Honfleur looks so utterly enchanting, it is hard to remember that it was built essentially for commerce. Its harbour sits in a great location, tucked away on the southern side of the Seine’s estuary. During the Hundred Years War, the French king had this strategic spot fortified, but that didn’t stop the English taking over for several decades.
Through the Ancien Régime, Honfleur’s shipowners made fortunes from trade, notably with North America. Samuel de Champlain, one of the most famous explorers associated with the port, headed off to found the Canadian city of Quebec. Lucrative lines for the Honfleur shipping magnates included not just cod-fishing off Newfoundland, but also the triangular slave trade.
With their fortunes, wealthy Honfleur families built their high-rise homes, packed tight next to each other, especially around the Vieux Bassin, the heart of the port, where a front-row home overlooking the vessels was a distinct privilege. Now, instead of receiving commercial ships, or fishing boats, which are kept out of the centre in larger docks, the Vieux Bassin attracts yachts. Shops fight for space behind the quays in this extraordinarily picturesque setting, while restaurants stretch their terraces across the cobbles.
The quarters on the different sides of the Vieux Bassin each have their distinctive character. The eastern Enclos, around the church of St-Etienne, is packed with interesting buildings. The western area slopes up to the splendid wooden church of Ste-Catherine, in a district where you will find the town’s main museums dedicated to the arts. Central Honfleur’s southern area is more discreet, but well worth exploring too for its architecture, including St-Léonard church and the restored fountains.
Honfleur’s beauty has long attracted artists, with works to be seen both in the town museums and in the modern galleries that abound. As Honfleur is so clearly dedicated to tourism today, you can choose from an exceptionally enticing selection of hotels, restaurants and shops around town.
Along Honfleur’s stretch of estuary, you can stroll through civic gardens to the beach. Up the hillside, visit Notre-Dame de Grâce chapel and enjoy great views over the Seine estuary. From Honfleur you can also take boat trips out on the vast Seine estuary, or embark on a walk along the phenomenal Pont de Normandie that spans the Seine estuary so sensationally.
Worth a visit
- The Vieux-Bassin (old dock):the exceptional old harbour in the heart of the port, with distinctive high, narrow, timber-frame and slate-clad houses overlooking the dock from three sides.
- The Lieutenance (Lieutenancy): he exceptional old harbour in the heart of the port, with distinctive high, narrow, timber-frame and slate-clad houses overlooking the dock from three sides.
- Saint Catherine's Church: this stunning edifice, built entirely of wood, was made by shipwrights, who incorporated many remarkable decorative details.
- Maritime museum: the Church of Saint-Étienne has been turned into a historical museum on old Honfleur, where you will discover the fascinating story of explorers such as Roberval, who left for Canada in 1541.
- The Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Chapel: this 17th century chapel on a hill above Honfleur stands in a spot where pilgrims have long come to give thanks to God for rescuing them from natural disasters, for example Duke Richard II of Normandy, who narrowly escaped a storm early in the 11th century. Inside, fascinating plaques, paintings and models attest to the gratitude felt by many visitors here, including famous people associated with Normandy. For fabulous views over Honfleur and the Seine estuary, head up to the Mont-Joli hilltop.
- Eugène Boudin Museum: Honfleur’s extensive fine arts museum houses many fine paintings by celebrated 19th and 20th century artists closely asscociated with Honfleur and the Seine Estuary, including Boudin, Cals, Courbet, Dubourg, Dufy, Jongkind and Monet. Also on display are drawings and paintings bequeathed to the town of his birth by Eugène Boudin in 1898 as well as fine religious pieces.
- Les Maisons Satie house a musical and visual treat of a contemporary museum, paying tribute to Erik Satie, the wonderfully lyrical musician and composer born in this very place in 1866.
- The Greniers à sel (Salt granaries): these vast stone constructions dating from 1670 were built as salt granaries and could store up to 10,000 tons of salt, a vital commodity up until modern times. Today they serve as a prestigious setting for exhibitions, concerts and conferences.
Naturospace: between the old port and the estuary you can visit the largest tropical butterfly house in France.
- Gardens and beach along the Seine estuary: wander from the town to the Seine Estuary and you encounter several public gardens, including the Jardin des Personnalités, paying homage to famous people associated with historic Honfleur. Just west of this lies Honfleur’s small beach.
Pont de Normandie (website in French): this bridge spans the Seine between Honfleur and Le Havre. Its stunning design was by Michel Virlogeux. It opened in 1995, when it was the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world, at just over 7,000 feet. While principally built to carry a toll road for cars, you can walk or cycle over the bridge for free on special paths, going from beyond the eastern edge of Honfleur, to enjoy staggering views along the Seine estuary.
With its exceptional geographical position, you might use Honfleur as a base from which to enjoy any number of escapades inland in the pays d'Auge, to discover the Route du Cidre or go for walks around the Seine estuary in the steps of the Impressionists...
Not to be missed