So when you are thinking of Spring Break destinations, do the beaches of Normandy and a little World War II history come immediately to mind? No??? Us neither, but that’s how it worked out for our family this past March and we are so glad that it did.
How We Ended Up In Normandy
France for Spring Break came about mostly because we found super cheap flights to London and decided to hop the Eurostar across the Channel.
We often find cheap day flights to the U.K.’s capital, spend the night, and then take a train ride somewhere else. It is a great way to avoid red- eyes, which are challenging to say the least when traveling with kids, plus it often saves us thousands of dollars. See my blog Flying to London As A Cheaper Way To Get To Europe for details.
Normandy made the short list of destination ideas because the kids were learning about WWII in school and we had never been there before. And after a cursory check of possible vacation rentals in Normandy, I was shocked at the cheap prices for large houses in spring. That really sealed the deal.
Normandy In Springtime
So France in March? Cold, windy, rainy…. you are probably thinking all of these things and you would be correct. It was not warm (but not freezing either), cloudy most days, and rained about 40% of the time we were there. And it was definitely windy.
But we also had the museums almost to ourselves, the beaches had that amazing, dramatic kind of weather, and the intermittent rain just meant we spent more time in cafes deciding what was our favorite kind of crepe. Plus, it didn’t rain everyday- some days were absolutely gorgeous.
I will take a few bouts of rain and wearing a fleece over struggling against hordes of fellow tourists any day of the week.
Spring works out well because there are just enough tourists for things to be open (restaurants, museums, vacation rentals) but nothing is crowded and most places haven’t switched to the higher peak season prices.
The Details Of Our Trip
How to Get Around
We rented cars through Europcar and Hertz at the train station in Caen. (2 cars because we had a large family group of 7 and Europe isn’t as fervent a believer in the benefits of a minvan as the U.S. is. Somtimes I do actually miss that Honda Odyssey.)
The rental places were super close to the station and renting/ returning was easy. Prices were pretty good as well- we paid just under $200 for a compact SUV for 4 days and a little less for a small 4 door hatchback. You do need to be able to drive a stick shift though or pay a lot more to get an automatic transmission.
Driving in France was relatively easy as an American because the French also drive on the right side of the road. (Pun intended Brits!) I would definitely recommend paying for international data on your phone though, and using Google Maps. Many of the tourist sites have signs but it can get confusing when you don’t see them or the signs are small.
Driving around Normandy was car-stoppingly magnificent at times and I quite enjoyed it. Plus, there isn’t much traffic on these roads, especially at the time of year we went. Even driving from our house in tiny Port en Bessin into much larger Bayeux was a breeze. And you won’t find tolls driving between the D-Day sites or even across the Normandy peninsula to Mont Saint Michel.
What To See In Normandy
You Could Easily Spend A Week Or Two Trying To See It All But Here Is What We Recommend:
*Pro Tip- We mixed our days visiting WW II sites with day trips to Mont Saint Michel and Bayeux to avoid overloading the kids with too much death and destruction. These were nice changes to cover a different aspect of French history and also just incredibly scenic places to see.
Although it is apparently one of the least visited of the D-Day beaches because it is a bit farther away from the other landing beaches, Utah Beach was our favorite.
The very interesting D-Day Museum here is partially housed in a former German bunker and has gorgeous views of the beach as well as actual amphibious assault vehicles, a B26 plane, and several good movies to watch.
*Another Pro Tip- Each landing beach and almost every town has its own D- Day Museum (or Musee du Debarquement). Some are fantastic and some are barely more than an old tank and a gift shop. Do not try to see them all but read reviews and pick a few of the better ones.
We really enjoyed ourselves at the Utah Beach Musee du Debarquement. The kids were pretty engaged with all of the exhibits so we spent more time than I thought we would (about 2.5 hours and I had budgeted about 90 minutes from looking at just the website).
* Be forewarned that a looping video in one of the first exhibits you come to in the Utah Beach D-Day Museum shows a resistance fighter executed with a gunshot to the head. It is a quick scene in the 10 or so minute long video but it took us by surprise. The kids weren’t upset by it though, and the video was very interesting otherwise, but you might want to skip it with younger kids. The video and exhibit features interviews with French locals who lived through the German occupation and what life was like for them at the time so it was worth seeing, just be prepared.
After the museum, we let the kids get their wiggles out on a stroll down the beach, while stopping at the various monuments and memorials along the way. Walk the short path atop the dunes first to see some of the memorials, monuments, plaques, etc, then explore the beach.
Utah Beach is super long- you could walk nearly 14 miles to get to the north end of the beach, especially if the tide is low. But many people just walk the beach near the museum as that is where most of the sculptures and memorials are located.
If you want to walk a little (but not 14 miles), there is an old German blockhaus (bunker) about 2 km north of the museum. It is more easily seen from the road than the beach though so you’ll have to keep checking out each beach access to make sure you don’t miss it.
If you want to see better remnants of the German defenses, drive or walk 4 km up the road from the museum until you see the large monument on your right. This is dedicated to the French 2nd Armored Division, who landed after D-Day but helped the joint army work their way out of Normandy to eventually liberate Paris. The paths along the dunes here lead to gun placements and a few bunkers near the monument.
On the way to Utah Beach, you will pass a small statue of Dick Winters, from Band of Brothers fame. It is right beside the road and marks the spot near where the Brecourt Manor attack happened. I loved the miniseries and books so we definitely stopped.
Sainte Mere Eglise
This town is a mere 15 minute drive from Utah Beach and makes a great stop for lunch.
The first village liberated by the Allies in WW2, Ste Mere Eglise is also a big tourist attraction because it is where John Steele, a paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne, got caught on the town’s church spire during the drops the night before D-Day. He hung there for 2 hours playing dead until the Germans took him prisoner. Steele later escaped and went on to continue fighting.
This amazing story is a true one, made famous in the classic movie, The Longest Day. The town made Steele an honorary citizen after the war and there is a pub named after him on the main square. Look for the mannequin hanging from a parachute on the church today. The kids loved this tale and seeing the fake parachutist.
The cafe across the street from the church, Au Domino, was an inexpensive place for a lunch break. It cost 3 euros for a baguette with ham and butter or one with cheese and butter. Or you could splurge 3.50 euros to get a baguette with ham plus cheese plus butter.
Au Domino is certainly not a fancy place but the sandwich was about half of the baguette loaf so it filled us up. Plus, you will easily have enough money left over for a yummy, 2 euro, Nutella crepe. Coffee was great as well. The cafe gets bad reviews on TripAdvisor but we were quite happy with our service-- maybe because it was not busy at all in March.
If you are into airplanes, Ste. Mere Eglise has a fantastic museum of the aircraft used in WWII. The Airborne Museum has a C47 (used to drop the 101st Airborne in to France the night before D-Day), a Piper Grasshopper (a reconnaissance plane), and a Waco Glider (used to carry men and munitions into France). The entrance is located on the big square adjacent to the church.
We skipped the museum here and just walked the beach while stopping to read the informational plaques. We also hiked up to the top of the hills surrounding the beach. Much more than Utah Beach, the soldiers landing here had a daunting task to take this beach because of the high ground the Germans had.
Do climb up the hills if you can. You can get there from behind the German bunker at the eastern end of the beach. Just drive down the beachfront road with the water on your left and you will come to a parking area and the bunker at the very end of the road. The ground cover had been clear cut in a large swathe when we there, making it fairly obvious how to climb to the top.
Arromanches les Bains
A charming coastal town that is definitely touristy but lovely anyway. You’ll find lots of cafes and shops to explore just outside the D- Day Museum in Arroamnches, which is located right on the waterfront.
The D-Day Museum focuses on the building of Mulberry Harbours. These were huge, temporary, and portable harbours constructed in the UK, then towed across to France on the days immediately following D- Day. The harbours were a marvel of engineering and the remnants can still be seen in the waters around Arromanches.
We chose this museum to show the kids that there is more that goes into winning a war than just the fighting-- you must also feed, clothe, and transport your soldiers too. For that you need supplies, engineers, builders, drivers, boats, etc. The museum had several short movies that the kids found interesting, plus a great model of the harbour and its bridges showing how they worked.
Also, be sure to climb up to the tank memorial overlooking the town for an even better view. You can keep going up the road by the tank to Arromanches 360, a specialized cinema that shows 20 minute films on a 360 degree screen. The film seems expensive for what you get but the views from the cliffs just outside are absolutely worth the walk up.
Longues sur Mer
Walking among the German gun batteries perched here atop the Normandy cliffs gives you an idea of the bombardment that the Allied forces faced trying to invade Normandy. Longues sur Mer has several fairly intact bunkers and large guns to explore and is easily reachable halfway between Arromanches and Port en Bessin.
It was a beautiful day when we visited and the setting is absolutely breathtaking so you will want to spend some time here. You can actually walk a coastal trail from Longues sur Mer to Arromanches (about 5km) or in the other direction to Port en Bessin (about 7km) if you want to make a day of it. The path does occasionally follow very close to the cliffs so I would keep a close eye on the kiddos but it is a spectacular walk.
The American Cemetery is a somber and peaceful place in a memorable setting above Omaha Beach. There are 9,380 Americans buried here and another 1,557 names inscribed on the Wall of the Missing. Take some time to walk amongst the graves and read the inscriptions which list the name and home state of each soldier if it is known. The kids studied many of them looking for fellow Tennesseans.
We were there at 4 pm and watched the flag lowered while Taps was played. The timing was unplanned but if I ever get a chance to return, I will try to be here at 4pm again. The ceremony was short but touching and the kids were enthralled.
Do be sure to walk right up to the Memorial at one end as it has a great map of Normandy and Europe, showing battles and troop movements.
Pointe du Hoc
Another stunning example of the gorgeous Normandy coastline, this monument is to the Rangers who scaled the sheer cliffs of this promontory to take out a German gun placement.
The crater holes show just how severe the American aerial bombardment was and it is amazing to think anyone survived any of it-- the bombardment, scaling the cliffs, and the fight over this piece of land itself.
The kids loved running down one side of a crater and back up the other, as well as exploring the underground bunkers. This was a place where we had actually had to emphasize the death and destruction a little more as they missed the grim implications of the bomb craters at first and wanted to play hide and go seek.
Non D-Day Places To Visit That Were Also Spectacular
Mont Saint Michel
A perfect place to change gears after a day of WW2 battles, this rock outcropping has been home to an abbey for 1300 years.
Walk out to the island on the new bridge (totally worth the 1.5 mile walk to enjoy the views) or take one of the free buses out to Mont Saint Michel, then explore the narrow streets of the town and the views from the battlements surrounding.
Make your way to the abbey at the very top of the rock and do pay for the tour as you get to see the cathedral, the great halls, and the many, many, many passageways that are within the abbey. The kids had a fantastic time exploring all the nooks and crannies.
A charming medieval town with a picturesque canal running through the heart of it. Plus, it has a huge cathedral and the famous Bayeux tapestry, an 800 year old woven tapestry that tells the story of William the Conqueror and the Norman conquest of England and the Saxons.
The Bayeux Tapestry Museum and its audio tour are top- notch, so much so that when the kids finished listening to the story of the tapestry, they walked back to the beginning to listen to it again. Keep in mind that the kids I am talking about are 13, 11, and twin 9 year olds that really only ever like to watch Marvel movies so this was no mean feat.
*The fact that we could just walk back to the beginning and view the entire tapestry again was another testament to the benefits of going in early spring. There was only one other small family in the tapestry room so we could stop and start as we pleased, as opposed to peak season when it is shoulder to shoulder crowds vying for viewing space.
Where We Stayed In Normandy
This is our personal list of places that we have stayed in previously, bookmarked as possibilities for future trips, or have been recommended to us by friends.
Heads Up: We do participate in affiliate marketing with some of the companies that we personally use when booking our own trips. They don’t pay us to write, we simply get a commission if you enter those sites through our “gate” as opposed to say a Google search. We never accept free gifts or comped stays. Full Disclosure Statement
House of Augustus We stayed in this roomy, 4 bedroom/ 2 bath traditional house with a large family party of 9 (5 adults, 4 kids) and had a great time. It is a 5 minute walk to the restaurants lining the waterfront in the delightful fishing village of Port-en-Bessin. We also bought fresh scallops at the town’s fish market and had delicious dinners in the house with its large dining room table.
The only downside to the house is the lack of WiFi but we found we actually enjoyed that fact after getting used to it. We played cards after dinner, which the kids loved, and everybody was ready to walk out the door in the morning that much faster.
There is a small grocery store within walking distance of the house and a larger supermarket a 2 minute drive away (with a huge cheese selection!). Utah Beach is a 45 minute drive away from Port-en-Bessin, Omaha Beach is only 15 minutes away, and Bayeux is a short, 10 minute hop, skip and a jump.
Other Towns That We Looked At Staying
Besides Port-en-Bessin, other beautiful coastal towns near the landing beaches in Normandy are Arromanches-les-Bains, Vierville-sur-Mer, Grandcamp, and Courseulles-sur-Mer.
If you want a larger town to be based in but still be near the landing beaches, Bayeux would be my choice over Caen but both could work. I just loved the quaint atmosphere of Bayeux, it medieval buildings, and its picturesque canal so I would itching to stay there for a couple of days to explore even more of the town. Next visit.
What We Read and Watched Pre-Trip
I like for the kids to do a little research before we take a big trip as I think it helps them get more out of it while we are there. Especially if it is a history intensive trip, like this one, it helps if they are already caught up on the gist of the story so then they can really take in the details.
I am not averse to straight- up bribery to make this pre-trip research happen. I come up with a reading list and each item is worth a certain amount of “vacation bucks” which is money they can spend however they want on the trip--ice cream, keychains, plastic model Eiffel Towers, you get the idea. (It got mostly spent on crepes and various yummy treats from patisseries, which I certainly was okay with, having spent some of my money on those things myself!)
If You Have Younger Kids
The Diary of Anne Frank- A must read and watch for kids older than 10 or so. And the book has abbreviated versions out there for even younger kids. This is a classic for a reason as kids feel like they are friends with Anne by the time they finish reading the book. I still like the book more than the movie but both are worth putting on the list.
Hazardous Tales An excellent kids series about historic events. Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood (#4 in the series) is about WW1 and Raid of No Return (#7 in the series) is about WW2.
Horrible Histories Another excellent kids series about history told in a very funny way. This is a beloved British series of books that also has a TV series of the same name (rated PG) but you can buy them on Amazon. We loved the Frightful First World War and Woeful Second World War.
The Sound of Music - A family classic that introduces a little bit about the Nazis and World War 2. The kids kept calling the Nazis the “spider people” when they were little after watching this movie, which puzzled me until I realized they thought swastikas looked like spiders. And spiders were about the scariest thing to a four year old so it was what they related the bad people to.
Magic Tree House Super Edition “World At War, 1944” You can always count on Magic Tree House to have a book about whatever subject you could possibly come up with. But there is a reason there are approximately 9 bazillion Magic Tree House books- they do a great job. Get the accompanying Fact Tracker book, World War II, to really cover your bases.
I Survived the Battle of D-Day, 1944 Another kids series with a million titles, these were a favorite of my nephews who I think read all of them. This is #18.
If You Have Older Kids
Opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan and some of the episodes of Band of Brothers. These are among the most realistic of the war scenes you’ll find so you will want to be pretty careful with younger kids. Band of Brothers is one of my all- time favorite mini-series and I can’t wait until the kids are old enough to watch it with me.
The Longest Day A black and white docu-drama about D-Day made in 1962. The movie shows the events of this epic 24 hour period through 3 perspectives- American, English, and German. It is rated G but there is mild cussing in the movie and bodies shown on the Omaha Beach although very little blood or drama about it. A very good film that holds up well even after all these years.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas A gripping and heartbreaking tale that is told wonderfully, this book has won a ton of childrens book prizes. That doesn’t mean the ending won’t leave you, as an adult, in tears. Definitely more for the middle school crowd and the movie even more so due to its scene in the gas chamber.
All Quiet On The Western Front A classic of Western literature, the book is written from the perspective of a young German soldier who comes to see war as not heroic or patriotic but an awful, unyielding, tragedy upon tragedy. Even though it was written about WW1, it is one of the most acclaimed books about war in existence so it is good reading for any trip dealing with war.
My Take Away
I do believe that kids need to see battlefields, memorials, cemeteries, war museums, etc. first hand because it helps them understand the events in a way that adds so much depth to whatever they may read about it later in school or in life.
How much you try to cover on your visit to France and in what detail is up to you. You know your kids and what they are ready for. I can only say ours were enthusiastic and fascinated by the trip. They are eager to return and learn more about WW2. And that makes it a pretty awesome Spring Break in my mind!
The Normandy coast is beautiful in its own right and well worth a vacation just for some of the coastal walks. Throw in the great museums, WW2 relics in every field, an awe-inspiring cemetery, and beaches where some of the most pivotal battles of the 20th century took place, and you have a vacation destination you could return to again and again.
Thinking About Combining Normandy With A Trip To Paris? Check Out Our Awesome Guidebook- Paris With Kids.
It tells you everything you need to know to plan a fantastic family vacation to Paris- where to sleep, eat, and play.
Want to skip the lines at the Eiffel Tower or find out the best parks in Paris for kids? We have you covered. Or how about where to take a scenic stroll along the Seine with a playground along the way?
A medieval castle, scavenger hunt at the Musee de Orsay, the best boulangeries in Paris--it is all in our guidebook, everything we have learned from taking our own families to this amazing city!