mer

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Boulogne-sur-mer, France, Hautes de France

26 Responses

  1. Hey guys! what a great site! These pictures are amazing. it must have been amazing to see it in person! I just stumbled on your site, gonna go check some of your other post! take care and safe travels : )

  2. I personally love sleepy towns with so much history and beautiful architecture! The park with the Egyptian sphinx is so cool. Rue de Lille looks like the perfect place to hang out, with the Notre Dame Cathedral in the backdrop. The cathedral is also is lovely, the interiors are so magnificent!

  3. Great selfie shot up top guys! The town looks so charming. As I imagine much of France. What a different vibe compared to much of the world; an old school feel, genuine blast from the past.

    Ryan

  4. Vaooov. Very nice places thanks

  5. What a beautiful little town. I really want to see more of France. Despite going through the country three times, I feel like I haven’t really seen anything special. I particularly like all the artwork around the town and in the churches, both the old and the new. Definitely strange to see a pyramid there. I might have to follow in your footsteps to Le Swam too, as I do love food.

  6. A truly charming French small town. I like it much, especially for the castle. What a magnificent medieval chateau!

  7. I went to Boulogne on a school trip once where I have memories of a) mooning over a boy I fancied, and b) getting locked in the toilet in a small cafe. Think I should definitely give it another 25 years later!

  8. Danila Caputo

    Yes, you’re right, France is so much more than just Paris! So many little towns and places off the beaten path. What I wouldn’t have expected is the fact that they have such beautiful urban art in Boulogne sur mer!

  9. Boulogne-sur-mer looks like a beautiful old town with heaps of history and some fantastic architecture. I’m planning a trip to France next year and will definitely try to work it into our itinerary. I’d love to stay right in the old town.

  10. Great photos, I love small towns like this, especially in France. It’s a pity not many Brits visit anymore since it is right across the channel! I love the hidden Roman temple too. I will keep this in mind next time we are in the area.

  11. France is so much more than just Paris, there are so many historical & beautiful small towns that are worth seeing. Boulogne Sur Mer seems like it could be the perfect spot for a short weekend trip, especially for us that live right across the channel! I am curious too about the Egyptian Sphinx & Boulogne Sur Mer, it does make an interesting picture though!

  12. Boulogne is probably the first place I visited without my parent, on a school trip with my class! I loved it, and it was perhaps the start of my love affair with France, still going today. We prefer to stay one or two nights in the region, rather than do just a day trip but either way, it’s a great place to visit. I’ve never spotted the pyramids and sphinxes, so they are now on the list for next time. I don’t think I’ve been inside the cathedral either!

  13. Boulogne is probably the first place I visited without my parent, on a school trip with my class! I loved it, and it was perhaps the start of my love affair with France, still going today. We prefer to stay one or two nights in the region, rather than do just a day trip but either way, it’s a great place to visit. I’ve never spotted the pyramids and sphinxes, so they are now on the list for next time. I don’t think I’ve been inside the cathedral either!

  14. Truly a hidden gem in the north of France.

  15. I like the pics, it looks like you’ve had a great time guys, congrats!

    Warm regards from Bucharest, Romania…

  16. I usually travel by public transport so it sounds like I’d struggle here – although if I’m with my parents on the way to the south of France this is a great stop off to explore Boulogne-sur-Mer along the way! I love castles so I’d definitely visit this one.

  17. I’ve really not explored enough of France, and Boulogne-sur-mer looks fantastic. I think France has some many charming towns and villages, with castles that you would never know were there unless you explored! I love the townscape with the cathedral in the background, it feels so typically French! Another for my list, I need to do a French road trip.

  18. France is on the list and i think we should add Boulogne-sur-mer to it. It simply looks lovely. Gorgeous pictures especially the one on the top. The cathedral too is beautiful. You guys seem to had a great time there.

  19. Lovely little town, it should get more attention in my opinion. Too bad it’s off the tourists radar nowadays.

  20. Boulogne looks like a beautiful charming little town! Lived in Paris for a while but never made it there, maybe next time. Thanks for sharing!

  21. The sphinxes decorate the memorial to Egyptologist Auguste Mariette Pasha, who was a resident of Boulogne-Sur-Mer. The connection is that Auguste was a famous Egyptologist.

  22. Boulogne looks so charming! Next time I will visit this town for sure. Thanks for sharing all this great informations!

  23. Another pretty little French town. The country has these pretty places by the dozens! I am quite curious o know about those sphinxes and pyramids, so will start reading up right after this.

  24. What a charming town. I love learning about out of the ways places like Boulogne. Your pictures are lovely. I’d like to see the cathedral for myself one day. Stunning!

  25. Food and Footprints

    Boulogne looks like a nice town. Some pretty buildings and liked that street art piece as well!

  26. Love these charming European towns, the cathedral is particularly impressive, and those crypts look really interesting and love to see there are options for biking. I’m sure it wouldn’t be possible to have a bad meal in that town or any French town for that matter!

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