Le Havre (or Le-Havre-de-Grace) is the largest city in Normandy, France, at least as far as population is concerned. This city represents the antithesis of what everyone imagines a Norman town to be. It isn’t the typical cobbled-street, half-timbered housed, medieval-looking town that’s crowned with a token Romanesque or Gothic Church that everyone expects. This is perhaps why Le Havre is left out of many sightseeing tours. It’s too bad, because Le Havre should be seen for what it is – a modern city whose concrete city center has earned it a World Heritage designation for being “an exceptional example of architecture and town planning in the post-war era”. But if you are only hunting for nostalgia inducing travel, Le Havre is not the place for you.
Le Havre was founded by Francois I in 1517 to establish a major port for his kingdom. Unfortunately, fire, artillery, and bombing in September 1944 of WWII left the town in ashes, wiping almost all traces of its prosperous past. The only structures that survived are the Graville Abbey, which is the oldest surviving building, the 16th and 17th century cathedral, the former law courts, which are now occupied by the Natural History Museum, and the Bocage de Bleville Residence, which is now home to the Old Havre Museum. All of these old remnants have been restored to their former glory. The town’s reconstruction was headed by architect and town planner, Auguste Perret, who decided to keep the checkerboard layout employed by the original designer of Le Havre, Bellarmoto. Perret, however, chose to leave many areas of the city open. He appreciated the value of reinforced concrete and used it almost exclusively in rebuilding the city center. Critics of the concrete describe Le Havre as a cold city lacking personality, but this has generally been dismissed by popular opinion, as evidenced by the World Heritage designation.
The Town Hall of Le Havre stands before a square enlivened by fountains, gardens, and ponds. The square is among the largest in Europe, so it isn’t much of a cozy gathering place for people.
From the Town Hall, the pedestrian avenue called “Avenue Foch”, comparable to the Champs Elysées in Paris, leads to the Porte Océane which is a space between two tall tower blocks in full view of the sea. Avenue Foch is mainly a pedestrian thoroughfare full of leisurely strollers.
Oscar Niemeyer Arts Centre
Le Havre offers some amazing vertical views, especially at the footbridge crossing the Commerce Basin. Among the notable buildings include the twin buildings of the Oscar Niemeyer Arts Centre. This structure is one of the few in Le Havre that sports curves rather than straight lines and was designed by a Brazilian architect.
St. Joseph’s Church
The bell-tower of St. Joseph’s Church is further away. It looks like a gigantic lighthouse and stands at 360 feet high, overlooking the apartments and terraces within a one-block radius. The church is completely concrete, but its real architectural interest lies inside.
Modern architects have also designed buildings to serve the world of painting, an art form that Le Havre residents are proud to boast as their own; both Monet and Eugene Boudin invented Impressionism while they were living in Le Havre, and other notables such as Dubuffet, Dufy, and Friesz were all natives. The Malraux Museum is one of these buildings. It is one of the most remarkable museums in France, not just for its collections of paintings, but also for its architectural splendour with its glass, steel, and aluminum. The best view is seen through The Eye on the waterfront.
University of Le Havre
Le Havre is also a major education center in France being home to Normandy’s third largest university. Notable names in all fields, including politics, literature, music, and sociology, have hailed from its institution of higher learning such as the likes of Bernardin de Saint Pierre, Raymond Queneau, Andre Siegfried, Casimir Delavigne, Armand Salacrou, Rene Coty, and Arthur Honegger.
Port of Le Havre
The town’s main draw, however, is its “ever-present” sea. Le Havre boasts the fifth largest commercial harbor in Europe and the second largest in France (after Marseilles), handling an estimated 50 million tons of goods every year. The harbor encompasses 20,000 hectares of basins and features 17 miles of wharves and quaysides. The Francois I lock is also the largest in the world, measuring 400 meters long and 67 meters wide. The port also has an extension called Antifer, which can handle the world’s largest tankers. Le Havre’s port has a long history that is traced thoroughly in a local museum.
Le Havre’s industrial side is centered around the 8,000 hectares of real estate lining the Grand Canal du Havre and the Canal de Tancarville. This strip is considered part of the Port of Le Havre. Oil refineries, petrochemical plants, and mechanical engineering companies are all headquartered here and there is also a power station with 780 feet of chimneys. Notable companies in this district include Port Jerome, Notre Dame de Gravenchon, and Gonfreville. The car-maker, Renault, is also based nearby in Sandouville, making Le Havre a legitimate industrial city to contend with. 
St. Adresse Fort is located west of the city not too far from the Chapel of Our Lady of the Waves (or Notre Dame des Flots). Also in the area is the headland of La Hève, which is locally known as the “Sugar Loaf”. In upper town, the streets offer panoramic views of the harbor, estuary, city center, and suburbs. One suburb or extension of the city is the town of Sainte Adresse, situated below a cliff face. Nicknamed “the Nice of Le Havre”, it is both a residential area and a seaside resort. It boasts the famous house, the Dufaye Palace, which was the home of the Belgian government during World War I.
Outside of the city centre and industrial district, there are some key parks and green spaces that lighten up the concrete and industrial fabric of Le Havre. Montgeon Forest is an arboretum and park, the largest in Le Havre. It was once a royal forest before it was converted into a camp to house displaced residents of Le Havre during WWII. Les Rouelles Park is another green space outside of town, converted from a 17th and 18th century farm. In Gonfreville l’Orcher, there is a superb park and dovecote attached to the former residence of Louis XV, which was also once a feudal fortress.
In Montivilliers, the main sight is the St. Philibert abbey and church, which features a Romanesque tower with two naves built over a span of 500 years. Surrounding the area are old houses, charmingly narrow streets, and the Brisegaret Cemetary, which is likened to a smaller version of the Saint Maclou graveyard.
In Harfleur, you’ll find the tallest bell-tower in the Caux area. Its beauty has been universally recognized and its fame is owed to Victor Hugo, who wrote: “Nor the sails in the distance going down to Harfleur”.
Gaudez, René, Hervé Champollion, and Angela Moyon. Tour of Normandy. Rennes: Éditions Ouest-France, 1996. ISBN: 2737317185.
“Le Havre.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Havre>
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