Northern France is packed with world-famous attractions and one could probably spend a lifetime cataloging it all! I’ve popped into a number of the following destinations over the years ranging from 2002 – 2020 and I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface! (Note– Champagne is in northern France but there’s so much goodness there that I had to break it out into a separate post).
Paris is an exceptional city — with broad avenues, sidewalk cafes, shopping, parks, and rich history — the City of Lights is one of those places everyone should see at least once. Since it is the quintessential tourist destination, I won’t go into too much detail rehashing the beaten path, but I will name a few essential things that everyone should see while in town. These include: Eiffel Tower, Sacré-Cœur Basilica, Louvre Museum (with Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo :), Hotel des Invalides (where Napoleon’s tomb is located), Saint Chapel (with its incredible stained glass windows), and Montmatre. It’s still possible to see the structure of Notre Dame from the outside after the tragic fire of 2019, as the city works to rebuild the world-famous cathedral.
During my last visit to Paris in 2019, I was just there briefly and stayed at the 9 Hotel Opera boutique hotel, which was small but clean and cozy. I really enjoyed walking along the Seine river and enjoying the city’s views from the river banks.
It’s possible to explore the city on foot, but since the area is vast and the attractions are spread out, it’s worth considering using a bike, Uber, electric scooter, or tour bus if you want to spare your feet!
Walking / shopping / eating along the famous Champs-Élysées is another fun way to spend an afternoon (and deplete your credit card!) At the end of the Champes is the Arc de Triomphe, which was built to commemorate Napoleon’s victories. It offers spectacular views over the city from the top — along with a small museum just before reaching the observation platform.
Nearby is the Champs-Élysées Garden (dating back to 1667), which is a great place to relax — especially in the spring when the flowers are in bloom. Another nearby noteworthy spot is the Place de la Concorde where public displays and former executions took place during the reign of terror. It features an Egyptian obelisk among other monuments.
Just outside of Paris is the Palace of Versailles (and its extensive gardens), which was the famous home of Louis XIV (the Sun King).
Sites on my list for next time include: 1) Moulin Rouge — the famous cabaret show — which I didn’t get into last time (our group was too big); 2) the Père Lachaise Cemetery, which has several noteworthy tombs, including Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde; and finally, 3) the Paris Catacombs — an extensive underground crypt.
Pro Tip: The lines for many top attractions can be astronomically long — it’s best to buy tickets in advance online with your phone whenever possible.
Mont Saint-Michel is an historical and geographical curiosity about one kilometre off the northwestern coast of France. It is sometimes an island and other times connected to the main land, depending on the tide. Its origins date back at least as early as the Romans, who used it in the 5th – 7th centuries as a armory. It changed hands several times over the years. In the 11th Century, the central abbey was constructed and the town developed around it over the years.
Even when the tide is low, the residual mud is not conducive for a walk out to the island. Your hotel will be able to provide the details for when high and low tide will be — in case you’d like to take photos or arrive at a certain time. Fortunately, there is a causeway connecting it to the mainland, which is serviced by buses throughout the day — transporting the over three million visitors that come here each year. As it’s not possible to drive onto the island, visitors park at a massive lot on the mainland and wait in a line to board one of the buses. (Note — arrive early, as the crowds and lines quickly become unbearable… especially during high season!) The bus drops everyone off on the causeway about a half kilometer from the entrance to island.
After passing through the drawbridge (entering the town), the roads wind their way up to the cathedral on top, with several shops and cafes along the way. Breaking off the beaten path, I enjoyed wandering through the narrow alleyways and taking photos of the surrounding area.
The Mont Saint-Michael abbey is well-preserved offers tours, as well as great views over the sea and coast.
We stayed at the town of Pontorson on the mainland, since the hotel options on the Mont itself are pretty limited. Pontorson is a quint town and we ate at Le Relais Gascon, a cozy bar/restaurant that filled up quickly throughout the evening. Our waitress was helpful and friendly, recommending a wonderful sausage with aligot, a tasty blend of cheese and potatoes that has a unique consistency.
Not far from Mont Saint-Michel are the famous beaches of Normandy, where the 1944 D-Day landing and Invasion of Normandy took place during World War II. The nearby American Cemetery is 172 acres and has graves of 9,388 soldiers killed in the battle. It is a very sobering experience.
There are several museums in the surrounding area featuring exhibits and videos that recount the battle, along with tanks and other equipment salvaged from the beaches.
Rouen is a picturesque city, famed for where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. There’s a large cross and a modern church marking the place where it happened, as well as a small market nearby with a surprisingly wide variety of fresh produce, cheese, and seafood. The Neufchatel cheese is famous in this area, and is definitely worth a try!
Rouen’s Old City has plenty of traditional timber-and-beam buildings with cobblestone streets and cafes. Modern shops and businesses blend seamlessly with the traditional downtown area, so it doesn’t feel overly touristy. The main cathedral is massive and features ornate Gothic architecture — don’t miss it! The city also hosts a large, fancy 14th century astrological clock.
Strasbourg (Alsace) and Burgundy
Strasbourg is at the heart of the Alsace region and is situated on France’s eastern border with Germany. As a result, it has a bit of a Germanic feel to it. The new city hosts the European Parliament, while the old city is postcard-perfect, with Kléber Square and Aubette at its heart. The city has an Alsatian Museum, as well as many traditional wooden-beam buildings, and several decorative bridges, such as the Barrage Vauban. Strasbourg is also famous for goose-liver pate… for those who enjoy that dish.
The Burgundy region is a perfect spot for a relaxing getaway, apart from the throngs of tourists. It produces some excellent wines (especially whites) and strong, flavorful mustard. Mrs. Yakpacker and I stayed at a small B&B, Le Moulin des Templiers, tucked in the woods along a stream. Breakfast was served in an old stone kitchen, and there were a few chairs outside to enjoy coffee by the river. It made for a wonderful autumn retreat. They also make / sell their own wine : )
Avallon is a scenic town dating back to the middle ages, with Roman influences. The nearby town of Vézelay is situated on a hilltop with plenty of ancient stone houses and traditional architecture. Noteworthy is the 12th-century abbey that sits at the top of town, as well as a small museum on the other end of town. There are several artisan markets selling local jams, strong mustard, wines, and juices. SY-Les Glycines is the place to stay here (it books up well in advance) and is a good base for exploring the region. There are many cozy restaurants in town, as well, featuring views over the sprawling vineyards and fields below.
On the way back, we stopped at Fontenay Abbey, which was founded in 1118, with traditional stonework and beautiful, sprawling grounds.
Something for Next Time: Next time, I’d really like to explore the Alsace region further (beyond Strasbourg), as well as Dijon— the Burgundian capital. I also hope to soon visit the medieval city of Angers and tour the Loire Valley.