Modernity of the city
The inner city of Le Havre is a masterpiece of modern planning. Following enormous damage caused during WWII, the rebuilding project was overseen by architect Auguste Perret, teacher of Le Corbusier and a man who simply loved reinforced concrete. There’s nowhere else quite like it in France. The view from the 17th floor of the Hotel de Ville reveals wide boulevards and concrete apartment blocks. Avenue Foch was designed to be a modern Champs-Elysées – but wider. In fact everything here is monumental. Perret’s Church of St Joseph looks utilitarian from outside, though it’s 107m high rocket-like spire is a local landmark. But, inside 12768 tiny stained glass windows give it an ethereal, cosy ambiance. And the apartment blocks have an enduring style of their own.
Historic show flat
In 1949, Auguste Perret created a show flat to allow local people to see what he was proposing with the rebuilding of Le Havre. A show flat homage, re-created in 2005, reveals just how visionary he was. The 1950’s flat-pack furniture is practical but attractive, the space, 99m₂ exactly, is beautifully laid out. One heater in each block provided enough hot air to heat all the flats in the block through a duct system. Folding and double doors meant the apartment was bathed in the special light of Le Havre throughout the day but could create privacy. Bathrooms were in each apartment at a time when many homes still had outdoor loos and tin baths hanging on a wall (even for decades after). Perret’s vision has had worldwide influence and you can see it clearly in this wonderful museum flat.
Cyrille Plate's Workshop
Le Havre is a city which has long inspired artists moved by its luminosity and coastal scenery. It’s here that Monet painted “Impression, Sunrise”, a view of the port of Le Havre, which kickstarted the impressionist movement. The city is still inspiring artists, like Cyrille Plate, whose studio is filled with an eclectic mix of his works. He’s had a passion for robots since he was a child and after creating robot art for 20 years, is now focusing on experimental art using different materials such as the play of light through textiles. He loves to use raw and recycled materials such as street signs to create memorable pieces that are inspired by his environment, often witty, and always thought provoking.
Find out more about Cyrille Plate's work
Art at the heart of Le Havre
Le Havre’s architecture inspires many genres of artists. At the Mascarade gallery/shop, artist Masquerade features major landmarks of Le Havre in his intricate paintings. For great souvenirs inspired by Le Havre’s heritage monuments, try LoHo shop for great gifts, LH Concept for chic t-shirts, and La Galerne for books about Le Havre including those of artist Pierre Lenoir Vaquero who has a fabulous art gallery/beer shop in the city. One landmark which features often is the extraordinary Les Bains des Docks aquatic centre designed by legendary architect Jean Nouvel, don’t miss a chance for a swim in one of its 12 pools when you go to Havre, it’s strikingly beautiful. And if you’re looking for a stay with an arty 50’s vibe, Hotel Oscar plunges you back in time with its vintage décor.
You will stop in surprise when you see Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer’s Volcanoes, the name given to the cultural centre in Le Havre. The locals call the big volcano the yoghurt pot, you can see why with it’s pure white, sloping sides and flat top. The recently renovated small volcano is now the public library and it’s just as extraordinary inside as it is outside. Anyone can go in – and should, to experience the remarkable interior design, concrete of course in keeping with Le Havre’s architectural theme. It’s like being in a spaceship with viewing windows carved into the thick walls, space age seats in bright colours, and a sweeping staircase. There are regular exhibitions and a cool coffee shop, this has to be one of the most remarkable libraries in the world.
Walk along the beach
A short walk from the city centre brings you to Le Havre’s beach, 2km of sand and pebbles, a big draw for the locals as well as for savvy visitors. The beach hosts the biggest free skate park in France (a legend amongst skate boarders) and in the summer there are water sports, fun activities and pop up restaurants. I loved going for aperitifs and watching the sunset from the terrace of Le Bout du Monde bar and restaurant in the Sainte-Adresse district, just on the outskirts of the city centre. Here the resort and old houses are built on the slopes of Cap de la Hève, the gateway to the Alabaster Coast. It’s a great place to drink in the spectacular sea views, just as Monet loved to do.
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Where to eat out
Damian Tither, an Australian who, after first settling in Paris, arrived in Le Havre says, “I just fell in love with the architecture, the light, the culture and the ambiance”. Leaving the city of light behind, he opened The Architect restaurant in May 2019 in the newly renovated Southampton Wharf area and is bringing a taste of Aussie cuisine (and wine!) to Le Havre. Popular for coffee, lunch and dinner, the menu is varied with plans for an emphasis on Australian style food like beer chicken and pulled pork, plus vegetarian and Asian influenced dishes. The restaurant has retained its chic concrete look inside: “a nod to Perret” says Damian. There’s a great terrace area overlooking the quay with a mesmerising ringside view of the immense ships sailing by.
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Restaurant Les Enfants Sages (the wise children) is in a former school masters house, built in 1905. The rooms have been converted into individual dining areas rooms decorated to reflect its previous incarnation. Choosing what to eat from a superb menu wasn’t easy, there was so much to tempt me! It’s classic French cuisine, Lyonnais style with a twist. This is a relaxed, unpretentious restaurant with a great atmosphere which makes it really popular with the locals, so book in advance (you can do it online through their website). There’s also a lovely hidden garden and pretty terrace, the former school playground is perfect for afternoon tea, cocktails or an aperitif with tapas.
Bistro Au Caïd is an institution in Le Havre. Opened in 1954 it’s one of the favourite meeting places for the locals and has a lovely terrace bar. The 50s style interior is cosy and charming, in fact it’s a listed building and changes aren’t allowed. Situated next to the Perret show flat building, and overlooking the famous Volcanoes, it’s a great place for a snack or lunch with a fresh, seasonal plat du jour.
Where to stay: Hotel Nomad
Hotel Nomad is in a striking architectural building next to Le Havre train station (and tram stop) and within easy walking distance to the city centre. I loved the hi-tech rooms with shower pods featuring funky mood lighting and the strong eco-friendly ethos. The hall carpets are made from recycled fishing nets, the wooden furniture from sustainable forests, untreated cotton sheets are used on the super comfy beds, the hot water is from solar panels, there’s a rain water flush system in use and you can move the bed around as you wish, Feng Shui fans will love this touch. This is the future of hotels and typically Le Havre – innovative, bold and dynamic.