THE BEST D-DAY PLACES TO VISIT IN NORMANDY
With so many historical World War Two sites and D-Day landing beaches, monuments and museums in Normandy it is hard to know where to start. The History around D-Day is humbling, awe-inspiring and terrible in equal measures and is something that does need to be explored and visited.
We want you to get the most out of your stay so we have created the perfect family itinerary of the best D-Day beaches and museums to visit.
We also offer fully guided personal tours - click here to explore your options.
D-Day and Normandy have become synonymous and it still stirs strong emotions with locals. It was the beginning of the liberation of Europe from Nazi control under World War Two and the sites and monuments in Normandy today celebrate this liberation but also mourn and commemorate the vast numbers of people for fell during that important summer of 1944.
We wanted to try to help you get the most out of your visits to the numerous sites in the area (far to many for most people to visit during one trip). We have created this with a family in mind over a 3 day period, but this can of course be tailored to your tastes and guests, we do hope it is helpful.
The Normandy 'beaches' have become iconic and bear the names of the military code-names. There were divided into 5 areas or zones: the two large western beaches where the Americans landed — code-named Utah and Omaha.
To the east are the two British ones — Gold and Sword — either side of the Canadian landing zone, code-named Juno.
Begin the day at Pegasus Bridge
The first piece of France to be liberated from Nazi rule was not a beach at all. It was a crucial metal bridge over the Caen Ship Canal several miles inland from Sword Beach.
Shortly after midnight on June 6, three gliders carrying crack troops from the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry landed in precisely the right spot and captured the bridge intact. It has been known ever since as Pegasus Bridge (after the badge of the airborne forces) and here you will find the Pegasus Memorial. This first-rate museum tells the story of the army of liberators who came by air.
Take a short trip up the road to the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Ranville, where more than 2,000 men lie buried next to a village church that’s still peppered with bullet holes.
Juno Beach Centre
On D-Day, no nation made more ground than the Canadians, yet their achievements are often overlooked. The exception being the Juno Beach centre. - The full extent of the country’s war effort is captured in a series of well-planned exhibitions, along with a digital tour - very captivating for younger ones especially.
It’s right on the beach, next to a German bunker complex, so a good opportunity for a paddle to refresh any tiring members of the group!
After lunch we recommend heading for Crépon, passing Ver-sur-Mer where the new Normandy Memorial resides.
Five minutes away is the roadside monument telling the heroic tale of Sergeant Major Stan Hollis of the Green Howards, the only man to win the Victoria Cross on D-Day itself.
Gripping film footage
Another ten minutes down the road and you reach the clifftop cinema above the handsome old spa town of Arromanches-les-Bains. The view is superb and the 360-degree cinema experience offers no come down! Made up of surround sound and news footage from the time to tell the whole story of Normandy in 20 minutes. Its powerful footage even for younger ones.
Skirt round Arromanches and head for the gun battery at Longues-sur-Mer, which is in surprising good condition considering that it was bombarded comprehensively by the RAF before it was silenced by the Royal Navy.
You can climb inside the gun case-mates and children will enjoy clambering over the original guns. Equally impressive is the forward observation bunker, still perched on the cliff edge. It is the one they used to film the epic Hollywood movie, The Longest Day, and has barely changed since 1944.
Double back to Arromanches for a drink as the sun sets (an Aperó as the French would say!) beyond the remains of the Mulberry harbour.
This was the mind-boggling artificial port which the Allies towed across the Channel at a sedate 1 mph. These mighty blocks of seaweed-encrusted concrete are now much-loved landmarks. More information and the full story can be found in the seafront museum.
The American Sector
Of the 156,000 troops who landed on D-Day, 73,000 were American, as was the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower. The U.S. forces were allocated the western half of the assault. Their initial aims included the capture of the vital port of Cherbourg.
Begin the day at St-Mere-Eglise
Like the British airborne forces who arrived to the east in the early hours of D-Day, thousands of Americans dropped in to the west.
Famously, one unit of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division landed in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise while a house was on fire, illuminating the night sky. Many paratroopers were picked off before touching the ground.
A wounded Private John Steele ended up dangling from the church by his parachute and feigned death until he was lowered down and taken prisoner (though not for long).
His story has entered Normandy folklore and, to this day, a dummy paratrooper still hangs from the church — much to the delight of many children! Across the square, the U.S. Airborne Museum is full of interactive displays and each visitor receives a tablet to follow the action.
Half an hour’s drive further on, the Utah Beach Museum is an excellent state-of-the-art visitor centre built into the sand on the site of a German bunker.
There is a wide selection of landing craft — including a replica Higgins Boat — and a B-26 Marauder bomber, all telling the story of a beach landing which went more or less according to plan.
It is also the perfect spot for some well-deserved bucket-and-spade activity. It is a short hop to Saint-Come-du-Mont where the D-Day Experience gives visitors a lively simulated ride in an American C47 aircraft as it flies U.S. paratroopers into the unknown.
While Utah was a success, the other American landing beach was known for the horrendous loss of life and slaughter. Forever known as ‘Bloody Omaha’, it was where thousands of men lost their lives.
Well-entrenched German positions survived aerial bombing and poured withering fire on the attackers. Today, Omaha Beach is a bracing strip of golden sand, popular with land yachts (sail-powered go-karts).
Above it is the main U.S. Cemetery, a panoramic resting place for nearly 10,000 men (and four women) which will be familiar to viewers of the Steven Spielberg epic Saving Private Ryan. The film was inspired by the story of one U.S. family, the Nilands, who lost two boys in Normandy. There are, in fact, 45 pairs of brothers resting here.
Arrive towards the end of the day and watch the sunset ceremony — known as ‘Taps’ — bring down the two main Stars and Stripes.
Britain’s fallen heroes are to be found in beautifully maintained plots across the region. Head back to Bayeux and visit the main British cemetery where more than 4,000 Commonwealth (and 466 German) soldiers lie, including a holder of the Victoria Cross, Sidney Bates of the Royal Norfolk Regiment.
Begin the day at Caen Museum
Half an hour away from Bayeux the regional capital, Caen — which was bombed to extensively (and controversially) in 1944 — has a huge museum telling the story of the war from the French side, a sombre reminder that there were even more civilian than military losses here.
German last stand
The battle for the beaches was relatively quick. Most of the fighting was inland, among pretty medieval hedgerows known as ‘bocage’. Small memorials pepper the landscape. Head an hour south of Caen to the bloodiest battlefield of all. At the end of the Normandy campaign, tens of thousands of German troops were squeezed in to a narrow strip of countryside known as the Falaise Pocket. Up to 10,000 were killed here.
The Memorial Montormel museum, often run by a charismatic English-speaking curator, is the perfect spot to take in the magnitude of what happened in the now-peaceful valley below. Much is made of the role of horses in the German war machine.