The Essential Guide to Normandy
In Normandy, sun-dappled orchards give way to a scenic coastline, known for both its heavy history and beautiful beach towns. Visitors from all over the world flock to this rugged region to see the island monastery of Mont St-Michel, the famous Bayeux Tapestry, and Monet’s former home in Giverny. Equally enticing are the world-class museums, awe-inspiring churches, and famous local products, like fresh seafood, Camembert cheese, and apple brandy.
Rue Homme de Bois, 14600 Honfleur, France
Founded in 1868 by French painters Eugène Boudin and Louis-Alexandre Dubourg, this small museum, housed in a 19th-century chapel, pays homage to the Normandy artists who spent time in Honfleur, like Monet, Courbet, Friesz, and Boudin himself. Here, you’ll find an impressive collection of pre-Impressionist works, as well as several Boudin paintings and drawings that he bequeathed to his hometown. Also on display are more than 1,000 objects, headdresses, and pieces of furniture, providing a fascinating picture of Norman culture.
45 Avenue Hocquart de Turtot, 14800 Deauville, France
During the Belle Époque, France and Britain’s high society used to gather at this seaside track to watch races while on holiday. A visit to the Deauville–La Toques Racecourse may be a slightly less pompous affair these days, but it’s still exciting to watch the best horses and jockeys thunder around the track during the summer months. While the course is at its best in August, when it hosts no less than five Group 1 races, events take place all year long thanks to an all-weather track. After catching a race, take a stroll on one of Deauville’s wide, sandy beaches, or head downtown to explore the stylish streets.
Espl. Marcel Duchamp, 76000 Rouen, France
The jewel in Rouen’s crown, this impressive museum is home to France’s largest Impressionist collection outside of Paris. Here, you’ll find three stunning works from Monet’s famous Rouen Cathedral series, along with other highlights like a rare Caravaggio and paintings by everyone from Rubens, Vélazquez, and Fragonard to Delacroix, Modigliani, and Duchamp. After exploring the collection, stop into the small but pleasant bookstore for a souvenir, then take a stroll in the lovely park next door. Admission to the permanent collections here is free.
Esplanade Général Eisenhower, 14050 Caen, France
An absolute must-see for history buffs, this outstanding museum is devoted to warfare in the 20th century, with sections illustrating the beginnings of World War II, the D-day landings and the Battle of Normandy, and even the Cold War. A spiral ramp symbolizes the world’s descent into war, while videos, photographs, scale models, and actual aircraft bring the trauma to life. Just outside, visitors can pay their respects at a memorial commemorating World War II and the Battle for Caen, then tour three gardens named for America, Britain, and Canada, the main Allied nations involved in liberating France during the war.
Esplanade Jean-Marie Louvel, 14000 Caen, France
Caen was William the Conqueror’s city and this 11th-century abbey was his final resting place. Founded by William himself in 1066, the former Benedictine monastery and its adjoining Église St-Étienne are among the most important Romanesque buildings in Normandy. The abbey features elegant interiors (now home to Caen’s City Hall), while the church showcases Gothic additions like a ribbed vault, rosette windows, and flying buttresses. Though William the Conqueror’s tomb was destroyed in the 16th century and again during the French Revolution, a stone marks its original spot just in front of the church’s magnificent choir.
22 Place Hamelin, 14600 Honfleur, France
To experience some of the best food in Honfleur—and perhaps all of Normandy—head to the rustic but refined SaQuaNa, located just a stone’s throw from the harbor. Here, chef Alexandre Bourdas’s subtle flavors and artful plating earned him a Michelin star right off the bat, and a second within two years of opening. He rejoices in local seafood and produce, creating contemporary dishes inspired by his Norman and Aveyron roots, as well as his far-flung travels to Japan and Morocco. Every meal starts with a pascade (puffed pancake) and salad (the composition and dressing change every day), but could then include anything from lobster with kale tempura, tofu, and lemon caviar, to lamb with yellow beets, pumpkin, and chanterelle mushrooms. Come here to savor, linger, and, most of all, enjoy.
84 Rue Claude Monet, 27620 Giverny, France
From 1883 to 1926, Claude Monet lived in this pink stucco house in Giverny, where he cultivated his flower and water gardens and painted his famous Water Lilies series. Visitors to the house will find it just as Monet left it, complete with an all-yellow dining room and blue-tiled kitchen. You can tour everything from the sitting room, pantry, and studio to the bedrooms, dining room, and kitchen, then head outside to wander the gardens and see the famous arched bridge. Though you won’t find any of Monet’s paintings on-site, you can view his collection of 46 Japanese prints, and shop in the gift store, which is located in his old studio. When you get hungry, there’s also a café with healthy dishes and a spacious outdoor terrace.
50170 Mont Saint-Michel, France
It’s safe to say there’s nothing in the world quite like this magical island, topped by a medieval monastery that rises out of the bay like a heavenly apparition. It’s said that, early in the 8th century, a bishop in nearby Avranches was visited by the archangel Michael, who told him to build a church atop an island out to sea. From 966 onward, the dukes of Normandy, supported by French kings, oversaw the development of a major Benedictine abbey on Mont St-Michel. Massive buildings were added throughout the Medieval period, and the abbey became a renowned center of learning, attracting some of the greatest minds in Europe. To access this UNESCO World Heritage site, you must park in an off-site lot and take a shuttle or walk over a footbridge. Recent improvements have made the process much easier, but you should expect crowds in most seasons, as Mont St-Michel is the third most-visited monument in France. After touring the abbey, head to La Mère Poulard restaurant for the signature omelets and butter cookies. There are also several hotels on the island, though most visitors tend to spend the night elsewhere.