Things to Do in Bayeux
As one of Normandy’s D-Day landing beaches, Omaha Beach was the backdrop to one of the most significant events of World War II, immortalized in the movie Saving Private Ryan and forever etched into history. Today, visitors to Omaha Beach can follow in the footsteps of the Allied soldiers and pay their respects at the American Cemetery.
Crowned by a Gothic abbey, the UNESCO-recognized medieval island village of Mont Saint-Michel rises dramatically from the tidal flats of the bay, creating one of France’s better-known images. This island, situated at the mouth of the Couesnon River, is a must-see for history buffs and those interested in religious sites, and is surrounded by some of the largest tidal variations in Europe.
One of France’s most important World War II landmarks, Pointe du Hoc is best known for its role in the D-Day Landings. Today, the promontory overlooking the Normandy coast is a destination for history buffs, those with personal ties to the conflict, and others wishing to pay tribute to the many soldiers who lost their lives here.
Located above Omaha Beach, just outside Bayeaux, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is a moving site. The cemetery is the final resting place of more than 9,000 soldiers, the vast majority of whom lost their lives fighting the D-Day battles of Normandy. Other World War II heroes are buried here as well.
Near the Normandy hamlet of Longues-sur-Mer, Longues battery was part of the Nazis’ fearsome Atlantic Wall fortifications, built by the German Navy between September 1943 and April 1944.
Built with huge 152 mm naval guns able to fire up to 12 miles (20 km) away, the battery was strategically erected between the beaches of Omaha and Fold in order to prevent Allied landings on Normandy’s beaches. The night before D-Day on June 6, 1944, however, the Allied troops used a French cruiser and U.S. battleship to send a barrage of 1,500 tons of bombs over to the battery, where the German crew of 184 men surrendered the next day.
Longues battery is unique on the Normandy coast: it’s the only spot on the Atlantic Wall where you can still see the concrete casemates and guns just as they were after the 1944 showdown. At the battery, you can also visit Longues-sur-Mer’s command post and the personnel and ammunition shelters. At the cliff edge itself, you can climb inside the battery’s fire control bunker and look out across the Normandy coast for a feel of the past. Film buffs will also recognize the bunker from the classic 1962 D-Day film,The Longest Day.
What was an otherwise little-known village of the Cotentin Peninsula suddenly became infamous after it was visited by American troops on June 6th 1944 as part of Operation Overlord – making Sainte-Mère-Église one of the first villages to be liberated of the Nazis after four long years of occupation. Sainte-Mère-Église, along with Utah Beach, was one of the two airborne landings on D-Day, because of its strategic position between Cherbourg and Paris. Sainte-Mère-Église is also where the Airborne Museum is located (14 rue Eisenhower), entirely dedicated to the D-Day paratroopers. It includes authentic artifacts like a DC3 aircraft, insightful information and an entire section devoted to the movie The Longest Day, which depicts a well-known incident involving paratrooper John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. His parachute caught on the spire of the town church, from which he observed the fighting going on below, hanging limply for two hours and pretending to be dead before the Germans took him prisoner.
Utah Beach was the westernmost landing point on D-Day. The main attraction at the site of the landing is the Utah Beach D-Day Museum (Musée du Débarquement), which focuses on the extraordinary battle. The museum also holds exhibits that offer a deep dive into French life under German occupation.
The Juno Beach Centre (Centre Juno Beach) is a museum dedicated to the heroism of Canadian troops in the D-Day landings and the entirety of the Second World War. Located in Normandy, the center draws visitors from Canada and across the world wanting to remember their fallen patriots and learn more about France’s role in the Allied victory.
Merville Battery (Batterie de Merville) was a coastal fortification built by the Nazis in Merville-Franceville as part of the Atlantic Wall during World War II. Because this particular battery was much more better fortified than other similar installations, it was one of the first to be attacked by the Allies on D-Day.
Indeed, it was successfully captured by British paratroopers on June 6, 1944, because they mistakenly believed the battery contained heavy-caliber weapons that could threaten the nearby beach landings. They discovered, however, that what it contained, essentially, was inoffensive World War I vintage guns. The battery also comprised four six-foot-thick, steel-reinforced concrete gun casemates, designed to protect mountain guns, as well as a command bunker, dorms and ammunition magazines. After the British left the battery to liberate a nearby village, Merville was once again taken over by the Germans until they withdrew France in the following month of August.
Often regarded as one of the greatest engineering feats of World War Two, the Mulberry Harbour was a portable and temporary structure developed by the British to facilitate speedy discharging of cargo onto the beaches on D-Day. It was, in fact, two different artificial harbors, which were towed across the English Channel and assembled just off the coast of Normandy on that infamous morning. Once fully operational, Mulberry Harbour was capable of moving 7,000 tons of vehicles and goods each day. The harbors provided the Allies with landing ramps, necessary for the invasion of an otherwise unprotected coast. Violent storms shook the English Channel between June 19 and 22, 1944, effectively wrecking the better part of both harbors. Remains are, however, still visible a few hundred yards from Arromanches’ shoreline, continuing to remind visitors of the sheer engineering genius that emanated from the D-Day landings. The remains are best visible during low tide. The D-Day Museum nearby provides invaluable knowledge on the historical background and technical challenges that the harbors presented.
More Things to Do in Bayeux
The Bayeux Tapestry (Tapisserie de Bayeux) might be almost 1,000 years old, but it’s still one of the top tourist attractions in northern France. Housed in a purpose-built museum and depicting the infamous Norman invasion of England, its detailed needlework and impressive size draw hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the world every year.
American paratroopers descended, and their scattered arrival sent the Germans running to defend their hold, a move which ultimately was one of the many factors in the Allies' victory. Most of the action from this event, code-named Operation Neptune, centered on the small village of Sainte-Mère-Église, which hosts the Airborne Museum, one of the most fascinating WWII sites in Normandy.
More than 2,000 Canadian soldiers who died on Normandy beaches and battlefields are buried in this Second World War Cemetery. Lines of white headstones stretch across manicured grounds, here, and memorials repose in the shade of leafy, mature trees. Veterans Affairs Canada manages the grounds, which France has granted to Canada.
The peaceful Bayeux War Cemetery is the largest of the 18 Commonwealth military cemeteries in Normandy. It contains 4,868 graves of soldiers from the UK and 10 other countries (including Germany, in contrast to the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer). Many of the soldiers buried here were never identified, and the headstones are simply marked 'A Soldier Known Unto God'. The bodies of 1,807 other Commonwealth soldiers were never found, and are commemorated on the memorial across the main road.
Bayeux was liberated by the Allies in June 1944 and became the seat of government for France until Paris was liberated. In this time the British built the ring road to enable military vehicles to move around the city and established many military hospitals. Many of those buried in the cemetery are from those hospitals.
A memorial at this historic church pays tribute to Canadian soldiers killed at the Ardenne Abbey massacre in 1944. Founded in the 12th century, the French Gothic abbey is now on the trail of Second World War sites in Normandy. In addition to the Canadian flag that adorns the small memorial, visitors leave flowers and notes in memoriam.
The easternmost beach of the five landing areas of the Normandy Invasion of World War II, Sword Beach in Ouistreham was assaulted on D-Day by units of the British 3rd Division, with French and British commandos attached. In and around town, visit myriad monuments, museums, and remnants from the war including the essential Musée No. 4 Command.
A National Monument of France and one of Bayeaux’s most eye-catching monuments, the Bayeux Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux) is best known as the original home of the Bayeux Tapestry (now a UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ and displayed at the nearby Bayeux Tapestry Museum). Originally built in the 11th century, the cathedral’s Gothic façade was reconstructed in the 12th century, but much of the Romanesque-style interiors remain intact, shown off by atmospheric lighting during the evening hours.
Consecrated in 1077 by Bishop Odo of Conteville in the presence of his brother and King of England, William the Conqueror, the cathedral’s strong English ties are portrayed in its vibrant frescos, which depict the life of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and of course, the iconic Bayeux Tapestry, said to have been commissioned by the Bishop to decorate its nave.
The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, dragging the USA into World War II. By summer 1944, Allied leaders were preparing for Operation Overlord on the beaches of northern France, and on June 6th, 1944, the D-Day landings from the sea were launched. Among the five beaches earmarked by the Allies, Omaha Beach was the US’s responsibility, an eight-km (five mile) span of beach that American troops were tasked with invading and securing. By nightfall on one of the darkest days in US military history, Omaha Beach was held for the Allies, but at the expense of 3,881 dead and wounded from the 1st, 2nd and 29th US Divisions, who encountered appalling weather, strong tides in the English Channel and fierce bombardment from Nazi forces.
The Omaha Beach Memorial Museum (Musée Mémorial d’Omaha Beach) tells the story of the D-Day Landings on Omaha Beach, backed up with displays of vehicles and weapons that took part in the action as well as dioramas illustrated with graphic black-and-white images, a selection of uniforms, personal objects, maps and military charts. The exhibition culminates with a film of hard-hitting personal testaments from American soldiers who survived the maneuvers. Among the tanks and armaments ranged outside the museum stands the marble American Memorial, peering over the beach and backed by the flags of the Allied nations. The Normandy American Cemetery also overlooks the beach, containing the remains of 9,387 American military servicemen who died in France during World War II.
Brittany (Bretagne) is the westernmost region in France, a peninsula on the northwest coast that stretches out into the Atlantic. Home to destinations such as Rennes, which has a thriving student community; Brest, an off-the-beaten-path city; and the walled former island of Saint-Malo, Brittany is rich in history, naturally beautiful, and too often overlooked in favor of Paris and the French Riviera.
The Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy (Musée Mémorial de la Bataille de Normandie), located next to a military cemetery in historic Bayeux, retraces the military and human story of the Battle of Normandy. It is entirely dedicated to the different strategies deployed by the Allies before the infamous D-Day landings as well as the battle itself, which occurred between June 7 and Aug. 29, 1944. Topics covered in the 2,000-square-meter space are varied and extensive; they include the Mulberry Harbour, the role of General de Gaulle, Cherbourg; the specific role of the air force, and the Battle of the Hedgerows. The museum features many artifacts including weapons, military maps, 25 minutes of film archives, hundreds of photographs, uniforms, two massive tanks and a diorama evoking the decisive struggle in the Falaise pocket. The museum also depicts the less recognized aspects of the military campaign, like daily logistics, engineering local operations, feeding the troops and caring for the wounded, for example.
Bayeaux is best known for its vast tapestry illustrating the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066, but is also renowned as a center of lacemaking. The Conservatoire de la Dentelle de Bayeux was founded in 1901 in a bid to conserve the local tradition of lacemaking, which began in the 17th century. Bayeux lace is made by hand on bobbins and its delicate patterns come in just three colors: white, black and ecru. While once there were more than 5,000 lacemakers in Normandy, today there are less than a dozen exponents of the art and several showcase their handiwork in the Lace Conservatory.
Located in a 16th-century mansion with the figures of Adam and Eve carved into its façade, the conservatory is open for tours of the workshops, where expert lacemakers are always on hand to demonstrate their skills while keeping alive their techniques. Visitors can have a go at creating their own lacy masterpieces and there are year-around exhibitions of delicate shawls, napkins and bookmarks; these are also on sale along with lacemaking implements and books. Individual commissions are undertaken.
A collection of handmade 18th-century Bayeaux lace is on show at the Musée Baron-Gérard (MAHB) on the same street; a side trip to the Lace Conservatory can be combined with touring the Normandy beaches.
Located in a former episcopal palace in the heart of Bayeaux, the Baron Gérard Museum of Art and History (MAHB)—or Musée d’art et d’histoire Baron-Gérard, in French—is a museum dedicated to recounting the backstory of both French painting and Normandy. Established in 2013, it is carefully curated and well laid out on two levels with 14 chronological collections spanning prehistory to the 20th century.
Highlights among the paintings at MAHB include great works by Rococo artist François Boucher, Neo-classicist David, Gustave Corot — the precursor of the Impressionists — Gustave Caillebotte and Eugène Boudin. The museum also houses one of France’s most important collections of handmade 18th-century Bayeaux lace, lovingly displayed in the bishops’ former private apartments, which are still decorated with original wooden carvings. There’s an equally impressive display of Bayeaux porcelain and more than 800 archaeological artifacts excavated across the region of Calvados; each gallery is equipped with multi-lingual touchscreens to keep kids involved in the exhibition.
The palace itself has a few surprises to spring: Romanesque vaults; grand staircases; a French Renaissance chapel dating from the mid 16th century and swathed in cherubs, and a 17th century courtroom. Entrance to MAHB can be combined with tickets to see the Bayeux Tapestry and the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy.