The thing about Honfleur, France, is that the minute you behold Le Vieux Bassin (the Old Harbour), you will be spellbound. Slim buildings line the Old Harbour, stretching skyward amidst a jumble of colorful cafe parasols and moored sailboats that rock gently in their place.
This vista in itself is unforgettable, but add the majestic reflections in the water along with the wide-open Norman skies, and the entire scene is truly awe-inspiring. Make a mental capture of this stunning sight, and later that day when you return, the light and the reflected sky will be different enough to stop you in your tracks yet again.
Honfleur, a small historic city located on the Normandy coast in France, is a highlight that you will not soon forget. Honfleur is located in the Calvados region of Normandy, begging you to sample the famous apple brandy or, at least, a local dish where it has been used as an ingredient.
The easiest way to access Honfleur is by car. Honfleur is an easy two-hour drive from Paris. If you arrive from the north, though, you will cross a splendid bridge, La Normandie. This magnificent bridge, the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world, connects Upper and Lower Normandy and crosses the estuary of the Seine. The Seine, that marvelous river that flows through Paris and snakes its way through France, empties into the English Channel at Honfleur.
Honfleur is the perfect addition to any itinerary through Normandy, France, (along with these other villages). Here is how to spend a day in beautiful historic Honfleur, France.
Admire The Old Harbour (Le Vieux Bassin)
Clearly, you have to take your time by the Old Harbour. The picturesque quaysides need to be admired from both sides. The tall buildings from the 13th century were built to avoid paying higher taxes, which, in those days, were based on ground surface area. Wander the quays past restaurants and bars and see how the light falls and the reflections change. Plan to eat a meal by the Old Harbour. Many of the restaurants open up for lunch and dinner, and a few also serve breakfast. Plan to spend the evening right here!
Stroll Under The Archway Of The Lieutenancy
Right at the Old Harbour is the ancient fortification called the Lieutenancy, named as such because it used to be the residence of the navy lieutenant under Louis XIV. If you happen to be Canadian, note that Samuel de Champlain set sail from Honfleur in 1603 to explore the country called New France (Quebec). Samuel de Champlain’s plaque is on the only remaining vestige of the fortified wall that used to surround and protect Honfleur. Stroll under the archway and remind yourself that at this gate, it was necessary to show identification to ensure that you were not a pirate.
Enjoy A Guided Boat Tour
While you are by Le Vieux Bassin, book a guided boat tour on the quay. There is a 45-minute tour on the boat Le Calypso which provides a solid understanding of the importance of Honfleur’s maritime history, historical highlights of the town itself, and takes you out to the estuary of the Seine. I took this trip and found being on the water added a different perspective to understanding Honfleur.
There is also a longer boat tour that goes directly under the bridge, La Normandie.
Hop Aboard The Little Tourist Train
Getting oriented on a one-day visit to a new city is sometimes best done by taking a tour. This little train tour leaves from the bus station and lasts 40 minutes.
Saint Catherine Neighborhood And Church
A few minutes’ walk from the Old Harbour is the medieval neighborhood of Saint Catherine. Typical of medieval towns in France, the narrow cobblestone streets are lined with lopsided half-timbered houses from ancient times. This creates an authentic atmosphere centered around the largest wooden church in France, Saint Catherine Church. Upon entry into this unique church, cast your eyes overhead to see that the double nave is topped with what appears to be the hulls of two ships, side by side. The main bell tower was built separately across from the church, as the wooden church rooftop could not support a bell tower.
This neighborhood is full of boutiques selling art, clothing, and specialized items from Normandy such as Calvados, caramels, and tinned fish. It is easy to pass an hour or more wandering this intriguing neighborhood. There is a market at Saint Catherine Church on Saturday mornings.
View The Landscapes Through The Lens Of An Artist
It is not hard to understand how Honfleur, France, was an attraction to the impressionist artists with its beautiful light and landscapes. Eugene Boudin, born in Honfleur, was fascinated by the light and painted the skies, for which he was nicknamed the “King of the Skies.” He was a great inspiration to Monet and many other impressionist artists.
The Eugene Boudin Museum is the perfect place to pass time for the artistic ones in the group. Please note that the museum is closed on Tuesdays.
Find Peace At Notre-Dame De Grace Chapel
The Notre-Dame de Grace chapel sits on a hill above Honfleur. The tiny church was built between 1600 and 1615 and has one of the most beautiful carillons I have ever heard. Try to plan your visit for the top of the hour when the bells play the most beautiful of melodies. The bells also chime on the quarter hour. This chapel can be accessed by car, the tourist train, and also on foot. It is about a 30-minute uphill walk from Honfleur.
Savor Local Gastronomic Delights
A visit to Honfleur is not complete without diving into her gastronomic seafood delights. The fishing boats and nets lining the quay remind the visitor of the importance of the sea to daily life in Honfleur.
Honfleur is known for its scallop fishing. Peak season is from October to May, where the boats sail toward England for their catch, working 70 to 80 hours a week. In the offseason, these same boats fish for sole and turbot. Mussels and oysters are plentiful. And thus there is a wide selection of fresh local seafood to savor in Honfleur. Savory crepes, called galettes, are also on all the menus. Don’t miss the local specialty that’s topped with Norman cream!
Walk The Beach At Honfleur
If you are a beach person, it is worth a stroll along the promenade from Honfleur to find the beach. At low tide, the beach at Honfleur has a wide sandy expanse that is perfect for walking barefoot, collecting pieces of sea glass, observing the famous Normandy skies, soaking up the salty air, and listening to the crashing waves.
Return To The Old Harbour At Night
There is really only one way to end a day in Honfleur. Circle back to the Old Harbour for dinner, enjoy the evening skies, and twinkling lights reflected in the water.
One day in Honfleur will leave you wanting more. Be forewarned! You may decide to stay longer.
- Honfleur is a very popular destination in France. When I arrived in the fall of 2020, there were not many foreign travelers, but it was buzzing with French visitors. Try to visit in the offseason and during the week.
- While in Honfleur, I stayed at the Hotel Le Dauphin Les Loges. It is in the medieval core just by Saint Catherine Church. The staff was exceptionally friendly and helpful and spoke English. The “Superior” double rooms are much nicer than the “Standard” double rooms. There is a spa on site.
- Honfleur is accessible by public transit even though there is no train station. Take the train to Le Havre. Just outside the train station is the bus depot where buses run to Honfleur. Check the schedule of the local area bus, the Bus Verts du Calvados. The bus trip to Honfleur from Le Havre takes about 30 minutes and costs around 5 euros. Buy the ticket from the driver. These local buses run throughout Normandy, thus making picture-perfect Honfleur reachable from other locations in the area.
- Honfleur is situated on the Cote Fleurie, or the Flowery Coast. This coastline includes two other can’t-miss destinations, Trouville-sur-Mer and Deauville. The side-by-side towns are mandatory stops in Normandy and aren’t far from Honfleur.