For any World War II history buff, planning a trip to Normandy is about as exciting as it can get. That is, until you start the process and find you probably have more questions than answers. I know this because I get a lot of emails from readers with similar questions about visiting Normandy’s D-Day sites. (Really, my inbox is shameful.)
Because so many of you have similar, specific questions, I decided to properly address them in a blog post of their own to see how many more travelers we could help. So, before you start planning a trip to Normandy, here are 10 things you need to know first.
1. You should rent a car
Easily, the most-asked question I get about planning a trip to Normandy is how to get around. If you’ve done any sort of traveling around Europe before, then you’re probably like me—absolutely spoiled with the availability of public transportation. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to the Normandy beach area (i.e., all the places you want to go).
In order to get around to all the landing beach sectors, all the great D-Day museums and battlefield sites, you should really rent a car. While there are trains and bus lines in these parts, there’s nowhere near the public transportation infrastructure here that you’re used to or that’s fast and prevalent enough to confidently rely on.
Many of the D-Day sites you’re after are too spread out or remote to adequately get to by bus. And if you were to miss a bus here, you might be waiting a long time for another one.
It’s not impossible, but…
As far as trains go, two cities near the Normandy landing zones are quite accessible by train—Caen and Bayeux. And if you only wanted to visit these two cities, that would be good news. But if you’re looking to head out into the countryside or to the beaches themselves, you’re going to have a bit more work in front of you.
I’m not saying visiting all the D-Day sites without a car is impossible (certainly anything is possible!), but I am saying that it’s going to take a lot more planning and a lot more time to carry it out. Having your own car grants you almost limitless exploration around here. No worrying about train and bus schedules, missing connections, calling taxis, or being stranded. You can just hop in your car and head on over to the next location.
For planning your Normandy trip, check out the best local rental car deals here. (This is the booking site I always use for renting cars.) You can pick up and drop off in Paris or locally in Bayeux. From my experience, renting in Paris gives you a lot more rental options and lower prices, especially if you need an automatic transmission.
Also check out all the best WWII sites in Paris while you’re there.
2. The sites are more spread out than you think
It’s easy to think of the “Normandy beaches” as one general area when planning a trip to Normandy, but the fact is that the many sites you’ll want to visit are spread out farther than you probably think. If you have your own rental car, this really isn’t a problem. But, if you’re pressed for time or hoping to rely on public transportation, here’s what you need to know…
The distance between Utah Beach and Sword Beach (the two of the five that are farthest apart) is about an hour and 20 minutes. Two D-Day sites I highly recommend visiting are the Memorial Museum in Caen and Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach; the drive between these two is 45 minutes. It’s then another 40 minutes to Sainte-Mère-Église.
These aren’t incredible distances in the long run, but they’re not insignificant either. If you have only limited time to visit the many D-Day sites, it’s important to keep these driving distances in mind when planning a trip to Normandy so you can plan your route accordingly. (BTW, here are all the D-Day sites you can see if you just have one day.)
Also important, the drive from Paris to Caen (a good central location near the landing zones) is 3 hours, and the train is about 2 hours and 40 minutes.
3. Those aren’t the actual names of the beaches
What we know today as Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches haven’t always been called that. Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword were military codenames given to particular landing zones by their Allied counterparts.
Utah and Omaha were American landing zones and thus codenamed by an American general, largely believed to be Omar Bradley. Gold, Juno, and Sword were Commonwealth landing zones (Britain and Canada), and thus codenamed by them.
Before D-Day, the beaches were simply referred to by the town names or municipalities where they were located, like:
- Utah Beach – Formerly referred to as Plage de la Madeleine at Sainte-Marie-du-Mont
- Omaha Beach – Technically known as the beach at Colleville-sur-Mer
- Gold Beach – The beach located in Ver-sur-Mer
- Juno Beach – The beach at Courseulles-sur-Mer
- Sword Beach – Located in the municipalities of Hermanville-sur-Mer and Colleville-sur-Orne
It’s not as easy as “what the Normandy beaches used to be called” since they never really had proper/common names the way we’re used to here in the U.S. After all, these were merely local beaches, not the world famous tourist destinations they are today.
However, since D-Day, these beaches have more or less fully adopted their Allied codenames. Using the terms Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword will definitely get you where you need to go.
4. Certain sectors might appeal to certain visitors
If you find yourself having to choose between which sectors to visit while planning a trip to Normandy, know that some landing zones might appeal to you more than others. This isn’t absolute–you may be interested in all of them for different reasons–but here’s what I mean…
Utah and Omaha Beaches were the American landing zones. As such, the museums and monuments here focus on the achievements of the American forces. Ergo, these two landing zones typically appeal most to American visitors as they can best relate to and understand the content.
Juno Beach was the Canadian landing zone, so the museums and monuments here honor Canadian achievements. Similarly, Gold and Sword Beaches were British landing zones and mostly appeal to British visitors.
Again, this doesn’t mean American visitors won’t also enjoy visiting the Canadian and British beaches, but it is somewhat of a consensus, especially if vacation time is limited and you need to focus your attention on certain areas.
For more details on this and/or to find out which Normandy beach you should visit, click that link; I have a whole post dedicated to helping you decide which D-Day beach is right for you.
5. Where to base yourself in Normandy
When planning a trip to Normandy, one of the most important things to consider is where you should base yourself while here. The answer to this will largely depend on which sites you plan to visit, but there are a few popular recommendations.
Base yourself in Caen
Besides Rouen (the capital of Normandy which isn’t near the landing beaches), the largest city around here is Caen. As such, it’s a great place to base yourself to explore the area’s D-Day sites. There are plenty of great places to stay here, it’s a quick and easy train ride from Paris, and there’s lots to see nearby, most of which are pretty easy to get to from here.
Caen is located in the Sword Beach landing sector and you can easily visit the Caen Memorial Museum, the Pegasus Bridge and memorial, and many more great Sword beach sites.
Base yourself in Bayeux
But arguably the most popular place to base yourself for exploring the Normandy beaches is Bayeux, believed to be a much more charming city than Caen. Bayeux is equally as easy to get to from Paris, there are many popular hotels available here, and you can get to some of the top sites nearby relatively easy as well.
Due to its central location, most of the local D-Day tour groups leave from Bayeux. Here in the Gold Beach sector you’ll be close to the artificial harbors at Arromanches-les-Bains, the German battery at Longues-sur-Mer, and many more. (See the full list of Gold Beach sites here.) Bayeux is also a popular jumping-off point for those wishing to visit Mont-Saint-Michel as well.
Base yourself in Carentan
The little town of Carentan is much smaller and bit farther away than the previous two, but it’s a great place to base yourself in Normandy if, say, you’re planning to follow in the footsteps of the 101st Airborne. (Watch episode 3 of Band of Brothers.)
If you’re planning to center your Normandy visit around Utah and Omaha Beaches, Carentan makes a great central base. You’re also quite close to Sainte-Mère-Église just to the north, and Saint-Lô to the south. Find great places to stay in Saint-Lô here.
6. How many days you need
There’s no one simple answer as to how many days you need to dedicate when planning a trip to Normandy. This’ll be different for everyone and will take into account things like: how deeply interested you are in the history, how many vacation days you have available, and which sites you’re planning to visit. You could literally spend anywhere from a single day to a month here.
The general consensus is that you need “at least a couple of days,” and I agree with that. While you can certainly see many of the best D-Day sites in just one (long) day, you should definitely set aside at least two or three if you can swing it.
Each landing sector has its own collection of museums and memorials and, like I already said, they aren’t exactly sitting on top of each other. And these aren’t the kinds of sites you really want to rush through as there’s a lot of absorb.
That being said, if you absolutely only have one day to dedicate to visiting Normandy’s D-Day sites, please don’t let that stop you. You can still visit many of the most worthwhile sites on your own, or even on a dedicated day trip from Paris. Even if you can’t stay as long as you want to, not visiting at all would be a crying shame.
7. June 6th is the busiest time to visit but also the most exciting
I normally advise people to visit big tourist destinations during the less-busy times, but Normandy is an exception. Yes, the Normandy beaches and museums are going to be more crowded than usual during the early part of June, but it’s also going to be the most exciting time to visit and truly unique experience.
First of all, let me make something clear, even though this is the busiest time to visit Normandy, you still won’t experience anything like the kinds of crowds you just left in Paris. Busy, yes; but out of control or uncomfortably crowded? Definitely not. But if you’re looking for some personal alone time on the beaches, this probably isn’t the best time for you.
However, visiting during this time is truly a unique and meaningful experience. The whole area is crawling with veterans ready and willing to share their incredible stories. The fields are dotted with recreated army camps; the beaches and cemeteries are full of reenactors in authentic WWII army gear; and the towns are bursting with uniform-clad men cruising around in Willys Jeeps. It’s surreal.
You may have to deal with more tourists and pay slightly higher-than-typical prices for hotel rooms and rental cars, but seeing the Normandy D-Day sites like this is an experience you’ll never forget.
8. Hire a guide… or don’t
Whether or not you’ll want to hire a guide to show you around the D-Day sites is entirely up to you and how you prefer to travel. Both methods of planning a trip to Normandy have their pros and cons and the decision may be different for everyone.
Hire a tour guide for Normandy if…
Hire a guide for your visit to Normandy’s D-Day sites if:
- You don’t know a whole lot about the D-Day invasion and the Battle of Normandy
- You’re fine with the added expense
- You don’t know where to go or what to see (but you’re reading my blog so you should definitely know! See all my Normandy posts here otherwise.)
- You want local insight and lots of historical details
- You’re fine with someone else calling the shots
If you can swing the extra cost of doing so, hiring a guide can be super helpful and worthwhile (if you get a good one). This can save you lots of time and stress too as you’ll have fewer decisions to make and less research to do on your own.
But… hiring a tour guide can also be costly and you often don’t know what you’re going to get. Sometimes you get a knowledgeable guide who shares the most incredible stories; and other times you get the guy who thinks he’s hilarious. (I’ve been here; it’s brutal.)
Most tour guides have a set itinerary, so you may end up spending time at sites you don’t necessarily care about. However, some guides do offer the ability to customize your itinerary with the particular sites you want. You really just have to shop around to find a tour guide that best suits your needs and budget.
Take a look at the Normandy tours on sites like Viator and Get Your Guide for some affordable small-group options. And check out Tours By Locals to find great local tour guides for private guides just for your group—most of these can be customized too.
Check out my post on the 10 best local Normandy D-Day tours for 2024 here to see which ones I would book for myself.
Don’t hire a tour guide for Normandy if…
On the flip side, don’t hire a tour guide for your Normandy visit if:
- You want full control over where you go, how long you spend there, where you stop on the way, etc.
- You’re fine doing some historical research on your own
- You have trouble paying attention (I’m right here with you!)
- You really just want to see the most well-known sites and get a basic understanding of the events
- You’re not willing or able to pay the extra cost
Even though hiring a guide can get you some interesting stories and a plethora of historical information, it may also slow you down. Visiting these sites on your own will allow you full control over which sites you visit and how long you spend there. (This is a huge one for me, personally.)
Your time is valuable and it’s not fun when you have to linger in one place longer than you’d like, or when you have to rush through a museum that you’d rather spend more time in. It’s hard for tour guides to plan for this since every traveler is different, and only you will know when it’s time to move on to the next place. Visiting these D-Day sites independently will grant you total freedom.
Time is precious!
This is also because tour guides tend to talk a lot. (I know this because I’m a tour guide myself who’s known for being quite wordy, if you haven’t figured that out yet. It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem; it’s me.) There’s just so much information they want to share that’s so interesting (at least, to them).
If you tend to glaze over or get antsy at being talked to, perhaps you’d fare better without a guide. And this is fine! You can learn everything you need to know for visiting these sites from books and documentaries. Do a little bit of reading/watching before your trip, take some good notes on the sites you plan to visit, pick up a Normandy D-Day guidebook to bring along, and you’ll do just fine on your own.
Another things to remember when planning a trip to Normandy is that many of the top D-Day sites and museums also offer their own guided tours or include audio tours. You’ll be able to find this out for each particular location on their website.
9. Know how to act right
Look, I know I’m talking to adults here which makes this even more cringeworthy to write, but… please know how to act right if you’re going to visit the D-Day sites in Normandy. I shouldn’t have to say this, really, but I think some people forget what this place is about when they get here. I know jet lag is a helluva thing, but still.
I’ve seen, with my own eyes, a grown man playing tag with his teenage son running in and out of the headstones at Normandy American Cemetery. I’ve seen them posing for jumping photos at this and other Normandy sites. It’s disgusting.
When you’re at these places and others where unimaginable tragedy has happened, act right. This is a burial ground; these are memorials. Come here with unprecedented levels of humility and respect or don’t come here at all. Plain and simple.
10. What to know if you plan to bring kids
I’m going to preface this by saying I do not have kids, so do with this advice what you will (but I’m also not just pulling it out of thin air either). There are certain extra things you’ll need to consider when planning a trip to Normandy with small children or immature teenagers (see above). The first of which, I just talked about.
Traveling to battlefields with children can be a complicated thing that involves many factors. Only you will know if your child is ready to visit these places or not. And by that I mean, whether or not they are mature enough to both handle such difficult material and act respectfully.
I’ve talked to parents who’ve said they don’t think their child would have a problem learning about the events, but they aren’t sure they could actually behave properly at these places. At least, not at the maturity levels they know is necessary.
I talk a lot more about this, and specifically regarding Normandy’s D-Day sites, in my post on visiting World War II sites with kids. Click on over to that and give it a read if this applies to you, even if you think it doesn’t. I’ve seen some horrifying things at these places perpetrated by kids whose parents probably thought that WWII field trip would be a great idea.
I hope these tips have been able to help you in planning a trip to Normandy. I know it can be daunting but it’s so worth it. You’ll have an amazing time no matter what.
Resources for planning a trip to Normandy
- Hotels: Find great places in Normandy here on Booking.com (but Expedia and Hotels.com are worth checking too).
- Rental cars: Check out the best local rental cars deals here.
- Sightseeing: Pick up a Normandy guidebook for all your area sightseeing needs.
- Local customs: This pocket size France customs and culture guide is a must-have.
- Tours and activities: Check out the fun local options here on Viator and Get Your Guide.
- More Normandy posts: You can find all my Normandy posts here.
Like this post? Have more questions about visiting D-Day sites in Normandy? Ask them below in the comments. Have a great trip!
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