Why stay in Calais?
Many people ignore Calais on the north coast of France; they use the ferry and then leave Calais for their destination as the town is the main gateway for people arriving from the U.K. That’s a shame as Calais has a lot going for it with some good hotels, restaurants, the wonderful Lace Museum plus good walks within the town and along the long stretches of golden sandy beaches. And then of course there is the shopping. It may not be the capital of the large Nord Pas de Calais Region -- that honor goes to Lille, but it's well worth an overnight stop.
Calais is very close to Lille and to Flanders and with the interest in World War I growing, it makes a good jumping off point for exploring the World War I Battlefields and sights in Flanders, Picardy and the rest of North France.
Calais, with the help of the Nord Pas de Calais region, is slowly upgrading and improving itself so you may find road works in some of the major areas in the next couple of years as roads are pedestrianised.
A very British TownCalais was always vital for English ambitions in North France. Begun as a 10th-century fishing village, it soon became a strategic port trading with Dover. In 1347 Edward III of England laid siege to the town, capturing it after nearly a year of warfare. Edward and subsequent English kings vastly improved the town’s fortunes, using the the 13th-century castle in the heart of the old city as their base. In 1558 however, the French under the Duke de Guise recaptured the town.
After Calais became French again, Vauban reconstructed the Citadelle and a series of forts, of which the impressive Fort Nieulay is the best example. In 1805 Napoleon turned up, seeing the town as necessary for his proposed invasion of Britain which never took place. Since then, Calais has vastly expanded, in particularly with huge shopping complexes and malls catering both to the locals and also to the vast number of Brits who come for a day's shopping.
- In Pas de Calais Department (62) and Nord Pas de Calais Region
- 38 km (24 miles) from the English Coast
- Population: 104,850
- Tourist Office
12 Boulevard Clemenceau
Tel: 00 33 (0)3 21 96 62 40
Also see the Pas de Calais website
How to get to Calais
- From the U.K. Either take the ferry or go by Eurostar (taking from 55 minutes from London St. Pancras International.
- Ferry Guide
- Eurostar Guide
- From Lille Take the TGV from Lille to Calais Ville, taking 1 hr 40mins.
- From Paris Take the TGV from the Gare du Nord to Calais Frethun taking 1 hr 37 mins.
Calais Frethun station is about 10 km southwet of the town. The bus route 7 runs to Calais town center.
Where to Stay
- My favourite in Calais is the old-fashioned, but delightfully renovated Hotel Meurice. It’s near the beach, a few minute’s walk into the center of town and right by the Rue Royale where the main restaurants are. A grand staircase at the entrance sets the scene, and the hotel is particularly popular with British visitors. It has a good bar that buzzes into the late evening.
5 & 7 rue Edmond Roche
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 34 57 03
Price Band: $-$$
What this means
- Hotel Metropol
Another of the old-timers in central Calais overlooking the canal. Again near the rue Royale, the faded grandeur of the hotel is delightful. The suite sleeps a whole family and feels like a ballroom. No restaurant but breakfast in the bar/lounge.
45 Quai du Rhin
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 97 54
Price Band: $
What this means
- The main chain hotels are here as well: the Mercure Calais Centre, the Holiday Inn Calais and a new Ibis Style Calais Centre in rue Royale.
Where to Eat
- Histoire Ancienne
This is one of my favourites in the whole region. Owned and run by chef Patrick Comte with his wife managing front-of-house, the bistro-style restaurant is welcoming and pretty. Expect classic dishes from snails and pan-fried scallops with mushrooms and smoked duck, to sea bass, a proper pepper steak and rack of lamb. Menus 15.90 euros to 27.90 euros.
30 rue Royale
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 34 11 20
Open Tuesday to Saturday lunch and Monday to Saturday dinner. Closed two weeks in July.
- Le Grand Bleu
Located opposite the inner harbor, Le Grand Bleu is now in the inspiring hands of young chef, Mathieu Colin. Born in Calais, he went to work for Alain Ducasse, becoming head chef at Le Pavillon Ledoyen in Paris. Now he's come back to his roots and a bright, modern restaurant. Expect fresh, organic ingredients in dishes like scallops with green pepper, lemon and leeks followed by sea bream cooked in herbs with creamed parsnip, confit of potatoes and spinach. The cooking is superb, the menus very good value. He's a great teacher and also offers cooking lesson. Menus 16 to 48 euros.
Quai de la Colonne
8 Rue Jean-Pierre Avron
Tel.: 00 33 (0) 3 21 97 97 98
- Au Cote d’Argent
On the seafront, so perfect for summer dining, the nautically decorated, family-owned and run restaurant has good fish dishes, though carnivores will not be disappointed either. Good wine list. Menus 18.50 to 42 euros.
1 digue Gaston Berthe
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 34 68 07
Open Tuesday to Sunday lunch, Tuesday to Saturday dinner. Closed end of August to end of first week in September.
- Le Channel
Elegant restaurant with classic cooking, and top seafood. It overlooks the yacht basin and is smartly decorated in bright colors. Try dishes like tuna with potatoes and a ginger and lime sauce followed by sole with prawn mousse. Meat dishes are just as well prepared. Menus from 21 to 54 euros.
3 bd de la Resistance
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 34 42 30
Open Daily lunch & dinner.
- Du Vignoble au Verre
Classic French cooking in this cosy restaurant. Dishes like seafood crepe, pepper steak and scallops in a cider and apple sauce keep the locals happy. Menus 23 to 31 euros.
43 Place d’Armes
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 34 83 29
Open Monday to Saturday lunch, daily dinner.
- Cafe de Paris
This lively brasserie open all hours is popular for its inexpensive dishes. Don’t go for a gourmet experience, just for the fun. Menus 13.90 to 31 euros.
72 rue Royale
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 34 76 84
Open Sunday to Thursday 9am-1am, Friday, Saturday 9am to 2am.
- Au Calice
Jolly, reliable brasserie with wooden floors and banquette seating and an outdoor garden. With an estaminet type menu, choose from Flemish stew or mussels and chips. Cheap and cheerful. Menus 11.50 to 19.80 euros.
55 bd Jacquard
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 2134 51 78
Open Daily lunch & dinner.
Shopping in and around Calais
With such a large clientele including thousands of Brits and Belgians coming to Calais especially to shop, there's plenty to choose from. Most stick with the huge hypermarkets near Calais that make up the biggest shopping center in Europe. But I urge you to try the smaller shops in Calais which are fun and rewarding.
For more information, see the Guide to Shopping in Calais.
Attractions in Calais
- Calais Town Hall and Belfry
Calais Town Hall is a glorious over-the-top building, dominating the main square. It was built between 1911 and 1925 though looks much older. The gardens in the front contain a copy of Rodin’s famous Burghers of Calais statue. It commemorates an incident in 1347 when Edward III of England after capturing Calais, threatened a mass execution of the citizens. Instead he decided that six of the main leaders should be executed, but this was too much for Edward’s wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault, who successfully pleaded for their lives.
It’s worth going inside for the elaborate decorations and stained glass windows, and if you can, take the lift up the belfry for the view.
Place du Soldat Inconnu
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 46 20 53
Open Tuesday to Saturday 10am-11.30am and 2-5pm.
Admission Adult 5 euros.
- Citiinternationale de la dentelle et de la mode de Calais (International Center of Lace and Fashion)
Housed in a former lace factory this is a fabulous museum. It takes you through the history of fashion and shows how important lace was, from the days of hand-made lace to the Industrial Revolution when machines took over the manufacture. It’s beautifully told with demonstrations of lace making and a fascinating series of films showing the whole complex process. Local history is explained and there are enough dresses and models to keep teenagers entranced as well.
There are temporary exhibitions, a good shop and excellent cafe.
Guide to the Lace & Fashion Museum
- Musée Mémoire 39/45
The War Museum is housed in a huge ivy-covered bunker in the middle of the Parc St-Pierre. Originally a German Navy bunker and command post, the museum takes you through Calais in World War II.
Parc St Pierre
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 34 21 57
Open February 1 to April 30, Wednesday to Monday 11am-5pm
May to September daily 10am-6pm
October to November Wendesday to Monday 11am-5.30pm (closed Tuesday)
Admission Adult 6 Euros. children 5 euros
- Musee des beaux arts (Museum of Fine Arts)
The museum had more room for displays when the Lace Center moved into their new building in 2009. Now there’s a new space for a permanent display using Calais as an artistic center and inspiration, a cross roads between London, Paris and Belgium. Here you’ll find around 150 works of art from Rodin to Picasso, displayed in light galleries. They also present international temporary exhibitions.
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 46 48 40
Open Tuesday to Saturday April to October 10am-noon & 2-6pm; Sunday 2-6pm
Tuesday to Saturday November to March 10am-noon & 2-5pm; Sunday 2-5pm
Admission Adult 4 euros
- Le Channel
Keep an eye open for their various events advertised on the website. The complex of buildings once housed an abattoir (slaughter house) then were converted into a contemporary arts center with an alternative agenda. Starting in 2000, the center expanded into other nearby buildings. It’s an interesting venue with some unusual concerts, art shows, installations and more. There’s a good restaurant and bistro as well.
173 boulevard Gambetta
Tel.:00 33 (0)3 21 46 77 00
- The Lighthouse
The 19th-century lighthouse is at the north (sea) end of the old town. You see a small exhibition explaining lighthouses which is good for children (or those like myself who really don’t know how lighthouses work). Then there’s rather a difficult climb up the 271 spiral steps to the top, 55 meters high, but on a clear day the view is fabulous. You can see Calais, the Channel and the White Cliffs of Dover in the distance. Rent a pair of binoculars, or take your own.
Place Henri Barbusse
Tel.:00 33 (0)3 21 34 33 34
Open June 1 to September 30 Monday to Friday 2 to 6.30pm, Saturday, Sunday and public holidays 10am-noon & 2-6.30pm
October to May Wednesday 1-5.30pm, Saturday, Sunday and public holidays 10am-noon & 2-5.30pm
Admission Adult 4.5 euros, child 5 to 15 years 3 euros.
- Notre Dame Church
This odd, huge church which is the biggest built in English perpendicular style in Europe is currently being massively restored. Originally started in 1214, it has some stunning 17th-century architectural features such as the Lady Chapel and huge altar. The streets and pavements around it are also being restored and the ‘Tudor Garden’ will be finished in the summer of 2013.
One of its claims to fame is that this was where the young Captain, Charles de Gaulle, married a Calais woman, Yvonne Vendroux, in 1921. There’s rather a moving plaque outside the church commemorating the marriage. The Allies bombed the church and destroyed most of the building in September 1944, just before the liberation of Calais.
Between rue de Seigneur de Gourdan and rue Notre Dame
500 meters northeast of the tourist office in bd Clemenceau.