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When visiting France, it’s easy to spend most of your time in Paris, the city of Love, but there are many amazing and beautiful places in other parts of the country that are well worth a trip! The Normandy region is one of our favorites, with historic, fascinating places like Rouen, Mont Saint-Michel, and Honfleur.
If you love family travel, click here for all our Travel Posts about some of our favorite recent travels. If you are just here for the recipes, feel free to browse through my Recipes Index, or come by tomorrow and I’ll have something new for you to make! These are some of our favorite places to visit outside of Paris.
See the less-visited Normandy Capital of Rouen
Rouen is a beautiful medieval city in the northern Normandy region of France and it’s a fantastic place to visit because it isn’t nearly as touristed as other parts of France. Rouen was settled in the 10th century by vikings and quickly became a powerful and influential city because of its location on the Seine river.
There are lots of half-timber houses, an ornate Gothic cathedral, cobblestoned streets, and lots more to admire about this lovely small city where Joan of Arc lost her life in 1431 in Rouen’s Old Market Square. Because much of the historic area is pedestrian-only, it feels like stepping back time as you walk along the streets.
We admired the massive clock tower (the Gros-Horloge) that is over a busy shopping street in the center of town and holds one of the oldest working clocks in France. The clock is a working astronomical clock from the 14th century.
Rouen has its own Cathedral of Notre-Dame and we felt like it was even more beautiful inside than the more famous Notre Dame in Paris. It certainly was far more peaceful inside without the crowds of tourists shuffling through, and our kids were awed by the vaulted ceilings, detailed statues, stained glass, and reverent atmosphere. This is the final resting place of Richard the Lionheart, and there is a small chapel dedicated to Joan of Arc as well.
Rouen also has lots of places to enjoy the traditional French cuisine. In fact, Rouen is where Julia Child ate her first French meal, which would later spark her interest in cooking and teaching French techniques that have inspired many, myself included. It was at La Couronne Restaurant and Inn, which is at the Old Market Square and the oldest inn in France.
We had the best chocolate mousse of our lives here. We tried it everywhere else in France, but none could compare to the one that came with our lunch in Rouen and I’m still trying to recreate the flavor and texture here at home.
Rouen would make a great base to stay and explore the area of Normandy like its famous castles, ruins of historic Roman Catholic abbeys like that at Jumièges, which is just 28 km from Rouen, or World War II related sites. And if you are there on a market day, be sure to go and enjoy feeling like a local by picking up some fresh produce!
Make a pilgrimage to Mont Saint-Michel
This spot has been on my bucket list of places I wanted to visit for years. An abbey established over 1,000 years ago on a rock in the sea that was reached by foot at low tide for hundreds of years. It sounds like something out of a fantasy book, doesn’t it? It feels that way in real life too.
Mont Saint-Michel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is about 4 hours from Paris. There are free shuttles that run every 10 minutes that take you to the entrance at the base of the island from the parking lot. Once there, there is a lot of climbing and meandering through narrow cobbled streets and alleys up to the abbey at the top of the island.
It can get very crowded, so you might want to consider arriving early in the day.
Walking through the entrance gate with its spiked metal gate felt like stepping back in time.
You wind through the Grand Rue on your way up to the top, passing restaurants and shops along the way, although we heard from multiple sources that the food on the island is extremely overpriced and not as good as the places near the parking area.
Pilgrims used to journey to Mont Saint-Michel and wait for the tide to go out, then cross the flat expanse of mud to get to the island.
Back in the middle ages, the crossing was a full 7 kilometers from the shore to the island, which is 5 kilometers farther than the crossing is today. It had to be done with caution and the right timing or travelers would find themselves caught in some of the strongest tides and most powerful currents in Europe! There were also dangers like quicksand to be aware of.
Today you can still go out on the tidal flats with guides who can help you avoid the dangers, but I wouldn’t recommend doing it on your own.
The island is fortified with crenellations and towers for protection. And at the very top is the abbey that is still in operation today. You can tour it during open hours, but it can get crowded during the middle of the day and closes rather early, so keep that in mind when making your plans.
The weather in the Normandy region of France is notoriously unpredictable so on the day we were actually at Mont Saint-Michel it was overcast, cold, and windy. But the next day as we were driving away it was so beautiful and clear that we stopped for one last photo. It’s easy to see the resemblance in this image to the castle in the movie Rapunzel.
Visit the seaside village of Honfleur
We absolutely fell in love with the charming port town of Honfleur, a seaside village in the Normandy region of France that is so beautiful that it was (and still is) a popular subject for many Impressionist painters like Claude Monet. Like many places in Europe, Honfleur is a medieval town with cobbled streets, half-timber houses, and loads of great places to eat wonderful food.
But what sets it apart is the harbor, known as the Vieux Bassin, which is filled with fluttering flags and sails on colorful boats, ringed by tall teetering townhouses built between the 16th-18th centuries by wealthy merchant families.
There are plenty of cafes and restaurants to sit and enjoy lunch while people watching. We had delicious seafood – the fresh mussels, oysters, and cockles are some of the best you will try anywhere – and even got daring and ordered sea snails for all of us to try. Our girls are adventurous eaters and both gave it their best shot. Clara even ate an entire sea snail on her own, although Rose, who was only four, spit hers out in disgust!
The Sainte Catherine Church (L’église Sainte-Catherine) is the largest wooden church in France and notable for a number of other reasons. It was built by boatbuilders from the town who didn’t know how to build churches but did know how to build ships.
So the inside of the church looks like ships’ hulls that have been turned upside down to create the vaulted ceilings with strong timbers like masts supporting them. I don’t know how accurate that it, but it was certainly a romantic story with plausibility to it based on how the church looked. It also has some beautiful stained glass to admire.
But our favorite thing to do in Honfleur was just to wander through the cobblestone streets, taking our time to look in shop windows and galleries, and stop for some nougat at a shop that sold dozens of delightful flavors.
There is a carousel down by the port that was absolutely enchanting and a fun way to entertain the kids when they had had enough of walking.
You could probably spend a day or two here, especially over a Saturday when the market is set up in front of the Saint Catherine Church, but it made for a great half-day for us on our way from Mont Saint-Michel to Belgium. It felt like enough time to get a food feel for the town without wondering “well, what else do we do?”.
Paris was our first stop on an extended European roadtrip through France, that took us through each of these beautiful places. To see the rest of our travel posts from this trip, be sure to check out the following posts:
- Paris in Spring with Kids
- Best Things to See and Do In Belgium With Kids
- Best Things to See and Do in the Netherlands Outside of Amsterdam
Have you been to France? What places, foods, or experiences did you love? Let us know in the comments below!