Normandy is known for its long sandy beaches and extensive rolling coast. But there is so much more to explore in this extraordinary region. From the emotion of the D-Day beaches to rocks and river valleys, charming villages with half-timbered houses and cities full of history and amazing restaurants. Normandy offers something for everyone. During Ascension weekend we went on a little road trip and absolutely loved the diverse France region. You can easily spend two weeks in Normandy as there is so much to discover. We only had 5 full days, so we mostly visited the highlights, which gave us a good introduction into the region.
Day 1: Ghent to Mont Saint Michel
Drive time: approximately 6 hours – 585 km
As we only had 5 days to explore Normandy we decided to drive to the farthest spot on our itinerary first. We left quite early in the morning, so we could make it to the Mont Saint Michel before noon.
Admire the Mont-Saint Michel
The Abbey of Saint Michel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited places in France. In 708, Saint Aubert from nearby Avranches initiated the construction of Mont-Saint-Michel in honor of the Archangel Micheal .
Seeing the Mont-Saint-Michel rise from the sea, leaves quite the impression. I honestly have to say though, that visiting the Mont-Saint-Michel, was my least favorite place during our trip. We were there on Ascension Day and it was so busy, that we had to visit the entire city walking in line with other tourists. Which I absolutely hate doing. I love walking around and checking things out on my own pace, but that was just impossible here. The weather gods weren’t exactly in our favor either, so that might kind of have added to my frustration too. The medieval town itself is very charming though. We climbed the ramparts, took in the sweeping views over the sea and visited the abbey.
Day 2: Mont Saint Michel to Bayeux via D-Day Landing Beaches
Total drive time: approximately 2,5 hours – 187 km
Normandy played a key role in World War II. The D-Day Landings on 6 June 1944 were the largest and most complex airborne and amphibious military operation of all times. The Allies landed along 96 kilometers of beaches to set in motion the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. There were five separate landings to Operation Overlord. Code names for the 5 beaches are Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
Today you can visit these five beaches and several other memorials, museums, battlefields and cemeteries about D-Day in the region. Are they all worth a visit? I think so. But do we you have months to spend in Normandy and visit them all? Unfortunately not. After a lot of reading about the region and recommendations from friends and colleagues, we decided upon visiting Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc.
Visit Omaha Beach & Omaha Beach Memorial Museum
We spend the morning at Omaha Beach. This is where American troops suffered the most on D-Day. Historians agree that the landing on Omaha Beach was the most difficult as the beach turned out to have the largest number of German troops. Also, stormy weather and navigation issues led to men drowning before they could even reach the beach. Those who did make it onto the beach faced a fortified sea wall and high bluffs from where German artillery rained down on them.
Visiting the D-Day Beaches is an essential thing to do in Normandy. As I feel like we owe it to pay our respects to the brave men that fought so hard for our freedom. I wish we had more time to visit some of the other sights too. Prepare yourself for an emotional experience. When walking on the beach it’s hard to believe that such a beautiful and tranquil place was the scene of such sadness.
After seeing the beach itself, we decided to visit Omaha Beach Memorial Museum. The museum showcases an important collection of uniforms, vehicles, personal objects, weapons. There’s also a very interesting film, with veteran’s testimonies, that guide you through the story of the D-day landing on Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc.
Visit Pointe Du Hoc
We then made way to Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach. During World War II it was the site of a series of German bunkers and gun batteries. As the remaining site was largely forgotten, after the fighting stopped, the bunkers are very much as they were left in June 1944. Since the late 1970s, this part of France has been managed by the United States and attracts many visitors.
A walk on Pointe du Hoc takes about an hour, if you walk the whole circle. Which I would recommend doing, and not only because of the important history, but because the nature is very beautiful too (despite the many craters that you’ll find there). The beauty of nature is a stark contrast to the facts of history, which are so tangible here.
Marvel at the Bayeux Tapestry
In the afternoon we drove up to Bayeux. You can find some very interesting museums in the city (Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy and the Museum of Art & History Baron Gérard). However as we only had time for one more museum, we visited the world famous Bayeux Tapestry.
The Bayeux Tapestry, almost 1000 years old, tells the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William the Conqueror became King of England. It is a unique masterpiece, 70 meters long, showing historical events and the way of living in the 11th century. This was such a highlight for me as I had been fascinated with the tapestry since I was a child.
Get Lost in charming Bayeux
While you’re in Bayeux, wander around the old city center. You will come across some lovely half-timbered houses, Gothic architecture and elegant mansions. Bayeux is truly one of the most charming towns in Normandy. Be sure to keep an eye out for the historic waterwheel. This notable landmark makes an appearance in most photos taken of the city, so obviously we had to capture it.
In the center of the Old Town is the Cathérale Notre-Dame, which originally housed the Bayeux Tapestry. As it’s been built over several centuries, it combines different architectural styles. Such an impressive building!
Day 3: Bayeux to Deauville & Honfleur
Drive time: approximately 1,5 hour – 97 km
Glitz it up in Deauville
Deauville is located on Normandy’s Côte Fleurie and is one of the most beautiful seaside escapes in France. Known for its chalky white cliffs and colorful flowers, Deauville is often called the ‘Parisian Riviera’ and has been considered a top destination for the rich and famous since the 1800s. We only spend the morning in Deauville, which just gave us the time to wandering around the town and admire the architecture of the iconic grand hotels Le Normandy Deauville and Le Royal Deauville.
Also worth the stop are Les Planches. Since 1975 the city of Deauville organizes the Festival of American Film. Plenty of movie stars have been welcomed there. The actors and actresses come to The Planches to inaugurate their name, painted in black letters on the rails that separate the beach cabins. A kind a Hollywood Boulevard “à la française”.
Wander around the Old Port at Honfleur and enjoy the local gastronomy
Honfleur is one of the most beautiful cities in France and it’s worth the trip to this stunning seaside town, even just for the food and the architecture. Located in the Calvados region of Normandy, Honfleur is one of the best places to try calvados, a spirit made with apples.
The city’s medieval harbor, the Vieux Bassin, is what made me fall in love with Honfleur many years ago. It’s the most frequented place of Honfleur, all around the basin there are restaurants and cute cafes.
The best way to explore Honfleur is by wandering the side streets. They’re just so many half-timbered houses and cute little corners to stumble one. Make sure not to miss the Saint Catherine’s Church. France’s largest timber-built church was constructed in the 15th century. It was built using naval construction techniques, which gives the impression of an upside-down ship’s hull.
Day 4: Honfleur to Rouen via Etretat
Drive time: approximately 2 hours – 134 km
See the White Cliffs of Etretat
Etretat is famous for its striking rock formations carved out of white cliffs, similar to the White Cliffs of Dover in England. There’s no better way to see the cliffs, arches and sea in all their shining glory than from a bird’s eye perspective. Although the walk up to the cliffs is quite strenuous, the views will make it worth your while. La Falaise d’Aval, La Manneporte and La Falaise d’Amont offer the best viewing points.
Les Jardins d’Étretat offer an amazing view upon the ‘Needle’ rock cliff. The gardens consist of seven separate gardens which combine landscape design, contemporary art and sound to offer an immersive experience. This was such a cool place to visit.
My friend decided to also climb La Falaise d’Aval, but I wanted to relax on the beach a bit and explore the town. The center of Etretat is adorable and bustling with tourists and locals alike. Filled with cute boutique shops, bars and restaurants, it’s a vibe for sure!
Day 5: Rouen to Ghent
Drive time: approximately 3,5 hours – 326 km
Visiting Rouen, the capital of Normandy, was one of the highlights of our road trip for me. It’s an often overlooked city and I have to admit that it hadn’t been on my list either until researching it some more. If you’re planning a trip to Normandy, make sure to add Rouen to your travel plans. There’s a lot of interesting history to explore.
Wander around the Old Town
Rouen has the most wonderful medieval center. You will come across the most colorful half-timbered houses and an adorable street with colorful umbrellas.
One of the city’s highlights is the Gros-Horloge which dates back to the 14th century. The monument is made of an astronomical clock from the Renaissance period, a belfry housing the city’s bells and an arch spanning the street beneath it.
The City of a Hundred Spires
Rouen is nicknamed “the city of a hundred spires” because of the many churches and abbeys. One of the city’s most remarkable churches is the Rouen Cathedral. The Viking Leader Rollo became the first Duke of Normandy and was baptized in the cathedral 915 and buried here in 9232. The cathedral’s beauty has later on inspired some of the most notable Impressionist painters, like Monet, who has captured it many times in some of his many masterpieces. The Notre-Dame Cathedral is undergoing some renovations for the moment, but it remains such an interesting place to visit.
Another church worth visiting is the Church of Saint Maclou. It was built in 1437 in honor of Saint-Malo and it’s such a hidden gem in the city. Its Gothic architecture stands out amongst the half-timbered houses that surround it.
The Abbey of Saint-Ouen was one of the most powerful Benedictine monasteries in Normandy. Since the French Revolution, the abbey is no longer being used as a place of worship.
The city of Joan of Arc
Rouen is also the city of Joan of Arc, a national hero in France. She was tried and executed here. There’s an entire museum dedicated to educate people about the saga of Joan of Arc, but also to highlight the myths constructed throughout the centuries. Unfortunately Historical Jeanne d’Arc was closed when we in the city. Otherwise we definitely would have visited it!
Place du Vieux Marché (Old Market Place) is best known as the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. At the time, there was the Church of Saint-Sauveur, which has been replaced by the Joan Of Arc Church, a modern church with stained-glass windows. Besides, it is a bronze cross that marks the position of Joan’s stake. Despite the bloody past, nowadays Place du Vieux Marché is a lovely spot full of restaurants and shops. The place is excellent for people watching and hosts a daily market.
As this was a road trip, and we wanted to cover a lot of ground, we didn’t eat out that much. We often picked up a croissant at a local bakery or stopped for a sandwich and snacks along the road. The restaurants we did eat at, were very good, so I gladly share them with you.
Auberge Saint Pierre – At first it looks a bit touristy, but it’s actually a cozy spot that serves a delicious and affordable ‘Menu du Jour’.
La Mère Poulard – This ‘auberge’ started serving meals to pilgrims in 1888 and came highly recommended for their puff Omelettes. Today the restaurant is still very popular, as the lines to get a table were very long. We decided not to eat here though, as we felt that paying more than € 30 for an egg was kind of outrages. But I do want to share it with you guys, as it’s kind of the place to be at the Mont-Saint-Michel.
Le Gourmandises du Carrousel – A cozy coffee spot with a view upon the Deauville Carousel and designer boutiques. The crepe with Nutella was so good!
La Grenouille – My meal at La Grenouille was once again a feast! I’d been here many years ago and absolutely loved this restaurant. And believe me the food was still as amazing as back in the days. Go here for delicious Seafood Platters and Moules Frites.
La Cabane de Honfleur – Cute cafe with a view upon the Vieux Bassin. Try the Kir Normand.
Le Bel Ami – Mediterranean restaurant and wine bar that serves fresh and seasonal dishes. The staff was also super friendly!
Marcel Apero Bistro – Cute restaurant that serves traditional French cuisine. The Steak Frites was really good.
Dame Cakes – Adorable teahouse that serves the most delicious cakes. There’s also a little boutique with cute cutlery, teapots, …
Amarino – delicious Italian gelatos & macarons
Where to stay?
As for our accommodations we booked everything via Booking.com. We were kind of late in organizing this trip, so a lot of the hotels and Airbnb’s in the area were already fully booked. Leaving us with no choice than to book hotels I wouldn’t normally stay in. I’m pretty sure there are many better options, so I would recommend to plan your trip to Normandy way ahead, so you have plenty of choice.
• The easiest way to travel to Normandy from Belgium is by car. But know that Normandy is also easily accessible by rail, air and boat.
• From Paris Gare Saint-Lazare train station you can travel to Rouen, Le Havre, Dieppe, Fécamp, Evreux, Bernay, Lisieux, Deauville, Caen, Bayeux and Cherbourg
• Normandy is surrounded by three international airports; Paris Charles de Gaulle, Paris Orly and Nantes International Airport, with daily flights from destinations all over the world. Normandy itself boasts five airports mainly for domestic flights; Cherbourg Airport, Le Havre Airport, Rouen Airport but Caen-Carpiquet and Deauville Airports also run regular international flights.
• By ferry from the UK, Ireland, the Channel and Chausey Islands
• Currency: Euro (€)