If you’re spending more than a few days in Paris (and you’re American!), I would bet that visiting the D-Day beaches is on your bucket list. With the closest beaches being a 3+ hour drive from the city, you might wonder if it’s possible to do a day trip or how to best squeeze everything in. As with most things in travel, you have a few options!
HOW TO SEE NORMANDY BEACHES FROM PARIS
First, you could do a guided bus tour. This is pre-arranged, itinerary travel that’s expensive but easy. I generally stay away from this kind of thing because I like to be in control and save money, but a pre-fab tour can be less stressful, and sometimes you can save money depending on the number of people in your party (if it’s just you for instance). I found that prices for a one-day tour started at $175 per person including the train ticket between Paris and Normandy. There’s no flexibility to what you get to see, but you do have the bonus of getting a knowledgeable tour guide to point out things you might otherwise miss. I’d recommend this as a great option for a solo traveler or someone who isn’t comfortable navigating Europe on their own.
Next, you can rent a car and make your own schedule. This obviously requires a lot more planning up front, which is most likely why you’re consulting this blog post 😉 but it comes with a lot of freedom and you can save a ton of money. Staying overnight would be ideal if you want to spend more time, you don’t want to wake up really early, you don’t like stressing over timelines, or you want to squeeze in some other sights (like Etretat or Mont St. Michel!).
You might wonder if you can take a train to Normandy and go on foot from there. Unfortunately, this isn’t really an option as all the beaches are pretty spread out and there isn’t good public transit connecting them. You could technically take a train or bus to Normandy and rent a car from there, but that would be expensive, complicated, and time-consuming so not something I would recommend considering unless you’re planning to stay in the region for several days.
We were working with limited time in Paris, 4 people (the perfect number for renting a car vs. buying bus or train tickets), and sticking to a schedule wasn’t stressful for us, so we rented a car and did what we could in a day! Here’s how we did it, if you want to replicate our plan or get ideas for your own trip.
RENTING A CAR
Wait, first let’s talk about renting a car. We enjoyed having the freedom of our own car, but it came with the extra hassle of picking up and parking the car in the middle of central Paris. Also, because of the long day, we had to rent the car for 2 nights. It averaged out fine price-wise compared to a paid tour, but involved the extra steps of parking the car for two nights in the city. In the end, the extra hassle was worth it for us, but it could end up being overly complicated depending on your personality, timeline, and experience driving in European cities.
The added challenges of renting the car included:
– Finding the rental car company (ours was located underground so the entrance wasn’t obvious)
– Scheduling our evening so that we could pick up the car before the rental company closed, but not too early so we wouldn’t have to pay extra for parking
– I would say transacting the car, but we speak French so it wasn’t bad for us (usually people speak English, but our rental car person didn’t have great English so there’s always that possibility to be mindful of if you don’t speak the language)
– Finding parking in the city that wasn’t too expensive or too far from our apartment (Whit found an app/website that showed a lot of options!)
– Paying for parking
– Driving through the city (the GPS took us the fastest route which ended up being through literally all of the most touristy/heavily-trafficked areas – including the giant lane-less boulevard circling the Arc de Triomphe! On the way back we did get to drive straight into the city with a view of the Eiffel Tower lit up in the darkness which was one of the highlights of my time in France, so I think it was worth it!)
– Paying for tolls (France has a ton of them! Be prepared to not need a lot of gas and whatever money you saved on gas from getting good mileage on tolls. In real terms, you will probably need about 1 tank of gas (~70 euros) and ~30-60 euros in tolls for each leg of the trip.)
– Taking time the day after the trip to return the car
Okay, so now that I’ve definitely scared you off from renting a car in central Paris, let’s move on to the rest of the adventure! Heh heh.
5:30am Meet up, pick up car from parking garage
6am Leave Paris
8am Pit stop and breakfast/coffee
10am Arrive at Airborne museum in Sainte-Mère-Église (3h40m drive from central Paris)
12:45-1:15pm Drive to Pointe du Hoc (30 min)
1:15-2:45pm Pointe du Hoc
2:45-3pm Drive to Omaha Beach (15 min)
3-5pm Omaha Beach and American Cemetery
5-5:30pm Drive to Arromanches
6:30-7pm Drive to Caen
8pm Drive back to Paris
9:30pm Pit stop
– We spent a lot of time absorbing as much as we could from the Airborne museum – it was truly fascinating! We lingered a bit too long though which set us back the rest of the day.
– We grabbed hot dogs for lunch from a food truck across from the museum, but I can’t guarantee that you’d have the same luck. Packing a lunch would be much quicker. Also, add in time for bathroom breaks! (There’s a public restroom nearby the town square.)
– We spent a good 2 hours at Pointe du Hoc because again, SO much to see! I wish we’d paced ourselves better though so we wouldn’t have gotten to Omaha so late.
– We only got to the American Cemetery about 15 minutes before it closed at 5pm, and it was a strict closing time (they ushered everyone out very quickly), so we really didn’t get to take in very much. We all would’ve liked more time here.
– To make up for missing the cemetery, we went to a nearby museum we had passed on the way that looked interesting (Omaha Beach Memorial Museum). It wasn’t as fancy, but it had a lot of local relics and tons of information. Overall I got weird vibes from how much Nazi stuff it had in proportion to other things so to me it just didn’t feel quite right. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as I think you could find other ways to use your time, but for a rainy day it might be a good choice.
– There were a lot of restaurants in Caen, including some yummy-looking ethnic options. We chose a quaint crêpe place, next to a candy store selling the best homemade caramels I’ve ever had!
WHAT WE SAW
Saint-Mère-Église and Airborne Museum
Saint-Mère-Église is the name of the town where there was a huge fire on the night before D-Day. On June 5, parachuters (airborne operations) were flown in to prepare the way for the beach landings the following day. That night, their surprise attack was called to attention because of a fire in the middle of the town. Fighting and chaos ensued. The Airborne Museum, located in the center of town (across from the church where several parachuters landed and got stuck), is the perfect introduction to the sights and events of D-Day. By starting at D-Day Minus 1 you get a feel for everything going on leading up to the storming of the beaches.
The airborne operations were crucial to the success of the entire mission. Wikipedia explains, “The success of the amphibious landings depended on the establishment of a secure lodgement from which to expand the beachhead to allow the buildup of a well-supplied force capable of breaking out. To slow or eliminate the enemy’s ability to organise and launch counter-attacks during this critical period, airborne operations were used to seize key objectives such as bridges, road crossings, and terrain features…”
The museum is incredible – there are actual planes, tanks, tents, parachutes, uniforms, memorabilia that soldiers gave to townspeople, anything you could think of! You can walk around and look at it all, with stories about each item. Its interactive-ness is state-of-the-art. You each get an ipad with entry, and as you walk or point to different things, you have the option of zooming in, watching a video about that person or scenario, and can read stories or tidbits. Then, several of the rooms are set up with surround-sound and moving figures to make you feel like you’re in the middle of it all. You get to learn about lots of individuals’ stories which I won’t soon forget. Highly, highly recommend. (10 euros per person)
Pointe du Hoc
Pointe du Hoc is a beach located halfway between Utah and Omaha beaches. Its higher altitude with German anti-aircraft guns made it a threat to the teams planning to storm the other beaches. By visiting, you can see a good view of the coast with the cliffs that the Allied soldiers scaled, craters created by bombing, and the original bunkers. At the site, there is a parking lot and some helpful signage with information about what took place there. (Free entrance.)
Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery
Omaha Beach was part of the American sector and had the highest number of allied casualties (around 2,000 soldiers were wounded or killed during the invasion). You can walk on the beach and visit the memorial statue.
The American Cemetery is where 9,387 soldiers are buried including 4 women and 307 unknown soldiers. The space is very somber and respectful and it also has a really nice tribute and memorial for reflection. There’s also a visitor center, which we didn’t have time to see, but imagine is really nice. (Free admission.)
That’s all we had time for (including the Omaha Beach Memorial Museum, which I talked about above), but if we had managed our schedule better we would’ve liked to visit Arromanches as well. I’d recommend planning about 3-4 beaches/museums depending on your pace. You can follow our schedule or switch it up based on your interests. I’m including all of the main sites below to help you plan your trip!
Overall, doing a day trip is definitely possible, and allows you to get a lot of time at a few places. However, there’s a lot of driving and navigation involved, and there’s plenty more to see, so if you are a real history buff or the war was very meaningful to you because of family members who served, etc., staying overnight would definitely be worth it.
I hope this was helpful! Please chime in with other useful information or tips if you have them!