My favourite guide book of all time is the Penguin Guide to Medieval Europe. Full of Cathedrals, Castles and Cities. Amiens gets top billing, why I haven’t visited before is a mystery to me. What to do in Amiens apart from the Cathedral, lots as it turns out.
What to do in Amiens
Amiens is just an hour and half drive from the mouth of the Eurotunnel, the perfect distance from home for us for a weekend break. The biggest draw for me was what many say is the finest Gothic Cathedral in the world. Let me show you what else we found to do in Amiens.
Amiens Cathedral is stunning. I say this as a veteran of many, many Cathedrals. We walked round the outside of the Cathedral in the dark and were wowed by looming gargoyles. In the daylight the detail is incredible and at night, during the Chroma display, the facade is lit fantastically. That’s before you get inside. It has two UNESCO listings: one for the building itself and the other for its status as an important place on the Pilgrimage Route to Santiago de Compostela.
As you look up at the main facade of Amiens Cathedral, it looks as if every available space is filled with ornate carving. Look closely and you can see the remnants of the paint that would have adorned all of the statues. The effect is quite incredible making some of the statues look almost life like. All the usual stories of Jesus, Mary and the Saints are told but what I have never seen anywhere before are carvings depicting the signs of the zodiac.
Once inside you begin to sense just how vast the building is. The tallest nave in France soars above you. This is France’s largest gothic Cathedral and the second largest in Northern Europe. At 140 metres long and 70 metres wide you could fit two Notre Dame de Paris inside, with space to spare.
In the centre of the nave is a tiled labyrinth dating from just ten years after the Cathedral was built. Pilgrims unable to make the journey to Santiago or Jerusalem could follow the maze seeking atonement from the completion of the maze.
The choir stalls have 4,000 sculpted figures on them and are reckoned to be the finest in France.
The choir itself is edged with fantastic polychrome sculptures depicting the life of John the Baptist. The Cathedral’s main relic is part of the head of John the Baptist. Scientific analysis has shown it to be of a youngish man, from what is now Israel at about 2,000 years ago. Whether or not it is John the Baptist, the bones are certainly very old and have been venerated for millennia.
On the other side the choir are wall paintings and more polychrome sculptures which mark the tomb of St Firmin, the first bishop of Amiens.
Magnificent stained glass marks the chapel dedicated to the British soldiers who lost their lives on the nearby Somme battlefields during the First World War.
At the back of the main alter on a seventeenth century tomb is a small carved weeping angel. This so caught the imagination of the many soldiers during WW1 that they sent postcards of it back home. He really does look bereft and is subtly lit by the stained glass windows.
We left the Cathedral by the north door, if you do make sure you take a look at the magnificent golden Madonna.
Once outside turn left and walk around the back of the Cathedral for great views of the flying buttresses and gargoyles.
- Amiens Notre Dame Cathedral
- Admission: Adults €5.50 adults, free under 18s
- Open: Daily 8.15am – 6.15pm (5.15pm October – March)
In medieval times the Cathedral would have been brightly painted inside and out. You don’t just have to imagine what it would have looked like as it is recreated during the Chroma lightshow that runs every night in the summer and during the Christmas market. Our teens were less than thrilled that they had to stand around outside for half an hour but walked away afterwards saying it was one the best things they had seen ever.
- Chroma Amiens
- Every night 15 June – 22 September
- 10.45pm June, 10.30pm July, 10pm August, 9.45pm September
- Every night mid November and December during the Christmas market at 7pm
Discover the Picardy Museum
The Musée de Picardie or Picardy Museum was the first purpose-built public art gallery in France. It has been undergoing a complete restoration for the last two years letting those nineteenth century colours shine through. The building itself is stunning and the art hung on the walls well worth seeing.
- Musée de Picardie or Picardie Museum
- Reopens 1 March 2020
- Closed Mondays
Jules Verne House
Jules Verne, author of Around the World in 80 Days, married a local girl and lived and worked in Amiens. The house in which he lived is now a museum. You can see the desk where the great man wrote all those books. The house is a splendid art nouveau confection worth seeing for the spiral staircase alone.
- Jules Verne’s House
- Admission: Adults €7.50, children €4
- Open: April – October: Monday, Wednesday – Friday 10am – 12.30pm + 2pm – 6.30pm, Saturday and Sunday 11am – 6.30pm, Tuesday 2pm – 6.30pm
- Open: November – Easter: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday: 10am – 12.30pm + 2pm – 6pm, Saturday and Sunday 2-6 p.m. Closed Tuesday
Discover Jules Verne’s Circus
Jules Verne was a great devotee of the circus. So much so that in 1889 he had a special circus building designed and built in Amiens. It is still there and circuses are still put on there. You can even learn circus skills. I would love to learn how to juggle.
Revel in three UNESCO sites
OK there actually only two sites but three listings. The Cathedral has one for being amazing and one for being on the Santiago pilgrimage route. The Belfry of Amiens gets a UNESCO listing as being part of the collection of belfries in Northern France and Belgium (check out my Bruges post for another UNESCO belfry). the Belfry dates from the 15th century and stands four square on its own in Place au Fil.
Cruise around the Hortillonnages
Water is everywhere you look in Amiens, one of the reasons it is known as the Venice of the North. Ever since Roman times the marshy ground in the Somme valley at Amiens has been used to grow vegetables. Even today there are 750 acres of small gardens called Hortillonnages. You can access these gardens only by boat. We visited in winter when it was not possible to visit but will be the reason that we return. There is a museum telling the story of the gardens and regular tours on an electric boat.
Stroll around the quaint streets of Saint Leu
As the Somme flows through Amiens it divides into many different channels. The oldest district of the town has many bridges crisscrossing the rivers and cute cobbled streets. Many of the houses in the area are ancient half-timbered structures. This is the place to come and eat or drink sat by the waterside.
Take an Insta worthy snap of the Dewailly Clock
This spiky art nouveau clock was built using money left by Mayor Dewailly to build a memorial at the end of the nineteenth century. With the Cathedral in the background it makes a fine Instagram post.
Eat a Macaron
Not just any old macaron but a macaron made by the family of Madame Macron. The Trogneux family (Madame Macron was Mme Trogneux before she married) has been making traditional Amiens Macarons since 1898 and every year they produce two million of the tiny almond cakes. They also do a very tempting range of chocolate.
St Martin of Tours
St Martin of Tours is the patron saint of France. As his name implies he was Bishop of Tours but the act that made him a saint was performed in Amiens. St Martin started life as a Roman and became a Christian when he was very young. As a soldier he was sent to Gaul. One day as he was approaching Amiens he met a ragged beggar. On a whim he cut his cloak in half to share with the man. That night Martin dreamt of Jesus wearing half his cloak and when he woke the cloak was whole again. Martin then quit the military and became a priest. That cloak was not only miraculous, it is also the source of two words. The cloak became a relic, the priest who cared for it was called a cappellanu. Later all priests who served in military became known as cappellani which morphed into the English chaplain. Small temporary structures were built to shelter the cloak as it travelled and these were known as cappella or little cloak. Over time chapel became the word for a small church. St Martin is long gone but you can see a plaque devoted to his saintly act.
Buy Food fresh from the Hortillonnages
Les Halles du Belfrois is home to stalls selling cheese, meat, wine, vegetables and seafood every day from 9am to 7pm (midday on Sunday). For traditional French outdoor markets there is the Market Place Maurice Vast that takes place at the foot of the Belfry every Wednesday and Saturday. Hortillons used to put their produce onto boats and sell it on the Place Parmentier on the banks of the Somme, produce is still sold there every Saturday morning.
See Europe’s Tallest Building
Well, not any more. When it was built in 1952 the Tour Perret was the tallest building in Europe. Even now when you come off the motorway and look down over Amiens the skyline is dominated by the Cathedral and Tour Perret. At night the tower is lit up. Tour Perret is an apartment block and so going inside is not an option.
Shop the Christmas Market
Amiens is host to the biggest Christmas market in northern France every year between mid-November and the end of December. Hundreds of quaint wooden chalets spring up selling all things Christmas.
Eat in a riverside restaurant
The St Leu area of Amiens is exceptionally pretty and the banks of the Somme are lined with restaurants. We visited in the winter but they look like the perfect place to sit on a summer’s evening with a glass of something. We ate at Le Quai on Quai Bélu and also Le Retroviseur on the opposite bank of the river.
Explore WW1 Battlefields
The Somme is synonymous with the battlefields of World War One. Indeed the battle of Amiens took place on 8 – 11 August 1918 marked the beginning of the Hundred Days Offensive that led to the end of World War One. Amiens itself was behind the frontlines and was the place that many soldiers were sent to between stints in the trenches. Amiens would make an excellent base to explore the Somme battlefields. We visited the Thiepval memorial designed by Lutyens and inscribed with the names of 72,000 soldiers who died on the Somme but were never found. Chilling that such beautiful, peaceful countryside could be the site of so much death and destruction.
Where to stay in Amiens
We stayed a short walk from the centre at La Cour 26 in a family suite a small chic bed and breakfast which suited us perfectly.
How to get to Amiens
Amiens is an easy drive from Calais using either the Eurotunnel or ferries from Dover. If you want to be car free Amiens is an easy train hop from Lille. Eurostar trains from St Pancras International to Lille take just under an hour and a half. In Lille you need to change train stations but it is less than a 10 minute well signposted walk the train to Amiens takes an hour and a quarter.
Is Amiens worth visiting?
Yes for the Cathedral alone. Amiens makes an ideal weekend destination for people based in the London and South East of England who don’t want to fly. We loved the Cathedral, the Picardy Museum, wandering around the cute St Leu district and will return for the Hortillonnages. Our teens went to the Jules Verne house knowing nothing about him and came out wanting the read the books and we all loved the Chroma show. When we undertake European road trips we like to book end our journey with a couple of nights in an interesting place about 4 – 5 hours from home, Amiens is the perfect stop before crossing the Channel. In the past we’ve stopped at Aachen, Reims and Duisburg.
DISCLAIMER: We were guests of Amiens Tourist Board for our stay, all views and a fondness for UNESCO sites are my own.