At the mouth of the Seine, the major port of Le Havre is a model of concrete grandeur. Devastated in World War II, with to the boldness of its reconstruction, it’s been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Don’t miss Le Havre’s great waterside art museum, or the seaside pleasures of its marina and long pebble beach. And remember Le Havre is an important cross-Channel ferry port.
The great Impressionist artist Claude Monet painted a picture of an impression of the sun rising through the industrial chimneys of Le Havre, in 1872. An art critic unimpressed by this canvas, entitled ‘Impression, Sunrise’, dismissively dubbed Monet’s style of painting ‘Impressionism’; the name stuck, becoming associated with what is surely the best-loved art movement in the world!
To this day, Le Havre offers a captivating mix of industrial and natural grandeur. Reaching the centre of town, though, where estuary and Channel meet, there’s a remarkable feeling of space and light in this port city almost completely rebuilt after the terrible destruction wrought through World War II. Just a handful of historic buildings made of fine stone survived the appalling devastation.
A modern architect with a big vision was put in charge of the post-war reconstruction. Auguste Perret was one of the world’s pioneers in employing concrete. Not only was it cheap, he also reckoned he could achieve many new effects with it, as he proved. The whole design, though altered many times, turned out to be bold and grand. Perret’s modern transformation of Le Havre helped the place become the first modern town in France recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Perret’s plan has been added to by a few further exceptional modern buildings, including the MuMa André Malraux Museum of Modern Art and the Volcano arts centre, the latter by leading Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. The most recent enticing architectural addition was designed by the renowned French practice of Jean Nouvel.
North of the all the docks, turn the corner from the Seine estuary and Le Havre faces the Channel full on. Here you’ll find the large yachting marina and, in summer, beach huts lined up along the shingle beach as far as Sainte-Adresse, the elegant seaside suburb of Le Havre, with great views out to the open sea. The slopes above have not just swanky villas, but also a 19th century fort turned public gardens with a view.
- The Saint-Joseph church Auguste Perret’s most uplifting design in the rebuilding of Le Havre, this sky-scraping church is visible from afar thanks to its remarkable 350ft high octagonal lantern tower. Inside, the tower is illuminated all the way up by stained glass pieces. The vast open space below is impressive. The church is considered a masterpiece of 20th century architecture as well as an emblem of European post-war reconstruction.
- The town centre, rebuilt by Auguste Perret Discover the town centre in pictures (website in French)
- The Perret model apartment You can see inside a model Perret apartment. The furniture is also original.
- Le Volcan (Volcano) This strikingly shaped cultural centre rises beside Le Havre’s most central dock. It dates from 1982 and was designed by renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. In white painted concrete, it brings great curves into the rectilinear city devised by Perret. The building includes two separate volumes: above, a theatre and a cinema; below a concert hall for modern music.
- The MuMa André Malraux Museum of Modern Art This modern building, a wonderful light box of glass, contains a fabulous collection of Impressionist works, the largest in France after the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. While contemplating seaside works by the greatest names in French 19th and early 20th century art, watch all manner of real boats and ships slipping past, going in and out of the Seine estuary just beyond the building.
- Notre-Dame Cathedral One of the few major historic buildings to survive the war.
- Vauban Docks (website in French) These docks were built from 1840 onwards along the same lines as the London docks. They have now been refurbished to house big stores and leisure facilities.
- Les Bains des Docks Among exciting recent architectural projects in Le Havre for the 21st century, this stylish, fun aquatic centre with spa is the most appealing to visitors. It was designed by one of the most celebrated architectural practices in contemporary France, that of multi-award-winning Jean Nouvel.
- The Maison de l‘Armateur (Shipowner's House) With its 18th century architecture and its interior built around a light well, this intriguing museum set in a former shipowner’s house reflects the history of Le Havre.
- Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle (Natural History Museum) Housed in the grand former 18th century law courts that also survived the war bombs, this natural history museum displays fine collections of palaeontology and zoology, together with the unique collection of 8,000 drawings and manuscripts of the naturalist Charles Alexandre Lesueur.
- The Marina Facing the sea, backed by smart apartment blocks, Le Havre’s marina is packed with yachts
- Le Havre skatepark Close to the marina, this is the largest skate-park in France.
- The beach and its promenade In summer, cabins for bathers are set up along the long pebble beach, along with appealing sea front bars and restaurants. Plus there’s a broad cycle track running beside the beach, to be enjoyed year-round.
- Jardins Suspendus Here, a 19th century fort on the heights above the town centre has been transformed to create gardens with great views. The gardens are free and just a small fee allows you to see inside the greenhouses below.
- Prieuré de Graville (Graville Priory)
- The Impressionist Itinerary Nine panels reproduce famous Impressionist works executed at Le Havre and Sainte-Adresse, on the actual site where they were painted. The itinerary begins at the Bassin du Commerce and continues to the beach at Sainte-Adresse. A leaflet is available at the Le Havre Tourist Office.