Le Havre is a French City by the sea in the region of Normandy. It is known for its large port that connects Europe to the other side of the Atlantic and for its past during World War II.
Among some, Le Havre suffers from a certain reputation. Gray city. Boring city. But many don’t know that Le Havre has changed a lot over the past years and has a great deal to offer. It has made up for lost time and is a trendy and attractive city to spend a few days in.
If you’ve never been there, here is your future planning resource to guide you through this city in France. Also visit the Le Havre tourism site to get more ideas on what to see and do there.
Le Havre City Center – UNESCO World Heritage Site
During the Second World War, Le Havre was one of the most destroyed cities in France, by almost 80%. The city was rebuilt by architect Auguste Perret. His work was inspired by the old plans of Le Havre. But Perret gave it a twist of modernity with the use of reinforced concrete. The Town Hall for example, is an emblematic building of the Perret construction.
Also on Avenue Foch, you can find apartments in “Perret style,” very functional where no space was wasted, but also with a very sleek and clean look. It is possible to visit one of them to get a look.
After its reconstruction, Le Havre became one of the most modern cities in France. Thanks to the work of Perret, however, is a UNESCO world heritage site, one of the very few modern cities to get this recognition.
Also in the center, the Saint Joseph church was rebuilt in a modern style by Perret if you are interested to see more of his work. It dominates the skyline of the city, with a tower that is 107 meters tall, housing 12,7688 stained glass windows. It’s an impressive sight inside and out.
If you are into architecture, do not miss Le Volcan, a theater and library designed by Oscar Niemeyer. You can take a break there in the café La Colombe situated inside the building or at Les Halles, an indoor market situated right next to Le Volcan.
Quartier St François – a Lively Neighborhood
Quartier St François is the oldest district in Le Havre, where fishermen lived first. Mostly Bretons, aka the people from Brittany. Today, it is still called the Bretons district. After the war it was almost completely demolished, but some beautiful stone houses still remain.
In this lively and popular district, you will find many restaurants, and festivals taking place all over the year.
Don’t miss the Fish Hall, for a few reasons. This is a beautiful architectural work built in 1952. Now it has transformed into a food hall with numerous cultural and associative activities linked to the oceans.
The Port of Le Havre
Built in the 16th century because of its strategic geographic situation, the city’s port is still a very important harbor. It is the second-largest commercial port in France and is home to some of the largest ships in the world. You can see it from several vantage points in the city, or visit the harbor by boat aboard the Ville du Havre II.
Back in the time, before the harbor became too small for some shipping activities, the waterfront was lined with docks and warehouses to store goods. Today, some have been rehabilitated and are used as university buildings, a performance hall, shopping arcades, and for other leisure activities. If you are there in summer, don’t miss “Les bains des docks,” designed by Jean Nouvel, an aquatic complex inspired by the roman baths with spa, sauna, and swimming pool.
Le Havre and Impressionism
Le port du Havre even inspired Claude Monet–who was born in the city–for his famous painting Impression, Sunrise in 1872, a work (and title) that is credited with starting the impressionist movement.
Today, the city pays tribute to its hometown hero and the known worldwide Impressionist movement with diverse events and exhibitions. This year, conditions permitting, there will be an impressionist festival going on. Anytime, the André Malraux Museum of Modern Art, Le MuMa, has one of the most prestigious collection of impressionist art outside Paris. A must visit!
Art lovers also might want to explore some of the other works throughout the city such as La Catène de Containers from Vincent Ganivet: two huge modern arches made of colorful containers. Or check out The Shipwrecked Ship, nicknamed “Love Love,” imagined by Julien Berthier.
Le Havre Beach
Since this is a seaside city, it also has its own beach. Just be warned that the water is quite cold. It’s usually not much warmer than 20°C even in the summer but it is still a great place to take a stroll and enjoy the sea air. Notice the colorful beach huts that are so emblematic of the area.
Memories of the Second World War in Normandy
World War II shaped the city of le Havre. It was at the heart of the Allied campaigns that turned the tides and led to victory against the Nazis. Many bunkers remain and still bear witness to this past.
A part of the Atlantic Wall can be seen not too far from the center of Le Havre and testifies to the means of defense used around the region during the Occupation. The Atlantic Wall is a system of fortifications built by the Germans during the Second World War. It runs along the Atlantic coast and extends to the south of France.
Also, some bunkers remain in the very center of the city but not all of them can be visited. An underground hospital at the corner of Rue Henri-IV and Rue Trigauville is still visible though. It used to have around 200 beds in the basement, with x-ray machines and operating rooms. On Boulevard Clémenceau, opposite the handle of the regattas, you can still see a command bunker built in 1943.
Not everyone knows about the bunkers in the city, including some of the locals. Sign up for a city tour to get insight from a guide who knows the places and the history.
While it may not have the cachet of France’s capital or historic towns like Rennes with many buildings that survived the war intact, Le Havre is a fascinating city to visit. There is enough to keep you occupied for two or three days and is a good base for a trip around Normandy (locally spelled as Normandie).
About the writer:
Amandine Hach is a French blogger based in Berlin, Germany. She mainly writes for other chic women travelers on her blog Les Berlinettes.
This post was made possible with sponsorship from France Tourism. As always, all opinions are our own.