Honfleur, One Of The Most Picturesque Harbors In France

Honfleur France

The gorgeous little harbor town of Honfleur, France has attracted artists for hundreds of years. While the boats that Claude Monet and fellow Impressionists painted more than a century ago look different now, most of the tall skinny houses that line the port in this quaint and colorful town remain the same.

There are lots of pretty little seaside towns in France but Honfleur is considered by many to be one of the most picturesque small harbors in all of the country. Being so, it is also one of the most frequently painted by artists from all over the world. Only two hours from Paris, it’s located in the Calvados region of Normandy between Le Havre and Deauville right where the Seine joins the sea.

Boats in the Port of Honfleur, Claude Monet, 1917 oil/canvas/Private collection 

It is said that the daylight in the region is considered special and inspired Claude Monet and many of the famous Impressionist painters to set up their easels and paint there. While my husband and I have visited Honfleur three times, we have yet to witness the light that the area is known for. As a matter of fact, it rained or there was little to no sun during each of our visits. That said we enjoyed Honfleur and got to see much of the same 16th to 18th century architecture that the famous artists painted years ago. Over the years since our first visit, I am happy to say that Honfleur has maintained its charm through the decades despite the large number of tourists it receives.

The inner harbor, called the Vieux Bassin, in the heart of the town is much the same and couldn’t be prettier. Tall and very narrow wood or slate covered buildings as well as smaller stone buildings, designed to withstand rough sea weather, surround the harbor. Cafes and bars with outdoor tables and brightly colored umbrellas line the edge of the waterfront.

Honfleur's Old Harbor
Honfleur’s Old Harbor, Vieux Bassin

On our first visit to Honfleur, we stayed at the Les Maisons de Léa, a charming hotel on the pretty square surrounding the Church of Saint Catherine. Its exceptional location on the northern side of the Vieux Bassin and in the middle of the historic city center made it perfect for a walking tour through the town. We were thrilled that our cute room had a window overlooking Place Sainte Catherine, its famous wooden church and directly at the bell tower.

Click to enlarge and see a slide show.

The historic church by our hotel was constructed by Honfleur’s shipbuilders entirely of wood during the 15th century. It is the oldest and largest wooden church in France. They built its oak ceiling like the hull of a ship and constructed a separate wood and stone building as a belfry because of their concern about adding the weight of the heavy bells onto the wooden church roof.

What we loved about our location was the maze of narrow streets that spread out from the square surrounding the church and up a hill. They are lined with centuries old half-timbered houses and elegant old stone manor houses as well as stylish boutiques, art galleries and restaurants.

If you happen to be in Honfleur for the Saturday morning market which is held next to the hotel and the St. Catherine church, you will find a bounty of artisan cheeses such as Pont l’Eveque and Livarot, farm fresh butter, local cider, pommeau, a mix of apple juice and apple brandy, as well as Calvados.

Also be sure to visit the La Lieutenance, a 17th century stone structure that was once one of two entrances into the medieval village of Honfleur. It was part of the city walls and was once the former home of the King’s lieutenant (governor) of Caen.

part of the city walls of Honfleur once the former home of the King’s lieutenant
La Lieutenance, Part Of The Original Gate Into Honfleur And The Former Home Of The King’s Lieutenant

Our enthusiasm for our hotel’s location wained when we returned after exploring the town. What we didn’t realize, and the front desk failed to mentioned to us, was that the church bells right outside our window rang every hour. Needless to say that our one night stay was an unforgettable one. It’s worth noting that the bells now only ring from 9am until 9pm but for 5 solid minutes if you plan to stay nearby.

If you plan a visit to Honfleur, even if only for half a day, be sure to go window shopping, visit the art galleries, boutiques and local food shops. Take a rest after some sightseeing and enjoy one of the local ciders or a glass of wine at one of the cafes at the edge of the water.

When it’s time to have a bite to eat, try a meal at one of the many quaint restaurants where fish is a specialty. We avoid those directly on the main harbor and believe better food can be found away from the water, even if only a short distance away. We head to the Quai de la Quarantaine which is near the carousel at the northeast end of the old harbor. Every year from May to October, the carousel is set up in the courtyard in front of the town hall. The last time we visited Honfleur we were with friends on a rainy day. There was no nicer way to wait for the weather to improve than a good lunch at nearby L’Absinthe.

I would suggest while in this lovely little French harbor town that you dine on local oysters, scallops or if you are with a group, try one of the huge seafood towers that are stacked high with fresh langoustines, whelks, oysters, and shrimp. My personal favorite when dining in this region is sole meunière and my husband’s is moules and frites (mussels and fries).

Mussels seem to be the most popular dish in this region, cooked in a white wine cream sauce flavored with garlic and served in huge bowls. My husband says to take his word, they are prepared perfectly. You could end your meal with a cheese plate of camembert, being the regional speciality, or a apple tart and a well aged glass of calvados.

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The picturesque little harbor town of Honfleur, that has inspired so many famous artists, makes a wonderful base to explore the beauty of the Normandy coast, with it’s spectacular white cliffs to the north, the somber D-Day beaches to the south and any number of scenic towns in between. There are great restaurants that serve delicious fresh food and drinks made with ingredients that are bought from the local fishermen, cheesemakers and apple farmers in the area. The only thing that could make a visit to Honfleur more special is if you get to enjoy the special light that inspired so many famous artists to put their brush to canvas and capture its beauty.

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I travel the back roads of the world, sharing great food and interesting places and enjoyable pastimes.

38 thoughts on “Honfleur, One Of The Most Picturesque Harbors In France

  1. That gave me a lovely trip along memory lane, Karen. Thank you. I’ve been to Honfleur a few times and it is indeed very pretty and such a wonderful place to explore the fabulous food and drink of Normandy. I once stayed in a hotel in Paris next to a church whose bells rang all night so I really felt for you!!

  2. How beautiful and what delicious fish!
    All the old men in Normandy make their own Calvados (and other fruit liqueurs) – it smells and tastes better than the commercial products. I got one of them to show me how it’s done – it’s easier than one would expect, but the first bit of alcohol produced is toxic, so I’ve never tried it at home.

  3. This is one of the spots on my list of “Places I Want to Visit Again.” We were only there for a day (a lovely day!) and it wasn’t really a full day — but after seeing the Normandy beaches and other spots along the way. I really appreciate your history of the area and some wonderful tips for a future visit. As always, the photos are wonderful (and the moules/frites remind me of the wonderful dinner I enjoyed there, too!)

  4. Such a pretty place! I’ve sailed past it a couple of times in a cruise ship, but never visited the town itself. Want to one of these days, particularly now that I’ve seen your pictures. Looking forward to be able to travel again, eventually. 🙂 Good post — thanks.

  5. Ah, Karen, you’ve taken me on yet another wonderful virtual tour. Just over a year ago, I’d have read this and thought “mental note, I must visit there”. This year, I poured over your lovely post enjoying every word and vivid description you’ve provided us.
    Although I’ve enjoyed “the best bar-none” oyster dinner just down the road in La Havre, I never made it to Honfleur. So, now I can look out the glass windows of our house while isolated and only hope to have another great seafood dinner in Honfleur. Thank you…

  6. That was one of my favorite places when visiting France. I did have the mussels for lunch while there and they were wonderful

  7. It does look a lovely place, even if your weather wasn’t great. La Lieutenance looks interesting. I guess people must have been more tolerant once- or not so fond of sleep, as restrictions on bell-ringing times seem to be the norm now. 🙂 🙂

  8. Nothing like a bit of wanderlust in the afternoon… I can only dream of such picturesque travels now! It’s still a delight to visit digitally, at least. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  9. I’ve been in the Le Havre area close by, but not there. It’s gorgeous in that area. And Honfleur looks like a beautiful place, Karen! The old buildings in France amazed me. Lots of inspiration for all the “Monet’s!” Thanks for the travelogue!

  10. I still have so much of France left to visit. We’ve never been to the NW corner, and it’s so beautiful. Thank you for these lovely photos.

  11. What a charming town, Karen! We have been to Paris several times, and have traveled south from there but have never made it to the coast! Definitely a must-see on our next trip!

  12. That looks really pretty, I have been in many places in France but not that, definitely something to look forward to once this virus get contained. Reminds me of Nyhavn in Copenhagen, has that similar charm.

  13. Such a lovely and picturesque place. It’s the perfect vacation destination (sans the excessive bell ringing). Thanks for exposing me to yet another beautiful part of the world, Karen.

  14. Oh, how beautiful Karen, you bring us back to France with your gorgeous photos and lovely descriptions. ANd those mussels? they look divine! Thanks for this post, just learned about another place in France to visit. You are the best! 🙂

  15. Thank you for sharing this beautiful sea side town with us, I have been craving to travel to Europe since our return a year ago, when stupid covid began and this post was a nice reminder of our carefree better times. Will we ever be normal again?

  16. Beautifully written and lovely pictures….we will travel again!!….I love the seafood dishes….makes me want to go there soon!!…….Abrazotes, Marcela

  17. What a treat to kick back in that picturesque setting with a cold, autumn-y glass of Normandy cider. If I could wave a magic want, I’d transport all of us there. I think we all deserve it after this past year.

  18. You seriously need to publish a pictorial cookbook! A “See the world through food memoir.” Thank you for sharing so many delightful places/spaces and the food that brings it all to life. 💕

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