Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, lives in legend as the site of one of the most amazing battles of World War II. And what happened here was just part of a vast effort to reclaim freedom. On June 6, 1944, the Allies crossed the English Channel and landed along 60 miles of Normandy beaches 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 beaches were Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. Omaha is often the focus for Americans.
Historians agree that the landing on the stretch of about 5 miles that is Omaha Beach was the most difficult of a day of unimaginable difficulties. This beach turned out to have the largest number of German troops. Allied bombing runs failed to take out German strong points. The beach was riddled with mines and obstacles. Also, stormy weather and navigation issues led to men drowning before they could even reach the beach. Those who gained the beach faced a fortified sea wall and high bluffs from where German artillery rained down on them. But by the end of this Day of Days, the Americans claimed a toehold of about 1.5 miles on the shores of Omaha Beach.
Making the trip to tour Omaha Beach can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience you will cherish. Here are things to know and things you will want to do. Some are practical tips, and some are places to include in your itinerary. You will be visiting a place drenched in history. The more you know before you go, the more you will be able to grasp the significance of this sliver of beach.
1. Pay Your Respects At The Normandy American Cemetery
The focus of a visit to Omaha Beach today is the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. On a windswept bluff above Omaha Beach, this peaceful cemetery is the final resting place of almost 10,000 American soldiers who gave their lives in the battle for Normandy. The rows and rows of graves attest to the price paid for liberation in one small corner of the world.
The reflecting pool leads to a memorial featuring a tall, graceful sculpture called “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” Large maps of the battles of World War II decorate the memorial walls.
Pro Tip: Allow time to wind your way down the path to the beach. It’s a bit steep but well worth the hike to stand on the landing beach. Look out across the English Channel and imagine the landing craft filled with frightened young men heading for this spit of sand. Once they landed, guns on the bluff rained down massive firepower, coils of barbed wire blocked their way, and the sand was booby-trapped with mines. The soldiers pressed on anyway.
2. Plan To Go To The Memorial Museum
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 museum entrance, an infinity pool leads to the beach and invites you to reflect on what happened here.
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.
3. Marvel At The Monument To The Brave At Vierville-Sur-Mer
At the far west end of Omaha Beach, in Vierville-sur-Mer, you’ll find an imposing sculpture called The Brave. 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 us to stand strong for freedom and to speak up against all forms of inhumanity.
4. Visit The Bayeux War Cemetery
The Bayeux War Cemetery near Omaha Beach is a large, beautiful cemetery for Commonwealth soldiers who died in France in World War II, mostly in this Normandy area. More than 4,000 men rest here. Plan a visit here and honor their memory.
5. Learn More About World War II At The Memorial Museum Of The Battle of Normandy
This is one of the outstanding World War II museums in Normandy. It’s located across the street from the Bayeux War Cemetery. The Memorial Museum presents in chronological order the events of the battle for Normandy, starting with the D-Day landings and continuing through the summer of 1944.
You’ll find quite a collection of tanks and other vehicles as well as numerous displays of items from World War II both inside and outdoors.
6. Trudge Around German Bunkers At Pointe Du Hoc
At the southwest end of Omaha Beach, a picturesque point of land stands high on cliffs above the beach. Pointe Du Hoc is about 8 miles from Omaha Beach, and what happened here is directly related to both the Omaha and Utah landing beaches.
Allies learned that the Germans built bunkers on this land and manned them with soldiers and large guns that could reach Omaha and Utah. American Rangers were tasked with climbing the 100-foot cliffs on rope ladders and silencing these guns. Though many military minds thought this was a suicide mission, the Rangers persevered. They threw their ropes up the cliff and scurried up the ladders in the face of fire. Despite the odds against them, they accomplished their task.
One reason to include Pointe Du Hoc in your itinerary is that the battle site looks today very much as it did in June 1944. Other sites, such as Omaha Beach, were cleaned up, and German bunkers were destroyed. But here, you can enter the bunkers and walk through the craters made by the bombing of the ground.
Pro Tip: In the bunkers, look up at the ceiling. Notice the burned wood, charred by American flamethrowers. Then peer through the lookout slit in the bunker. Imagine the English Channel that’s in your view suddenly filled with hundreds of vessels coming straight at you on D-Day.
7. Choose From A Self-Guided Tour, A Day Tour, Or A Full-Service Tour
Consider the options for touring Omaha Beach as you plan your trip. You can go on a day tour from Paris, book a tour that leaves from your hotel in Normandy, or tour on your own.
A day tour that includes a 2-hour bus ride from Paris will, of course, leave you less time at the beach. And you spend a lot of time on the bus. Rather than be rushed, stay in the beach area if you have enough time.
You will love staying in the Normandy countryside, and basing yourself near the D-Day beaches will allow you to see more of this fascinating part of France.
So, once you are in Normandy, it’s up to you whether to book a day tour or go around on your own. I have done both. My recommendation is to book a tour. A knowledgeable tour guide makes the area come alive with stories of the soldiers and civilians. And you’ll see photos from World War II to compare with the exact places you stand in today.
Whether you choose a private tour or tour with others is another decision to ponder. I enjoyed a wonderful day with Overlord Tours at the Normandy beaches. Our group of seven people chatted about history as we drove from place to place in the van. And the guide kept up an informative running commentary.
For a deep dive into history, book your own guide. I can recommend Rudy Passera of Normandy American Heroes, who lives in France and is an expert historian.
8. Take The Train From Paris, Then Rent A Car
You will likely be heading to Omaha Beach from Paris. It’s easy to take the train from the St. Lazare station in Paris to Caen. Public transportation in the Omaha Beach area is not well developed. Plan to rent a car from the row of dealers directly across the street from the train station.
Pro Tip: Some bed and breakfasts and tour guides will give directions using GPS coordinates. Check your online maps or a paper map to figure out where you are headed before you start. I had never needed to rely on longitude and latitude directions in the U.S. and found it was easy to get lost.
9. Stay In Bayeux To Be Close To Omaha Beach
About 6 miles inland from Omaha Beach, the charming town of Bayeux is perfect for a stay in this area. Not only is this a medieval wonder with cobblestone streets and sidewalk cafes, but it also boasts the famous Bayeux Tapestry and one of the most beautiful cathedrals in France.
My favorite hotel is The Churchill, on the main street in the heart of the city. You’ll be able to walk anywhere in town from here. The breakfast in the sunny day room is a big plus, too.
Bed and breakfasts and Airbnbs are plentiful in this region. I can highly recommend 32 Les Bis, a one-bedroom apartment in the middle of the town. It’s spacious with comfortable, pleasant décor. And the front windows provide a view down to the main street, perfect for watching the town wake up in the morning, with locals rushing around and cafes opening up for the day.
On the 70th anniversary of D-Day, President Obama spoke at Omaha Beach and said: “Whenever the world makes you cynical, whenever you doubt that courage and goodness is possible -- stop and think of these men. By the end of that longest day, this beach had been fought, lost, refought, and won -- a piece of Europe once again liberated and free.”
If you go to Normandy, you can walk on this beach and imagine the events of June 1944. You can feel the sand between your toes; the waves lap at your feet. Children will be playing around you, and families will be out for a stroll, enjoying the sun and the sea. We live free of tyranny now, and it’s only fitting to remember those who gave their last full measure of devotion to make this possible.