It goes without saying that France boasts some of the most diverse and picturesque provinces of Europe. Between the beauty and vibrancy of Paris, the impressive chateaus of the Loire Valley, the sunny beaches nestled along Nice and Côte d’Azur, or the charming wine villages of Bordeaux, the French seem to have it all. (And that’s without even mentioning the French Alps, Provence, and so on.)
But all too often, France’s northern region, such as Hauts-de-France (that covers the Nord-Pas de Calais and Picardy regions), gets overlooked and underestimated.
The north is commonly pigeonholed into bloated typecasts — “dismal weather”, “underwhelming landscapes”, “a presiding culture of country folk who speak a weird dialect” — but these sweeping generalizations do not truly depict what these regions has to offer.
Every country has its hidden gems, and in terms of France, I believe the North is one of them. If you are willing to go off the beaten track and experience a different kind of “authentic”, with half the amount of tourists — and for a fraction of the price — then look no further than Nord-Pas de Calais and Picardy!
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Here are 10 highlights, in no particular order, of the North of France for budget travelers.
The region of Nord-Pas de Calais
Over the past decade, this region has been completely revamped with a budding arts and culture scene, namely in Lille, Lens, and Arras.
1. Discover the “L’île de Lille” the capital of Nord-Pas de Calais
Lille epitomizes the words we all hesitate to use when describing a treasured place, but likely say countless of times when reminiscing about it… “cute”, “adorable”, and yes, even a little “kooky.” Known as Paris’s “spunky relative” to some, Lille is the heart of French Flanders, where palettes of rustic red and glistening gold accentuate the iconic works of Flemish architecture, and in other ways, the glowing hearts of the local Lillois.
Between its historic old-town, Vieux Lille, the unparalleled warmth of its citizens, and the myriad manifestations of outré ‘Ch’ti’ culture, the words: cute, adorable, and kooky seem suitable after all.
But let’s not forget a keyword: affordable. Yes, the truth is, Lille offers a plethora of thrills and cheap accommodations that will cost you much less than its Parisian counterpart.
More travel tips:
Search more than 700 hotels in Nord-Pas Calais
A Budget travel guide to Lille, France
2. Experience Lille’s mountain of moules
While you’re weaving through the flea market, wafts of the traditional “Braderie” meal, les moules frites (mussels and french fries) will captivate your senses and only cost you a handful of euros.
Eventually, you’ll come across one of the Braderie’s quintessential traditions: restaurants competing against one another to see who can build the highest mountain of mussel shells. So don’t be surprised if every restaurant in the vicinity wants you to come and enjoy some moules!
3. Get your music fix for less
For all you indie music fans, add Lille to your list of incubators and underrated hot spots. Thanks to its ideal geographic location and budding student population, Lille and the region’s lesser-known purlieus — Arras and Tourcoing — offer a notable repertoire of concerts and festivals, at a much cheaper rate than London, Paris, or Brussels.
The A Gauche de la Lune collective conveniently lists (and sells tickets to) concerts in both Lille and Paris, which automatically emphasizes the price drop between the two. If you’re looking for a way to combine history and entertainment during the summertime, then whisk away in the majestic splendor of La Citadelle d’Arras, during the highly acclaimed Main Square Festival.
4. Discover France’s capital of beer
You wouldn’t believe the amount of beer that comes out of Northern France if we told you. So you should taste it for yourself!
Swap out overpriced and overcrowded wine tours in Bordeaux or the Loire Valley for an inexpensive beer excursion in the heart of French Flanders. Check out our guide to beer culture in Lille to ensure you’re hitting all the right spots.
5. Channel your inner Ch’ti at Lille’s Marché de Noël
Avoid the hullabaloo of Alsace during winter market season and revel in Lille’s snow globe charm at the annual Marché de Noël. Straddled across Rihour and La Grand Place – Lille’s former medieval market square – you’re bound to float back in time, all whilst sipping your large heaping of €3 vin chaud (mulled wine).
Admission is free, and it’s open this year through December 27th.
6. Tap into art history (for free!) with a modern twist
Swap out the lines and antiquity of the gargantuan Louvre in Paris and explore its hip new extension in Lens. Think of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum; the Louvre-Lens might not have the same Renaissance effect for the old mining town, but Lens will surely leave you pleasantly surprised. Cheapos will love that museum admission is free!
7. Breathe in the coastal nature of the North
Its terrain might be relatively flat and the English Channel doesn’t quite compare to the Mediterranean or the Alps, however, the North of France does possess a lovely hiking trail.
The GR 120 embodies a different kind of magnificence. It reveals a modest beauty that underlines the perils of its past. As you walk along the coast, amidst the billowing dunes and windswept valleys, where tall grasses harmonize with the sea, a mystic tranquility overcomes you.
This “Grande Randonnée” (Great Walk) is bound to instill a newfound admiration into all of those whom dare to roam the outskirts of the unpretentious North.
This region of France, located just north of Paris, houses some of the most prolific Gothic architecture of the 12th and 13th centuries. Picardy also exudes a medieval mysticism and neo-classical charm that gives visitors a true taste of France’s evolution.
The Paris-Beauvais Airport, where Ryanair and other budget airlines fly in and out of, is also situated in this region, making it a very feasible pit stop before moving on to your next destination.
Related: Discover more than 500 hotels in Picardy
8. Medieval mysticism in Laon
Enjoy the medieval aura of Laon, whose high vantage point magnifies the bucolic pastures below, and whose collection of historic buildings fill visitors with an eerie charm.
Similar to Lens, Laon has its own Parisian counterpart: Cathedral Notre-Dame de Laon (free, open daily 8:30 am to 6: 30 pm), which impressively stands as one of the earliest Gothic cathedrals in France. Visitors can explore the town’s old ramparts and gateways and the medieval palace without the phalanx of tourists.
Related: Find budget hotels in Laon, France
9. Amiens: Where an old city reflects small-town charm
Just a hop, skip away from Paris, Amiens reigns as the capital of Picardy and may just be one of the best bargains of your off-kilter tour of the North. Outside of housing the oldest and tallest Gothic-style cathedral in France, it exudes an abundance of historical and cultural charm.
In the Saint-Leu Quarter, frolic along the canals and enjoy the quaintness typical in a small French village. Relish the “floating gardens” of the magnificent park, the Hortillonnages, as you nibble on a macaron d’Amien or another local delight. Marvel at the works of the famous author, Jules Verne, at his old home-turned-museum (€3 entry fee).
Related: Search and book cheap hotels in Amiens
10. Meander through the fairytale village of Gerberoy
No visit to France would be complete without meandering through one of their numerous postcard villages. Gerberoy, which has officially made it on the list of “most picturesque villages in France,” located northeast of Amiens, illustrates the soft and whimsical hues of impressionistic paintings.
One may think it was the village — dotted with 17th and 18th-century cottages — that sprouted from the ground, rather than the multitude of gardens and flowers dressing the buildings and walkways. Bask in the gentle beauty of this fairy-tale village… and in the inexpensive prices!
Your tips for the North of France
Have you been to the North of France? Tell us your favorite places to go!