There is so much more to the small town of Calais in northern France than its port where cross-Channel ferries join the dots between dazzling white-chalk cliffs in Dover and the Côte d’Opale, and Brits on booze runs stock up on "cheap" French wine at hypermarchés to drink back home.

The English ruled Calais for almost 200 years, from 1347 until 1558, and rich, turbulent histories seep out of every caramel-yellow brick, UNESCO-listed belfry and dot of sand. Calais beach – a seemingly endless swathe of powder-soft gold ribboned with several hundred ancestral beach huts from the 1940s – is breathtaking. Kids love it! Ditto for the new Front de Mer (seafront) following its spectacular, €46 million makeover in 2021.

Traveling in France with kids? Here are some of the country's best family experiences 

A huge mechanical dragon, controlled by a pilot using levels and pedals, sits in its transparent hangar
Take a ride on the Calais dragon or enjoy its fire-breathing performance from ground level © Nicola Williams / Lonely Planet

Don’t just zip in and out. Linger to fathom contemporary Calais’s metamorphic shift from place of transit to "seaside cool" place to be – a flashback to the glamorous belle époque when fashionable chalets de plage popped up on the beach, only to be destroyed with much of the town in WWII. Trade soulless supermarkets for weekly farmers markets (Wednesday and Saturday mornings on place d’Armes) and specialist wine and cheese shops like La Maison du Fromage et des Vins (1 rue André Gerschel) where shopping includes dégustation (tasting) and stinky, silk rounds of Dôme de Boulogne, Sable de Wissant and Fleur d’Audresselles evoke flavors of the surrounding mer (sea) and terre (land).

Lunch-laze over lavish seafood creations at Le Grand Bleu or traditional bistro fare at Histoire Ancienne on Calais’s shop-clad main street rue Royale. At old-school Café du Minck, across from the harbor where fishers still sell their catch in the historic seafaring quarter of Courgain Maritime, sample Calais’s unique contribution to Hauts-de-France’s prized gastronomic heritage with smoked herrings and t’chien d’mer (sun-dried dogfish shark) washed down with a summertime rosé or picon-bière (beer with a dash of Picon bitters). À nous guifes! (that’s "Cheers!" in the local ch’ti dialect).

Plan your visit to this often overlooked destination with our guide to Calais for first-timers.

Traveling beyond Calais? Here's our guide to getting around in France

When should I go to Calais?

Summer – June to early September – is heaps of fun. Sand-sculpture competitions, outdoor  film screenings, "bubble football" and a smorgasbord of music concerts, evening markets and cultural events spill along the seafront (Digue Gaston Berthe) and two main squares (place d’Armes and place du Grand Théâtre). Local artists and artisans sell handcrafted jewelry, sun hats, espadrilles, all sorts from a dozen pop-up chalets by the beach during Calais’ annual Village d’Été (April to mid-September). Expect festive exuberance, a party vibe and bracing sea dips in spades.

August is the busiest, hottest month – around 20°C (68°F) if you’re lucky, with the water hovering at a frisky but manageable 17.7°C (63.8°F). (Should you be of the cold-water swimming ilk, the sea plummets to a bone-numbing 6°C (42.8°F) January to March.)

Accommodation rates, at their peak in July and August, drop off in the shoulder seasons – May, June and September – making it a good time for budget travelers. Northern France’s precocious weather gods, unpredictable at the best of times, are less likely to play ball out in low season: trade beach life for scenic coastal walks and, on windy or rainy days, museum visits and cockle-warming bowls of moules-frites (mussels and fries). In winter Calais essentially sleeps.

People walk along a beach beside a large cliff with an obelisk on the top
From Calais, it's a pleasant bike ride to the white cliffs of Cap Blanc-Nez © Bjorn Beheydt / Shutterstock

How long do I need in Calais?

Allow two or three days to soak up the main sights. If the sun shines, you can whittle away several more days lizard-lounging on the beach, cruising by boat along Calais’s unsung canal and exploring the surrounding Côte d’Opale.

Weekenders, commence your Calais deep-dive atop Phare de Calais – the only French lighthouse to hold sentry in the middle of a town. Spiraling up its 271 stone steps dating to 1848 rewards with an unparalleled, bird’s eye view of the city. On clear days, spot Dover’s white cliffs glinting like a beacon across the English Channel. Explore the Courgain Maritime quarter and mooch across Pont Henri Hénon to the grassy mounds of 14th-century Fort Risban and Calais’s famous dragon safeguarding the port entrance. From here, France’s most beautiful urban beach unfurls 8 miles west to the iconic white cliffs of Cap Blanc-Nez (a splendid, 50-minute bike ride) and beyond.

Day two, devote a few hours to your pick of museums and monuments then return to the seashore. Follow the handsome seafront or la digue as Calaisiens call Digue Gaston Berge to sandy Blériot-Plage where three walking itineraries evoke the daredevil escapades of French aviator Louis Blériot, the first person to cross the English Channel by plane on July 25, 1909.

Two ferries out at sea with a row of beach huts in the foreground
Ferries take around 90 minutes to cross the Channel between Calais and Dover in England © Nicola Williams / Lonely Planet

Is it easy to get in and around Calais?

Count three hours by regional TER train (from €34) from Paris Gare du Nord to Calais’s downtown train station ("Calais Ville" on timetables) or two hours by high-speed TGV (from €57) from Paris Gare du Nord to Calais-Fréthun, the city’s TGV train station 6 miles south of Calais and 10 minutes by SNCF bus or TER train (€2.50) to the center. Ferries and the Eurotunnel connect Calais with Dover and Folkestone respectively, on the coast of south England.

Calais itself is small and easily walkable. Calais Ville train station is a 10-minute walk to place d’Armes and another 15 minutes on foot to the beach, Plage de Calais. If you prefer to ride the bus, there's extra good news – all local public transportation in Calais is free! Public-sharing, blue-and-white Vel’In bikes (one hour free, then €2/hour), operated by public transport company Calais Opale Bus, make light work of longer distances. Create an account in advance online and download the app to unlock wheels and check bikes available in real time. 

Can you visit Calais as a day trip from the UK?

It’s only 32 nautical miles from Dover to Calais so yes, it’s perfectly feasible (although a city showcasing one of northern France’s best sand beaches, works by celebrated French sculptor Auguste Rodin and some of the finest frites or French fries this side of the Channel merits longer). Disembarking in Calais, hop on the free Balad’in shuttlebus into town or grab a bike at Vel’In’s Terminal Transmanche bike station and cycle the 2 miles.

Count 35 minutes by car-train from Folkstone (via the Eurotunnel with LeShuttle, no foot passengers) and 90 minutes from Dover by car ferry (plus 90/20 minutes to check-in/disembark). DFDS, Irish Ferries and P&O Ferries all run 10–15 sailings a day, but the latter is the only operator to take foot passengers. To avoid disappointment (ferries fill up fast year-round), buy tickets well in advance online. Don’t forget your passport, with at least three months validity.

Should you be hitting la belle France for a shopping spree of the alcoholic variety, you’re allowed to bring 42L of beer and 18L of regular wine back into the UK, plus 4L of spirit or 9L of sparkling wine and champagne. Quotas are per adult, not vehicle.

A line of people stretches outside a seaside kiosk selling food
The beachside Friterie des Nations is the place to stop for fries © Nicola Williams / Lonely Planet

Top things to do in Calais

Lumbering along the seafront on the back of a 12.5m-high (41ft), 25m-long (82ft) sea dragon is as much about admiring the extraordinary craftsmanship behind the fantastical wood-and-metal beast as watching it breathe real fire, hiss water, roar, flare its canvas wings and flounce its tail. The undisputed icing on the cake of Calais’s recent renaissance, the Calais Dragon (adult/4–11 years €9.50/7.50) is one of three awe-inspiring creatures created by François Delarozière at La Machine in Nantes (where you can ride an elephant. Or mount a minotaur in Toulouse).

Post-dragon walkabout (45 minutes; around the dragon forecourt in winter, along a section of the seafront in summer), don’t miss the 4m-long (13ft) Sentinel Iguana lounging on top of a shipping container in the dragon forecourt. Try your hand at manipulating the mechanical creature from the command post – it’s free. End with takeaway frites (fries) in paper and merguez (spicy sausages) or fricadelle (meatballs) from Friterie des Nations (Digue Gaston Berthe). The legendary seaside kiosk sells 200kg (440lbs) of fries a day in high season, twice-fried in vegetable oil as tradition demands and doused in brown vinegar. Picnic with seagulls on the beach or a bench looking out to sea.

It's hard to entice kids away from Plage de Calais. The vast promenade above the urban beach sports three top-drawer playgrounds (up to 14 years), an XXL skate park, multi-sports pitch, workout zone and food village with kiosks selling ice cream, crepes, waffles, donuts, churros, and other treats. On the sand, don’t miss the Banksy artwork on one wall of the lifeguard station, staffed July to September. Dozens more striking murals pepper the town; download a DIY street-art tour mapped by Calais tourist office, and catch French and international artists at work during June’s Festival Street Art.

A red-brick building with a tall ornate belfry tower
Take an elevator up the belfry of the Hôtel de Ville for city views © Nicola Williams / Lonely Planet

Medieval pilgrims heading south from Canterbury to Rome on foot picked up the Via Francigena in France in front of 13th- to 17th-century Église Notre-Dame (17 rue Notre-Dame) where Charles de Gaulle famously got hitched in 1921. Constructed largely by the English, hence the striking Perpendicular Gothic architecture and resplendent Tudor flower gardens, the church is worth visiting (2–5:30pm July and August). Wander past the Musée des Beaux-Arts (free admission) and a bronze De Gaulle and Winston Churchill promenading in landscaped Parc Richelieu, to the town’s palatial red-brick Hôtel de Ville (1925). Riding the elevator to the top of its extravagant, Flemish and Renaissance-styled belfry is a highlight, as is an Instagram shoot in its lavish garden with Rodin’s famous Burghers of Calais sculpture (1889).

On bad weather days, little beats a lesson in local lacemaking, the industry that made Calais a textile powerhouse in the 19th century, at canal-side Cité de la Dentelle et de la Mode. Sign up for a thrilling mechanical-loom demo – imagine 3500 vertical threads and 11,000 horizontal threads clattering and clunking in sync with instructions provided by perforated Jacquard cards – when you buy your admission ticket.

How much money do I need for Calais ?

As French cities go, Calais is relatively cheap – there are not that many seaside resorts in Europe where you can lounge over a coffee on a cafe pavement terrace for €1.50 or ride the bus for nothing. The city’s flagship Musée des Beaux-Arts is free to visit, as are its churches and impressive outdoor museum of street art. Here's a guide to daily costs in Calais:

  • Double room in three-star hotel: €80
  • Bag of fries on the seafront: €3
  • Pain frites (chip sandwich): €4.50
  • Picon-bière aperitif in a bar or restaurant: €6
  • Midrange 2-/3-course lunch/dinner menu: €25/28
  • Sun-lounger and parasol rental: €8/16 half/full day

Explore related stories


Tips & Advice

3 vacation spots in France that are loved by locals

May 29, 2024 • 4 min read