Just 10 km from the Belgian border, the French coastal town of Dunkirk is perhaps best known as the site of one of the most miraculous evacuations in military history. But before World War II, Dunkirk was famous for a very different reason – it grew into one of the most prolific fishing towns in France. Today the town is a vibrant tourist spot with reminders of its rich history etched across the area. For the release of Christopher Nolan’s feature film documenting the events of the 10-day ordeal in 1940, we take a look at the best places to visit in Dunkirk.
Dunkirk’s coastline has come a long way since being the scene of one of the greatest defeats in WWII. The idyllic Malo-les-Bains is now a popular spot for tourists and locals alike, where long evening walks are often accompanied by a baguette with brie or mussels from one of the many restaurants. The nearby Dunkirk Town Cemetery serves as home to the Dunkirk Memorial, while about 10km up the beach at Bray-les-Dunes, the wrecks of both military vessels and small ships can be seen at low tide. To learn more about the battle and the subsequent evacuation, head to the fantastic Dunkirk 1940 Museum, where film footage and relics of the event serve as a humbling reminder of the beach’s history.
Exploring Dunkirk town
While a lot of the old town was destroyed during the Battle of Dunkirk, many of the area’s historic structures stood tall through the fighting. Of these, the red brick Hôtel de Ville (town hall) and Beffroi de Dunkerque (belfry) have both been recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The belfry was originally attached to the old Saint-Éloi but, having been destroyed by fire during an invasion in 1558, the church now stands across the street from its tower. The song La Cantate à Jean Bart plays on the hour, in recognition of the renowned naval commander from the town. Another must-see is the oldest building in Dunkirk, the Tour du Leughenaer. Translating to “Liar’s Tower” in Old Dutch, legend has it ships would often run aground having followed its beacon, before being plundered by the villagers.
Museums and art galleries in Dunkirk
In an old 19th century tobacco factory you’ll find Musée Portuaire, a museum on the docks that documents the city’s vibrant fishing industries. Outside three heritage ships are on display, including the Duchess Anne, the only tall ship you can board for a tour in France. On the coast, opposite the Dunkirk 1940 Museum, is the brilliant LAAC (Lieu d’Art et Action Contemporaine). The contemporary art gallery boasts over 1,500 pieces from the 1940s to 1980s, including works by such artists as Andy Warhol and Arman. Once you’ve finished browsing the collection, take a seat in the gallery’s majestic sculpture garden to watch the birds that flock to the lake outside.
Every year on the three days before Ash Wednesday, the usually peaceful town of Dunkirk transforms into something altogether more raucous. The Dunkirk Carnival has been celebrated for hundreds of years, when the town’s fishermen were sent on perilous journeys into Icelandic seas to source the very best cod and herrings. Men often masquerade as women, while others don extravagant clown-like garb as the Visscherbende band, which has been a part of the festivities from the very earliest years, entertains feasting party-goers while wearing bright yellow fishing hats. Meanwhile, the mayor appears on the balcony of the belfry to enact a tradition that has survived through centuries of celebration – throwing 450kg of wrapped smoked herring to the crowd below to euphoric cries of “les harengs, les harengs!”
Experience Dunkirk for yourself with a crossing from Dover-Calais.