Normandy’s beach resorts and WWII sites are great, but there is a lot more to see in this beautiful region of France. Here are five must-see destinations beyond Normandy’s beaches.
There’s more to Normandy than beaches
For Americans, a trip to Normandy, France, often consists of a day or two touring beaches, museums, and cemeteries connected with the Allied invasion of June 6, 1944.
For many Europeans, a trip to Normandy is a family vacation focused on enjoying the sea and sand at one of the region’s many seaside resorts.
(A few beaches attract both types of tourists. Omaha Beach, pictured here, is one of those.)
There’s nothing wrong with either of those options, as Normandy is a great place both to learn more about WWII and play on the beach.
However, some of the best non-WWII attractions destinations lie just a bit beyond Normandy’s beaches.
5 must-see must-see destinations beyond the beach
While not a single destination, one of the best ways to explore Normandy beyond the beach resorts and WW II museums and memorials is to simply get off the highways and visit some of Normandy’s small towns and villages.
Driving through the Norman countryside rewards travelers with glimpses of lost-in-time villages, rolling pastures framed by hedgerows, ancient farmsteads, and weekend markets bursting with local produce and cheese.
Bayeux is most famous for its namesake medieval tapestry. However, there are plenty of other things to see too, as the city goes back to the Roman era. And, since it wasn’t significantly damaged in WWII, Bayeux’s walkable historic core is filled with wonderful buildings large and small.
Visiting a tapestry may seem like an odd addition to best of Normandy attractions list. However, this 226 foot long embroidery depicting the Norman Conquest of 1066 provides both an intimate look at life during the middle ages and a contemporary record of this important historical event. Those dual roles are recognized in the inclusion of the Bayeux tapestry on the UNESCO Memory of the World list. On the other hand, this incredible work of art is also filled with humor. Think of it as a 1000 year old cartoon.
Once a great medieval port, Honfleur’s beauty is far less grand than that of Bayeux. This was a working town filled with merchants and traders from the 12th through 18th centuries. Today the historic harbor where merchant ships docked is filled with yachts. However, the city homes of those wealthy merchants still tower overhead and, beyond the harbor, delightful residential and commercial streets are lined with half-timbered structures. It’s a beautiful place to wander or just sit by the harbor with a drink.
Looking to add a bit of trippy culture to your trip? Check out the Satie Museum – there’s nothing else quite like it.
Claude Monet’s House and Garden
In 1883 Claude Monet bought a home in the French countryside at Giverny. He spent the next 43 years expanding his house, creating beautiful gardens, and painting what he had created. Today visitors can see his home and gardens – all of which were restored to look as they did when Monet was living and working here.
The extensive gardens are beautiful throughout the growing season. They are closed during the winter.
Even if you don’t recognize its name, you’ll recognize Mont Saint-Michel, the medieval abbey and fortress that seems to float in the sea.
Mont Saint-Michel is most famous for its abbey, a Romanesque and Gothic marvel constructed at the top of the island in the 11th century. But with a thousand years of history, the entire island fortress is crammed with interesting architecture and alleys. It’s a tiny, self-contained medieval world with great views over the bay and lots of restaurants and shops to serve modern visitors.
While this UNESCO World Heritage site is located on a beach, it offers a very different experience than you’ll find at a beach resort or a WWII site.
Plan your trip to see Normandy beyond the beaches
All of these destinations are easy to visit as part of a beach vacation or WWII history tour and offer the chance to see a very different side of Normandy.
And, of course, there are more than five must-see destinations beyond Normandy’s beaches. For example, I didn’t have a chance to visit Rouen, famous as the City of a Thousand Spires, otherwise I’m pretty sure this would have been the “Six don’t miss destinations in Normandy!” However, this list includes some of the very best and easiest to visit.
Getting to and around Normandy
Normandy lies to the west of Paris. All sights listed here are all within five hours driving time from Paris.
(Check the Normandy Tourism website for the full map.)
Monet’s garden in Giverny and the city of Honfleur are easy day trips from Paris. On the other hand, while Mont St Michel can be done as a (very long) day trip, you’ll enjoy your time more if you spend at least a night in Normandy. And, with all there is to see and do in Normandy beyond the beach, why wouldn’t you spend a few days exploring this beautiful region of France?!
Major highways through Normandy are modern and well maintained. However, the best way to tour Normandy is via the narrow, winding, and sometimes poorly marked local roads. Consider getting lost part of the journey and enjoy the discoveries you make along the way.
Visitors can also get to all of these destinations using public transportation, although some connections may not be direct.
Normandy is a lovely region and there are plenty of enjoyable sights, so it’s a good place to slow down and tour at a relaxing pace
Lodging in Normandy
While Normandy is small enough to explore from any one spot, travel can be very slow once you are off the main highway. Splitting your time between two or even three bases will allow more time to savor all that Normandy has to offer and less time sitting in your car.
We split our week in Normandy between five nights in a very rural farmstead not far from Avranches and one night each in Honfleur and Giverny. For photographers, an overnight at Mont Saint-Michel is probably worth the price. (I’ll do that the next time we are in the area.) Those looking for a more urban experience than most Norman villages offer would easily find what they need in Bayeux or one of Normandy’s other larger cities.
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