Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Caen
The Mémorial de Caen, a museum and war memorial, is one of the city’s most popular attractions and a must-see for anyone visiting Normandy to pay respects to the heroes of World War II. While the site specifically commemorates D-Day and the Battle for Caen, it is the overall sentiment that provides the perfect primer for those planning to see multiple memorials in the area.
The museum's exhibits take visitors through life in the 1940s during the war while specifically noting the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy before continuing with coverage through the fall of the Berlin Wall. The many personal accounts, artifacts and multimedia segments work to bring the war out of the past and into sharp focus. In addition, there are British, Canadian and American gardens on the grounds for strolling and picnicking.
The Abbaye de Saint Étienne (Saint Stephen's Abbey) in Caen is also known as the Abbaye aux Hommes (Men's Abbey), to distinguish it from the 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 Men's Abbey; 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.
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. It's 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.
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.
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.
While walking along the Seine in Paris, very few visitors wonder where the river comes from; but those who have visited Honfleur, on the Normandy coast, soon discover the answer. This sleepy harbor town, largely unchanged in the last 400 years, is where the Seine begins. And much like in Paris, it is lined with a beautiful sea wall and well-kept parks that are popular with families and those just out for a stroll.
Honfleur's main church, Sainte-Catherine, is unique in that it doesn't quite look like any other in France – for one, its wooden, and could be mistaken for a town hall if not for its equally wooden bell tower. And the harbor is a must-see for every visitor; artists in particular flock there to sketch or paint the picturesque buildings that line the quais, with colorful fishing boats moored just steps away from outdoor cafes and shops. And on Wednesdays and Saturdays there are open markets enjoyed by locals as well as those from neighboring towns.
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.
More Things to Do in Caen
The Normandy town of Honfleur is home to St Catherine’s Church, 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.
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.
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.
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).