Bordering on Belgium and very near the southern UK, Nord-Pas-de-Calais used to be part of the Netherlands, but became part of France between the years 1477-1678. It is a densely populated region, with over 4 million inhabitants, which make up 7% of France’s population. Nord-Pas-de-Calais has been transformed in the late 20th and early 21st century by the Channel Tunnel, which was completed in 1994. TGV train service connects the city of Lille, the largest in the region, to Paris, making the 150-mile trip in just 59 minutes.
Lille has population of around a quarter-million, while the surrounding metropolitan area that includes Tourcoing, Roubaix, and many suburbs, has a population of over 1 million. Lille-Kortrijk, a district that takes on parts of Belgian cities Ypres, Mouscron, Tournai, and Kortrijk, has a population closer to 2 million. The opening of the TGV train connecting Lille with Paris in 1993, and the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 with the advent of the Eurostar train, put Lille in the midst of an urban triangle cornered by Paris, London, and Brussels.
The architecture in Lille has some Flemish influence, with plenty of brown and red brick and terraced houses, which are more common as one enters Belgium. Things to see in Lille include several botanical gardens: Jardin des Plantes de Lille, Jardin Botanique Nicolas Boulay, and Jardin Botanique de la Faculté de Pharmacie. You should have no trouble getting around Lille, since it has one of the most modern mixed-mode public transportation systems in France including buses, trans, and light rail.
Calais, overlooking the Strait of Dover, has a population of around 126,000. The Strait is the narrowest part of the English Channel, only some 34 km wide. On clear days you can see the famous white cliffs of Dover from Calais. Inhabited since ancient times, the importance of Calais as a port has spanned several centuries. In 1347 the English King Edward III captured Calais, and it was ceded to England in 1360. In 1558 it was recaptured by the French, though it has maintained close ties to England and today is the principal ferry crossing point between France and England.
While Calais has a history of indigenous industries like lace making and paper manufacture, it is a major shopping destination that is very popular with English visitors. The center of town is dominated by Flemish Renaissance architecture, and is known for its Rodin statue of The Burghers of Calais. On the outskirts of the city is a huge shopping complex called Cité Europe, which is next to an upscale factory outlet center called L’Usine. Both are conveniently located near the Channel Tunnel opening.
Boulogne-Sur-Mer is a smaller city, with a population of 45,000, and a metropolitan area population of around 135,000. The Roman emperor Claudius used Boulogne-Sur-Mer as his base for the invasion of Britain in the year 43. The 11th century belfry here is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Medieval castle has a foundation dating to Roman times. Today the castle houses Egyptian art. Other important sites include the Gothic Church of St. Nicholas, and the Cathedral basilica of Notre-Dame, as well as Nausicaa, the French National Sea Centre, dedicated to sea life.