One of the most picturesque spots on the Normandy coast, Honfleur’s picture-perfect harbour is lined with townhouses dating back to the 16th century. It’s just the place for long, sunlit lunches and dinners of fish and seafood pulled from the sea earlier in the day. Dip into the Eugene Boudin museum to discover the town’s rich artistic history, with works by artists including Monet, Dufy and Boudin, and take a walk across the breathtaking Pont de Normandie, a vast cable-stayed bridge, which reaches 7,000ft and has wonderful views across the Seine estuary. Stay at Le Manoir, a lovely 18th-century manor house with an excellent restaurant (doubles from £167 B&B, sawdays.co.uk). Ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe, dfds.com.
If you want to go in and out of glittering Deauville and Trouville without actually staying there, this charming village 10 minutes along the coast makes a great place to stay, with a long stretch of beach and a small, pedestrianised high street with a clutch of excellent fish restaurants, boutiques and foodie emporiums. A great base for walkers, the tourist office has maps of 12 circular walks, with 35km of marked lanes to explore on foot, bike or horse. Afterwards, settle in at Le Café de France (2 Rue du Général de Gaulle) for moules frites and excellent local wine, and stay at La Mascotte, a delightful house a few streets back from the beach (doubles from £100, sawdays.co.uk). Ferry from Portsmouth to Caen, brittany-ferries.com.
Seafood lovers and fans of history should make a beeline for Barfleur; a traditional Norman fishing port, that’s played a pivotal role in Anglo-French history for over a century, famous for its wild mussels. Sunny evenings are best spent at one of the picturesque fish restaurants on the harbour, while days can be enjoyed on the three sandy beaches close to the village, with sailing and diving both on offer nearby. Stay at Fleur et Mer, a charming chambre d’hôte with four rooms (some sleeping up to four), with bikes, child trailer and baby seat all available to hire (doubles from £75 B&B, fleuretmer.fr). Ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, brittany-ferries.com.
If you’re looking for a real sense of escape, this delightful village, steeped in over 1,000 years history and surrounded by one of Normandy’s oldest and largest forests, is ideal. For centuries the holiday retreat of choice for Norman Dukes and French kings, thanks to the excellent hunting, Lyons is home to a vibrant 14th-century covered market, and its streets are lined with medieval buildings, now housing antique emporiums, tea shops and restaurants. Monet’s garden at Giverny is within easy reach as is Château Gaillard, and La Licorne – a 16th-century building with spa, indoor and outdoor pools and renowned restaurant – makes a super base (doubles from £92, hotel-licorne.com). Ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe, dfds.com.
Ninety minutes’ drive from Dieppe, Amiens is an ideal base for a short-break; steeped in history, home to one of France’s most beautiful cathedrals, with a clutch of excellent restaurants lined up along the banks of the Somme. Take a boat trip to discover the unique hortillonages – 300 hectares of floating gardens that blaze with colour in spring, illuminating the city’s network of canals – and visit the Museum of the Somme, focusing on life in the trenches, in the nearby town of Albert. Stay at La Marotte, one of the city’s most upscale address, which has recently added a new spa and bedrooms, housed in a former Banque de France building (doubles from £178, hotel-marotte.com). Ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe, dfds.com.
If retail therapy is high on your list of weekend break pastimes, Lille – an hour and 15 minutes’ drive from Calais – is a great choice. France’s fourth largest city is home to the biggest flea market in Europe, La Grand Braderie de Lille, as well as the vast Euralille mall and a charming old town dotted with boutiques, homeware stores and mouth-watering patisseries. Elegant Flemish-style buildings house classic brasseries along with more contemporary eateries, and the town’s excellent train connections make it ideal for exploring further afield. Stay at Mama Shelter, a hip, affordable design hotel with a buzzy cocktail bar and restaurant (doubles from £92, mamashelter.com). Ferry from Dover to Calais, dfds.com.
Boulogne sur Mer
Ideal for a family break, Boulogne is just 20 minutes from Calais, and combines plenty of bucket-and-spade opportunities with a beautifully preserved old town, home to cobbled streets crammed with excellent restaurants, bars and boutiques. Walk or cycle the nearby Route de la Corniche for glorious sea views, or explore the rippling sand dunes that rise up behind the beaches. Older kids can try kite or windsurfing, while the whole family can explore the coast by canoe or kayak. Stay at L’Enclos de L’Evêché – a 19th-century mansion in the heart of town, with five charming rooms (doubles from £85 B&B, enclosdeleveche.com). Ferry from Dover to Calais, dfds.com.
Ideal for a car-free break, this fortified city offers a beguiling combination of history, great food and long, sandy beaches. Begin with a stroll along the ramparts of Intra-Muros, the ancient walled town, before exploring the medieval streets, dotted with crêperies selling the region’s trademark galettes, oyster stalls and cider bars. At low tide it’s possible to walk to the two picturesque islands that lie opposite the town, while the Plage du Sillon – a 3km stretch of sand – is perfect for lazy afternoons with an ice-cream and a book. Stay at the Villa St Raphael, a chic 17th-century villa with five sleek bedrooms (doubles from £85 B&B, villa-st-raphael-saint-malo.com). Ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo, brittany-ferries.com.
The region’s cultural heart, Quimper combines a striking cathedral and well-preserved old town with a vibrant, arty vibe. Famous for its earthenware – pottery with distinctive, Breton designs – the city has potteries and workshops you can visit, alongside the Musee de Faience, home to over 500 pieces. Picturesque, half-timbered houses flank the banks of the Odet river, with flower-decked bridges spanning the two sides. Dip into the Musée de Beaux-Arts, which includes several works by Gaugin, and take cider and galettes for a picnic in the pretty Jardin de la Retraite. Stay at the family-run Hôtel Kregenn, a stone’s throw from the cathedral (doubles from £78 B&B, bestwestern.com). Ferry from Portsmouth to Roscoff, brittany-ferries.com.
If you’re more interested in Brittany’s bucolic hinterland than its busy beaches, Fougères makes a great base for exploring the northwest of the region. Famous for the 1,000-year-old fortress that looms above it – the largest in Europe – the town is an atmospheric tangle of pretty cobbled streets lined with traditional half-timbered buildings. One of Brittany’s most beautiful châteaux, Rocher Portail, is nearby, as is Rennes, the region’s capital, with its impressive Place de Republique, and lively bar scene, due to the 20,000 students who call the city home. Stay at the 14th-century Château de Montbrault, which oozes classic French style (doubles from £118 B&B, chateau-de-montbrault.com). Ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo, brittany-ferries.com.