15 Best Things to Do in Picardy

An agricultural region north of Paris, Picardy has magnificent cathedrals and châteaux that have set the scene for many films and TV shows.

One of the country’s big attractions, Parc Astérix lets kids and adults live the adventures of this beloved illustrated character and his friends.

Picardy is also where the Somme Offensive, one of the First World War’s most devastating battles took place, and there are museums and memorials that confront you with the realities of the war.

On the lighter side, Picardy has 72 public parks and gardens, and several of France’s “most beautiful” villages.

Lets explore the best things to do in Picardy:

1. Amiens Cathedral

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Amiens Cathedral

This 13th-century gothic cathedral was completed in just 50 years, leaving the building with a rare coherence of style.

It’s one of the reasons the cathedral is a World Heritage site, but the size of the construction qualifies it too: It is massive, and has the largest interior of any medieval building in Western Europe.

The roof is supported by 126 pillars, and it’s great to stand at the end of the north or south aisle and see the rows of vast but dainty vaults.

On the south transept portal and west facade there’s some marvellous sculpture, representing Christ in Majesty on the Day of Judgement  and portraying a variety of saints relevant to the Amiens area.

2. Parc Astérix, Plailly

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Parc Astérix, Plailly

Goscinny and Uderzo’s illustrated books are among France’s most famous cultural exports of the last 50 years, loved by generations of young readers.

Kids can act out these adventures in real life at this theme park, while many adults will fondly recall the stories from their own childhoods.

The park’s environment, log-flumes, roller coasters, shows and amusements are all inspired by settings or characters from the books.

Take the log flume, Menhir Express, based on Obelix, or Ozlris, a recent steel roller coaster, themed on the Ancient Egypt you see in Asterix and Cleopatra.

3. Château de Chantilly

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Château de Chantilly

The Château de Chantilly is an opulent renaissance-style building that was wrecked in the revolution and rebuilt in the 1870s with a new design.

In the estate are symmetrical parterres, an English garden and a regal 18th century stables.

But the headline is the Musée Condé, a supreme art museum based on the collection of the Duke of Aumal, the son of France’s last king, Louis Philippe I. There are more than a thousand works here, mostly from the renaissance, a good number of which are masterpieces: Raphael’s Three Graces and Botticelli’s Autumn are on show.

The library is magnificent too, and has some invaluable medieval manuscripts, like the Ingeborg Psalter and a leaf from the Registrium Gregorii dating to the 10th century.

4. Château de Pierrefonds

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Château de Pierrefonds

The towers of Château de Pierrefonds rising over the Compiègne Forest is a chivalric scene that may be familiar to you: It has starred in various TV shows and movies, including the BBC series Merlin, and the version of the Man in The Iron Mask, with Leonardo DiCaprio.

The current layout is from the turn of the 15th century, during the Hundred Years’ War.

But after centuries of decay Napoleon III ordered a restoration in the 1800s, led by Viollet-le-Duc at incredible expense.

What Viollet-le-Duc made is a majestic, idealised vision of the 15th century, although the huge sums involved meant that the interior was never completed.

if you’re with little guys they’ll get a kick out of the spooky crypt, with special effects, and the mock-up tombs of France’s most famous figures.

5. Musée Somme 1916, Albert

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Musée Somme 1916, Albert

It’s only right that this museum about one of the First World War’s most notorious battles should be set ten metres underground.

The museum is in a medieval tunnel, 250 metres long and has photographs, working models, tableaus, dioramas, weapons and other battlefield artefacts.

Cramped trenches, with light and sound effects may give you fleeting glimpses of what it was like on the front line.

At the start of the visit you can also watch a 3D presentation illustrating the wider picture of the war and pointing out the local landmarks during the four month battle in 1916.

6. Beauvais Cathedral

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Beauvais Cathedral

Viollet-le-Duc, the 19th-century restorer who rebuilt the Château de Pierrefonds and the walls at Carcassonne described this church as “the Parthenon of the French Gothic”. It was constructed when cities competed to have record-breaking cathedrals, which was partly the building’s undoing.

Beauvais has the tallest gothic choir in the world, at 48.5 metres, but these huge dimensions caused structural problems and the nave and tower, which would also have smashed records were never completed.

Take a peek at the interior to see the trusses added to bind the building together.

There’s also a working medieval clock from the 1300s, and the 19th-century astronomical clock displays the time in various cities worldwide, as well as the positions of the planets and sunrise and sunset.

7. Maison de Jules Verne, Amiens

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Maison de Jules Verne, Amiens

Jules Verne moved into this luxurious mansion on rue Charles Dubois with his wife Honorine in 1882 when he was at the height of his fame.

They lived here until 1900, and in 1980 the house was bought by the city.

The museum really fell into place in 2000 when it purchased the collection of Piero Gondolo della Riva, a Verne scholar and fanatic who had spent a lifetime amassing 30,000 manuscripts, first editions, posters, letters and objects relating to the author.

So you can see Verne’s office, furnished with his possessions, and go up to the attic where there’s a map of the world that he marked, and a whole trove of other items that will keep a Verne fan absorbed for hours.

8. Château de Compiègne

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Château de Compiègne

From the 14th century onwards Compiègne was a summer residence for French monarchs, who came here to hunt in the estate’s deep forests.

Louis XIV visited 75 times, while his successor Louis XV was particularly infatuated with the place as hunting was his passion.

It was also one of three seats of government, and then an imperial domain when Napoleon was in power.

So you can indulge your curiosity about the First and Second Empires on your way through lavishly-decorated halls and apartments.

There’s also a transport museum with vehicles dating as far back as the 1700s: The cream of the collection is La Jamais Contente, and electric car from 1899.

9. Laon Cathedral

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Laon Cathedral

The towers of this wondrous building command the low-lying landscape around just as they’d have done in the 1200s when it was built.

The western facade deserves a few minutes of awestruck meditation: It will remind you of the Notre-Dame in Paris, and above the central portal here is one of the French gothic’s most beautiful rose windows.

Get up close to the towers and you can see life-sized sculptures of oxen, commemorating the beasts that helped to pull the stone up the hill to build the cathedral.

Inside you should locate the 12th-century font, with primitive carvings, and a 12th-century icon of the Holy Face, painted in Serbia and gifted to the church by Pope Urban V.

10. Familistère de Guise, Aisne

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Familistère de Guise, Aisne

This Utopian worker’s community was the brainchild of the industrialist and social innovator Jean-Baptiste André Godin.

In line with his ideas about worker’s rights, he developed a “social palace” between 1858 and 1883 for people employed at his stove-making factory.

There are three blocks, each four storeys tall and surrounding a courtyard beneath a metal-and-glass canopy.

This open space was a play area for children, while moments from the living quarters were amenities like  a pool, laundry, school and theatre.

The project survived for decades, housing 1,748 at its peak in 1889.

11. Jardins de Valloires, Argoules

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Jardins de Valloires, Argoules

These gardens cover eight hectares in the grounds of Valloires Abbey in the Somme department.

The abbey is from the 1700s, but the gardens are much more recent, only established in the early-1980s.

They are founded on the collection of one Jean-Louis Cousin, a botanist who had 3,000 plant specimens but nowhere for them to go.

Now there are more than 5,000 different kinds of plants, from 2,030 species, most of which are from Central and East Asia.

Come in April when the cherry blossoms are astonishing.

The collections are arranged in French parterres, an English garden and a less formalised wild space.

In the summer you can also go inside the Abbey, to see the sacristy’s oak panelling, and the church with its gilded baroque decor.

12. War Memorials, Somme

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War Memorials, Somme

One of the many shocking things about the First World War, and the Battle of the Somme in particular, is the amount of missing soldiers without graves.

The 72,246 British missing servicemen are remembered at Thiepval, which is the largest monument for missing Commonwealth servicemen  in the world.

Nearby, Beaumont-Hamel is dedicated to 814 members of the Dominion of Newfoundland who died in the war.

The site has the largest preserved section of the Somme battlefield, a large, cratered green field etched with trenches.

A memorial for the grim first day of the battle on July 1 1916 is the Lochnagar Crater, created when a mine with 2.7 tons of explosives was detonated to signal the start of the attack.

13. Mers-Les-Bains

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When it heats up in summer this resort, hemmed on two sides by chalk cliffs, is an elegant way to get some sea air.

The beachfront is very charming, with a long row of tall art nouveau mansions, all with slightly different designs, with their timber frames and wooden balcony’s painted a variety of bright colours.

The beach has large pebbles, but is a joy in summer when you can wander along the promenade and go down to water to dip your feet in the sea.

14. Saint-Valery-sur-Somme

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Set where the Somme flows into the Channel, this adorable coastal village has much to see for such a small place.

On the harbour is the quaint Courtgain quarter, with old fisherman’s houses painted in bright colours.

The higher medieval part of the village is still within its walls and there are still towers on the main gate giving you a dignified welcome.

See if you can find the remnants of La Tour Harold, supposedly where Harold Godwinson was kept after his shipwreck at Ponthieu in 1065. Saint-Valery is also a stop on the Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme, a heritage steam railway touring the Bay of Somme in the summer.

15. Gerberoy

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This village in the Oise department is impossibly cute, and is listed as one of the “most beautiful” in France.

It has creaking, half-timbered 17th and 18th century buildings lining little lanes and passages.

Gerberoy is pretty at any time of year, but is irresistible from spring to mid-July.

This is when the roses that climb the walls of these houses are in bloom.

The man to praise for this colourful and fragrant display is the impressionist painter Henri Le Sidaner, who fell in love with Gerberoy and moved there at the turn of the 20th century.

When he started planting roses in his garden and around the old fort the rest of the village joined in, and these bushes became a fixture.

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