Things to Do in Normandy
The Mémorial de Caen, a museum and war memorial, is one of the city’s most popular attractions and a must-see for anyone visiting Normandy to pay respects to the heroes of World War II. While the site specifically commemorates D-Day and the Battle for Caen, it is the overall sentiment that provides the perfect primer for those planning to see multiple memorials in the area.
The museum's exhibits take visitors through life in the 1940s during the war while specifically noting the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy before continuing with coverage through the fall of the Berlin Wall. The many personal accounts, artifacts and multimedia segments work to bring the war out of the past and into sharp focus. In addition, there are British, Canadian and American gardens on the grounds for strolling and picnicking.
Omaha Beach was the location of one of the most significant moments of fighting in World War II. On June 6th 1944, American troops were given the task of securing the beach as part of a strategy to land Allied troops along five points on the coast of Normandy, France. Due to unforeseen tidal forces and stronger than expected German defenses, the American soldiers suffered massive losses, 2,400 casualties, in a day of bloody fighting. Eventually however the landing was successful with 34,000 troops securing the area for the Allies, and thus beginning the end of the war.
The landings on Omaha Beach are perhaps best known these days from the film Saving Private Ryan which opens with this battle and shows the impact of the fighting and loss of life on families back home in the USA. The American Cemetery sits above Omaha Beach and is a well-kept memorial to the events.
As the largest German WWII cemetery in France, the La Cambe German War Cemetery serves as a poignant reminder of the lives lost on both sides of the war. It’s a moving site, with its grey schist crosses and dark, flat headstones offering a more somber atmosphere than that of the American and Commonwealth cemeteries nearby.
Although initially serving as a temporary American cemetery, today 21,222 soldiers from the German Armed Forces are buried at La Cambe. At the center of the cemetery, a 6-meter-high grassy hillock is capped with a single cross and serves as a mass grave for 296 soldiers, many of which are unknown. Just outside of the cemetery, the La Cambe Peace Garden opened in 1996, and is home to 1,200 maple trees, each planted by an individual or organization to symbolize reconciliation and lasting peace. A visitor center is also located at the entrance to the cemetery and offers further insight into the soldiers buried on-site.
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial may very well be the most visited American military cemetery in the world after Arlington, and with good reason: It is an emotional experience that stays with visitors long after they've returned home from their travels, even if they've never given much thought to World War II battle history. There are four distinct features to the memorial, located in Colleville-sur-Mer, about half an hour from Bayeux and three hours from Paris. There is the cemetery itself, the final resting place of more than 9,000 soldiers. The vast majority of them lost their lives fighting the D-Day battles of Normandy, but there are other World War II heroes buried here as well. The rigid lines of so many thousands of graves are an astonishing sight, and the sense of loss is overwhelming. You'll see small stones placed upon the headstones in the shape of the Star of David for Jewish soldiers; this is a common Jewish custom and they should not be removed.
Before June 6, 1944 the Bénouville Bridge was simply a way for locals to cross the Canal de Caen quickly and easily. But the Allied troops knew that the Germans also used this bridge to send supplies and reinforcements to their troops along the beaches of Normandy – and so it was a priority to seize control of it as soon as possible to help the D-Day operation.
And so on that day, the British 6th Airborne Division arrived silently in gliders and after only 10 minutes, had secured the bridge. From then on it was known as the Pegasus Bridge, in honor of the insignia on the brave soldiers' uniforms. Although the original bridge has been replaced thanks to modern engineering, there is still a memorial at the site, as well as a museum that focuses on the role of the Airborne Division in Operation Overlord. A fairly new museum, inaugurated only in 2000, its collection continues to grow and so is a wonderful experience even for repeat visitors.
Being the highest point between Omaha and Utah Beaches, the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc was an important location in the Atlantic Wall strategy of defense against the Allies. So on D-Day, it was an equally important target to overtake so that the liberation of France could proceed.
In what can only be described as old-school warfare, the the American Second Ranger Battalion climbed the 100-foot-high cliff to seize the weapons that could take out approaching Allied boats. It was an epic battle, but the Americans ultimately emerged victorious – albeit with significant loss of life.
Today, the cliffside of Pointe du Hoc is the location of a monument to this battle, which was built by the French directly on top of the German bunker that was seized by the Americans. Unlike many of the WWII battle sites that have memorials or museums, this location has remained largely untouched since the battle that occurred here; visitors can still see the scars on the ground.
The Abbaye de Saint Étienne (Saint Stephen's Abbey) in Caen is also known as the Abbaye aux Hommes (Men's Abbey), to distinguish it from the Women's Abbey close by. If it looks a bit like an English cathedral, you're on the right track – this stunning example of Norman Romanesque architecture indeed served as the inspiration for so many churches on the other side of the Channel. (Although keen-eyed visitors will notice the Gothic apse, a sign of the church's architectural evolution.)
There are two highlights of the Men's Abbey; the first is the tomb of William the Conqueror, whose mark on Normandy has never been forgotten. The second is a bit of a hidden gem – the cloistered gardens, accessible by going through the town hall. It's another world inside there, and a favorite with photographers.
More Things to Do in Normandy
Le Havre is the original transatlantic port between Europe and North America, with luxury cruises and immigrants departing for New York from this historic port for over 200 years. Le Havre Port is also known as the “Gateway to Paris” with a three-hour trip by bus or train to the French capital or transfer to Charles de Gaulle International Airport.
The industrialization of Le Havre in the 20s made it famous throughout the world with the trade of coffee and cotton. The town was largely destroyed during the Second World War and rebuilt by the “poet of concrete,” architect Auguste Perret in a dazzling array of modernist post-war architecture.
The beaches of Normandy offer a trip into the wartime past; the Albâtre coast is known for its dramatic cliffs and the Benedictine liquor made at Fécamp’s distillery; while the Impressionist movement was born in Le Havre, as artists became mesmerised by the special light of the estuary.
While walking along the Seine in Paris, very few visitors wonder where the river comes from; but those who have visited Honfleur, on the Normandy coast, soon discover the answer. This sleepy harbor town, largely unchanged in the last 400 years, is where the Seine begins. And much like in Paris, it is lined with a beautiful sea wall and well-kept parks that are popular with families and those just out for a stroll.
Honfleur's main church, Sainte-Catherine, is unique in that it doesn't quite look like any other in France – for one, its wooden, and could be mistaken for a town hall if not for its equally wooden bell tower. And the harbor is a must-see for every visitor; artists in particular flock there to sketch or paint the picturesque buildings that line the quais, with colorful fishing boats moored just steps away from outdoor cafes and shops. And on Wednesdays and Saturdays there are open markets enjoyed by locals as well as those from neighboring towns.
Caen Castle, or Château de Caen, is worth a full day of any visitor's time to this historic city in Normandy. Not only does it house the history-filled Museum of Normandy and the Museum of Fine Arts; its grounds are beautiful, its buildings are a favorite of shutterbugs, and climbing the ramparts gives you a bit of history as well as a fantastic view.
Originally conceived in 1025, construction on the Caen Castle was started in 1060 and ended in 1210 with the full enclosure of the walls, which proved to be a godsend in the mid-13th century when a siege on the town by King Edward III of England proved to be no match for its walls. Today, through ongoing renovations, there is still so much to see of this fortress – and that's not including the two museums.
With its grand Gothic façade overlooking the central Place François Mitterrand, it’s impossible to miss the Lisieux Cathedral, or Cathedral Saint-Pierre. Built on the site of a former Roman church, the cathedral dates back to the 12th century and is one of the earliest examples of Gothic design in France, now preserved as a National Monument. Along with its notable architecture, Lisieux Cathedral is also famous as the resting place of Bishop Cauchon, who famously oversaw the prosecution of Joan of Arc.
The Abbaye aux Dames in Caen is also known as the Abbey of Sainte-Trinité, or the Holy Trinity Abbey. As one could guess, “Abbaye aux Dames” translates to Women's Abbey, and that's just what it was – a Benedictine convent. It's almost a thousand years old, and one of the must-see sites for any visitor to Caen.
If the facade of the abbey looks a little worse for wear, it's because of its history; it was the site of a battle during the Hundred Years War, during which it lost its original spires. The larger convent today is home to the Regional offices for Lower Normandy, but the abbey, restored in 1983, is open to visitors. William the Conqueror's wife Matilda is buried there, and its interior is a treasure trove of architectural details.
With an impressive 18 underground bunkers linked by trenches and reinforced by barbed wire fences and minefields, the Hillman Fortress was once an important German WWII command post and the headquarters of the German 736th Regiment. Known as Hill 61 by the Germans and codenamed ‘Hillman’ by the British, the strategic bunker complex was attacked on 6 June 1944 as part of the D-Day Allied invasion and finally liberated by the Suffolk Regiment the following day.
Today, the hilltop bunkers have been preserved as an open-air museum, run by volunteers, and visitors are free to explore the 24-hectare site, including the kitchen, bunkers, command posts and well. A memorial museum is also located on-site, where visitors can learn more about the Hillman Bunkers and the Suffolk Regiment.
Omaha Beach, with its Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, receives the most visitors looking to learn more about WWII history and pay their respects. But what many don't know is that Utah Beach, the westernmost landing point of the D-Day battle, has its own fantastic museum. If you're planning an overnight stay in Bayeux in order to explore the various WWII sites in Normandy, the Utah Beach D-Day Museum should be right near the top of your list.
Unlike the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, which technically lies on U.S. soil, the Utah Beach D-Day Museum is a French endeavor, and as such it carries the official name of Musée du Débarquement Utah Beach – and its motto translates to, “Their Sacrifice, Our Freedom.” However, you can be sure that everything in the museum is titled in English, so no need to worry.
Arromanches-les-Bains, with a population of just under 600, is a village on the Normandy coast. But this tiny dot on the map has a huge legacy dating back to WWII, commemorated in the D-Day Museum on the site of the artificial Mulberry Harbor. It was here that hundreds of thousands of tons of equipment were brought to the shores of France by the Allies, and it served as one of the most important military bases of the time.
The museum itself is a must-visit for anyone honoring the heroes of WWII; from working models of vehicles to a panorama of what the its shores looked like at the time to remains of the war strewn about the harbor, it's an unforgettable look into just what an enormous undertaking D-Day was.
As even those with a passing knowledge of WWII knows, there were several countries involved in the events of D-Day along the coast of Normandy. And as such, the WWII battle sites, memorials, and cemeteries honor each of the Allies' efforts, struggles, and successes in their own way.
The Juno Beach Center is Normandy's only Canadian museum, and as such is focused on the heroism displayed by the Canadian military and civilians alike. It's located in Courseulles-sur-Mer, roughly a half-hour from the popular tourist base of Bayeux. Note that it is closed for the month of January.
Its maple leaf-inspired architecture is entered after passing by a stirring memorial positioned at the location of an original German bunker. Inside, the permanent exhibit takes visitors through the events of D-Day, the Canadian role, how Canada came into the war to begin with, and great information about the Canada of yesterday and today.
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