Updated: Nov 2
If you are taking a cruise with Europe involved, you might have a port stop in Le Havre, France. There are so many places to go via a cruise ship excursion and most take an excursion from a cruise ship, but I did something cost-effective, that allowed me to explore more than a tour ever would. Today's post is about my experience, renting a car, driving in France as a US citizen and of course I toss in a little bit of history along the way with the places that I saw.
There are many options in La Havre for excursions, take a trip into Paris where you have a couple hours to spend, visit the neighboring towns and cities, even going to visit the town where Joan of Arc was executed. Of course, you can always book a similar excursion like I did, and visit Omaha Beach, American Cemetery or Canadian Cemetry. Just the price of this excursion was so much more than me just rent a car and doing it myself, plus I got the little side trip to Caen that would not be included in the cruise ship excursion. Also I know someone from this same cruise who rented a car and drove to Mont-Saint-Michael, it was a longer of a drive, but they still made it back to the cruise ship without any problem. If you have never looked into this place, google it. It is beautiful.
Renting a car in Le Havre
Renting a car in Le Havre, France, is like embarking on a delightful dance with the freedom of the open road! It's a simple, streamlined process, peppered with a sprinkle of adventure. Most car rental companies are located conveniently close to the cruise port, making your transition smoother than a Crème Brulé. As an American I was not sure what to expect, but there were no worries at all.
You'll be greeted by friendly staff, well-versed in English and eager to serve. They'll walk you through the paperwork with ease, ensuring you understand the ins and outs of your rental agreement. Don't forget to ask about the local traffic norms, parking rules, and must-visit pit stops on your way to Omaha Beach! To guarantee friendly service always start by greeting them in French so start with Bonjour. If you are casual and start with this phrase, then ask if they speak English, you are sure to be fine. You will find the French as warm and welcoming as a fresh croissant on a French morning.
Now like most people, I looked and bought online before ever arriving in the port city, with Enterprise at 91 Southampton Quai (because I was familiar with this rental company in the US). I knew how much I was paying, the type of car that I would be receiving, and how long the taxi ride was to the rental car place (it's super close, but in my opinion not within walking distance), do your research. One thing I also learned by doing the research is they do not rent to anyone under 30 years old. Fine by me, as I was already older than that for my first driving experience in France. Prices vary but right now the price is $237 for a small SUV. I had a compact car for $187. If you pick an automatic transmission that will change what's available and the prices. Manual transmission is cheaper and more common in France than in the United States.
Take that price and divide by 4, that's cheap in comparison to the cruise excursion to Omaha Beach and American Cemetery. Plus, we got to stop in the city of Caen which would not be included in your excursion to Omaha Beach.
Other rental companies nearby in order of how close they are to the cruise terminal.
SIXT-87 Southampton Quai
Ucar- 30 r Marcel Paul
France Cars- 36 r Magasins Generaux
Europcars- 3 Rue Semard
Driving in France, leaving Le Havre
So, buckle up, your epic French road trip awaits! My tummy had butterflies knowing that I was driving in a foreign country, but this was easy breezy lemon squeezy. Just in case you didn't know the French drive on the right side of the road just like us in the United States. Traffic leaving Le Havre was manageable compared to the concrete jungles in the United States. Being that I live in the Charlotte NC area, Le Havre is a smaller city than what I am used to driving in, so it was not a problem at all. I did notice I needed to pay closer attention to the speed limit signs, and my dashboard. Being from the United States it feels weird to be driving in KPM instead of MPH. You will think you are losing your mind when you notice the speed at which you are driving.
As you bid adieu to Le Havre, the landscape transforms, welcoming you into a living tapestry painted with hues of history and nature. As your car hums along, you'll be greeted by vibrant fields, some are yellow in the spring with canola plants (they make canola oil). By late summer you will see sunflowers, reminiscent of Van Gogh's sun-dappled masterpieces, and traditional Normandy houses with their charming, thatched roofs. Keep an eye out for the occasional apple orchards, their fruit ripe for the region's famous cider. You will pass over some nice bridges over canals and even the Seine River as it is heading out to sea.
As your French road trip continues, be sure to make a pit stop at Caen, a city rich with medieval heritage. Caen is home to the astonishing Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the conquests of William the Conqueror, in an awe-inspiring 70 meters of embroidered cloth. As you marvel at the intricate stitchery, you'll be taken on a journey back to 1066 and the historic Battle of Hastings. But the connection to William doesn't stop there. Caen is also where he was laid to rest, at the striking Abbaye aux Hommes. This beautiful abbey, with its towering spire and grand architecture, serves as a silent sentinel to the city's past. A trip to Caen is a detour into history, a pause in your journey that allows you to tread the footprints of kings. Remember, our road trip isn't just about the destination; it's about embracing the stories that make up the journey.
Driving in Caen
Let's talk about the nitty-gritty, the practical stuff - driving and parking in Caen. It's a bit like finding a unicorn at a horse race but fear not! The city's heart may be a swirl of cobblestone streets, but it's surrounded by a halo of ample parking spaces. A top tip - park at the “Château” or the "Port de Plaisance", both of which are a stone's throw away from the city center and reasonably priced. As for driving, remember to go with the flow. Literally. Roundabouts are the pulse of French traffic, and in Caen, they are as common as baguettes. I made plenty of wrong turns at the roundabouts, but it was not a worry, just drive through it again. Treat them as adventure swirls, lol. As I sit here typing I think about the roundabouts as a bit like stepping onto a merry-go-round, but with your car. Keep your wits about you, enjoy the ride, and Caen will feel like your very own playground. This is a large city, larger than Le Havre, but nothing in comparison to the big cities in the United States. You will be fine driving here.
Driving to and in Omaha Beach
Next stop, Omaha Beach! As you draw closer to Omaha Beach, the azure expanse of the English Channel unfolds, its waves whispering tales of the D-Day Landings. It's a journey that's as much about the destination as it is about the sights, sounds, and soul of France. So, soak it all in, each mile a memory, each turn a treasure. It's time to swap cobblestones for sandy shores, and city bustle for wave whispers. As we drive along the D514, the ocean will be on your right but not visible until you turn off to Omaha Beach. The landscape shifts, trading urban sprawl for open skies and endless horizons.
We're off to a place where history has written itself in the sand - Omaha Beach. It's not just a beach; it's a testament to bravery, a symbol of resilience. Let's tread softly, honoring the souls of those who once walked here. As the sea breeze fills our lungs, we'll let the waves tell their stories - tales of courage, of sacrifice, of liberation. We'll breathe in the air of freedom and taste the salt of perseverance. It's more than just a drive - it's a voyage through history, a journey through time.
Arriving at Omaha Beach you will park your car in a large, free parking lot and you walk downhill to the beach while respecting the historical significance of the site. The beach, plaques, and monuments are beachside. Glance back into the hills and you will also notice historical bunkers up there where the Germans were waiting for the invasion. At the time I was here at Omaha Beach, it was not crowded at all, this was the beginning of May, so the summer beach season was not in full swing. There were a couple of places to get some food and something to drink, but it was mainly quick eats or snacks.
American Cemetery As your journey continues from Omaha Beach, your next stop is the hallowed grounds of the American Cemetery. The parking lot is free and large, which it needs to be with all the people that are here. So, take your time, walking amongst the solemn beauty of the white crosses, paying your respects, and absorbing the profound atmosphere. I was here mid-week, early afternoon and it was crowded, probably from tours from the cruise ship that I came to Le Havre. You can enter the Visitor Center or just take a walk along the paths. I personally saw the line at the visitor center and decided to just walk the paths (I knew where I was walking to.) It's up to you, whichever is best for your visit. This is your first step into a garden of honor that pays tribute to the heroes of the past. The American Cemetery at Omaha Beach is ready to share its stories with you.
My path was to my grandfather's grave, which has been a complete mystery to my family until recently. Thanks to a love note that was found in my grandmother's cedar chest and some genetic testing.
I waited till the end to visit the port city of Le Havre just so I had a better judgment of time in case I needed to get back on the ship quickly. Once there I knew we had plenty of time to explore this wonderful city.
The picturesque port city of Le Havre, with its modernist architecture and vibrant harbor. When it comes to parking here, the city welcomes you with open arms. The heart of the city, with its bustling markets and historic buildings, is best explored on foot, so park your car and let your adventure begin. Park near the city center, gives you easy access to explore this UNESCO World Heritage site. due to the reconstruction and architecture after WW2.
I truly loved how I spent my day in La Havre, but if you would like an option to see Omaha Beach and American Cemetery, without having to drive like I did, click on Private tour of Normandy. When you initially look at price it is expensive, but if you put 8 people in the van it is cheaper than the cruise ship excursion and will be a better tour than just loading up on a tour bus excursion from the cruise ship.
All in all, with my drive and stops in Caen (Bayeux Tapestry and Abbaye aux Hommes), stops at Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. Plus, the drive back to Le Havre, sightseeing, and fueling up the car for the return to Enterprise. I was back on board the ship at 7.5 hours. Also, kudos to the people working at Enterprise, it's so close they just drove us over to ship when we dropped off the car. They were so helpful. We could have stayed out longer because we were in port for 10 hours that day, but that was enough exploring for me. Maybe next time I am in port I will go to the town of Honfleur or Rouen (Joan of Arc execution site).
I hope you have enjoyed this post, and you found it informative for your time in the port city of Le Havre, France. We will have to hit the road again, with the spirit of adventure in our hearts and the echoes of the past in our ears! Au revoir!!!!!