For many years the French seaside town and port of Boulogne-sur-Mer has been a favourite with the British - Charles Dickens describing it as ‘my French watering hole’ - thanks to long-standing ferry links to the ports of southern England. Today the direct ferry link may be severed, but Boulogne is still a popular destination for Brits wanting a taste of France without having to travel too far from home.
History of Boulogne
Although today the traffic between Britain and Boulogne may mainly consist of tourists heading across the Channel for a relaxing French getaway, in centuries gone by the town has been seen a key base from which to launch attacks on Albion from the continent. The Romans set out from the beaches in and around Boulogne while both Napoleon and Hitler also considered launching invasions from this stretch of shoreline that, ultimately, were not to be.
Boulogne was part of the coastal region of Northern France long fought over by England and France, and on a number of occasions the English occupied the town. There are even royal ties to the town because it was here in 1308 that King Edward II was married to Isabella of France.
Undoubtedly the most important strand to the story of Boulogne is the sea, and the fishing industry that remains to this day central to the town’s economy and the livelihood of its people. Boulogne is France’s largest fishing port and a huge fish market is held on the quai Gambetta.
Five things to do in Boulogne
So you are ready to start exploring this pretty seaside town. But what are the ‘must see’ attractions that should be on every visitor’s itinerary? Here are five suggestions of things to do during your visit to Boulogne - and a map to help you find your way around.
Place de la Résistance
A visit to the Place de la Résistance, located in the heart of the upper town close to Notre-Dame, is a great opportunity to admire some of the historic architecture of Boulogne. Perhaps most prominent is the belfry which was once the keep of a medieval castle and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Alongside the belfry is the town hall, which was completed in 1735 and is the only building in the old town to be built using bricks. Other sites in the Place de la Résistance include the Palais de Justice and the town’s main library, housed in a former nunnery.
Place de la Résistance, 62200 Boulogne-sur-Mer
This impressive aquarium is a wonderful place to learn about the seas, man’s relationship with them and the creatures that call them home. Situated in a former casino, the national sea centre aims to help raise public awareness on ocean-related issues.
Among the animals you can see at Nausicaa are the Californian sea lion - viewed from new covered terraces - the African penguin and the giant octopus. Exhibitions, expert presentation and films also help to bring the world of the oceans to life before your eyes.
Boulevard Sainte Beuve, 62203 Boulogne-sur-Mer. Telephone: 03 21 30 98 98
Maison de la Beuriere
For an insight into the lives of the fishermen of Boulogne, a visit to Maison de la Beuriere is a must. The house has been converted into a museum which exhibits furniture, costumes and other items which bring the often harsh existence of the town’s fishermen to life.
16 rue du Machicolation, 62200 Boulogne-sur-Mer. Telephone: 03 21 30 14 52
Basilica of Notre-Dame de Boulogne
Built on the site of the town’s medieval cathedral, which was destroyed following the French revolution, the 101-metre dome of the Basilica dominates the Boulogne skyline. It was built between 1827 and 1866 under the guidance of priest and self-taught architect Benoît Haffreingue who said he was called upon by God to rebuilt the church.
Architecturally inspired by the likes of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, St Peter’s in Rome and Les Invalides in Paris, the church sits atop the second largest crypt in France, which houses a chapel where the body of José de San Martín, who led the liberation of South America from Spanish colonial rule, was buried between his death in 1850 and his body’s return to Buenos Aires in 1861.
Rue de Lille, 62200 Boulogne-sur-Mer. Telephone: 03 21 99 75 98
On Wednesday and Saturday mornings local traders flock to Place Dalton in the heart of Boulogne to sell their produce to the people of the town. Visitors can enjoy the buzz of market day, practice a little French and maybe pick up a bargain or two from the many stalls. But it is worth getting there early because the market begins to wind down around 11.30am, at which point the bars and cafes of the square are a welcoming retreat for a spot of lunch and something to drink.
Place Dalton, 6220 Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Getting to Boulogne is easy if you hop on the MyFerryLink ferry to France as the town is only around 30 minutes by car from the port at Calais if you take the A16 motorway. If you have a bit more time to spare, then the coastal drive from Calais to Boulogne offers the chance to take in some beautiful views of the sea and countryside, as well as the opportunity to stop off in pretty towns and villages along the way.
MyFerryLink offers up to 16 sailing between Dover and Calais every day and you can book your crossing from £30 one way by visiting our booking page on the website or by calling 0844 2482 100.
You can find out more about everything that the town has to offer on the Boulogne-sur-Mer tourism website.