Your French fix with British history at the doorstep of Calais
A visit to Boulogne, just 35 km from Calais with a thirty minute’s drive, must be considered in three parts. First, is its charming Upper City, which sits at the top of the town, fortified by a complete medieval stone wall.
Down the hill, you’ll find Boulogne’s characterful centre, home to a bustling market square and the post-war architecture of France’s biggest fishing port. It’s here you’ll find Nausicaa, one of the world’s largest aquariums.
Lastly, is the serene countryside around Boulogne. Indeed, it is surrounded by the sizeable Regional Natural Park of the Caps and Opal Marsh.
Together, these offer a range of activities that exceeds what one expects of a town of this size. In particular, military history lovers will rejoice, with sites telling the story of Henry VIII’s occupation all the way through to WWII.
And, of course, there is the food. Boulogne is fiercely proud of its produce and you will find it difficult not to eat top-quality fresh fish in its many reasonably priced restaurants.
A short break to Boulogne
Nausicaa sea centre
It would be remiss not to pay Europe’s largest aquarium a visit while staying in Boulogne. Besides its obvious site-seeing attraction, Nausicaa is also a global centre for marine-life research. This, along with the sheer entertainment of the place, adds to a visitor experience suitable for all ages.
The star attraction within the centre must surely be its new 60m-long pool, which aims to “recreate a high-seas ecosystem” for the 24,000 creatures that live in it.
A fascinating tour culminates with a cinematic viewing experience through the largest of the aquarium’s windows: a single piece of glass that measures 20m wide and 5m high, weighing a whopping 54 tonnes.
If you time things right (11am and 2pm), you’ll have the chance to go backstage (or rather above water level) and shadow one of the centre’s experts as they feed the resident giant mantaray, who spans nearly 5m!
Nausicaa Sea life Centre – Boulogne © Yannick Cadart-CD62
The Column of the Grande Armée Boulogne – Wimille © Yannick Cadart-CD62
Boulogne Old Town
The Old Town, the Upper City, the Fortified Town – the oldest part of Boulogne seems to have as many names as it does attractions. So where to start?
It might be sensible to kick off a leisurely lap of its ramparts, along the Promenade Charles Dickens. Indeed, the writer was a huge fan of Boulogne: “It is as quaint, picturesque, good a place as I know,” he wrote in an 1852 letter.
From here you’ll get the best views of the Basilica de Notre Dame, an impressive 18th-century neoclassical structure built by a self-taught architect who took inspiration from St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
A happy hour can be spent inspecting its huge dome from the inside, while taking in the magnificent mosaics nearby, which are made of sparkling semi-precious stones. And did we mention the crypt? It’s claimed to be one of the largest in Northern Europe.
Otherwise, visitors mustn’t miss the Unesco-protected Belfry or the museum within the Chateau Musée de Boulogne, which houses a series of remarkable collections, spanning Mediterranean archeology through to fine art.
The Column of the Grande Armée Boulogne
Just outside town is a 53m-high Corinthian column topped with a regal-looking Napoleon Bonapart – standing in the opposite direction of England!
Those keen on absorbing the history of Napoleon’s time here in Boulogne will love the small museum next to the column (which, by the way, is one metre taller than Nelson’s Column in London!). It was from here that he had intended to embark on his invasion of the United Kingdom.
If you look towards the sea, you will catch sight of the Stele of the Legion of Honour. It was on this sight in 1802 where Napoleon awarded the very first of France’s greatest military orders of merit.
It is possible to climb the column for 360-degree views of Boulogne, the surrounding countryside and, of course, the white cliffs of England, only 35km away. Be careful, though – it can get very windy up there.
What to do on a daytrip to Boulogne?
Belfry and Town Hall – Boulogne © Yannick Cadart-CD62
If you are merely passing through or you only have a short amount of time to spend in Boulogne then you should absolutely visit these attractions:
Europe’s largest aquarium
France’s national marine centre is a must-see for anyone interested in sea life conservation or simply looking at a magnificent array of fish in the centre’s 60m-long aquarium – one of the largest of its kind in the world. Don’t miss the giant mantaray and sandbar sharks!
Charles Dickens Promenade
Walk around the well-preserved ramparts of Boulogne’s beautiful Haute Ville (old town) and you’ll get some magnificent views of the treasures within the walls. The Basilica de Notre Dame is perhaps easiest to pick out, standing at a formidable 101m high.
The Hotel de Ville in Boulogne Old Town is a pretty thing to marvel at, but it is its adjoining 12th-century bell tower that is most impressive. Visitors are welcome to walk up it for free to make the most of the view (on a clear day you can see all the way to Dover, England) and there’s a small museum with celtic and Roman artefacts.
The Wimereux Cemetery
A lovely one-hour walk can be enjoyed along the coast or through Boulogne’s surrounding countryside over to the neighbouring town of Wimereux. The Cemetery there is a burial site of WWI and WWII soldiers. Most famously, it’s the final resting place of Canadian doctor and poet Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, who wrote In Flanders Fields.
If you’re taking the road from Boulogne up to Calais, then you must stop for 30 minutes at Cap Gris-Nez. It’s the closest point of France to England, which is presumably why a succession of armies built fortifications there. Three charming little walks will take you round military ruins that span the time of Henry VIII through to WWII. In nearby Ambleteuse, there’s the remarkable Musée 39-45, which houses a large collection of military uniforms and paraphernalia.
Cap Gris-Nez © Eric Desaunois-CD62
Best shopping experience in Boulogne ?
Fish market – Boulogne © Yannick Cadart-CD62
Philippe Olivier Cheeseshop – Boulogne © AS Flament
Welsh rarebit at Le Welsh Pub
Boulogne’s historical connection with the English is perhaps best represented by the fact that it has adopted one of its favourite dishes. Welsh rarebit (or cheese on toast!) is best enjoyed at Le Welsh Pub on Dalton Square, which also happens to be the location of the town’s fruit & veg market. It’s on twice a week on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.
The fish market of Boulogne
Boulogne is France’s biggest fishing port and so it stands to reason that it’s fishing market – just in front of the harbour – is one to be proud of. Particularly lively in the summer months, its handful of stalls offer a mesmerising display of fish and crustacea. Take a lemon and enjoy a few fresh oysters –when they’re in season – sitting on the harbour.
Fromagerie Philippe Olivier
Everyone in Boulogne knows this famous cheese shop, which has been selling the stuff for over 100 years. Walk down the shopping-centric Rue Adolphe Thiers and you’ll smell the shop before you see it. That’s perhaps because it sells locally made Vieux Boulogne, which has been named the smelliest cheese in the world. If this delicious treat is too much then try Maroilles, another (less pungent) local offering.