All the fun things to do in the Ardennes

You’ll find the peaceful landscape of the French Ardennes just two hours from Paris but a world away from the hubbub of France’s capital.

Less well known than its neighbours in Belgium (where the Ardenne is spelt without an ‘s’) but equally picture perfect, this is a region of wooded hills and characterful towns that have been shaped by the Meuse and Semoy rivers.

There are lots of things to do in the Ardennes and you can easily fill a week or more exploring the Great Outdoors.

Things to do in the Ardennes, France
The beautiful Semoy River

The Ardennes is really one big natural playground where families can take part in all kinds of adventures. Activities include sailing, kayaking, hiking, swimming, horseback riding and walking in the ardennes. My personal favourite thing to do is the zipline, which transports you at 100km per hour across the Meuse river.

If you’re looking for a family holiday in France where culture, cuisine and adventure collide then the Ardennes is just the place.

Disclosure: I was a guest of Ardennes Tourism on a press trip organised by BritMums for the purpose of this family travel guide. All opinions are, as always, entirely my own.

Activities to do in the Ardennes

Things to do in the Ardennes, France
Kayaking down the Semoy River

The gateway to the French Ardennes, that starts north-east from the Champagne region and rises up to the Belgian border, is the capital Charleville-Mézières. A tale of two cities, there’s a fascinating story behind the two neighbouring destinations.

On one side of the river sits Mézières that was founded in the Middle Ages. It was destroyed during the French Wars of Religion after which the young Duke of Mantua, Charles de Gonzague, decided he would build a new town from scratch on the other side of the river. With the help of the architect Clément Métezeau (whose brother designed the Place de Vosges in Paris – you’ll notice some similarities when wandering around) the town was built in just 30 years.

Charleville, named after the Duke himself, is based on the number four, according to the Four Gospels. As such, you’ll find pleasing symmetry everywhere; there are four districts, four main streets, four domes on the main square, Place Ducale, and so on. You’ll find a large statue of the man himself just off Place Ducale.

The two towns were rivals from the moment that Charleville was established in 1606. However, in 1966, they combined to become Charleville-Mézières.

Pro tip! If you’re planning to visit lots of sights then it’s worth investing in the Tourist Pass that allows you to visit up to 10 of the leading tourist attractions in the Ardennes for the price of five. For more information, take a look here

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Cycling in the Ardennes

The Ardennes is a brilliant place to go cycling, especially with children. Stretching from Haute Marne in the southern corner of the Champagne region right up to Rotterdam is the Meuse Cycle Route that crossed the Vosges, Meuse, Ardennes, Belgium and Netherlands. At 1,000km this might be a stretch too far for family cyclists but there are plenty of other biking options.

Best for families is the Trans-Ardennes cycle route. At 75-mile long it’s still a challenge but you can choose to do as much or as little of it as you like. The tourist office has a handy route book that details elevation, distance and other important things such as picnic spots and where you can go swimming. We enjoyed an hour-long cycle along this path and it was beautiful – as well as flat, which is perfect for kids!

If you’re travelling with small children then you can easily pull a bike trailer behind you. One option is to bike with the kids as far as you want to go and then pop the bikes on a local train to get back to your original starting point. For more information on the Trans Ardennes route take a look at their website.

For tips on the best way to plan a family cycling holiday, take a look at this post.

Nautik Evasion (see above) have bikes and helmets for hire for both adults and children and can also arrange bike trailers. For something a little different, you can try a “trottinette”, an electric bicycle / scooter hybrid that you ride through the trees.

Things to do in the Ardennes
Kayaking in the Ardennes

Kayaking in the Ardennes

One of the best ways to appreciate just how beautiful the Ardennes really are is to kayak along the river. Nautik Evasion offers canoes, kayaks and stand up paddle boards for hire. These include kayaks that can fit three people – two adults and a child in the middle. Choose from a 2.5km, 7.5km or 15km route and gently paddle your way down the Semoy river passing ducks and swans as you go.

If you’re wondering what the green plants growing in the river are their French name is redoncule and they are a sign that the water is very clean and healthy.

Hiring a canoe or kayak starts at 10€ per person and there is no age limit. Lifejackets are provided (including ones for young children) and there’s also a place to change out of your wet clothes at the end (even if you don’t fall in you will get wet!).

Swimming in the Ardennes

There are a handful of lakes in the Ardennes where families can go and spend a sunny summer day. If you want to try camping in the Ardennes then some of the lakes offer campsites.

The best one for kids is probably Lac de Vielles Forges that has a beach as well as boats and kayaks to hire and lifeguards on duty in the summer. The lake is bordered by pine forest where families can also go mountain biking and horseback riding and there are places to camp as well as restaurants. You can also camp here.

A second lake, Lac de Bairon sits to the south and is a natural marine reserve where families can hire paddle boats, catamarans, sailing dinghies, canoes and more. There is also a campsite here.

Other lakes in the region include Douzy and La Warenne, La Motte and the Samaritaine.

Things to do in the Ardennes
Ziplining is one of the best things you can do in the French Ardennes

Ziplining in the Ardennes

Without doubt one of the best activities for families in the Ardennes is the Fantasticable.

Operated by TerrAltitude, this 1km-long zipline will see you flying at speeds of up to 100km over the Meuse River, shrieking with delight. Safety is top notch and there are tandem rides offered for kids (children must weigh a minimum of 35kg).

The park also offers paintballing, bungee jumping, a tree top adventure park and, for younger children, static bungee jumping and bouncy castles.

The zipwire costs a very reasonable 20€ per person. This was honestly one of my favourite things that we did in the Ardennes and I highly recommend it! For more information, take a look at the TerrAltitude website.

Things to do in the Ardennes
Chateau Fort de Sedan

Visit Château Fort de Sedan

Europe’s biggest fortified castle, Le Château de Sedan, can be found in the town of Sedan, about 20km south-east of Charleville-Mézières. It was built in 1424 by the Earl of La Mark and later enlarged and strengthened until it became the largest fort in Northern Europe.

In its prime, the castle housed 4,000 men and had defensive walls up to 28m thick. It’s certainly an imposing sight and would take a gutsy soldier to try and scale its walls.

Inside, however, the displays and information lack the same wow factor, which is a shame as there are lots of stories hidden within the castle walls. Tales guaranteed to get the kids chuckling include the hole above an entranceway where soldiers would pour waste matter (yes, poo!) on enemy soldiers and the uneven steps that were purposefully designed so that invaders would lose their footing.

There are audio guides in English and posters of ‘Raymond the kitchen boy’ can be found throughout the trails, guiding kids along their way but you might find their attention waning. What does sound fun is visiting in the summer when knights’ tournaments and torchlight tours are held.

It is possible to spend the night at the castle hotel, Hotel le Château fort Sedan and there are family rooms available that have direct access on to the fort’s ramparts. There is a restaurant on site but you’re so close to town that I would recommend heading into Sedan and finding somewhere to eat there.

For more information on visiting the Château fort de Sedan take a look at their website.

Things to do in the Ardennes, France
Puppets in the Ardennes Museum

Watch a puppet show

Charleville-Mézières is a pretty town with some colourful street art and a summer calendar packed full of festivals and events. The biggest party, however, takes place every two years when the town hosts the World Festival of Puppet Theatre. This town of just 50,000 people is the puppet capital of the world.

During the festival, puppeteers from over 30 countries come to town to perform their art. There are puppet shows for kids and puppet shows for adults as well as puppet shows for all the family.

Learn some history at Le Musee de l’Ardenne

Overlooking Place Ducale is Le Musee de l’Ardenne, the town’s main museum and the place to go to learn more about the history of Charleville-Mézières. And if you think that you couldn’t possibly take your museum-wary offspring to what is essential a history museum then think again, this is an excellent museum.

Beautifully curated and displayed it’s easy to explore with children and filled with things that will make them “ooh” and “aah” with excitement.

The ground floor is home to ancient mammoth bones and slate drawings – kind of like a caveman Etch A Sketch – dating back 20,000 years, all of which were found in the Ardennes region. Elsewhere in the museum are jewels and bridle pieces excavated from burial sites and an ancient sarcophagus dating back to the Roman Empire that looks not dissimilar to a bathtub!

On display are also plenty of antique pistols and rifles; as one of only three regions in France that were allowed to produce weapons, the Ardennes had quite the arsenal and sent plenty to the USA to help the Americans fight the British.

There’s also a scale model of Charleville-Mézières and plenty of information on how the town was built. Try and get your kids to imagine what it would take to entice a new population to up sticks and move to a new town and you’ll probably come up with some interesting answers!

As it was, Charles de Gonzague offered residents low taxes enticing monks, makers and former Mézières residents. He also welcomed people in exile who had nowhere else to go and so the town was born. When you look at the museum model you’ll notice that there’s a space for a castle that was never built as Charles de Gonzague ran out of money having put the interests and needs of the city before his own.

The other museum highlight are the puppets.

The museum has more than 500 puppets in their collection and displays them on rotation every two years. Make sure you arrive in time to see Le Grand Marionnettiste (the “Big Puppeteer”), a giant automaton that performs one scene of the famous local legend, Les 4 Fils Aymon, every hour.

Things to do in the Ardennes
Beautiful views over the Ardennes

See the view and learn a legend

The Ardennes is one of the greenest regions in France and the best place to see just how verdant it really is, is from the viewpoint at La Roche a Sept Heures. From here a patchwork of varying shades of green spreads in all directions interrupted only by the town of Montherme and the River Meuse. Spot the four peaks that in local folklore represent the Four Sons of Aymon (Les Quatre Fils Aymon) who battled Emperor Charlemagne.

Sleep in a castle or a treehouse

We slept in the castle when we visited the Ardennes but we didn’t get the chance to sleep in a treehouse and I can’t wait to return and try sleeping in the treetops with my kids.

Located south-west of Charleville-Meziers are the woods of Signy-l’Abbaye where a handful of treehouses sit perched among the trees. Positioned at various heights, so that even young kids will be safe (there’s no age limit), the treehouses can sleep two- to eight-people.

Spend your days tackling the treetop adventure course (minimum age 6), cycling, quad biking and more – including following animals tracks – and then bed down for the night in your very own Swiss Family Robinson treetop house. For more information, take a look at their website.

Write to the Arthur Rimbaud, the town’s most famous resident 

Charleville’s most famous resident was the poet Arthur Rimbaud, who was born here in 1854.

He was a revolutionary in France creating his best – and only – works between the ages of 16- and 21-years-old (he was something of a high achiever!). His visual and lyrical style was completely new in French literature.

While Arthur Rimbaud poems might be of little interest to kids, there is one aspect of his life that they might find interesting. In the cemetery where he is buried there is a gold postbox that displays a portrait of him. It was installed after his death because even today, nearly 130 years after passing, he still gets fan mail including poems, photos and even t-shirts!

What to eat in the Ardennes

Things to do in the Ardennes
There are lots of great things to eat in the Ardennes

Traditional Ardennes food is wholesome and hearty. It evolved from the need to satisfy farmers and factory workers. Traditional meals include generous plates of charcuteries, boudin blanc (white sausage) and dishes such as salade au lard ardennaise, a dish of potatoes, bacon (lard) and salad that is cooked and served with a fried egg on top. Other dishes include dandelion salad and La cacasse a cul nu, a stew of bacon and potatoes.

There are some very good restaurants in Charleville-Mézières including Sal et Poivre, a simple and homely restaurant that serves excellent local food. There’s only one chef and all the food is freshly prepared to order. Make sure to try the Vin de Citron Mamette, a delicious aperitif, created by chef’s grandmother Yvette.

For more high end dining make sure to book a table at La Table D’Arthur, a Michelin ‘Bib Gourmand’ restaurant that offers traditional dishes with a twist paired with an excellent wine collection.They also have a kids’ menu. Plume et Bulle is a fun comic shop that turns into a cafe at lunchtime. And make sure you don’t miss the excellent patisserie Maison Billard.

Things to do in the Ardennes
Tasty, colourful pastries at Maison Billard 

The other thing you must try when you are in the Ardennes is craft beer.

Once upon a time there were more than 300 breweries in the area and locals would drink beer rather than water as it was cleaner. During WWI and WWII, however, most of the breweries shut down, largely because the Germans took the copper brewing tanks to make weapons. As recently as the 1980s there were only 200 breweries in the whole of France.

Fortunately, however, there’s been a craft beer revival and one brewery leading the charge is Ardwen, a family-run company that creates award-winning beer. Their brewery is not open for tours but they do have an excellent restaurant on site where you can sample any one of their seven beers. These include the Ardwen Blonde, winner of the gold medal in Paris 2018 and the excellent Hop’s Cure, silver medalist in Paris 2018.

Where to stay in the Ardennes

Things to do in the Ardennes, France
Hotel Le Dormeur du Val

I can highly recommend Le Dormeur du Val, a friendly and cosy hotel in the heart of Charleville-Mézières. The building used to be a printing works and evidence of its industrial past can be seen throughout the hotel. The design is fun, quirky and colourful with no two rooms sharing the same design. There are no family rooms, however inter-connecting rooms are available.

The staff are incredibly friendly and the breakfast buffet – replete with pasties and the local speciality, sugar galette – will keep all kids happy! The hotel is named after a poem written by Arthur Rimbaud when he was only 16-years-old; you can see verses from the poem written on the hotel’s exterior.

How to get to the French Ardennes

Things to do in the Ardennes
Place Ducale in Charleville-Mézières

Travel to the Ardennes is incredibly easy; it’s only two hours from Paris, 45 minutes from Reims, a four-hour drive to Amsterdam and a two hours by car to Brussels.

From London, we travelled by Eurostar from London St Pancras to Lille and then changed for a train to Charleville-Mézières. Returning to London we took a train from Reims to Paris Est and, once there, walked to Paris Nord and took the Eurostar back to London.

The nearest airports are Paris (Charles de Gaulle), Luxembourg (Findel), Brussels (Zaventem) and Brussels-Charleroi Airport. You can take a look at flight options on Skyscanner.

The best time to visit the Ardennes

The best time to visit the Ardennes is between April and October.

Calendar highlights include the biannual World Festival of Puppet Theatre held in September, the Sedan Medieval Festival held in May, and the Plage Ducale, held between July 20 and August 18th. During this festival, the main square, Place Ducale, turns into a beach with sand, deckchairs and palm trees.

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19 thoughts on “All the fun things to do in the Ardennes”

  1. This was such a gorgeous region, and I came away wondering why I’d never visited before! We’ll definitely be back. I love this post – I really like the way you’ve described the green nature of the place. That’s what really stood out for me (and the incredible food, of course!)

    1. Katja Gaskell

      Thank you! I also loved how green it was – such a good antidote to city living!

  2. Wow, I live in Paris and didn’t know that Ardennes was 2 hours away! I definitely need to add it to my bucket list. I’m going to take note of your restaurant list as well 🙂

    1. Katja Gaskell

      I had no idea that it was so close to Paris either! You should definitely visit for the weekend.

  3. I am already sold to the idea of spending a great vacation with my cousin with her kids in Ardennes. She lives in Nice, though, but does not mind traveling for having good time. We would love to paddle by the river, do zipling, and all those adventurous activities. Thanks for the share.

    1. Katja Gaskell

      It’s a great place and you should definitely get your cousin and her kids to meet you there!

  4. Always love to find new spots when I read blog posts. The French Ardennes are a part of France we have yet to visit. Paddling on the river or riding a bike along the shore both are things we would want to do. It would be great to be able to do either of these as a one way trip. With a ride back to the start! I do love the chateaux in France. But sleeping in a castle would be something on our list for sure. We stayed in a pousada palace in Portugal and it was something we will always remember. Makes me want to plan a return trip to France.

    1. Katja Gaskell

      I hope you get to return at some point. It really is a lovely area and well worth exploring!

  5. I especially enjoyed reading about the story behind these two towns and how they eventually joined into one. I would definitely like exploring the Ardennes region — hiking, exploring castles, cycling, and photographing all the beautiful sights would be my favorites!

  6. Would love to sleep in a tree house! The puppet show and zip lining would be high on my to do list. It would also be amazing to see a Knight tournament

  7. I have never heard of French Ardennes before. It is interesting to know it is only 2 hours drive from Paris. I love horseback riding and kayaking. It is a great place for a weekend away during summers. I might go there to try the ziplining

  8. I had never heard of French Ardennes before today. And the fact that this place is just a couple of hours away from Paris surprised me! Seems like a perfect nature retreat/weekend getaway with kids! There is so much outdoorsy stuff to do 😀 Would love to Kayak in the Semoy River.

    1. Katja Gaskell

      I didn’t realise that it was so close to Paris either before I visited. It really is the perfect getaway with or without kids. And yes, you should definitely try kayaking along the Semoy river!

  9. Nicole LaBarge

    Going for a bike ride through the Ardennes would be high on my list! I want to try ziplining some time as well. Looks amazing.

    1. Katja Gaskell

      The ziplining was so much fun! I can definitely recommend that you try it! Thanks for commenting

  10. Such a good list of activities to do. I am sure the kids would find it entertaining too. Sleeping in a castle and tree house both seem exciting to me. Hard to choose one out of them.

    1. I agree! All we need next time is a baguette sandwich and a bottle of wine for a picnic along the way 😉

Comments are closed.

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