Famous for its iconic white cliffs and arches, Étretat is has everything you could want from a small coastal town in France: charm, breathtaking vistas, intimate bed & breakfasts, and of course, plenty of great food. This post is mostly anecdotal–rather than offering tips for visiting Étretat, we’re simply sharing our all-too-brief visit here, what we did, and why we are yearning to return.
It was the mesmerizing scenery that drew us in. Having seen its beautiful arches, cliffs, and sea stacks in Impressions de France (a film we reference way too much given that this is our non-Disney blog) we knew Étretat was a must visit for the landscape photography opportunities. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the name, there’s a good chance you’ve seen photos of Étretat, France on Instagram or Pinterest.
Or, if you’re “old school” there’s a good chance you’ve seen paintings of Étretat by the master Impressionists such as Eugène Boudin, Gustave Courbet and Claude Monet in a gallery. All of them either called Étretat home or vacationed here at some point, and upon visiting, it’s quite easy to see why. The charm of Étretat quickly takes hold of you…
For us, Étretat was essentially only a brief stopover. A place to spend the night in Normandy after visiting Mont Saint-Michel for high tide and passing through Beuvron-en-Auge, before continuing on to Paris the next day.
Étretat is said to be a tourist town, but what I would surmise based upon our visit is that it’s a tourist town for the French. A place affluent Parisians go “on holiday” to escape the hustle and bustle, akin to small towns in Michigan for Chicagoans or Orange County’s beach cities for Angelenos.
I didn’t notice many people who stuck out as tourists during our visit–with my gigantic Ninja Turtles-esque camera bag, I was probably the cloest thing to an obvious tourist. With no major airport or transportation hubs around, I think the France leisure town theory makes sense.
This would also explain the surplus of intimate bed & breakfasts and small seaside resorts in Étretat, almost all of which were quite pricey (as compared to other places we booked in France).
We stayed at a place called Hotel Dormy House, an oceanside hotel that looked like it had some character and was rated highly online. This hotel was one of the unanimous favorites of the trip: great location perched above the city near the white cliffs, one of the best breakfast buffet selections, and a style reminiscent of grandma’s house. I’ve used the word a lot, but a very charming place.
After checking in, we went behind Hotel Dormy House to survey the view and determine where we should go for sunset. We spotted the Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Garde in the distance, and decided that was our best option.
The chapel was only a few minutes away via a beautiful coastal boardwalk that meandered behind our hotel up through a golf course, continued through our little resort, dove down into the city center of Étretat along then beach, and then rose again up towards the chapel perched on the cliffs in the distance.
As lazy Americans, the prospect of walking a half-mile uphill was daunting, so we instead drove to the chapel. We later walked this coastal boardwalk, and it was absolutely lovely.
The scene at Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Garde was completely picturesque. The sun was beautifully illuminating the puffy clouds overhead, piercing through to shine on certain parts of the shoreline, as the sky was looking incredible. The grounds of the church were busy with visitors marveling at the gorgeous view.
While I was waiting with my tripod to photograph the sunset, I saw Sarah talking to a local who had brought her dogs out to run around. Sarah has an affability to her that seems to invite conversation (which is pretty much the exact opposite of me), making this is a fairly regular occurrence. I thus didn’t think much of it.
We ended up borrowing this lady’s dog to re-create a photo from Impressions de France (long, not very interesting story). This dog-loan got us further roped into the conversation with Sarah’s new friend, who it turned out operated a bed & breakfast near the chapel. I’m not really sure what happened, but we were suddenly walking with her to her house to see her cats and have drinks.
Sarah and her seemed like best friends at this point, so I guess I assumed this was normal? I don’t know. After giving us a tour of her house, she started talking about having her daughter take us to a museum in Paris and a friend who operated a taxi drive us around. At this point, I really had no clue what was going on, and was ready to get out of there. Which…we eventually did.
Anyway, from there we headed to downtown Étretat to park and find a place to eat. Upon reviewing TripAdvisor, we discovered an impressive lineup of restaurants, many of which were modestly priced (in part thanks to a favorable exchange rate).
We wandered around, looking at menus for a bit, and almost all looked exceptional. I guess it should not be surprising, but xxx. We ended up dining at Le Romain D’Etretat, which had a la carte options as well as prix fixe menus. Here’s some of what we had:
This was one of the best meals of the trip. Everything was delicious, carefully plated, and exceptionally high quality. I’m guessing you cannot go wrong with food in Étretat, but there’s my recommendation.
The restaurant at Hotel Dormy House was also exceptional.
Above is a nighttime look at the iconic Étretat needle and nearby arch, as well as downtown. Sort of cool that the coastline is illuminated, although it’s still not exactly photogenic at night.
The next morning, we took the coastal boardwalk on an approximately 15 minute hike behind Hotel Dormy House, past a golf course, and up to an overlook of Étretat’s iconic needle and sea arch. This was little cove offered a great view for sunrise.
At first, it appeared that the sunrise was going to be a total dud. Official sunrise time came and went, with only an overcast sky and zero color. However, for maybe a 90 second window, the sun peaked through a sliver in the clouds, and totally lit up the sky. As soon as it rose above that cloud-gap, the pretty sky totally disappeared again. It was almost like a light switch was flipped, and then flipped back off.
Following that, we enjoyed breakfast at Hotel Dormy House, which was one of the best breakfasts of the trip. All things considered, we’d highly recommend Hotel Dormy House. For a longer stay, we’d probably use Airbnb, but for one night, this was perfect.
Overall, we ended up really liking Étretat. Sarah loved it, and envisioned the sleepy oceanside town as a place we could live. This is not uncommon with us–a recurring conversation we have is living abroad a while, and we’ve dreamt of living in places like Paris or Kyoto (my top picks) temporarily for a few months to get to know these cities. While there’s not nearly as much to do in Étretat as in those places, it’s fairly easy to see why so many artists have chosen it as a seaside retreat. If I were looking to escape the world and paint or work on the Great American (err, French) Novel, Étretat would be an ideal place to go. Even without those types of ambitions, we cannot wait to spend more time in Étretat. It seems like the perfect French town to slow down and relax, and the picturesque setting is quite alluring.
Planning your own trip to France? Check out our France posts, which cover a variety of places, from Normandy to the Loire Valley. In addition to these posts, I recommend planning with the Rick Steves France and Loire Valley Eyewitness guidebooks.
Have you visited Étretat, France? What did you think of the town? Do anything cool there, or was it a relaxed, seaside vacation? Any tips or thoughts to add? If you haven’t visited, is Étretat a place that interests you? Any questions? Hearing from readers is half the fun, so please share any remarks you have in the comments!