If you want to get the most out of Le Havre you have to come ready to experience somewhere that differs from a normal, picturesque French city.
Le Havre looked to the future and hired the modernist Auguste Perret, a mentor of Le Corbusier, to rebuild the centre following the destruction of the Second World War.
His efforts have now been rewarded with UNESCO status, and you don’t have to be into modern architecture to love the clean lines and boldness of the city’s public spaces and monuments.
The port is the busiest in France and will excite those interested by trade and commerce from the 16th to the 21st century.
Lets explore the best things to do in Le Havre:
1. St. Joseph’s Church
Auguste Perret’s incredible church is modern architecture at its most powerful.
With a neo-gothic temple he showed what reinforced concrete could achieve by devising a self-supporting tower 107 metres tall.
So when you stand in the choir there’s nothing above you but a hollow tube with bare concrete illuminated by sunlight filtered through stained glass.
Such is the church’s presence that you can see it from almost anywhere in Le Havre and it stands as a beacon for sea traffic at night.
There’s much more going on here than meets your first glance, as the church is informed by abstraction and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Everything you see has meaning but you may need some hints to decode it.
2. Musée d’Art Moderne André Malraux
There’s five centuries of art at MuMa, a modern glass and steel building right next to the marina.
Since the late-19th century Le Havre has either been the birthplace or home of a raft of superior artists like Braque, Dubuffet, Friesz, Dufy and Monet.
So it follows that the city’s art museum should be beaten only by the Musée d’Orsay for its impressionist works.
Manet, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Gauguin and Monet are all household names.
Then you have the men who inspired the movement like Delacroix, Gustave Courbet and Eugène Boudin.
In fact MuMa has the largest single collection of Boudin’s art in the world.
3. Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville
Inaugurated in 1958, Le Havre’s city hall and square are another cornerstone of Perret’s vision for the city.
The clean and bright mixed-use buildings around the square have held up well, and their high-ceilings and tall windows recall neoclassical townhouses.
They adhere to Perret’s rule that residents should be able to claim their “right to peace, fresh air, sunlight and space”. The square is a welcoming public place, with flowerbeds, lawns and fountains, all at the foot of the 72-metre tower of the city hall.
4. The Port
It might not appeal to everyone, but if you’ve got a thing for industrial infrastructure you could have the time of your life negotiating the quays and service roads of one of the world’s largest shipping ports.
Le Havre can service the largest freight ships in the world and to do this has implemented some vast projects: Take a map and try to get close to the gargantuan François I lock, connecting the system of canals with the open sea.
And if you need a cultural reason to visit, Claude Monet’s paintings of the harbour in 1872 gave rise to the impressionist movement.
5. Maison de l’Armateur
An edifying snapshot of life in Le Havre at the beginning of the 19th century is on quai de l’île in the Quartier Saint-François.
The townhouse, planned by Paul-Michel Thibault, who also plotted the city’s fortifications, was untouched by the devastation in 1944 and has been preserved as an historic monument since 1950. Maison de l’Armateur (House of the Ship-owner) has five storeys around an atrium lit from the roof by an octagonal skylight.
All of the furniture and art dates to the 1700s and 1800s, and the rooms give you insights about the people who lived here, like the cabinets of curiosities, the plush library and study of a rich merchant.
6. Appartement Témoin Perret
These days everyone knows about the landmark buildings that Auguste Perret gave to Le Havre, but not so much is known about the apartment interiors the architect proposed for the citizens of the city who lost their homes in the war.
In this airy model apartment you’ll see some of the innovations Perret came up with, like sliding partitions to give the apartments a modular layout.
Going from room to room you might wonder if Perret and his co-designer René Gabriel predicted Ikea with their use of Scandinavian design and affordable ready-to-assemble furniture.
7. Le Havre Beach
Up from the port, Le Havre’s huge pebble beach has perennial Blue Flag status: The sea is clean, if a little on the cool side, and on the promenade in summer you’ll have restaurant after restaurant vying for your business.
As for views, out to sea the sailboats bob around like gulls, to the north are the wooded hills protecting the city, to the south are the masts of the sporting port and inland you can see the tower of St. Joseph’s.
At the back of the beach, edging the promenade is a small city of beach huts, and older locals will be playing pétanque here in the summer.
8. Les Jardins Suspendus
This is just a fabulous garden, both for its hilltop location, with the city an harbour spread out below, and for the way it adapts to a 19th-century fortress.
The site was bought by the city in 2000 and in 2008 this enchanting botanical garden opened to the public.
You pass the bastions and enter a world of outdoor plots and greenhouses, organised according to the geographical origin of the plants they sustain.
That might be Oceania, North America or East Asia, while there are special themed gardens honouring today’s botanical explorers and one for the Cayeux brothers, two early-20th century botanists based in Le Havre.
The attraction is free, except for the greenhouses, which cost two Euros to enter.
9. Parc de Rouelles
Strictly a park, but with 160 hectares of undulating field, ponds and woodland, the Parc de Rouelles might as well be open countryside.
You’ll have 20 kilometres of paths to navigate and can ponder the colombier (dovecote), a cylindrical building with a cone roof, placed here in 1631. Very stroll-worthy is the deciduous arboretum, with 259 tree varieties from 36 families, and always being updated with new species.
There are trees from this part of the world, like beech, chestnut and hornbeam, and ones that are most definitely not, like ginkgo biloba, native to China and the Chilean false beech.
A teenage Claude Monet painted the park in 1858.
10. Natural History Museum
In 1944 Le Havre’s Natural History Museum, set in the city’s former courthouse, lost of some of its collection in the city’s destruction, but thankfully only one wing took serious damage.
The man responsible for the institution was Charles Alexandre Lesueur, who collected more than 100,000 zoological specimens on an expedition to Australia at the start of the 19th century.
Some of what you’ll be looking at was collected by this man almost 200 years ago.
You’ve got halls for palaeontology, archaeology, ethnology, mineralogy and an exhibition on the venerated Lesueur .
11. Espace-Oscar-Niemeyer-Le Volcan
Round off your journey of discovery through Le Havre’s modern UNESCO site at Le Volcan, an eye-catching cultural centre conceived by the Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer who also designed Brasilia and helped with New York’s United Nations Building.
Le Volcan was finished in 1982, and you’ll know it for its monumental white concrete cone and the saucer-shaped library next to it.
The cone contains two theatres, the larger of which seats 800, and both buildings are accessed by space-agey spiral walkways.
The centre meanwhile has a national reputation for its theatre, music and dance so see what’s on when you’re around.
12. Le Havre Cathedral
Take a whistle-stop tour around the oldest building in Le Havre to survive the bombing.
Le Havre’s cathedral went up in the late-1500s and has flamboyant gothic and baroque architecture.
It also hasn’t actually been a cathedral for very long, as the Diocese of Le Havre was only established in 1974. In the war bombs took out the nave, but the most impressive feature inside was saved: The Great Organ was donated to the cathedral by Cardinal de Richelieu, and if you inspect the wooden buffet that encases the pipes you’ll spot his coat of arms.
13. Quartier Saint-Vincent
In the lower town, between the rebuilt centre and the beach, is a city district that escaped the destruction in 1944. Saint-Vincent is based around the church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, with a large square trimmed with plane trees and connecting with streets of 19th-century houses and mansions.
The church is from the mid-1800s and was built to mimic the historic Norman romanesque cathedrals, with a lantern tower over the crossing of the nave and transept.
Come for a walk in the shade of the trees in the heat of summer, when painters often put up their easels in the square.
14. Hôtel Dubocage de Bléville
One of the largest and loveliest mansions in the Quartier Saint-François was built in the early -17th century.
It was later bought by the 18th-century navigator and merchant Michel Joseph Dubocage de Bélville with the riches he obtained from a nine-year expedition across the Pacific via Cape Horn.
The mansion is very fetching, with gables, timbering and black slate cladding on the facades, and within is an enlightening museum about Le Havre’s history and maritime trade.
Maps, Chinese porcelain and a collection of glassware dating to between the 16th and 19th centuries are all in the permanent exhibition.
15. Food and drink
On the coast you could warm your cockles with an old-fashioned fish dish like Pot-au Feu de Lotte: That’s a monkfish stew made with leeks and carrots and slow-cooked for two hours in white wine.
Follow this with Pommes Caramélisées aux Fruits Secs, which is self-explanatory and tends to come with crème anglaise and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Normandie is indeed apple country and the fruit shows up in desserts as well as drinks like cider and Calvados, apple brandy.
And just some of the AOC-labelled cheeses in the region are Camembert, Pont l’Evêque, Neufchâtel, so this is paradise for fans of fromage.