Masterminded by a Kansas farm boy-turned-West Point-educated general, D-Day is often cited as the turning point of World War II. As dawn began to break on June 6, 1944, soldiers, sailors, and airmen from 12 nations executed General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Operation Overlord and carried out the largest amphibious attack in history.
While there are hundreds of World War II museums, memorials, and other sites around the world, the invasion of Northern France was a significant victory against the Axis powers and helped change the course of history.
From the sandy beaches of Normandy to the modest red-brick school building in Reims where the Germans surrendered, ending the six-year global conflict, these are the most moving World War II sites to visit in France.
1. Museum Of The Liberation Of Paris, Paris
The newly restored Museum of the Liberation of Paris recently opened in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the city’s release from Nazi power. Located in Paris’s 14th arrondissement, just across the avenue from the Catacombs of Paris, this beautiful 18th-century gatehouse chronicles the actions of Jean Moulin and General Philippe Leclerc, two of the most prominent figures of the French Resistance.
2. Museum Of National Resistance, Champigny-Sur-Marne
Less than 10 miles to the east in Champigny-sur-Marne, the National Resistance Museum is located in a 19th-century mansion overlooking the Marne River. There is currently no fee to visit this collection, which focuses on the French Resistance between 1929 and 1947.
3. Pegasus Museum And Memorial, Ranville
Leaving the City of Lights and heading northwest toward the English Channel, the Pegasus Museum and Memorial in Ranville pays homage to the men of the 6th Airborne Division of the British Army. Several hours before the D-Day invasion, they surprised the German forces, capturing the Pegasus Bridge that spanned two parallel waterways, the Canal de Caen a la Mer and the Orne River. This pre-invasion act was essential for clearing a route for the troops scheduled to land on Sword Beach at the break of dawn.
4. Caen Memorial Museum, Caen
Cross the Pegasus Bridge and head to the northern edge of the city of Caen to visit the Caen Memorial Museum. The recommended starting point for your visit leads down a dark spiraling walkway that details the lingering turmoil from World War I that led to World War II. After covering World War II in great detail, the museum addresses post-World War II issues like the Cold War.
5. Beaches Of Normandy
The 50 miles of coast stormed by the Allies on D-Day were divided into five beaches that stretched from Ouistreham, directly north of Caen, to Vierville-sur-Mer. While American forces led the invasion of the western beaches of Utah and Omaha, British and Canadian troops commanded the surprise attack on Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches to the east.
If time allows, I recommend visiting each of these beaches, because learning about World War II from the perspective of the other nations is incredibly enlightening.
My recommendations from east to west:
The Grand Bunker Museum is a five-story German command center that displays everything from German machinery and equipment to examples of everyday life in the concrete fortress.
To better understand the contributions Canada made to World War II, visit the Juno Beach Centre.
Continuing westward, the Gold Beach Museum details how Britain prepared for and participated in D-Day.
The Omaha Beach Memorial Museum honors the 2,400 men who died on Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy.
If you only have time to visit one Normandy beach museum, make it the Utah Beach D-Day Museum. Built on the spot where the first American troops landed, this D-Day museum is one of the most comprehensive.
As you make your way westward along the Normandy coast, watch for the remains of the Mulberry harbors floating off the coast near the town of Arromanches-les-Bains. These floating roadways connected naval ships to the sandy shore, allowing the Allies to quickly unload personnel and equipment during the attack. To learn more about this wartime invention, visit the D-Day museum in Arromanches.
7. Normandy American Cemetery And Memorial, Colleville-Sur-Mer
One of the most emotional experiences an American can have in Normandy is to stand among the nearly 10,000 white limestone crosses and Stars of David on the manicured green lawn above Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer. The average age of the brave men (and four women) buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is 24, and the weight of their ultimate sacrifice hangs heavy in the air.
If your itinerary allows, try to remain at the cemetery through the flag retirement service and ceremony about 30 minutes before the cemetery closes for the day.
8. Pointe Du Hoc Ranger Monument
About 8 miles west of the American cemetery is the Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument. As the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy, Army Rangers scaled the 100-foot cliffs at Pointe du Hoc and seized the German artillery that could have fired upon the troops arriving from the English Channel.
While it is now a serene spot above the Utah and Omaha landing beaches, the area remains riddled with deep green craters that indicate where bombs fell and lives were lost during the invasion of Normandy.
9. La Cambe German War Cemetery, La Cambe
It wasn’t until my fifth trip to Normandy that I visited the German cemetery in La Cambe. I’m not sure why I hesitated. Maybe it was because visiting the German graveyard felt like supporting the dark side. But if anyone should understand that not all Germans are Nazis, it’s a German-American like me. And, during my visit, I learned that the majority of the young men buried here -- often two in one simply marked grave -- were forced to fight for an ideology they didn’t support.
In stark contrast to the white crosses that dot the green hill at the American cemetery, La Cambe features dark basalt lava crosses and flat brown markers, and visiting the site reminded me that there are never any winners in war.
10. Airborne Museum, Sainte-Mere-Eglise
Roughly halfway between Bayeux and Cherbourg is the small village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. If you’ve seen the movie The Longest Day, you’ll recognize the town’s Catholic church and the statue of the soldier hanging by his parachute on the steeple. Visit the Airborne Museum to learn more about how the Screaming Eagles and other paratroopers helped pave the way for the amphibious landings down the coast on D-Day.
11. Museum Of The Surrender, Reims
Upon your return to Paris, consider traveling northeast to Reims. A room in the red-brick Lycee Roosevelt just steps from the train station preserves the site where the declaration of unconditional surrender was signed by German armed forces on May 7, 1945. Roughly one year after the invasion of Normandy (but several months before two atomic bombs dropped on Japan would fully end World War II), the fighting in Europe was over.
A Final Tip
While it’s important that we never forget the more than 70 million who died or the pain and suffering inflicted around the world during this global conflict, each of these World War II sites is a somber experience. I recommend incorporating lighthearted, present-day experiences into your itinerary as well.