Honfleur, Le Havre: two ports, two destinies

Honfleur and Le Havre are two port cities located at the mouth of the Seine River.

Honfleur was highly active between the 16th and 18th centuries, and a stroll through its streets feels like stepping back in time.

Le Havre, on the other hand, was devastated during the last World War but has experienced a remarkable revival since then.

Exploring both cities during the same trip offers a fascinating glimpse into French history.

It was a short but interesting three-day trip.

My husband Jean-Philippe treated me to a trip to Honfleur and Le Havre for my birthday. Honfleur and Le Havre face each other as the guardians of the majestic Seine estuary.

Two fascinating port cities, because despite their geographical proximity, they have very different histories that are reflected in their current architecture .

Honfleur has preserved the face of its golden age from the 16th to 18th centuries, which corresponded to the French colonial period in North America.

Le Havre was one of the French cities to fall victim to the Second World War, as its city center was almost entirely razed to the ground. Its reconstruction is a remarkable example of successful urban planning, and today the city is looking to the future.

Visiting these two cities in a single trip, even for just three days, allowed me to immerse myself in our country’s history.

In this article, after a presentation of the two cities, I’ll suggest some walks to discover them on your own.

Finally, I’d like to finish off with a section of practical tips to help you prepare for your trip.

Important This article has not been written in partnership with any tourist office or hotel. It therefore reflects my completely independent opinion.

All texts in color coral indicate an internal or external link. There are plenty of them to give you a deeper insight into what I’ve been talking about in this article.

Honfleur: a testimony to France’s maritime past

Honfleur is one of France’s best-known tourist towns. Its old basin is very photogenic and has been painted by many artists. The city is very busy, especially from the fine spring days to early autumn.

We went there in May, but on weekdays to avoid the crowds, and slept there for two nights. In the mornings and evenings, the town regains its tranquillity, as 80% of tourists do not live in Honfleur! Enjoying the old basin at night or dawn is just magical.

The Old Basin: the heart of Honfleur

The old basin was created by order of Colbert in 1681. The row of houses on Quai Sainte-Catherine is spectacular. They are narrow, set against a cliff and can be up to seven storeys high. They are all listed as historic monuments.

At the entrance to the port stands the lieutenancy, originally the residence of the king’s lieutenant and part of the town’s ancient fortifications.

Quai Ste Catherine and Lieutenance

To the east, the Quai Saint-Étienne is more open, with two remarkable buildings: the town hall, dating from 1830, and the beautiful Saint-Étienne church, now occupied by the Musée de la Marine.

Quai St Etienne in Honfleur

The port has long been a trading center. This began with trade with the colonies of Louisiana, Canada and the West Indies.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was one of France’s top seven ports sinisterly involved in the slave trade.

Honfleur was also an important cod fishing port around Newfoundland. Honfleur sailors were noted for their courage in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

Today, the old basin has been transformed into a tranquil marina .

Honfleur, with its control tower overlooking the Seine estuary, organizes maritime traffic as far as Rouen.

Vieux Bassin marina

It’s a pleasure to stroll around the Vieux Bassin, which is a feast for the eyes.

Honfleur and the Impressionists: a city of artists

Honfleur is known as one of the cradles of Impressionism, with the Honfleur School. This artistic tradition has endured, as many art galleries can be found here.

Eugène Boudin is a local boy. He is renowned for his landscape paintings. Strolling through Honfleur with its ever-changing skies, alternating sun, clouds, and rain, it’s easy to see why. The light is splendid.

Port of Honfleur by Eugene Boudin

This painting of Honfleur harbor is taken from Jean-Louis Mazière ‘s virtual collection on Eugène Boudin.

There is a museum dedicated to Eugène Boudin, but we didn’t have time to visit it.

This artistic heritage has endured, as evidenced by the large number of galleries in Honfleur.

Honfleur by night: magical!

As much as we were surprised by the tourist crowds in the middle of the day, even though it was the middle of the week in May, in the evening we appreciated Honfleur’s beautiful tranquility.

Returning to the Vieux Bassin and Honfleur’s alleyways with the night lights provides a mysterious atmosphere that we enjoyed. It was easy to imagine Honfleur in the 17th or 18th century!

With a bit of searching, we were lucky enough to find accommodation with a direct view of the old basin. We had a front-row seat to enjoy this place at the most privileged times, early in the morning or late at night! I’ll give you our address confidentially in the practical advice section.

Honfleur by night
Honfleur by night
Quai Ste Catherine by night
Honfleur by night
St Catherine by night

Walking tour of old Honfleur

The tourist office offers several walking tours, which we adapted to our tastes.

For our first walk, we’re staying in the center of Honfleur, around the Vieux Bassin.

A stroll through downtown Honfleur

We walk from the town hall to the Musée de la Marine , housed in the former Saint-Joseph church with its pretty slate bell tower.

Quai St Etienne and Musée de la Marine

We bypass the building via Rue de la Prison, of which only the gate remains visible, and enter Rue de la Ville.

Then we enter a building housing two large exhibition halls. Originally, they were used as granaries where up to 10,000 tons of salt could be stored! Fishermen came here for supplies to preserve their cod fisheries around Newfoundland. This was the famous gabelle, a heavily taxed royal monopoly.

We then continue on to the Saint-Léonard church, passing by the old wash-house. Don’t hesitate to walk around the back of the church, as you’ll have a lovely view of rue Saint-Léonard.

Rue St Leonard in Honfleur
St Leonard's Church

On our way back to the center, we cross the Tripot garden. It’s a recent addition, having been inaugurated in 2013, but it showcases Honfleur’s ancestral houses in a pretty mess , bordering two streams that were once used by tanneries.

Jardin du Tripot in Honfleur

We then walk along the Avenue de la République, Honfleur’s main shopping street. Even if it’s a bit plainer than the other streets, its less touristy stores give the town more soul.

We continue along Rue du Dauphin, which runs parallel to Quai Sainte-Catherine just a few meters below. As a result, the shops on the street’s first floor are on the 2nd or 3rd floor on the quayside!

The wooden church of Sainte-Catherine is very beautiful. Its distinctive feature is that its bell tower is housed in a separate building. It’s a delight to stroll around and discover artists’ boutiques and galleries. Many of the old timber-framed houses are still standing, making this a very aesthetically pleasing district.

Rue Haute in Honfleur
Ste Catherine church steeple
Old Honfleur
Eglise Ste Catherine in Honfleur
St Catherine's Church

We end our stroll by returning to the Vieux Bassin to rest on the terrace of one of the many cafés lining Quai Sainte-Catherine. However, given the reviews on the internet, it’s better to have a drink than lunch!

Tourists quai Ste Catherine

Walking tour of Honfleur

The second ride is more rural. Honfleur is a small town, and you soon find yourself in the countryside.

A walk around Honfleur

We climb up to Mont-Joli. From here, the panorama of Honfleur and the Seine valley is superb.

In the distance, the Pont de Normandie crosses the estuary.

Mont Joli

We continue to the 17th-century Notre-Dame-de-Grâce chapel. It is known for its many ex-voto offerings.

Notre Dame de Grace in Honfleur
ND de Grâce bells

Nearby, we spot another viewpoint to the west of the city. In the distance, we can see the port of Le Havre and its industrial facilities.

We descend back to Butin Beach, which allows Honfleur to be considered a seaside resort.

The road to get there is pleasant and allows you to see some grand Anglo-Norman-style mansions.

House in Honfleur
House in Honfleur

Two charming hotels are located here: Ferme Saint-Siméon and Manoir des impressionnistes. Unfortunately, in May 2023, they were offering prices starting from 300 to 600 euros a night for a room without a sea view! I thought this was excessive, and reading the reviews on the Internet, you might well wonder whether the quality of the service justifies such a high price.

Ferme St Simeon in Honfleur

Impressionist manor house in Honfleur

From Butin beach, we walk back to Honfleur along the Seine. At the beginning of May, lying on the beach is still a little too chilly!

We were there at low tide, but if you have the chance, go at high tide for a better chance of seeing boats going up or down the river.

View of Le Havre from the côte fleurie

In the distance, we see the Pont de Normandie again, and on our right, we walk along the Garden of Personalities, featuring busts of personalities who have lived or stayed in Honfleur.

The walk takes you along a quay.

Seine bank Honfleur

Honfleur is Rouen’s outer harbor, with its control tower regulating traffic. It is also the landing stage for river cruises to Paris.

Honfleur river port

The walk ends at the Old Basin.

Old basin overall view

A variation: a drive or bike ride along the côte fleurie (flowery coast)

After Plage du Butin, a small country road continues along the flowery coast to Trouville, some 15 km away.

We borrowed it on another car trip.

This is an opportunity to see the beautiful Anglo-Norman mansions that sprang up when the upper middle classes discovered these holiday resorts in the 19th century.

Norman house

On the way, we discovered the Hotel Paquebot in Villervile, with its superb beachfront location but also overpriced.

The road is also ideal for cycling , despite the absence of a cycle path.

Road sign in Honfleur
Anglo-Norman house in Villerville
Hotel Paquebot in Villerville

Le Havre: a city looking to the future

After spending two days in Honfleur, we ended our little trip with a day in Le Havre.

To get from one town to the other, we took the Pont de Normandie: a link between the two banks of the Seine estuary, open since 1995.

Normandy Bridge

It can be seen from Honfleur, with its stays, it’s beautifully elegant. With a length of 2141 m and a headroom of 53 m, it can accommodate cargo ships and even three-masted ships bound for Rouen, it is the sixth-largest cable-stayed bridge in the world. It has been designed to withstand the violent winds of Atlantic storms.

Unfortunately, as the photo below shows, access for pedestrians and cyclists is difficult, unpleasant, and even dangerous, as the bridge is a freeway.

It’s a pity because the bridge and the site are superb and could become, like San Francisco’s Golden Gate, a tourist attraction.

Normandy Bridge

My Own Le Havre

From Honfleur, all you can see in the distance are the port and industrial facilities of Le Havre, which don’t give the town a very appealing image.

As it happens, I spent a year in Le Havre twice, as my father worked there as a refinery construction engineer in the 60s. I was two the first time and four the second time. Needless to say, I don’t remember a thing about this town, but knowing that I used to live here gives me a special attachment!

The author in Le Havre in 1964

For a long time, Le Havre had the image of a charmless port city, with its concrete buildings hastily rebuilt after the war. But its city center was also declared a World Heritage Site in 2005.

What kind of city is this?

I was very curious to get to know it and make up my own mind!

Le Havre before the Second World War

The 19th century was unquestionably Le Havre’s golden age, benefiting from the industrial revolution. Its port is one of Europe’s most important for both goods and passengers. The city also became a seaside resort, attracting the Parisian bourgeoisie.

During the First World War, the town was a rear base for the British fleet. The Belgian government took up residence in Sainte-Adresse, near Le Havre, for the duration of the German occupation. The city was spared the bombardments.

The interwar period was economically difficult, with inflation and social unrest. The population is becoming more working-class. The port remains active despite competition from cities such as Rotterdam, Antwerp, and Hamburg. The Normandie liner is the town’s pride and joy.

The postcards show a dynamic city with beautiful avenues and prestigious buildings. The photos below are taken from cartophilie-viroflay.org.

Le Havre before the war

Le Havre and the Second World War: the bombings of September 1944

During the Second World War, the city was heavily bombed, especially in September 1944, by Allied forces who destroyed the town center.

A few figures illustrate the full extent of the horror suffered by Le Havre in September 1944:

  • 2000 Royal Air Force sorties
  • 10,000 tons of bombs dropped
  • 1,770 civilian deaths in September alone
  • 80,000 people left homeless
  • 12,500 buildings destroyed

The most incredible thing is that this destruction of the city was unnecessary. The port was already out of action, and German troops and staff were living far from the city center.

The people of Le Havre paid a heavy price. When the Allied battalions landed, they were met with a very cold reception. For the population, they were not the liberators, but the “libératueurs” which means liberator and killer in one created French word.

A film shows what the town looked like on September 13, 1944. Very moving to watch. It’s in French but the images are self-explanatory. I’ve extracted a few photos below that speak for themselves.

Le Havre September 44

Reconstruction in the 50s and 60s

After the war, the 150-hectare downtown area had to be completely rebuilt. It was the work of Belgian architect Auguste Perret, a fervent believer in concrete. The challenge was immense, and it took some fifteen years for the city to regain its new look .

It was at this time, in the early 60s, that my parents lived there, but Le Havre was still undergoing the enormous trauma for its inhabitants of having lost their city center. The people of Le Havre found it hard to identify with their city, which had been rebuilt by the state without any real consultation.

Everything was a little too new, the trees were still small, life artificial. As a result, my parents weren’t too keen on it.

Only the majestic departures of the liner France that they saw from their apartment windows gave the city a sense of prestige.

Le Havre and the liner France

Le Havre today: a renaissance

Nearly fifty years have passed since reconstruction.

The 70s, with the abandonment of the liner France and the economic crisis, brought new traumas.

Then, little by little, thanks to the determination of its residents, the town regained its soul . Shops moved back downstairs. Trees, like those on Avenue Foch, have sprouted to give the city a less austere look. Streets have become pedestrianized and a streetcar network has been created.

After several decades, Auguste Perret’s project was recognized as a success, rewarded by the inclusion of the city center on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2005.

The people of Le Havre are proud of their city again, and rightly so!

Auguste Perret has kept a plan of the city that recalled the one destroyed. The buildings have been kept to a manageable height, most of them only four to six storeys high, and the overall urban design is quite harmonious. The few remains of the pre-war buildings have been preserved and integrated into the new complex.

Since then, Perret’s work – which the architect was unable to see through to completion, as he died in 1954 – has been complemented by new districts and architectural achievements, most of which are success stories.

A day’s walking tour of Le Havre

Not knowing what to expect, we had only planned one day for our first visit to the city.

Le Havre doesn’t give in immediately. Before starting our walk, we crossed it by car and wondered if it was a good idea because our first impression is a little mixed. The town looks rather austere with its grey, rectangular buildings.

We leave our car near the Porte Océane and set off on our walking adventure. We don’t have any guides with us, and my memories of being a four-year-old boy were too distant! But, as is often the case, I find that wandering around at random is the best way to discover a city. This is, for example, what I already recommended in my article on visiting Amsterdam for the first time.

The photo below was taken from Google Earth.

General view of Le Havre

From the Porte Océane, a monumental gateway to the Atlantic, we take the wide Avenue Foch, the city’s main thoroughfare from west to east. Today, it is well planted with trees and equipped with bicycle paths.

Porte Océane

From here, we branch off towards St. Joseph’s Church.

Its originality lies in the fact that it is both a place of worship and a memorial. Depending on whether you’re a believer or not, its 107 m high tower is intended to be either a lantern visible from afar for travelers arriving from the Atlantic Ocean, or a candle to thank God for the return of peace.

The interior of the church and tower is architecturally remarkable.

St Joseph's Church
St Joseph's Church Tower

We continue on to the Halles district. All around us, the buildings look the same: square, in prefabricated concrete, with large windows.

Although a little austere, the ensemble is surprisingly homogeneous, giving it a certain aesthetic appeal.

Perret Tower

Perret buildings

There are plenty of restaurants in the vicinity of Les Halles, and we take advantage of a lightening to have lunch on a terrace in a pedestrian street.

Pedestrian street Le Havre

Our steps then take us to the monumental town hall, one of the largest in Europe. Its size is enhanced by the huge tree-lined square in front of it.

The typical architecture of the Perret buildings fits perfectly into this setting.

Le Havre City Hall

We then take rue de Paris, which, with its arcades, is inspired by the Parisian rue de Rivoli.

We cross a large esplanade with, on our left, the Oscar Niemeyer space, made up of two curvaceous structures: a small volcano housing the media library and a large volcano, an auditorium. The curvaceous architectural ensemble is surprisingly different from the city’s angular layout. It’s a shame, however, that the building isn’t better maintained.

Oscar Niemeyer Center


Le Havre media library

To the right of the esplanade lies the Bassin du Commerce, a reminder that Le Havre is first and foremost a port.

The war memorial, which dates from 1924, and the footbridge overhanging it lend a certain majesty to the site.

Bassin du Commerce

War memorials Le Havre

We continue along Rue de Paris to the cathedral. Although severely damaged during the bombardments, the façade and tower have been preserved. This rare testimony to pre-war Le Havre makes for a very moving visit.

Le Havre Cathedral

Finally, rue de Paris leads to the port. It occupies a considerable space in relation to the city. Visits, which we didn’t have time to make, are possible with Les vedettes baie de Seine.

At the end of Rue de Paris stands one of the city’s landmarks: a sculpture made of colorful shipping containers . It was created by Vincent Ganivet to mark the port’s 500th anniversary, and I think it’s a great success.

Container catenary
Container catenary
Port of Le Havre

We return to the Porte Océane via the seafront.

Waterfront Le Havre

Our first stop is the Museum of Modern Art, the Muma, which we don’t have time to visit. It is renowned for its vast collection of Impressionist paintings.

Muma in Le Havre

The views over the dykes to the ocean are beautiful and make you dream of the open sea.

Le Havre breakwater

Then we drive along a huge marina overlooked by the Residence de France. It’s an impressive complex of 1,200 homes, built on the site of former docks, with a privileged sea view. I can’t imagine what the condominium meetings are like!

Le Havre marina

Our walk ends on the magnificent, vast beach of Le Havre, which is quite rare in a big city.

We pass by the Club Nautique Havrais and its Olympic-size swimming pool.

Club Nautique Havrais

Finally, on the way home in the car, we stop off at the Hanging Gardens for a lovely aerial view of the city . With a little more time, we could have gone on foot.

Le Havre from the Hanging Gardens

Honfleur and Le Havre: two false twins

It was by chance that we visited both cities on the same trip, and it was an excellent initiative.

What Honfleur and Le Havre have in common is that their ports were once France’s gateways to the Atlantic Ocean and the wider world. The former is a testimony to the past, the latter to the present and future.

In both cities, I loved the feeling of opening up to distant horizons. Seeing a boat set sail excites my curiosity, and I can imagine the destinations to which it’s heading.

Distant horizons in Le Havre

The two cities also share a common artistic interest:

  • Honfleur was a great source of inspiration for Impressionist painters, and even today the number of artists exhibiting here is significant.
  • Le Havre is an architecturally and urbanistically fascinating city.

I knew Honfleur was a beautiful town with a glorious past. Despite the tourist crowds, I wasn’t disappointed and felt very much at home here.

My first visit to Le Havre since my stay as a very young child was much more interesting than I expected. Behind its stern facade, the city is architecturally rich. Like Rotterdam or Hamburg, I loved the atmosphere of a port city with its industrial facets.

It’s comforting to see thata city that has been destroyed has been able to rise from its ashes and create a future for itself . My visit to Le Havre was an emotional experience and, more than anywhere else, it’s important to remember its history.

We’ll certainly be back to revisit these two charming towns.

Author, and her partner, in Honfleur and Le Havre

Honfleur reassures us by highlighting its glorious past, while Le Havre energizes us by demonstrating that, even after being destroyed in 1944, it was able to build a bright future for itself.

It was a short three-day trip, but a very interesting one, which I warmly recommend.

Seine Estuary



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