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First time Le Havre: a lesson in avant-garde architecture

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The Normandy port of Le Havre, where the River Seine finally spits out into the English Channel, was once a city of grand boulevards and stately cathedrals, but sadly much of its original architecture was destroyed by WWII bombs.

Slowly rebuilt in the striking architectural style of modernism, the 500-year-old city soon rose from ashes to become one of France’s most extraordinary 20th-century urban designs.

After its completion, the avant-garde architecture of the now unrecognisable port city was initially given mixed reviews by critics. But not unlike a fine French Bordeaux, Le Havre’s exceptional qualities took a few years to realise - embodied by its bold designs that embraced a new form of urbanism.

Unesco, which made Le Havre a World Heritage site in 2005, helped lead the way, and the city has since reclaimed its place in the spotlight, attracting architecture fans from across the globe. Although Le Havre lacks the medieval atmosphere found in other parts of Normandy, there’s no city like it anywhere in France. Here are a few suggestions for first-timers to make the most out of Le Havre.

Amble past Le Havre’s best architectural sights

One of the best ways to take in the architecture of Le Havre is on a stroll through the city centre. The light is best in early morning or around dusk, when the buildings have a faint roseate glow. No mere trick of the imagination, locals used pulverised red brick from destroyed city buildings in the new construction, which helped cement a link to the past.

On a day of exploring, you can take in grand plazas, blocks of artful symmetry and cunning designs that evoke something far beyond stone and concrete. Even the disused hilltop fortress, a 1km stroll from the city centre, has been converted into Jardins Suspendus, a peaceful oasis of flower-filled gardens and greenery.

Take in the heart of the city


Spread across five hectares, the Town Hall Square (Place de l’Hotel de Ville) is the grand epicentre of downtown, and one of the largest squares in Europe. This vast plaza is also an appropriate introduction to Le Havre. It was designed by Auguste Perret, the mastermind behind much of the city's post-war design.

Gardens, fountains and sculptures lie at the centre of this light-filled space, with a periphery of striking modern buildings that create a remarkable sense of harmony. The pièce de résistance is the Town Hall, a stolid 72m-high tower that’s visible from the sea and one of the icons of the present-day city.

Formerly known as the Niemeyer Cultural Centre, this sculpture-like edifice was one of the city’s most astonishing sights when it was unveiled back in 1982. Rising from a small square just off the Rue de Paris, its voluminous base and sweeping curves tapering skyward quickly earned it the moniker Le Volcan (the Volcano).