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5 historic towns to visit in Normandy

Rouen city, in a cobbled street lined with half timbered buildings, a riot of colour

Picture-book pretty towns, lush peaceful countryside, grand monuments, historic sites and beautiful beaches – Normandy has oodles of charm and loads to keep visitors happy and busy.

Ravishing Rouen

The historic capital of Normandy sits on the Seine River as it wends its way to the sea from Paris. What makes this city unique is its incredible Gothic architecture coupled with more than 2000 half-timbered medieval street houses that blend effortlessly and its long, turbulent history whose traces can be seen in the present.

Must see: Gaze upon the monumental, gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame which the great French artist Claude Monet captured on canvas, mesmerised by its beauty. It is quite possibly the most photogenic cathedral in Europe.

Heavenly Honfleur

Prety harbour of Honfleur, Normandy, lined with tall colourful buildings, boats bobbing on the water

This little town with its working port has bucket loads of charisma. Wandering around the harbour and up and down the wiggly cobble stone streets of Honfleur is one of life’s great pleasures. It’s a buzzing, vibrant, colourful and truly enchanting little place that is quaintly charming and full of character despite the high number of tourists.

Must see: The sight of the little boats going in and out of the harbour while you treat yourself to lunch, a steaming bowl of moules mariniere perhaps, at a terraced bistro.

Beautiful Bayeux

Bayeux town in Normandy, the spires of its Cathedral peeping over ancient houses, a mill wheel turns on a stream

Grand architecture, fine restaurants and boutiques galore but it’s the Bayeux Cathedral which dominates on arrival. The historic old town of Bayeux dates back to Norman times. The Cathedral was consecrated in 1077 by Bishop Odo, William the Conqueror’s half-brother. It’s a lovely town to wander. Winding little streets, half-timbered houses and historic sites abound.

Must see: The most famous tapestry in the world, the Bayeux tapestry.  It is a magnificent work of art, with a UNESCO World Heritage rating. At 70m (230ft) long it is more impressive in real life than any photo can possibly show. Commissioned by Bishop Odo, to commemorate the Norman Conquest of England, it’s an awesome depiction of life in the 11th century.

Lovely Le Havre

The Port of Le Havre at night, glowing with colourful lights

Le Havre in Normandy is an ancient town with a contemporary footprint. It’s a UNESCO listed city, recognised for its extraordinary architecture.

Le Havre’s origins go back to 1517 when Francis 1 commissioned the construction of a port. It was known then as Francispolis. It was the birth place of impressionism and it was here that Claude Monet painted his “Sunrise, an Impression”.

These days Le Havre is one of the biggest of French ports, a vast, vibrant and buzzing city. Le Havre suffered enormous damage during World War II and afterwards was almost complete rebuilt under the auspices of Belgian architect Auguste Perret. The clean modern lines, wide avenues and concrete buildings look more Manhattan than France but it was a blueprint for the future.

Must see: The Perret Show Flat showcases Perret’s extraordinarily advanced view of living spaces. It includes mod cons from fridges to washing machines.

Captivating Caen

Beautiful half timbered houses in a cobbled street in Caen at dawn, a bluish light is cast over the town

It was largely due to William the Conqueror that Caen grew into a great city. William and his wife, Matilda of Flanders, each ordered a grand abbey, the Men’s Abbey for William, the Women’s Abbey for Matilda. Both buildings are hugely impressive places and are open to the public and free of charge.

Must see: Caen Castle was one of the most important strongholds in the duchy of Normandy. It now houses the Normandy Museum and the Fine Arts Museum.

More on Normandy

The best Normandy tours and excursions
Guide to Calvados, the drink and the place
4 great day trip destinations in Normandy
Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny
Mont Saint-Michel, a wonder of the world in Normandy


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