Visiting Normandy’s D-Day sites and sites is a sort of rite of passage for many Americans, especially those of my parents’ generation. I’ve grown up hearing stories about WWII from my grandfather (who thankfully did not serve in D-Day), so the war has always been a present topic of conversation at family gatherings. It’s hard for me to imagine – shipping off to war at the age of 19 and witnessing the unspeakable. He was always flying, so there aren’t really any sites to visit to honor his service, unfortunately. So, on a visit from my mom and brother, we decided to drive from Amsterdam to Normandy to pay homage to the history of the D-Day Beaches.
Overall, Normandy is a huge region of northern France – and there’s more to see than only the D-Day Beaches, which I would recommend to balance the heaviness of visiting the WWII sites.
While there are many D-Day sites to visit in Normandy, we kept our list to 3 sites in one day. I’d recommend not to plan in too much more than that, since it can be hard to take in.
How to spend a day seeing the D-Day sites
A morning at Omaha Beach
We started our day out at Omaha Beach, one of the five beaches that the Allied Forces landed on, on June 6, 1944 in the largest ever seaborne invasion. Omaha Beach and Utah Beach are the most famous in the US as they were stormed by American troops during “Operation Overlord.”
Walking on Omaha Beach it is hard to imagine any great feat of history has happened there, let alone one of the most famous invasions of 160,000 ground troops. When we visited the sea was calm and there were few visitors. Could this really be the site of such a momentous event? For all that happened here, it felt very understated.
After visiting the beach we also visited the Omaha Beach Museum just nearby the parking lot to the beach. It is a great museum to visit to give more detail and perspective to this D-Day Beach.
Normandy American Cemetery & Memorial
Though Omaha Beach and the museum were pretty heavy, this was the most overwhelming part of our tour. The Normandy American Cemetery & Memorial overlooks Omaha Beach, so is easy to combine both sites together. The area is just beautiful. Rolling green hills overlooking golden sandy beaches. Except that this is a cemetery. And there are countless rows of graves of American soldiers who died during WWII. Many of the graves are unmarked. Walking through the cemetery is solemn and humbling. Most of these graves are for soldiers who died when they were younger than 25…
10,000 soldiers are buried here, including Preston and Robert Niland, whose story was the basis of the film Saving Private Ryan.
Taking all of that in was tough. The visit made me appreciate the comfortable life I live and what I did at the age of 20 could not be farther or more shallow than what the soldiers buried here were doing at that age. The cemetery felt an especially important place to pay respect to those who fought for the freedom of others.
Pointe du Hoc
Before visiting the D-Day Beaches and sites I’d heard of Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, Operation Overlord… but Pointe du Hoc? Never heard of it before.
Pointe du Hoc is a promontory (a raised land mass) that sticks out into the English Channel, dividing Omaha and Utah Beaches. It has 100ft (30m) cliffs, which was fortified by the Germans during the war. US Ranger forces scaled the cliffs on D-Day to seize the German artillery which could have fired on the other American forces landing at Omaha and Utah Beaches. The Allied forces planned to capture Pointe du Hoc before the invasion on any of the beaches to ensure that the beach invasions wouldn’t be stopped by raining shells from the circular gun pits on the top of Pointe du Hoc.
Today, Pointe du Hoc hasn’t changed much since D-Day. The ground is pockmarked with bomb craters from the attacks that happened in the days leading up to D-Day, and the German bunkers are still there.
Stay in Caen
Caen is the perfect picturesque town to stay in to visit the D-Day sites from, and to explore for a day. As I mentioned, one day with the three sites above was enough for us – I think more would have been too depressing. Caen is a great location to wander the cozy streets and recharge after absorbing the local history.
Admittedly, we only stayed in Caen due to its proximity to the D-Day Beaches, but were pleasantly surprised when we saw how cute it is and the great architecture it houses.
There are two famous abbey’s in Caen, one is the men’s abbey, the other, the women’s abbey – perfect for wandering and taking in a less recent piece of history, one that is completely unrelated to the D-Day sites.
If you’re on a trip to Paris, I recommend renting a car and exploring Normandy. The recent history of this region is overwhelming but well worth the visit. If you have enough time, go beyond the D-Day sites and experience a different side of France, one that I’d argue is more typical of the country than Paris.
Have you visited the D-Day sites? What were the most impressive areas?