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Honfleur (Photo:Johannes Valkama/Shutterstock)
5.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Cruise Critic Staff

Port of Honfleur

The villages along the Seine on the popular river cruises between Paris and Normandy are so wonderful that it's almost impossible to pick a favorite. But, when you visit Honfleur, it's easy to understand why this seductive seaside village on France's northern coast has such tremendous appeal.

About Honfleur


Pro

Honfleur has an array of worthwhile sites and activities, from museums to charming cafes -- and you can walk to it all

Con

You might need to pay a small fee to use a public bathroom

Bottom Line

There's so much to do, see and eat in this absolutely beautiful medieval town


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First, this medieval town -- with its narrow half-timbered houses and cobblestone streets -- has great bones. Unlike many of its neighbors in Normandy, Honfleur was spared during the bombing of World War II. The old harbor, set in a sheltered cove off of the Seine's tidal estuary, is Honfleur's center stage, as it has been for centuries. There, you'll find fishermen, artists, tourists and locals alike soaking in much the same scenery (often from a cafe) that attracted celebrated painters like Delacroix, Sisley, Corot and Monet.

From the harbor, where Samuel de Champlain departed in 1608 to found the city of Quebec in the New World, the lushly planted village rises upward between two hills. Nestled in its tidy, picturesque streets are art galleries, artists' studios, boutiques, restaurants and fine souvenir shops. History has left its footprint, too, with the largest wooden church in France, salt warehouses that date back to the 17th century, and the Lieutenance, the last remaining part of a 16th century castle that fortified the town.

Honfleur, population 9,000, is the start or end of itineraries on river cruises between Paris and Normandy. Travelers are bussed between Paris and their riverboats, negating the need for a hotel in Honfleur. Ships tend to dock for as many as three nights because Honfleur is the departure point for ship-run shore excursions to such landmarks as the D-Day landing beaches, the American Cemetery and the museum that houses the famous Bayeux tapestry.

Three nights in Honfleur? Nothing wrong with that. While its prestigious past goes back 1,000 years, Honfleur has that special something that keeps it fresh, interesting and exciting.

Where You're Docked

River ships routinely dock at a quay that adjoins the old harbor right in the center of town. On rare occasions, due to tides and timing, ships may have to dock at a commercial pier some distance away. That pier has no facilities.

Port Facilities

It simply doesn't get any better than this. Shops, museums, restaurants, cafes, pharmacies and a grocery store are all within a couple of blocks of where you're docked. To get your bearings, find the tourism office with the big "I" (for information) just across the street from where ships berth. To its left are an ATM and a full-service grocery called Petit Casino that has a nice selection of wines. It is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., except on Sundays when it closes at 7 p.m. To the right from the tourism office and up a little hill is a pharmacy. Just look for the green cross. While everything you might need or want is right in front of you, be sure to climb toward Sainte-Catherine's Church and away from the dock to appreciate Honfleur in full.

Good to Know

A few of the public toilets in town are the primitive sort: a porcelain hole in the floor with footpads. The toilets with the handicap sign offer more traditional treatment. There are also nice toilets at the tourism office. Be sure to carry local pocket change with you. Many of the public toilets cost a small fee to use.

Getting Around

Honfleur is absolutely walkable, and the heart of town around the harbor is completely flat. For those who might need it, there is a taxi stand next to the library, which is attached to the tourism office.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

The French use the euro. For current currency conversions and wallet-size cheat sheets, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. Historically, ATM's have been the cheapest way to get local money. However, many banks are now charging fees ranging from $1 to $5 every time you use an ATM in a foreign city. As a result, you may want to limit the number of withdrawals you make.

Language

French -- and pretty much exclusively. Little English is spoken, even in the restaurants and shops. But with gestures and a few of the French basics, it's easy enough to communicate. One important reminder: Before ordering a glass of wine or asking someone where the toilet is, say "Bonjour." It means "Good day" or "Hello." It is considered impolite to launch into a conversation without offering a greeting first. For some fun, try out "cou cou" in that high-pitched voice humans usually reserve for dogs and babies. It means hello and goodbye and is insider French. Another neat expression: "O la vache!" It translates as "oh the cow" but means "holy cow" or "oh my gosh."

Food and Drink

If you are fond of oysters -- or huitres, as this local specialty is called -- you will find food bliss in Honfleur. The region is also known for its cheeses -- camembert, livarot and neufchatel, among them. Many of the restaurants offer fixed-priced multicourse lunches at two and three different price points. They tend to be quite filling. It's worth considering an entree (French for a starter) and, say, a cheese plate or dessert instead. As for tipping, restaurants and cafes normally include a 10 to 15 percent service charge on the bill for meals and beverages. The phrase "service compris" means tip is included; "service non compris" means it is not. A small additional tip of roughly 3 percent is welcome if you believe it is well-deserved.

There are a lot of good cafes and restaurants at the harbor. Au Vieux Honfleur, while more formal than most, is just terrific. Located at 13, quai Saint-Etienne, next door to Musee de la Marine, the cuisine is standout with its fresh seafood and local produce and ingredients. The menu, in both French and English, is voluminous. Starters include foie gras with carmelized apple, homemade fish soup with garlic croutons, pan-fried frog's legs and cooked oysters with a leek fondue and Champagne sauce. Lunch service starts at noon. There is dining indoors and out.

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A locals' favorite, L'Homme de Bois (30-32, rue de L'Homme de Bois near Sainte-Catherine's) is a quaint and typically Norman restaurant, offering traditional French food. Starters, which change daily, include mussels with garlic, fish soup with cream, and salmon tartar. Signature dishes are the seafood platter, lamb shank and rib roast. It's an intimate place with wooden beams and mustard-colored walls, and just a few tables outside. There is no menu in English, and it's on purpose. This is, after all, an authentic French restaurant. However, the waiter will gladly translate. Lunch hours are from noon to 2 p.m.

For an elegant dining experience, little beats the dining room or outdoor terraces of La Ferme Saint Simeon, the five-star hotel (now, not then) at which Boudin, Corot, Monet and others gathered to paint. Monet's studio is still there. The dining area overlooks gardens and the estuary, making it easy to see why it inspired so many painters. Lunch, from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m., varies depending on what the chef finds at market. The fixed menu, at three different (pricey) prices, features a starter, a main dish and a dessert. The hotel on rue Adolphe Marais is a 20-minute uphill walk from the harbor.

Shopping

The best souvenir shopping on the Seine cruise is in Honfleur. Not surprisingly -- this is France, after all -- many of the souvenirs involve food and drink. Popular local items include butterscotch made from Normandy butter, a mackerel pate that tastes great on a baguette, bagged salt and Normandy's signature beverages: cidre, a sparkling apple cider; an apple brandy called Calvados; and Pommeau, a mixture of the cider and brandy. Also ubiquitous in the souvenir shops are the blue and white striped shirts popularized by French sailors. For real quality, check out the nautically inspired clothing at the Saint James boutique at 12, rue de L'Homme de Bois or 8, rue de la Ville. If you want to splurge on anything from paintings and jewelry to kitchen knives and shoes, this is the place to indulge. Shops typically open at 10 a.m.