Things to Do in Caen
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.
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 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.
One of the largest medieval enclosures in Europe, the massive walls of William the Conqueror's 11th-century Caen Castle thwarted invaders until the French swept in and recaptured not only the castle but the whole of Normandy in the mid-13th century. On a hill in what is now the city center, castle houses the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Normandy.
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.
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.
Normandy Museum is an memorable family-friendly museum that puts this popular region into perspective without getting into the events of World War II. Exhibits trace the the formation of history, the culture of the people back to the prehistoric ages,xa0 and following through to various eras of migration.
Founded by William the Conqueror, this former Benedictine monastery is one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Normandy, inspiring many churches on the other side of the Channel to adopt its style. Also known as Abbey of Saint-Étienne, the Abbaye aux Hommes (Men’s Abbey) is now the city hall (Hôtel de Ville).
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.
Housed in the medieval castle of William the Conquerer, the contemporary Musée des Beaux-Arts is home to one of the finest art collections in France covering five centuries. Spanning four centuries, the artworks show a remarkable range including an array of European painters starting in the 16th century, a cabinet of prints and an impressive sculpture park.
More Things to Do in Caen
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Abbaye aux Dames in Caen (also known as the Abbey of Sainte-Trinité, or the Holy Trinity Abbey) is a Benedictine convent nearly one thousand years old. A bit worse for the wear, the abbey survived the Hundred Years War, during which it lost its original spires, and is now home to the Regional offices for Lower Normandy.
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.