Paris may have the glamour and the French Riviera the guaranteed sunshine but there are some spectacular spots near Calais, with many top tourist stops within an hour’s drive of the city.
And with Eurotunnel taking you to Calais in just 35 minutes, touring northern France by car is an easy, fun way to explore - especially on a day trip or short break.
The north offers such a mix of history, culture, architecture and stunning scenery - and all within a stone's throw of the Eurotunnel terminal just outside Calais.
Here is our pick of what to do and see on your next road trip across the Channel...
FIRST STOP CALAIS
Known as a place to find great beaches and bargains galore, it's definitely worth making Calais your first stop on your trip to France.
Just a five-minute drive from the Eurotunnel terminal is Cité Europe, a shopping centre with more than 120 outlets, a vast Carrefour supermarket and an array of top restaurants.
Travelling by car allows you can take home plenty of fine wine, beer and French food - what's not to like?
For a more authentic shopping experience, head to the open-air markets at the impressive Place d’Armes in Calais’ old town.
While you're there, pay a visit to the grand town hall of Calais, Hôtel de Ville, a stunning example of Neo-Renaissance architecture. Climb to the top of the elaborate clock tower and on a clear day you might even be able to see the White Cliffs of Dover.
With plenty of local farmers, there is an abundance of fresh produce to be found at the bustling Saturday morning market in the centre of St Omer. Around since medieval times, it is definitely worth getting up early for. Stalls are piled high with homemade jams, vegetables and artisan cheeses, with authentic patisseries and chocolate shops also dotted around this quaint French town.
Saint Omer is also entirely surrounded by Parc Naturel Régional des Caps et Marais d’Opale, home to the famous Audomarois marshes - the only cultivated wetlands left in France. A haven for wildlife, you can book a boat tour of the area, in the town.
For those fascinated by history, the sweeping concrete dome of La Coupole, once an underground fortress used by Hitler to manufacture a secret weapon, is a must see. Enshrouded in forest and foliage, the building is now a museum.
Head down the coast from Calais, and you soon reach Boulogne. This busy fishing port is home to the largest aquarium in Europe where there's all manner of weird and wonderful sea creatures to marvel at. More than 58,000 animals live in the 17 million litres of seawater at Nausicaa, from sharks and manta ray to sunfish and seals. With a glass tunnel and huge 60 metre tank, a trip here is sure to spark a long-lasting curiosity in the mysteries of the deep.
Boulogne's love of the sea doesn't stop at Nausicaa. As the largest fishing port in France, the town is renowned seafood. If you can brave the early morning and water-sloshed floors, you can get your hands on everything from lobsters and crabs to plaice and cod at the fish market.
If you prefer a more gentle start to the day, head to Boulogne's historic old town. The pretty cobbled streets are lined with authentic fromageries and coffee shops. And don't miss exploring the town's prominent most famous landmark, the Basilica of Notre Dame.
Just a shade further south is the chic seaside town of Le Touquet.
Known as 'Paris-on-Sea' and a holiday destination for many French families, Le Touquet has plenty to offer. Take a wander through the wide, leafy boulevards and you'll soon find splendid examples of 1920s design flair, with an array of pastel-coloured historic seaside villas and classy boutiques. I you're feeling lazy, jump on the “petit train” tour, which weaves through the streets at a leisurely pace.
On the wide open beach, hire a deck chair and while away the hours with your toes in the sand, beside the colourful beach huts and little stalls selling indulgent chocolate crepes and fried chi chi dusted in sugar. Activities include early morning horse rides, where you can canter through the surf for an exhilarating experience or take advantage of the long stretch of perfectly flat sand and race on a sand yacht.
Head north from Calais and all roads lead to Belgium, but make time to stop at fascinating Dunkirk. Famed for its carnival - one of the biggest in northern France - the port is rich in culture and history.
For hiking enthusiasts, explore the 600 hectare Dunes of Flanders, or if you fancy something more nautical,you can have a go at kitesurfing, paddle-walking or land-sailing. There are pictureque parks dotted around the town, including the Sculpture Garden, home to a range of contemporary artworks in a splendid outdoor setting, and the Parc de Malo is just a few steps from the beach of Malo-les-Bains. No trip to the town is complete without a stroll around the Port Museum. A former tobacco warehouse, it makes sure the town's recent history is never forgotten.
The impressive 18th century cathedral, with an ornate 30-metre spire, gives you a taste of the city’s 2,000-year-old history. You can learn all about the cathedral on the highly recommended guided tour.
Spanish and Flemish inspired buildings surround the two historic squares, one of which hosts the fantastic Village de Noël Christmas market. Between November 25 and December 30, the Grand Place is transformed into a festive dreamland, with an ice rink, carousel and more than 100 stalls. Although slightly smaller, the Place des Héros is equally pretty and features the city’s town hall. Both squares hold an open-air market on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the year.
Arras also has a thriving restaurant scene, with plenty of delicious, authentic French food to indulge in after a day browsing the market stalls.
Head further south and you soon stumble upon Amiens.
Often overlooked, the capital of the Somme is a pretty, colourful city, with canals winding alongside the picturesque streets, and the largest cathedral in France.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens is a stunning 13th century Gothic design with beautiful stained-glass windows. This mighty structure can shelter 10,000 people in its walls and is listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Feast your eyes on its soaring arches and 234m-long labyrinth, or watch the incredible sound and light show which illuminates the exterior walls at Christmas time.
In the shadow of the cathedral sit the canals where you will find floating markets lining the water's edge, offering an assortment of food, art and souvenirs.
If you're driving west from Calais, you won't be able to miss Lille.
Recent decades have seen the capital of the Hauts-de-France region transform from an industrial centre into a buzzing cultural and commercial hub.
Highlights include its enchanting markets, impressive art galleries, stylish shops, outstanding cuisine and fantastic night life. Europe's biggest flea market Braderie de Lille runs here for 33 hours non-stop over the first weekend of September, and delicious food, flowers, fabrics and exotic wares can be found at Wazemmes Market, one of the largest in France.
A true city within a city, the Citadel is a walled fortress within Lille, surrounded by bastions in the shape of a five-point star. A structural masterpiece, it is still occupied by the army and may only be visited as part of a guided tour. Make sure to also visit is The Belfry. At 104m, it was the first building in France over 100m to be made entirely of reinforced concrete, and acts as a landmark for the entire area. However, The Old Stock Exchange is arguably the city's finest monument.
After lots of walking, have a well deserved rest and stop for a cup of fresh coffee at the the Grand Place Plaza, the beating heart of the town.
With winding cobbled streets, medieval buildings and criss-crossing canals, you will feel as though you've stepped back in time. The centre of Bruges is enclosed by ancient walls and bridges arch over a looping canal leading into the very heard of the city. Despite being small enough to navigate on foot, the city is packed full of history, art and culture.
If you are limited on time, the belfry of Bruges is a must. This tower stands 83 metres tall and houses, among other things, a carllion of 47 bells. Climb up the 366 steps and you will be rewarded with stunning panoramic views. In front of the belfry Market Square, where horse-drawn carriages wait to guide you through the street of this romantic of the city. In a country renowned for chocolate, it would be rude not to visit the Choco Story Museum. Let yourself be whisked away on an indulgent journey that ends with some truly delicious samples.
One of Belgium's best kept secrets, Ghent is a cultural hub with a mix of medieval buildings, galleries and trendy shops.
Home to the most stolen piece of art in history, Saint Bavo's Cathedral attracts thousands of people every year. The port city is also well known for the mysterious 12th century Castle of the Counts, with its gatehouse, medieval turrets and eerie collection of torture equipment.
After absorbing the history, hire a bicycle and head to the largest pedestrian shopping area in Belgium, brimming with famous clothing stores alongside chic boutiques. If you fancy quenching your thirst, make your way to one of the newly established microbreweries and grab a pint of Belgium beer.
Closer still to Calais is historic Ypres. After being largely reduced to rubble by the First World War, the town has been painstakingly and respectfully rebuilt.
Flanders Field Museum helps to get across the shear devastation and loss caused by the war and every evening at the nearby Menin Gate, a moving tribute is held to honour those who lost their lives in what was called the war to end all wars. Police halt the traffic while buglers play The Last Post - it's been a daily tradition in the town since 1928. A little further north of the town, you will find the largest military cemetery in Europe, Tyne Cot and a preserved trench system, so you can really feel what it was like for the soldiers of both armies. Some of the smaller cemeteries are included in the Peace Route cycling trail - a 45km route in and around Ypres, offering the opportunity to explore the countryside and battle sites.
Modern day Ypres is a thriving town. As well as boasting one of the most picturesque market squares in the country, there is also a beautiful view of Ypres which can be found by walking along the historic city ramparts, which are free to explore. And of course, there are plenty of buzzing restaurants and bars serving traditional Belgium food and drink.