A Guide to the Northern Jewels of France: 5 French Coastal Towns

A Guide to the Northern Jewels of France: 5 French Coastal Towns

Known for its picturesque landscapes, rich history and charming coastal towns, France’s northern coastline has been shaped by its maritime heritage and offers a unique blend of natural beauty and cultural attractions. From bustling fishing ports to quaint seaside villages, there are numerous port towns in Northern France that are worth exploring.

Whether you’re a history enthusiast, a food lover, or simply seeking a relaxing coastal getaway, these port towns have something to offer for everyone, and they’re only a ferry trip away! This September there are some great low fare options with Brittany Ferries.


Caen – Shutterstock

Caen is a historic city famous for its beautiful castle, the Château de Caen, which was built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century and became the favourite residence of the Dukes of Normandy and the Kings of England. The castle is now home to two museums, the Musée de Normandie and the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which showcase the history and art of this beautiful northern region. Visitors can also explore the Abbaye aux Hommes, a stunning Romanesque abbey that was also founded by William the Conqueror. The abbey is now home to his tomb, making it a must-visit for history buffs.

Foodies will love the local specialty, tripe à la mode de Caen, a hearty dish made with beef tripe and vegetables that is then slow-cooked in cider. Talking of cider, another local specialty is the Calvados brandy – visitors can take a tour of a local distillery to learn about the production process and sample some for themselves. While you’re in the area, make sure to explore the vibrant food markets, such as the Halles de Caen, where you can find fresh produce, cheese, and other local delicacies.

Caen is also a great base for exploring the local region, meaning you can take a day trip to the charming coastal town of Honfleur, known for its picturesque harbour and colourful buildings. Or explore the charming seaside resorts of Deauville and Trouville, known for their sandy beaches and elegant architecture. A 30 minute drive west of Caen, you’ll find Bayeux with its famous tapestry, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England, the town also has a beautiful cathedral.

Benefit from the three daily sailings from Portsmouth with Brittany Ferries to discover Caen

St Malo

St Malo – Shutterstock

St Malo is a walled port town on the English Channel, ready to welcome you with its beautiful beaches, historic architecture and delicious coastal cuisine. Visitors can take a stroll along the ramparts of the old town, which offer stunning views of the sea and the surrounding countryside. The Cathedral is also worth a visit, with its beautiful stained glass windows and impressive organ.

Seafood lovers will be in heaven in St Malo, with its abundance of fresh seafood. The town is particularly famous for its oysters, which are harvested from the nearby oyster beds. Visitors can sample them at one of the many seafood restaurants in the town. Another local specialty is the galette, a savoury crepe made with buckwheat flour and filled with cheese, ham, or other ingredients.

Take a day trip to the nearby town of Dinard, known for its stunning beaches and Belle Époque architecture, or visit Mont Saint-Michel, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of France’s most famous landmarks. If you’re still craving le fruits de mer make sure to check out the charming town of Cancale, known for its oysters and seafood restaurants.

Sail overnight from Portsmouth with Brittany Ferries to St Malo


Port Racine on the Cotentin peninsula is well worth a visit – Shutterstock

At the northern tip of the Cotentin Peninsula, Cherbourg is known for its beautiful harbour, which is home to many historic ships, including the Titanic’s sister ship, the RMS Olympic. Visitors should explore the Cité de la Mer, a museum housed in an old transatlantic liner terminal, that tells the story of the town’s maritime history. Plus it features an aquarium with over 10,000 marine animals which is sure to entertain the whole family. The Musée de la Libération is also worth a visit, telling the story of the town’s role in the D-Day landings.

Don’t miss the Place Napoléon, home to the town hall and the Sainte-Trinité church, then on the next street over stop in one of its brasseries, bistros and cafés. As with France’s other northern towns, seafood and galettes often feature on the menus, but one local specialty is the brioche de Cherbourg, a sweet bread traditionally eaten for breakfast. 

Those inspired by a visit to the local museums might want to visit the D-Day beaches to pay their respects to the brave soldiers, and reflect on the stunning cliffs of Cap de la Hague which offer breathtaking views of the sea.

Choose from a daily Brittany Ferries sailing from Poole to Cherbourg, regular crossings from Portsmouth, or in summer take the three-hour high speed sailing from Portsmouth

Le Havre

Le Havre – Pixabay

Despite being destroyed during World War II, Le Havre is a bustling port town that is now famous for its modernist architecture designed by Auguste Perret. Art and history lovers can explore the Musée d’Art Moderne André Malraux, which houses an impressive collection of Impressionist paintings. Enjoy a stroll along the beach promenade or through the narrow streets and admire the beautiful buildings while you’re there. Don’t miss the Saint Joseph Church, a unique and modernist church that is a must-visit for architecture enthusiasts.

A regional specialty, the marmite dieppoise, is a seafood stew made with fish, shellfish and vegetables marinated in cream, butter and cider or dry white wine. Bénédictine is a herbal liqueur that is produced in Fécamp, and is made from a secret blend of 27 herbs and spices, resulting in a unique and aromatic drink. Another specialty is the Neufchâtel cheese, a soft, slightly crumbly, white, mould-ripened cheese that is made in the region. 

Less than 30km north is Étretat, a picturesque coastal town known for its stunning cliffs and beautiful beaches. It has been a source of inspiration for artists and offers incredible views from its iconic sea arches.

Five times a week a Brittany Ferries crossing from Portsmouth offers you the opportunity to explore Le Havre and its surroundings


Roscoff – Shutterstock

Roscoff has a rich history, and there are several museums and historic sites to explore. The Maison des Johnnies et de l’Oignon de Roscoff is a museum dedicated to the town’s famous pink onions, while the Musée Maritime de Roscoff explores the area’s maritime history. Take a stroll along the waterfront and admire the views, or stop at one of the many cafes or restaurants for a bite to eat.

Those interested in French gastronomy will love the onions of Roscoff, known for their sweet flavour. Another local specialty is the kouign-amann, a buttery pastry that is similar to a croissant. Or those looking for seafood will enjoy the langoustines and scallops. Be sure to try them at one of the town’s many restaurants, or visit the local market to pick up some fresh seafood to cook at home.

While you’re in Roscoff make sure to take a day trip to nearby towns like Morlaix or Saint-Pol-de-Léon, or hop on a boat to the nearby Île de Batz.

Daily sailings from Plymouth by Brittany Ferries mean that Roscoff is accessible and ideal for a trip of any length

A short trip across the English Channel, and you’re in vibrant towns with sunny skies and fabulous cuisine. When visiting these port towns, be sure to take in the local attractions, sample the local specialties and soak up the unique atmosphere. In travelling by ferry you’ve also got the added benefit of using your own vehicle to explore the surrounding coast and countryside, whether in the family car, a motorbike or camper van. Bon voyage!

Lead photo credit : Take the ferry to Le Havre for a visit to stunning Étretat - Shutterstock

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