Guide to D-Day beaches at Normandy and historic sites to visit

Visit the Normandy museums and attractions that show the history and beauty of Normandy in northwestern France. Photo: Spirit of America (Viault) / Grave of Frank D. Peregory (Freverhaeghe)

The vast amount of museums, sites and attractions, particularly surrounding this years 70th Anniversary of the invastion of Normandy, can be overwhelming.

There are things that visitors must do including touring the landing beaches and sites surrounding where the D-Day invasion took place in June of 1944.

Access to the beaches is not difficult, but keep in mind that these places are regarded by locals as hallowed ground, so you should not expect to find thousands of bathers sunning themselves.

Nor should you plan on having a picnic day at the beach.

Five beaches were utilized in Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944. From the most easterly of the five moving to the west they are Sword (U.K.), Juno (Canada), Gold (U.K.), Omaha (U.S.) and Utah (U.S.).

Between Omaha Beach and Utah Beach is Pointe du Hoc where the impressive cliffs rising 100 feet out of the English Channel are also a D-Day destination.

Normandy Beaches - DDay Invasion

Normandy Beaches - DDay Invasion Click to Enlarge

Sword Beach stretches 2 ½ miles between Ouistreham and Luc-sur-Mer. The most popular site for British visitors in particular is Pegasus Bridge, which was a remarkable military operation.

As mentioned, several museums are located in the area and the dramatic Pegasus story is well documented.

Ouistreham is a beautiful seaside resort town with a history of fortifications, memorials, museums and military cemeteries that are situated between beach hotels, fine stretches of sand, breezy cliffs and postcard-picturesque fishing harbors.

Juno Beach is approximately five miles wide and includes the primary villages of St. Aubin-sur-Mer, Bernierses-sur-Mer and Courseulles-sur-Mer. The term sur mer means “on the beach,” which means these town are directly along the shores for easy accessibility.

Other than Omaha, the Canadian forces encountered the greatest resistance making Juno the second most difficult beach to capture.

Gold Beach includes Longues-sur-Mer where visitors have the best views of the huge bunkers and German artillery that faced the English Channel. Most visitors choose to walk the beaches of nearby Arromanches where they can explore the remnants of one of two of the Mulberry Harbors with it ruins buried in the sand.

There is a great museum in Arromanche that details the story of the Mulberry Harbors.

Omaha Beach, Normandy (Photo: Taylor)

Omaha Beach at Colleville-sur-Mer is the most popular site for American visitors because of the magnificent cemetery perched on a bluff overlooking the beach.

Two other towns St. Laurent-sur-Mer and Vierville-sur-Mer provide easy access to the wide stretch of beach itself.

Seaside cafes, restaurants and houses line the beaches. Be sure to visit the monument honoring the invasion and the achievement of taking the most difficult and most deadly site during the invasion. 

Pointe du Hoc is sometimes regarded as part of Omaha Beach but it is a site all its own. There are no beaches here to speak of, but looking down from the cliffs to the small strip of sand below always impresses visitors who marvel at how the rangers scaled shear rock beneath a hail of machine gun fire.

Utah Beach is the most westerly of the landing beaches. It was primarily a landing craft beach and, because of a mistake, the assault took place on the southern part of the beach that was less heavily defended.

It is not as accessible as some of the other sites along the route but there are still dozens of museums and monuments to see.

For maps and a detailed account of the Battle of Normandy and the region, the website called Mr. Johnson’s Classes provides a wealth of information.

Arromanches: 

Today Arromanches is a resort community, but in 1944 it was one of two locations where the allies established prefabricated ports code-named Mulberry Harbors.

The port at Omaha Beach was completely destroyed by a storm just two weeks after D-Day, but portions of Port Winston at Arromanches can still be seen.

The best view of the harbor is from the hillside at Longues sur Mer west of town. Arromanches has a small but excellent museum that tells the story of the Mulberry Harbors. 

German artillery at Longues sur Mer (Photo: Taylor)

Longues Sur Mer:

About six kilometers west of Arromanches sit the huge 152mm artillery pieces and concrete emplacements of the German defensive.

They were designed to hit targets some 13 miles away including Omaha Beach to the west and Gold Beach to the east. 

The twin spires of the Bayeux Cathedral five miles inland can be seen on clear days.

Normandy American Cemetery:

There are 9,386 white crosses or Stars of David sitting on a hill overlooking Omaha Beach. The cemetery features a memorial, the 22-foot bronze statue which pays tribute to the soldiers who died in battle, a garden memorial honoring the missing, a reflecting pool, a chapel and an overlook at the site where American forces finally broke through the German defense. 

The memorial is inspirational in its simplicity, and the chimes of the carillon are hauntingly beautiful when their somber tones peel in the distance. The visitor’s center can assist with locating a specific marker. 

Pointe Du Hoc Ranger Memorial:

Located 10 miles east of Utah Beach and eight miles west of Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc is another site where the Germans had a battery of artillery to ward off invasion. Here 225 Army Rangers scaled the awesome vertical wall of the 100-foot cliff rising above the English Channel.

Their task was to eliminate German opposition to pave the way for the American invading forces at Utah and Omaha Beaches.  More than half the Rangers were killed or wounded in the attack. Craters from the bombs dot the grass covered moonscape where visitors can explore the interiors of the German fortifications.

St. Mere Eglise:

St. Mere Eglise - 1944

St. Mere Eglise - 1944

The Germans occupied the tiny village of St. Mere Eglise for four years until the 82ndairborne division filled the night sky with thousands of paratroopers in and around town.

By 4:30 a.m. on June 6th the American flag proudly waved over the town that was the first to be liberated during the invasion.

A paratrooper named John Steel got his chute caught on the steeple of the small church in the town square. After watching the battle from his perch for two hours, he was cut down, taken prisoner by the Germans and later released by his American comrades.

Today an effigy of Steel usually hangs from the church. The two stained glass windows inside the church are well worth a visit.

Other Attractions:

Caen Memorial: A Museum For Peace:

The city of Caen was virtually leveled during the Battle of Normandy.  Today there is little to see except for several excellent museums, two historic abbeys and the 11th century fortress built by William the Conqueror.  One museum not to be overlooked is the Memorial of Caen. Opened in 1988, it was built as on-going, working venue that serves as a reminder of the horrors of war while emphasizing the pursuit of peace. 

There are comprehensive exhibits and displays dealing with the conflicts of the 20th century and the Battle of Normandy, including three films. One gallery honors winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and the International Park for the liberation of Europe pays tribute to the soldiers who died in the pursuit of freedom. 

Mont St. Michel / Vi..Cult... for Wikipedia

Mont St. Michel / Vi..Cult… for Wikipedia

In addition, the museum provides historical resources and archives and even conducts guided mini-van tours to the landing beaches.

Reservations for tours of the landing beaches are necessary and can be made Monday through Friday. E-mail for reservations.

Mont St-Michel:

This breathtaking abbey was begun in the 8th century when the Archangel Michael appeared to the Bishop of Avranches and told him to build a chapel at the summit of the rock.

A hodge-podge of architectural styles, the abbey is especially impressive when it becomes an island at high tides.

Especially interesting are the buildings on the north side of the structure known as La Merveille.

Among the most popular, as well as the most photographed, is the double row of carved arches with their granite pillars that surround the famous cloister.

The abbey can be toured without a guide, but a guided tour is included in the price of the ticket.

Bayeux Tapestry:

Old mill in Bayeux (Photo: Taylor)

 

The Centre Guillaume le-Conquerant  (William the Conqueror Center) in Bayeux is the location of the extraordinary embroidery known as the Bayeux Tapestry. 

The 11th century masterpiece is virtually intact and details the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The 58 scenes, which are approximately 3 feet high and over 200 feet long, provide invaluable insights into life as it was lived in medieval times. 

Musee Des Beaux-Arts (Museum Of Fine Arts, Rouen):

One of the best regional museums in France is located in the town where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.  The fine arts museum was renovated in 1994 and features paintings from the 15th to the 20th centuries, including all the major movements in European art. 

Deauville:

Though Deauville had nothing to do with the D-Day landings, it is known as “the Queen of Norman Beaches.” This prestigious resort is a favorite hang-out for French and international jet-setters with is famous race course, marinas, casino, international film festival and luxurious hotels. It has long been a favorite spot for French high society and, because of that, it has excellent access by rail from Paris. For celebrity watching, elegant accommodations and dining and the ultimate in sophistication, Deauville is lifestyles of the rich and famous at its best.

Giverny (Near Vernon):

Giverny was Claude Monet’s house, studio and gardens for 40 years. Visit the pond with its now famous lily pond and see what inspired the master painter whose work Impression, Sunrise (painted in 1872) gave the Impressionist art movement its name. Monet was a world class horticulturist and his gardens will astound you.  It may be a bit tricky to find Giverny after arriving in Vernon, but persevere because it is well worth the effort.

Old wooen church, Honfleur (Photo: Taylor)

 

Honfleur:

 The heyday of this charming seaport was the 17th and 18th centuries.  Samuel de Champlain sailed from Honfleur to found Quebec City and Cavalier de la Salle followed 80 years later to reach the mouth of the Mississippi and what is now Louisiana.

Impressionist artists were inspired by  Honfleur’s frequently changing patterns of light.

The picturesque old harbor is a great place to eat, drink and let the world pass by.


Abbaye De Jumieges:

The Abbaye de Jumieges is one of those sites that captures the imagination of even the most hardened travel skeptic. Victor Hugo called the eerie white stone monastery “the most beautiful ruined building in France.”

William the Conqueror attended its consecration in 1067. Following a period of decline, it underwent a revival in the middle of the 15th century under Charles VII before being looted for building materials during the French Revolution leaving it the magnificent ruin it is today.
 

Tour Jeanne D’arc (Donjon): 

The Joan of Arc Tower, or donjon (dungeon), was once part of Rouen Castle. It is said to have been the site of one of the sessions during the trial of Joan of Arc.

Tour Jeanne D’arc (Donjon) / Wikipedia - CJW

Tour Jeanne D’arc (Donjon) / Wikipedia - CJW

During the reign of Philippe Auguste, Joan was imprisoned on the ground floor of the tower where she was also tortured. The ruins of the site where Joan was burned at the stake is in the center of town beneath the facades of rows of lovely half-timbered houses.

Chateau De Balleroy:

Built in 1631 in the village of Balleroy, the chateau inspired other chateaux in France, including Versailles. It was purchased in 1970 by Malcom Forbes who completely restored the castle.

During the rennovation project, Forbes, who was a world-class hot air balloon pilot, refurbished one of the outbuildings into the first international balloon museum in the world.

Villedieu-Les-Poeles (Village Of Pots And Pans): 

This quirky little village is frequently overlooked but is always popular when visitors discover it. Known as the Village of Pots and Pans, the town is famous for its artisans who create copper bottomed cooking materials. The entire village is filled with shops that only sell the hometown products. Demonstrations are available throughout the day. 

Welcome to the regional travel guides from Washington Times Communities. This series is on Normandy as this memorable region of France prepares for events surrounding the 70th anniversary of D-Day this June. 


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

More from Normandy - Destiny and Light - An Open Book Travel Feature
 
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Bob Taylor

Bob Taylor has been travel writer for more than three decades. Following a career as an award winning sports producer/anchor, Taylor’s media production business produced marketing presentations for Switzerland Tourism, Rail Europe, the Finnish Tourist Board, Japan Railways Group, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council and the Swiss Travel System among others. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com) and his goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.

 

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