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Normandy (Normandie in French) is a French Region located in Northern France, bordered by La Manche (the English Channel) and facing the United Kingdom. Normandy offers visitors a stunning coastline, picturesque harbors, and elegant seaside resorts.
Normandy’s countryside is also interesting to visit, dotted with châteaux, manors and the delightful reliefs of Norman Switzerland.
Normandy is the land of Impressionism, a movement inspired by Monet’s “impression” of the sunrise at Le Havre.
History lovers will be fascinated by the history of Normandy, exploring the D-Day Landing Sites, the medieval streets and cathedral of Rouen, Château Gaillard, and Mont Saint-Michel, the wonder of the western world. This is also the land of King Richard Lionheart, William the Conqueror or Jeanne d’Arc.
The Region of Normandy is divided into 5 departments: Seine-Maritime, Eure, Calvados, Manche, and Orne. There’s so much to see and do in Normandy that you cannot miss this wonderful region when visiting France!
Top Things to See in Normandy France
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Normandy, France. The list of main attractions in Normandy includes sightseeing, sea towns, lots of architecture, history, and gastronomy.
Mont Saint Michel
Be moved by the Mont Saint-Michel, Wonder of the Western World. This amazing Benedictine abbey is one of the main attractions in Normandy so if you can spend only one day in Normandy, head to Mont Saint-Michel.
Mont Saint-Michel is located on a rocky island at the mouth of the Couesnon River, where Normandy and the Region of Brittany meet. The area is known for its high tides which let the Abbey inaccessible for some hours.
The first structures of this religious site were built in the 10th century. Since then, magnificent monastic buildings were added through medieval times. The spectacular Gothic architecture that we can see today is from Norman times thanks to the ducal patronage.
The abbey dedicated to Saint-Michel became a renowned center of pilgrimage and learning, attracting some of the greatest minds and manuscript illuminators in Europe. Mont Saint-Michel had also great strategic value and was almost impregnable, never succumbing to British attacks in the Hundred Years’ War.
DID YOU KNOW? It is possible to sleep in the heart of Mont Saint Michel at La Mère Poulard, the only hotel located on the island.
We recommend visiting Mont Saint Michel with the highest tides, the site is really spectacular! You can check the tides calendar here.
Côte d’Albâtre (The Alabaster Coast)
From Dieppe to Étretat, the Alabaster Coast is a land of majestic cliffs, extraordinary valleuses (natural depressions in the cliffs), beaches and picturesque fishing villages.
Enjoy amazing landscapes bathed with by the changing light, this is the land of Impressionists! Painters like Monet, Turner, Courbet, Pissarro or Renoir put out their easel outdoors in this land to capture its beauty.
Stimulated by the beauty of this Norman setting, Monet painted more than 100 pictures along this coast between Dieppe and Varengeville. Then, he fell in love in love with Étretat, captured in some of his masterworks. This unique port, with its extraordinary rock formations, also captured the attention of Eugène Boudin and Gustave Courbet, who painted more than fifty views of its coastline and sea.
Jumièges Abbey was founded in the 7th century and it was one of the most important Benedictine monasteries in Normandy and France.
The first building was destroyed during the Viking invasions in the 9th century. As these Norsemen settled in Normandy and turned to Christianity, one of their early leaders, William Longsword, reinstituted a monastery here from the mid 10th century.
In 1040, building began on the vast abbey, often described as the first major Romanesque building in northern France, and it was consecrated in 1067 with the assistance of William the Conqueror. In the 13th century, when Jumièges was at the height of its power, the abbey church was given a Gothic choir end.
Jumièges established itself as a great center of medieval learning. Although clearly a very rich religious institution, it was renowned for its care for the poor.
From the 16th century and due to the French Wars of Religion, Jumièges went into rapid decline. The monks ran from fanatical Protestants who looted the place, wreaking devastation. After a small-scale revival, the abbey was badly damaged during the Revolution and it became a stone quarry for a time before it became State property and later opened to the public. The ruins that remain to this day recall the abbey’s greatness.
THE ABBEY ROUTE. Jumièges Abbey is part of a string of Norman religious buildings along the Seine, between Rouen and Le Havre. You can find more information on the Seine Abbey Route here.
Honfleur is one of the most beautiful communes in France. Located in the department of Calvados, on the Seine’s estuary, this old Norman port-city of more than 1000 years is today a place full of charm and the perfect base camp to explore the Pays d’Auge and the Côte Fleurie.
Honfleur was essentially built for commerce. Through the Ancien Régime, Honfleur’s shipowners made fortunes from trade, notably with North America. Samuel de Champlain, one of the most famous explorers associated with Honfleur, headed off to found the Canadian city of Quebec.
Honfleur offers visitors a rich historical and artistic past. Beyond the picture-perfect Old Bassin with its old and charming facades, there are also alleys with old, picturesque houses, the splendid wooden church of Sainte-Catherine, two salt granaries from the 17th century and much more.
The D-Day Landing Sites
People visiting Normandy can still see some of the historical sites related to the D-day Landings on a day or multi-day road trip. Actually, the D-Day Landing sites are today one of the top things to do in Normandy, France.
The Normandy Landing operations was the largest seaborne invasion in history. The invasion took place on the beaches of Normandy on Tuesday 6 June 1944 by the Allies. The operation, known as D-Day, was the beginning of the liberation of German-occupied France (and later Europe) from Nazi control and laid the foundations of the Allied victory on the Western Front.
These WWII sites are best explored on a road trip but you can also visit some of them on a (long) day trip from Paris. The best D-Day Landing Sites road trip itinerary includes the D-Day Landing Beaches (Omaha, Utah, Sword Gold, and Juno Beach), towns, and some war cemeteries and memorials.
Château Gaillard and Les Andelys
Les Andelys is a picturesque town located in one of the most beautiful sites in the Seine Valley, nestled at the foot of a high cliff. The town has different religious buildings from the 13th century and beautiful family houses from the 16th to 19th centuries.
Les Andelys is a great stop on your way to Rouen or Giverny. It is surveyed by the splendid ruins of Château-Gaillard, a medieval fortress built in the 12th century by King Richard Lionheart, who was also Duke of Normandy, to protect his lands against the French King Philippe Auguste.
Early in 1314, Château Gaillard became the prison of Queen Margaret of France. The French Queen was allegedly caught in an act of adultery in the Tour de Nesle Affair and she was imprisoned for the last two years of her life, along with her sister-in-law Blanche of Burgundy at Château Gaillard where she died.
Today, the castle is in ruins 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 view from the castle, over Les Andelys and the Seine’s meanders, is amazing.
Medieval City of Rouen
Rouen is one of the two capitals of the Region of Normandy. The city was the capital of the Duchy of Normandy from 911 to 1204.
Since the 13th century, this city crossed by the Seine River has undergone remarkable economic expansion thanks, in particular, to maritime and river trade.
Disputed as well by the French as by the English throughout the Hundred Years War, it was on her soil that Joan of Arc was imprisoned and burned alive on May 30, 1431.
Apart from its rich past, Rouen has an incredible and well-kept medieval heritage and its cathedral, world-famous thanks to Monet, is one of the highest in the world. The city has also many well-known museums, such as the Museum of Fine Arts, one of the most prestigious in France, the museum Secq des Tournelles, unique in Europe, or the National Museum of Education. The churches, abbeys and other religious buildings found there in large numbers earned it the nickname of “city of a hundred bell towers”.
The city can easily be reached by a direct train from Paris and it is a popular day-trip destination for people who want to see other than the French capital. However, we recommend spending at least one night on-site to get the most out of this interesting city.
The Cider Route
In addition to the numerous sites and things to see in Normandy, the region proposes many interesting circuits, often related to Normandy’s gourmet treasures.
In Normandy, apples abound and the region is famous for its apple-based produce, like cider, Pommeau or the apple liquor called Calvados which is best paired with Normandy’s cheeses.
The Cider Trail is a well-marked 40km tourist circuit through the region of Pays d’Auge in lower Normandy. The Pays d’Auge is popular for typical half-timbered houses, stud farms and apple orchards. Some of the orchards are more than 200 years old! Today, Calvados, Cider, and Pommeau are the main products of these orchards.
Get ready to unfold the journey of apples from farms to the table. Some twenty cider producers and distillers of “Cambremer Vintage” Calvados open their cellars and pressing sheds to visitors and encourage them to taste their products along this circuit.
Caen is one of the best cities in Normandy to visit. It is a city with a vibrant history and an attractive place to visit, with plenty of museums, shops, restaurants, gardens, plus the liveliness of a university town. Its strategic position, at only 2 hours from Paris by train and connected to England by the ferry line Caen – Portsmouth, makes of Caen a great place to start your Normandy wanderings.
During the 11th century, Caen grew into a great city beside the Orne river thanks to William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda of Flanders.
King William built Caen’s Citadel and the impressive Abbaye aux Hommes in Norman Romanesque style. Today the remains of the citadel ramparts are the perfect place for locals to relax when the weather is nice while the Abbaye aux Hommes hosts the tomb of this Duke of Normandy who later became William I King of France.
One of the latest additions in the city is the Caen Memorial. This is a great museum about WWII, the French occupation, holocaust and then the post-war era. The museum has a room dedicated to the D-Day Landing Beaches in Normandy, which are located not far from Caen.
Monet’s Garden & House in Giverny
Monet’s House is another of the most popular things to see in Normandy, France. Due to its proximity to the French capital, Giverny is also one of the most popular day trips from Paris too.
After his success in Paris, Monet had enough money to buy an old construction in the little town of Giverny where he believed he could work better on the light and color. During 40 years and until his death, Monet arranged, rearranged and enlarged this house and the surrounding gardens, where he died in 1926.
Monet’s gardens are famous especially for the water lily pond, where Monet painted his world-famous series of water-lilies. The house and the attached workshop are also worth the visit and it is a great opportunity to get a glimpse of Monet’s life and work in Giverny.
Monet’s estate opens its doors with the spring, from 23 March to 1st November. The visit is great during the spring to see the first flower blossoms and in October for its amazing fall colors. However, June is the month when the famous water-lilies start to wake up to reach their full blossom in July.
In Giverny, there’s also a small museum dedicated to Impressionism in general which is well worth the visit if you have an extra hour in town.
Castles of Normandy
Normandy boasts so many beautiful castles that you could easily justify making a trip to nearly all of them.
During the Hundred Years War, many castles were built and fortified in Normandy ensuring they could serve as strongholds during battles. But there are also beautiful castles built for the glory of its owners that could rival famous castles in France like Versailles or Chantilly.
Our list of favorite castles of Normandy includes the already mentioned Castle of Caen, and Château Gaillard, plus Château of Gisors and Château d’Harcourt (on the picture).
The latest is considered to be one of the best-preserved castles in Normandy. Over the years, enhancements and additions were added, including a curtain wall and nine round towers in the 13th century. Château d’Harcourt is also famous for its arboretum, the oldest arboretum in all of France.
Food in Normandy
Normandy’s cuisine is determined by its excellent geographical position, between fertile lands and the sea. Also, the Norman cows are well known for the quality of their milk, hence the variety and good quality of the cheese and other milky products.
Normans eat a lot of meat and if you are around Mont-Saint Michel you should taste the famous agneaux des prés salés. These sheep graze around the abbey when the tides are low and the salty taste of this grass gives a unique taste to this tender meat.
Normandy is also the leading producer of oysters, mussels and scallops from France so if you like this kind of food you are in the right place!
Apples also play an important role in Norman cuisine, both in desserts and in the making of cider. The trou normand (Norman hole) is a small glass of calvados, swallowed at once in the middle of the meal, to stimulate the appetite . . you should definitely try that!
We cannot finish this chapter on food in Normandy without mentioning the cheese. The list of great Norman cheeses includes famous names like Camembert, Pont-l’évêque, Neufchâtel or Livarot (all A.O.C) but we invite you to taste and discover other names.
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