Caen: Planning Your Trip

Men's Abbey in Caen in Normandy

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The city of Caen in the north of France is a charming town with over a thousand years of history, dating all the way back to the days of William the Conqueror and stretching to its pivotal importance during World War II. While much of the city was destroyed during the war, the most important—and oldest—historical buildings were spared as the rest of Caen was rebuilt. Today, it's considered to be the destination that best exemplifies Normandy thanks to its rich history and proximity to the region's beaches and Alp-like mountains.

A Bit of History

It was Duke William of Normandy—who would later become William the Conqueror—who transformed the fortunes of Caen. He was born in the nearby town of Falaise but built two abbeys in Caen as a form of repentance for marrying one of his cousins, Matilda of Flanders. The two abbeys, L’Abbaye-aux-Hommes (the Men's Abbey) and L’Abbaye-aux-Dames (the Women's Abbey), are still standing and open to visitors.

Caen's second claim to international importance came during World War II after Allied soldiers used the nearby beaches as landing sites during the D-Day campaign. Citizens took refuge inside of the Church of St. Etienne (the old Men's Abbey) and warned the Allied soldiers not to damage it, protecting the historic building along with the 1,500 locals seeking shelter inside of it. However, much of the town's center was destroyed and many of the buildings you see today are a reconstruction of what once was.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Caen has a temperate climate, so the weather doesn't get extremely hot or extremely cold. July and August are the busiest months for tourism, so consider visiting in late spring or early fall for warm days with minimal crowds. Winter is chilly, but the city's charming Christmas market is considered one of the best in France.
  • Language: The language spoken is French, but many locals who work in tourism speak English.
  • Currency: The currency used is the euro. Even though credit cards are accepted at most businesses, it's a good idea to carry some euros.
  • Getting Around: The city center is small enough to explore on foot and most of the main attractions are within a short walking distance of each other. Taxis are also available and there's a bike-sharing service called Vélolib with stations around the city.
  • Travel Tip: If you're visiting in fall for apple season, take a trip on le route de cidre, the 25-mile "Cider Route" and one of France's most scenic drives. The route is located just outside of Caen and passes through several small towns known for their fruit orchards.

Things to Do

If you're a history buff, you can't skip a visit to Caen. You can stop by the original abbeys built by William the Conqueror and his wife, Queen Matilda (who are each buried in their respective abbey), along with other medieval sites around the city. Apart from the attractions within the city itself, Caen is also just a short drive away from the beachside resort towns of Deauville and Cabourg located on the English Channel. If you go inland, you'll enter "Norman Switzerland," the mountainous part of Normandy that's named for its resemblance to the Swiss Alps.

  • Caen Castle (Château de Caen): Begun by William the Conqueror in 1060 and later fortified by his son, this imposing castle is surrounded by huge walls and looks just like you would expect for a medieval castle, stone towers and drawbridge included. The panoramic views from the walls stretch out over Caen and beyond. Inside the castle complex is the Museum of Normandy, which covers the history and traditions of the entire region.
  • Caen Memorial Museum: The impressive Caen memorial was built by the city to commemorate the Battle of Normandy during World War II. A plain building with a fissure down the middle to mark the destruction of the city and the triumph of the Allies over the Nazis, it was built on the site of the bunker of General Richter, the German leader who faced the British-Canadian forces in 1944. The museum covers the main events of World War II using archives, testimonies by witnesses, and film. There’s a panoramic projection of D-Day seen from both the Allied and the German points of view.
  • Abbey of St. Etienne: The original Men's Abbey is now called the Abbey of St. Etienne, but it's still the same building that was constructed by William the Conqueror in 1063. With its rich Romanesque details, soaring towers, vast nave, and Gothic chapels, it is an awe-inspiring building that looms over Caen. As impressive as the exterior is, make sure to venture inside on a guided tour to get the full experience and learn about the church's long history. And, of course, don't forget about the Women's Abbey just across town with its Great Hall and underground crypt.

What to Eat and Drink

Located between the sea and the countryside, Caen offers the best of both worlds in its local cuisine. Tripes à la mode de Caen is a specialty of the city, although it may not appeal to everyone's taste palette. It's the Caen version of haggis and made by stewing the stomach of a cow for several hours with vegetables. If you're looking for seafood, marmite dieppoise is the Norman version of bouillabaisse, the famous fish stew that comes from the south of France.

Normandy is famous within France for its apple orchards, so you can expect apples to show up on menus in both sweet and savory dishes. Whether it's lamb stewed with fresh apples or the tarte normande apple cake, you can find the fruit all over Norman cuisine, even in drinks. Calvados is the name of the department that Caen is capital of and also the name of the cider brandy that the region is known for. It's traditionally served in between courses to whet the appetite, a custom known locally as le trou normand, literally "the Norman Hole."

Where to Stay

Since nearly all of the major attractions are centrally located, staying in Caen's historic center is the most convenient place to find accommodations. You'll be able to go on foot to the abbeys, the castle, and the vast majority of restaurants and shops within the city. If you're arriving by train, the Caen train station is just across the river and just a 20-minute walk from the historic center (or a short taxi ride).

Getting There

The journey from Paris to Caen by car takes about three hours, although direct train service from Paris Saint-Lazare Station completes the trip in under two hours. There's also a small airport just outside of Caen with domestic flights throughout the year and international flights during the high season of summer to the U.K., Spain, and other countries.

If you're coming from the U.K., there's also direct ferry service from Portsmouth in southern England to Ouistreham, which is less than 10 miles from Caen.

Money Saving Tips

  • Travelers who are under 26 can visit the Caen Museum for free. Additionally, it's also free on the first weekend of the month for all visitors.
  • July and August are peak season for tourism and hotels prices reflect that. You'll find better deals by traveling in the shoulder season of May, June, and September (or the best deals by traveling in the off-season of winter, apart from the Christmas holidays).
  • Train tickets to Caen from Paris aren't typicaly expensive if you buy them in advance, but if you wait until the last minute prices are likely to go up (especially in summer). If that's the case, look into bus tickets with budget companies like Flixbus where tickets can cost as little as a few dollars.