Normandy is a region of Northern France just west of Paris that's famous for its role in World War II as well as a number of other significant events throughout its history. However, its rugged coastline on the English Channel is also home to a number of picturesque small towns and villages perfect for an escape from the congestion of Paris, including Caen, Le Havre, and Rouen.
Among other top places to visit in Normandy are Mont Saint Michel—an island topped by a medieval monastery just off the coast—Omaha Beach, the site of one of the D-Day landings of Allied reinforcements, and Giverny, which is home to the gardens that inspired Monet.
Rich in culture and home to a number of historically significant sites, Normandy is a great destination for World War II buffs, beach enthusiasts, and tourists looking for a great event any time of year.
The Normandy Coastline: D-Day Beaches and Popular Towns
Normandy is perhaps most famous for the events that took place on five of its beaches on June 6, 1944—known around the world as D-Day. It was on this day that the Allied Forces carried out the largest seaborne invasion in history to seize control of France's crucial ports from the Axis Powers during World War II. The five landing sites of D-Day in Normandy are:
- Utah Beach: Westernmost beach of the five landing areas during the Normandy invasion where you can visit the Memorial de la Liberté Retrouvée (Liberation Museum) or tour Tatihou Island and Vauban Fort
- Omaha Beach: A little further east near the commune of Vierville-sur-Mer, Omaha was another beach invaded by Allied forces during WWII and is now home to a number of museums and memorials
- Gold Beach: The most central beach of the five invaded during WWII, Gold is located between Port-en-Bessin and La Rivière near the cities of Asnelles and Ver-sur-Mer
- Juno Beach: This beach spans from the border of Gold Beach in Courseulles to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, just west of the British beach Sword, and is home to the June Beach Centre, which is dedicated to the Canadian Army units that landed in Normandy during WWII
- Sword Beach: The easternmost of D-Day invasion beaches found just west of the city of Ouistreham, which is home to Le Grand Bunker, a museum dedicated to WWII artifacts that once served as a base for German Nazis
However, the Normandy Coastline—known as Côte Fleurie—is also a great destination for tourists of all types thanks to its picturesque villages, seaside resorts, and inspirational settings. Be sure to check out these popular destinations along the coast:
- Honfleur: A quaint artists' village that many impressionist painters visited to create art and find inspiration
- Deauville: A popular seaside resort with a casino that was originally established in the 1800s and has become one of the best destinations in northern France for beachgoing
- Trouville: This picturesque fishing port has a daily fish market and became a popular resort town about 100 years ago
- Cabourg: A Belle Epoque Edwardian seaside resort frequented by writers like Proust and Dumas
- Cherbourg: Once a little fishing village but now sports a large historic port; the Liberation Museum is nearby
- Granville: Another seaside resort and commercial fishing village, but everyone comes here for the Christian Dior Museum as well as Haute Ville, the high town, for picturesque views
Normandy's Top Cities and Towns
Inland from the coast, Normandy opens up to rolling hills dotted with quaint villages and bustling cities. Whether you choose an artsy and scenic town like Bayeux or you'd rather take a stroll through history in cities Caen or Lisieux, Normandy has something to offer travelers of every type:
- Rouen: An artists' city along the River Seine where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake during the Hundred Years' War; it is also home to a museum dedicated to famous French writer Gustave Flaubert
- Caen: Home to a William the Conqueror castle and two abbeys, but many come for the Peace Museum, Le Mémorial de Caen, which offers tours of some of the D-Day Beaches, and fewer come for les tripes à la mode de Caen, a beef stew made famous here
- Bayeux: The birthplace and home of the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts over 50 scenes that took place in the year 1066, and many visitors enjoy the city's museums that are dedicated to the war and the artisan crafts made in the region throughout history
- Giverny: French painter Claude Monet's home for many years and the closest Normandy town to Paris
- Domfront: A compelling medieval town that features an evocative 11th century ruined castle on a hill and lots of half-timbered houses; it's a good place to stay if you like very small towns as there are fewer than 4000 inhabitants here
- Bagnoles: Famous for its hydrotherapeutic baths that date back to the medieval times as well as some fine Art Deco architecture from the roaring 20s, when Bagnoles came into its own as a tourist spa town
- Camembert: A small village famous for Camembert cheese dotted with half-timbered houses; this is a great destination for a picnic by the Sienne River Gawk at the half-timbered houses and picnic by the river with your Camembert and bread
- Evreux: Known for its massive Cathedral of Our Lady of Évreux found in the center of town
- Lisieux: Dates back over two thousand years and is known for its numerous religious buildings, especially those dedicated to Therese Martin as well as Le Domaine St-Hippolyte, where you can taste Normandy specialty dishes
- Le Havre: The largest city in the Haute-Normandie region and the second busiest port after Marseilles; it's also home to the Abbey of Graville, Musée des Beaux-Arts André Malraux, Musée du Vieux Havre, the Shipowner Home, and the Japanese Gardens
Getting to Normandy's Cities and Beaches
The closest major city outside of Normandy is Paris, and there are several ways you can access this northern region during your trip to France. While it's generally recommended that you rent a car to visit the D-Day memorials along the coast, there are also several transportation options to get around the countryside without a car.
You can take the train from Paris Saint-Lazare station to Vernon, the first stop in Normandy and the closest station to Giverny, which takes about 45 minutes and runs along the Seine River. To get to the D-Day beaches, stay on the train to Caen where you can rent a car or take a bus service to the coast. Caen is about 150 miles from Paris.
Alternatively, if you don't want to worry about navigating public transit in Normandy or driving a rental car, you can take a coach tour out of Paris or take the train to Caen to join the D-Day Tour, which includes tickets to the Peace Museum and transportation to and from the train station as well as a five-hour guided tour of the Anglo-American beachheads.