Updated: Aug 18
On June 6, 1944, Allied forces from the United States, Great Britain, and Canada launched the largest naval assault in history. D-Day, also known as Operation Overlord, involved landing close to 133,000 troops across five beaches, in addition to 23,000 paratroopers in the surrounding countryside. How can you see the best sites of D-Day without having to hire a tour guide? Here is a three day itinerary that highlights some of the most noteworthy locations related to the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Day 1: Bayeux
Cobblestone streets, delicious food, and its location along the peaceful Aure River make Bayeux the perfect place to stay on a trip to Normandy! The drive from Paris to Bayeux will only take about 3 hours, so you can leave after breakfast and be there by noon.
Many people also stay in Caen, but we chose Bayeux because of its central location and small town appeal. We stayed near the Bayeux Cathedral and loved it! The area was adorable, and we were able to walk to restaurants and shops very easily. I recommend staying in Bayeux the first day; explore the sights, get a good dinner, and go to bed early to prepare yourself for a full day.
Where to Stay
I highly recommend staying at the Maniore Sainte Victoire. I can not say enough about this charming little bed and breakfast. In the heart of the medieval historic district, this renovated manor has beautifully decorated rooms, a relaxing inner courtyard, and a family dining room that feels like home. Oh, and the view from our bedroom in the "tower" wasn't bad either!
The owner is friendly and helpful, and served the most delicious food every morning. It felt as though we were having breakfast with an old friend. We found ourselves delaying our start each morning because we were so engaged in conversation with him!
What to Do
You absolutely MUST see the Bayeux Cathedral and Tapestry. Bayeux Cathedral, or Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, is a Norman Gothic cathedral that was first dedicated in the year 1077 by William the Conqueror. Now a national monument, it's a miracle that this cathedral withstood the war and sustained such little damage! The famed 68-meter tapestry dates back to the 11th-century, and beautifully depicts the 1066 Norman invasion of England. Originally in the cathedral, the tapestry is now on display nearby at the Musee de la Tapisserie de Bayeux.
The cathedral sits as a stunning centerpiece of this medieval city, but the area around it is worth exploring as well. The Place de la Liberte, next to the cathedral, holds the beautiful Arbre de la Liberte. The "Liberty Tree" was planted in 1797 in honor of the French Revolution and is still standing today! On summer evenings, you can even catch a light and sound show dedicated to peace and freedom, projected onto the tree.
Be sure to stroll through the historic center and the park along the River Aure to see the old Bayeux Mill. Keep an eye out for remnants of the war, we stumbled upon quite a few memorials and plaques dedicated to specific companies of troops. You will find that Bayeux has a special place in its heart for British troops, as they were the ones who liberated this town. The most prominent example of this is the Bayeux War Cemetery. With the graves of nearly 5,000 soldiers who fell in Bayeux and the surrounding areas, it is the largest Second World War cemetery of British war casualties in France. Other sites to see include the Museum of the Battle of Normandy and the Baron Gerard Museum of Art and History.
Day 2: The Path to Freedom
Utah Beach: Walk in the footsteps of those who were willing to sacrifice their lives for the freedom of others.
One of the beaches where American troops landed on D-Day, Utah Beach has monuments dedicated to the various military branches and memorials for the men who fought and died there. The Utah Beach Museum uses exhibits, artifacts and oral stories to tell the story of D-Day, from the preparation of the landing to the final outcome and success.
Whatever you do, do not leave without walking down to the beach itself. Choose one of the paths and take your time, soaking in the gravity of what happened here. Make your way down to the beach and walk along the water. It will take your breath away, and provide for some really beautiful pictures.
Another consideration is to plan your visit here first thing in the morning to avoid large crowds. We were so glad we arrived early, as we found the beach itself to be almost empty! The buses with tour groups began arriving around mid-morning. Plan to spend about 3 - 4 hours to fully experience Utah Beach.
Sainte-Marie-du-Monte: The Airborne Drop Zone
When you leave Utah Beach, drive out on D913 towards Sainte-Marie-du-Monte. Also named the Route de la Voie de la Liberte (Path to Freedom), this road shows the route the Allies took from Utah Beach to begin the liberation of France.
For history buffs and Band of Brothers fans, watch carefully on the right side of the road about half-way between Utah Beach and Sainte-Marie-du-Monte. There is a monument to Lieutenant Dick Winters of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, who led his company in successfully taking out a German battery of guns despite being greatly outnumbered.
The guns were located at Brecourt Manor Farm, hidden by hedgerows and connected by trenches. Winters and his company of 12 men overtook a 50 man platoon of German troops that were firing on Utah Beach. This effort cleared the way for American troops on the beach to begin their push inland.
The town of Sainte-Marie-du-Monte itself is a tiny little village. If you don't watch carefully, you may even drive right past it. Although small, its role in the battles of D-Day was not insignificant, and It is definitely worth a stop on your tour.
The small square and church in Saint-Marie-du-Monte had a strategic importance during the invasion. German and American soldiers alternately held the church tower until the Americans finally took control and liberated the town. The fighting took its toll here; you can still see bullet holes and other scars of war in the walls of the church and surrounding buildings.
The Church at Angoville-Au-Plain: Bravery under Fire
This small church in the countryside may not seem like it would hold much importance in a war. Despite its small size, however, it played a vital role in the success of the Allied invasion. A large number of U.S. Paratroopers missed their drop zones and were scattered across the countryside, many of them landing in this area. Separated from their companies, they were immediately targets for German soldiers who were already in positions of power.
Despite being under fire, it was at this church that two U.S. Paratrooper Medics set up an aid station on D-Day. These brave men were able to provide life-saving care to countless soldiers under the most extreme conditions. On the church grounds is a simple memorial and cemetery that pays homage to what happened here.
However, a peek inside the church hauntingly tells the full story. With battle scars on the roof and walls still visible, you almost feel as if you've stepped back in time. The stained glass windows are proof that here, even 75 years later, the bravery of these men has not been forgotten.
Sainte-Mere-Eglise: The Liberation Begins!
Dropped into the area on the evening of June 5th and early morning of June 6th, U.S. Paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions coordinated their landings in order to support the forces landing at the beaches.
Despite landing zones being missed in high numbers, paratroopers were able to organize themselves and connect with other companies; thus beginning the slow process of liberating the region. The quiet town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise was the first to be liberated by U.S. troops. Still thankful after so many years, the town holds a two-week celebration every year to commemorate the event.
The church at Sainte-Mere-Eglise is also famous for one particular event of the landings. During the landings, an American Paratrooper's chute got caught on one of the spires of the roof. Although he was cut down and captured by the Germans, he was able to escape and help with the liberation of the town! Just one of many amazing stories you will find here. We were actually lucky enough to be here at the same time as one of the actual heroes of this story. There was an American veteran visiting the site, and blessed those of us there with a few stories of his own. It still brings back chills even as I write about it today.
Sainte-Mere-Eglise is exactly as you would picture a French town, and is a nice place to take an afternoon break. The square around the church has several cafes and restaurants, as well as souvenir shops that we found to be less expensive than some of those near other sites. You might even be able to squeeze in an afternoon visit to the Airborne Museum in town if you start your day early enough!
Carentan: The Crossroads of the Allied Assault
Carentan was vital to the success of the Allied invasion, as it was surrounded by marshes and was the only crossing point between Utah and Omaha Beaches. U.S. Paratroopers met fierce resistance from the Germans and suffered tremendous casualties. It took six days of bombing, artillery fire, and hand to hand combat to take Carentan from the Germans.
* Full disclosure: I have a strict policy to only write about places I have actually been to myself. However, I can't write about D-Day without including Carentan due to its importance in the success of the Normandy campaign. We only gave ourselves two days for this trip and had to cut Carentan out, which is why I recommend three days. It will be the first stop we make on our next visit!
Day 3: Remembering History
Normandy American Cemetery: "Think not only of their passing; remember the glory of their spirit."
To say that this is hallowed ground doesn't even come close to capturing its significance. The first American cemetery on European soil in World War II, and being mostly comprised of those who died on D-Day and in the following invasion, this one place brings so much into perspective. Nearly 10,000 American heroes are buried here, all who gave their lives for a cause much greater than any one man or woman.
If you follow any advice about visiting the Normandy American Cemetery, let it be this. Take your time! Starting here first thing in the morning will give you the best chance to avoid tour groups and large crowds. Explore the entire cemetery, taking in the beauty of the grounds and memorials; it will be well worth your time!
Omaha Beach: Devastation of the D-Day Assault
If you take D514 from Colleville-sur-Mere, you will find the peaceful shores of Omaha Beach. The quietly lapping water is in stark contrast to what occurred here on the morning of June 6, 1944. On this same beach, 34,000 American troops went up against a heavily fortified German position on the bluffs above.
Amidst an onslaught of machine gun fire and a network of land mines, they pushed on, and had overtaken the German position by nightfall. Allied forces here withstood the heaviest fighting and suffered the biggest losses of the D-Day assault. The drive here is definitely worth a visit to the monument and memorial museum on site.
Pointe du Hoc: Stories of Bravery
Continuing westward on D514 will take you to Pointe du Hoc, a section of cliffs overlooking the two American landing beaches of Omaha and Utah. The German gun position at this point above the beaches would have been devastating for the Allied assault had it not been for the men of the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion, who scaled the 100 foot cliffs to take the position from the Germans. A monument erected on top of a German bunker pays honor to the heavy losses these heroes suffered. The area has been left much the way it looked at the time, with trails winding in and around the battle scarred bunkers and craters left from the U.S. Naval assault.
In the years that have passed since D-Day, very few of the quiet heroes from the greatest generation that ever lived remain. But if you stand very quietly on the cliffs, and beaches, and battlefields of Normandy, you can still hear their stories; stories of bravery and sacrifice, of heartbreak and loss, and ultimately, of victory.