The city's origins are as a medieval port protected by a castle up on the hill, which stands to this day, now a museum. After extensive allied bombing during World War II the city and the port were rebuilt post-war thus creating what is now known as the Old Town (inside the castle walls which largely escaped the destruction) and the New Town at the riverside and on the seafront.
Today Boulogne is the principal fishing port for all of France, where fish is auctioned, frozen, salted, smoked and processed for distribution across the whole country in the commercial port district.
The place used to be a very touristy place, and having once had a direct ferry service from Dover and Folkestone, it used to be popular with British day-trippers and, later, booze cruisers. After the opening of the Channel Tunnel, however, ferry services were reduced and then stopped altogether. Since then various companies have tried and failed to run profitable ferry services.
Nevertheless though not as swamped with tourists as it once was, Boulogne remains popular with visitors, mainly British and Belgian, as it remains only 30 minutes' drive from Calais, 20 from the Channel Tunnel, and is still considered by many to be prettier and more interesting than Calais.
The A16 motorway passes round the back of the city - junctions 32, 31, 30 and 29 are all for various parts of Boulogne. Ample parking is available at the riverside in the New Town. The old main road from Calais, the D940, enters Boulogne from the north, on the coast, and leaves towards Le Touquet, through the suburb of Outreau. The N41 from St Omer enters Boulogne from the east.
- 1 Boulogne-Ville railway station (Gare de Boulogne-Ville), 3 Boulevard Voltaire. The main station, ten minutes on foot from the city centre.
Boulogne is the centre of an extensive bus network reaching all of its outlying suburbs and satellite towns. There is also a reliable taxi service.
Boulogne is a 30-minute drive from the Port of Calais.
The Old Town
Sometimes also called the Upper Town. The walled old town contains the castle, basilica, belfry and town hall surrounded by many interesting narrow streets, shops, and cafes. It is located about 800 m up the hill, east of the harbour, and contains:
- 1 Basilica of Notre Dame de Boulogne. Very prominent landmark of the city, it was built between 1827 and 1875. In its crypt, you can still see the stone cannonballs employed by Henry VIII when he besieged and captured Boulogne at one stage. The dome is 101 m high.
- 2 Column of the Grande Armée (Colonne Napoléon). 53-metre-high Corinthian order triumphal column that was intended to commemorate a successful invasion of England - that never occurred -, it now commemorates the first distribution of the Imperial Légion d'Honneur at the "camp de Boulogne" by Napoleon to his soldiers.
- The Walls - Vast ramparts built at the beginning of the 13th century on the foundations of the Gallo-Roman walls, with four gateways, surround this part of town. From the walkways there is an amazing view of the old port and the main town.
- The Castle - In a corner is the 13th-century Château, with its moats filled with water and waterlilies, modified in the 16th and 18th centuries. The Castle houses a museum with the most important exhibition of masks from Alaska in the world, the second largest collection of Greek ceramics in France, collections of Roman and medieval sculptures, an Egyptian collection.
The New Town
Or sometimes called the Lower Town. This is the modern Boulogne at the riverside and sea-front, which contains:
- 3 Nausicaa, Boulevard Sainte-Beuve, ☏ . A massive aquarium and centre of all things to do with marine life and conservation. Contains a particularly good fish restaurant.
- Beach - Boulogne does have a beach with all the usual amenities in high season (children's club, lifeguards and so forth) however most of the locals prefer the beaches at Equihen, Le Portel and Hardelot.
- Cinema - In the New Town
- The Market - Wednesdays and Saturdays.
- The main shopping streets are around Rue Adolphe Thiers, in the New Town, 5 blocks east of the harbour. There is one large supermarket in the town (a Carrefour) on the Station Road.
- Boulogne has two hypermarkets, an Auchan in the St Martin suburb (at the Boulogne end of the N41, Junction 31 of the A16), and, on the other side of town, an E.Leclerc in the Outreau suburb. Both are surrounded by other large out of town style shops. The largest shopping centre in the area, the Cite D'Europe at the Channel Tunnel, is 20 minutes drive away.
Most of the restaurants are in and around the Place Dalton in the New Town, though there are a few up in the Old Town as well. The most famous and long established is Hamiot's.
There are many excellent bars in both the Old and New Towns.
There's a small Ibis in the City Centre, and most of the rest of the hotels are small privately owned establishments out towards the beach.
There is also a youth hostel (auberge de jeunesse) opposite the main station (Gare de Boulogne), which is open year round and offers accommodation for around €16.
- 1 Holiday Suites Boulogne-Sur-Mer, Boulevard du Quai Chanzy (in front of the Casino), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 15:00, check-out: 10:00. Studios for 2 people but also apartments for 4 up to 6 people. Every holiday home has a kitchen and living room with television. Some of the holiday homes have a balcony.
Just outside of town is the Column of the Grande Armée, a park where a (somewhat presumptive) monument commemorates Napeleon's successful invasion of England.
- Le Portel, Equihen, Hardelot and Le Touquet are all sought after by the locals of Boulogne for better beaches, and all are within an hour's drive southbound on the D940.
- Montreuil is about an hour's drive on the N1
- Saint-Omer is also about an hour's drive on the N41.
- The Cote D'Opale itself in either direction on the D940 including the beauty spots of Cap Griz-Nez and Cap Blanc-Nez (north of Boulogne).
- Calais, Dunkirk and, eventually, the Belgian Border are 30 min, 1 hr and 1 hr 15 min respectively on the A16.
- Also Paris, Lille and Amiens are directly accessibly by rail.