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If you’re looking to explore the Normandy world war 2 sites then a D-Day beaches self drive tour is a perfect way to see the area. It’s a fairly compact area with plenty to see and do whether you’re a complete history addict or just want to pay respects to the troops who lost their lives so many years ago.
I’ve based this self drive itinerary on our own experiences driving the route and also for it to be perfect for someone coming from the UK on a ferry to Cherbourg. If you find yourself coming from the opposite end of the country, perhaps arriving in Dieppe or Calais, or even just coming from Paris, feel free to reverse the route.
Why do a D-Day beaches self drive tour?
Normandy, and specifically the D-Day beaches, are such important places that are inspiring, sad and unbelievable all at the same time.
To me it’s vitally important that we remember what happened in world war two and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom and their country.
Many people have relatives who served at the time and want to retrace their steps, see what difficulties they faced and pay respects to them and their fallen friends. Other people want to know what happened and for them seeing the place in real life can bring the time to life. I include myself in this last one – I knew of D-Day but not a great deal really, but seeing the sites for myself really brought home the loss of life, the commitment our countries had to winning the war and the huge scale of the operation.
Visiting inspired me to learn a lot more about the time period and as we went on our trip with our kids, means they learned a lot too! As living veterans who served there are getting less and less each year, passing on the knowledge of these times is extremely important I feel.
Why self drive rather than doing a tour? I’m personally someone who likes to do it myself when travelling so I’m always keen to see places with my own timescale. When we visited Utah beach it was terrible weather and we just couldn’t stay there so we were free to move on. If we were on a tour we’d have had a very wet day!
I find self drive tours to be great for those who aren’t just there for the war history and want to just incorporate it in to a road trip and exploration of an area. We travelled with kids, one of whom loves anything to do with war history and one who can tolerate it but it’s not her idea of a fun day out – if this is you, whether you have kids or just another travelling companion who isn’t quite as keen as you are on the sites you can tailor the days to suit you. If spending time at a cemetery is going to be too upsetting or a museum is boring then you can wrap it up and move on.
Tours can be good if you’re really interested in getting all the information that you need from experienced tour guides and also if you don’t want to navigate the roads. If you’re coming from the UK you might find some coach tours like this one good and if you’re based in Paris there’s quite a few from there too. The best place to base yourself if you want to have just a day tour is Bayeaux as many go from there.
I’ll not be talking too much about the history of what happened in this itinerary – if you want to know a little more about the places mentioned here and what happened do take a look at my guide to the Normandy beaches and WW2 sites.
A note about museums – there are a number of museums in the area, loads in fact and probably more than you can ever fit in to a small trip. Feel free to pick and choose as to what appeals to you and your interests – it’s unlikely you’ll want to do them all and I’d probably suggest not trying to do too many since it will likely lead to museum fatigue! I’ve added links to the websites so you can figure out which ones to spend your time in.
Where to base yourself for your self drive D-Day tour
It is possible to just base yourself in one town for the duration of the trip and if you’re going to do that then I recommend staying in Bayeaux as it’s fairly central to all the beaches and D-Day sites. This is a great idea if you don’t want to be changing hotels every day and want to be able to relax on an evening in familiar surroundings. If you want to maximise your time in the area and also want to see some new towns then I’ve given some ideas on where to stay that is near to the days sites.
3-day Normandy Itinerary
Optional – spend the night before your driving tour just by Utah beach at Le Grand Hard for a small French countryside hotel experience or Relais de la Liberte which is a small guest house – both have excellent reviews and have plenty of free parking.
Morning: Utah beach
55km from Cherbourg or 60km from Bayeux
We start our itinerary at the most western of the landing beaches – Utah. Landed by the Americans, this was one of the more successful operations. If you’re coming from the ferry or starting in Bayeaux it should be less than an hour to get here.
You can spend your time walking on the beach, taking in some of the monuments around to the various companies involved or you can also start off your D-Day trip in the Musée du Débarquement and learn about the landings. I suggest allowing for a couple of hours here, depending on if you decide to do the museum or not. Its a nice beach and a really nice place to walk along.
Be sure to look out for the monument to the the liberation of France. This is called Milestone 00 and commemorates the United States involvement in the liberation of France along this road.
Parking – there is plenty of parking available at Utah beach and also picnic benches if you want to bring some food too for lunch.
Driving time- 20 mins. 17km from Utah beach
It’s easy to assume Normandy is just the beaches and the landings there – as I found when I visited there’s so much more that went on! One well known story is that of the airborne forces who landed troops just prior to the beach landings and who played a part in securing towns and strategic points. Sainte-Mère-Église received some of these forces who actually landed there by accident, and who planned to land further out. This wasn’t great for the Allies and many died and one man even got his parachute caught on the church steeple and he had to pretend to be dead to avoid being shot at.
Sainte-Mère-Église is a lovely town to walk around and explore. There’s one thing I love in France and it’s the feeling of the villages with cafes and bakeries just waiting to be enjoyed! You can see the church where the paratrooper got himself caught, there’s a dummy still on the steeple as a monument to him. We also enjoyed the museum which talks about the role of the airborne troops in D-Day and what planes and gliders they used.
Parking – plenty of parking in the village itself.
If you have time: On the way to Carenten from Sainte-Mère-Église is the D-Day experience museum just outside the village of Saint-Côme-du-Mont
Overnight: You could choose to spend the evening in Sainte-Mère-Église itself – Logis Le Sainte Mere is a recommended hotel.
Alternatively spend the evening in Carentan at the Hôtel Le Vauban and be a little bit closer to the next day’s sights.
Morning – Maisy Battery
Driving time – 20 mins. 20km from Carentan
Our second day starts at Maisy Battery which is a little known site near to Pointe du Hoc and which played a big role in what went on there. It’s basically a myriad of tunnels that the Germans used to attack the Allied forces from but the interesting part is that the whole story and site was lost to historians until just recently and when it was discovered it changed a lot of the perceptions of what actually happened on the day. It’s only open in summer months but if you can add it in to your itinerary then it would be a great addition. Check their website here.
Pointe du Hoc
Driving time – 10 mins. 7 km from Maisy Battery
A short drive from Maisy Battery is Pointe Du Hoc itself. There’s a lot to look at here with many paths taking you around the site showing shelters and gun placements as well as a moving memorial right by the cliff’s edge. I found this site really moving myself and would definitely recommend a trip here – there’s a small visitor centre with a movie playing to help you get your head around what went on here.
Afternoon – Omaha beach
Driving time – 15 mins. 9km from Pointe Du Hoc
Omaha beach is another of the landing beaches that the American troops landed on and this one was not as successful as the Utah landing. As such there was a great number of lives lost here and many people come to pay their respects from all countries.
At the centre of the beach itself is a very moving memorial and the Memorial Museum of Omaha Beach and towards the eastern end (as you drive from Pointe Du Hoc) there is also another museum about D-Day at Omaha beach.
Parking – there is parking at either end of the beach or by the memorial in the middle but bear in mind how much walking you want to do before you decide where to park! It’s a lovely long beach with houses dotted along the beach front – plenty of time for walking and reflection.
Driving time – 10 mins. 5km from Omaha Beach
Just up from the beach is the resting place for many of the Americans who lost their lives not just at Omaha but on the whole Normandy landing campaign. It’s a sombre and moving place but one that I feel should be seen if you’re going to the effort of visiting the WW2 sites. There is no pathway from the beach at present – check their site out here for more information.
If you have time: just by the American Cemetery is the Overlord Museum with more artefacts and exhibitions about the Omaha landings
Overnight in Bayeux – The Hotel Du Luxembourg is a highly recommended 4 star hotel which would be a good option in the town.
Morning – Arromanches-les-Bains (Gold Beach)
Driving time – 20 mins. 12km from Bayeaux
Arromanches was one my favourite sites to visit myself, coming from someone who knew very little about the landings. You can see remnants of the artificial harbour that was created once the beaches were secured and when the tide is out actually walk up to them.
This is part of Gold beach which was one of the beaches that the British soldiers were charged with. There’s a museum here all about the landings and also the building of the harbour and how they used it to bring supplies to Europe.
Courselles-sur-Mer (Juno beach)
Driving time – 20 mins. 13km from Arromanches
Juno beach is just a small drive from Arromanches and you can see where the Canadian troops landed and fought. Again there’s a museum here dedicated to that story called the Juno Beach Centre.
The town by Juno beach is called Courselles-sur-Mer and it’s a pleasant place to walk around and have lunch with a marina and cafes.
Afternoon – Ouistreham (Sword Beach)
Driving time – 30 mins. 20km from Courselles-sur-Mer
Finally our trip concludes with the British landing beach of Sword which is a wide open beach at the town of Ouistreham. This was the first beach we ever saw and it was very weird to see such a ‘normal’ looking beach with such history – wasn’t what I was expecting! The town is big and perfect for supplies and to enjoy restaurants and other amenities.
While in the town make sure to head to the Pegasus bridge memorial for another slightly different story – this is where British Commando troops were parachuted in the day before D-Day to secure the bridge. A museum tells the story and you can walk around outside to learn about what went on that day.
If you have time: Longues Sur Mer just east of Arromanches might be worth checking out at the beginning of your day – it’s a battery placement site which is free to enter with some tours also taking place that are good value.
Ouistreham has a number of museums in the town too including one about Commandos and one about Hitler’s Sea wall. .
Overnight: For your final night enjoy the small seaside town of Ouistreham, an evening walk on the beach and perhaps a French Pastry or two. There are number of good hotel options in the town like Hôtel le phare or La Villa Andry
Ouistreham is the port that Brittany Ferries uses (but actually calls Caen) so if you’re using them to get home this is the perfect stop for you.
More days in Normandy?
If you have more time to spend in Normandy then I suggest adding in some time in the towns of Caen, Bayeaux and really just slowing down and exploring the area. There’s so much more to Normandy than just the World War 2 sites and if you’re visiting with people who don’t have as much of an interest then it’s worth taking some days out from that. We also really enjoyed the beaches on the west coast of Normandy on the Cotentin peninsula and of course there’s also Mont St Michel over that way too which is a must see!
Planning your trip
What to take to Normandy
France is a really easy country to navigate especially by car but I’d definitely recommend taking a really good road map with you just in case mobile or sat nav signals go down. This is like the one that we used.
As for a sat nav system I suggest that you make sure you either have some capability on your phone like we did or get a dedicated system with European maps like this one. If you’re coming from out of the country and renting a car then make sure to add in a sat nav system to your hire car. If sticking with a phone system then it’s really important to have a car charging kit so it doesn’t die while driving!
If you’re coming from the UK by car you’ll also need to have a European driving kit – this has the required items that you need by law over in France (each country has different rules and they do change but if I’m honest, having some hi vis vests and warning triangles in the car is not going to hurt – get them!). You definitely need to have the GB sticker and some headlight deflectors as well as soon as you arrive – you can normally get them on the ferries but at a much higher price so worth getting in advance
Recommended books that might help plan
I highly recommend the Liberation Route Europe book by Rough Guide that has recently come out. It tells a lot about the background of what was going on in the war prior to DDay and the eventual liberation. Will also inspire you to go to many more sites around Europe – just warning you!
A guide book to Normandy like this Rough Guide is also a good idea for the planning phases so you can see what else is around the area – vital if you want to enjoy more than just the WW2 history.
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