Welcome to historic Normandy

Just across the English Channel in northern France, Normandy is a beautiful coastal region with plenty to offer international holidaymakers.

With its rolling countryside, exquisite chateaux and wild beaches, Normandy has a rich landscape to explore; and with a thriving art scene and major historical sites, Normandy is a place you’ll want to visit again and again.

That’s where we can help. Read our in-depth travellers guide to Normandy, and we’ll tell you exactly what this fascinating region of France offers.

How to get to Normandy from the UK

By ferry

You have plenty of options to get a ferry to Normandy. Brittany Ferries runs services from: 

Portsmouth to Cherbourg – 8 hours’ journey time

Poole to Cherbourg – 4 hours 30 minutes journey time

Portsmouth to Le Havre – 6 hours 30 minutes journey time

High-speed service: Portsmouth – Cherbourg – Poole3 hours’ journey time

To travel from Dover, take the 2 hour ferry to Calais and then it’s a 2 hour drive down into Normandy.

By rail/road

It takes just 35 minutes on Le Shuttle to get from Folkestone to Calais and from there; it’s a picturesque drive into Normandy.

Take the A16 out of Calais and head alongside the coast to join the A28. There are plenty of places to stop along the way for a break and to take in some stunning views of the French countryside – be sure to stop at the Poteau maitre-Jean nature reserve, or the beautiful forest village of Fallencourt..

From Paris it is a three-hour drive up the A13 to Normandy, or more scenic drive via the N12, which takes just over three hours.

Please note that highways and motorways get crowded during holiday periods, particularly during August. Also, watch out for tolls when planning your route.

Top Tip: Use a GPS or make sure you’ve enough data on your phone for Google maps to take the stress out of your journey.

Getting around in Normandy

By road

Most visitors to Normandy either bring their own car or rent one when they are there. It is the easiest way to get around in the area. Given that most people want to explore the huge coastline, having a car gives you the most flexibility to do this.

Public transport/car hire

To encourage the use of public transport in Normandy, there is a single fare to pay on buses no matter how far you travel, which makes things simple for tourists. The La Carte Liberté is a pass which will grant you free travel on bus lines for 1, 2 or 7 days. You can buy tickets on the bus or at Tabacs or Presse near the bus stop. Each town will have its own bus service operator, but there is a single-fare policy throughout the region.

You can hire a car from all the major towns in Normandy if you want to drive yourself around. Rates will vary.

There are many D-Day Landings bus tours that will show you all the major sites. You can book onto these from all over the region. The company Normandy Sightseeing Tours operates out of Bayeux – offering half day/full day guided tours options starting at €65 for adults.

How big is Normandy?

With beautiful granite and limestone cliffs along its extensive coastline, Normandy covers just over 30,600 km2 in area – 29,900 km2 of which comprises the mainland. Bordered by Brittany in the southwest and ILE-de-France to the southeast, Normandy joins the English Channel in the North and also includes the Channel Islands, even though they are British Crown Dependencies.

Normandy’s historic and picturesque coastline is 350 miles long and features three UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Mont-Saint-Michel, Le Havre and The Fortifications of Vauban – more on these later). Inland, you’ll find Regional Natural Parks (such as the Perche Regional Natural Park and the Normandie-Maine Regional Natural Park), the River Seine and stunning areas of woodland. With a population of 3.5 million, Normandy makes up 5% of the total population of France with a pleasing balance of rural and urban areas.

Départements

Normandy comprises five departments: Seine-Maritime, Eure, Calvados, Manche and Orne. From the stunning coastline of Caen in Calvados to the beautiful cliffs at Etretat in Seine-Maritime, the scenery never ceases to impress. Inland you will find wooded hills overlooking the Seine at Marais-Vernier in Eure and the rolling countryside of Orne.

With metropolitan Rouen providing plenty of entertainment, you won’t be stuck for things to do, and the bay at Mont-Saint-Michel provides one of the most stunning views in all of France. This region has a unique blend of maritime and rural culture.

Cities in Normandy

Rouen

With its iconic cathedral – often, and famously, painted by Monet – Rouen is the cultural centre of Normandy. Stretching out along the Seine, you’ll find riverside bars and restaurants, as well as beautiful new parks and gardens. Only Paris beats it for the number of listed monuments – Rouen is one of the oldest cities in Europe, and where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake. Rouen is a beautiful mediaeval city and well worth spending a day exploring.

Caen

Caen makes the perfect base for exploring the coast of Normandy. The city was the scene of heavy fighting during the Battle of Normandy and is the location of a fantastic mediaeval castle among many other buildings built during the reign of William the Conqueror – it has plenty for tourists to enjoy. After a busy day sightseeing, relax with a drink next to the stunning central marina and watch the world go by.

Le Havre

A World Heritage site, Le Havre was rebuilt in the aftermath of the Second World War after suffering severe damage. Architect Auguste Perret was the mastermind behind the rebuild, as La Havre reinvented itself.

Recently dubbed a ‘hipster heaven’ by the Independent, be sure to visit the Museum of Modern Art André Malraux, and take a walk to the beach – just 500 yards from the city centre.

Cherbourg

A key city in French naval history, Cherbourg is a fascinating port. It was the last place the Titanic stopped before embarking on its fateful journey, and is still a popular stop for cruise ships today. There is also an umbrella factory!

History, culture and everything you need to know before visiting Normandy

A potted history of Normandy

As illustrated by the region’s many megalithic monuments and cave paintings, the history of Normandy stretches back to the prehistoric era. The region’s first documented residents were Celts, known as Gauls, who settled in Normandy during the Bronze Age. In 56 BCE, when Julius Caesar and his Roman army conquered the region, there were nine different Celtic tribes in the area.

During the 5th and 6th centuries, Anglo-Saxon pirates frequently raided Normandy from the north and Germanic tribes would invade from the east. During this time, Normandy became under the rule of the Frankish lord, Clovis.

The River Seine provided the perfect route for Vikings to enter the region and so they continued to raid until they captured the area in the late 9th century. Created for the Viking leader Rollo – ‘Normandy’, reflects the word ‘Norsemen’.

These Vikings, over generations, would become Normans – French-speaking Norsemen and indigenous Gallo-Franks. William, a direct descendant of Rollo, later led the Normans to conquer England in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings.

Normandy remained part of the English territory for nearly 300 years then reclaimed during the reign of King John. The territory continued to be disputed between the English and French monarchs until 1801.

Normandy, as a region, kept a low profile during the turbulence in France during the 19th century – just accepting the various changes to the regime.

During the Second World War, though, the area became an incredibly important region. German Forces occupied both the mainland and the Channel Islands until 6th June 1944 when a large-scale Allied invasion took place – the D-Day landings. 

Culture (museums, historic ruins, architecture)

You’ll find some of Europe’s most impressive historical sites in Normandy. From the vast D-Day Landing Beaches to the fascinating museums, Normandy has so much to offer those with even a slight interest in modern European history.

There is so much to see that it will probably take over one trip, but be sure to see the artificial harbour at Arromanches – created by allied troops following the D-Day landings to act as a temporary harbour. At its peak, around 20,000 tons of equipment was unloaded there in a day. The Arromanches 360 museum in the town is another great attraction.

If you like your history a little more Mediaeval, then the stand out exhibit is the Bayeux Tapestry. Depicting the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 by William the Conqueror, this 70 metre long tapestry has its own museum in Bayeux and is one of the most important artefacts in world history. See it in person to fully appreciate it.

It’s not just history that Normandy excels in, though. Widely recognised as the birthplace of Impressionism. Visit Giverny, on the banks of the Seine, and go to the House and Gardens of Claude Monet – witness the famous water lily ponds first hand and see his home, which has kept the furniture and Japanese prints that he loved. Just walking around the village you will get a sense of what inspired the Impressionist movement – it is stunning.

Modern-art lovers should visit the picture-perfect village of Beuvron-en-Auge – now the home of artist David Hockney. See the sights that made him fall in love with the area and inspire him every day.

Weather

As a northern maritime region, Normandy has a milder climate than many other parts of France. In the winter it can experience long periods of rain, but the temperatures are usually warmer than in the UK – getting to 3°C and 7°C in January when it is at its coldest.  

For warm weather, the best times to visit are between May and the end of August. It doesn’t reach the sweltering temperatures of the South of France, but you can expect averages above 20°C, occasionally reaching around 30°C in July and August.

The further inland and south you go, the warmer the temperature will get.

Best time to visit

The best time to visit Normandy to experience some warm weather, without having to wade through crowds of holidaymakers, is May, June or early September. Outside the school holidays, but during the warmer months. Note that the French school holidays usually start earlier than in the UK, at the start of July. 

As with any coastal region, I would always recommend packing for slightly chillier weather and the old downpour – a nice waterproof jacket should definitely be in your suitcase.

Why you should visit

You go to Normandy for the history; you stay for the scenery.

Because of the obvious draw that history brings to the area, the scenery is often overlooked. On the coast, you have the expansive beaches and inland there is acre after acre of glorious countryside and quaint villages. I strongly advise that you allow enough time on your trip to just sit back and take in the surroundings.

5 must-sees in Normandy

Mont Saint-Michel

This is an obvious place to start, as you get two UNESCO World Heritage Site’s for the price of one here. First, the Abbey – an awe-inspiring Gothic structure that soars over 100 metres above the sea. A popular pilgrimage destination that becomes an island when the tide is in.

Then you have the bay itself – simply stunning and must see visit.

Eglise Jeanne d’Arc

The city of Rouen is where Joan of Arc was tried and subsequently burned at the stake. She then became a saint and this contemporary church stands in the city as a dedication to her invincible spirit – right on the spot where she died. Built in 1979, I consider this church a masterpiece of modern minimalist architecture.

Caen Memorial Museum

A fascinating place to start any tour of World War Two sites in Normandy, the Caen Memorial Museum is an important reminder of the sacrifices made during the conflict. Focusing on not just the D-Day landings, but also the German Occupation of France, this tells us the story of a war that destroyed three-quarters of Caen. It also houses the Centre for History and Peace in Normandy, promoting the idea of reconciliation after war.

Château de Fontaine-Henry

Around 14 km outside of Caen you will find the most spectacular Château in Normandy – Château de Fontaine-Henry. Dating back to the 13th century, it has been privately owned for generations, but the current owner does occasionally lead guided tours, which are a must if you can get on one.

There are plenty of walking paths around the grounds for you to enjoy, as well as traditional games and a mediaeval garden.

Le Bec-Hellouin

They don’t make them like this anymore. A stunning little village packed full of old-world charm, Le Bec-Hellouin, is in a tranquil valley, surrounded by open space and trees.

You’ll want to stop and admire every half-timber building or eat at every quaint little restaurant, but the major attraction is the Abbaye Notre-Dame du Bec, founded in the 11th century and still a working monastery to this day.

Normandy must do’s

When you need a break from the bountiful supply of art, history and culture that Normandy offers, visit one of the many popular seaside resorts.

Whether it’s Deauville, the glamorous destination with two kilometres of shoreline and a promenade, or Fécamp, France’s original seaside resort dating back to 1832 – famed for attracting a high-society crowd, there is a lot to be said for kicking off your shoes and relaxing to the calming sounds of the sea. Make the most of being in this fantastic region and spend some time by the sea.

If you fancy something more inland, try the Suisse Normande. A huge stretch of countryside in Lower Normandy, this idyllic area features rolling hills, dense forests, steep gorges and exquisite lakes – the perfect area to stop over and just take in some beauty.

All the cities in Normandy are worth a visit, but make sure you fit in a trip to La Havre. The post-war rebuild has created a fantastic style in the city – 20th century architecture in a beautiful coastal setting.

Eating out in Normandy

Local markets in Normandy

To get a real flavour of Normandy, visit some of the local markets. Most towns and cities will have their own – here are some of the best:

Caen: Along the marina every Sunday you will find the largest market in the city, or, for a more luxurious setting, try the Place Sait-Sauver on a Friday morning

Saint-Pierre-Sur-Dives: The market that has been running for around a thousand years, this is an incredible experience. 290,000 chestnut pegs hold together the oak beams in this Norman barn!

Rouen: There are plenty of markets in Rouen but you’ll find the most famous is the Saint-Marc market, held on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and the biggest one which is on Sundays. Local produce and plenty of non-food bargains to be had here.

Dieppe: Every Saturday morning you will find around 200 stalls in central Dieppe – the biggest market in the region with fresh-fruit, seafood, herbs, cheeses and plenty of non-food stalls as well. If you only make it to one market in Normandy, try to make it this one.

What to eat and drink

As you would expect, given its coastal location, seafood is a staple in Normandy, but given the vast countryside, fruit, dairy and meat are also incredibly important to the culinary make-up of the area. Food is incredibly important to the region. It is the leading region in France for scallop fishing, and it is an area that prides itself on its oysters and muscles.

The local cheeses are varied and delicious, including Camembert, and the cream and apples that are produced here are incredible. Cider is a very important drink here as well.

You should try salt-marsh lamb from Mont-Saint-Michel or black pudding from Mortagne-au-Perche. If you have a sweet tooth, try some Teurgoule – a cinnamon rice pudding. Normandy is also the birthplace of brioches, so be sure to pop into a bakery to try one.

Where to eat?

La Taverne Paillette 22 rue Georges Braque, Le Havre: Dine on some of the finest seafood that Normandy offers – overflowing bowls of muscles and delicious seafood platters.

SaQuaNa 22 place Hamelin, Honfleur. A two-Michelin-starred restaurant with fantastically inventive dishes – mixing the far-east with the local cuisine.

Le Jardin des Plumes, 1 rue du Milieu, Giverny. Just the one Michelin star here, but a beautiful setting to sample some incredible dishes using the finest produce from the region.

Bar à Huîtres, place du Vieux Marché, Rouen. For a more relaxed dining experience, try the Bar à Huîtres. Sit at the horseshoe-shaped bar and try the special, which is changed daily but always a delicious seafood dish.

Where to stay in Normandy

This charming little apartment in the heart of Rouen will provide you with the perfect base for a city break, but with great access to the coast. 1 bedroom, but could sleep a family of four.

https://www.vrbo.com/en-au/holiday-rental/p1505358a?adultsCount=2&noDates=true&uni_id=1678359


This apartment is all about the sea view – you’ll have everything you need and in a location that is perfect to explore the D-Day Landing sites. Sleeps 2.

https://www.vrbo.com/en-gb/p1728314?adultsCount=2&preferlocale=true


Another place that is perfect to explore the Normandy beaches – this fantastic little cottage is in the seaside town of Lion-sur-Mer. Great for a couple.

https://www.vrbo.com/en-gb/p6703330?adultsCount=2&preferlocale=true

Conclusion

As you will have seen, there is plenty to enjoy in wonderful Normandy. I hope this article has inspired you to book yourself a trip to take in the fantastic history, culture and food. Thanks for reading and happy travels!

Alex Whybrow
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