Dunkirk Sightseeing & Tours

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Things To Do In
Dunkirk

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    Credits: Paul Reed
Dunkirk
Genre Year Box office Rotten Tomatoes
Historical Drama 2017 N/A N/A
Travel Interest Director
Road Trip Christopher Nolan

The French city of Dunkirk, or Dunkerque if you’re actually French, is one of a handful of towns and cities around the world with the auspicious honor of having a film of the same name. But that’s not the only reason you may have heard of this small city in northern France. Dunkirk played a huge part in WWII and has been famous ever since.

In 1940, large numbers of British, French, Belgian and Canadian troops were cut off and surrounded by the German Army during the Battle of France. These events were described as a “colossal disaster” by Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister at the time. The order was given to arrange a mass evacuation of the troops who were about to be captured or killed by the German Army.

What remained of the French Army fought a delaying action against seven divisions of the German Army while the evacuation hastily took place. Over the next eight days, a total of 338,226 soldiers were rescued from the beaches by a fleet of over 800 ships. Although not a victory, this mass evacuation played a huge part in the eventual Allied victory.

That’s the history lesson over. This year, Christopher Nolan’s film of the same name, which tells the story of the evacuation from three different perspectives, is due to be released. And the good news is that you can visit some of the must-see sights from the film yourself. So, if you’re planning a trip to northern France, simply book your car rental in Dunkirk and organize your very own tour.

Looking for things to do in Dunkirk? One of your first stops should be the windswept Dunkirk beach, where the film crew and extras descended en masse. Clearly, 300,000+ extras would be a lot to ask, so some cardboard cut-out soldiers were used in place of real actors to give the illusion of a huge crowd. A real-life French Navy destroyer was also dispensed in from Brittany so computer-generated imagery did not have to be used.

The director also chose to shoot among the stunning architecture of Dunkirk, with a number of key scenes filmed in different locations across the city. For the transformation, Dunkirk’s modern conference center was turned into a factory while the 3-½-mile promenade, with its many cafés, bars and restaurants usually full of people, was turned into a 1940s main street.

There are also some more poignant, real-life reminders of the conflict you really must see. Some of the older houses in the town still have bullet holes the size of baseballs. Then there’s a cowshed at a place called La Plaine du Bois, just outside the small town of Esquelbecq and a 25-minute drive from Dunkirk. This was the site of the Wormhout Massacre, where an SS unit rounded up 80 British troops who had held up their advance. They were locked inside the tiny cowshed and grenades were thrown inside and machine gun chatter filled the air. Miraculously, 15 of the troops survived and managed to escape. The cowshed has been rebuilt and the whole area has been turned into a memorial that you can visit today.

If you’re looking for Dunkirk hotels during your stay then there are plenty of reasonably priced options to choose from. As well as a number of independently run, smaller guesthouses and B&Bs, there are also some bigger chains offering cookie-cutter accommodation.

The best airport to Dunkirk with good coverage is Paris. While Calais Airport and Ostend/Bruges Airport are both closer, they do not offer such a comprehensive range of destinations, so booking flights to Paris is likely to be your best bet and then rent a car to get to Dunkirk.

If you need a little light relief after visiting some of the famous sights from WWII, there’s no better place to find it than at the annual Dunkirk carnival, which is known as the noisiest in France. The carnival runs from mid-January to the end of March, but the festivities reach their peak the three days before Ash Wednesday. Known locally as ‘Trois Joyeuses’, this is when up to 40,000 revellers hit the town, many in dubious drag costumes, to celebrate Dunkirk’s rich fishing heritage. It’s boisterous, noisy and a little bit crazy, but the locals will be delighted to see you! Here’s blogger Pierre’s take on things.