Caen is one of Normandy’s most important cities and is a delightful small city to visit. The home town of William the Conqueror, hero of the Battle of Hastings of 1066, Caen was vital for D-Day and the Normandy Landings in World War II.
A Little History
It was Duke William of Normandy who transformed the fortunes of Caen. William had asked for the hand of his distant cousin, Matilda of Flanders, in marriage but the Catholic church objected to what they saw as this rather dubious union. They held out until William's two abbeys were built here, L’Abbaye-aux-Hommes (the Men's Abbey) and L’Abbaye-aux-Dames (the Ladies Abbey).
Caen's second claim to international importance came during World War II. Like its close neighbour Bayeux, Caen is very near Arromanches and the Normandy Landing beaches. On June 6th 1944, a heavy Allied bombing raid set off fires which burnt the center of town. On July 9th, the Canadians, who had taken Carpiquet Airfield, entered the town. It was the start of a German counter-bombing campaign that lasted another two months.
1,500 of the town’s citizens camped out in the church of St. Etienne. A hospital was set up in the monastery buildings of the Men's Abbey while 4,000 lived in the hospice of the Good Saviour (Bon Saveur) nearby. The Allies, warned by the town, left the buildings intact. The majority of citizens left the town to live in the quarries and caves of Fleury, 2 kilometers (1 mile) south of Caen. But Caen suffered and much of what you see today is largely a reconstruction of the old town.
Quick Facts about Caen
- Population 115,000
- Capital of Calvados and part of the Normandy Region
- A lively university town for centuries
- Location: In Normandy where the rivers Orne and Odon meet
- By ferry
Brittany Ferries runs a regular service between Portsmouth and Ouistreham (15 kilometers, 10 miles) north of Caen
Getting to France by Ferry
- By train
Trains leave about every two hours from Paris St. Lazaire and take between two and two-and-a-half hours to Caen
From the USA: Book on Rail Europe
From the UK: Book on Voyages sncf
- By car
Caen is 235 kilometers (146 miles) west of Paris on the A13 autoroute
Check out full information on how to get to Caen from London, the UK and Paris.
Caen Tourist Office
12 place St-Pierre
Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 31 27 14 14
Tourist Office Website
Top Sights in Caen
- A Walk through Caen
Walk the William the Conqueror Trail around Caen which will take you around all the sights mentioned here and more. Get directions and a brochure from the Tourist Office.
Many of the major buildings were constructed from the famous Caen stone, a cream-colored, beautiful limestone quarried in the nearby area. William the Conqueror used the stone extensively in Caen Castle and his two Abbeys here. After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, it became one of France’s most profitable exports and was used to build the Tower of London, the cathedrals of Canterbury, Durham and Norwich and Westminster Abbey. Later it was also used at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Cologne Cathedral and the Royal Palace in Brussels.
- Caen CastleBegun by William the Conqueror in 1060 and fortified by his son, Henry Beauclerk in 1123, it looks exactly right: an impressive castle surrounded by huge walls. Two main gateways with barbicans guard the entrances. The views from the walls stretch out over Caen and beyond.
Caen Castle Information
Esplanade du Chateau
Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 31 27 14 14
- Musée des Beaux-ArtsHoused within the precincts of William the Conqueror’s castle, the collection covers large religious and historical paintings, Italian paintings from the 15th to 17th centuries, including two by Veronese and Dutch and Flemish masters like Virgin and Child by Roger van der Weyden and a Rubens. The 19th and early 20th works include the Romantics (like Gericault and Delacroix), the Realists (Courbet), Impressionists (Vuillard and Bonnard) and the Cubists.
Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 31 30 47 70
Website (in French)
Open Wed.-Mon. 9:30am-6pm
Permanent collection free. Temporary exhibitions 5.20 euros but free on 1st Sunday of the month.
- Musée de NormandieAt the other end of the castle (which gives you an idea of how large this fortification was), the Museum of Normandy covers the history and traditions of Normandy. The most interesting section covers crafts and industry with jugs, marriage chests of wood, tools, costumes and bridalware in silk lace all vying for your attention as a local museum should do.
Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 31 30 47 60
Website in French
Open Daily 9:30am-6pm
Closed Mondays from November 1st to May 31st
Closed public holidays
Entrance 3 to 5 euro depending on the number of exhibitions on show
- Eating at the CastleGo for lunch or a romantic evening meal with live music when the castle is floodlit. The Michelin-recommended Café Mancel, attached to the Musee des Beaux Arts but with lovely views over the castle, offers tempting set menus. Also on offer are snacks like sandwiches in fresh baguettes and more substantial dishes such as lemon sole, steaks or for the adventurous, the local tripe dish.
Musee des Beaux Arts
Tel.: 00 33 (02) 31 86 63 64
Open Tues-Sat lunch and dinner; Sun lunch
The Men's Abbey was started by William the Conqueror in 1063 and consecrated in 1077. The Abbey was a rich and imposing collection of buildings, run by powerful abbots who were not above living well from the revenue they received from the community.
Like all such buildings, the abbey's fortunes waxed and waned over the centuries. Extensive restoration in the 18th century brought the glorious long and gracious façade and the elegant rooms behind. In 1790 the French Revolutionaries sent the monks packing but kept the building and their rich works of art. In 1804 Napoleon turned the buildings into the Imperial High School (Lycee Imperial). It housed the town’s citizens during the Allied invasion and escaped the destruction which the fighting between the Allies and the Germans brought to 75% of Caen. In 1965 it became the Town Hall.
Guided tours will reveal much of the old buildings; you can see some of the rooms on an individual visit.
- St. Etienne Abbey Church
Attached to the monastery buildings, the Abbey Church of St. Etienne was consecrated in 1077. With its rich Romanesque details, soaring towers, vast nave and Gothic chapels, it is a wonderful building. The church originally housed the sarcophagus with the body of William the Conqueror. But the church was sacked by the Protestant Hugeonts in the 16th and the Conqueror’s remains were scattered, all except a femur which is buried underneath a stone inscribed with an epitaph in front of the altar.
L'Abbaye-aux-Hommes and St. Etienne Abbey Church Information
Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 31 30 42 81
Guided tours daily 9.30am, 11am, 2.30pm and 4pm (1hr30)
Additional guided tours in July and August
Tours 3 euros
Website (in French)
Queen Matilda, William the Conqueror's wife officially founded the Abbey in 1062 on the northeast side of Caen. It's a beautiful golden stone building with some buildings open to the public on guided tours only, such as the refectory and the Great Hall.
Tel.:00 33 (0)2 31 06 98 98
Free guided tours daily 2:30pm, 4pm
- Eglise de la Trinite
Queen Mathilda is buried in Trinity Church, the old abbey church dating back to the 11th century. The huge nave is Romanesque, massive and impressive and the crypt is woth a visit to see the Last Judgement.
Eglise de la Trinite Information
Tel.:00 33 (0)2 31 86 13 11
- Caen Memorial Museum
The impressive Caen memorial is a Museum for Peace, built by the city, commemorating the Battle of Normandy. 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 W Richter, the German general who faced the British-Canadian forces on June 6th 1944.
The museum covers the main events of World War II using archives, testimonies by witnesses and the film Hope. There’s a panoramic projection of D-Day seen from both the Allied and the German points of view. In 2010 new galleries opened, telling the story of the Normandy landings.
Hotels in and around Caen
Between the castle and the abbeys, the hotel is in a former priory and chapel. There's a spa and a good restaurant serving Normandy specialities.
29 rue Gemare
Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 31 86 22 26
- La Ferme de la Ranconniere
An 18th-century fortified manor house converted into an extremely comfortable hotel. The restaurant is well worth the visit with good priced, well prepared menus.Address: Route de Creully-Arromanches
Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 31 22 21 73
See my full review of this delightful hotel