From Normandy to Picardy and everywhere in between, the small, quaint towns of northern France are ample and enchanting. Some are nestled against the seaside, some stretch out along the iconic Seine. Whichever you choose (and it will be difficult to decide), you’ll have no shortage of museums and churches to explore, no limit to the open-air markets and parks to stroll through.
Below, we’ve highlighted some of the most charming towns that should make your itinerary. If you’re in it for the history, you’re in luck. Nature lover? This is the trip for you. Foodie? These towns have you covered. Pack a good pair of reliable walking shoes, light layers, and be prepared to sample some of the regions finest local eats. Bon voyage, and bon appetit!
While this historic island commune of Normandy isn’t exactly a “town,” it should absolutely occupy a spot on your northern France itinerary. The structure sits like a vision rising from the blue waters below, and is known as one of Europe’s most awe-inspiring sites. Set upon the beautiful bay where Normandy meets Brittany, this island is home to an ethereal medieval monastery that was built beginning in 966, with continuing monastic structures and abbeys added over the years. The steep village street at the monastery’s base houses restaurants, hotels, and museums.
Split into two sides, Carnac-Ville and Carnac-Plage, this oyster farming town is marked by something rather magnificent: rows of otherworldly standing stones that draw curious travelers from around the globe. Three famed fields in this small Brittany town are home to 3,000 megalithic granite stones, dating back to 4000 BC—the reasons for their creation are unknown, but are thought to be of religious or cultural significance. Once you’ve explored the stones and visited the Museum of Prehistory in Carnac-Ville, you can head to Carnac-Plage, where you’ll discover five stretches of sandy beach, surrounded by beautiful pines and French villas.
Two major sites draw travelers to the quaint town of Paimpont in central Brittany: The Abbey of Notre-Dame, and Paimpont Forest, which was, according to legend, the home of King Arthur and the wizard Merlin. As Paimpont Forest is part of Forest of Broceliande, what remains of the ancient forest that once covered Brittany, you’ll find it’s full of ancient monuments, and plenty of lovely walking trails. You’ll find just one small commercial street with restaurants, shops, and adorable stone cottages in the town—a testament to how well preserved Paimpont history is.
With a history rooted in 10th-century Normandy (think Vikings, William the Conqueror, and Richard the Lionheart), Rouen, located right along the Seine, is a must for history-buffs visiting northern France. Victor Hugo named it “the city of a hundred spires,” as it’s full of stunning, historic church edifices, the Gros Horloge town clock, the city cathedral, and much more. You’ll surely be charmed by the many French restaurants and weekly markets—and because it’s a university town, Rouen is simply bustling with life, day and night.
The UNESCO listed gothic Amiens Cathedral is just one of many draws to this charming little town, nestled between Paris and Calais. Come to Amiens to experience the awe of historic sites like the cathedral and the 19th-century home of Jules Verne, and stay for ambling walks along the cobblestone streets and leisurely boat rides within the famous Hortillonnages floating gardens. Spend a lazy Saturday morning exploring the market gardens within the network of little canals, feasting on local specialties like sweet macarons.
One of the most celebrated cities in northern France, Lille is an art and architecture-lovers dream. Perch yourself atop the UNESCO World Heritage town hall, which offers visitors 360-degree views of the stunning 17th- to 20th-century structures below. The city is rich with history, which can be seen throughout the streets, among the eight historic monuments, the Musée d’histoire Naturelle, and the storied the Palais des Beaux-Arts (one of the largest art museums in France) where you can see works from the likes of Picasso.