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Boulogne-sur-Mer Travel Guide

Belfry, Boulogne-sur-Mer (© Lotharingia -
Belfry of Boulogne-sur-Mer


Boulogne-sur-Mer (Bonen in Dutch, Portus Itius or Gesoriacum or Bononia in Latin ; pop. 44,000, with suburbs 135,000) is a port town on the English Channel, at the mouth or the Liane River. It was the main port linking Britain to the continent in Roman times, and still is a passage point for ferries to/from Dover. Boulogne is one of the most important fishing ports in France.



Medieval Castle, Boulogne-sur-Mer (© Richard Majlinder -

Originally settled by the Morin tribe, it was Julius Caesar who founded the first port, then called Portus Itius, to prepare an invasion of Britain. It wasn't until a century later, in 43 CE, that Emperor Claudius successfully invaded the island. Until 296 Portus Itius (also known as Gesoriacum) was the base of the Classis Britannica, the Roman fleet of the British waters.

According to Suetonius (Life of Caligula, chap. XLVI), Caligula, the predecessor of Claudius, had built a tower of prodigious height in Boulogne, likened to the Pharos of Alexandria.

After the division of the Carolingian Empire in 843, the region is organised into a new political unit, the County of Boulogne, which belonged to the Counts of Flanders from 896 to 1025.

Eustace II of Boulogne, married to a daughter of the English king Æthelred the Unready, was one of the few proven companions of William the Conqueror, and fought on his side at the Battle of Hastings. His two sons, Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin of Boulogne, would become leaders of the First Crusade, and the two first successive monarchs of Jerusalem.

Another Count of Boulogne, Stephen of Blois (1096-1154), would become King of England as Stephen I. A Countess of Boulogne, Matilda II of Dammartin (1202-1259), would become queen consort of Portugal. In 1302, the marriage between Isabella of France and Edward II of England was celebrated in Boulogne. The city would be occupied by the English in the first half of the 16th century, until 1547. In 1550, the Peace of Boulogne ended the war of England with Scotland and France. After its reannexation to France, the region became part of Picardie.

In 1662, one of the most violent revolt against the French monarchy prior to the French Revolution took place in Boulogne. Thousands of peasants were massacred by Louis XIV, and 3,000 survivors sent to labour camps.

In 1800, the first vaccination against smallpox in France was performed on three girls in Boulogne. 4 years later, Napoleon assembled the Grande Armée ("Great Army") to award some of the first Légion d'honneur at the camp of Boulogne.

In the year 1905 the First Esperanto Universal Congress was held in Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Ramparts and old town, Boulogne-sur-Mer (©


Boulogne has one of the best preserved fortified medieval town in France, surrounded by massive ramparts (built on top of the old Roman walls). The visit of the old town alone makes a trip to Boulogne a must for travellers in the region.

Within the city walls, the beautiful 13th-century castle hosts the so-called Château-Musée de Boulogne-sur-Mer, a stupendous art museum with a collection of Greek ceramics, European fine arts, as well as Amerindian objects, including 2/3 of the Kodiak (an Alaskan tribe) artifacts in the world. The highlight of the museum are the Egyptian antiques, which is the world's 5th largest collection after the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the British Museum, the Louvre and the Museo Egizio in Turin.

The old town possesses four city gates : Portes des Dunes (west), Portes Neuve (north), Porte Gayole (east) and Porte des Degres (south). The main entrance is Portes des Dunes, where the Tourist Information Centre is located. It leads to the 12th-century Belfry (UNESCO World Heritage), which was originally the keep of the castle of the Counts of Boulogne. Built in the Roman style, the keep became the city's belfry in the 13th century, after the construction of a new castle (see above).

Next to the belfry stands the neoclassical Hôtel de Ville (town hall), completed in 1734, under Louis XV. It is the only building in the old town to be made of brick and stone (all the others are in stone only). Opposite (next to Portes des Dunes) is the Palais de Justice (court of justice), built in the Greek Revival style in 1852.

A bit further, on the main town square (Place Godefroy de Bouillon) is Napoleon's Palace, where the First Consul, then Emperor, stayed between 1801 and 1805. Near the harbour, the 54m-high Colum of the Great Army commemorates the Camp of Boulogne, from where Napoleon planned an invasion of Britain (see History above).

One of the greatest building in Boulogne is the neoclassical Basilica of Our Lady (Basilique Notre-Dame in French). It was errected between 1827 and 1866 on the ruins of the old cathedral, destroyed during the French Revolution. It was inspired by St. Peter of Rome, St. Paul of London as well as by the Pantheon and the Invalides in Paris.

NAUSICAÄ : the French National Sea Experience Centre

Sea lions at the NAUSICAÄ sea centre, Boulogne-sur-Mer (©

The other big attraction in town is NAUSICAÄ, a science centre entirely dedicated to the relationship between Mankind and the Sea. With its 35,000 animals of 1,000 species displayed in 36 aquaria for a total of 4.5 million liters of water, it is one of the largest sea centres in Europe. Visitors can observe, among others, penguins, sea lions, sharks, tunas, or the biodiversity of the coral reef.

Exhibitions on the marine fauna, and the exploitation and management of marine resources (fisheries, aquaculture, coastal planning, maritime transport, exploitation of energies and mineral resources, tourism...) aim at raising its awareness on the need for a good management of marine resources. The centre has been nominated Centre of Excellence by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO for its consciousness raising.

Note that all signs, videos and descriptions are in French and English (this is rare enough in France for it to be mentioned).

How to get there

Boulogne-sur-Mer is located 250km north of Paris, 40km south of Calais, and 115km west of Arras or Lille. The E402 connects it to Calais and the Belgian seaside to the north, and Le Touquet, Abbeville and Rouen to the south. The N42 runs on an east-west axis from Hazbrouck and St Omer, passing by the E15 from/to Arras and the E42 from/to Lille.

By train, Boulogne is about 30min from Calais, 1h from Lille and 2h from Arras. The fastest way to reach Boulogne from Paris (about 2h30min) is to take the TGV to Calais, then a regular train from there.

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