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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Bates

Top places to visit in Normandy

Updated: May 2

RouenNormandy is a huge region in Northern France and one which is full of history as well as fields. Some of the region makes excellent day trips from Paris also but Normandy needs a lot of time to appreciate what it has to offer. So I won’t waffle on, let's get right in on the top places to visit which I totally recommend. 

Rouen, Normandy
The timber-framed buildings of Rouen

Exploring Omaha and Utah D-Day beaches in Normandy


2024 is the 80th anniversary of the D-Day beach landings of Allied forces in Normandy, Northern France. On the 6th June 1944, British, Canadian and American forces (as well as other countries from the Commonwealth) went across the English Channel - La Manche to push back the Nazi Germans who a few years earlier took over the land from France. Codename Operation Neptune, the official name for D-Day, it was the largest seaborne invasion in history. The American forces landed at Omaha and Utah, the British landed on Gold and Sword beaches and the Canadians on Juno beach. The name of these beaches are code names for the beaches as it was quicker to use them instead of the beaches real names (and of course, the French language isn’t always short and friendly to the tongue). The invasion was a success and the allied troops moved further inland towards Germany where eventually, the Second World War ended in Berlin in May 1945 with the Allied forces approaching the city from the west and the Soviet Union finishing the job near the Fuhrerbunker. 


That’s the background on the D-Day landings and I got the opportunity recently to visit two of the beaches, Juno and Utah. I didn’t go on any tours with the family so I did this self-guided as I am also a historian so I knew the history etc, but I wanted to see this with my very own eyes the scene of what occurred, the heroes, the ones who gave up their lives to regain Europe’s freedom. This was a very important day and a turning point during the Second World War.


I drove to the area and stayed a week in this part of Normandy during the summer months, doing a several hour journey from Stevenage (UK) via Dover, Calais and Rouen. We stayed in a small village near Isigny-sur-mer and used that as a base. Both beaches were about a twenty-five minute drive.


Omaha Beach was the first beach we visited in the village of Saint-Laurent-sur-mer . The children were just interested in the wide golden sand and dipping their feet in the cold sea. If only the temperature was warmer then this beach wouldn’t look out of place in the south of France. Car parking is a bit hard to find during busy periods however I got lucky and managed to park on the seafront, right above the beach. Getting out of the car and looking out to sea, I stood there picturing those scenes from 1944. The tide was out and I was thinking those soldiers had a long way to walk with all their heavy gear, through the boggy sand, hoping that they wouldn’t get shot down by the Nazis (if any of them were up and awake at that point as the invasion took place in the night).


After finding the car parking space, everything is very easy. There is plenty of sand so no one should be fighting for a decent spot on the beach. There are public toilets on the seafront. However, for eating out there, there are a few places but when it is the high season, then trying to get a table in a restaurant can be very frustrating. We were lucky as it was high season but for some reasons, the village wasn’t really crowded. We found a table at the Restaurant Brasserie Bar La Crémaillère which can be found at a set of crossroads on the main road heading towards Omaha bridge (can’t miss it on the right hand side and there is a small parking lot across the street). Also on the seafront (when the main road from the N13 highway reaches the seafront road), there is a memorial to the Omaha beach landings. 

I came back the next morning by myself for a very early morning run and checked out the memorial. The quiet beauty of such a solemn place. I felt an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness and admiration and, of course, sadness. The memorial "Les Braves" representing hope and freedom but also the soldiers landing on the beach is astonishing: it seems to move as you approach it and walk around it, changing its message and perspective. As you get closer you are facing a 9-meter high structure 15 meters wide. Running further along the seafront, there are other memorials on the square of the village that continue the story of D-day.

The other beach Olga and I checked out (whilst leaving the children with my folks at our base) was Utah beach near the village of Audouville-la-Hubert. Arriving here where the main museum and restaurant is, there are more car parking options here and more spread out. So there is plenty of space, even if it is packed in the high season. There are plenty of memorials and monuments to look at and a viewing platform overlooking the beach. This vast expanse of fine sand is separated from the marshes by a dune barrier. The  beach itself (formerly known as Madeleine Beach) is the westernmost of the five landing beaches, extending between Beauguillot and Foucarville. Today the beach is a haven of peace, suitable for nautical activities such as sand yachting, and various others, such as training race horses, but it is always with emotion and contemplation that Olga and I liked to walk on this beach. (Just to note, as I mentioned, I did a self-drive to the beaches, but if looking for a tour company to take visitors to the Normandy D-Day beaches, there are plenty of tour operators operating out of Bayeux). 


We didn’t get the chance to go to the other three beaches, however there is plenty of World War Two history in this area and everywhere I looked, I could see something. I also managed to check out the German cemetery because, to be honest, I never came across one and I wanted to see what the cemetery looked like for the ‘other’ or ‘bad’ side in the conflict. It’s a complete contrast compared to the American and British cemeteries I checked out. The latter is in fact much better kept. The Allied forces really want to keep their memory alive. On the other hand, the German cemetery is not as tidy which is a bit sad because maybe some soldiers were sent to be killed and did not necessarily assent to the nazi ideology. That is my view. Either case, this war should have never sorted and I hope not to see it in Europe ever again (however Russia has a huge disagreement with Ukraine at the moment which I hope will end soon as I write this, another war because of a stupid little man who has a big ego and wants to land grab). 

Away from the D-Day beaches, here are the other top places in Normandy we did.

Isigny-sur-mer, Normandy, France

Isigny-sur-mer, as mentioned earlier, was our base for the trip. This small town is ideal as a base as we could drive to anywhere we wanted, with Bayeux and Caen to the east, the beaches about twenty-five minute drive away and to the west is Cherbourg and Mont Saint-Michel. However I also learnt that there is a special connection with this town and Walt Disney, yes, the man who started the Disney empire with the likes of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and feature length films like Snow White and Dumbo. Whilst the town is famous for its dairy farms (and there are a lot of farms I noticed as I ran all the roads in the area), the town really got famous by the Dupont family which built dairy factories during the 19th century here. They are famous worldwide for its signature product, d’Isigny caramels. Apparently the cowes in the area are known for producing the creamiest butter and cheese.

Now notice that d’Isingy sounds and looks like Disney. The history behind this started in 1066 when William the Conqueror (my 30 x Great-Grandfather by the way on many of my branch lines on my family tree), awarded the title ‘Lords of Isigny’ to an French father-and-son known as Robert and Hugues Suhard as a thank you for helping William conquer the land known today as England to the north of Normandy. The duo became Robert and Hughes d’Isiny and settled in England where their name got anglicised and became Disney. A branch of the family eventually moved to Ireland who were Walt Disney’s ancestors. So there you have it guys, there is the connection. I thought I would mention that and give you all a ‘Disney’ lesson which I rarely do in my blog posts. 

Bayeux is a town full of history, not just World War II history but history which includes the famous William the Bastard later named Conqueror (again to mention, my 30 x Great Grandfather) and going further back, the Norman leader Rollo who came from the Nordic countries as a Viking who first invaded the Norman lands (again, family connection, my 35th x Great Grandfather). Most recently regarding history, Charles de Gaulle made one of his first liberation speeches in the town after the D-Day landings were completed. 

I totally love this town. Bayeux is an architectural beauty of the place. With its Norman-timbered style buildings to its cobble streets, the masterpiece has to be the cathedral. The town was lucky not to be bombed during the Second World War so the cathedral is still intact. Inside, I truly appreciated the architecture of this place. The stained windows but more importantly, the rose window are very beautiful. Entry is free to go inside by the way so make sure you have time to go inside and fully appreciate this place. There has always been a cathedral on this site since the 11th century however during the 12th century it was burnt to the ground and was reconstructed with Gothic elements added on. I have been to many big cathedrals around France, Rouen, Notre Dame de Paris, Beauvais, Nice, but this is definitely up on the top of my list of amazing cathedrals in France.

Bayeux, Normandy, France
The courtyard where we had to queue to get inside the tapestry museum in Bayeux

I also came to Bayeux to do some family history research or just to see the information I researched back home for real with my eyes. One of those places is seeing the famous Bayeux Tapestry. My mother was also excited to see this, it's a big part of history for the English, let alone the Normans. We queued up outside the Bayeux Museum in a courtyard which was nice before heading inside to buy our ticket. We queued for about twenty minutes from the road, through the courtyard to the entrance so it wasn’t too bad. We only bought a ticket for the Tapestry but there is a joint ticket that also includes the museum of art and history and the Battle of Normandy museum. Before heading into the dark room which houses the tapestry, we were given an audio guide which has several languages on it which explained everything in detail of every section of the tapestry.  

Bayeux, Normandy, France

The tapestry itself dates back to the 11th century. It was saved during the Second World War when it was put into an underground shelter and then eventually the Louvre (not sure why there in Paris). The tapestry is still in excellent condition and is behind the glass, probably at a cool temperature, and hence the no lighting in the room to make sure the colours on the tapestry doesn’t disappear. I saw great pictures on it of my Great-Grandfather, William the Conqueror and how he conquered England. Just to note, there is a new museum in Bayeux which will be opened to house the tapestry in 2026 and there is a no photography or taking videos rule in place.

On the very northern tip of the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy near Cherbourg is the small fishing town of Barfleur which has been named a Plus Beaux Village de France, one of France’s most beautiful villages. I can see why with its cobbled streets and charming white shuttered granite houses. In the quay there are plenty of restaurants and creperies for the visitors. 


However Olga and I came here for a different reason and again, involving the family tree and William the Conqueror (again, I repeat, my 30th x Great Grandfather). The town was often used as a port of embarkation for those raids and conquering of England to the north. The Normans left from here in 1066 to fight the English at the Battle of Hastings. We walked to the northern end of the harbour and found a medallion on a rock to mark this event. Nearby is the Saint Nicholas church which was built in the 17th century and is fortress-like in appearance.

To the south of the town is the Eglise de Montfarville (Montfarville church) located in the village of Montfarville. Built in 1763 of local white granite, inside the church contains exceptional works of art and four large wooden statues. The nineteen canvases depicting scenes from the life of Christ were decorated by painter Guillaume Foucase in the late 1870s. Today, these paintings are listed as historical monuments and are definitely worth stopping off to see and admire. 

In the east of the region is Rouen, which is the main city (or capital city if you want to call it that) of Normandy. As an ancient city, it has that magical feel so it is well worth a visit. This medieval city with its cobble streets and timber buildings should be on anyone's list. This part of Normandy may not be well visited like the coastline where there are the sites of Mont St-Michel, Etretat and the D-Day beaches, but Rouen has to be visited. Famous for its medieval architecture, tall spires and of course the food, Rouen needs at least a day or two to explore and can be easily reached by train from Paris Saint-Lazare station and by road from Paris, Calais, Lille and Caen as it has a few highways nearby.  


I have to admit, when I took the family here for a day trip as we were in the area, I didn’t know anything about the city. However I learnt very quickly that Rouen is most famous for the trial and execution of Joan of Arc (a French lady who was burned at the stake). Also the city is an artistic haven with the likes of Claude Monet, Gustave Flaubert and Pierre Corneille venturing to the city and doing their paintings. Rouen is also known as the Capital of Impressionism. 

Looking back at more history, Rouen was established at the end of the Roman era and became one of the main focal points of trade as it lies on the River Seine. Then the Vikings came along (as mentioned earlier) in the 9th century where their leader Rollo (again, my 45th x Great Grandfather) became the first leader of the newly formed state of Norman (later known as Normandie/Normandy). Vikings left and the Anglo-Norman empire came alive in the 11th century and at the same time Rouen became the main base for them. William the Bastard, I mean, Conqueror (again, my 40th x Great Grandfather) was probably the most famous king and ruled the whole Norman empire which had a lot of land in France and a lot of present-day England. A few hundred years later when the Normans were at their weakest, Rouen was invaded in the 15th century by Henry V of England. 

Over time Rouen was still an important city and at one point was the fourth largest in France. However in the Second World War the city was heavily damaged and a lot of the medieval architecture was destroyed. However in the last few decades it has been restored to its former glory. 

Now what is there to see in Rouen? The top place has to be the Gros Horloge (Great Clock) which was built in the fourteenth century and is located a few streets away from the cathedral. The great clock is an astronomical clock and has one of the oldest working mechanisms in the world. 


The cathedral has one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in France. However I was more interested that the cathedral is the final resting place of Richard the Lionheart (however his heart was not buried with him) and (again, my 45th x Great Grandfather) Rollo is buried here. The lantern tower is topped by a cast iron spire that rises to 151 meters. It is the highest in France. Destroyed by lightning in 1822, it was imagined by the architect Jean-Antoine Alavoine who then proposed to use cast iron, a very modern material for the time, less combustible than wood and lighter than stone. At the time of its inauguration, the spire was even the highest in the world! The cathedral is free to roam around and make sure to check out all the Gothic architecture inside and outside and of course, the stained glass windows. 


There are plenty of art museums to check out but for us, it was getting lost in the cobbled streets and admiring the timber framed houses. We spent hours checking out the area, producing great photography and finding a couple of fantastic cafes for snacks. The kids surely loved their chocolat-chaud!

To the south-east of Rouen there are many beautiful towns and villages which run alongside the Seine and all the way to Paris. This part of Normandy we stayed in a small village in a forest, however we spent most of our time checking out places on the river. Vernon is a place worth stopping for a few hours and is so close to the nearby village of Giverny (famous village where Monet’s house and gardens are located and Vernon is the nearest train station for the village on the Paris Saint-Lazare to Rouen line). Like most towns in the region, Vernon is full of cobble streets, timber-framed houses, historic buildings and surrounded by beautiful countryside. Just a short-historical route from me on this one, the town was founded in the early 10th century by Rollo, the first duke of Normandy (yet again, I must point out he is my 45th x Great Grandfather). 


A famous landmark in the town is the Old Mill, known as Le Vieux Moulin. The old mill straddles two piers of an ancient bridge over the Seine. There used to be a wheel attached when it was operating, however that has long gone and only the old house remains of the mill. First built in the 16th century, the mill has been painted several times by Monet and other artists, however more recently during the Second World War, the mill was damaged and it is not safe to go inside anymore. The mill can only be seen from the outside.

Other sites to check out whilst walking the streets is the Collegiale Notre Dame church which has stood on this site since the 11th century and took centuries to build. The organ inside the church dates back to the 16th century!

Château Gaillard is one of my favourite ruins of a castle in Normandy and is known as Richard the Lionheart’s castle. A fine cutting-edge example of military architecture in its day, it lies on high chalk cliffs which have amazing views of all directions along the River Seine. The castle is located near the village of Les Andelys in the heart of an area of outstanding natural beauty. It's definitely worth taking time out to do some walks in this area. 

Le Treport is right on the north-eastern border of Normandy with Hauts-de-France. A nice small seaside town with a Dutch architecture feel, the town was also used in the hit French Crime television show, Les Temoins (Witnesses). I have done a full blog post HERE on the town. 

Le Treport, normandy, France

To the west of the region I managed to take the family to see the amazing Mont Saint-Michel, a breathtaking island with its religious site and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located on the border of Brittany and Normandy, the abbey’s tower dominates the flat landscape and can be seen for miles. Outside Paris, this is one of the most visited places for visitors. As we had a car, this is the easy way to visit the island. There is a HUGE car park near the island (don’t forget to pay the fee before leaving the site), and then it's either a long walk along a causeway or take a shuttle bus to the island. Walking it took me and my daughter over thirty minutes but we did keep stopping for photos.


Now the problem was we came in high season just before lunchtime. In the high season, I say, the second week in August. Dam, the amount of people! It was crazy. I might as well have been stuck on a crowded tube station at Gare du Nord as there were so many people here. The queues for the bus were shockingly long and the walk was pleasant, but people were everywhere. It was a total tourist trap. I can see why when we reached the island. There were hundreds of people on top of the walls above me, the beach below was packed, and people streaming into the citadel. After a ten minute period, we (as a family) decided not to go inside as we felt it was pointless and won’t be enjoyable. That was our decision not to go in. However we stayed on the beach where the children were happy but at the same time, people were coming and going. I never seen a place outside Paris to be so crowded. After a while it was time to go back, again, we didn’t bother with the shuttle bus and the queue was so long once again. My parents caught the bus back, however, Olga and I with the kids were back on the mainland before their shuttle bus arrived. So my main tip here is, don’t visit in August! We vowed to come back during the low season, first thing in the morning to enjoy it more. So for the first time ever in my blog, I can’t recommend anything from inside the walls of this beautiful place. 


However I can give you a basic timeline of the history of the abbey which is now a significant place of pilgrimage and worship with Christians. A man called Archangel Michael (an angel) visited the bishop of a nearby town and he was told to build a church on the island. In 966 AD the church developed into a Benedictine abbey and then during the medieval times, more monastic buildings were added to the complex. The island then became a place of learning, welcoming the brainiest people with the brightest minds from across Europe and at the same time, the abbey was keeping out the royals from the Normans and elsewhere who could never breach the ramparts.




Essentials


Best time to visit Normandy: Between April and November. Otherwise visitors will be battered by the rain and blown away by the wind as the sea can be very rough during the winter months. During the Spring and Summer months, it tends to be more sunny but the temperatures can be quite cool.  


How to get to & where it is located: I am going to use Bayeux as the main town for this part of Northern Normandy and the nearby D-Day beaches. By train it takes two hours and twenty minutes to reach from Paris Saint Lazare train station (which also stops in Caen which is a much larger city to the east of Bayeux). Train information can be found here.


By car it takes about three hours from Paris to drive and five hours from Calais ferry port. Rouen in Eastern Normandy is about a ninety minute-two hour drive. If arriving by ferry (for people coming in from England), there are ferry port entries at Cherbourg (the nearest), St Malo, Dieppe, Roscoff (Brittany), and of course my favourite, Calais where also the Channel Tunnel - Le Tunnel sous la manche (car-train) is located. The nearest airports are Paris Orly and Charles de Gaulle for international flights and for regional and European flights, there are smaller airports at Dinard (near St-Malo), Beauvais and Nantes.   


Accommodation: There are a lot of accommodation options and a lot of websites which can do some great deals. My first point of call is always Booking.com and can offer a range of hostels, hotels, campsites, apartments, guesthouses, bed and breakfasts and they can also be booked up on my website (just go to the right hand side of the screen). After that I always have a look through AirBnb for great deals on apartments and other lodgings especially when traveling as a family. 


Currency: France uses the Euro currency which is also widely used in most European countries. Currency can be exchanged at the airports and train stations (for a huge fee) so I would recommend either going to a currency exchange place downtown, to a bank (if they have good rates) or if you got a good bank account with fantastic exchange rates, then use an ATM machine (may incur a small fee but I always do this option as I got good bank accounts). 


Language: It’s France, so it would be French. However at major tourist sites, a lot of staff do speak English (it is not like the old days where French people refuse to speak English, that has changed you will find the locals here love to practice their English as well as visitors trying to learn French).


Watch out for: As far as I am aware, there are no major scams to look out for. As always in Europe, watch out for the usual pickpockets or any pretty crimes but I felt very safe in Normandy, in fact, Normandy is probably the most safest region in France.


Flying into this area? Then I would recommend using Skyscanner to find flights as that is my first point of call. Then if necessary use the airlines directly to find a good deal. I sometimes use Momondo as well to compare prices before booking. 


Travel insurance: This is essential to anywhere you go in the world. I always carry travel insurance. Having travel insurance will cover you from theft, illness and those annoying cancellations which can happen on the road. 


Need a visa for France? Always check if you need a visa when coming to France, especially for those who come from outside Europe.


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Please note that while I was not working with any companies in Normandy, my review and experiences written about in this post are 100% genuine. I value my readers too much to lie to you. My blog would be nothing without you and your continued support! There maybe some links above which are affiliate and are at no additional cost to you. If my readers use them, I earn a commission to buy their products and remember, I only mentioned products and companies I use. The income from this keeps this website going. Thank you. 

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