While Camembert cheese, apples, wine and crisp ciders are produced in Normandy, this region in northwest France is and will forever be known for Operation Overlord, the largest seaborne invasion in our world’s history. It turned the tide of the Second World War and changed the course of history. Today, people travel to the region from all corners of the world. I planned a trip to Normandy because I wanted to further educate myself on the war, and I felt compelled to pay my respects to the Americans and other Allies who showed tremendous courage, selflessness and bravery on D-Day and the days that followed.
So, on the American Thanksgiving holiday, a day dedicated to gratitude, I embarked on this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Together with my husband, Jeff, and our private tour guide, Johann, I visited many of the Normandy beach landing sites, memorials and historical landmarks. This reflection shares several of our tour stops and their significance. My hope is to help you plan your own trip to the region. A visit to Normandy is one that changes you as a person because you see the real-life sites, hear the incredible personal stories and feel the strong emotions.
Saint Mère Église
Our tour mostly focused on the sites relevant to D-Day and the few days after it. D-Day is simply the first day of Operation Overlord, the code name for the invasion. D-1 is the second day, D-2 the third day, etc.
As you likely know, D-Day was June 6, 1944, but many paratroopers made their jumps in the late evening of June 5 in addition to the early hours of June 6. Although it was not their intention, many of the paratroopers landed right in the middle of Saint Mère Église, a village a little more than seven miles from the beaches on the English channel.
Unfortunately, several German soldiers and French civilians were awake in the middle of the night because a fire ignited in a building in town. The fire lit the sky, exposing the paratroopers on their descent. German soldiers fired at the paratroopers as they defenselessly dropped through the air.
The 1962 movie The Longest Day shares the story of U.S. private John Steele landing on the town church, which the Germans had converted into a meeting quarter and observation post. His parachute caught one of the church spires and he couldn’t break free, leaving him dangling two stories up on the side of the church. Steele pretended to be dead to avoid being shot by German soldiers but was eventually captured. He wounded his foot and (temporarily) lost his hearing because of the ringing church bells.
However, Steele escaped when more U.S. troops secured the village, making Saint Mère Église the first town liberated by the Americans. After briefly recuperating in England, Steele continued his service until the war ended in 1945. He returned to Saint Mère Église many times in his lifetime.
Interesting fact: Today, a life-sized mannequin depicting Steele hangs off the side of the Saint Mère Église church. However, Johann told us the mannequin is on the opposite side of the church where Steele actually landed!
Utah Beach is one of two landing spots assigned to U.S. troops. It is also the westernmost beach of the five Allied beach landings. The Allies chose the location for its proximity to the port city of Cherbourg, with the goal of taking the port as soon as possible.
Aerial and naval shelling attributed to much of the landing success on Utah Beach. On D-Day alone, more than 23,000 American soldiers landed on Utah Beach. Just fewer than 200 were killed and 60 were reported missing.
Interesting Fact: Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (son of the former president) and his troops landed about a mile off the target of Utah Beach. An exemplary leader, Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “We’ll start the war from right here!” Roosevelt and his son both fought on and survived D-Day, but the elder Roosevelt died a month later from a heart attack. He is buried in the Normandy American Cemetery next to his brother, Quentin.
Saint-Côme-et-Saint-Damien Church in Angoville-au-Plain
This little church in Angoville-au-Plain is a symbol of courage, selflessness and hope. Two U.S. medics, Kenneth Moore and Robert Wright of the 101st Airborne Division, treated all wounded: their fellow American soldiers and civilians – and German soldiers, too. They turned the pews into makeshift beds for the wounded. You can still see dark circles of bloodstains in the pews today. The area around the church was a warzone for several days, but neither the Americans or Germans attacked the church knowing their brothers were being treated inside.
Moore and Wright saved at least 80 lives, including children. A memorial just outside the church is dedicated to them. Two colorful stained-glass windows honor them as well. One window is specifically dedicated to the medics and the other to all U.S. paratroopers. The most touching aspect for me was that Wright, when he died as an elderly man, requested to be buried in the small cemetery outside the church.
Saint-Côme-et-Saint-Damien church is in desperate need of funds for restoration work. Postcards are for sale using the honor system.
Pointe du Hoc
Pointe du Hoc is located between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach. U.S. Rangers were tasked with securing the German bunkers and artillery there that could be fired on both beaches. To reach the target, the Rangers first needed to scale the 100-foot cliffs using heavy, wet ropes. After two days of fighting and casualties, the Americans destroyed the German artillery as planned. Today, a memorial honoring the Rangers stands tall high above the dramatic shoreline.
The massive craters from the shelling are chilling visuals of the horror experienced here in 1944. Like the craters, a few of the German bunkers remain intact. Very little is restricted here, so you can walk inside the bunkers. An eerie feeling came over me as I walked through a bunker, taking note of the former sleeping corridors of nearly 30 Germans and their office space. You can see the artillery spots from the bunkers, too.
Travel tip: No dogs are permitted at Pointe du Hoc. The walking paths guide visitors along the grounds but they can be muddy and slippery.
Even over time, I still find myself uncomfortable with my feelings at Omaha Beach. Let me explain: Today, the beach is serene and tranquil, seagulls circling in the air. The enchanting blue waves break in the distance. The lush green grass blows in the wind, which plays a light melody. The flowers still bloom even though it’s nearly December. It’s just beautiful.
Yet on June 6, 1944, Omaha Beach wasn’t that. American soldiers were met with a strong German defense and very little went according to plan. Young men stormed the beach under heavy fire, doing all they could to survive and push on with their mission. It’s maddening, scary, tragic and sad. It’s estimated that 2,500 soldiers lost their lives here. And the battle wasn’t over. The Battle of Normandy lasted through the summer until August 21, and the Allies wouldn’t see the end of the war for over a year.
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
Sitting high above the cliffs looking out to Omaha Beach and the English Channel is the final resting place of 9,380 American soldiers who died during the Second World War. The perfectly-lined rows of pearly-white crosses seem endless.
The sun is shining at this point in the afternoon, and the wind lightly taps the nearby tree branches. As I walk along the path, I glance away from the cemetery and gaze out to Omaha Beach again. A teardrop forms in the corner of my eye. As I fumble with my feelings, I realize that this peacefulness is for them, for the ones who died here, who are still here and who will remain here forever. Here in Normandy, they rest in the peace they were fighting for.
I smile when our guide shares an interesting thought: The crosses and burials are angled so they face the United States. Our soldiers are looking home.
Visiting the Normandy American Cemetery
Approximately 1 million people visit the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer each year, honoring those of the highest courage, character and conviction and remembering they gave the ultimate sacrifice. The cemetery is free to visit and open to the public almost every day of the year. Check the website for the few holiday closures (such as Christmas Day) and shorter opening hours in the winter months. Here are a few things not to miss on your visit:
- Garden of the Missing: When you first enter the cemetery, you walk through this memorial and garden. It lists the names of more than 1,500 Americans who are missing from the war.
- Military Maps: Right after the garden you will find two enormous maps. The maps share details of the military operations and landings on D-Day and the strategy of the days that followed.
- “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves”: This bronze statue sits in between the two maps. It symbolizes the young American men who quite literally rose out of the waves and stormed the Normandy beaches.
- There is a tiny chapel in the middle of the cemetery. The ceiling is of two angels – one looking over an American soldier and the other holding a soldier who has passed.
- Every day at 4 p.m., a brief ceremony is held around the two American flag poles. The flags are lowered and removed for the evening. Our guide shared that the flags are mailed to a living family member with a connection to someone buried in the cemetery. The following morning, two brand new flags are raised and flown for the day.
Normandy Visitor Center
The Normandy Visitor Center is just outside the Normandy American Cemetery. The exhibits inside tell the stories of many of the 9,380 Americans buried in the cemetery. Like the American Cemetery, confirm that the visitor center will be open should you visit on a holiday.
A Trip to Normandy: Travel Planning Tips
Where to Stay in Normandy
After tons of research, we made Bayeux our home base while visiting Normandy. It is centrally located to many of the places of interest (and there are many Normandy tours from Bayeux), but there are also plenty of things to do in Bayeux. There are many sites to see related to the war, as well, such as the Bayeux War Cemetery and Memorial. View all available accommodations in Bayeux with Booking.com.
Book a Private Guided Tour in Normandy
There are nearly 200 tourist offices in Normandy, and you can find an endless amount of information in books, museums, websites and documentaries. But a guide can dramatically enhance your experience (and drive you around!) because it’s much more personal. Like Johann, a private tour guide customizes your tour and shares personal stories and, above all else, they help you comprehend the complexity of D-Day and the war in general.
D-Day Tour Experience
Johann is a natural storyteller. His passion for the subject is evident, and he has immense respect for those involved in World War II. His timing and delivery are just right, giving you enough time to reflect on what he just said before continuing. His grandfather was a French prisoner of war held in a work camp in Germany. He shared stories from his grandfather and his grandmother, who lived in German-occupied France throughout the war. I highly recommend a tour with him if your schedules line up.
Note: I did not receive any concessions or benefits in exchange for reviewing Johann’s tour. In fact, he doesn’t even know I own a travel site. He did such an exceptional job that his praise here is deserved.
How to Get to Normandy
There are ferries to Normandy from England and Ireland, as well as several other cities in Europe.
Paris to Normandy Train
Take the high-speed train from Paris to Caen. From Caen, you can rent a car or meet your guide. You can also take the high-speed train from Paris to Bayeux. Your guide can easily meet you at the Bayeux train station. Both journeys take roughly two hours. The Trainline is one of my favorite booking sites for train travel in France.
Best time to visit Normandy Beaches
Any time of the year is ideal for visiting Normandy. Many restaurants close in the wintertime, as there aren’t as many visitors. We enjoyed visiting during this time. It was quieter. Museums were nearly empty, and there were few people at the sites.
What is the closest airport to Normandy?
The closest airport to Normandy is in Caen (Caen-Carpiquet), although most international visitors fly into the Paris airport.
There you go! I hope this reflection helps you plan your travels to Normandy. Please reach out if you have any questions – always happy to help!
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