Top Normandy D-Day Landing Beaches and World War II Sites

Pegasus Bridge,Pegasus Bridge Memorial Museum.
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  • 01 of 10

    Caen Memorial

    Caen Memorial in Normandy
    Mary Anne Evans

    Normandy is a pilgrimage site for travelers who want to tour the landscape of D-Day, one of the most momentous events in modern history. Upon arriving in northwest France along the English Channel, begin your tour at the Mémorial de Caen—a visit here will give you a broad overview of World War II and the essential role of the region's beaches played in on fateful Tuesday, June 6, 1944. Housed in a modern, purpose-built structure on the outskirts of the charming city of Caen, the huge exhibition takes you from the build-up of World War II through its devastating years to the Cold War and the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall.

    The memorial is full of objects, models, and films made both during the war and afterward that dramatically convey the global history of the war as well as the personal stories of the soldiers that fought in its deadly clashes. Particularly impressive sections of the memorial include dioramas of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Normandy, as well as the harrowing destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Try to allow at least half a day when exploring the impressive memorial; a whole day is best. Let your visit be the focus of the day. Wait until the following morning before moving on to other sites, if possible. It offers a comprehensive view of World War II  and is a lot to absorb. Even more, a visit here is sobering and can leave visitors left feeling a bit drained. Nevertheless, it's a fulfilling experience that shines a spotlight on the value of peace and the sacrifices made on Normandy's beaches.

    The Mémorial de Caen is located at Esplanade Général Eisenhower, 14050 Caen.

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    • 02 of 10

      The Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église

      Airborne Museum, Ste-Mere Eglise, Normandy
      Mary Anne Evans

      Driving into the center of the picturesque Sainte-Mère-Église, the first sight to draw your eye will surely be the lifelike model of Private John Steele, a paratrooper hanging from his flapping parachute caught on the tower of the village's centuries-old Catholic church. Steele landed early in the morning, part of the attack by the American 82nd and the 101st Divisions. The town was vital to the Allies in protecting nearby landings at Utah Beach. The attack was ultimately a success, and it became the first town liberated on the night of June 6, 1944.

      Discover the many details of Sainte-Mère-Église in its Musée Airborne, or Airborne Museum, located next to the church. It's unmissable, as two of its domed buildings are designed to look like air-filled parachutes. In front of one hall is a restored a Waco glider. The non-motorized plane delivered men and machinery to the battlefront and is the only one of its kind intact and on display in France. A second domed building houses a Douglas C-47 Dakota plane that dropped paratroopers into the Norman countryside and towed gliders to the village. A third building houses Operation Neptune, an interactive display that transports visitors to the frenetic and momentous scenes of D-Day in a daring nighttime flight from England and a parachute drop into the town.

      There are plenty of stories to learn in Sainte-Mère-Église and the Airborne Museum, including a visitors favorite about Private Steele. He played dead for two hours dangling in his parachute harness but was finally captured by the Germans. But he and fellow soldiers eventually escaped from a bicycle shop they were detained in. Steele found his division and rejoined the battle. Classic film buffs might recognize Sainte-Mère-Église; it was a backdrop in the epic The Longest Day.

      The Musée Airborne is located at 14 rue Eisenhower.

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    • 03 of 10

      Drive Around More Sites Around Ste-Mere-Eglise and Utah Beach

      One of the stops on the Open Sky Museum Tour, Normandy
      Mary Anne Evans

      One of the best ways to explore this region of Normandy is with a comprehensive map and audio guide from the Tourist Office in Ste-Mère-Eglise. Loaded on an iPad, the virtual assistant can help you find both smaller memorial sites and also major D-Day battle sites. It’s very well done, including GPS coordinates to keep you going in the right direction along winding country roads.

      After a general introduction, there are 11 stops on the tour. At each waypoint, the iPad shares images of the actual battles along with commentary that tells you exactly what happened.

      The tour is easy to follow, and you can follow it take it at your own pace. In general, it takes between two and three hours.

      There's a fee to check out the iPad, and identification and a credit card deposit are required. 

      Pick up your iPad guide at the Tourist Office, 6 rue Eisenhower. 

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    • 04 of 10

      Utah Beach Museum

      Briefing Room at the Utah Beach Museum, Normandy
      Mary Anne Evans

      It's a name known with reverence across the world: Utah Beach.

      The Utah Beach Museum, or Musée du Debarquément Utah Beach, stands on the sandy dunes of a beautiful stretch of Normandy coastline. Today, it’s a popular place for windsurfing in the breeze, swimming in clear waters, and strolling along the shore. But on June 6th, 1944, it was a very different scene. At 10 minutes past midnight, Lieutenant Poole of the British Army's Special Air Service landed on Utah Beach, the first allied soldier to set foot on French soil. It was the start of Operation Overlord.

      The impressive museum stands on the actual site where the American troops landed. It very effectively tells the story through different sections, starting chronologically with Germany building its Atlantic Wall defense fortifications in eastern France. Special attention is given to the difficulties faced by the occupied Normans, who often lived on the edge of starvation.

      There’s a very good mix of films and objects in the museum's collections and dioramas, including a complete briefing room illustrating the Allied invasion strategy. Perhaps the most visually impressive display is a windowed hangar-style concourse that houses a huge Martin B-26-G bomber. The museum is surrounded by monuments to soldiers, like the striking obelisk at its entrance. For a reflective view, its upper floor affords a gorgeous view of Normandy's now tranquil coastline.

      Find the Musée du Debarquément Utah Beach at 50480 Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.

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    • 05 of 10

      American World War II Cemetery in Normandy

      The peaceful American World War II Cemetery in Normandy
      Mary Anne Evans

      Hallowed ground, the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer holds 9,387 American graves. Most of the soldiers buried here were involved in the Normandy D-Day landings and the battles that followed. The cemetery is on the site of the temporary St. Laurent graveyard, which was established by the U.S. First Army on June 8, 1944. Among the first casualties were those of the U.S. 82nd and 101st Divisions landing by glider along with the British 6th Airborne on the Normandy beaches. Also laid to rest here are fallen soldiers from the U.S. 4th Infantry Division at Utah Beach and the U.S. 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions from Omaha Beach.

      Start at the Visitor Center for an exhibition that explains Operation Overlord and the shares the life stories of some of the soldiers who fought and died in Normandy. Don’t miss the poignant film Letters, which highlights the lives of some of the young men who fought here through the words and memories of their mothers, fathers, girlfriends, and friends.

      The immaculately manicured cemetery itself is huge, covering 172.5 acres. To get there, walk down a path to a plaque which shows you the battle and offers a panoramic view of the sweeping sandy beach below. In the cemetery itself, perfectly aligned white headstones adorn a gentle slope that stretches into the distance, seemingly into infinity. At one end stands the Memorial with its lovely circular chapel. For all its solemn expanse, these cemetery grounds aren't the largest in this part of the world; that particular honor goes to the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery. However, with its relatively recent setting in time and its dire consequences in the face of confronting the Third Reich, it could be said to be the most moving. 

      The American Military Cemetery is located at 14710 Colleville-sur-Mer.

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    • 06 of 10

      The D-Day Museum, Arromanches-sur-Mer

      American armored vehicle remaining from 1944 Normandy Invasion, Arromanches-les-Bains, Calvados Department, Normandy, France
      Ian Cook/Getty Images

      The Musée du Debarquément (D-Day Museum) at Arromanches explains the construction of the extraordinary Mulberry Harbors with heir temporary breakwaters, piers, and docks that allowed the Allies to take control of Normandy's heavily fortified coastline. In 1942, Churchill had sent a memo to Lord Mountbatten about the construction: "They must float up and down with the tide. The anchor problem must be mastered. Let me have the best solution." This museum displays how the problem was solved.

      A formidable task, but the best solution was an ingenious series of artificial ports built for ships filled with Allied soldiers and supplies to follow up on the first wave of amphibious and parachute attacks. essential guides and supplies. Huge portable concrete blocks and old vessels were sunk at various points to form a protective seawall. The timing was impressive. The harbor was begun after the liberation of Arromanches on June 6; ships were scuttled on June 7; concrete blocks were sunk on June 8; and by June 14, cargo ships began to be unloaded. Aside from the sheer architectural difficulty of creating the artificial harbors, the Allied corps constantly contended with terrible English Channel weather that continually destroyed their hard work.

      The museum is quite old and small, but it's nonetheless a worthwhile stop with its excellent film on the building of the Mulberry harbors along with scale models and sundry items that explaining their construction. Looking out over the long beaches, the remains of the artificial port is still visible more than seven decades after it was built.

      Reach the Musée du Debarquément in Arromanches at Place du 6 Juin.

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    • 07 of 10

      Arromanches 360 Circular Cinema

      Circular cinema in Arromanches-les-Bains
      Avi1111 dr. avishai teicher/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

      For an unforgettable spectacle, climb a series of steps that ascend from the middle of Arromanches to the circular cinema that rises above this small Norman town. You can also drive.

      Standing in the center of this engaging cinema that's build on the remains of a Mulberry harbor, a historic film illuminates nine screens that loop around you."Normandy's 100 Days" tells the stories, complete with historical footage, of the thousands that fought—and often died—to liberate Europe. But note: It's an immersive experience, so be prepared.

      Visit the Arromanches 360 Circular Cinema at 4117 Arromanches.

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    • 08 of 10

      Mémorial Pegasus

      Pegasus Bridge,Pegasus Bridge Memorial Museum.
      Rosemary Calvert/Getty Images

      The British 6th Airborne Division was made up of over 12,000 troops including a battalion of 600 volunteer Canadian troops, 177 French Commandos, a Belgian unit, and a Dutch brigade. Their multi-national task was to parachute from gliders that took them silently to Normandy from England and land to the east of the main beaches. From that vantage point, they could help protect the D-Day landings from assaults by German troops. Their daring exploits are recounted at the Mémorial Pegasus.

      At the waterside museum on the outskirts of Caen, begin your visit with a short film of the expedition. It's complete with the kind of clipped accent voice-over that takes you straight back to newsreels from the 1940s. Beyond showing the expedition, it sets a few myths straight. For instance, in The Longest Day, Lord Lovat and his bagpiper walk across the bridge; in fact,  they ran over the bridge with bagpipes silent.

      A key part of the memorial is the Pegasus Bridge that once spanned the Caen Canal. It was a major objective of the Allies in the invasion of Normandy. There’s also am easy-to-assemble Bailey bridge, huts with different exhibitions inside, and a reconstructed Horsa glider.

      Mémorial Pegasus is located at Avenue du Major Howard, 14860 Ranville.

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      • 09 of 10

        The Merville Gun Battery

        Merville Gun Battery
        Mary Anne Evans

        Squatting along Norman coast just a few years from the waves of the English Channel, the Merville Gun Battery digs into the ground. Once part of the huge Atlantic Wall built by the Germans to defend Europe against Allied invasion, it was heavily fortified, particularly after a visit by Rommel. He recognized the strategic importance of the site.

        Today it’s a rather eerie site, one that's both peaceful with its seaside setting next to a small town and also sinister with its massive wartime bunkers. When exploring the site, start outside where a Douglas C-47 Dakota is parked. Then explore the bunkers to learn the history of the 9th Battalion’s assault on the battery. It came at a terrible cost: of the 750 soldiers sent on the capture mission, a mere 150 landed and only 75 survived.

        Be prepared for surprises, particularly the extremely loud sound and light show that happens every 20 minutes. It gives a very real—and terrifying--impression of what life was like inside a bunker under attack.

        Find the Merville Gun Battery at Place du 9 Battalion in Merville-Franceville.

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        • 10 of 10

          The Juno Beach Center

          France: Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles-sur-mer
          Goddard_Photography/Getty Images

          Juno Beach sits between Gold and Sword Beaches. During the D-Day invasion, all three were under the command of the 2nd British Army. Juno was liberated mainly by Canadian forces, volunteers who formed the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade. Alongside were the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade, the First Hussars Tanks, the 12th and 13th Field Regiments, and the Royal Canadian Engineers. Of the 135,000 Allied forces taking part in D-Day, 14,000 were Canadian. Their fight is documented at the excellent Juno Beach Center.

          The museum is slightly different from the others in the region with its eye on Canada. It focuses on the Commonwealth country's background and how it entered the war. It gives you as much insight into Canada from the 1930s up to the present day as it does on the war itself. The sections on the war itself are equally well done, with interactive displays, films, and audio guides.

          The attack was as bloody as on the other beaches and casualties were huge. 1,074 men landed on Juno beach with 359 killed.

          After a visit, a guide takes you to the beach and the bunker in front of the museum, explaining the Atlantic Wall and the battles of the June Landings. It's a reflective opportunity to remember the 18,000 Canadian casualties of the invasion of Normandy, of whom 5,500 died.

          Visit the Juno Beach Center at Voie des Francais Libres, 14470 Courseulles-sur-Mer.