Published on 4 May 2020
Reading time: 5 minutes
Let us inspire you to spend the best possible day, short break or longer holiday in Honfleur, plucked from all the beautiful, thrilling and enthralling things to see in this lovely port town of Calvados that has inspired so many of France’s most renowned artists.
A stroll in Honfleur, one of Normandy’s most picturesque towns
Sitting at the mouth of the Seine river, Honfleur was once a bustling port and a trading centre shipping goods to England just across the Channel. Today, Honfleur’s maritime traditions live on in the preserved harbour, the only surviving one of its kind in the region after the Second World War bombings. Steeped in history, the characterful Vieux Bassin, one of the prettiest parts of town – and the obvious part to start a visit – offers exceptional sheltered berthing for sailing yachts and boats. In the outer harbour lies the small commercial port where fishing boats come to moor at the quayside and land their catches early in the morning.
For a start, the best way to explore Honfleur is on foot. Around the old port that has retained all its historic charm, you’ll find a maze of tiny streets of colourful medieval half-timbered houses and narrow tall houses with slate roofs and slate facades dating back to the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The inviting restaurants with wide terraces attracts a lively, all-ages crowd waiting to feast on local specialties: seafood platters featuring local Normandy oysters and shrimps, traditional mussels and fries or plump and juicy fried scallops from the Bay of the Seine.
A creative and artistic retreat
Another way to explore Honfleur is to look through the eyes of acclaimed painters, like Bonington, Turner, Daubigny or Eugène Boudin (an Honfleur native) inspired by the pretty town, its vast skies, the changing light and the reflection of the old houses in the water, blending in with sailing boats in motion. Art lovers can indulge in the Eugene Boudin Museum on Place Erik Satie and admire a collection of his 19th-century drawings and oil paintings as well as works by other painters of the Honfleur School.
All year round, the old port draws amateur artists with sketchbooks, painters setting up their easels on both quays or photographers for the irresistible view and the charming nautical décor. You’ll probably be able to catch a glimpse of old riggings or of the sailing boat La Sainte Bernadette with its red sails, one of the oldest Norman boats.
A perfectly preserved, quintessential Normandy town
Wandering around Honfleur feels like time has stood still since the Middle Ages. You can sense the town was fortified from the architecture. We make our way to the Church of Sainte-Catherine, one of the most impressive attractions of Honfleur dating back to the second half of the 15th century. Constructed by ship builders based on their shipbuilding techniques, it is the largest wooden church in France with a separate bell tower and resembles an upturned ship.
The story goes that the tower was disjointed from the main building because the weight of the bells was too heavy to support. Feel free to enter and marvel at the architecture, enjoy this exquisite mix of smells: candles blending with the smell of old wood. Around the church, it is a delight to walk around the cobbled streets and discover all the art galleries, artist studios and craft shops with displays of paintings, sculpture and furniture design. For food lovers, Honfleur has a great organic farmers’ market every Wednesday morning right next to Saint-Catherine’s Church!
The « Quartier de l’Enclos » District
Located in the Rue de la Ville in the “Quartier de l’Enclos”, the many salt warehouses needed for cod fishing have been listed as historic monuments. In this part of town, some are used to host exhibitions and concerts, so check out at the tourist office if there’s anything going on during your stay!
A voyage through the middles ages…
The Lieutenance of Honfleur
Proudly standing at the end of the old port, the Lieutenance, the former Governor’s residence from the 17th century, was one of the two entries through the town’s fortifications and a strategic point to guard the town. From 1684 up to the French Revolution, the magnificent apartments above the fortifications were used to accommodate the King’s lieutenant.
Finally, if you have time left, head up to the charming little church known as the Chapelle de Notre Dame de Grace located on one of the steepest hills around Honfleur. It is a little climb but well worth it as you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of Honfleur, the Seine Estuary and the famous Normandy bridge in the horizon.
Words by Lesley Williamson, Travel Blogger