Things to Do in Caen
Famously painted by artists, such as Claude Monet, Gustave Courbet, and Eugene Boudin, the picturesque waterfront and colorful harbor of Honfleur are among the most memorable in Normandy. The historic port is renowned for its architecture, especially Vieux Bassin harbor’s 16th-century buildings and the wooden church of Sainte Catherine.
Located a short drive from the D-Day Landing Beaches, the Caen Memorial Museum (Mémorial de Caen) puts one of the most significant battles of World War II into historical context. The museum gardens serve as a poignant tribute to the international soldiers that lost their lives on Norman soil.
Before June 6, 1944 the Bénouville Bridge was simply a way for locals to cross the Canal de Caen quickly and easily. But the Allied troops knew that the Germans also used this bridge to send supplies and reinforcements to their troops along the beaches of Normandy – and so it was a priority to seize control of it as soon as possible to help the D-Day operation.
And so on that day, the British 6th Airborne Division arrived silently in gliders and after only 10 minutes, had secured the bridge. From then on it was known as the Pegasus Bridge, in honor of the insignia on the brave soldiers' uniforms.
Although the original bridge has been replaced thanks to modern engineering, there is still a memorial at the site, as well as a museum that focuses on the role of the Airborne Division in Operation Overlord. A fairly new museum, inaugurated only in 2000, its collection continues to grow and so is a wonderful experience even for repeat visitors.
Arromanches-les-Bains, with a population of just under 600, is a village on the Normandy coast. But this tiny dot on the map has a huge legacy dating back to WWII, commemorated in the D-Day Museum on the site of the artificial Mulberry Harbor. It was here that hundreds of thousands of tons of equipment were brought to the shores of France by the Allies, and it served as one of the most important military bases of the time.
The museum itself is a must-visit for anyone honoring the heroes of WWII; from working models of vehicles to a panorama of what the its shores looked like at the time to remains of the war strewn about the harbor, it's an unforgettable look into just what an enormous undertaking D-Day was.
Caen Castle, or Château de Caen, is worth a full day of any visitor's time to this historic city in Normandy. Not only does it house the history-filled Museum of Normandy and the Museum of Fine Arts; its grounds are beautiful, its buildings are a favorite of shutterbugs, and climbing the ramparts gives you a bit of history as well as a fantastic view.
Originally conceived in 1025, construction on the Caen Castle was started in 1060 and ended in 1210 with the full enclosure of the walls, which proved to be a godsend in the mid-13th century when a siege on the town by King Edward III of England proved to be no match for its walls. Today, through ongoing renovations, there is still so much to see of this fortress – and that's not including the two museums.
Located in the heart of Calvados, just a few kilometers from the Channel, stands the Ranville War Cemetery. It contains a majority of British soldiers of the 6th Airborne Division (and also Canadian and German soldiers) that were killed during early stages of the Battle of Normandy in the Second World War. In fact, Ranville was the first village to be liberated by the Allies on the morning of June 6, 1944 – more commonly known as D-Day. Indeed, the village was secured by British and Canadian troops, landed nearby by parachute and glider on a mission to secure the bridge over the Caen Canal. This wasn’t achieved easily, though, as the skies were quite windy on that meaningful day and the area was, in reality, much larger than what had been expected.
Ranville War Cemetery is located by the ancient Ranville Chapel, a graded 10th-century building. It is laid out in a typical French garden design, with immaculately kept landscapes and manicured grounds. Within the cemetery stands a Cross of Sacrifice (designed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it is the archetypal British war memorial), an octagonal-shaped, elongated Latin cross with Celtic dimensions carved out of white Portland stone. Ranville War Cemetery contains 2,560 burials, including the grave of Lieutenant Den Brotheridge, considered to be the first Allied death on D-Day.
The Abbey of Saint-Étienne in Caen is also known as the Abbaye aux Hommes (Men's Abbey), to distinguish it from the Abbaye aux Dames (Women's Abbey) close by. If it looks a bit like an English cathedral, you're on the right track – this stunning example of Norman Romanesque architecture indeed served as the inspiration for so many churches on the other side of the Channel. (Although keen-eyed visitors will notice the Gothic apse, a sign of the church's architectural evolution.)
There are two highlights of the Abbaye aux Hommes; the first is the tomb of William the Conqueror, whose mark on Normandy has never been forgotten. The second is a bit of a hidden gem – the cloistered gardens, accessible by going through the town hall. It's another world inside there, and a favorite with photographers.
Located on the coast of Normandy, Cherbourg is both a seaside retreat and a bustling port. Immortalized by Catherine Deneuve in the classic 1964 filmThe Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the city has deep connections with French naval history.
The Abbaye aux Dames in Caen is also known as the Abbey of Sainte-Trinité, or the Holy Trinity Abbey. As one could guess, “Abbaye aux Dames” translates to Women's Abbey, and that's just what it was – a Benedictine convent. La Trinité is almost a thousand years old, and one of the must-see sites for any visitor to Caen.
If the facade of the abbey looks a little worse for wear, it's because of its history; it was the site of a battle during the Hundred Years War, during which it lost its original spires. The larger convent today is home to the Regional offices for Lower Normandy, but the abbey, restored in 1983, is open to visitors. William the Conqueror's wife Matilda is buried there, and its interior is a treasure trove of architectural details.
Designated as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France, the Normandy village of Beuvron-en-Auge is officially one of the most beautiful villages in the country. From the main square decked in flowers of every color, you’ll see 17th-century half-timbered houses lining the main street.
Once a stronghold of the Harcourt family, the 15th-century Vieux Manoir is a must-see while here. Classified as a “monument historique,” look closely at the manor’s woodwork, carved with patterns and faces.
Lying on the famous Normandy Cider Route, Beuvron-en-Auge is especially popular in October when the annual cider festival comes to town and Calvados and Pommeau are drunk all round. In May, look out for the local flower festival, which sets the whole village in bloom with geraniums everywhere. The postcard-worthy town hosts its own antiques shop as well as a creperie, and you can also buy your own cider straight from the grower.
More Things to Do in Caen
The Caen Memorial is a popular stop for anyone who's looking to put their WWII Normandy visit into its full historical perspective. But as we can all agree, while D-Day was a defining moment that ultimately led to an Allied victory, it is full of heartache, sacrifice, and can be overwhelming to relive.
This is why La Colline aux Oiseaux Park (Parc de La Colline aux Oiseaux), just steps away from the Caen Memorial, is such a delight. First, it is outdoors – perfect for those with kids who may need some outdoor fun time after being cooped up in a museum. And for adults, it can clear the mind a bit as we take in what we've just learned. In the spring and summer it is a riot of color and scents; all year round there is a hedge maze, a petting zoo, mini golf, a café and plenty of pathways to stroll on.
Although many come to Caen for its historic church, WWII memorial, or to use a base from which to explore Normandy, they also discover a delightful surprise – the Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen), which is home to one of the finest collections in France. Spanning four centuries, the art on display here is well-curated and shows an astonishingly wide array of European artists, normally only seen in national museums.
Of particular note are the revolving series of print exhibitions, featuring original prints from the masters of art. The sculpture park is a must-see as well, with a small collection that wows visitors. And the grounds – it's located at Le Château de Caen – make for a full day at the museum, especially with young ones in tow. There's a cafe with an outdoor terrace, and it's closed only on Sunday nights, Mondays, and Christmas – good to know for those making an off-season trip to Caen.
The Normandy Museum (Musée de Normandie) is an interesting museum that puts this popular region into perspective. And it's unique in that it has nothing to do with WWII, obviously a draw for millions of visitors.
The museum has several sections. First there is the Logis des Gouverneurs, which sits alone and dates back to the 14th century. In this building there are permanent exhibits tracing the history of Normandy back to the prehistoric ages and following through to various eras of migration and finally of the culture of the region. The Salles du Rempart takes visitors along the ramparts and shows not only Middle Ages items but archaeological finds as well. And the Exchequer's Room has items from the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and other exhibits that portray the rich history of this fascinating region.
Like many popular destinations in France – the Loire Valley and Provence to name just two - the Pays d'Auge is not a place with specific geographic or political borders within France. There's no mayor or governor of Pays d'Auge, and locals from the region of Normandy, where it's generally agreed to be located, will most likely have differing opinions as to exactly what's in and out of the Pays d'Auge.
That being said, here's a general idea: its northern border runs from just east of Caen to where the coast makes a dramatic turn towards Le Havre, and runs inland about halfway to Alençon. So, why is the Pays d'Auge even a thing if no one can point to it on a map, exactly? It all has to do with AOC, or the appellation d'origine contrôlée. The Pays d'Auge appellation is given to specific agricultural products that come from the farms within its “borders” - cheeses, ciders, and calvados included.
A visit to the Pays d'Auge yields not only a feast to fell any foodie, but lush green fields, half-timbered farm houses with thatched roofs, and a culture unlike any other in France. Visitors to the area for WWII memorials and museums should take the time to travel through the Pays d'Auge; it's a welcome contrast to the somber experiences of the coastline's history.
Founded by Napoleon’s half-brother on the Normandy coast in 1861, the chic seaside town of Deauville (pronounced “Dovil”) has been a summer playground for the French elite, including Yves Saint Laurent, ever since the late 19th century. Full of designer boutiques and five-star hotels, manicured gardens and ritzy restaurants, Deauville is the place for Parisians to see and be seen in the summer.
Known in France for its starring part in Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” Deauville is in the heart of the Parisian Riviera and boasts the Grand Casino, Deauville-La Touques racetrack and the American Film Festival in the first week of September every year. Unlike at Cannes’, public admission is available for many of the previews at Deauville.
Very much a resort town, Deauville’s population of 4,100 heavily depends on tourism. Twinned with the town of Trouville right next door, visitors often hop over to Trouville by simply wandering over the pont des Belges bridge, which is just east of the train and bus stations in Deauville.
The chic seaside town of Trouville-sur-Mer is a popular getaway among Parisians seeking respite from the city. Twinned with the even ritzier town of Deauville next door, Trouville maintains its traditional roots as a glamorous beach resort and working fishing port, with Trouville fishermen still seeking out shrimp, mackerel, scallops and sole today.
Less touristy than Deauville, Trouville has long been a hotspot for bohemians, and in the 19th century, writers like Flaubert and famous French artists including Mozin and Boudin came here to be inspired and enjoy the laid-back vibe. Trouville still has a flavor of the Belle Epoque about it, and a real authenticity can be felt in this maritime town, especially at the lively Fish Market (Marché aux Poissons).
Along with Deauville, Trouville is the closest beach to Paris, making it a popular weekend destination. In summer, the town really heats up, especially on the boardwalk that stretches along its golden sands stuffed with colorful parasols and sunbathers. Connected to Deauville by the pont des Belges bridge, it’s also possible to get to Deauville via a footpath at the mouth of the river during low tide.
The Normandy town of Honfleur is home to St. Catherine’s Church (Eglise Sainte-Catherine), the largest surviving wooden chapel in France. Built after the Hundred Years’ War by local 15th-century shipbuilders, the “Axe Masters” managed to create the impressive nave without using one saw. A century later, the chapel’s patronage had grown so much that it was decided St. Catherine’s Church should be doubled in size. A second identical nave was built to match the first, giving the chapel an interesting “twin” architecture, so when you head inside the church look up at the ceiling—you’ll see it looks just like two upturned boats, which makes sense considering the naval background of its builders.
Dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the church is partially covered in chestnut shingles, while the interior pillars are decorated in colorful flags from around the world. You’ll see light streaming in through the 19th-century stained glass windows, and look out for the church’s classical organ from the parish St Vincent of Rouen, too.
Spread out over 37 acres (15 hectares), Jurques Zoo (Zoo de Jurques) houses about 700 creatures from around the world. Here you can see everything from pumas to Humboldt penguins, along with a wide variety of snakes, primates, and birds, as well as an Australian aviary filled with colorful parakeets.