A Weekend in Calais, France

Things to do in Calais

  • Jens headshot 2:6:23
  • The Travel Mum
Driving to France is a great way to visit another country and enjoy its culture, activities and food without the need to fly. Flying can be anxiety inducing for many, for others it is just a bit of a faff. Airport parking, having to get through security, find your departure gate, plus an increased awareness of how we all need to travel a little more sustainably. Driving to France turned out to be a really convenient way for us to travel as a family. Once everything was dumped in the car, we were good to go for our weekend in Calais. We didn’t have luggage limitations, liquid limitations and most importantly, our son could sit in his car seat in a familiar environment and be happily driven from A to B.
DFDS recently invited us to travel from Dover to Calais with them. I want to share our experience with you as it turned out to be a fantastic family trip away. This was the first time we had driven to another country as a family and so we had no idea what to expect. We travelled on a Thursday and returned on the Sunday.
We have since driven to Paris and have a blog post on how we visited Disneyland on a budget


Ferry vs Flying

We quickly realised that driving instead of flying has its benefits, especially when travelling with a little one. The price for the return ferry is usually around £150 per car, divided between a family this is likely going to be much cheaper than flying, especially if you usually take a lot of luggage and pay to reserve seats.
A few benefits of driving to France instead of flying:
  • You can pack as much as you want.
  • You have no limitations on liquids.
  • More eco friendly.
  • Great for people who may be anxious flying.
  • Once you load the car everything is with you therefore minimal carrying is required. Less chances of losing something important!
  • Getting from our home to the ferry was a lot less hassle compared to getting from home to the airplane (no airport parking / security lines etc).
  • Once on the ferry, it was easy to entertain Leo given we could walk around and explore. (More difficult on a plane when stuck in one seat).
  • Once in the country you’re visiting you have your car to explore, so you don’t need to pay any extra for car hire / taxis / public transport. The world is your oyster! We saw that Bruges, Belgium was only an hour and a half away and so set off to visit one afternoon!
  • You can even pack your own food to really cut costs – things you may already in the house like pasta, pasta sauce, snacks, alcohol, cereals will all save you a lot of money if you book self catering accommodation.

Naturally you are limited in where you can go on the ferry, but we are very lucky to have many amazing European countries a drivable distance from our home in the UK. Calais is a vibrant city right by the port, making it a great option if you don’t want to drive too far to experience a new city for the weekend.


Our Experience Travelling by Ferry

Once we arrived at the port, none of the checks required us to leave our car. We had to stop and show our passports at two different stations, there was a security station where some people had a quick look around the outside of the car and had a speedy look in the boot of the car. After this we drove to a waiting area prior to boarding. We got out of the car at this point as we were early and went to buy snacks and use the toilets. There is a building at the Dover port with a Costa, WHSmiths, Burger King and public toilets. We were in the priority boarding queue so were the first to board the ferry. We drove onto the ship, parked up and then went to explore.
You can go and get something to eat or drink in the restaurant, do some duty free shopping or hunt out the play areas if you have little ones. We were given access to the Premium Lounge which is usually £12 each. This was a much more peaceful environment with lovely sea views and a variety of things to eat and drink. Joao had a glass of Prosecco, I had a coffee and Leo had a glass of milk. We snacked on pastries, macaroons, fruit and crisps. We thought this was really great value for a premium experience. It isn’t something we would ordinarily pay for especially with a little one. We usually find that even a child’s happy laughter will upset people who have paid for some peace and quiet! We took a couple of cans of fizzy pop for the journey and went to the restaurant to get some lunch before exploring the kiddy play areas on the 8th deck. There was a small soft play area plus a lego room on the ship we travelled on.

The crossing takes just over an hour and a half and it flew by. Between exploring the premium lounge, having lunch, playing in the kiddie areas and browsing the duty free, we didn’t have any difficult moments where Leo was bored and frustrated. He has now told everyone who will listen about “the boat that carries cars”. He still mentions it weeks later, he was definitely a fan!


Where to stay in Calais


Calais centre is conveniently only a 5 minutes drive from the Port. We stayed at Ibis Styles Calais centre – it cost around £90 per night with breakfast included for a triple room with a double and single bed. The car park was an extra £15 per night which we paid for the convenience. This is a great location surrounded by many places to eat, you are walking distance to all the main sights and the beach is a 15 minute walk away. Here you can see the famous Calais Dragon!

Things to do in Calais, France


Calais Beach

The beach area in Calais is fantastic. A really modern, well designed area. A line of traditional beach huts contrasts perfectly against the vibrant playgrounds, skateparks and the impressive mechanical fire breathing dragon which walks up and down the seafront offering tourists a unique ride (see below). There are a variety of places to eat along the sea front, from fine dining to stalls selling french fries. Make sure to keep an eye out for a Banksy street art piece down by the beach. We visited in the winter but still enjoyed an afternoon here. During the summer it would be a great place to spend the whole day. There are lockers for belongings, public toilets, places to grab food, beach huts, sun beds and activities – everything you need for a perfect beach day.

Calais Dragon

This 12m high, 25m long mechanical fire breathing dragon really is a sight to behold! Take a 45 minute ride on its back whilst enjoying commentary from the local guides. At the time of writing it is €9.50 for people aged 12 and above, €6.50 for those age 4 – 11 and free for children 0 – 3 years old. A really unique experience and one that kids will love.


Calais Belfry

The Calais Belfry is said to be the most beautiful belfry in France. This UNESCO world heritage monument is a must visit when considering things to do in calais. Historically the belfry served as a watch tower, but nowadays you can climb up and simply enjoy beautiful views of the city. There is a lift taking you to the top making it an accessible experience for all. We had a guide who explained the history of the Belfry, its construction and damage during the war. Leo enjoyed the view and looking out for different things we had seen earlier in the day!


Explore the City’s Highlights on Foot

Have a walk around the port area and look for Fort Risban – a 14th Century fort used by the English forces until 1558 when Calais was taken back by France. Cross the bridge towards the town centre and head towards the Calais Lighthouse, bizarrely located amongst residential streets. You can climb its 271 steps for panoramic views of the city. From here head towards Notre-Dame Cathedral, the only church in France built in the English style. Famously Charles de Gaulle married his Calais born wife, Yvonne Vendroux here in 1921. There are 13 street art masterpieces dotted around the city, see if you can find them all!

Visit the Biggest Aquarium in Europe

Nausicaá is located in Boulogne-sur-mer, a 30 minute drive from Calais. Entry is currently €28.50 for those aged 12+ and €21.50 for those age 3 – 12. There are reduce priced tickets for seniors (over age 60), students and those with disabilities. See their website for more information.
The aquarium describes itself as being “much more than just an aquarium. It is a unique centre for the discovery of the marine environment which is fun, educational and scientific all at the same time, focusing mainly on the relationship between mankind and the sea“. It is a really interesting place where you could easily spend a day exploring the different exhibits. Visiting with a three year old meant we couldn’t properly ready everything – his attention at each tank would last 5 minutes at best before he ran on to the next! He had a great time though and I would really recommend this aquarium for everyone, not just families.


Duty Free Shopping on the Way Home

DFDS have built a two story duty free shop in Calais at port side. Make sure you arrive at the port a little early so you have time to have a good look around. We got some bargain prices on boxes of wine and crates of beer for Christmas. A lot of the prices are much cheaper than you find in the supermarket, so it is worth stocking up whilst you’re there.
Overall we had a great family trip and found some really fun and unique things to do in Calais. We love an excuse to experience new things and spend time together. We got to enjoy great food, drinks, attractions and buy all of our Christmas alcohol for a bargain price! I highly recommend checking out DFDS and seeing where you can drive to on your next free weekend.
The post is written in partnership with DFDS and Calais Tourisme. It includes affiliate links, this means we earn a small commission for any sales made through the link, at no extra cost to yourself. Thank you in advance – Jen

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