Boulogne-Sur-Mer: City guide and history (Northern France)

With its charming cathedral, towering castle and the Côte d'Opale, Boulogne-sur-Mer is the perfect getaway in Northern France. With a list of best things to do in the area, where to stay, and much more.
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City center with Cathedral in the distance - Photo by Danik Bates
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It is a hilltop coastal town overlooking the La Manche (English Channel), that is best known for its fishing and seafood. For centuries it has been on the front line in the wars between France and England.

Boulogne-sur-Mer started out as a settlement for a local Gaelic tribe before the Romans conquered the area and started laying the foundations of the town. Once the Romans were gone, the English and French armies came fighting a lot for the land in Northern France which included Boulogne and nearby Calais.

The town hosted an important royal wedding in 1308, that of Edward II of England and Isabelle of France, the daughter of French King Philippe de Bel, in an attempt to reconcile French and English relations. (It didn’t work, they still argued.)

Eventually, peace came to the area until Napoleon came to power. He improved the defensive fortifications and gathered his grande armée in the town as he prepared to conquer England. His attempt failed, defeated by Nelson and the British Royal Navy in the Battle of Trafalgar at sea.

The town became peaceful once again until the First and Second World Wars where Boulogne got the brunt of the damage. It was heavily bombed during the Battle of Britain, a battle that took place over the sea and damaged a lot of Dover, Folkestone, Calais, and Boulogne.

After the war, the town was rebuilt, though much of the old historic center remained intact. There is plenty to see and do in the area, so let’s get to it shall we? Allons-y!


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Inside Notre Dame de Boulogne-sur-mer Cathedral
Inside the Cathedral – Photo by Danik Bates

Things to do in Boulogne-Sur-Mer

1. Notre Dame de Boulogne Cathedral

The Notre-Dame cathedral, whose dome can be seen for miles around is one of the major landmarks of the city.

The original site of the cathedral thought to have been constructed during the Roman era. The village on the coast of France was used by the Emperor Claudius as his base for the Roman invasion of Britain.

Like some of the other cathedrals around France, it is thought that the first Christian building on the site was probably built by those Romans during the 4th or 5th century.

Explore every room as there are some nice artworks on display and the dome is quite impressive. Also, you can pay a small fee to check out the crypt and the tombs.

2. Chateau-Musée

Walking along the cobbled streets of the upper town and check out the Chateau-Musée. Its defensive walls are worth walking on top in the summer months as they have some great sea views. On a clear day, visitors may even see England!

3. Rent a bike along the Côte d’Opale

If you are into cycling and want to do some sightseeing at the same time, rent a bike and cycle north along the Côte d’Opale. There are beautiful seaside villages along the coast, with some great seafood restaurants, as well as wide golden beaches and a few museums from the World wars.

4. Visit Nausica aquarium

Boulogne-Sur-Mer also includes one of Europe’s largest aquariums, called Nausica. There are over 1600 species housed in the aquarium over 15km (9.3 miles). Impressive indeed!

Nausica Aquarium
Nausica Aquarium

There are also two major exhibitions, the “Journey on the High Seas” and “Mankind and Shores”, along with animations like the Sea Lion’s Medical Training, The Finding of the Penguins, Meet the Nausica caretakers, and more.

It tends to be quite busy, especially during school holidays, so purchase your tickets in advance here.

5. Go to the beach

If you enjoy going to the beach, you will enjoy the beach town of Boulogne sur Mer. It is a large expansive stretch of white sand, with a lovely promenade along the sea. The beach is just beside Nausica Aquarium, and there are all lots of shops and beach huts around as well.

Don’t forget to visit the San Martin monument and the Shaking Hands monument.

6. Try the Welsh Rarebit

Being a maritime town, there is a lot of international influence on food here. Apart from seafood, the main meal is welsh rarebit (similar to a Croque Monsieur) which is served with a savory sauce of melted cheese and various other ingredients.

How to get to Boulogne-sur-Mer?

Boulogne-sur-Mer is located in the Hauts-de-France region and is under a three-hour drive north of Paris. Also, there are trains a few times a day from Paris via Arras or Lille to reach the seaside town.

☞ READ MORE: Things to know before driving in France

When is the best time to visit?

Boulogne-sur-Mer is known for its sea festival, known as fête de la mer. Every two years in mid-July, the Côte d’Opale celebrates for 4 days, the sea and the maritime world.

The festival involves a gathering of traditional and heritage sailboats, with a sea market, exhibitions and many activities for young and old.

Where should you stay?

One night is probably enough, counting time to arrive and a late departure the next day. Here are some accommodation options that there are in the village.


For me, apart from all the sightseeing, I recommend enjoying the seafood in a restaurant in the Upper town. And if you are into shopping, check out the street market which is on in the Lower town on weekends.

If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about visiting around Northern France. A bientôt!

✎ Photos and Guide by: Danik Bates

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