Photo: Vlasyuk Inna/Shutterstock

Dunkirk Is the Small City That Proves Northern France Is Very Much Worth a Visit

France Insider Guides
by Morgane Croissant Mar 8, 2024

Few travelers to France venture out of Paris, and the ones who do tend to limit the scope of their explorations to the big cities of Marseille, Lyon, and Bordeaux. Dunkirk, much like the rest of Northern France, is rarely on travelers’ itineraries. But those brave enough to ignore the stereotypes about the weather will not only discover that Dunkirk is a great stop-over for those on their way to Belgium or England, but that it’s also a lovely destination for the ones who want to see a beautiful and underrated part of France. Dunkirk delivers on beautiful beaches, top-notch food venues, great museums and architecture, and you won’t have to fight crowds of international tourists to enjoy your time there. Here’s how to spend two days in Dunkirk, France.

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How to get to Dunkirk from Paris

Dunkirk is located 185 miles from the center of Paris (about a 3.5-hour drive) and 170 miles from the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (about a 2.5-hour drive). The roads around Paris, however, can be very congested, and the highway between the two cities has a toll fee of around $20 (18.80 €). Taking the train is the easiest way to get from one to the other.

From Gare du Nord, one of Paris’ six train stations, you can catch a high-speed train that will get you to Dunkirk in between two hours and two hours and 45 minutes, depending on the stops the train you opt for makes. There are multiple trains daily and the cost of a one-way ticket starts at $31.50 (29 €). Dunkirk’s train station is located right in the city center.

Dunkirk is also a good stop-over location to see more of Europe:

  • It’s a one-hour drive from Bruges (Dunkirk is just 20 minutes away from the Belgian border)
  • It’s a four-hour drive to Amsterdam
  • It’s a two-hour ferry ride to Dover in England

How to get around Dunkirk

Since 2018, all the buses in Dunkirk have been free every day of the week, including at night. It is the biggest city in Europe to offer free public transport to everyone, locals and tourists. The buses in Dunkirk are safe, clean, frequent, and offer free WiFi. Schedules and maps for all the bus lines in the city are available on the official DK’BUS website.

Dunkirk is a relatively small city and walking between attractions is easily done if you are able-bodied and the weather cooperates.

What to do in Dunkirk, France, on a short trip

Day one: A four-star hotel, a UNESCO-listed site, fries, a museum like no other, and a floating restaurant

Start your trip to Dunkirk by checking in at the centrally located Mercure Dunkerque Centre Gare. Just eight minutes on foot from the train station and facing the marina, this modern hotel might look soulless from the outside, but the inside is colorful and playful, thanks to quirky furniture and fun design elements. The on-site Rose-Mary Food Bar is an excellent place for a light lunch or pre-dinner drinks.

Beffroi de Saint-Éloi de Dunkerque, also known as the Dunkirk Belfry

Beffroi de Saint-Éloi de Dunkerque, also known as the Dunkirk Belfry. Photo: Gauthier Avonture

From the hotel, make your way to what everyone in Dunkirk considers to be the very center of town: The Jean Bart Square. Jean Bart, a famously talented 17th-century privateer working under Louis XIV, was a Dunkirk man through and through and the city honors him with his own statue on a square that bears his name. The area is also home to the most famous monument in the city, the Beffroi de Saint-Éloi de Dunkerque, also known as the Dunkirk Belfry. The bell tower, whose enchanting bells chime every 15 minutes, is UNESCO-listed and can be visited every day throughout the year for the modest price of $5.50 (5 €). Pay the entrance fee, get into the elevator, take a deep breath before tackling the 65 steps to get to the top, and enjoy the panoramic view — it’s worth every penny and bead of sweat. If you happen to be in Dunkerque on a Saturday, make sure to head to the belfry at 4 PM when the official bell ringer plays a variety of tunes for one hour.

The Saint-Éloi Catholic Church in Dunkirk, France

The Saint-Éloi Catholic Church in Dunkirk, France. Photo: Gauthier Avonture

Across from the belfry, as expected, is the church of the same name: The Saint-Éloi Catholic Church. The 16th-century Gothic edifice is not open daily, but if it is when you’re around, make sure to go in to take a peek at the rose window and the tomb of the aforementioned Jean Bart who lies in the choir.

Just two minutes’ walk away from the belfry and the church is the Dunkirk Town Hall. Go and take a quick look at the impressive Flemish brick and stone structure that suffered much damage during the Second World War, but which looks near perfect today.

If you want to build up an appetite before lunch, turn around and walk the 10 minutes to get to the magnificent Moorish building that is the Bains Dunkerquois, a former spa and pool that dates back to the late 19th century. While it’s been abandoned for nearly 40 years, the unique structure should reopen in 2026 as a mixed venue home to a hostel, restaurant, café, and meeting spot. Whatever you do, don’t leave Dunkirk without taking a look at this splendid building whose facade has been restored to its former glory.

For lunch, head over to the friterie Au Coeur de Babeth in the city center. Friteries, i.e. fries shops, are very traditional in this part of France, so count this lunch as a cultural experience. The owner, Babeth, is a chatty and incredibly fun lady who will not hesitate to call you mon chéri as soon as you step in the door. Babeth serves excellent fries and makes a great Américain Fricadelle, a baguette sandwich stuffed with local sausage, fries, and a sauce of your choice to be picked among the 20 kinds available. You can take your order to go or stay and enjoy your meal at one of the few tables on site.

The largest sailboat in France, the Duchesse Anne, located in front of the Maritime and Port Museum of Dunkirk

The largest sailboat in France, the Duchesse Anne, located in front of the Maritime and Port Museum of Dunkirk. Photo: jan kranendonk/Shutterstock

After lunch, walk to the Maritime and Port Museum of Dunkirk, just 13 minutes away on foot from the friterie. Home to the largest sailboat in France (the Duchesse Anne, currently undergoing renovation until the summer of 2025), as well as three other remarkable ships open to visitors, the Maritime and Port Museum is a must-see. Housed in a 19th-century tobacco warehouse, the exhibits are all about the maritime history of Dunkirk — for many centuries, the city’s only raison d’etre was its port and its strategic location on the Channel. Every Sunday from 10 AM to 12:30 PM, and sometimes at night in the summer, the Risban Lighthouse, which is also part of the museum but located a little away from the building, is open to the public. You can climb the 276 steps to the top and enjoy the view from 216 feet above the sea. Make sure to look up the hours of operation for the museum, the ships, and the lighthouse before setting off to avoid disappointments. Combined tickets for the museum, the ships, and the lighthouse are available and valid for seven days. You can also purchase a ticket to see both the Maritime and Port Museum and the Musée Dunkerque 1940 — Opération Dynamo for just $11 (10 €) saving $6.50 (6 €).

From the museum, go back to the hotel to take a break and get ready for dinner. The gourmet restaurant, the Princess Elizabeth, is only three minutes away on foot, so there’s no need to rush. The Princess Elizabetht is not only a great food venue (and bar and tea parlor), it’s also a ship floating in the port of Dunkirk – and a ship whose role in the Second World War cannot be understated. The Princess Elizabeth took part in Operation Dynamo in 1940 during which water crafts of all sizes sailed from England to rescue trapped Allied soldiers who were facing the imminent danger of the German troops closing in on them in Northern France. The Princess Elizabeth was also featured in Christopher Nolan’s 2017 movie Dunkirk. Make a reservation online beforehand to secure a table.

Day two: A walk along the beach, lunch with a sea view, a museum visit, dinner at a castle, and baked goods

For breakfast on your second day in Dunkirk, you have two options: Pay $21 (19 €) for the buffet at the hotel, or go out and find the Boulangerie Pâtisserie Deblock nearby to try out some traditional baked goods. The Deblock shop is 12 minutes away from the hotel, just beyond Jean Bart Square.

Malo-les-Bains Beach in Dunkirk, France. Photo: Tomasz Wozniak/Shutterstock
The beautiful homes that like the beach promenade in Malo-les-Bains in Dunkirk, France. Photo: Massimo Santi/Shutterstock
Extras for the movie "Dunkirk" that was filmed in Dunkirk, France. Photo: fokke baarssen/Shutterstock

From there, you can either walk the 30 minutes to Malo-les-Bains Beach or ride the C3 bus all the way. Walk on the recently renovated promenade and check out the unique and colorful homes that line the path. Keep walking along the dike from where the views of the sea are limitless. Go all the way to the end before turning around and retracing your steps. From this angle, you’ll see miles and miles of dunes and white-sand beaches that stretch way beyond the Belgian border. You’ll recognize the beach and the dike as two of the main filming locations for the movie Dunkirk.

For lunch, stop at the brand new, sea-facing Radisson Blu Grand Hotel & Spa located on the promenade. Their beautifully decorated restaurant, L’Opale, serves French specialties and is open daily from 12 PM to 2 PM. Make a reservation in advance to secure a table.

The facade of the Musée Dunkerque 1940 - Operation Dynamo in Dunkirk, France

The facade of the Musée Dunkerque 1940 – Operation Dynamo in Dunkirk, France. Photo: Petr Kostal/Shutterstock

Afterwards, you can keep walking along the beach, explore the neighborhood of Malo-les-Bains and its pretty houses (also featured in the movie), or take a seven-minute walk across the Lucien Lefol Bridge to visit the Musée Dunkerque 1940 — Operation Dynamo. There you can learn everything about the 1940 evacuation of Allied soldiers, one of the most significant events of the Second World War. By visiting, you’ll also understand why Dunkirk’s motto is “The Spirit of Dunkerque”. The museum is open daily from 10 AM to 6 PM and admission is $9 (8 €), but check out the museum’s schedule before you set off. You can save some money by purchasing a combined ticket to see both the aforementioned Maritime and Port Museum and the Musée Dunkerque 1940 — Opération Dynamo.

Walk 30 minutes from the museum or take the C1 or C2 bus from a nearby stop to one of Dunkirk’s prettiest neighborhoods, Rosendaël. Walk around and check out the traditional Dunkirk homes and the lovely brick building that is the neighborhood’s city hall. From there, you’re only a couple of minutes away from CARMIN Château Loubry, a small castle that hosts a gourmet yet affordable restaurant, a pastry shop, and a tea parlor. Enjoy dinner in the castle’s splendid decor and stop at the pastry shop before going out the door to stock on some delicious supplies. Note that the castle is not open every day so check out the hours of operation and book your table in advance if you can.

The walk back to the hotel takes 40 minutes so opt for the free bus instead. Again, the C1 or C2 buses will take you right back into the city center where your hotel is located.

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