Last Updated on September 19, 2023
By Ellen Albanese
France’s late afternoon light washed over Honfleur’s tall-masted boats, bleaching them white and sending shimmering reflections into the still water of the Vieux Bassin (Old Basin).
Above, the deep blue sky was split by the wooden bell tower of the 15th-century Saint Catherine Church. In outdoor cafes below, smiling visitors relaxed and sipped wine and Calvados. We had the sense of having been slipped into a painting.
In fact, Honfleur has been the subject of myriad paintings over the years. Notably, many are works by native son and early Impressionist Eugene Boudin, whose work is displayed in a museum here.
Cobblestone Streets and Picture-Postcard Views in Honfleur
For many visitors to France, Honfleur is well worth a visit for the art and the Calvados. But the best reason to visit this seaport city may be just to walk the narrow, cobblestone streets. drinking in the picture-postcard views of the harbor, admiring buildings seemingly lifted straight from a fairy tale, and also exploring winding alleys to nowhere.
Although Honfleur is less than a two-hour drive from Paris, our visit was an excursion offered as part of a Paris-to-Normandy cruise with Viking River Cruises. It gave us access to a charming and well-informed guide, Anne-Marie LeBlic.
The Vikings, she said, settled Honfleur as early as 900 AD. Its favorable location at the mouth of the Seine River allowed it to flourish as a commercial port. In the Middle Ages, it became a walled town, and the remnants of the fortifications are still visible in the area of the Lieutenance, one of two gates into the walled city, at the very end of the Vieux Bassin.
Saint Catherine’s Church
The wood Saint Catherine’s Church, built by shipwrights after the Hundred Years War, is notable for its two naves and its freestanding bell tower, also made of wood.
Even during the French Revolution, our guide said that people adhered to their religion in rural areas such as Honfleur. But in 1793, the government allowed rural residents to reopen a single church in each town, and Honfleur chose Saint Catherine.
The large birds carved above Saint Catherine’s two naves are pelicans. People believed that pelicans fed their young with their own flesh; thus, they became a symbol of the Eucharist.
Since bell towers often acted as lightning rods, the church founders also decided to build the bell tower apart from the sanctuary so that the church might escape damage if the tower caught fire. Today, it houses a museum of religious art.
A Striking Tableau Along Quai Sainte-Catherine
Along the Quai Sainte-Catherine, a row of tall, narrow houses creates a striking tableau.
LeBlic explained that a 17th-century ordinance awarded settlers 25-foot-wide plots. Enterprising homeowners, however, discovered that although they couldn’t add living space on either side, they could build up. They then built entire homes on a second level, opening onto elevated back streets.
Even today, most of those houses have two different owners, she said. Some feature corbelled arches, and many are covered with slates.
The 17th-Century Granaries of Honfleur, France
On the rue de la Ville, two of three large stone salt granaries, or Greniers à Sel, built in the 17th century, are still standing. The third was destroyed by fire in 1892. The remaining two were the fourth and last large salt warehouses in Normandy.
Most of the stones used to build them came from the town’s former fortifications, and the oak framework was based on shipbuilding techniques. Some 10,000 tons of salt could be stored in the two warehouses. Listed as historical monuments in France since 1916, Honfleur’s salt warehouses now host exhibitions, concerts, and conferences.
The Precursor of Impressionism and A Famous Composer
The first artist in France to paint landscapes outdoors, Honfleur’s Boudin is considered the precursor of Impressionism. According to LeBlic, people were horrified when Boudin painted gray skies, even though skies in Normandy are frequently gray. We especially liked Boudin’s Honfleur scenes and his portraits at the Eugene Boudin Museum.
In 1858, he met 18-year-old Claude Monet, and became his mentor. Monet often stayed in Honfleur and painted many works there before moving to Giverny, France some years later.
The museum today displays work by Impressionists, including Claude Monet and other artists who have lived or found inspiration in the area. Its third floor offers a beautiful view of the city and the Seine Estuary.
Another famous Honfleur native was Erik Satie, whose home has been transformed into Maisons Satie. This museum immerses visitors in the talent and eccentricities of the composer and his age. Using audio guides, visitors tour a series of musical tableaux. Each reflects an aspect of this unusual musician, a forerunner of modern music.
Honfleur’s Quartier des Arts, One of France’s Most Lovely
The route from the port to the Eugene Boudin Museum winds through an Arts Quarter filled with galleries, studios, vintage clothing boutiques, and antique shops. Shop windows on the sidewalk display regional specialties such as Calvados, buttery pastries, and salted caramels.
Walking through streets barely wide enough for a single car, it feels a bit like an archeological dig. Houses are fieldstone on the bottom, then brick, stucco, and half-timbered, the different materials sometimes literally piled on top of one another.
Normandy’s World-Famous Calvados
Many shops in Honfleur sell Calvados, a French apple or pear brandy made from Normandy fruit, and many offer tastings.
Calvados is always a blending of several varieties, LeBlic explained, and the age on the sticker is the age of the youngest. “Pay no attention to labels like ‘grand reserve’ or ‘super,'” she said. “They mean nothing. If you don’t see the age on the sticker, don’t buy.”
Armed with this knowledge, we stopped at Les Calvados de Sophie. There manager Sophie Chevalier showed us vintages from 2 to 70 years. Some of the most popular products, she said, are cider, crème de Calvados (a caramel blend she likened to Bailey’s), and locally made salted caramel.
We tasted a smooth 15-year-old Calvados and a sweet pommeau, an aperitif made with Calvados and cider. Chevalier supports small local growers: “It lets me highlight and preserve the heritage of our Norman terroir,” she said.
If you’re not lucky enough to have a personal guide, start your visit to Honfleur at the Tourist Office. Located on the Quai Lepaulmier, there you can pick up an audio guide, along with maps and brochures. The office also offers guided tours throughout the year, focusing on history, food, and art.
Following your tour of Honfleur you may also want to see more of beautiful Normandy.