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.