LE HAVRE

Guide of LE HAVRE

Le Havre is a port city in northern France with a strong maritime tradition; in fact, its name means 'the harbour' in French. The population is around 170,000 and its France's second busiest port. Described by some as 'a love letter to modernism'; the architecture embodies the post-war optimism that needed after the massive devastation inflicted upon the city during the World Wars. 

A brief history of Le Havre

Human presence in the area around Le Havre dates back to Prehistory around 400,000 BC, but the city we see today took shape much later than this. Created in 1517, the port of Le Havre was created under the royal command of François I, to replace two old harbours that had become full of silt. Surrounded by wild seas and marshland, the port and got battered during storms, but despite this, it became a thriving military port for ships heading for Newfoundland to fish cod. In 1564, Le Havre was the port of departure for the very first French expedition to the New World for the establishment of the first French colony in modern-day Florida. By the end of the 16th-century, trade had expanded quickly, and Le Havre saw the influx of various American products including leather, sugar, and tobacco. Le Havre affirmed its international maritime status in 1643 when the Company of the Orient was set up in the city; it brought wealth and status to the town through the trade of in sugar, cotton, tobacco, coffee, various spices. Three hundred ninety-nine slave trade expeditions set out from Le Havre during the 17th and 18th centuries and local merchants profiteered from the trade of African people in the 18th century.

From the middle of the 18th century, wealthy traders were building homes on the coast. After a turbulent period during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the city recovered, and the British threat receded; this new-found peace and economic growth increased the population, and new neighbourhoods developed. 

However, during the First World War 6000 of the city's men left to fight and many lost their lives. Then in the Second World War, German forces occupied Le Havre in 1940, causing a population exodus. For those left behind, life became difficult, with food shortages, censorship, bombings and political anti-Semitism, even the city's Jewish mayor was forced out of office. Le Havre sadly suffered 132 attacks from the Allies during the war, and the Nazis also destroyed the port infrastructure and sank ships before they left. The most significant destruction, however, occurred in 1944 when the British Royal Air Force carried out a devastating bombing campaign that caused 5,000 deaths, injured 80,000 people and destroyed 12,500 buildings.

After the war until the mid-1960s, the city embarked upon a grand reconstruction, but the 1970s oil crisis meant hardship and slow economic development. By the 1980s, focus changed to the development of the tourism industry, modernisation of the port, and expansion of the university sector. In 2005, the port was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as 'an exceptional example of architecture and town planning of the post-war era'.

Things to do in Le Havre 

The Musée d'art Moderne André Malraux, also known as MuMa, is a great place to start as it contains one of France's most extensive collection of impressionist paintings. Housed in a striking modernist building, designed by French architectural studio Atelier LWDt, it opened its doors in 1961 as the first major museum built in France following the war.

The Jardins Suspendus or Hanging Garden is another lovely place to visit. It is situated old a former hilltop fortress that botanists transformed into a beautiful set of gardens, whose greenhouses and outdoor spaces feature exquisite flowers, trees and grasses from five different continents. There are also great views over the harbour from here. It's a 30-minute uphill walk from the centre to reach the gardens; so alternatively, you can catch bus number 1 along boulevard François 1er near the beach. The Roman Catholic church, St. Joseph's, is also worth a visit; built between 1951 and 1957, it remains an integral part of the post-war reconstruction. Designed by the pioneer of reinforced concrete and mentor to Le Corbusier, Auguste Perret; it has a fitting patron saint, Saint Joseph; the patron saint of a happy death, fathers, workers, travellers, and immigrants because it is also a memorial to the five thousand fallen civilians. 

Beaches around Le Havre

Le Havre Beach, in the centre of town, is clean and convenient with 2km of sand and pebbles. There are plenty of places to eat and drink with nearby, toilets, an aquatic garden, playgrounds and relaxation areas, as well as big screens during big sporting events. At the Point Plage, there are places to rent windsurfing boards, funboards, paddleboards, and skimboards - for those feeling a bit sporty. For those who prefer fresh water to the cold, salty water of the English Channel, there is a CNH swimming club, with a 50-metre pool, a leisure pool with a counter-current system and bubble loungers. There are water gymnastics classes, a small pool and a water dome with fun activities for kids.

Related destination guides