Boulogne-sur-Mer has established itself as an essential stopover for all sailing boats heading down the Channel, or for all Belgians, Germans, English, Dutch and French sailing North. On our way from Dunkirk to Normandy, we made a first stop in Boulogne before reaching Dieppe. And we also decided to stop there on the way back. In this article, we explain why this stopover deserves more than just a night spent in the marina. There is a lot to do and discover during a weekend in Boulogne-sur-Mer!
Although the town is best known for Nausicaá, the largest aquarium in Europe, it is actually the history of the town, its heritage, and the role of the port in its development and protection over the centuries that have charmed us. And since it would be a shame to keep it a secret, here are the must-do activities for a few days in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Content of the article
- Boulogne-sur-Mer, city of art and history
- Boulogne-sur-Mer, city of the sea
- Boulogne-sur-Mer, unusual
- Our practical advice
- A look back at our stay in pictures
Boulogne-sur-Mer, city of art and history
If you’ve been following us for a while, you’ll know that we easily fall under the spell of towns and villages steeped in history, where the cobbled streets, narrow houses and old stones transport us to another era. Boulogne-sur-Mer is no exception. While the waterfront and the street along the harbour reflect the post-war reconstruction of the town, a ten-minute walk is enough to completely change the scenery and find yourself in the heart of the old fortified town.
This difference in atmosphere between the upper and lower town has existed since the beginnings of the town in the 2nd century. The lower town was then organised as a borough around the port, and the port facilities and activities gradually developed. The herring trade played an important role in the economic development of the town. From the Middle Ages onwards, a pilgrimage honoured the church of Saint Nicholas, which became the heart of the lower town.
The upper town was home to a military camp in Roman times. In the 9th century, the Counts of Boulogne gained power and took possession of the town. From the 13th century, major work was undertaken to rebuild the town’s fortifications along the original lines of the city walls, as well as to build the fortress, which served various functions over the centuries.
Until the 19th century, the face of the town changed very little, even though Boulogne-sur-Mer was developing more and more. The construction of the railway station in 1848 was probably a pivotal event that enabled the town to become a renowned seaside resort. In addition to being the leading French fishing port, Boulogne’s economy took off thanks to sea bathing tourism.
The history of Boulogne-sur-Mer is also closely linked to the one of England due to its geographical position. The cross-Channel trade from the feudal period onwards and the numerous territorial conflicts are obviously not unrelated to this. Eustace II, Count of Boulogne, allied himself with William the Conqueror and took part in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, for which he is depicted on the Bayeux tapestry. Henry VIII and François I decided that Boulogne would be French when they signed the Treaty of Ardres in 1546, but it was not until 4 years later and the signing of a new treaty that the English governor handed over the keys of the town to France. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte established a military camp in Boulogne-sur-Mer with 150,000 soldiers with the aim of conquering England.
All these examples show that the city’s history is rich in twists and turns and deserves to be studied when spending a weekend in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Stroll through the old fortified city and visit the museum
The medieval ramparts of Boulogne-sur-Mer
For the lovers of old stones and cobbled streets that we are, a walk in the old town was a must. We therefore headed for the heights of the town. But before wandering in the heart of medieval Boulogne, we took the ramparts walk that offers a unique view of the upper and lower town, the parks and gardens at the foot of the fortifications, but also the sea and the surrounding countryside. As you can imagine, this is the ideal way to start your discovery of the city.
Once we have completed the tour of the ramparts, we venture into the cobbled streets which seem to have changed little since the Middle Ages and head for the castle.
The castle-museum of Boulogne-sur-Mer
Built in the 13th century, it first played a strategic role in the many territorial wars between England and France. It was then abandoned from the 16th century onwards as various treaties established clear and defined boundaries and territories. In the 18th century, major modifications were made to the architecture of the site in order to transform the castle into a barracks. However, the Second World War gave the castle a new vocation: from 1944, and for 30 years, it was used as a prison to compensate for the destruction of the original prison.
In 1974, the castle was transferred from state ownership to municipal ownership. After extensive renovations, the town museum was opened in 1988.
The museum houses a most surprising collection. In the course of the exhibition rooms, one passes in turn through Greek ceramics, Egyptian collections, paintings and sculptures by well-known artists, but also rare objects brought back from Africa, Alaska or even Oceania. Each room has its own atmosphere, oscillating between art and archaeology. All of which will appeal to visitors and set the pace for a pleasant visit.
This heterogeneous collection of objects from the four corners of the world is explained by the geographical location of Boulogne-sur-Mer. Many travel and history enthusiasts from the Boulogne area have donated their personal collections after having explored certain parts of the world or after their death, making the opening of this museum possible.
Apart from this diversity in the collections, there were two other things we particularly enjoyed during our visit. The first was that we discovered the interior of the castle throughout the exhibition. We love to imagine what life was like in the past, and the museum has chosen to preserve structural elements of the castle visible in some of the collection rooms. The place is really enhanced. Secondly, a point of honour has been placed on making the visit to the museum accessible to the youngest visitors, thanks to comments or playful riddles placed at children’s height. We have visited many museums, and this aspect is often neglected. It is therefore worth emphasising.
The old town of Boulogne-sur-Mer
While the castle is the main feature of the medieval town, we recommend that you spend some time wandering through the heart of the upper (and old) town during your weekend in Boulogne-sur-Mer. As you know, we can’t resist the charm of cobbled streets, narrow houses and old stones, and Boulogne is no exception.
We did not follow a specific itinerary and simply wandered from one street to another. But if you only have a little time, we advise you to at least explore the rue de Lille (translating as Lille Street). Why this street? Because you can see many traces of the city’s history there. For example:
Because yes, the rue de Lille leads straight to the Notre-Dame Basilica of Boulogne-sur-Mer, our next stop!
Visit an almost secret place, the crypt of Notre-Dame
The Notre-Dame Basilica was built in the 19th century on the ruins of the medieval cathedral by an amateur architect who was also the abbot. With its 100-meters high dome, Abbot Haffreingue’s ambition was for the cathedral to be visible from England in order to establish the supremacy of Catholicism over Anglicanism. If the feat of managing to erect such a monument while being self-taught is quite crazy, it is actually not the craziest thing. Because what interests us is actually underneath the basilica.
Most churches have crypts, often called “treasuries”. And most of the crypts we saw left us wanting more. Most of them are expensive and we stopped visiting them. So when the crypt of the Notre-Dame Basilica of Boulogne-sur-Mer was presented to us as being exceptional, we thought “Let’s go and see for ourselves”.
And the least we can say is that we were not disappointed! The crypt is certainly not free (full price: 5€ for a self-guided tour), but don’t stop at that or even at the entrance of the crypt which doesn’t give any indication of the visit. In our opinion, it is a must-see when spending a weekend in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
The crypt is simply immense, larger than the Notre-Dame Basilica itself. With its 1400 m2, it is the largest in France. At the time of our visit, and because of the COVID standards applicable at the time, only one traffic direction was possible. But otherwise, it is a real underground labyrinth in which it is quite possible to get lost without seeing the time pass.
In the Middle Ages, the Romanesque crypt was an important place of pilgrimage. Buried and forgotten for several centuries, it was rediscovered during the construction of the basilica in 1827. Considerably enlarged at the time, Abbot Haffreingue wanted to turn it into an educational site dedicated to the history of Catholicism.
The crypt was completely restored between 2010 and 2015 and turned into an archaeological museum. It contains remains of the former church, which was destroyed in the 18th century, and sacred objects from the surrounding parishes.
But the craziest thing is that the walls of each room in the crypt are covered with frescoes from floor to ceiling! You have to see it to believe it, it’s so indescribable.
Allow a good hour for the visit if you like to stroll around and not run out of time. As mentioned above, the crypt is a real labyrinth, but the way the works are arranged and presented is really great.
You will have understood, we loved it and we can only recommend you to explore this place that even some local people do not know.
A nature getaway at Hardelot Castle
The city is nice, but you know we also like to get lost in the surrounding countryside. When we heard about Hardelot Castle, we didn’t hesitate to go there. Hardelot Castle and its gardens are nestled in the middle of the regional nature reserve of the Condette marsh. I might as well tell you straight away, it’s a haven of greenery and there’s plenty of opportunities to go for nice walks in the area.
Long before it became the castle we know today, this land was a marshy site where wooden fortifications were built. In the 13th century, the Count of Boulogne, having built the fortified castle of Boulogne-sur-Mer, commissioned the same architect to build a copy of it in place of the existing fortifications.
It is hard to believe that these two castles, separated by about ten kilometres, were once almost twins. But Hardelot Castle did not retain its defensive function for long. Heavily damaged during the Wars of Religion, it quickly became a hunting estate and then a farm. In the 19th century, English owners rebuilt a Tudor-style manor house on the ruins of the medieval castle, which is how the castle still looks like today.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Hardelot Castle has been the symbol of the entente cordiale between France and England, thanks in particular to John Robinson Whitley, co-founder of Le Touquet Paris Plage. When he became the owner of the site, his ambition was to create a new seaside resort to welcome the British and French aristocracy. In the 1980s, the commune of Condette bought the castle and entrusted its management to the department.
Today, the castle can be visited. Each room has been designed and furnished to tell the Franco-British story. What we particularly liked was the very 19th century decor recreated in each of the rooms. Even if the layout (and sometimes the structure) of the rooms has nothing to do with the one created by its occupants at the time, it really gives the illusion of a moment out of time. The only room that has been reconstructed almost identically is the billiard room.
Just like the castle, the gardens can be visited but they are free. And if you have the chance to walk around the gardens at the same time as François, the gardener, do not hesitate to talk to this enthusiast. He will explain that he uses the medieval structure of the gardens in which the moat has been dug up so that a balanced ecosystem can develop with the least possible human intervention. He will talk about the workshops and educational activities he regularly organises to raise awareness of the benefits and dangers of plants or to create a shared naturalist and ecological garden, i.e. one that requires little maintenance and promotes biodiversity. It will make you want to start gardening even if you don’t have a green thumb at all. As you can see, we particularly enjoyed talking to him, and even the pouring rain didn’t manage to interrupt us.
Boulogne-sur-Mer, city of the sea
You certainly have noticed that the history of Boulogne-sur-Mer is closely linked to its position as a seaside town. It is also clear that the town developed around fishing and, later, tourism, given the bustle in the port and on the seafront.
We have visited Boulogne-sur-Mer several times. And each visit reveals something new. The lower town is probably the place we have explored the least so far. And what a mistake! The marine heritage is rich, and several emblematic places allow us to immerse ourselves in the daily life of the men and women who contribute to the port activity of the city.
If you want to discover this side of the city during your weekend in Boulogne-sur-Mer, we have some gems to recommend!
Discover a typical sailor's house in 1900, the “Maison de la Beurière”
If we say “Maison de la Beurière“, chances are that it won’t tempt you more than that. And yet, we completely fell for it! If you don’t visit it, you will miss an important part of the history of the men and women of the city. And you will miss an opportunity to meet Jean-Pierre Ramet, a real encyclopaedia of Boulogne-sur-Mer and its surroundings. No, we are not exaggerating. He could certainly write a book (or a Wikipedia entry) on the port, heritage and folklore of Boulogne, as he knows every single detail of it! And, of course, we spent hours listening to him.
But let’s get back to the Maison de la Beurière. It is located in the old sailors’ neighborhood where a third of the population of Boulogne-sur-Mer lived in the 19th century. At that time, five staircase streets followed one another, but only the rue du Mâchicoulis (translating as Machicolation Street) has retained its original appearance. And it is in this very street that the Maison de la Beurière was built in 1870. For that reason alone (okay, and also for the name of the street, which we love), you must go there.
The Maison de la Beurière was spared by the bombings during the Second World War, and today allows us to discover the typical house of a Boulogne sailor family in 1900. At that time, each member of the family was actively involved in the port activity. From the age of 10, the sons were taken out fishing with their father, and the daughters worked in the Capécure district or as maids in town. The museum is tiny, as one must imagine that a sailor’s house was not very luxurious. And if the place seems a bit cramped today, it takes on a whole new dimension when you realise that up to 3 families, i.e. 17 people in total, could occupy it.
Visiting the Maison de la Beurière is like taking a trip back in time. When we crossed the doorstep, we literally had the impression of being in the home of our grandparents or even our great-grandparents when we were children. Each object in this atypical museum has been hunted and collected with passion, and the result is amazing! We almost expect the hostess to come out of the kitchen wearing a floral apron. And it was with great emotion that we discovered the daily life of the sailor’s family and listened to Jean-Pierre share with us the history of each of the objects present in the different rooms of the house.
The most unusual object for us? Probably the cot in the kitchen cupboard!
We simply loved it! If you’re spending a weekend in Boulogne-sur-Mer, we highly recommend a visit.
Take a tour of the Capécure district
The Capécure district is probably the nerve centre of Boulogne-sur-Mer’s economic activity that is neglected by tourists. However, it is difficult to really understand the extent to which fishing permeates the daily life of the town without visiting it.
As you may know, Boulogne-sur-Mer is today the leading French fishing port. More concretely :
The Capécure district is precisely where all this excitement takes place. The transformation of Capécure into an industrial district dates from the reconstruction of the town after the Second World War. Previously, processing workshops and homes were located on either side of the Liane, the river running through Boulogne. However, the town’s reconstruction plan placed the houses inland and the workshops out to sea, thus defining a new demarcation in the town.
As you can imagine, the place is huge. The day is punctuated by the comings and goings of trucks and the unloading of fishing boats. An industrial zone just a stone’s throw from the city centre… and smelling fish! Quite unusual. If you spend a weekend in Boulogne-sur-Mer, we really encourage you to get lost in it to get a feel for the economic heart of the city.
Berthing at the Boulogne-sur-Mer marina
We can’t list the reasons why we like to stop over in Boulogne-sur-Mer without mentioning its marina where the welcome and services are simply top notch.
It’s probably easiest to illustrate this with an anecdote. It’s August, we’re leaving Dunkirk for Dieppe and we plan to stop in Boulogne-sur-Mer. Unfortunately, the wind is nowhere near what was forecast, and we cover 5 miles in … 4 hours. That represents an average of 2km/h. This means that by the time we were supposed to be in Calais, we were only in front of Gravelines. We’ll let you have a look at a map, but it’s really not much.
We decide to stop in Calais for the night, especially as the wind seems perfect for a Calais – Dieppe sail the next day, without stopping in Boulogne. Unfortunately, while hoisting the sail the next morning, I put my fingers between the mainsail slides and the mast. We’ll skip the details – and the pictures – but I literally have a piece of finger that goes off, and another that triples in size in a few seconds. Farewell Dieppe, we decide to stop in Boulogne-sur-Mer and visit the emergency room. It’s Sunday and … there is someone to welcome us and get our moorings when we arrive at the pontoon. As a note, out of our two months sailing last summer, Boulogne-sur-Mer is the only port with Dieppe where there was someone on the pontoon when we arrived.
On Sundays, everything is obviously closed. Gaëlle, who had gone to the harbour office to check out the area, came back and told me that the person who had welcomed her had no idea about the pharmacies on duty, but his wife being a pharmacist herself, he didn’t hesitate to call her to get the famous list of open pharmacies!
The next day, Gaëlle returns to the harbour office to extend our stay here. And the Boulogne harbour team immediately takes news of me. As you can see, we love Caroline Bruchet’s team (harbour master) composed of Yohann, Alexandre, Brigitte and Hélène.
One of the particularities of the marina of Boulogne-sur-Mer is its willingness to work closely with the town and its local shops. For example, it offers sailors discounts with many nearby retailers. But the example we prefer is a service offered to sailors that seems indispensable to us but that we have not encountered in any other port between Dunkirk and Granville: in July and August, Fred’s bakery is present on the pontoons between 6.30 and 10.30 am with fresh bread, pastries, cookies, muffins, and other sweets, as well as hot drinks. Of course, it’s impossible to resist: we had breakfast there almost every morning, and we added some cookies and biscuits to nibble on while sailing on the day of departure to Dieppe. It’s the cherry on the cake for us!
As for the port itself, the pontoons are brand new, so there is nothing to complain about. We always found the sanitary facilities clean. There are also the classic washing machines and dryers.
Boulogne-sur-Mer, even more off the beaten track
As you can see, Boulogne-sur-Mer has a thousand faces and never ceases to surprise us. If you want to discover the city or part of its heritage in an even more unusual way, here are our top 3!
This article is the result of a collaboration with the Boulonnais Côte d’Opale Tourist Information Centre.
Its content is based on our personal experience and we remain totally free in our comments and recommendations.
Visiting Boulogne-sur-Mer: Practical advice
How long should one stay in Boulogne-sur-Mer?
Some will say that one day is more than enough. But given the richness of the heritage and history, we recommend that you spend at least a weekend, and at best a few days, discovering Boulogne-sur-Mer.
How to get to Boulogne-sur-Mer?
- From Lille: Boulogne is 120 km away, a 1.5 hour drive
- From Paris: allow less than 3 hours to cover the 300 km to Boulogne
- From Brussels: it will take you about 2h30 to reach Boulogne after 230 km
There are free car parks in different areas of the city. Find out more about parking options in Boulogne-sur-Mer here.
There are two stations in Boulogne-sur-Mer, one dedicated to TER links in the Hauts-de-France, and the other hosting TGV and TER lines. The town is therefore very easily accessible by public transport. For more information on train timetables and fares to spend a weekend in Boulogne-sur-Mer, consult the SNCF.
The marina of Boulogne-sur-Mer is located less than 35 NM from Dunkirk, a little less than 45 NM from Ramsgate – UK, and slightly more than 50 NM from Dieppe. This makes it an easy stopover for all sailing boats heading down the Channel, or for all Belgians, Germans, Dutch and French heading back North.
If this is your first stopover in Boulogne-sur-Mer, be vigilant in the channel and scrupulously respect the buoy markings. You don’t want to be on the list of boats that run aground every year when entering or leaving the port simply because they haven’t checked their nautical chart…
Where to stay in Boulogne-sur-Mer?
We visited Boulogne-sur-Mer several times before we stopped there with Kerguelen, so here are some places we recommend:
- Metropole Centre Ville (from 69€/night): If you want to stay in the centre of Boulogne sur Mer, I can only recommend the Metropole. I stayed there a few years ago and in addition to having a very central location, the rooms are really good and modern.
Where to berth your motorboat or sailboat in Boulogne-sur-Mer?
If you are planning to come on board your boat, you can find here the daily rates in high and low season according to the length of your boat. We advise you to call the harbour office on channel 9 when you arrive in the channel so that the harbour staff can guide you to an available visitor berth and welcome you on the pontoon.
Where to eat in Boulogne-sur-Mer?
Although we cook and eat almost every meal “at home” when travelling on board Kerguelen, we couldn’t resist some of the addresses in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
- Le Cyrano and its generous and tasty 100% home-made dishes. Since 2003, Jérôme and his wife have been delighting their customers. If you like family dishes, eating in a relaxed atmosphere, and finishing with an imposing but light dessert, this is definitely an address not to miss. The 16€ starter-main course-dessert menu will delight even the biggest appetites. ( 9 Rue Coquelin, Boulogne-sur-Mer)
- Le Restaurant de la Haute Ville, nestled in the heart of the old town. The chef offers a selection of brasserie dishes based on meat, fish or seafood. The presentation of the food is delicate and the flavours are just great. ( 60 Rue de Lille, Boulogne-sur-Mer)
- Le Doyen, an address we didn’t test yet but that we will. In a rustic setting, you will eat traditional French bistro cuisine, where the dishes are home-made and reasonably priced. Everything we like! Bonus: this is one of the marina’s partner restaurants. ( 11 Rue du Doyen, Boulogne-sur-Mer)
Visiter Boulogne-sur-Mer : Retour en images avec nos stories
Plongez-vous dans notre week-end à Boulogne-sur-Mer