Welcome to our one-week itinerary for a Normandy road trip.
The region is within easy reach from Paris, or via the English Channel ports, and is one of the most beautiful regions of France. It’s crammed with history, art, art history, architecture, lush countryside and some of the best beaches in France. Not to mention the stunning white cliffs of the Côte d’Albatre.
I’ve written a seven-day itinerary for a road trip in Normandy, with tips on what to see, where to stay and when to go. I’ve done seven or eight road trips around Normandy, and condensed them into one week for the purpose of this article. You could see a lot in a three-day trip, or extend it to ten days, even two weeks or more.
Why Visit Normandy
Normandy is one of the most beautiful regions of France, with some of the country’s outstanding sights.
Ancient capital Rouen is one of the most beautiful cities in France, with one of the great French Gothic cathedrals at its heart. The medieval old town is also outstanding, with some of the most beautiful half-timbered houses and streets in Europe.
The much smaller medieval town of Bayeux is worth travelling across the country to visit. It’s home to the world-famous Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Norman invasion of England in 1066. And next door is a wonderful surprise, another of the loveliest cathedrals in France.
Normandy is the birthplace of Impressionism – Claude Monet painted Impression, Sunrise at Le Havre, and this painting eventually gave its name to a whole new style of painting. Monet also painted extensively elsewhere in Normandy, including at Rouen, Honfleur and Étretat.
Normandy has two renowned stretches of coastline. The Côte d’Albâtre, with its stunning white cliffs, is north-east of Le Havre. And the D-Day Beaches north of Caen and Bayeux are a must for anyone with an interest in World War 2 history.
The tiny port of Honfleur is one of the most beautiful towns in France, with one of the most picturesque harbours you will ever see.
There is also the unsung Normandy countryside, a bucolic haven producing some of the best cheeses in France (Camembert, Brie, Pont l’Évêque). Apples from Normandy are also used to make some of the best cidre in France, and also calvados, the unique local cider eau-de-vie.
Why A Normandy Road Trip
If you want to see Normandy, you’re going to need a car to get around. Apart from the main train lines from Paris to Rouen and Le Havre and to Caen and Bayeux, public transport in Normandy is scant. It was like this back in the 1980s when I first visited, and little has changed in this regard.
It may surprise some readers, but even the D-Day Beaches – among the main attractions in Normandy – are scarcely served by buses. It isn’t worth the bother – the only way to get around is by yourself or on a few guided tours. We’ll point these out below.
Normandy Road Trip Itinerary
Day 1 – A Day In Rouen
I spent my first night out of the UK in Rouen back in October 1982, and fell in love with the city. It’s one of the most beautiful medieval cities in France and Europe. And over 40 years on I still look on it as a benchmark, somewhere with which I compare other places. It’s undoubtedly one of the most underrated cities in Europe, and worthy of far more attention than it gets.
Despite being a small city, Rouen deserves two or three days. But one day in Rouen is enough to see the main sights. You can’t miss Rouen Cathedral, one of the outstanding Gothic churches in Europe. It was one of the first cathedrals where the Gothic style was adopted after being introduced at the Basilica of St Denis in Paris. However its origins go back possibly as far as the 3rd century AD.
It’s most famous for its vast west front, which was the subject of a series of paintings by Monet, a study of changing light at different times of day. The heart of England’s King Richard the Lionheart is interred within the Cathedral.
There are also several medieval churches around the city. The finest of these are the Church of St Ouen, in the north of the city centre, and the Church of St Maclou. This is very close to the Aitre St Maclou. This remarkable courtyard was used as an expanded charnel house or ossuary in the 16th century, and a frieze of macabre wooden carvings survives from this period.
Nearby, the rue du Gros Horloge is one of the most beautiful streets in Europe, the row of half-timbered houses leading to an exceptional astronomical clock on an archway above the street. The clock was made in the 14th century – making it considerably older than the famous Prague Astronomical Clock.
Rouen is also renowned as the city where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. This remarkable young woman helped lead the French to victories against English forces before being captured by Burgundian forces.
She was executed in the Place du Vieux Marché (Old Market Square). A modern church – completed in 1979 by Louis Arretche (who also rebuilt the Pont des Arts Paris) stands close to the spot where she died. It’s an arresting sight, the light wooden interior enriched by medieval stained glass from the nearby church of St Vincent.
Options include the 5-star Hotel de Bourgtheroulde, Autograph Collection, which is very close to the Gros Horloge.
Alternatively the 4-star Mercure Rouen Centre Cathedrale is in the heart of the historic centre, housed partly in a half-timbered building.
If you’re travelling in a group of four, you may also want to consider staying out in the countryside. The Manoir de l’Aumonerie has two cottages in the grounds of a 14th century Templar manor house near the village of St-Martin de Boscherville.
Day 2 – Chateau Gaillard, Jumièges Abbey and Giverny
This day trip from Rouen takes in three of the best places to visit in Normandy, all of which are within a short distance of the city. Two of them transport you back to medieval Normandy, while the third immerses you in the world of Impressionist master Claude Monet.
Start the day by taking the D982 out of the western suburbs of Rouen. You could stop at the seriously impressive abbey church at Saint-Martin de Boscherville. From there, the road continues to the Seine, before you reach a left turn for the Abbaye de Jumièges.
Jumièges Abbey was founded around a thousand years ago, and grew to become one of the most important centres of learning in France. When it was dissolved in the wake of the 1789 French revolution, its library was saved and moved to Rouen. The church is a gorgeous atmospheric ruin – if you love places like Fountains Abbey in England or Tintern Abbey in Wales, you’ll adore this amazing place.
You can either head back into Rouen or take the backroads route across the Seine and up the valley via Elbeuf to Les Andelys. High above the village, the mighty Chateau Gaillard is one of the most famous castles in France.
The late 12th century castle was built by Richard the Lionheart in an astonishingly quick two years. He boasted that he could defend it even if its walls were made of butter. However, he died young in 1199, and a few years later the castle was seized by his enemy Philippe II of France after a long siege.
During the Hundred Years War Chateau Gaillard changed hands several times between the English and French adversaries. It eventually fell into ruin by the 16th century.
No road trip to Normandy is complete without a visit to Monet’s Garden in Giverny. It’s only a few miles up the river from Les Andelys, but bear in mind that you need to book your ticket in advance, and that you need to adhere to an entrance time slot. Also note that it’s open from April 1st to November 1st.
Faye has visited Giverny several times and adores it. When you visit, you get to see the house where Monet lived for many years, and both gardens. One is a walled flower garden, the other a Japanese-style water garden with a famous restored bridge. It’s where Monet painted hundreds of canvases of flowers, lilies and garden scenes.
There aren’t any Monet originals at the Monet House and Garden, but that doesn’t really matter. As Faye says, you’re not seeing his paintings there, you’re walking through them. Essential for anyone with an interest in Monet and Impressionism.
Day 3 – Cote d’Albatre, Etretat and Veules-les-Roses
The Alabaster Coast, north-west of Rouen and north-east of Le Havre, is one of the most beautiful parts of the entire French coast. As with the England’s Channel coast to the north, it consists of towering white chalk cliffs and magnificent beaches. The most famous stretch of the coast is around Étretat, 17 miles (27 km) north of Le Havre.
The landscape is every bit as dramatic as the famous Seven Sisters and Beachy Head on the Sussex coast in England. If anything, nature has gone a bit further in Normandy than across the Channel. The cliffs, sea stack and unusual elephant-trunk-shaped arch at Étretat are its most famous features, a Normandy must-see.
The best way to see the Côte d’Albâtre is on foot. The GR21 hiking trail is one of the best coastal walks in Europe – I rate it up there with the Pembrokeshire Coast Path in my native Wales and the South Crete section of the E4 trail. The only section I have completed is the 10-mile (16 km) section from Étretat to Fécamp. It’s a stunning walk, one I’d love to do again.
Fécamp is another great stop on the Côte d’Albâtre, with superb coastal scenery either side. It is the home of the sweet herbal Bénédictine liqueur, and it may well have originally been developed by the monks of the Abbey in Fécamp. In the 1860s, Alexandre Le Grand was given the old recipe and altered it somewhat. The monastic back story would have certainly helped with the marketing, and it’s still produced to this day.
Overnight: Rouen or Étretat
As for Étretat, Hotel Le Rayon Vert is right on the seafront, within metres of the beach. Castel de la Terrasse and Dormy House also overlook the seafront. Les Tilleuls Étretat is a small hotel half a mile inland with a garden, double rooms with balconies and outstanding reviews.
Day 4 – Honfleur and Le Havre
Honfleur and Le Havre are very different ports across the Seine estuary from each other. The smaller Honfleur is much the older of the two, by almost 500 years. And yet both, for different reasons, were a major inspiration for the early Impressionists, Monet included.
I recommend trying to spend a few hours in each if possible. Le Havre was largely destroyed in World War Two, and much of it rebuilt under the auspices of Belgian architect Auguste Perret. The modernist city was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. I’ve always been fascinated by the place. It wasn’t all Perret’s work – Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer built the Volcan (pictured). It has long been nicknamed the ‘Yoghurt Pot’ by locals.
Le Havre, as one of the places which inspired the Impressionist style, is home to one of the best collections of Impressionist art in the world. MUMA is an excellent gallery, and far more enjoyable to experience than the endless crowds of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.
Honfleur is just across the Seine estuary from Le Havre, reached by the steep Pont de Normandie. The Quai Ste Catherine, on the Vieux Bassin harbour, is the main draw. It’s one of the most beautiful streets you’ll ever see, with some of its narrow waterfront houses up to eight storeys high.
Monet painted the quayside many times, and the port inspired many other artists, including Eugène Boudin. The superb Musée Eugène Boudin is the best of many art galleries around the small town. Make sure you spend at least a few hours in Honfleur – the rest of the town is a joy to wander. And don’t miss the Church of Ste Catherine, built from wood, whose earliest part dates from the 15th century.
Overnight: Rouen, Étretat or Honfleur
There is a huge choice of places to stay in Honfleur. Villa du Cedre, a few minutes’ walk from the Vieux Bassin, gets exceptional reviews. Or La Poupardoise, in an old fisherman’s house on the harbour, is also very highly-rated.
Day 5 – Caen and Bayeux
Caen is the capital of the Calvados département and Lower Normandy, a rich historical city severely damaged in the wake of the 1944 D-Day landings nearby. I’d recommend half a day there to explore the superb Chateau de Caen, which was largely the work of William the Conqueror.
While there, don’t miss the city’s two outstanding Romanesque churches – the Abbaye aux Hommes (Men’s Abbey) and Abbaye aux Dames (Women’s Abbey). They are half a mile’s walk in opposite directions from the Chateau. The Abbaye aux Dames was completed by around 1080, and the construction of the Abbaye aux Hommes continued for at least 150 years, into the Gothic period. It houses the tomb of William the Conqueror.
Bayeux is a 15-mile (25 km) drive from Caen, and one of the hidden gems of northern France. The city is known worldwide as the home of the Bayeux tapestry, which is housed in an excellent museum in the town. This astonishing 11th century tapestry – commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux p- documents the events leading up to William the Conqueror’s 1066 invasion of England and his subsequent coronation.
Many visitors – myself included first time round – don’t realise that Bayeux is home to a gorgeous Gothic cathedral across the street from the Tapestry Museum. The original Romanesque cathedral that William would have known was largely destroyed by fire, so much of it had to be rebuilt during the Gothic era.
Many also visit Bayeux for its vast War Cemetery, the resting place for over 4,000 soldiers from the Commonwealth, most of whom perished during the D-Day operations.
Manoir Sainte-Victoire, La Maison de Mathilde and Domaine de Bayeux are all excellent options in the historic centre of Bayeux.
Day 6 – D-Day Beaches
The only ways to see the Normandy D-Day Beaches are by guided tour or driving to them yourself. We went on a couple of school trips to them back in the ‘80s, staying in Arromanches-les-Bains. This was part of Gold Beach, one of five sections of coast code-named by the invading Allies. The D-Day landings took place over a 50-mile – 70 km – stretch of coast.
And there’s not just the beaches to see – there are also many military remnants and fortifications to explore. And there are also landmarks such as the famous church tower at Sainte-Mère-Église, where an American parachutist got stuck.
The D-Day (Jour J in French) beaches are the scene of Allied landings on 6th June 1944. They were the beginning of the offensive to oust the occupying Nazi German regime from France, and were decisive in eventually breaking German resistance.
There are also several museums in the area, including the Musée du Débarquement in Arromanches and the Pointe du Hoc Museum. The latter is at the meeting point of the two US landing beaches, Utah and Omaha, in the western sector of the invasion area. I’ve been to the area on two 5-day school trips plus two short stays in recent years, and still haven’t see all of the museums and sights associated with the landings.
Day 7 – Coutances and Mont-Saint-Michel
We spend the final day of our week-long Normandy road trip heading west. The Cotentin peninsula mainly attracts French visitors, surprising given its proximity to the Channel Islands. There is some amazing coastal scenery around the north-western tip and the Nez de Jobourg. But we head south-west, for one of the best hidden gems in France, followed by one of the most famous landmarks in France.
Coutances Cathedral is one of the finest cathedrals in France, but the town is a fair way off the beaten track. It’s built on an elevated rocky hill a few miles inland from the sea, and the superb Gothic Cathedral dominates the landscape for miles around.
It’s a hugely impressive sight, with twin west spires and a rare octagonal lantern tower above the crossing. There are very few of these in Europe – Ely Cathedral in England and Burgos Cathedral in Spain are the other most famous examples.
It’s an hour’s drive south via the quicker inland A84 route to Le Mont Saint-Michel, the most famous place to visit in Normandy. You could also head there via the slower roads closer to the coast, but count on this taking a good two hours.
Mont St Michel is a stupendous sight. You can see its distinctive outline from far away across the Baie de Mont-Saint-Michel. And it makes for an amazing sight as you view it from inland, seemingly floating on the surface of the sea.
The tidal island became a centre of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. St Michael the Archangel is said to have appeared to Bishop Aubert of nearby Avranches in the early 8th century. Aubert carried out his instruction to build a church on the islet, then known as Mont Tombe. And over time the foundation’s fame grew.
Part of the 11th century Benedictine Abbey church remains, and a Gothic choir replaced the original. The ensemble of buildings, from afar and up close, is astonishing. The site is also fortified, and was never conquered, despite several English attempts during the Hundred Years War.
The whole Mont St Michel experience has greatly changed over the last decade, since the construction of a bridge to the island. The car park is over a mile from the Mont – you can either take the shuttle bus there or walk.
More Time In Normandy – Where Else To Go?
I’ve also spent a lot of time in less-frequented parts of Normandy, some of which are well worth exploring. The south of Normandy gets very few visitors, even the lovely Suisse Normande (Norman Switzerland). The area’s landscapes are modest compared to Switzerland, but the Orne valley around Clécy is beautiful, especially the Boucle de l’Orne horseshoe.
It’s not far from there to the sturdy chateau at Falaise. The original castle on this site was the birthplace of Guillaume le Conquerant, William the Conqueror. The present building dates from the 12th or 13th century, and it’s one of the most imposing castles in France. And the visitor experience is brilliantly set up, with tablets to guide you around the castle.
There are so many Gothic cathedrals in France – indeed in Normandy – that some tend to get overlooked. One of these is Sées Cathedral (pronounced ‘say’), 50 km (29 miles) south-east of Falaise near Argentan. It completely dominates the small town around it and, again, is worth going out of your way to see.
Best Time to Visit Normandy
There’s always an element of potluck with the weather in Normandy, northern France and the North Atlantic in general.
I’d go with May, June or September for my next Normandy road trip. I have visited during all of these months, as well as March, April and October. I’ve had the best weather in late spring and again in September, but also enjoyed some stunning autumn days in October.
July and August are the busiest months, especially on the beaches of the Côte Fleurie between Honfleur and Caen. Accommodation prices are also highest at this time.
Normandy Road Trip – Final Thoughts
I’m up to seven or eight Normandy road trips in all, and loved this region for over 40 years. It’s such a rewarding part of the world to explore. And there are plenty of places which have barely been discovered by anyone other than locals.
If it’s your first time in France beyond Paris, I can’t think of a better part of the country to explore.
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