Le Havre isn't on the itinerary for most trips to France, but most cruise lines that have a port of call in "Paris" actually stop in this coastal city. Most passengers who have never been to France try and rush to Paris for the day to say they've seen the city, but there's no way to see Paris in a few hours. You're better off leaving a city as big as Paris for another trip and making the most of your time in this underrated and worthwhile city.
The Normandy city of Le Havre is a surprisingly exciting destination and well worth a short stay. The second-largest port in France, it stands at the mouth of the Seine estuary. While there are some old buildings and a stunning museum with the second most important collection of Impressionist paintings in France after the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, it's especially known for its contemporary architecture.
A Bit of History
Le Havre (‘the harbor’) was created in 1517 by King François I. Intended as both a commercial and military port, it became the heart of the colonial and international trade of coffee, cotton, and wood. In the mid 19th century, the first ocean liners left Europe for America with Le Havre serving as a major starting point. Le Havre was also an important city for the Impressionists who viewed the light on the estuary where the Seine empties into the ocean as one of their great inspirations.
As the major port of northern France, Le Havre was bombed almost out of existence in September 1944. The city was rebuilt between 1946 and 1964 from the plans of one single architect, Auguste Perret. In 2005, Le Havre became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized as an extraordinary urban complex.
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: Cruise ships travel to Le Havre throughout the year, which is how most visitors arrive. However, the most comfortable temperatures are from May to October. Thanks to the coastal climate, it stays cooler in the hot summer months than in Paris.
- Language: The official language of Le Havre is French, although French-speaking visitors may notice that locals speak the Norman dialect which has some important differences from standard French. As an important port city with direct connections to the U.K., English is also widely spoken and understood.
- Currency: The currency used is the euro, and U.S. dollars or British pounds aren't accepted. However, most restaurants, cafes, and hotels accept credit cards without problems.
- Getting Around: The center of the city was built on a grid pattern so it’s easy to navigate your way around the streets. The train station, ferry dock, and cruise ports are all within walking distance from the historic city center, while the beach is about a 30-minute walk. There's a two-line tram system that goes through the city center and terminates right at Le Havre Beach for easy coastal access.
- Travel Tip: If you've ever wanted to see the White Cliffs of Dover, the French coast offers the same picturesque geology around Le Havre on the Côte d'Albàtre, or Alabaster Coast. Travel to nearby seaside villages for even more scenic backdrops, such as Étretat.
Things to Do
Between the beach, art, and shopping, there's plenty to do in Le Havre to fill up your itinerary. However, the city's architecture is perhaps the biggest draw. After being completely rebuilt from the ground up after World War II, the city's modern design is a testament to urban planning.
- To fully appreciate the city's history and architecture, join a walking tour to get a comprehensive lesson of Le Havre's most important landmarks, such as the Town Hall, St. Joseph's Church, the Volcan Cultural Center, and more.
- The Le Havre beach is right within the city limits but, if you have the time, consider making an excursion to the white cliffs at Étretat. This small coastal town offers some of the most breathtaking views in northern France, and it's only 40 minutes from Le Havre by car.
- Overlooking the harbor entrance and very near where Monet painted the city, the Museum of Modern Art is flooded with natural light, making it the perfect setting for the 19th and 20th-century paintings the museum is famous for. Stroll past the Impressionist works of Courbet, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, and more, plus over 200 canvases by Eugène Boudin. Later artists include the likes of Dufy, Van Dongen, and Derain.
What to Eat and Drink
Le Havre has emerged as a foodie city, boasting traditional Norman dishes as well as modern fare. Being a coastal town, fresh-caught seafood in Le Havre is second to none. Fresh oysters are hugely popular and you'll find them at bistros across town, but you can also order them cooked in bread crumbs and served with the signature creamy cider sauce. Marmite dieppoise, or fish stew, is the Norman version of bouillabaisse stew from the south of France.
Normandy is the apple region of France and the fruit is used extensively in Norman cuisine, from meats stewed with apples to mouthwatering apple pastries. You'll also see them featured in locally produced beverages such as ciders and Calvados, an apple brandy similar to cognac that's often served as a digestif after a meal.
La Taverne Paillette is a Le Havre landmark, deservedly so since it originally opened in 1596. Apart from being old, they specialize in seafood, sauerkraut, and their beer selection.
Where to Stay
Any accommodation in the city center is easily within reach of all the major attractions, so your budget and desired amenities are more important than location. However, a hotel located next to the train station or port may be convenient if you have a limited amount of time to enjoy the city. Otherwise, a hotel located on the beach isn't as accessible to trains or ferries, but the seaside views may be worth the extra distance.
The Best Western Art Hotel has stylish rooms, some of which have balconies that overlook the harbor or Le Volcan cultural center. Hôtel Oscar is a great place for the slightly eccentric, with quirky 1950s style and minimal decor. Hotel Vent D’Ouest is a delightful hotel just near the sea featuring stylish and comfortable nautical-themed rooms and a spa using French NUXE products.
Although many visitors stop in Le Havre during their port of call on a cruise, travelers to Paris or even London can easily get there. From Paris, direct trains leave from St. Lazare station and shuttle passengers to Le Havre in just two hours and 15 minutes. The Le Havre train station is 20 minutes from the city center by foot or easily connected via the tram.
Coming from London requires first getting to the coastal city of Portsmouth and then catching the ferry directly to Le Havre. The travel time from Portsmouth to Le Havre is about three hours and 45 minutes.
Money Saving Tips
Some of the best parts of Le Havre are free to enjoy, such as admiring the architecture, taking a stroll through downtown, or sitting out at the beach.
- The Museum of Modern Art is free to visitors under 26 and to everyone on the first Saturday of the month.
- Don't worry about paying for taxis or other transport around the city (as long as the weather permits), since most destinations are accessible by walking.
- Le Volcan is more than just an amazing building. They also have a full program of cultural events and festivals throughout the year, many of which are inexpensive or even free to attend.