The Normandy region of northern France is made up of three major dramatic elements: a rocky coastline, white chalk cliffs reminiscent of England’s Dover, and World War II landing beaches. As in so much of Europe, history overlies the everyday here. It can be especially poignant for Americans; so many of us have relatives connected to World War II and D-Day (the day Allied forces invaded northern France to drive back the German position, incurring monumental loss of life but arguably turning the tide of the war).
While Normandy is a must on any American history buff’s list, families shouldn’t miss it either. It’s a particularly kid-friendly area of France, with its picturesque half-timbered houses, apple orchards, bike paths and the fairytale Mont St. Michel. Here’s how to make the most of the region with kids.
The magnitude of loss on the landing beaches can be too much for a young child (or even an adult) to comprehend. Without some previous context and discussion, it will be over the head of kids under 8. A well-chosen guide who has experience communicating with children will make all the difference here.
We were interested in touring some of the D-Day landing sites and the museums at Omaha Beach, as they deal directly with the American part of the invasion. My great-uncle fought in World War II, and the D-Day landing has always been retold family lore for me. I was anxious to have some firsthand experience of the events.
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We started with the Overlord Museum to orient ourselves to the history of D-Day. My older children (ages 5 and 7) connected most with the soldiers’ personal items that were displayed, particularly the uniforms. My son really took to the collection of tanks. We also toured the Omaha Beach Memorial Museum, where the photographs of soldiers in Normandy told their stories to the children more effectively than the letters and maps displayed.
The atmosphere at the museums and cemetery is solemn, so families are advised to keep rowdy littles occupied with books or toys. But the beaches are surprisingly serene, and the beach at Arromanches, a big stop on the D-Day landing site list, is also a great spot for wading in the sea and letting off steam. Pointe du Hoc is another of the dramatic landing sites with running-around space. It’s a moving reminder of how life goes on in the face of tragedy.
We approached the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer with some trepidation. We had visited cemeteries with our children before, but this one somehow felt different, as it required an explanation about the number of lives lost in a single day that I wasn’t sure how to give. The cemetery has a visitor’s center that does a wonderful job of explaining the events and includes more personal items and firsthand recounts from soldiers.
White crosses as far as the eye can see — that is the first impression I had. When the understanding hit that each corresponded to a life, I was floored. I wore my 2-year-old in a baby carrier that day to prevent her from running over the graves, but you can also use a stroller. We spent some time finding markers of soldiers who came from our home state, and we talked about how their families must have missed them.
Touring the D-Day landing sites and immersing kids in the history of this period is sobering, and you must be prepared to tackle the serious subjects of war, death and loss if you visit. But it is one of the unique places that I’ve traveled with my family where history becomes real life, and I wouldn’t trade that learning opportunity for any day at the beach.
From our apartment in Bayeux, we spent one morning exploring the city. There is a Saturday morning market you must walk through if you are there, and we enjoyed sampling the local cider (adults only!) and apple tarts. Gazing at the cathedral, walking the streets of half-timbered houses and sitting at an outdoor cafe drinking hot chocolate, we felt like we had stepped back in time.
The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the town’s most popular stops, and well worth a visit, but my kids were anxious to get moving after staring at a wall hanging all morning. We headed to the tourist office in Bayeux for advice, and were directed to the cycle shop across the street. This is a chance to immerse yourself in an authentically French experience: exploring the countryside by bicycle. The rental agency owner recommended a path to Port-en-Bessin and back, which we gladly took. It was an eight-mile ride, with some slopes, but we had the best time seeing the region from a slower pace, passing small villages, orchards and flower-covered fields on the route.
We took the hour and half drive from Bayeux to Mont St. Michel, which straddles the border of Normandy and Brittany — it’s well worth the trip. Rising like a magical spire to the heavens, the island is the home of an abbey devoted to St. Michael, built by monks in the sixth century. It is also home to the village that grew up around the abbey, and lunch here can be memorable, even if bought at tourist prices. Be sure to get the kids to try the mussels. All Norman kids eat them!
It’s best to park in the designated lot and take one of the frequent shuttles to the entrance, leaving the stroller behind. There are a lot of steps, and my husband wore our 2-year-old in a baby carrier to avoid lugging the buggy.
In the summer, it will be crowded. I used the opportunity to tell my kids that it was just as crowded with pilgrims to the abbey 500 years ago. The abbey is the highlight of a tour of the island; use the audioguide and make sure to pause on the veranda to soak in the view of the river. Even if you are not interested in the long history of the abbey, the maze of paths through it will excite visitors of any age.
Exploring the mudflats around the island is half the fun. My 5-year-old was quite wary of the walk across the squidgy sand, so be prepared to give pep talks. I wore wellies, and the kids ended up barefoot, squealing in the puddles (bring something to dry off with). And be sure to look back: The view up at Mont St. Michel is just as breathtaking and mysterious as the view from the top.
TIP: Check the tide tables at Mont St. Michel if you plan on walking outside the fortifications. The tides come in fast and the surrounding land will be underwater before you know it.
Many tourists travel from Paris to Normandy by train or rental car. Living in England at the time, we used the car ferry to cross the Channel and drive to Bayeux, which we chose as a home base for our exploration. A car is the most convenient way to get around, as most of the sights are spread across the region. There are also a number of tour companies that provide day trips from Paris by coach or private transport. We spent four days in the Normandy region, including one just for D-Day sites, but you could easily find enough to occupy your family for a week.
Staying in an apartment in the center of town was the best choice for us, but Bayeux also has charming hotels, and we would love to stay in a villa in the countryside on our next trip. Wherever you stay, bring your brolly (umbrella)! The weather in Normandy is similar to that of southern England — come prepared for rain and chilly evenings.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Adria Carey Perez except where noted.
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