Visiting Normandy’s sights means seeing monuments and scenery that we’ve known since childhood, first-hand.
This goes for Mont-Saint-Michel and the Bayeaux Tapestry, or all the scenes depicted in Claude Monet’s paintings, like the cliffs at Étretat, the harbour at Honfleur and the artist’s own gardens.
The impressionist movement was born in Normandy, inspired by Monet’s “Impression” of the sunrise at Le Havre.
Normandy was also famously the site of one of the most pivotal battles in the Second World War, and the coast is peppered with memorials, museums, bunkers and beaches .
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Normandy:
1. Étretat Cliffs
Étretat, in the Seine-Maritime department, is a small coastal commune in the middle of a pretty big seascape.
On both sides of the town and its pebble beach are gigantic white limestone cliffs with three natural arches and a 55-metre needle.
On the beach you can look east to La Porte d’Amont, the smallest of the arches, or west to the colossal L’Arche et l’Aiguille, an image immortalised by Monet and Gustave Courbet.
Past these landmarks is Étretat’s widest arch, La Manneporte, which you can get to with a brief but very scenic stroll along the top of the cliffs on the GR21 trail.
One of the world’s iconic man-made sights, UNESCO-listed Mont-Saint-Michel is a tidal island at the mouth of the Couesnon River where Normandy and Brittany meet.
The island’s steep slopes have been crowned by a monastery since the 700s, but the whole ensemble really took shape in Norman times, when ducal patronage funded the sublime abbey at the top, as well as the tough fortifications below.
Mont-Saint-Michel had great strategic value and was almost impregnable, never succumbing to British attacks in the Hundred Years’ War.
The zigzagging path up to the majestic abbey at the crest will feel like something out of a fantasy adventure, provided there aren’t too many tourists around!
Another of the scenes in Normandy that inspired the impressionists is this endearing old port in the Calvados department, just across the Seine from Le Havre.
The view of the harbour from the Quai Saint-Etienne is heart-achingly pretty, looking across to the tall, narrow slate-clad houses behind the masts of moored sailboats.
This is just the starting point, as you have to see Saint-Catherine’s Church, a timber construction built by shipbuilders in the 15th century and resembling the hull of a boat.
The bell-tower, also made of wood, was built some way from the church in case of fire.
4. Tapisserie de Bayeaux
This world-renowned Anglo-Saxon embroidery is 70 metres long and half a metre high, depicting the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England.
The tapestry is on display in its entirety in a glass case at this museum in Bayeaux.
A multilingual audio-guide clarifies every section as you go, from the visit of Harold Godwinson to Normandy to his demise at the hands of William the Conqueror’s forces on the battlefield in Hastings in 1066. Upstairs there’s also a short film to fill you in on the details and context, as well as an exhibition of contemporary artefacts.
5. Claude Monet’s House and Gardens
Monet lived at this elegant house in Giverny from 1883 to 1926. It’s now a museum, maintaining the artist’s home and studio as if he were alive.
It’s equally eerie and stirring to peruse the kitchen, bedroom, dining room, sitting room of one of the great artists, all very tasteful and colourful and not conforming to the dark tones in fashion in the late-19th century.
Lovers of Monet’s art will cherish the grounds, where the sunflowers, wisteria, Japanese footbridge and water lily pond appear can be clearly recognised from some his most famous works.
6. Tatihou Island
Like Mont-Saint-Michel Tatihou is a tidal island, opposite Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue.
At low tide you can walk across the oyster beds to get there, and when the sea’s up you can catch an amphibious craft.
It’s a site with lots of stories to tell, having witnessed a climactic naval battle between the Anglo-Dutch fleet and French in 1692 (12 French ships were sunk), and events during the Napoleonic war, when a British gun frigate grounded on the island.
It’s a peaceful place now, with a little maritime museum showcasing the finds recovered from the naval battles, a botanical garden and the bastion of the old sea fortress.
7. Notre-Dame de Rouen
This solemn cathedral is unique in France because its original 13th-century Episcopal palace is still part of the complex.
The cathedral itself is from the 11th century, a marvellous Norman gothic construction that was also the subject of a series of paintings by Claude Monet.
After renovations were made to the main spire in the 19th century, the cathedral, at 151 metres, was the tallest building in the world until 1880. Among the wealth of historical curiosities inside is the tomb of Rollo, a Viking noble who became the first ruler of Normandy in the early 10th century, and a tomb containing the heart of Richard the Lionheart.
8. Old Rouen
The historic centre of Rouen is one of the most delightful in France, with some 2,000 half-timbered houses, many of which are charmingly askew.
Nearly all of them date to before the 1500s, when this kind of building was deemed a fire hazard.
You can view these old buildings along pedestrianised cobblestone streets that also lead you past a host of gothic churches and sights like the Gros Horloge.
This is a marvellous astronomical clock, one of the oldest in the country, dating to the 1300s and installed above a renaissance archway from 1529. The Church of Saint-Ouen is also essential, a majestic piece of 14th-century Flamboyant Gothic architecture with an organ by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, considered one of the finest in the world.
9. Le Havre
While some bomb-damaged cities elected to restore their old architecture after the war, Le Havre took a bold approach, embracing the possibilities of concrete.
This radical redesign, spearheaded by Auguste Perret, has earned the centre of the city UNESCO status and will definitely catch your eye if you appreciate modern architecture.
This is typified by the Église Saint-Joseph, completed in 1956, which has a slightly classical appearance, but takes advantage of the great self-supporting strength of its building material by containing not a single column in its central section.
The André Malraux Museum of Modern Art should not be missed, as it contains the second-largest collection of French Impressionist painting in the country: Degas, Renoir, Manet, Gauguin and Monet are all here.
10. Gastronomic Experiences
Plenty of French delicacies are native to Normandy, two of the tastiest of which are the cheeses, Livarot and Camembert.
At the town of Livarot, in the Calvados countryside, you can take a free tour around the Fromagerie Graindorge to see how four Normandy AOP cheeses are made: Neufchâtel, Livarot, Pont l’Evêque and Camembert, heaven for anyone with a taste for great cheese.
This part of Normandy is also lush with apple orchards, producing cider (there are four museum devoted to this drink), and calvados, an apple brandy.
Hit the Route du Cidre for an itinerary of presses and distilleries.
11. Airborne Museum
In the commune of Sainte-Mère-Église is a museum for the paratroopers who landed in the Normandy countryside beyond the beaches on the 5th and 6th of June 1944. This location was chosen because it was the first village to be liberated by American troops, and because of one John Steele, whose parachute got caught on the belfry of the church leaving him stuck for two hours.
It’s on the site of a house that was burnt down in the fighting and displays a large amount of documentary footage and photographs, as well as weapons, tanks, planes and a WACO glider.
One part puts you in the very boots of a paratrooper, as you get to enter a C-47 that was used in the Battle of Normandy.
12. Omaha Beach
You don’t need to be a military historian to appreciate the poignancy of this historic battlefield between Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes and Vierville-sur-Mer.
It’s the site one of the defining events of the Second World War, and saw the bloodiest fighting of any of the D-Day beachheads on June 6 1944. There’s a monument by the road, and you can drop by at the Memorial Museum, which has first-hand accounts of life during the occupation and then testimonies by veterans about the attack in 1944. There are also exhibits of personal items belonging to soldiers from both sides.
13. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen
This art museum in Rouen is also vital if you love impressionism.
This has a lot to do with François Depeaux, a turn of the century industrialist and art patron, who donated his massive collection to the museum in 1909. Renoir, Degas and Monet all feature, but the museum also has galleries with works dating back to the 1400s.
In fact, every major movement is covered, and renaissance and baroque masters like Veronese, van Dyck, Rubens, Caravaggio and Velázquez are all represented.
There’s also a set of rare Russian icons spanning the 1400s and 1800s.
14. Abbaye aux Hommes
The finest romanesque building in Normandy, made from Caen’s characteristic butter-yellow limestone, is home to the tomb of William the Conqueror.
When you see his final resting place you may be surprised by the modern-looking tomb: This is because it has been opened, moved and even destroyed over the last millennium.
So now there’s a relatively understated 19th-century marker made of white marble.
The abbey’s tranquil cloister was rebuilt in the mid-18th century in the Tuscan style, and outside you can find small remnants from when it was fortified for the Hundred Years’ War: There are two towers on Rue du Carel and Rue Lebailly.
15. Château Gaillard
This forbidding fortress is on a spur next to a kink in the River Seine and dominates the commune of Les Andelys.
It was built by Richard the Lionheart in just two years at the end of the 12th century, and fell to Philip II in 1204. In the centuries that followed it was contested by the English and French, but has been in French hands permanently since 1449. It was then demolished in the 16th century, but despite this there’s a lot to see, including most of the keep and inner bailey and large parts of the outer walls.
The panoramas of the river and the green countryside around Les Andelys are also hauntingly picturesque.