Seeing for yourself the best D-Day sites to visit in Normandy is an absolute MUST-DO for any World War II enthusiast. In fact, it tops the bucket list of every one of them that I know. (Maybe you want to call it T-Trip? Maybe you don’t like wordplay? Whatever.)
However, I’m willing to bet that crying and a general sense of feeling terrible wasn’t exactly what everyone else in your travel party had in mind when they slipped those vacation requests to their bosses. They probably dreamed of visiting famous landmarks and fine art they don’t really “get,” not seeing bomb craters and hearing “Taps” played in a cemetery. Sure, you’ll find a collection of generally sad places here but they absolutely beat the hell out of anything you’ll see in Paris or the Loire Valley. You can have your van Gogh and your Chateaux; just give me a war museum and a few battle sites and I’ll be a happy—but really, really sad actually—camper.
But the best part? You can still see many of the best D-Day sites to visit in Normandy even if you only have one day to do so. That should make compromising a real cinch. So if you have just one day to spend touring World War II sites in Normandy, start with these 7 places:
(I can verify that this itinerary has been road-tested as I visited all 7 of these sites myself in one unforgettable day.)
THE BEST D-DAY SITES TO VISIT IN NORMANDY
So crying on vacation isn’t all bad—it means you have a soul. Fantastic! Not everyone can say that (which is something you’ll learn checking out the top D-Day sites to visit in Normandy, as a matter of fact). It means these sites have moved you and inspired you and, guess what else? They’ve made you a better human being. Can the Eiffel tower say that? I believe the overall goal of travel is to change you–and a visit to these D-Day sites will do just that.
Now there are a lot of D-Day sites to visit in Normandy, France, as you can imagine—memorials, museums, battlefields, cemeteries, and tons of random other things. Are they all worth a visit? Probably. Do you have three months to spend in France? Probably not. So I’ve chosen seven that I feel are the best D-Day sites to visit in Normandy for when you don’t have much time but still want a well-rounded, diverse experience.
CAEN MEMORIAL MUSEUM
The Caen Memorial and Museum opened on D-Day in 1988 and many regard it as the best World War II museum in France. Visit on or around D-Day like I did and the abundance of decorated war veterans there to greet you upon entering will likely have you tearing up before you even enter the damn place. I say this with attitude like it’s not exactly what I expected to happen.
The Caen Museum was built on top of the former underground headquarters of a German general and is every inch a lesson in symbolism. The building entrance is a small door in the middle of a huge flat façade meant to represent the Allies’ breach of the seemingly impenetrable Nazi Atlantic wall; the entrance into the museum itself is a downward spiral staircase into a dark underground symbolizing the decent into war/Hell; the single-seat Hawker Typhoon hanging inside the lobby warns you that the war between you and your tear ducts today will be a hard fought battle in which you’ll probably lose.
The museum covers the subjects of the start and globalization of the war, the various resistance movements, genocide and mass violence, liberation and the end of the war (cel-e-brate good times, come on), the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy (to name a few), and has a strong focus on the topic of peace. There’s a movie theater, a gift shop that got most of my travel money, the underground bunker of German General Wilhelm Richter, a café and two restaurants, and three gardens dedicated to American, Canadian, and British soldiers who died in Normandy.
WHY CAEN MEMORIAL MUSEUM IS ONE OF THE BEST D-DAY SITES TO VISIT IN NORMANDY
★ The Caen Memorial and Museum is, by far, one of the most comprehensive museums on the topic of World War II. Go big or go home. Either way, go get me a tissue.
★ It’s very, very visual. The museum displays countless historical artifacts, artwork, video and sound recordings, newsreels, props and replicas, maps, and more to help me read as absolutely little as possible. (I am on vacation after all.) This museum has everything: airplanes, jeeps, tanks, and unexploded bombs that don’t worry me even a little bit. Nope. Not. at. all.
★ A large part of the museum focuses specifically on the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy which is where you are and, if it’s been a while since you’ve watched Saving Private Ryan, will prepare you for the rest of the most popular D-Day sites to visit in Normandy.
★ I visited the Caen Museum on June 8th (two days after the D-Day anniversary if I need remind you) and the place was full of uniformed British war veterans (male and female, you go girl), many from World War II. They were excited to chat with visitors and pose for pictures. Being surrounded by so many vets in Normandy just two days after the D-Day anniversary will give you all the warms and fuzzies, and probably a teary eye or two.
★ MORE INFORMATION | normandy.memorial-caen.com
I’m in love with the town of Arromanches. Excuse me, the ‘commune’ of Arromanches because that’s what they’re calling it. Turns out, ‘commune’ is actually a technical term used to denote “the smallest French territorial division for administrative purposes” so, there’s a vocabulary lesson out of left field for you.
The commune of Arromanches (only around 600 people live there, but still the most ever) is an obviously small, seaside town famous for its former artificial harbor and is just the cutest thing you’ve ever seen. The town, charming as heck and at the center of the Gold Beach landing zone, played an invaluable part in the D-Day landings and hence, the entirety of World War II. It was here that the Allies built an artificial and “temporary” harbor to facilitate the unloading of vehicles, materials, and people into Europe. I say “temporary” because it’s still clearly there being like, “It’s actually pretty damn easy being green.” Mulberry Harbor, as it’s formally known, had, by June 12, 1944, helped bring 300,000 men, 54,000 vehicles, and 104,000 tons of supplies into Europe. Hitler must’ve been so pissed.
Arromanches is spotted with memorials and World War II gift shops, is easily stroll-able, and makes a great spot for a scenic lunch. What’s left of the artificial harbor can still be seen (and climbed on, and walked into because this is Europe and no one cares how potentially dangerous things are or how many ways you could sue them) sitting out in the ocean. After lunch you can visit Musée du Débarquement, a D-Day museum that focuses on the building of the artificial harbor, and/or Arromanches 360°, a circular, fully immersive theater that puts you, pretty literally, in the middle of the 100-day Battle of Normandy. I didn’t do this but it sounds absolutely terrifying.
WHY ARROMANCHES-LES-BAINS IS ONE OF THE BEST D-DAY SITES TO VISIT IN NORMANDY
★ Time travel. With Arromanches, it was love at first D-Day site. Immediately upon arriving, the sense that we’d gone back in time was overwhelming. Like I fell asleep at some point on the extremely short drive from the Caen Museum (really Ashley, get it together) and woke up in the 1940s. This excited me to no end since time travel is my favorite kind of travel.
★ The town swarmed with war enthusiasts decked out in full World War II army uniforms of all ranks, the parking lots and street (singular) were jammed with World War II army jeeps driven by uniformed “soldiers,” and 1940s big band and swing blared into the town center from the speakers at the Musée du Débarquement. I’ve never wanted to wrap my hair up in a bandana and don a pair of coveralls so much in my life! Doesn’t anything around here need riveting?! The feeling of actually “being” in a historical time period is something you can’t get looking at artifacts in a museum.
★ Arromanches and its artificial harbor played such a huge role in the war you’d be crazy to skip this one. I told you how many men, vehicles, and supplies entered Europe through this harbor as of June 12th BUT, by the end of its use 10 months later, that number had increased to 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of supplies. It’s majorly, enormously, hugely because of the artificial harbor at Arromanches that the Allies were able to defeat Nazi Germany.
★ Remnants of the artificial harbor still sit out there in the water. So that’s cool. The less brain space I have to use imagining scenes the more I’ll have for figuring out how to tie a bandana.
★ No tears here! Because the Allies wanted to use Arromanches for the building of their harbor, no troops ever landed here on D-Day—this ensured the beach was preserved and free of war debris. Because Arromanches was such a huge a contributor to the defeat of Nazi Germany and not a battleground, the atmosphere is completely unique. There’s swing music instead of silence, photography and Frisbee-throwing instead of mourning, and smiles and laughter instead of the who-do-you-think-you’re-fooling, “Oh, there’s just something in my eye.”
★ MORE INFORMATION | Normandy Tourism’s Arromanches page
So you ran out of tissues at the Caen Memorial and Museum and you aren’t ready to continue with the boo-hooing just yet? No problem. Like Arromanches, visiting the German battery at Longues-sur-Mer won’t drag you down.
The Longues-sur-Mer battery, situated between the Omaha and Gold landing beaches, consists of four gun installations like the ones seen above and were used by the German troops on D-Day. Well, sort of. Heavy bombing of this site by French and U.S. ships on the night before and the morning of the D-Day landings made getting any sort of use out of these about as difficult as saving that Private Ryan fellow (“It’s like finding a needle in a stack of needles.”). British ships eventually dismantled three of them, leaving the last one (only barely) operating for a little bit longer, like it mattered. (Looks like we’ve got ourselves something to rivet!) The German crew of about 120 survivors surrendered the next morning.
WHY LONGUES-SUR-MER BATTERY IS ONE OF THE BEST D-DAY SITES TO VISIT IN NORMANDY
★ The Longues-sur-Mer battery is the only German coastal defense battery to be classified as an official historic monument. I haven’t seen the others but… this one is probably the best.
★ Just look at it! These bunkers look almost exactly as they would have 75 years ago. (Remember that thing about not having to use my imagination…?)
★ The Longues-sur-Mer battery provides excellent views over the Atlantic and the D-Day landing beaches. From here you can really gauge the strength and power these guns must have had.
★ This area is so beautiful and you’ll probably be here all alone. One thing I learned while checking out some of the D-Day sites to visit in Normandy is that to really be able to reflect on what you’re seeing and what happened at each one, it’s best to do so alone. Take a solo stroll along the path and imagine this place the way it must’ve been on June 6, 1944.
Since I visited on June 8th, just two days after the D-Day anniversary, there was a group of enthusiasts camping out nearby in an authentic World War II campsite. Anything that makes me feel like I’ve arrived via Delorean is alright by me. What do we want? Time travel! When do we want it? It’s irrelevant!
★ MORE INFORMATION | This page is pretty informative.
NORMANDY AMERICAN CEMETERY
I’m sorry but dry eye time is over. Maybe you didn’t cry during the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan—no, not the beach landing, the real opening scene, the four minutes before that when old man Ryan arrives at the grave of Captain John H. Miller—but you certainly cried at the end. “Tell me I have led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.” 😭😭😭😭😭😭😭
And that about sums up the Normandy American Cemetery, where both of those scenes took place. You’ll ask yourself all the similar questions: These people died for me… am I good person? Have I proven their sacrifice worthwhile? Would they be proud of the life I’ve lived? Should I, maybe, stop sneaking extra towels off the maid cart?
The Normandy American Cemetery was the most emotional for me of all the best D-Day sites to visit in Normandy. Besides the fact that, at its very basic, it’s a cemetery, I think all the feels come from knowing so much about these soldiers and how, why, and for what they gave their lives. I think part of the emotion is sadness (for what they and their families went through, but also the fact that I’ll never get to personally say Thank you.), part is confusion (How can humans do these things to other humans?), and a large part is gratitude. I get emotional when someone lets me skip him or her in the checkout line because I only have two items and they have a cartful, so you can probably imagine me at a war cemetery.
Normandy American Cemetery serves as the final resting place for 9,387 U.S. soldiers, most of them victims of the D-Day landings and ensuing battles. There are 9,238 Latin crosses, 149 Stars of David, and the Wall of the Missing with the names of 1,557 soldiers missing in action. The cemetery overlooks (the strikingly picturesque) Omaha Beach and, because the French government gave this land to the United States free of charge and taxation to use forever and ever, is considered American soil.
At Normandy American Cemetery you’ll find a Visitors Center, the Wall of the Missing, the semicircular memorial colonnade with the sculpture “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves” and large maps of military operations, me, over behind some trees pretending my allergies are acting up, and the most beautiful, idyllic spot on Planet Earth. Having visited just after the D-Day anniversary, we also saw groups of uniformed World War II soldiers and a handful of jet flyovers.
WHY NORMANDY AMERICAN CEMETERY IS ONE OF THE BEST D-DAY SITES TO VISIT IN NORMANDY
★ Because there are 9,387 (+1,557 more) men there that you need to say “Thank you” to. Literally every. single. thing. you have and have ever had, and everything your parents and their parents have ever had and been able to do, you owe to these 10,944 Americans. Because of them, we even exist today. Because of them, we live the kind of lives that are so free of concern our biggest complaints are that our steaks are undercooked and our flights are overbooked. You owe them all the thanks you’ve got left in you after you’ve finished checking out at Target.
★ Seeing how far and wide the white crosses (and stars) span here is a great way to visualize just how many soldiers sacrificed themselves to put an end to Hitler. And these are just the American fighters.
★ To experience as close as you ever will on Earth what this “Heaven” people keep talking about must be like. Maybe it was just the day I was there, but the Normandy American Cemetery is, without a doubt in my mind, the most peaceful place I’ve ever visited. It was a perfect day: summer sun shining but not hot, the waves rolling in on the empty beach downhill from the cemetery, gentle breezes blowing through the surrounding trees, soft green grass, blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds, absolute silence except for the singing birds. It was so cliché it’s almost sickening to write about now but when you’re there… Heaven on Earth.
★ If you like visiting locations you’ve seen in movies, you must come here.
★ Similarly, you can visit the graves of the Niland brothers. In total there are 45 pairs of brothers buried at Normandy American Cemetery and among them are Robert and Preston Niland—two of the four brothers from the real-life Saving Private Ryan family (yes, that movie was based on a true story). You can find their crosses at Plot F Row 15 Graves 11 and 12, respectively.
★ MORE INFORMATION | Normandy American Cemetery website
Most people head to the French coast for sun, sand, and a little R&R which I can only assume in those parts means “Ratatouille and Rosé.” I recently hit up the beaches of France myself for my own version of R&R—Remembrance and Really trying to keep it together.
You can visit Omaha Beach, notoriously where American troops suffered the worst on D-Day, and the experience is surreal. Everything about it will shock you: the massive size, the weight you feel just by being there, and how, this place that was once total Hell on Earth, is also just a pleasant beach surrounded by cottages in an adorable French setting. You’re there, seeing it with your own eyes, getting bit by the sand flies with your own legs, and yet it doesn’t feel real. This can’t possibly be the place you’ve seen on so many screens.
On the beach you’ll find the sculpture (seen below) of “Les Braves” by French sculptor Anilore Banon, the three parts representing the Wings of Hope, the Rise of Freedom, and the Wings of Fraternity.
WHY OMAHA BEACH IS ONE OF THE BEST D-DAY SITES TO VISIT IN NORMANDY
★ Omaha Beach is ground zero for American D-Day history. Maybe even all of World War II history. Almost everything you know about D-Day happened right here and though there isn’t much to see, Omaha Beach is all about feeling. It’s an experience neither Tom Hanks nor I can really explain through words. You need to see for yourself. But be warned: your calm, cool, and collected state of mind up to this point = FUBAR.
★ It’s fascinating to compare what you’ve seen in movies to the real thing. (This article is a great introduction to that.) These comparisons are everything when it comes to putting the war, especially all of the physical obstacles the troops overcame, into perspective.
★ MORE INFORMATION | Normandy Tourism’s D-Day Landing Beaches page
POINTE DU HOC
Tell me, what was the most recent thing you thought was impossible. Was it remembering everything you needed to get at the grocery store without having to write it down? Or getting all the laundry washed, dried, and folded all in the same day? Or maybe it was self-driving cars? Regardless, the fact that that last one actually happened is proof that NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE. Another example is Pointe du Hoc, one of Normandy’s best D-Day sites.
Pointe du Hoc is a 100-foot cliff overlooking the English Channel. It’s the highest point between Utah and Omaha Beaches and at the time was fortified with a wall of German gun casemates (like the ones at Longues-sur-Mer).
On the morning of D-Day (M-Morning?), the U.S. Army captured Pointe du Hoc after scaling the cliffs—a feat many previously believed to be impossible. And when you stand on the cliff yourself, you’ll agree 110%. They did so with the use of grappling hooks and rope ladders that were fired from rocket launchers on their landing crafts. (I somehow busted my lip open in two places yesterday with my laptop. These guys scaled a cliff with just rope while being shot at with automatic weapons from all angles. This is the definition of a hero in case you weren’t aware.) This stop motion, little-green-army-men re-enactment portrays the scene perfectly.
Today, Pointe do Hoc still has its German gun casements and bunkers, is completely covered in bomb craters, and serves as home to a surprisingly large population of sheep. You can walk the entire site, look over the cliffs (carefully please…), pay your respects at the memorials, and watch sheep being born. True, graphic story.
WHY POINTE DU HOC IS ONE OF THE BEST D-DAY SITES TO VISIT IN NORMANDY
★ You can see what ‘impossible’ really looks like. Nothing you need to do after this will seem too difficult, too inconvenient, or worth complaining about. Except getting the image of a live animal birth (and the gross things that follow) out of your head. There are some things that just can’t be done and unseeing that is one of them.
★ The bomb craters at Pointe du Hoc provide a visual you can’t get anywhere else. No other D-Day sites have bomb craters like the ones you’ll see here. There are so many! They’re so huge! They’re still here! You must see this for yourself. (See what Pointe du Hoc looks like from above here.)
★ MORE INFORMATION | ABMC’s Pointe du Hoc page
LA CAMBE GERMAN WAR CEMETERY
Because travel is all about growing as a person… but also about throwing your mind, your beliefs, and your emotions for a loop.
Visiting a German cemetery in Normandy just days after the anniversary of D-Day may seem… strange? maddening? treacherous, even? And you’re absolutely right; it does. It did. But then you get there and what you experience is something different and unexpected. You’ll discover there’s an exact moment when you stop thinking of these German soldiers as enemies, plain and simple.
Sure, many of them were probably horrible people but most didn’t want to fight our soldiers any more than ours wanted to fight them. You know about Hitler… do you think they had much of a choice? Everyone was a victim during WW2, no matter which side they fought for. And some cemeteries will just get to you regardless of who is buried there.
La Cambe German Cemetery started out (way back in the war days) as a cemetery for both American and German soldiers. They eventually moved the Americans either back to the U.S. or to the aforementioned American Cemetery and more Germans moved in. Today, the total grave count at La Cambe stands at 21,222 (the largest cemetery in all of Normandy) packed into a space one-tenth the size of the Normandy American Cemetery. All belong to victims of the Allied D-Day landings and the resulting battles, and most of these soldiers were about as close to being teenagers as I am to the end of this post (really close, I promise).
They’ve decorated (is that the right word?) the site with imposing black crosses and the whole site mirrors this idea: heavy and dark. At the cemetery’s center is a large mound under a statue of a woman and a man representative of the mothers and fathers who lost children in the war. The mound itself represents nothing—it actually holds the unidentified bodies of almost 300 German soldiers. Graves here are a 2-for-1 deal and some don’t even have names at all. Be as angry as you wanna be, just don’t forget these men were humans once, too. Humans who loved family members, felt loneliness, had best friends, played sports, wrote love letters, and probably, at some point, let someone cut in front of them in line.
WHY LA CAMBE GERMAN WAR CEMETERY IS ONE OF THE BEST D-DAY SITES TO VISIT IN NORMANDY
★ To see (and feel) the stark contrasts (both visual and emotional) between the American and German cemeteries. Normandy American Cemetery is white, bright, open, and beautiful. It leaves you feeling so grateful you think your heart is sure to explode (if not merely your tear ducts). La Cambe German Cemetery is, again, profoundly heavy and dark. You’ll leave feeling just all around crappy. “So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate?” (Even Lord of the Rings quotes work here.)
★ Visiting La Cambe helps you understand how equal we all are. The events of D-Day have doubtlessly left us all feeling sad, but we Americans don’t own the rights to those feelings. Experiencing a German cemetery helps paint a broader picture of the war. It wasn’t just Us vs. Them; it was All of Us vs. Intolerance and Hate.
★ MORE INFORMATION | Normandy Tourism’s La Cambe German Military Cemetery page
BEFORE YOUR TRIP TO NORMANDY
As always, I recommend gearing up for your trip to the best D-Day sites to visit in Normandy by reading all the books and watching all the movies. Here’s where you can start:
- Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose | New York Times bestseller about the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. This book tells the stories of these men and their leaders from when they enlist in the Airborne, to their parachuting into France early on the morning of D-Day, and on to their capture of Hitler’s Bavarian outpost, the Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden. Stephen Ambrose is a phenomenal writer and his books are easy to follow and endlessly engaging.
D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II by Stephen Ambrose | Amazon says: “Stephen E. Ambrose’s D-Day is the definitive history of World War II’s most pivotal battle, a day that changed the course of history.” And since it’s Stephen Ambrose it’s bound to be perfection.
Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre | A little D-Day behind-the-scenes action for ya. Amazon says: “[Operation Fortitude] was the most sophisticated and successful deception operation ever carried out, ensuring Allied victory at the most pivotal point in the war.” Reviewers say it’s more for history and WW2 buffs than it is for spy novel enthusiasts.
- Omaha Beach: D-Day, June 6, 1944 by Joseph Balkoski | John Hillen of the New York Post says: “Balkoski’s depiction of ‘Bloody Omaha’ is the literary accompaniment to the white-knuckle Omaha Beach scene that opens Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.” If you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, you know that’s quite a description! But if you haven’t…
Saving Private Ryan (1998) | Amazon description: “Seen through the eyes of a squad of American soldiers, the story begins with World War II’s historic Omaha Beach D-Day invasion, then moves beyond the beach as the men embark on a dangerous special mission. Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) must take his men behind enemy lines to find Private James Ryan, whose three brothers have been killed in combat.” Film magazine Empire describes the 27-minute Omaha Beach landing scene as the “best battle scene of all time.” That same scene was named Number 1 on TV Guide‘s list of 50 Greatest Movie Moments. WATCH. THIS. MOVIE.
The Longest Day (1962) | Known as the definitive movie about D-Day and full of stars: John Wayne, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, and some guy named Red Buttons which I really hope is the army’s resident cat mascot. It depicts D-Day from the perspectives of both the Allied and German forces and uses actors and military consultants who personally fought in the war.
Band of Brothers (2001) | An epic, 10-part HBO miniseries based on the book by Stephen Ambrose (I told you it was good). Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced it–just as they did Saving Private Ryan (good again). Some of its biggest stars include Damien Lewis, Michael Fassbender, Donnie Wahlberg, Ron Livingston, David Schwimmer, and Tom Hardy.
Some I haven’t seen yet myself but that the internet says are pretty good:
Ike – Countdown to D-Day (2004) | Amazon description: “IKE: COUNTDOWN TO D-DAY follows the 90 terrifying days leading up to the invasion as General Dwight D. Eisenhower decides the fates of thousands of soldiers while managing complex strategic relationships with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American General George S. Patton, Britain’s Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery and French President Charles de Gaulle. In this climate, one man, Dwight Eisenhower, pulled the world’s leaders together for one of history’s most infamous battles.” It stars Tom Selleck without a mustache in case you needed another reason to watch.
- Storming Juno (2010) | Half movie, half documentary. Juno Beach was one of the five D-Day landing beaches, this one invaded by our Canadian allies. Storming Juno portrays Canada’s role in D-Day through the true stories of paratroopers, tank crewmen, and regular infantry.
WHICH SITES DO YOU MOST WANT TO VISIT?
LET ME KNOW BELOW!
But first, PIN ME ⇣⇣⇣