If you can carve out a free day during a visit to Paris, it’s well-worth your time to explore Normandy. While this region of France deserves a week or more of your attention, families can hit some highlights with just a day. We’ve written about taking kids on a D-Day site tour from Paris with Viator, and while I highly recommend going this route if you can’t rent a car, it does take longer to visit Normandy by bus, and there will be things you will wish you had the freedom to explore. Plus, you can go further afield by car, exploring as far as the western coast.
Normandy in a day…start with D-Day sites:
By exploring Normandy by car, on your own, you’ll definitely save time. From the center of Paris, it takes about 2.5 hours to reach Caen, which we consider the biggest metropolis within Normandy. You’ll want to stop here to check out the excellent Caen-Normandie Memorial museum. Located at the site of a German bunker and stronghold during the French occupation, this modern museum covers WWII very much in depth, from pre-war time through the liberation.
Note: It does cover the holocaust in detail, including Jewish ghettos and camps, so prepare children. In fact, I’d recommend this whole tour only to families with kids age 10 and up. If you want to skip sections: It’s hard to bypass details because exhibits are intermixed, but the area downstairs towards the end of the hall have the most holocaust stories. The violence of the D-Day battles are much less graphic, even in the film.
From Caen, you’re only about 30 minutes away from D-Day beaches and cemeteries, and the route from here is decidedly more picturesque (from Paris to Caen, you’re on the interstate). Start by driving to Pointe du Hoc, which will land you right on the coastline. From there, you can easily drive along the coast to Omaha Beach, and Juno Beach, stopping at the national cemetery as well (located at Omaha). The route is charming, with villages to stop and explore and fields and hedgerows (though it’s good to remember that these hedgerows were sites of one-on-one type battles during the war). At the beaches, it’s permitted to walk along the sand and even wade in the surf; it feels a bit odd to do so given the sobering history of the area, but you’ll also need a break from the museums and exhibits to get fresh air and let kids play a bit.
Seeing Mont St. Michel:
If you’re truly ambitious, or have the luxury of an overnight in Normandy, head along the Normandy coastline southwest to Mont St. Michel. (As an alternative, you can easily get to Mont St. Michel from Caen if you’re not touring D-Day sites.)
If you have young kids, I’d recommend seeing Mont St. Michel perhaps in place of D-Day sites, as this island fortress resembles a fairy tale castle like no other. An abbey built by monks in the 6th century, Mont St. Michel and the surrounding village is touristy now, but somehow still feels authentic. When arriving by car (rather than tour bus), park in the car lot and take a provided shuttle to the entrance. Be sure to get an audio guide if not a tour guide; you’ll miss a lot of the history otherwise.
The best parts of Mont St. Michel to kids is the maze-like hallways and tunnels through the abbey, and the ‘mudflats’ that surround it. This squishy, muddy sand is very fun to play in (bring rain boots if you have that ability). You can dine anywhere in town, though you’ll be paying tourist prices (but the seafood is so good, you won’t care).
The drive from Mont St. Michel back to Paris is about 3.5 hours, so you’ll add an hour to your drive ‘home’. Realistically, you’ll need to decide between D-Day beaches and Mont St. Michel, or stay overnight in Caen to see both.
What you’ll lose and gain by road tripping to Normandy on your own:
- You’ll lose a ready-made tour guide: our Viator.com tour guide during our Normandy trip by bus really helped us all grasp the history and significance of the area. If you go solo, be sure to pick up a good guidebook, and prepare kids ahead of time.
- You’ll gain a bit of stress: No doubt about it, it’s nice to have someone else navigate and drive, especially on foreign roads.
- You’ll lose planned stops, including lunch: On our Viator tour, we were able to have a private lunch in a D-Day museum, which was a special experience.
- You’ll gain the freedom to explore villages and find a quiet lunch of your own.
This post was written in partnership with Alamo. All opinions remain our own.