Amiens, the regional capital of Picardy, is just an hour’s train ride from Paris, but it’s often overlooked by visitors heading north to Normandy or visiting the nearby World War I battlefields.
While relatively small -- it’s home to only 135,0000 inhabitants -- Amiens offers some truly unusual attractions that are worth a closer look, from lovely canals and one of the most majestic cathedrals in all of France to historical floating gardens, a great Saturday market, and a literary connection. Add to that a manageable and pedestrianized town center, good food, and scenic walks, and you’ve got a city you could easily spend an entire weekend in.
Here are just nine reasons to visit historic Amiens.
1. The Cathedral Is A Marvel
The Amiens Cathedral is one of superlatives. Not only is it the largest Gothic cathedral in France, but it also has the tallest nave of any medieval church in France. Dating to the early 13th century, the cathedral is listed twice by UNESCO, once in its own right, and once as one of the stops on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route.
The cathedral is truly awe-inspiring, and you do not even have to go in to be awed: Just the statues and figures around the building and in the arches of the three portals are stunning. Inside, you’ll find a labyrinth on the floor (designed for pilgrims), a huge wooden choir, a relic of Saint John the Baptist, smaller chapels, stained glass windows, and so much more. Take your time on a visit, because there is a lot to take in.
Look out for the small crying cherub adorning the grave of Guilain Lucas.
2. The Neighborhood Of Saint-Leu Is Delightfully Picturesque
This picturesque neighborhood of Saint-Leu, which dates to the Middle Ages, was once home to tanners, millers, weavers, and craftsmen who needed easy access to water. Located on the River Somme and its many small canals, Saint-Leu is like a cross between Venice and Burano with its colorful houses, many of which either have small moorings for boats and are accessed by tiny bridges or have beautiful spiral staircases out back. You can walk around the canals and find old water-powered mills and many picture-perfect little spots.
Pro Tip: The neighborhood is also home to an old puppet theater, whose hero, Lafleur, dates to 1811. A statue dedicated to him stands at Aristide Briand Square.
3. It’s Home To Unique Floating Gardens
Les Hortillonnages d’Amiens, a large area of marshland in and around Amiens, is a fascinating place where, since the Middle Ages, vegetables have been grown on floating gardens connected by 40 miles of tiny canals, once dug for the harvesting of peat.
Today, most of the plots are used privately as gardens or spots for relaxation, but there are still a few traditional vegetable growers who sell their produce each Saturday on the quays of the river in Amiens. You can go on a scenic boat tour of the area in one of the traditional shallow boats that have been in use here for centuries.
Once a year, on the third weekend in June, the traditional floating market atmosphere of the Middle Ages is reenacted, with gardeners and marketeers wearing traditional costumes.
4. Jules Verne Once Lived There
Jules Verne, who wrote the legendary adventure stories Around the World In Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, lived in Amiens for 18 years, following his wife, who was born in Amiens, to the city. While there, he was visited by the intrepid journalist Nellie Bly, who would travel around the world not in 80 but in 72 days, and today his house is a museum filled with many of his personal items.
5. You Can Climb The Perret Tower
This tower, which you will spot immediately as you emerge from the train station, was France’s first residential skyscraper. While it’s nothing compared with other skyscrapers around the world, this 360-foot tower was completed in the early 1950s and is, in its own way, quite beautiful. The glass cube on its rooftop was added in 2005 and lights up at night.
The tower, much more so than the cathedral, serves as a great marker for finding your way around the streets and parks of Amiens.
While the viewing platform has been closed for years, you can stay the night in the tower. Not only are there a couple of Airbnb properties inside, but the tower is also home to this great apartment on the 19th floor, with fabulous 360-degree views of the city and its surroundings.
6. The Picardy Museum Is Fascinating
This purpose-built museum is a grand affair, both inside and out. The building, not far from the Jules Verne Circus, is in the Second Empire architectural style and looks like it should be a town hall. Inside, the rooms are lovely, and the ceilings amazing. Some rooms are filled to the brim with art, while others give a sense of space and tranquility.
Being the museum to visit in Picardy, it is filled with the best the region and the city of Amiens have to offer: artifacts from ancient Greece and Egypt, archaeological finds from the region, sculptures and paintings, art from the cathedral, and visiting exhibitions. The fine art collection includes paintings by Picasso, Miro, El Greco, and many more.
Pro Tip: Check out this virtual visit before making the trip in person.
7. The Belfry Of Amiens Is A UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Belfry of Amiens dates to the 12th century, although it has been restored and reworked over the last few centuries. Standing solidly in Place au Fil, it is the city’s symbol of independence from feudal powers. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the belfry has served as a meeting place for notables, an armory, a prison, and a lookout. You can climb the 100 steps up to the top for lovely views across the city or go down into the dungeon and marvel at the graffiti, names, and images scratched deep into the stone.
With its interesting and checkered history, the tower is best explored on a guided tour.
8. The Local Crepes Are To Die For
Amiens and Picardy would not be French if they did not have local food specialties to try. From Chantilly cream to their own twist on macarons, and from duck pate to soft Maroilles cheese and lovely battu cake, there is much to discover.
My personal favorite, however, is the ficelle picarde, a local crepe. Perfect for lunch, this savory dish is filled with cheese, ham, and mushrooms. It is usually served in a dish with baked and melted gruyere on top. The sauce is creme fraiche rather than bechamel, making it a little lighter.
Head to Quai Belu, where many small restaurants allow you to sit on the terraces by the water and sample their ficelles. You can easily get a couple of ficelles together with a salad for less than 10 euros.
Pro Tip: Ficelle picarde is a dish that you can easily recreate at home, following the traditional local recipe.
9. It’s Close To The Battlefields Of The Somme
You have had lunch by the Somme, visited its floating gardens by boat, and crossed its many canals, but the Somme has not gained worldwide recognition for any of that. It is the battlefields of the Somme, where men from around the globe fought during World War I, for which this region is known. There are many ways to explore the various sites: by driving, steam train, cycle routes, or -- perhaps the best way to learn about the area’s war history -- guided tour.
Whether you have ancestors who lost their lives here or not, this is a very sober tour, so plan accordingly. If you want the memory to linger, then take an afternoon tour, but if you want to do something more cheerful afterward, opt for a morning tour.