Things to Do in Normandy
As one of Normandy’s D-Day landing beaches, Omaha Beach was the backdrop to one of the most significant events of World War II, immortalized in the movieSaving Private Ryan and forever etched into history. Today, visitors to Omaha Beach can follow in the footsteps of the Allied soldiers and pay their respects at the American Cemetery.
Located a short drive from the D-Day Landing Beaches, the Caen Memorial Museum (Mémorial de Caen) puts one of the most significant battles of World War II into historical context. The museum gardens serve as a poignant tribute to the international soldiers that lost their lives on Norman soil.
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.
Famously painted by artists, such as Claude Monet, Gustave Courbet, and Eugene Boudin, the picturesque waterfront and colorful harbor of Honfleur are among the most memorable in Normandy. The historic port is renowned for its architecture, especially Vieux Bassin harbor’s 16th-century buildings and the wooden church of Sainte Catherine.
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.
Home to one of France’s most significant collections of impressionist paintings (the second-largest, after the Orsay Museum in Paris), the André Malraux Museum of Modern Art (MuMa) has long been an important destination for art lovers. Inaugurated in 1961, the museum takes its name from André Malraux, the Minister of Culture at the time, and features a slick modernist façade looking out over the coast of Le Havre.
Highlights of the MuMa’s extensive permanent collection include the world’s largest collection of works by Boudin; an old masters area including works by Luca Giordano and José de Ribera; and modern works by Henri Matisse, Albert Marquet, Raoul Dufy and more. Of course, it’s the impressionists that draw the most attention, and it’s a vast and varied collection, featuring works by Monet, Delacroix, Degas, Renoir, Manet, Gauguin and Vuillard.
One of France’s most important World War II landmarks, Pointe du Hoc is best known for its role in the D-Day Landings. Today, the promontory overlooking the Normandy coast is a destination for history buffs, those with personal ties to the conflict, and others wishing to pay tribute to the many soldiers who lost their lives here.
Located above Omaha Beach, just outside Bayeaux, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is a moving site. The cemetery is the final resting place of more than 9,000 soldiers, the vast majority of whom lost their lives fighting the D-Day battles of Normandy. Other World War II heroes are buried here as well.
On the coast of Normandy, Arromanches 360 is a circular cinema with nine screens that work together to create an immersive cinematic experience. Here, visitors can watch an HD film that tells the story of the 100-day Battle of Normandy during World War II, complete with archival footage from France, Germany, the UK, Canada, and the US.
The medieval island village of Mont Saint-Michel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sits right off France’s Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Couesnon River. Crowned by a Gothic abbey that sits atop the rocky isle, Mont Saint-Michel rises dramatically from the tidal flats of the bay, creating one of the country’s most recognizable images. It’s a must-see for history buffs and those interested in religious sites, and visits are often combined with tours through the region of Normandy.
More Things to Do in Normandy
Rouen’s Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux-Arts) was created in 1801 by Napoleon I. It features a collection of over 8000 paintings, sculptures, drawings and decorative art collections from the Renaissance to the present age, including household names like Renoir, Degas, Fragonard, and many more. The museum also has an exceptional Depeaux collection, and is considered one of the most outstanding public collections in France. Visitors can also enjoy sought-after temporary exhibitions and occasional contemporary art exhibitions.
The Abbey of Saint-Étienne in Caen is also known as the Abbaye aux Hommes (Men's Abbey), to distinguish it from the Abbaye aux Dames (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 Abbaye aux Hommes; 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.
Located in the heart of Calvados, just a few kilometers from the Channel, stands the Ranville War Cemetery. It contains a majority of British soldiers of the 6th Airborne Division (and also Canadian and German soldiers) that were killed during early stages of the Battle of Normandy in the Second World War. In fact, Ranville was the first village to be liberated by the Allies on the morning of June 6, 1944 – more commonly known as D-Day. Indeed, the village was secured by British and Canadian troops, landed nearby by parachute and glider on a mission to secure the bridge over the Caen Canal. This wasn’t achieved easily, though, as the skies were quite windy on that meaningful day and the area was, in reality, much larger than what had been expected.
Ranville War Cemetery is located by the ancient Ranville Chapel, a graded 10th-century building. It is laid out in a typical French garden design, with immaculately kept landscapes and manicured grounds. Within the cemetery stands a Cross of Sacrifice (designed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it is the archetypal British war memorial), an octagonal-shaped, elongated Latin cross with Celtic dimensions carved out of white Portland stone. Ranville War Cemetery contains 2,560 burials, including the grave of Lieutenant Den Brotheridge, considered to be the first Allied death on D-Day.
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.
A worthy rival to England’s famous White Cliffs of Dover, France’s Côte d'Albâtre (Alabaster Coast) is an equally dramatic sight – a spectacular stretch of white chalk cliffs overlooking the English Channel. Running for around 80 miles (130km) along the north coast of Normandy, the striking cliffs and pebbly coves have long inspired artists, composers and photographers, appearing in the works of impressionist artists like Monet, Pissarro and Renoir.
Classified as a Natura 2000 site in 2009, the protected coastline is also a popular recreational area with winds perfect for sailing, windsurfing and kite surfing. A network of hiking and cycling trails also follow the cliff top, including the long-distance GR21 hiking route, which runs all the way from Le Havre to Le Tréport.
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.
Opened in 2015, the Joan of Arc Historial (Historial Jeanne d’Arc) is an interactive history exhibition that commemorates one of Rouen’s most famous trials (and heroines). Housed in the city’s centuries-old Archbishop’s Palace, where Joan of Arc’s trial was held in 1431, the museum invites guests to interact directly with her legacy.
With its grand Gothic façade overlooking the central Place François Mitterrand, it’s impossible to miss the Lisieux Cathedral, or Cathédrale 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. La Trinité is 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.
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.
Utah Beach was the westernmost landing point on D-Day. The main attraction at the site of the landing is the Utah Beach D-Day Museum (Musée du Débarquement), which focuses on the extraordinary battle. The museum also holds exhibits that offer a deep dive into French life under German occupation.
What was an otherwise little-known village of the Cotentin Peninsula suddenly became infamous after it was visited by American troops on June 6th 1944 as part of Operation Overlord – making Sainte-Mère-Église one of the first villages to be liberated of the Nazis after four long years of occupation. Sainte-Mère-Église, along with Utah Beach, was one of the two airborne landings on D-Day, because of its strategic position between Cherbourg and Paris. Sainte-Mère-Église is also where the Airborne Museum is located (14 rue Eisenhower), entirely dedicated to the D-Day paratroopers. It includes authentic artifacts like a DC3 aircraft, insightful information and an entire section devoted to the movie The Longest Day, which depicts a well-known incident involving paratrooper John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. His parachute caught on the spire of the town church, from which he observed the fighting going on below, hanging limply for two hours and pretending to be dead before the Germans took him prisoner.
Merville Battery (Batterie de Merville) was a coastal fortification built by the Nazis in Merville-Franceville as part of the Atlantic Wall during World War II. Because this particular battery was much more better fortified than other similar installations, it was one of the first to be attacked by the Allies on D-Day.
Indeed, it was successfully captured by British paratroopers on June 6, 1944, because they mistakenly believed the battery contained heavy-caliber weapons that could threaten the nearby beach landings. They discovered, however, that what it contained, essentially, was inoffensive World War I vintage guns. The battery also comprised four six-foot-thick, steel-reinforced concrete gun casemates, designed to protect mountain guns, as well as a command bunker, dorms and ammunition magazines. After the British left the battery to liberate a nearby village, Merville was once again taken over by the Germans until they withdrew France in the following month of August.
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