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48 hours in and around Le Havre, Normandy

View over the city of Le Havre, the sea in the background, a huge boat in port

Le Havre’s port is vast. And its contemporary architecture has UNESCO heritage status in recognition of its exceptional urban design on a grand scale. This cruise ship destination city is a vibrant, friendly and fascinating city to visit. The birthplace of impressionism with an arty vibe offers plenty to do in the town. And with big hitters like Honfleur and Etretat just down the road, it’s an ideal weekend destination…

Take a wander in Le Havre

View of Le Havre's white, yoghurt pot shaped cultural buildings in the city centre

Le Havre’s architecture is unique. This post-war built metropolis is sometimes likened to a Soviet-Style city – grand, imposing and grey. But once you visit you’ll see there’s much more to it than meets the eye. Yes, it’s concrete, yes there are rows of apartment blocks, built quickly to house those who’d lost their homes during WWII. But it has a charm of its own, there’s elegance in the lines, grandeur in the scale and art in the design.

Pop into lead architect August Perret’s show flat to see what it was like to live in one of these buildings in the 1940s and 50s. Browse the bookshelves in the Oscar Niemeyer designed library, an extraordinary yoghurt-pot shaped building. Visit the church of St Joseph, an architectural landmark with astonishing stained glass windows. And take a dip at Jean Nouvel’s glorious Les Bain des Docks.

It’s just a short walk from the city centre to Le Havre’s beach, 2km of sand and pebbles, a big draw for the locals as well as for savvy visitors. The beach hosts the biggest free skate park in France (a legend amongst skate boarders) and in the summer there are water sports, fun activities and pop up restaurants. It’s from here that Claude Monet painted “Impression, Rising Sun” which kickstarted the impressionist movement.

Further round the coast is the beach of Saint-Adresse. Here the resort and old houses are built on the slopes of Cape Hève, the gateway to the Alabaster Coast. It’s a great place to drink in the spectacular sea views, just as Monet loved to do.

Tip: Take a guided tour of the harbour or visit the historic docks by boat, it’s especially good in the evening when the twinkling lights are reflected on the water.

Lunch at the seaside

Restaurant on a beach at Le Havre

All that walking is sure to build up an appetite. Get a dose of fresh sea air and lunch al fresco on sunny days, there’s plenty of choice along the coastline. For sea views and that real seaside feel head to Au Bout du Monde in the Saint-Adresse quarter. If you love watching the big ships go by, you’ll enjoy the restaurants along the Southampton Wharf Area.

Aperitifs and dinner in town

Glass of sparkling red liquid - a Kir NormandIndulge in a Kir Normand – cider and cassis. Try the English pub style L’Etavles with its roof top seating area; there’s lots of choice in the area around the indoor market in the town. Feast on a bowl of steaming local mussels and chips and mop up the juices with a hunk of delicious fresh bread. Enjoy a great Norman cheese –  Pont L’Eveque, Neufchatel en Bray, Camembert  are all local favourites. And end with an apple and almond delight – tarte Normande. The perfect way to finish the day.

Cultural Venues

Musee d’Art Modern Andre Malraux

An arts museum with a superb collection of impressionist paintings. The MUMA, Musee d’Art Modern Andre Malraux, was the first major museum to be built in France after WW2. There’s a collection which represents some of the most important art movements of the last 300 years: Fauvist art, Art Deco and 20th century art amongst others. The Impressionist collection contains masterpieces by Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Degas.

Le Havre Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum has fun and interactive temporary exhibitions related to the animal, plant and mineral world, as well as a strong archaeology section. It’s particularly good for a rainy day and for families.

Maison de L’Armateur

Room in a mansion in Le Havre with chandelier, mirrors, tiled floor, elaborately decorated in blue and white

The 18th century Shipowner’s House givers a glimpse into the daily life of a wealthy Le Havre sea merchant. Beautifully decorated and furnished rooms in a 5 storey house with a fabulous central sky light make for a fabulous step back in time.

Hotel Dubocage de Bleville museum

In a mansion which once belonged to Michel Joseph Dubocage, a merchant sailor which a penchant for collecting things, you’ll discover the maritime history of Le Havre – and a charming collection of chinaware.

If you’ve got time on your visit to Le Havre, there’s lots to see close by….

Trip to Honfleur

Port town Honfleur, boats in tied up and ancient buildings line the port

Honfleur is a complete contrast to Le Havre though it’s just 30 minutes away by car or public transport. Stuffed with half-timber houses and cobbled streets which spread out from the central port commissioned by Louis XIV. The Impressionists set up their easels and captured the town’s charm from the Vieux Basin to the alleys of the Sainte-Catherine district. Cross the impressive Pont de Normandie to get there – an adventure in itself!

More on Honfleur

Trip to Etretat

View of cliffs and strange rock formations in the sea at Etretat, Normandy

In the opposite direction, 40 minutes by car  lies the glorious countryside and stunning natural wonder of Etretat. Famous for its Porte d’Aval rock formation flanked by the  majestic Aiguille (needle). The natural sculptures of the Alabaster coast fascinated Monet and it’s not hard to see why. Climb to the top of the chalk cliff of Amont cliff to visit the charming little chapel Notre-Dame de la Garde and enjoy magnificent views over the sea.

Top things to see and do in Le Havre

Further afield

Deauville and Trouville – discover the “Norman Riviera” neighbouring seaside towns that are firm favourites with Parisians

Barfleur – what to see and do in the ancient town

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