Visiting the Five Normandy D-Day Beaches

posted by Sharon Odegaard 10 Comments
American Cemetery at Omaha Beach Normandy France

You will no doubt be changed after visiting the five Normandy D-Day beaches. These beaches are an arena for reflection on life. The coastline is peaceful now, with waves gently lapping at the shore. But on those terrible days in World War II, these beaches were filled with chaos, explosions, and men suffering as Operation Overlord erupted.

On June 6, 1944, in the early hours when all was dark, the Allies crossed the English Channel, tossing on the choppy waters. Making the journey in hundreds of boats, they landed along 60 miles of Normandy beaches. Their daunting task: To set in motion the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. Operation Overlord included five separate landing zones and 160,000 American, British, and Canadian troops.

Code names for the Normandy beaches were Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. A look at a map gives a good overview of the landing beaches.

D-Day Landing Map

D-Day landing beaches mapMap © Paul Hewitt, Battlefield Design – www.battlefield-design.co.uk

Americans covered Omaha and Utah, British landed at Gold and Sword, and Canadians forged ashore at Juno.

Visiting all five Normandy beaches will give you insight into how each sector fit into the grand plan. Soldiers pushed onto these beaches through a hail of gunfire and tried their best to complete assigned tasks. It might be taking a road, laying a cement harbor in the water, or liberating a town. All the parts made a whole. Your visit will serve to widen your understanding of how people from different countries came together to work toward a common goal.Flags of the countries who fought for the Allies at D-Day Normandy WWII

Each beach is distinctive in some way. Some provide museums. Landmarks such as the famous Pegasus Bridge and the sunken mulberry harbors are here. Moving memorials pay tribute to those who fought on these beaches.Memorial at Utah Beach Normandy France

A look at the highlights of each of the five beaches will help you plan your time. Stand on each one. Dig your toes in the sand. Look out on the English Channel. Visit the excellent museums. Find the houses and buildings that survived the bombing and all of the fighting. Utah and Sword call for you to go behind the beaches to trace the journey of the brave paratroopers dropped in the darkness before the battle began. Pay respects at the memorials.

And, you may not have time to go to more than one or two beaches. That’s okay – you will want to return to go to the others!

Exploring Omaha Beach

Historians concur that the landing on the stretch of about five miles that is Omaha Beach was the most difficult, even in a day of unimaginable difficulties. Reasons included that this beach turned out to have the largest number of German troops defending the area. Allied bombs fell off target and largely failed to take out German strong points. The Germans made sure that the beach was riddled with mines and obstacles. Even mother nature didn’t cooperate. Stormy weather and navigation issues led to men drowning before they could even reach the beach. And at Omaha, those who gained the beach faced a fortified sea wall and high bluffs from where German artillery rained down on them.

The battle on Omaha was so severe that U.S. Lieutenant General Omar Bradley considered retreat back to England. But slowly and steadily, men clawed through the sand and sprinted and ran into enemy fire, making it to the refuge of the seawall. And despite all of the obstacles, by the end of the day, the Americans claimed a toehold of about 1.5 miles on the shores of Omaha Beach and rested that night in France.

Colleville-sur-Mer Cemetery

The focus of a visit to Omaha Beach today is the expansive Normandy American Cemetery. This is the final resting place of almost 10,000 American soldiers who gave their lives in the battle for Normandy. Overlooking the beach, the rows of graves attest to the price paid for liberation in one small corner of the world.Omaha Beach Cemetery Normandy FranceAdjacent to the cemetery, you’ll find the reflecting pool and a memorial. The massive, graceful sculpture is called “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” Large maps of the battles of World War II decorate the memorial walls.Omaha Beach Cemetery Reflecting Pool Normandy France

The Beach

If you have time and are able, make your way down the hill to the beach. It’s a steep walk, but it’s worth it to stand in the place American troops fought their way ashore. Gaze across the English Channel. Imagine the water filled with hundreds of landing craft bearing frightened young men toward this spit of sand. Once they landed, guns on the bluff above rained down massive firepower. Coils of barbed wire blocked their way. And the sand had been booby-trapped with mines. The soldiers pressed on anyway.Omaha Beach Normandy France

The Memorial Museum at Omaha Beach

A small museum next to the cemetery at Omaha Beach offers displays of uniforms, military vehicles, and even objects of civilians caught in the battles. A well-loved teddy bear reminds you that children as well as grown-ups suffered from the fighting. At the entrance to the museum, an infinity pool leads to the beach and invites you to reflect on what happened here.Teddy bear in Omaha Beach Museum Normandy

Allow about an hour at this museum. If your time is limited, see the cemetery and beach first. If time allows, end your visit at the museum.

The Monument to the Brave at Vierville-sur-Mer

At the far west end of Omaha Beach, in Vierville-sur-Mer, an imposing sculpture called The Brave stands tall. The artist, Anilore Banon, said he created this to honor the courage of the sons, husbands, and fathers who faced danger during World War II. These men often sacrificed themselves in the hope of freeing the French people. The “wings of hope” remind people to stand strong for freedom and to speak up against all forms of inhumanity. Note: You will want to drive here from Omaha Beach.Monument to the Brave Omaha Beach Normandy

Point du Hoc

Just west of Omaha Beach is a cliff named Point du Hoc. This crucial landing area of D-Day is well worth a visit. Troops were dispatched here to prevent German artillery stationed there from firing on the landing forces at both Omaha and Utah Beaches.

Pointe du Hoc stands about 100 feet high. The Germans had heavily fortified this position with concrete bunkers and artillery guns. Under intense enemy fire, the 2nd and 5th Rangers used ropes and ladders to scale the cliff. Once at the top, they found that the heavily fortified gun emplacements were empty, as the Germans had moved the artillery inland.

Today, Pointe du Hoc includes a visitor center and preserved bunkers and gun emplacements.Pointe Du Hoc Omaha Beach Normandy France

Exploring Utah Beach

Utah beach lies at the western end of the D-Day beaches.  A visit to Utah Beach in Normandy can include the beach itself, an iconic cafe, and a large museum. Your time here can also include a drive through the farmlands behind the beach, where paratroopers landed in preparation for the assault. This countryside, with its hedgerows and historic farms and churches, is not only charming but is chockfull of WWII sites.  There’s a haunted farm, countless memorials, the Fiere Bridge, and buildings still pockmarked with bullet holes.

Utah Beach was added to the D-Day plan shortly before June 6, 1944. The idea was that the Allies would be closer to the prized port of Cherbourg. Both the paratroopers dropped in the night and the troops arriving by way of the English Channel in the early hours of daylight landed largely off target. On the beach, U.S. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of former President Theodore Roosevelt, realized his men were more than a mile away from the planned destination. His decision: “We’ll start the war from here!”Utah Beach Normandy France

By noon, he and his men had linked up with some of the paratroopers. By the end of this longest day, the Utah Beach men had advanced four miles inland, taking far less of a beating than their fellow Americans landing at Omaha Beach.

The Beach

Utah Beach today is a windswept, wide swath of beach bordered by grassy dunes that wave in the breeze. It’s hard to believe this was the site of a major battle of World War II. Look for the red-roofed house that stood here on D-Day. Fortunately, it survived the battle.Utah Beach Normandy France

The Roosevelt Café

This historic restaurant and shop on Utah beach once was a fisherman’s cabin. The Germans used it during World War II as a center for designing the defenses known as the Atlantic Wall. They added a concrete bunker in the back that you can see today. Until June 6, 1944, they used this for communications. The Allies took over on D-Day and used the bunker for naval communications for the next several months. It was soon renamed to honor one of the heroes of Utah Beach.Roosevelt Cafe Utah Beach Normandy France with asparagus obstacle on the beach

Enjoy a latte — or lunch! — and browse among the WWII memorabilia. You’ll feel like you’ve truly stepped back in time.

Utah Beach Landing Museum

The Utah Beach Landing Museum tells the story of D-Day in chronological order. It is built on the spot where troops first fought their way onto the shores of France early in the morning of June 6, 1944. This museum offers an outstanding collection of World War II items, large and small. In one section you can look through windows onto the beach. There’s also a hangar to display aircraft.Utah Beach Landing Museum Normandy France

Behind Utah Beach

Enrich your visit with a drive through the countryside behind the beach. Paratroopers landed in and around the town of Sainte Mere Eglise and other areas of this back country in preparation for the assault. Here you’ll find a memorial to Major Richard (Dick) Winters of the 101st Airborne, whose story is central in the excellent video series, “Band of Brothers.” You can also see the church that has a parachute and “model” soldier portraying the courage of paratrooper John Steele as he hung all night during the fighting.Major Richard Winters Utah Beach MemorialSainte Mere Eglis paratrooper hanging in parachute on a church And there’s Marmion Farms, where Allied troops gathered after being dropped off target. Supposedly this vacant farm is haunted due to the deaths here during the war.Marmion Farms Utah Beach Normandy

Exploring Gold Beach

Gold Beach, in the middle of the five beaches, was assigned to British forces. The objective was to link up with the Allies at Juno Beach, to the east.

The Beach

Gold Beach was the site of an amazing feat of engineering that resulted in a working port just days after D-Day. Cement pontoons made in England and brought on ships formed the base of the operations. These still sit on the beach here. Called mulberry harbors, these blocks of cement are surprisingly huge.

A similar project carried mulberry harbors from England to Omaha Beach. But these didn’t survive a storm and were never used.Gold Beach Mulberry Harbor Normandy France

The mulberry harbors at Gold Beach proved a resounding success. In the summer of 1944, 500,000 vehicles and four million tons of materiel came ashore in Arromanches. Of the original 115 pontoons, 20 survive despite the pounding of the rough waters.Gold Beach Mulberry Harbor Normandy France

The Arromanches Landing Museum

At Gold Beach you can tour the recently rebuilt Arromanches Landing Museum and learn about what the British accomplished here on D-Day.  If you are visiting the five Normandy D-Day beaches, the museum is located at the exact geographical center of these beaches.

Exploring Juno Beach

Juno Beach, located between Gold and Sword, proved one of the most heavily defended on D-Day. Assigned primarily to Canadian forces, the objective was to get a foothold on the beach and then link up with the British at Sword Beach. Bunkers, barbed wire, and artillery had to be overcome.

In the first wave of men ashore, half were injured or killed. The Canadians fought on bravely and eventually captured more towns and land than any other battalions involved in the invasion.Memorial at Juno Beach Normandy

The little towns on the beach here remember what the troops did for them, 75 years later. This photo, displayed on a stone wall, notes: “How handsome he is my liberator, everything is beautiful, I feel like dancing.”Omaha Beach Museum Normandy

Exploring Sword Beach

Sword Beach lays at the easternmost end of the D-Day Beaches. British paratroopers dropped behind the beaches in the middle of the night on June 6, 1944, to prepare for the invasion from the English Channel. Combined with the American paratroopers dropped behind Utah beach, the idea was to hem in the Germans from either end of the D-Day landing beaches.

The Beach

The large-picture objectives for the British forces at Sword Beach were to capture key towns and bridges, including the city of Caen, and to establish a connection with the American forces landing at Utah Beach, far to the west. The immediate objective for those on this beach was to link up with the British paratroopers who had landed behind enemy lines.

On the morning of D-Day, British forces managed to push inland, in the face of heavy German resistance. They managed to link up with the paratroopers from the 6th Airborne Division, and the beachhead was secure. It would be weeks, however, before the British liberated the city of Caen.

Behind Sword Beach

You will want to go behind the shore at Sword Beach to see Pegasus Bridge, a few miles inland. This bridge over the Caen Canal was a crucial Allied objective. Gliders of British troops landed just after midnight on the canal banks. Here the first casualty of D-Day was Lt. Brotheridge, who was shot while leading the charge over the bridge. The British eventually pushed the Germans off the bridge and held on until the troops landing on the shore broke through to relieve them.Pegasus Bridge Sword Beach Normandy

On the west end of the bridge the historic cafe serves coffee or lunch. And a plaque proudly announces that this was the very first French house liberated in the wee hours of June 6, 1944.Pegasus Bridge cafe Sword Beach Normandy

Memorial Pegasus Museum

The original 1944 bridge can be seen at the Memorial Pegasus Museum around the corner. With its displays of World War II memorabilia and photographs as well as the full-size bridge and vehicles, this museum is well worth a visit.Pegasus Memorial Museum Sword Beach NormandyTank at Pegasus Memorial Museum Sword Beach Normandy

Coping with the emotional experience of visiting the D-Day Beaches

Visitors to the D-Day beaches may be overwhelmed with emotion. Standing in a sea of white crosses and stars in the cemeteries is moving. The loss of life is astounding. The horrors experienced on D-Day are beyond imagination.

One way to cope with these feelings is to focus on individuals. Narrow down the thousands of casualties of this operation by thinking of just one soldier. Look at the names on the grave markers. Thomas J. Minnick, Nickolas Wassil, Donald Grohman. Some names are “known but to God.” These were men – or young boys – who got on a boat in England and landed on the foreign soil of France and never went home. The battle becomes more personal.Grave at Normandy American Cemetery -Omaha Beach Normandy

After you wander among the graves or walk the beaches, take a moment to sit before you leave. Rest on the grass and reflect; be still and process your thoughts. Think about how every person who pushed past the instinct to flee, drew deep to find courage, and didn’t give up contributed to the remarkable victory. They are heroes, every one.

Getting to the D-Day Beaches from Paris

You have several options if you are traveling from Paris to the D-Day Beaches.

By train, journey either to Caen or Bayeux. Trains leave from the Paris Saint-Lazare station. The trip is about two to two-and-a-half hours.

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If you drive from Paris to Bayeux or Caen, allow about 3 hours. Take A13 to Caen or A13 and A84 to Bayeux.

I can recommend car rentals from Auto Europe.
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The easiest way to get from Paris to Bayeux is to train to Caen, then rent a car. The car rentals are conveniently right across the street from the train station in Caen. Then drive about 20 minutes to Bayeux. Driving in Paris can be crazy. I made the mistake of renting a car in the city. I actually went around the Arc de Triomphe in a circle several times before finding the right exit street. And I haven’t wanted to repeat that adventure!

Where to Stay When Visiting the Five D-Day Beaches

To stay near the D-Day Beaches, you can stay in Bayeux as your base. Bayeux is a charming town in Normandy, France, known for its well-preserved medieval architecture and its famous Bayeux Tapestry. It’s also the closest town to Omaha Beach. You will love the town, the food, and the people.

When staying in Bayeux, you have various accommodation options ranging from hotels to guesthouses and bed-and-breakfasts. You may want to opt for a hotel in the city center. That way, you are close to the sights as well as plenty of dining and shopping choices.

My favorite hotel is the Hotel Churchill. It’s in a historic building in the heart of the town. It offers comfortable and well-equipped rooms, with amenities like free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, and private bathrooms. Some rooms may offer views of the city or the courtyard. And the hotel has a bar and lounge area where guests can relax and unwind. A tasty breakfast is served in a pleasant room. I found the front desk staff to be very helpful with planning your day and finding a restaurant for dinner.

Another base for exploring the beaches is the town of Sainte Mère Église, which is a few miles inland from Utah Beach. Famous for the paratrooper hanging on the cathedral, this is a charming small town with cafes and restaurants. Here are two hotel options:

Hotel Sainte-Mère: One option in the center of Sainte Mère Église is Hotel Sainte-Mère. This hotel features modern amenities, an upscale restaurant, and easy access to local attractions.

Auberge John Steele: This inn is named after the famous paratrooper John Steele, whose parachute got caught on the church steeple during the D-Day invasion. It’s a unique place to stay with a historical theme. A restaurant is also in the hotel.
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Do You Want to Book a Tour?

You can visit the D-Day beaches on your own. This is not difficult if you have a car. Or you may opt for a tour instead. I have visited the beaches both with and without tours. If it’s your first visit, a tour may give you lots of information and stories of the war that you wouldn’t otherwise get.

If you are coming as a day trip from Paris or wanting the enriched experience of a tour guide, here are good options. 

Overlord Tour: Overlord Tour is one of the most highly regarded D-Day tour operators in the region. They offer small group tours with knowledgeable guides who provide detailed historical information about the events of D-Day. I went on the British Beaches tour and found the guide to be knowledgeable and engaging. I toured on a shuttle with seven other people. We enjoyed conversing about WWII. It was a totally positive experience. 

D-Day Battle Tours: D-Day Battle Tours is the company I toured with in a WWII-era Jeep. While my tour was in the Utah Beach area, this company also offers guided tours of Omaha Beach. My guide Monica kept up a running commentary as we drove along the Normandy lanes. You can choose from private and public tours. I can highly recommend this company.

And consider booking a tour with respected Viator tours.

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Travel to the D-Day beaches to pay respects to those who were part of the Normandy campaign. You may want to recall the words of President Abraham Lincoln during the U.S. Civil War: “In a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate we cannot hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” While this is true of the D-Day beaches too, a visit will give you the opportunity to honor the heroes of Normandy, while at the same time inspiring you to be brave in the face of whatever life brings.Helmet from Omaha Beach D-Day NormandyOmaha Beach Cemetery Normandy France

Explore more of Normandy and the D-Day Beaches with a tour!

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Utah Beach D-Day Beach Normandy, France

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10 Comments

simplyjolayne at

We explored Normandy and the beaches on a tour and thoroughly enjoyed it. We like to say that it was our best 4th of July ever.

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Sharyn at

Being a history buff visiting the beaches would be so interesting. Looks like there are plenty of museums to visit!

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Lisa | Waves and Cobblestones at

We visited some of the Normandy beaches as well as the American Cemetery a few years ago. A very poignant experience.

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Ashlea at

I can’t way to visit Normandy someday. Thanks for the detailed breakdown, I’ll be sure to reference when I finally make it!

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Angela Price at

It’s hard to believe that such tragedies were played out on such beautiful beaches, but it is good that this generation remembers those who fought so hard. I agree that visiting these cemeteries can be emotional; to see so many that have fallen is incomprehensible. Despite being just across the water, I am yet to visit Normandy – your post has inspired a visit soon.

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William Kendall at

I would very much like to see these beaches someday.

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Rose Campau at

My boyfriend is super into history and I know he would love this. Thanks for sharing!

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Shweta at

This would be a good reason to visit Normandy. I like to immerse in history and culture on my travels, and the beaches, historical significance of the events that happened, the museums, all seem quite interesting.

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Maria Dol at

You’ve just put Normandy on top of my bucket list. Thank you. I am not much of a beach lover but every place with interesting history seems very appealing.

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Gladis at

I never heard about these beaches before. I was moved by its historical significance. Though the beaches look beautiful, I would be more interested to visit the D-day beaches and take a closer look at the cemetery and other historical spots.

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