This year, there just seems to be no end to the rainy weather in Belgium. But how much we want to take a fall break, nor our budget nor our remaining vacation days are sufficient for chasing the sun. Luckily, there are many destinations close to home that are still waiting to be explored. At only 1.5 hour driving from Ostend (and 2.5 hours from Brussels), Boulogne-sur-Mer is the perfect location for our next weekend getaway. This vivid seaside town is located in Northern France, in the department of Pas-de-Calais. It has a large fishing port and a fascinating old town and is therefore a popular tourist spot at the Opal Coast.
Take a walk on the ramparts
Boulogne-sur-Mer has a rich history, dating back to the Roman era. In the old – and perhaps the most beautiful – part of the city, you can take a walk along the medieval remparts. This walking route, referred to as the ‘Promenade Charles Dickens’, takes you to to most important historical monuments such as the belfry and the 13th-century castle (which is now a museum). The reference to the English writer Charles Dickens is not coincidental, by the way. Dickens spent several summers in Boulogne-sur-Mer and was happy to be inspired during his walks in the ‘upper town’.
Visit the basilica and its underground chambers
Not to be missed during a city walk through Boulogne-sur-Mer is a visit to the Basilica of Our Lady. The basilica is 101 meters (!) high and has a huge dome. A giant building, rising high above the old city. But if you already think this is impressive, you haven’t seen the underground crypt yet. The crypt of the Basilica of Our Lady is one of the largest in France. It consists of a huge maze of underground chambers and houses special murals and lots of sacred objects. The atmosphere is quite mysterious down there, which makes me think of the story of the Da Vinci Code. Definitely worth a visit!
The crypt is also accessible for wheelchair users and families with a stroller. Tip: you can visit the crypt every first Sunday of the month at a reduced rate. Click here to check out the opening hours and other, important information.
Dive into a magical underwater world in Europe’s largest aquarium
At the outskirts of town, a large building pops up just by the seaside. It turns out to be Nausicaá, the National Centre of the Sea housing 58 000 fish and other marine animals. Make sure to take enough time to visit Nausicaá, as it is a true underwater paradise, with lot of things to see and do.
Visitors get a unique insight in the oceans biodiversity by walking through the 18-meter-long underwater tunnel and by navigating through the many exposition rooms with large, glass windows. Although the sharks are quite impressive, it is the giant manta ray that draws the attention. Say hi to Charle! Smaller in size, but just as fun to watch are the clownfish, seahorses and luminous jellyfish. Nausicaá is not only a popular tourist attraction in Boulogne-sur-Mer, providing families a nice day out. In the first place, it’s a scientific research center and an educational platform. Special attention is paid to global warming and the impact on the marine environment.
If the weather permits, you can take a walk on the beach or the seaside boulevard, located right next to Nausicaá. In the summer months, this probably is a vibrant place, with lots of tourists and water sports enthusiasts. But now in November, the beach area of Boulogne-sur-Mer rather looks deserted. Some severe autumn storms have passed by just a few days ago and people are still cautious.
Where to stay in Boulogne-sur-Mer
We spend the night in the Ibis Styles hotel ‘Centre Cathedrale’, which is located near one of the old city gates. The perfect location for a short city trip, because you can go to the historical city center by foot in just 5 minutes. The hotel has 50 compact rooms, with most of them offering a beautiful view of the basilica. For a refreshing drink or a hot chocolate you can go to the bar on the ground floor – the eye-catcher of this Ibis Styles hotel. In the morning, the breakfast buffet is also served in this room. Good to know: right in front of the hotel, there is free parking and a charging station for electric cars.
Where to eat and drink in Boulogne-sur-Mer
There are various dining options in Boulogne-sur-Mer: from classic French bistros to smaller, no-nonsense food bars. For the best burger experience in town, you should go to ‘Papi Henri‘, where even the saints admire the comfort food that is served. If you rather want to eat fish while spending your holidays at the coast, you can go to one of the fish restaurants near the harbor. In ‘Le Chatillon‘, for example, you can eat together with the sailors and dock workers. Every day since 1950, fresh meals are served here with products straight from the sea.