Mostly known as a ferry port, Cherbourg-Octeville has a lot more strings to its bow: The Cité de la Mer museum for example will take you back to the golden age of transatlantic travel and is housed in a cavernous Art Deco ocean liner terminal.
Cherbourg also has the largest man-made harbour in the world, taking seven decades to complete and still guarded by sea forts at its entrance. Combine this with the fortified Roule Hill and the town takes on a tough military air, but there’s a more peaceful side. The Cotentin Peninsula is a verdant chequer board of apple orchards, cider presses and châteaux with landscaped gardens.
Lets explore the best things to do in Cherbourg-Octeville:
1. La Cité de la Mer
Cherbourg’s showpiece is this great science and history museum inside the harbour’s former Transatlantic maritime terminal.
This 240-metre-long Art Deco hall was finished in 1928 and in its time was full of amenities including its own post office.
The museum opened in 2002 and draws on its legacy.
There’s a space devoted to the Titanic, which called into Cherbourg five days before it sank.
And on the military side of things you can board France’s first nuclear submarine, Le Redoutable, launched in 1967. Kids will also be wild for the aquarium, with 17 tanks (including the tallest in Europe) holding 4,000 marine creatures.
2. Rade de Cherbourg
Anyone fascinated by seafaring will want to see more of the largest man-made harbour in the world.
This was unveiled in 1853, after 70 years of work on a scale that outstripped any other project of the age apart from the construction St Petersburg.
In July and August there are four tours a day aboard the 82-seater Adèle.
This boat departs from the Pont Tournant and makes a pick-up at the La Cité de la Mer, before sailing off into the 1,500-hectare harbour.
You’ll see the kilometres of seawalls and three fortresses, all the while getting amazing facts and figures about this record-breaking site.
3. Musée Thomas-Henry
Set in a purpose-built gallery, Cherbourg’s fine arts museum has a formidable assortment of painting from the 15th to the 19th century.
The museum’s patron in the 19th century was the art patron Thomas Henry who donated a collection including Murillo, Jacob Jordaens, Rigaud, Poussin and Vouet.
A young Jean-François Millet, later of the Barbizon School, came to sketch these paintings.
Years later, the museum acquired the second-largest assortment of Millet’s work after the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Also from the 19th century are sublime pieces by Boudin, Théodore Rousseau and the Impressionist Paul Signac.
4. Parc Emmanuel Liais
Emmanuel Liais was mayor of Cherbourg twice towards the end of his life, but before that he had dabbled in everything from exploration to astronomy and botany.
During his travels through Brazil and the Far East he gathered specimens that he brought back to Cherbourg.
Many of the 400 plant species in the greenhouses at this botanical garden descend from these expeditions.
The garden is free and no more than 10 minutes on foot from the Pont Tournable.
You can get acquainted with strange species like the African Encephalartos, which has an edible trunk and can live for 1,000 years.
Outside there are rhododendrons, palms and a stunning Monterey cypress.
5. Basilique Sainte-Trinité
Among Cherbourg’s oldest buildings is this 15th-century church, which has seen a lot of conflict in its time.
The church’s predecessor was destroyed in the 100 Years’ War, while this one needed a lot of reconstruction after being sacked during the Revolution.
When it was restored at the beginning of the 19th century it became one of France’s first Neo-Gothic churches.
From Place Napoleon you can survey the church’s impressive flying buttresses and sculpted pinnacles.
Then inside there are very unusual reliefs above the arcades in the nave, which were carved in the 1400s and portray a Danse Macabre in memory of the plagues that had recently swept the region.
6. Musée de la Libération
Atop the Montagne du Roule, the highest point in the town, is a museum dealing with the liberation of Cherborug, which took place on 25 June 1944. The site, 117 metres above the Channel, adds a lot to the attraction: The museum is in a fortress from the rule of Napoleon III, built at a time of raised tensions between Britain and France, and later fortified by the Germans who excavated tunnels in the hill.
The galleries inside recount life in Cherbourg during the war, as well as the events of June 1944 when this became the first major French port to be liberated by the Allies.
As you leave the museum you’ll be confronted by a wonderful panorama of the historic harbour.
7. Batterie du Roule
The system of tunnels dug by the Germans under the fort are open to the public on a guided tour arranged by Cherbourg’s tourist office.
You’ll don a hard hat with a headlamp and go into a network of chambers excavated to serve the heavy artillery installed here to defend the harbour.
The battery was classed as a French historic monument in 1995, and the reinforced concrete openings still look impenetrable more than 70 years after they were built.
As you explore the tunnels you’ll be able to see bats hanging from the ceilings.
8. Parc du Château des Ravalet
On Cherbourg’s eastern outskirts is a delightful Renaissance property in picturesque grounds.
The Château was built between 1562 and 1575 using an alluring blue schist for its material.
This house is private, but does open its doors on French heritage days several times a year.
The rest of the time it sets the scene for the gardens, which are open all year round and recognised as a “jardin remarquable”. The gardens as they appear now were landscaped in 1872, with winding paths, centuries-old trees, two ponds, a grotto and an exquisite 19th-century greenhouse.
9. Local Gardens
Given the abundance of greenery on the Cotentin Peninsula you could spend a day hopping from one show garden to the next.
Moments from Cherbourg is the Renaissance Château de Nacquevill, with an English-style garden landscaped in a little hollow with azaleas, arums and distant views of the sea.
The Château de Vauville meanwhile has a botanical garden with 1,200 different species from the Southern Hemisphere.
These subtropical ferns, palms and colourful flowers are nourished by a balmy microclimate and contrast with the dignified stone architecture of the castle.
Cherbourg isn’t famed for its beaches, and a lot of the neighbouring coast is windswept and wild.
But on hot days there are a few bays not far away.
Querqueville on the west side of Cherbourg’s enormous harbour walls is the nearest family beach: This is a long sandy bay with playgrounds for youngsters, a bar and a restaurant.
You have to go a little further for the best in the area, Plage de Sciotot.
But the 20-minute drive is worth it, as this is a Blue Flag beach in a cinematic natural environment.
There’s low, rolling surf that is monitored by lifeguards in summer and a generous sweep of golden sand to relax and play on.
One of France’s “most beautiful villages”, Barfleur is a cute old port founded by the Normans 1,000 years ago.
There are rows of sweet, granite cottages with slate roofs, as well as the Norman-style Church of Saint-Nicholas.
This has a square tower and looks like it would be at home in an English village.
In fact, several things tie Barfleur to Britain: One being that William the Conqueror’s ship, the Mora, was piloted by a young man from this town.
There’s a plaque by the water to commemorate this fact.
Barfleur is also an important site for shipping communications, and the Gatteville Lighthouse nearby is the third-tallest in the world, at 75 metres.
12. Cap de la Hague
Head west for this headland at the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula.
It’s an expanse of verdant, hedge-marked fields on the heights of the granite cliffs.
In places these can be spectacular, like at Joburg where they rise to 128 metres.
Amateur geologists might be excited to know that these Precambrian cliffs and outcrops are some of the oldest rocks in France, dating to the earliest period in the Earth’s history.
You can also see what you can find in the countryside in La Hague, where idyllic hamlets with low stone houses are sheltered from the sea winds.
In the 19th century Jean-François Millet would set up his easel in these quaint old settlements.
13. War Attractions
War buffs have a lot to sink their teeth into within minutes of Cherbourg-Octeville.
Head south to Écausseville for the Hangar à Dirigeables, a 30-metre-high concrete hangar built in the First World War for airships used to spot German submarines in the Channel.
The Airborne Museum is near here in Sainte-Mère-Église and tells the story of the American paratroopers who landed in this part of Normandy on the night of June 5 1944. There are vehicles and weapons, and you can step inside a C-47 aircraft to imagine what it might have been like that night.
Last up is another attraction in the parachute zone, the Dead Man’s Corner Museum, which is housed in a German command post and is brimming with weapons, equipment, machinery and other memorabilia.
14. Cidrerie Théo Capelle
The lush Colentin countryside just south of is laden with hedgerows and orchards growing apples for cider and calvados apple brandy.
One such farm is only 15 minutes away in Sotteville.
If you have a taste for French “cidre”,the Cidrerie Théo Capelle is a must.
There’s a video explaining everything that goes into a bottle of cider, and you can peruse the calvados distillery and the cellar where the cider is stored in oak barrels, all on an hour-long tour.
You’ll be able to taste the cider, calvados or pommeau (a brandy-apple juice blend). And the you can spend some time in the gardens, taking a picnic and getting to know Jasmine and Ficelle, the farm’s donkeys.
15. Food and Drink
Cherbourg-Octeville is also a productive fishing port landing mackerel, plaice, rays, hake, as well as crustaceans and shellfish like crab, lobster, scallops and mussels.
There are three major shellfish farms along the coast here so you can be sure that your seafood will be as fresh as possible.
The town also falls under Normandy’s Camembert and Pont-l’Évêque AOC cheese-making region, while apples, another regional trademark, are grown up and down the cotentin Peninsula.
As well as making cider, calvados and pommeau they go into loads of pastries, cakes, pies and desserts like crêpes with caramelised apples.