Officially founded in 1517, the city of Le Havre is the second largest port in France. Due to its strategic importance, the Germans fortified the city in early 1940 in anticipation of an invasion of Britain. The RAF (and later, the Allies) responded with continuous air attacks on the harbour and shipyard for much of the war. After a particularly devastating raid in September 1944, Le Havre was virtually leveled. Post-war reconstruction earned Le Havre a unique place on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Between 1945-64 the town was rebuilt, incorporating modern urban planning advances with the use of prefabricated modular construction to give Le Havre a distinct unity of appearance.
Most cruise ships use Le Havre as a jumping-off point for tours to Paris, the Normandy beaches, or Mont St. Michel. There are, however, some interesting sites to be seen, should you chose to remain in port.
Walkers beware: Port facilities are frequently closed to pedestrians, so it may be impossible to walk the 1.5 miles from the Cruise Terminal to the city center. Public buses or cruise line shuttles provide transportation into town, either free or for a fee. Taxis, of course, are available on the pier, as are rental cars and bikes. A list of flat-rate fares to the city center, train/bus station, Honfleur, etc. is posted, as are meter rates. The Cruise Terminal also has information kiosks where you can pick up maps and brochures, or get advice on sightseeing.
NB: The wind almost always blows in Le Havre, so bring along a windbreaker, just in case.
Here’s a map of the city to help you get oriented. As you can see, Le Havre is relatively compact, and most of the points of interest are within walking distance of one another.
Strung along the waterfront area are four of the city’s top attractions – the Malraux Museum (Beaux Arts), Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Natural History Museum and the Shipowner’s House (Maison de l’Armateur). A second group of attractions are in the area of the Hôtel de Ville/Temoin Apartment and Le Volcan (Espace Niemeyer), and include the Central Market (Les Halles) and St. Joseph’s Church.
The Impressionist Movement owes its genesis to “Impression, Sunrise,” an 1872 painting of the Le Havre harbour by Claude Monet. Today, the Andre Malraux Museum of Modern Art houses the second most extensive collection of Impressionist and Fauvist art in France, with special emphasis on the works of native sons Raoul Dufy and pre-Impressionist Eugene Boudin, whom Monet credited with starting it all. (2, Boulevard Clemenceau – Open Wed-Fri, Mondays, 11am-6pm; Sat & Sun, 11am-7pm; Closed Tuesdays – Admission: €5)
The Baroque façade and belltower of Le Havre’s Notre Dame Cathedral date from the 16th century, making the church the oldest existing building in the city. The church was heavily damaged during WW II, and restoration was only completed 30 years later, in 1974. The altarpieces and organ inside were gifts of Cardinal Richelieu in 1639, when he was Governor of Le Havre. The organ was destroyed during the Allied bombings, and all that remains of it now is a reconstructed case. (Open Daily – Free)
If you’re traveling with kids, the Natural Science Museum might be a good stop. Housed in an 18th century building that housed the former Law Courts, the structure’s façade and staircase survived the bombing and are listed as historical monuments. Temporary exhibits, some of them interactive, examine different aspects of our natural world and offer a chance for hands-on learning. (Place de Vieux Marche – Open Tues-Sun, 10am-Noon and 2pm-6pm – Admission: Free)
Like the Cathedral, the Shipowner’s House (Maison de l’Armateur) offers a sense of what Le Havre once was in its 18th century prime. This Rococo jewel offers five stories of rooms decorated in period style surrounding an unusual octagonal central light well. A glimpse of a gracious, long-gone past. (Thur-Mon, 11am-12:30pm and 1:30pm-6pm; Wed, 2pm-6pm – Guided tours Saturday at 11am and 3:30pm and on Sunday at 11 am; Closed Tuesdays – Admission €5)
Built of precast concrete modules by Auguste Perret, Le Havre’s Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) combines Classical elements, like its colonnaded entrance, with modern materials and a soaring 70-meter tower, making it a showpiece of the “reborn” town. Maison de Patrimoine (181 Rue de Paris, on the Hôtel’s Square) is the meeting place for group tours of the Show Apartment (Appartment Temoin). This popular tourist site showcases the modern, mid-century housing designed by Perret to house the average citizen, and features interior design, furniture and appliances of the period. (Guided tours are offered in FRENCH ONLY, and meet on Wed, Sat and Sun at 2pm, 3pm, 4pm and 5pm – Admission: €3)
The ultra-modern House of Culture, known locally as Le Volcan, is the word of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer). The complex holds a 1,093-seat theatre, a 250-seat multi-purpose hall and a cinema; built in 1982, it was renovated in 2012 to provide greater access from the building to the surrounding Espace du Niemeyer.
Near Le Volcan is Le Havre’s Central Market (Les Halles), which was rebuilt on the site of the original market in 1960. Along with Rue de Paris, Les Halles is part of a vibrant pedestrian zone filled with shops, cares and restaurants stretching from the Hotel de Ville to the waterfront.
St. Joseph’s Church, built between 1951-57, is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the bombings raids of WW II. Regarded as one of the architectural masterpieces of the 20th century, the church’s 107-meter octagonal tower is among the highest in France and can be seen at sea. (Open 10am-6pm – Free)
If you’re looking for an unusual destination, Les Jardins Suspendus (Hanging Gardens) may fit the bill. On the heights of Sainte-Adresse overlooking the harbour and town, an old fort has been repurposed as a lush botanical garden with plantings that change with the season. Access to the gardens on the ramparts is free; there is a fee for admission to the greenhouses in the central courtyard.
Lastly, a shopping opportunity … Just outside the port is the Docks Vauban, an urban renovation project that turned old commodities warehouses into roofed-over shopping center with a multiplex cinema, a grocery store, and more than 50 shops and restaurants. (70 Quai Frissard – Open seven days a week from 10am to 8pm)
On the southern bank of the Seine, across from Le Havre, is the charming town of Honfleur. Its picturesque port may seem familiar – it was a frequent subject for many of the Impressionist painters, including Monet, Courbet and Boudin.
Another popular destination is Giverny, where Monet’s house and garden, subject of so many of his paintings, are administered by the Foundation Claude Monet. Giverny is about 90 minutes from Le Havre by train or car. If you take the train, a bus or taxi can take you the final 5 km from the Vernon station to the Monet Foundation. (Open Daily, Apr 1 – Nov 1, 9:30am-6pm – Admission: House & Garden €9.50, House, Garden & Musee Marmottan Monet €18.50)
For train schedules and fares: http://www.sncf.com/