Caen is one of those Norman cities that took damage during the war but didn’t look back, and so now fuses the modern with the historical. Before the Norman Conquest of England it was the home city William and Matilda, and both are buried here in noble romanesque abbeys.
Caen is awash with greenery, as you can see at the Château de Caen, an august park where William’s home stood until the French Revolution, now scattered with captivating historical fragments like the old gatehouses and walls. The city is also an easy ride from the D-Day beaches, the Belle Époque resort of Cabourg and Bayeux where the famous tapestry is displayed.
Lets explore the best things to do in Caen:
1. Mémorial de Caen
Founded in 1988, the Mémorial de Caen is on top of an underground bunker from which the German general Wilhelm Richter coordinated the defence of Normandy’s beaches on D-Day.
You can walk through this 70-metre-long tunnel and then head up for broader exhibits about the Second World.
The Mémorial de Caen describes itself as a “museum for peace”, with a message of hope.
The galleries chart the build-up to the conflict, the French occupation, holocaust and then the post-war era.
There’s a newer exhibition about the Cold War, with artefacts like an East German trabant car and a piece of the Berlin Wall.
2. Abbey of Sainte-Trinité
This Norman romanesque abbey was founded in the middle of the 11th century by Matilda of Flanders, who was the wife of William the Conqueror.
Matilda’s tomb is in the abbey church and marked by an unassuming black stone with a Latin inscription laid at the time of her death, unlike William’s whose tomb at Caen’s Abbaye aux Hommes has been repeatedly updated.
The church is the only part of the abbey open to the public as the remainder holds government offices, but has lots to recommend it and provides several guided tours a day.
In the apse and choir try to get up close to the sculpted capitals, one of which shows William the Conqueror holding two lions on leashes, taken as prizes during the first crusade.
3. Château de Caen
In the middle ages Caen’s citadel, built by William the Conqueror in 1160, would have been a monumental landmark; even today it’s easy to get a sense of the dimensions in the park where the donjon and many houses used to be.
There are compelling fragments remaining, like the foundations of William’s residence, as well as the walls and two formidable gatehouses, which are still standing.
These defences are mostly from the Hundred Years’ War in the 1400s and the ramparts grant you a fantastic panorama of Caen.
It’s now a place for Caen locals to relax, with large lawns, two museums and a cafe.
4. Abbaye aux Hommes
William the Conqueror established this abbey in 1063 to gain absolution for marrying Matilda of Flanders, who happened to be a cousin.
The building is another Norman romanesque treasure, with the stern, unembellished walls of the western facade crowned by more decorative gothic towers.
The must-see inside is William’s tomb, which has been in the chancel since 1087, while the wooden choir stalls and pulpit were crafted in the 1600s.
The convent buildings are quite unusual in that they escaped damage in both the revolution and the Second World War: In the cellar below the refectory is a medieval apple press still in working order.
5. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen
In the Château de Caen, the city’s fine arts museum displays 350 works leading you on a voyage of discovery through French and European art from the 1300s to the present day.
The galleries are weighted towards the renaissance and baroque, with pieces by Nicolas Poussin and Rubens, as well as Italian masters like Veronese and Tintoretto.
The French movements during the 19th century are also well-documented, like romanticism from Delacroix, landscape painting by Boudin and realism by Courbet.
There’s also a new contemporary wing and sculpture garden with works by Antoine Bourdelle and Huang Yong Ping.
6. Musée de Normandie
The other museum at the Château de Caen covers Normandy’s thousands of years of history and is in what used to be the governor’s residence.
In the prehistory section you can view 7,500-year-old ceramics, as well as tools and arrowheads discovered at a site in Vierville and Neolithic burial items discovered in Ecajeul.
In the classical history section the museum’s unmissable exhibit, The Mother Goddess of Saint-Aubin-Sur Mer, a large and expertly carved Roman sculpture discovered in a well in 1943. You can also find out more about how the Vikings came to settle in Normandy in the 10th century, as well as traditional Norman costume and savoir-faire, with engaging exhibits about cider and cheese-making down the years.
7. Église Saint-Pierre
Caen’s majestic gothic and renaissance church is identified by its soaring spire, 76 metres in height and restored after it was hit by a shell in the Second World War.
Saint-Pierre was built in several stages from the 1200s to the 1500s, the older parts being the choir, tower and facades.
On the north side is a rose window famed for the lightness of its stonework.
Inside take time to survey the magnificent gothic vault in the choir and the late-gothic ambulatory chapels.
Then, on the north side of the nave are carved capitals with characters from Arthurian epic poems.
If you know your stuff you’ll recognise Lancelot here.
8. Timber-Framed Houses
One of the reasons there aren’t as many timber-framed houses in Caen as other French medieval cities is that in 1524 this style of construction was abolished by the Norman Parliament as it was considered a fire hazard.
But there are two examples remaining and they’re both grand: Near the Church of Saint-Pierre is the Maison des Quatrans, with timber and daub on a stone base.
It’s the oldest house in the city and was built by a rich tanner.
Then at 52 and 54 Rue Saint-Pierre is a pair of four-storey 15th-century colombage houses, both anchored by high street shops but with fabulous carvings in their timbers.
9. La Colline aux Oiseaux
It’s hard to believe that this tranquil mosaic of gardens northwest of the centre was once the site of the city dump and waste incinerators! The park was opened in 1994 to commemorate D-Day, and the name, “Hill of the Birds” is actually a reference to the mounds of rubbish that attracted flocks of birds.
Now it’s a place of repose for families and couples, with a large rose garden, a boxwood maze, a scale model of Normandy and several other small gardens commemorating cities around Normandy and Caen’s twin towns.
If you have kids in tow, call in at the zoo, which has tame farmyard animals for them to meet.
10. Jardin des Plantes
Also well worth a sunny stroll is Caen’s botanical garden, where 8,000 plant species are planted in 5,000 square metres of peaceful plots, including a medicinal garden, arboretum and various horticultural collections, all scrupulously arranged.
The original iron and glass greenhouses were sadly lost in the war, but were replaced in 1988 by an exotic greenhouse open from 13:00 – 17:00 and containing a nationally-recognised collection of rhipsalis cacti, peperomia succulents and sansevierias, which are native to southern Asia and Africa.
In the upper section of the gardens is a tree park where there’s a Japanese pagoda tree dating to 1750 and a redwood planted in 1890.
11. Festyland Parc
Moments from Caen is Normandy’s largest theme park.
But Festyland Parc is by no means big by theme park standards.
You can do it all in half a day and the attraction guarantees a fun few hours for the youngest members of the family.
Festyland Parc is spread across four zones inspired by Normandy’s own past: Viking, Medieval, Pirate and Belle Époque.
There are two rollercoasters, four splash rides and an assortment of smaller attractions like flying chairs, a 3D cinema, adventure playground rocking boat and a petting zoo with goats, which you can find in the Viking zone.
12. Château de Bénouville
This stately home in the countryside northeast of Caen was designed by Claude Nicolas Ledoux, one of France’s 18th-century neoclassical innovators who created a host of monuments in Paris, particularly the tollgates around the Wall of the Ferme Générale.
The château is held as one of the best surviving examples of his work and today is home to the European Institute of Gardens and Landscapes.
You can visit between June and September to revel in the sumptuous interiors and see horticulture and landscaping exhibitions.
On D-Day the grounds saw some fighting, despite serving as a maternity hospital at the time.
13. Memorial Pegasus
You’ll be transported back to a vital D-Day operation at this memorial a few minutes north of Caen.
The Pegasus Bridge crossed the River Orne and held pivotal strategic importance, and was captured on the night of 5-6 June to safeguard the Allies’ eastern flank.
The bridge, which dates to 1934, has been preserved and transported to the memorial a short way from its original position on the Orne.
At the museum you’ll get insights about the operation led by the British 6th Airborne division using Airspeed Horsa gliders, a replica of which is on display.
In summer one of Normandy’s top beaches is only 25 kilometres away through green farmland.
Plage de Cabourg is more than three kilometres long and extremely wide when the tide goes out.
Marcel Proust loved coming here at the turn of the century, and In Search of Lost Time’s resort of Balbec is supposedly a fictionalised version of Cabourg.
Proust would stay at the marvellous neo-renaissance Grand Hôtel, which is still in business today on the beach.
Cabourg is also your chance for some time-honoured seaside activities like ambling along the endless promenade, playing mini-golf and maybe taking a dip in the invigorating Channel waters!
15. Food and Drink
Dauntless diners can sample one of the city’s signature dishes: Tripes à la mode de Caen, made with the four parts of a cow’s stomach and a cow’s trotter.
This was William the Conqueror’s favourite dish, which he enjoyed, as you can, with local Norman pressed apple juice.
Apples are of course used to brew Normandy’s famous cider, as well as the apple brandy Calvados.
At the patisserie order a grignette, Caen’s own sweet pastry shaped a bit like a small baguette, dusted with confectioner’s sugar and topped with chocolate chips.