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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.