This is a stunning road trip itinerary that takes you off the beaten track for 7 days in Northern France, visiting over a dozen towns and villages. It features historic Gothic cathedrals, royal palaces and castles (châteaux), Champagne caves, and preserved battle trenches from World War I (and lots of French wine and pastries!). It could be considered a tour of French Gothic cathedrals.
This trip itinerary is designed around a flight to and from the Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle airport (CDG). Plan ahead and book a car rental for pickup at the airport (or take the train into Paris and get a car there if it’s cheaper). Make sure you have (or rent) a GPS or ensure you can use your phone for Google Maps. If you drive manual transmission, car rentals in Europe are inexpensive compared to North America. You’ll also encounter toll roads, but the tolls are relatively inexpensive and offer time-saving routes (and nicer roads).
This itinerary also pairs very well with a few days in Paris, particularly at the beginning of the trip.
Day 1 – Chartres
Chartres, 90 km southwest of Paris, is best known for its Gothic cathedral, but the hilltop town also offers lovely views of the surrounding area.
The Chartres Cathedral was built between 1194 and 1220; the site has housed at least 5 cathedrals since the 4th century. The cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and widely regarded as French Gothic masterpiece. Remarkably well preserved with only minor changes since its construction, it still contains some of the original stained glass windows. The floor of the nave is dominated by a labyrinth that pilgrims follow in prayer.
For unique accommodations in Chartres, consider the Hôtellerie Saint-Yves, a 17th century priory turned convent, turned hotel. While the rooms are quite basic, they offer great views of either the old town of Chartres or the cathedral. And the price is unbeatable.
Day 2 – Fontainebleau, Soissons and Chateau de Fère
Just under a 2 hour drive east from Chartres is the town of Fontainebleau. The area is noted for the forest of Fontainebleau, a 250 km2 deciduous forest that is a popular getaway for Parisian, and the Château de Fontainebleau (Palace of Fontainebleau), one of the largest royal châteaux.
The Château de Fontainebleau was the residence of the kings of France from Louis VII to Napoleon III. The earliest records date Fontainebleau to 1137 (these Medieval parts still visible today), and it was modified and expanded through the Renaissance (this puts it well before the Château de Versailles). The courtyard features a unique horseshoe-shaped staircase. There’s a large formal garden that’s worth visiting, but the real attraction of Fontainebleau are the opulent Grand Apartments. The tour of the interior includes access to ballrooms, the royal bed chambers, the boudoir created for Marie-Antoinette, and Napoleon’s throne room (formerly the King’s bedroom).
A couple hours northwest is the town of Soissons, which cannot be missed. The Soissons Cathedral, officially Saint-Gervais and Saint-Protais Cathedral, is a Gothic cathedral built between 1177 and 1479. The single western tower copies the towers of the contemporaneous Notre Dame de Paris, and is the same height. The other tower was planned, but never built. The cathedral was severely damaged during World War I, and while areas have been restored, shrapnel damage is clearly visible along the front facade.
Also in Soissons are the ruins of the Abbey of Saint-Jean des Vignes. Originally built in the 12th century, only the front facade remains. Beautifully ornate, the missing doors and windows give it an unusual appearance. It’s possible to walk through to the other side.
If your budget can support a splurge, stay just a night at the Château de Fère luxury hotel, less than 30 minutes from Soissons. The accommodations are in a modern castle dating to 1863 and first converted into a hotel in 1956. But the unique draw of the hotel are the ruins of the original fortress, dating to the early 13th century, surrounded by a dry moat and accessed by an arch bridge from the Renaissance.
Day 3 – Reims and Champagne
We’re now just a stone’s throw away from Reims and the Champagne region of France.
The Our Lady of Reims Cathedral is a High Gothic cathedral whose construction started in 1211 (completion dates vary based how its defined). It is the location of the coronation of the kings of France. It was heavily damaged during World War I, to the point of catching fire and melting lead from the roof which poured through the gargoyles. It has since been restored. Do not pass up the Towers of Reims Cathedral tour, which takes you into the towers, into the roof structure, and onto the roof.
While in Reims, the Abbey of Saint-Remi is also worth a visit.
Of course, no trip to the Champagne region is complete without a visit to a Champagne house and a tour of their underground chalk wine caves. Many of the most famous houses are located in Reims, while others are in Épernay or other small communes in the area. Reims includes Veuve Clicquot, Louis Roederer (of Cristal fame), Taittinger, Krug and Mumm, among others. Located in Épernay are Moët & Chandon and Pol Roger. We wanted to visit Veuve Clicquot, but their tours were entirely booked, so we visited Taittinger, and very much enjoyed it. If you’re hoping to visit your favourite Champagne house, be sure to book well in advance.
Day 4 – Laon, Noyon, Compiègne and Pierrefonds
This day covers 4 towns west of Reims and north of Paris. But total driving for the day is only about 2 hours.
The city of Laon, standing a hundred meters above the countryside, has always been a strategically important area, and was fortified by the Romans. The Laon Cathedral, dating from the 12th and 13th centuries (like Notre-Dame de Paris), is an important example of early Gothic architecture, as one of the most elaborate and best-preserved. The deeply recessed portals are rather unique.
About an hour away is Noyon, with an interesting cathedral of its own. The Noyon Cathedral, built between 1145 and 1234, is an example of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture.
The Noyon Cathedral’s Chapter Library, built around 1506-1507, is a very rare example of an original wood building in northern France. Check out the exterior, since interior visits are strictly controlled to preserve the building.
Only 30 minutes away is Compiègne, featuring both a royal castle and a significant World War I memorial.
The Château de Compiègne is a royal residence built for Louis XV and restored by Napoleon. It was one of 3 seats of royal government, along with Fontainebleau from a few days ago, and Versailles. With the nearby Compiègne forest for hunting, the area had long been the preferred summer residence of the kings, and royal residences had existed in the area since 1374. The Château de Compiègne was built between 1755 and 1788, but not deemed regal enough for Napoleon who ordered further modifications.
No visit would be complete without the Glade of the Armistice (Clairière de l’Armistice), a war memorial at the site of the railway carriage when the Armistice was signed. In 1927, the original train carriages was returned to this location as a monument. It stayed there until 1940 when Hitler returned to sign the Armistice of 22 June 1940, establishing the German occupation zone in northern and western France. The carriage was taken to Berlin as a trophy of war (where it was later destroyed). Today, a museum at the site houses a replica of the carriage.
If you’re up for a little more driving, consider driving through the town of Pierrefonds, about 15 minutes from Compiègne, just to get a glimpse of the Château de Pierrefonds. It was built between 1393 and 1407 by Louis, Duke of Orléans, the brother of the King of France. Restored during the 19th century by Napoleon III, it’s a real-life example of your picture-perfect Disney-esque castle. If you have the time, it’s possible to tour the château, but if not, it’s still worth a drive to see it, even from a distance.
Day 5 – Senlis, Chantilly, Beauvais
Another day covering 3 towns, but with little over an hour of driving between the 3.
In Senlis, we have the Senlis Cathedral, bruit between 1153 and 1191, altered and expanded in the 13th and 14th centuries, and had sections rebuilt between 1530 and 1556 following a fire. During the French Revolution, the furniture and heads of statues on the western portal were destroyed, to be replaced in the 19th century.
On our way to Beauvais, we’ll pass through Chantilly, to see the famous Château de Chantilly. An earlier mansion and castle had existed on the site centuries, but were destroyed in the French Revolution. It was entirely rebuilt between 1875 and 1882 by Henri d’Orléans, Duke of Aumale, son of the last King of France, Louis Philippe. The museum houses a large collection of antique paintings and and provides access to the castle’s reception rooms. However, even without visiting the museum, the château is worth a drive-by for the exterior alone.
The curious Beauvais Cathedral is not to be missed. Construction of the cathedral began in 1225 in the Gothic style. During construction, the planned height was increased to make it the highest-vaulted cathedral in Europe. Troubles began in 1284 when the recently completed choir collapsed; it was rebuilt with additional columns. When the central tower was completed in 1569, the Beauvais Cathedral was the tallest building in the world at 153 meters/502 feet. But it was overly ambitious and collapsed in 1573; the structure was simply too tall and the buttresses too thin. After the collapse, work essentially stopped and the cathedral remains incomplete, with only the transept, choir and apse present (no nave). Since the nave is required for structural integrity, giant wooden trusses were installed in the 1990s to keep the remaining structure from collapsing.
Day 6 – Rouen, Amiens
Day 6 includes 2 notable Gothic cathedrals: one was the tallest building in the world for a brief period of time, and the other is currently the tallest and largest church in France.
The construction of the Rouen Cathedral began in the 12th century, with sections rebuilt and expanded over the following centuries. As such, it combines elements of Early Gothic, High Gothic and Late (Flamboyant) Gothic style. The wooden Renaissance spire was destroyed by lightning in 1822, and a new taller cast-iron Neo-Gothic spire later replaced it, making the Rouen Cathedral the tallest building in the world from 1876 to 1880. The cathedral was heavily damaged from World War II bombings, and resulting fired burned hot enough to melt the church bells.
The Amiens Cathedral is the largest and tallest in France (surpassed in height only by the incomplete Beauvais Cathedral that we saw yesterday). While it has lost much of its original stained glass, the cathedral, built between 1220 and 1270, is known for the quality and quantity of Gothic sculpture on the facade.
Day 7 – Arras, Vimy, Lille
We now leave behind us our cathedrals and Gothic France, as we heard close to the Belgian border.
We’ll start by visiting the beautiful town of Arras, notable for its historic buildings in the Flemish Baroque style. The city centre has 2 large square that are both worth a visit. The larger Grand-Place d’Arras is bordered by 155 Flemish Baroque-style townhouses that will make you feel like you’ve left France. They were built in the 17th and 18th centuries, and restored after heavy damage from World War I (the front lines were only 10 km away). The nearby smaller (but just as stunning) Place des Héros is lined with Flemish Baroque townhouses on 3 sides. The northwest side features the Gothic town hall with its 75-meter belfry, originally built between 1463 and 1554, but completely destroyed in 1914 and later rebuilt. The belfry can be accessed for amazing views of the city.
Another unique feature of Arras is the Boves, a network of tunnels 10 meters/33 feet underground excavated starting in the 10th century. Originally the chalk was quarried as a construction material, and over time the tunnels have acted as cellars, store rooms, and even bunkers during the World Wars. The Boves tunnels can be visited during a 40 minute guided tour.
Just outside Arras is the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, a Canadian national historic site comprised of a war memorial and battlefield park. It was unveiled in 1936 and dedicated to the members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force killed during World War I, and commemorates all Canadian soldiers killed in the war. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was the first time all four divisions of the Force battled together. In 1922, France granted Canada perpetual use of 250 acres of land for the memorial and park. The battlefield park includes preserved World War I trenches and tunnels. Walking through the trenches is a sobering reminder of the realities of war. Many areas of the park are closed to the public due to buried, unexplored munitions; sheep graze the land since they’re too light to set off the munitions. The park also includes two cemeteries, the Canadian Cemetery No. 2 and the Givenchy Road Canadian Cemetery. The memorial itself, made of white limestone, is located on the highest point of Vimy ridge.
Our itinerary concludes in Lille, a large urban area (4th largest in France) in French Flanders, less than 20km from the Belgian border. The city combines beautiful architecture and delicious food with the conveniences (ie. shopping) of a modern city. Visit the main square, Place du Général de Gaulle, features the Old Stock Exchange building, built between 1652 and 1653 in a Spanish style (at the time, Flanders, including Lille, was under Spanish control). Behind the Old Stock Exchange is another small square with the Neo-Flemish Chamber of Commerce and belfry built between 1910 and 1921, and the Neoclassical opera house built between 1907 and 1913. A kilometre south is the Art Deco Town Hall and belfry, built after the previous city hall was destroyed in the war. At 104 meters tall, it’s the tallest municipal building in France.
While in Lille, forget your typical French cuisine, and opt for moules et frites (mussels and fries) with some good Belgian beer. And this was just a quick snapshot of Lille. If you have extra time, the city has much more to offer.
Have you visited these attractions or tried this itinerary for your 7 days in Northern France? Let us know what you thought in the comments!