From the Norman invasion of England in 1066 to the D-Day landings of 1944, Normandy has long played an outsized role in European history. This rich and often brutal past is brought vividly to life by the spectacular and iconic island monastery of Mont St-Michel; the incomparable Bayeux Tapestry, world-famous for its cartoon scenes of 11th-century life; and the transfixing cemeteries and memorials along the D-Day beaches, places of solemn pilgrimage.
Lower-profile charms include a variety of dramatic coastal landscapes, plenty of pebbly beaches, some of France’s finest museums, quiet pastoral villages and architectural gems ranging from Rouen’s medieval old city – home of Monet’s favourite cathedral – to the maritime charms of Honfleur to the striking postwar modernism of Le Havre.
Camembert, apples, cider, cream-rich cuisine and the very freshest fish and seafood provide further reasons to visit this accessible and beautiful region of France.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Normandy.
Mont St-Michel's one main street, the Grande Rue, leads up the slope – past souvenir shops, eateries and a forest of elbows – to the star attraction of a visit here, a stunning ensemble crowning the top: the abbey. History Bishop Aubert of Avranches is said to have built a devotional chapel on the summit of the island in 708, following his vision of the Archangel Michael, whose gilded figure, perched on the vanquished dragon, crowns the tip of the abbey’s spire. In 966, Richard I, Duke of Normandy, gave Mont St-Michel to the Benedictines, who turned it into a center of learning and, in the 11th century, into something of an ecclesiastical fortress, with a military garrison at the disposal of both abbot and king. In the 15th century, during the Hundred Years War, the English blockaded and besieged Mont St-Michel three times. The fortified abbey withstood these assaults and was the only place in western and northern France not to fall into English hands. After the Revolution, Mont St-Michel was turned into a prison. In 1966 the abbey was symbolically returned to the Benedictines as part of the celebrations marking its millennium. Mont St-Michel and the bay became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979. Guided tours Most areas of the abbey can be visited without a guide, but check if the 1¼-hour tour is running; English tours (usually) begin at 11am and 3pm from October to March, with three or four daily tours in spring and summer. You can also take a one-hour audio guide tour, available in 10 languages. Tickets and other practicalities Tickets and audio guides should be booked online in advance. Audio guides are available for a small fee, and must be requested as part of your advance booking. Benedictine monks hold services in the abbey, which are free for worshippers.
For a very insightful and vivid account of the entire war, with special focus on the Battle of Normandy, Le Mémorial is unparalleled – it's one of Europe’s premier WWII museums. A hugely impressive affair, the museum uses film, animation and audio testimony, as well as many original artefacts, to graphically evoke the realities of war, the trials of occupation and the joy of liberation. It is situated 3km northwest of the city centre, reachable by bus 2 from place Courtonne.
The world’s most celebrated embroidery depicts the conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066 from an unashamedly Norman perspective. Commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William’s half-brother, for the opening of Bayeux’ cathedral in 1077, the well-preserved cartoon strip tells the dramatic, bloody tale with verve and vividness as well as some astonishing artistry. Particularly incredible are its length – nearly 70m long – and fine attention to detail.
Monet’s home for the last 43 years of his life is now a delightful house-museum. His pastel-pink house and Water Lily studio stand on the periphery of the Clos Normand, with its symmetrically laid-out gardens bursting with flowers. Monet bought the Jardin d’Eau (Water Garden) in 1895 and set about creating his trademark lily pond, as well as the famous Japanese bridge (since rebuilt). The charmingly preserved house and beautiful bloom-filled gardens (rather than Monet’s works) are the draws here.
Looming above the centre of the city, Caen’s magnificent castle walls – massive battlements overlooking a now dry moat – were established by William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, in 1060. Visitors can walk around the ramparts and visit the 12th-century Église St-Georges, which holds an information centre with a diorama of the castle, and the Échiquier, which dates from about 1100 and is one of the oldest civic buildings in Normandy. The castle affords splendid visuals over the town at sunset.
It's impossible to miss this cliff, as the shingle beach bends around off to the southwest, with its natural arch and solitary needle. You will spy miniature figures climbing up the precarious steps and over the grassy slopes to a viewpoint down to the needle, or Aiguille, a 70m-high spire of chalk-white rock rising from the waves. You can join them, or also walk out to the arch at low tide (but watch you don't get caught by the water).
Under Richard the Lionheart's command, Château Gaillard was built with unbelievable dispatch between 1196 and 1198, securing the western border of English territory until Henry IV ordered its destruction in 1603 (it first fell in 1204). Admission to the inner bailey, upper court and dungeon are by ticket, but there is year-round entry to the château grounds where you can explore the outer bailey. The tourist office has details on tours (€4.50, in French with English-speaking guides), held on request.
Near the waterfront, this luminous and tranquil space houses a fabulous collection of vivid impressionist works – the finest in France outside Paris – by masters such as Monet (who grew up in Le Havre), Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley. You'll also find works by the Fauvist painter Raoul Dufy, born in Le Havre, and paintings by Eugène Boudin, a mentor of Monet and another Le Havre native.
Perret’s masterful, 107m-high Église St-Joseph, visible from all over town, was built using bare concrete from 1951 to 1959. Some 13,000 panels of coloured glass make the soaring, sombre interior particularly striking when it's sunny. Stained-glass artist Marguerite Huré created a cohesive masterpiece in her collaboration with Perret, and her use of shading and colour was thoughtfully conceived, evoking different moods depending on where the sun is in the sky – and the ensuing colours created by the illumination.