Last Updated on 13th July 2020 by Sophie Nadeau
Picture perfect and situated by the sea, the picturesque city of Honfleur is characterised by its historic harbour, unique church, and many timber-framed houses. One of the most popular destinations in Normandy, if not the entirety of France, the best of the French coastal town can easily be seen over the course of a day, or a long weekend if you have the time. Here’s a guide to the best things to do in Honfleur.
Why you must visit Honfleur on your next Normandy trip
Situated on the estuary of the River Seine (yes, the very one and the same which runs its way through Paris before emptying into the English Channel), Honfleur is a stunning settlement which once made all of its money from fishing.
Just across the river from the UNESCO world heritage city of Le Havre (which is known for its post-war architecture), the city is a two and a half to three and a half hour drive away from Paris and is best-seen as part of a Normandy road trip.
The town truly rose to fame thanks to the impressionist painters, one of whom was actually born in Honfleur itself. Today a visit to the town invokes a sense of nostalgia. Many houses are home to slate-covered frontages and colourfully painted timber-framed façades, while the churches of the town feature peculiar timber-clad spires and rooftops.
Best things to do in Honfleur
Le Vieux Bassin (Old Port)
First things first, if you’ve ever seen a photo of Honfleur before, then no doubt it will have been of ‘Le Vieux Bassin’, which was built in the 1èth-century. The historic port is lined on three sides with timber-framed houses and centuries old churches, providing the perfect place to step back into medieval France
At the entrance way to the port where the water spills out onto the sea, the medievally constructed Lieutenance stands in pride of place and was even once home to the French King’s Lieutenant, all the way up to the 17th-century.
Today, the top attraction in Honfleur is to see Le Vieux Bassin and its many boats swaying in the breeze. Asides from snapping photos, many visitors opt to dine or drink in one of the many cafés and restaurants which line the sides of the port.
I must warn you though that, due to the sheer touristic nature of the place, prices are similar to those in Paris and you can expect to pay around €5 for a cappuccino and a similar price for a small glass of Normandy cider.
Some restaurants only allow guests to sit along the waterfront if they’re going to be eating, though there are still several which serve light snacks and drinks and that you don’t have to spend a fortune in to be able to enjoy a waterfront view.
L’Église Sainte-Catherine (St Catherine’s Church)
Free to visit and easily one of the most unusual churches in Normandy, St Catherine’s church is a wooden marvel, whose interior appears to have been plucked directly from the centre of a ship. Constructed on the site of a former church which had burned down in the Middle Ages, today St Catherine’s Church is the oldest wooden church in France.
The top attraction in Honfleur, the church can be found just a few minutes walk away from the Vieux Bassin and is constructed entirely from wood during the 15th-century, which was sourced in the local region. Rather unusually, the bell tower is built separately from the church and can be visited as part of the Eugène Boudin museum visit. Directly opposite St Catherine’s church, you’ll easily find the public toilets of Honfleur, in the base of the St Catherine Bell Tower.
Église Saint-Leonard (Saint Leonard’s Church)
The other main church in Honfleur is that of St Leonard’s Church, which is to be found just steps behind the old Lavoir Leonard (public wash house) in its own picturesque square on the outskirts of the historic city centre. Just below the church, there’s a tiny parking where you might be lucky to find a space, as well as a beautiful green garden filled with flowers and benches where you can sit and watch the world go by.
Often missed by tourists in favour of the much more famous St Catherine’s church, this ecclesiastical building is worth visiting nonetheless. There has been a place of worship on site since at least the 12th-century, though the building you see today was largely reconstructed following the religious wars of the 16th-century, when much of the church was burnt down by the Huguenots.
All that remains of the previous church today is a fabulous flamboyant Gothic stone-carved façade. Due to the fact that the bell tower was added in the 17th and 18th-centuries, the shape of the church’s dome is unique in Normandy and is more similar in style to churches found in Eastern France. A stroll inside the church is free, though donations are always appreciated.
Visit a museum in Honfleur
For such a tiny settlement, Honfleur actually has a surprising handful of museums, each with an interesting array of collections, and all worth visiting provided that you have enough time on your hands. If I were to visit only one museum, I would perhaps suggest that of Maisons Satie since its many interactive exhibitions and collections are perfect for all ages.
Musée Eugène-Boudin de Honfleur (The Eugène Boudin Museum)
Many impressionists came to paint Honfleur on account of its sheer beauty, and one of the most famous of the painters, Eugène Boudin was even born in the tiny French city. Today, a museum is dedicated to the painter and showcases over 200 of his acclaimed works, as well as paintings by other famous impressionists, including Monet and Dubourg.
Les Maisons Satie (Satie House and Museum)
Boudin is not the only acclaimed creative to have been born in Honfleur. Instead, the famous musical composer Erik Satie was also born in the city and today his birthplace has been transformed into a museum featuring Satie’s life and works.
Often rated as one of the best museums in Honfleur, the cultural hub is comprised of three houses and showcases everything from interactive exhibitions to an umbrella collection. Much like the other attractions in Honfleur, the museum is open from Wednesday through to Mondays and is closed on Tuesdays.
Musée de la Marine (Maritime Museum)
Set against the backdrop of the oldest still standing church in Honfleur and on the edge of the Vieux Bassin itself, Honfleur’s maritime museum is home to collections about the sea. Between shp models, paintings, and engravings, there’s no shortage of artefacts to marvel at. The museum also tells the story of Honfleur’s maritime past, showcasing sailor stories and the history of the historic port city.
Greniers à Sel (Salt Storage)
The former salt houses of Honfleur are lesser-known, despite being in the very heart of the city. Located on rue de la Ville, which runs parallel to the Vieux-Bassin, is one street over, and is home to a plethora of restaurants, cafés, and shops selling local specialities (including a store dedicated entirely to Calvados), the former salt houses are certainly not the top attraction in Honfleur, though they can be seen if you’re in the area.
Constructed of stones which were taken from the former Honfleur city walls (once upon a time almost all cities in France were surrounded by a medieval stone wall), the Greniers à Sel de Honfleur were built in 1670 and could store up to 10,000 tonnes of salt, which was used primarily to preserve fish. Though there were originally three buildings, only two survive to this day and are often used as exhibition spaces or conference venues.
Sample local Normandy cuisine
Normandy is known for its buttery pastries and salty seafood, and Honfleur is no exception. Honfleur itself is found in the Calvados region, after which a local tipple is named. Due to its seaside location, the city is also famous for its many seafood platters and dishes. If you eat seafood, then ‘moules-frites’ (quite literally ‘mussels and fries’) is a delicious fresh dish staple of the entire French region.
See the Pont de Normandie
The Pont de Normandie (Normandy Bridge) was constructed in 1995 and spans the estuary of the River Seine, linking the cities of Le Havre and Honfleur and vastly shortening the travel time between the two.
In the past few decades, the bridge has come to be seen as a true feat of naval engineering and now features on postcards and paintings from the region. The bridge can easily be spied from the quays of Honfleur and stands at an impressive 215 metres, meaning that tall ships can pass underneath with no problem. This is a toll road, the quickest way to traverse the River Seine, and costs €5 each way.
The Jardin des Personnalités (Personality Garden)
Visit Honfleur and you’ll soon discover that of the city’s main attractions can easily be reached on foot with a few minutes of one another. The Jardin des Personnalités is no exception and is around a two minute walk from the Vieux-Bassin.
Created in 2004 and best-seen during the summer months on account of the many roses which bloom during this time of the year, the green space of Honfleur showcases busts of the many personalities which were influenced by the town in some form or another. Set amongst the park and pathway, visitors will discover the likes of Claude Monet and Eugène Boudin, composer Erik Satie, and the poet Charles Baudelaire.
The largest indoor space of its kind in France, Naturospace is an indoor complex which seeks to recreate the environment and ecosystem of the rainforest. Boasting ten bird species and some sixty butterfly species, the beautiful space is created from a large complex of greenhouses set over hundreds of square metres.
Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce
Set a little way out of the main body of the town on a hill overlooking the rest of the city, the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Grace was constructed during the 17th-century. Built so as to replace a former chapel which had fallen down during the collapse of a cliff, the exterior of the chapel offers fantastic views onto the Pont de Normandie, while the interior is home to ship models, a historic organ, and more.
Each year, during the Fête des Marins (sailors’ day), a rather curious tradition occurs. For, on this day (which always is held during the Pentecost weekend), children dressed as sailors climb the hill up to the chapel from the town below and offer up ship models.
Travel tips and things to know before visiting Honfleur
There is a tourist office in the centre of the town
If you’re looking for a guided map of the town (including suggested walking routes) and a further delve deep into the history of the city, then it’s worth noting that there’s a tourist office in the very heart of the town where you can pick up pamphlets and maps (Quai Lepaulmier, 14600 Honfleur). The staff are incredibly helpful and can also give you detailed information of other things to do in the area, close to Honfleur.
Prices are more expensive than some others in the area
As previously mentioned, Honfleur is a tourist hotspot, meaning that prices are much more elevated than elsewhere in the Normandy region. In some cases, we saw restaurants which had prices to rival Paris. If you’re looking to eat out and stay in a place which has lower prices and a better price-quality ratio, then I highly recommend looking to stay in the nearby city of Le Havre.
You’ll have to pay for parking
Unlike many French villages, towns, and cities, all of Honfleur’s parking spaces in the city are chargeable and we didn’t see any parking a little way out of the town that was free (unlike in Étretat, where you can park away from the town for free). We visited on a Sunday and noted that you even had to pay for parking on Sundays. The cost was €2 an hour.
You can visit Honfleur as a day excursion from Paris
If you are short on time during your France sojourn, then it’s worth noting that you can actually visit Honfleur as a day trip from Paris. This way, all of your transportation and guide needs are taken care of, and you can even choose to visit multiple destinations in one go.
For example, this guided tour will take you to Honfleur and Mont Sant Michel, which is a medieval abbey tucked away on a tidal island and is easily one of the most beautiful places to visit in France. Meanwhile, this guided tour will take you to Honfleur, and Deauville, and Trouville-sur-Mer, which are beautiful resort towns popular along Parisians. Otherwise, this guided tour will take you to Honfleur and Rouen, which is a timber-framed city and the capital of Normandy.
Where to stay in Honfleur
Of course, the best way to truly enjoy all of the delights of Honfleur is to stay overnight. This way, you also get the benefit of seeing the architecture and the Vieux-Bassin under varying lighting conditions. As well as this, you’ll get to see the city in the evening and in the early morning, before and after all the day trippers and crowds are present (making for better photo opportunities)!