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15 Best Things to do in Normandy, France

15 Best Things to do in Normandy, France

Normandy is a region of Northern France with a long and storied history. The region is most famous for being the site of the Allied invasion of Normandy which took place in June 1944.

Consequently, the region is an incredibly popular site for tourists who want to learn more about the war or visit the many war graves to pay respects.

As well as the many battlefields, beaches, and bunkers to visit, Normandy is a beautiful neck of the woods and has something for everyone. Read on as we delve into the best things to do in Normandy.

Best Things to do in Normandy, France

Here are some of the top attractions, tours, and landmarks to visit in Normandy.

The Normandy Beaches

There are five D-Day beaches (six if you count the operation at Pointe du Hoc) where allied soldiers charged ashore under withering fire on June 6th, 1944. Today, you can learn more about the invasion on a guided tour of any one or all of Normandy’s beaches.

Alternatively, you can catch some rays, or go for a swim!

Utah Beach (Pouppeville, La Madeleine, Manche, France)

Utah Beach

Utah Beach was the westernmost beach for the Normandy Landings, in the Normandy, Cherbourg region. This beach was in the American sector and would be attacked by the American 4th Infantry Division, 90th Infantry Division, and the 4th Cavalry Regiment.

The beach was just north of the town of Carentan (we’ll get onto that later), where American forces from both Omaha and Utah could link up and push inland. Casualties on this beach were mercifully light compared to other beaches, with less than 200 Americans losing their lives.

This beautiful, flat beach still has some fortifications leftover and is also pretty popular for horse buggy rides!

It’s also a 2-minute drive to the outstanding Utah Beach D-Day Museum, in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. Here you can learn all about the landings, and the planning behind them, and scope out old military vehicles and aircraft.

Pointe du Hoc

Pointe du Hoc

La Pointe du Hoc is an imposing cliff face that was the site of a suicidal mission undertaken by US Army Rangers of the 2nd Ranger Battalion.

Allied intelligence suggested that the Germans had sited huge howitzers on the cliff summit. These guns could shell the American beaches as well as Allied ships off the coast. The plan was to land the US Army’s elite Rangers on the slim beach beneath the cliff, have them scale the 30-meter face, kill any Germans that stood in their way, and then destroy the guns.

With grit, determination, and training, the Rangers scaled the cliff face only to find the guns were missing, with just decoys in their place! The Rangers would later find the guns further inland and destroyed them.

This site is home to some incredible views, as well as incredible tales of bravery.

See Related: Best Beach Bags With Cooler

Omaha Beach (Straddling Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, and Vierville-sur-Mer, in France)

Omaha Beach

West of Utah Beach in the American sector was Omaha Beach.

“Bloody Omaha” was hit by the US 1st Infantry Division, the 29th Infantry Division as well as units from the US Army Rangers and British Commandos. It saw the worst casualties of all the beaches, with at least 2,000 allied troops perishing.

It is this beach that most of us think of when we hear the words “D-Day”.

It’s been forever immortalized in famous movies such as Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, and Big Red One, as well as video games like Call of Duty: WWII and Company of Heroes.

Omaha Beach Bedford Boys Monument Normandy France

Omaha Beach has several haunting memorials in the area, such as the gleaming Les Braves, which evokes memories of the jagged Czech hedgehogs that once littered the beach, the Reflecting Pool and Chapel, and the poignant Bedford Boys Monument.

There are also still plenty of ruined fortifications to explore and you’re also near the vast, sobering Normandy American Cemetary. The Normandy American Cemetery was also featured in the movie Saving Private Ryan and is the final resting place for around 9,000 American servicemen.

Gold Beach (Straddling Arromanches-les-Bains, Le Hamel, and La Rivière in France)

Gold Beach Normandy France

The most central of the beach landings, Gold Beach was hit by the British 50th Infantry Division, the 8th Armoured Brigade, 56th Infantry Brigade, No. 47 Commando, as well as small numbers of Free Dutch and Polish troops on June 6th. Over 1,000 of them would not live to see June 7th.

You can take a tour from the nearby town of Bayeaux of Gold Beach to admire the surroundings, learn more about the landings and explore the old fortifications.

If military history ain’t your thing, this area is rife with stunning natural beauty and is a great place to chill and hike. The beach itself is also very popular for sunbathing and swimming.

I highly recommend staying in the area, and Bayeaux is something of a convenient (and beautiful) hub. The conveniently located Churchill Hotel is the perfect place to stay if you’re with family, friends, or pets.

If you’re looking for a drop of luxury, check into the Grand Hôtel du Luxembourg et La Table du Grand Luxembourg, complete with a pool and sauna.

See Related: 10 Interesting Facts About World War Two

Juno Beach (Straddling Courseulles, Saint-Aubin and Bernières, in the department of Calvados, France)

Juno Beach Center Normandy France

Juno, the only Canadian beach in Operation Overlord was assaulted by the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division and 2nd Armoured Brigade, as well as British and Norwegian troops from No. 48 (Royal Marine) Commando, and limited Free French forces.

After a rough initial landing, Canadian forces were able to start moving inland by around 2:30 pm. You can learn about the sacrifices and the struggles made by these men on a private walking tour of the beach.

You can also pay a visit to the nearby Juno Beach Center; a gleaming metallic museum documenting the assault on Juno Beach.

Sword Beach (From Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer to Ouistreham, France)

Sword Beach

Between Juno Beach to the west and the Caen Canel to the east, the British 3rd Division, along with the 27th Armoured Brigade and the 1st and 4th Special Service Brigades landed on Sword Beach on the morning of June 6th, 1944.

Their objectives were to link up with the glider troops of the 2nd Ox and Bucks Light Infantry that had captured the vital “Pegasus Bridge” and then drive onto the city of Caen. This spearhead was led by the Lord Lovat and his commandos, with his personal bagpiper Bill Millin leading the column.

The area around Sword Beach is still thick with old fortifications to tour, but it’s worth noting that the countryside around here is particularly beautiful. If you’re a fan of hiking or biking, you’re in the top territory to work up a sweat and take in the sights.

See Related: How to Take a Day Trip from London to Stonehenge

Best Towns in Normandy

There are a number of historically significant scenic villages, medieval towns, and cities that are worth visiting in Normandy.

Whether you’re looking for great food, a comfortable retreat, stunning scenery, or even more history, you’ll be able to find it in one of these Normandy towns.

Bayeaux

Bayeaux

Bayeux is a stunning medieval town in Normandy with numerous claims to fame.

It’s home to the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It was also the first major town secured by the Allies during Operation Overlord.

Most famous of all though it is home to the Bayeux Cathedral (aka the Cathedral of Our Lady of Bayeux, the Bayeux Notre Dame Cathedral, or Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux). This magnificent Roman Catholic cathedral was first laid down in the 12th Century, and slowly added to, restored, and modified over the next 700 years!

Bayeux Cathedral

Bayeux is also home to the Bayeux War Cemetery just a short walk from the historic center of the old town. It is the largest British Commonwealth cemetery of World War II in France.

I know we’ve mentioned a couple of great places to stay in Bayeux, but if you’re looking to stay somewhere close to this incredible church there are several delightful rental properties nearby.

Check out this place hosted by CHARM, which is right in the city center, just a couple of blocks from the cathedral.

Bénouville

Bénouville

Bénouville is famous for being the first small town to be liberated from the Nazis and the site of the first land action of the Normandy invasion.

On the night of June 5th/6th 1944, Major R. J. Howard and the men of D Company, 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry left England in gliders. Their task; securing the Bénouville bridge over the Caen Canal.

Without the bridge, British forces landing on nearby Sword Beach wouldn’t be able to advance to their objectives inland. British airborne forces would be cut off and the entire eastern flank of the Allied landings in jeopardy.

The impossible mission was a success and documented at the nearby Memorial Pegasus Museum.

It’s worth visiting the Café Gondrée, (aka Pegasus Bridge Café) the first house/business to be liberated in France. It still serves coffee and croissants to this day, right next to Caen Canal.

If you’re looking to spend the night in the area, check out Manoir’ Hastings. Unassuming from the outside, this 19th Century hotel has gorgeous rooms, exquisite grounds, and a Michelin star restaurant. It’s also close to the grand old Chateau de Bénouville.

See Related: Most Beautiful Villages in England to Visit

Caen

Caen

Caen (not to be confused with Cannes) is the largest and most populous city in Lower Normandy and also has a rich history. If your Normandy bucket list includes more great churches, you’re in luck!

Caen is home to the imposing Abbey of Sainte-Trinité, an 11th Century nunnery, and the spindly-spired Church of Saint-Pierre which was built between the 13th and 16th Centuries.

Church of Saint-Pierre

The Church of Saint-Pierre is famed for its external beauty as well as its stunning stained glass windows.

History buffs will also want to check out the Château de Caen. This fortress was laid down in the year 1060, under the orders of Norman King William the Conqueror.

Caen is a beautiful city that is best explored on foot, and there are many guided tours of the city worth booking.

If you’re looking for somewhere super to stay in Caen, check into the Best Western Royal Hotel Caen. It’s perfect for families and it’s conveniently located near the Château de Caen and Caen train station.

Carentan

Carentan

Carentan was decided to be the linking up point for American forces landing at Utah and Omaha, but before it could serve as a beachhead it needed to be captured.

American paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division captured the city on June 12th and were able to repulse German counterattacks with the aid of the 2nd Armoured and 29th Infantry Divisions.

If you’ve heard of Carentan before, it’s likely because you’re a military history or WWII buff – either that or you’ve watched the incredible HBO mini-series Band of Brothers which features an episode on the Battle of Carentan.

You can enjoy a pleasant stay at the utterly charming Chambres d’Hôtes de la 101ème. It’s very close to the train station, has free parking, and serves a traditional continental breakfast.

See Related: 14 Best Cities in the Netherlands to Visit

Étretat

Étretat

Étreat is famous as the last French sighting point of L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird), piloted by French World War I heroes Charles Nungesser and François Coli in 1927.

This French biplane would disappear over the Atlantic in the first attempt at an aeronautical crossing of the Atlantic from Paris to New York. The pilots are immortalized in Étreat by the Aviator Memorial (aka the Monument Nungesser et Coli), a gleaming white dart that points to the skies.

Étreat is great for relaxing days by the beach, surfing, and bracing walks around the fields and cliffs.

The town is also known for the three naturally created arches on the coast. The Porte d’Avalthe, the Porte d’Amont, and the Manneporte are complemented by a free-standing chalk spire referred to as L’Aiguille (the Needle).

For a unique walk, stop by Les Jardins d’Etretat. This wacky garden draws inspiration from across the globe and blends futurism with French whimsy. It features several amusing sculptures and an unparalleled view of the town and the cliffs.

See Related: Things to Know as an American Driving in the UK

Giverny

Giverny

Giverny is a quaint medieval village of untold beauty that is a haven for nature fiends and art lovers alike. Apart from its incredible beauty, and its yearly summer light show, Giverny is famous for being the home of the world-renowned French painter, Claude Monet.

A walking tour of this charming hamlet will take you across the beautiful gardens, the Japanese bridge, and on to the Musee des Impressionnismes, This fantastic art museum is a tribute to Monet and includes some of his best pieces.

If your art bug is still itching you can even visit Claude Monet’s House and Monet’s Garden, both beautifully preserved and maintained, where you can learn more about the life of Claude Monet.

Despite its small size, Giverny is home to a ton of hotels and rentals. The Maison D’hôtes Les Coquelicots is absolutely stunning and comes very highly rated by guests.

Le Havre

Le Havre

Le Havre is France’s largest port after the city of Marseilles. The picturesque town is known for its surrounding natural beauty, large pebbly beach with hundreds of colorful beach huts, and an unusually pretty port.

Le Havre has always been the apple of many an artist’s eyes, none more so than celebrated French artist Claude Monet. Arty types have likely heard of Le Havre from Monet’s famous work Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise) from 1872. The piece captures a landscape of Le Havre at dawn which is simply stunning.

Alternatively, arty types may have heard of this lovely port town from the number of incredible sculptures in town, such as Vincent Ganivet’s enormous, colorful Catena Containers sculpture.

Le Havre is a terrific town to relax, stroll and eat incredibly well – the seafood here is particularly good. It’s also an insanely cheap place to stay, with most hotels averaging around $55 a night.

If you really want to push the boat out, check into the Hôtel Spa Vent d’Ouest, which is just a short hop from the beach.

Sainte-Mère-Église

Sainte-Mère-Église

Sainte-Mère-Église was a town to be captured by the American 82nd Airborne Division. In the early hours of June 6th, the town saw a brutal battle between American paratroopers and the german defenders as paras landed in and around the town.

That night, the Sainte-Mère-Église church was at the center of the action. It became famous due to the misfortune of one American paratrooper.

Private John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. His story boggles the mind.

While John survived the battle his parachute caught on the spire of the town church, and he was left dangling and could only watch the fighting going on below. He hung there pretending to be dead for two hours before German troops took him, prisoner.

To commemorate this incident a mannequin dressed as an American paratrooper hangs from the church’s roof by a parachute!

See Related: Things to Know as an American Driving in the UK

Mont Saint Michel

Mont Saint Michel

And now, the best till last. I could gush about this place for days.

Viewed from the flat stretches of the Normandy shore, the abbey of Mont St. Michel rises over the water like a ghostly apparition. This ancient citadel has been, at various times in its long history, a sacred pilgrimage for those seeking religious salvation, an unconquerable fortress, a prison, and now, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The unique character of Mont St. Michel is due in large part to its singular location. Thousands of years ago, this tiny tidal island was situated firmly on dry land. Rising sea levels over the millennia reshaped the coast, and eventually, the rugged granite outcropping became an island looking out over the sea.

The tides in this area are the highest in Europe and run dangerously fast. For hundreds of years, the only access to Mont Saint Michel was via a natural causeway that was exposed at low tide and submerged at high tide. This made the construction of the huge stone abbey something of a medieval miracle — and kept it safe from invaders throughout the centuries of war that swirled around it!

Mont Saint Michel

Legend has it that in early medieval times in the year 708 AD, the Bishop of Avranches received several visions from the Archangel Michael. The bishop was instructed to build a sanctuary on one of the small islands off the Normandy coast. He was convinced to begin construction only after the angel Michael touched the bishop with his finger, burning a hole in the holy man’s skull.

The abbey that the bishop built was only a small monastery, dedicated of course, to the Archangel Michael. In the eleventh century, however, the ruler of Normandy hired an Italian architect, William de Volpiano, to turn the site into a larger church in the Romanesque style. Later changes to the structure gave it a more Gothic feel, and the abbey was continually enlarged and fortified throughout the Middle Ages.

the Mont

In 1879, the natural causeway to Mont was built up so that it was no longer hidden at high tide. This has allowed silt to accumulate around the island, and eventually, Mont St. Michel ceased to be an island. In 2009, however, the French government completed a hydraulic dam on the connecting Couesnon River which has helped to remove the silt. In 2015, a new causeway will replace the old one, allowing the water to flow freely beneath and around it, and restoring the island to its original state.

Today visitors can drive the causeway and park at the foot of Mont (with disastrous results if they dare park too close to the shore) but when the new causeway is complete, cars and tour buses will park a distance away, and access the causeway only by foot, horse, or shuttle bus. Once on the island, a wealth of medieval charm awaits, with small shops and cafes, cobblestone walks, and stairways to the upper reaches of the dramatic church.

 Over 2 million people visit Mont St. Michel each year. The best time to visit is between January and March to avoid the crowds and experience the mystique of this sacred and historic site in relative privacy.

things to do in Normandy, Mont St. Michel

With Normandy’s mild winter (daytime temperatures average in the low to mid-40Fs) and the picturesque fog that often envelops the Mont this time of year, Mont St. Michel and the beautiful surrounding countryside make a unique winter getaway.

FAQ

What is D-Day?

D-Day is the name some militaries give to the day an operation is launched.

Due to the sheer scale in terms of numbers and organization (and people familiar with the term), the Allied invasion of Normandy (Operation Overlord) became known as D-Day almost overnight.

Who Landed on the Normandy Beaches?

The Allied forces were comprised of mostly British, American, and Canadian forces. They departed from England with the mission of landing on 5 beaches. The Americans took 2 (Omaha and Utah), the British took 2 (Gold and Sword) and the Canadians took 1 (Juno).

There were also many smaller units of men from occupied European nations, such as France, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Norway.

How Many Paratroopers Dropped on Normandy?

Lots.

Around American 17,000 paratroopers and glider troopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions landed in the D-Day invasion, alongside about 8,500 British and Canadian paratroopers and glider troopers from the British 6th Airborne Division and the Canadian Parachute Battalion.

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