Paris may always be a good idea, but families can’t go wrong exploring the French countryside as well. While charming medieval towns, many of which are UNESCO sites, dot the map across France, travelers will find plenty to choose from within reasonable driving distance from the capital city. Rent a car and plan to spend 2-3 days exploring the following small to medium-sized medieval cities in Northern France:
Start in Rouen, the mid-sized city of Joan of Arc and Monet…how much more French can you get? Rouen is the center of Normandy, and an easy drive up the A13 from Paris. Best known for its English medieval history, William the Conqueror had a significant presence here, as did Richard the Lionhearted. During the Hundred Years War, Joan of Arc was tried and put to death by French churchmen in English-ruled Rouen in 1431.
Families with older kids interested in this history should make the new Historial Jeanne d’Arc museum, next to the cathedral, a first stop (it opened in 2015). Next, tour several of the many great religious buildings in Rouen…it’s not called the ‘city of a hundred spires’ for nothing. Learn more about Monet’s Cathedral Series at the Musee des Beaux-Arts-Rouen, a stop worthy of at least a few hours. The historic quarter is where you’ll want to stay for the many shops and restaurants as well.
Beyond Rouen to the north, Étretat is a coastal town in Upper Normandy with charm to match its natural splendor. Visitors can walk through the narrow, picturesque roads and arrive at dramatic oceanside cliffs and natural arches…always a surprise. Definitely take time to tour the Notre Dame de la Garde cathedral overlooking the water, and take a hike along the Alabaster Coast. Save space in your itinerary to sample the local mussels, too!
If you’re planning to tour Normandy WWII history and D-Day beaches with older kids during your trip through Northern France, Étretat makes for a scenic and relaxing ‘holiday’ location afterward, to soothe the soul, so to speak.
Montreuil sur Mer:
Next, head north up the French coast to Montreuil, a small town south of Boulogne sur Mer. Why visit? Montreuil is one of France’s still-preserved walled towns, fully encircled by three kilometers of ramparts dating from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century. Start by walking round the ramparts, starting at the Citadel, the massive fortification to deter invaders (successful for many centuries). Keep in mind that while Montreuil was once a seaside town, it’s now about 15 kilometers inland (thanks to shifting coastal waters).
Part of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables was set in Montreuil, a fact the town definitely tries to capitalize on (as would I!). History is woven into all parts of the small but quaint downtown area, but visitors just sort of feel it, instead of being force-fed it. There are not major museums to visit…rather, everywhere you turn is historically significant, old, and understated.
All three towns on this itinerary can be toured within just a few days, giving your family a nice break from city life in Paris. En route from town to town, you’ll definitely see quintessential Normandy: hedgerows, cows, stone chapels, and thatched roof homes winding around narrow streets. Enjoy!
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This post was written in partnership with Alamo Europe.