Situated just northwest of Paris, the region of Normandy is a coastal part of France with a history steeped in Norman rule tracing back to William the Conqueror in 1066. It’s also known for its D-Day beaches and picturesque harbors, with a notable agricultural and maritime industry along the English Channel. Normandy might be small, but it’s homey and rustic, with plenty of local Camembert and hard cider to welcome you in.
I spent the first two years after university living in Normandy. I’d been accepted to teach English there, and I passed much of my time outside of work exploring as much as possible. One notable aspect was that I’d arrived the year before Normandy was reunited– it’d originally been divided into Haute-Normandie and Basse-Normandie, and it was in the following year that the two came together for political convenience. I’d lived in the former department, but I came to accept both as part of my home away from home.
Normandy gets really cold in the winter (although it barely snows). Coming from warm, sunny Los Angeles, I found it difficult to get through my first winter, but I gradually got used to it. Half of the year is pretty dark and miserable, but the spring and summer months are gorgeous. There are lots of rural pockets, but with the region being small, it’s doesn’t take too long to get to places either by train or bus– even Paris is only two hours away from the very end of the region located in Le Havre. The people in Normandy are kind: they might be a bit cold and standoffish at first, but they become quite warm over time– and their accent is charming (even if it’s a bit challenging to follow)!
Two years was a good amount of time to see a lot of Normandy. I’ve explored both the major cities and the small villages– I might not have gone to every single place, but I’ve been around enough to get a sense of its beauty. I’ve found Normandy to be a subtle blend of its neighboring regions: the slight, bourgeois air of Paris/île-de-France combined with the tough ruggedness of Brittany. It’s a soft combination of both, and it ultimately became a soft spot in my heart.
I’d like to share some of the best gems of Normandy. These places are right on the tourist’s mark, but there’s a good reason why they’re visited. Each offers a richness associated with the region’s history, nature, and architecture, and they merit a chance while in this northwest part of France. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I did when I lived there!
PS Feel free to read my older post on Normandy here
5 Beautiful Places in Normandy, France
Giverny is a tiny, unassuming commune of barely 500 residents. What has put this small place on the national (and international) map is the fondation Claude Monet, an estate-museum that was home to one of the most-prominent Impressionist painters of the late 19th century. Visitors commonly flock to Monet’s house and gardens as a day trip from Paris (as it’s only a 45-minute train ride away), especially during the spring and summer months when weather’s the best.
I’ve visited Giverny twice, both times for the fondation Claude Monet. In fact, I lived in the town right over (Vernon) during my second year of teaching; it was a mere five kilometres away, which made for an extremely-convenient walk over to visit Monet’s house and gardens anytime. There isn’t much else to do in Giverny besides visiting the Impressionist’s home, but it’s still worthwhile to see the blossoming beauty of its carefully-manicured flowerbeds and Japanese-inspired ponds.
The capital of Normandy, Rouen is what I consider a solid symbol of Norman culture. It’s the “city of a hundred spires” from its numerous Gothic cathedrals, as well as half-timbered houses in its Old Town. This is where prisoners from the Hundred Years’ War were hung, along with Joan of Arc being burned at stake. Rouen is deeply-entrenched in its medieval history, still resilient despite modernization in the 21st century.
I’ve gone to Rouen countless of times when I lived in the region. Besides day trips, I also went for teacher’s training and for connecting to Paris and other parts of France. The Old Town is where everything’s at– it’s not very big, and you can see the main sites within an hour, but you’ll still be awestruck by its massive, eponymous cathedral (which has inspired Monet hundreds of times through his paintings of it), colorful half-timbered homes, and the embellished clock tower, le Gros Horlage (pro-tip: look up underneath– the carvings of saints are gorgeous!).
This coastal village is the stuff of natural wonders– its white, chalk cliffs draped by greenery look almost surreal, and the cold, cerulean waters crash along it every single day. Monet has painted the cliffs countless of times and famed 19th-century writer Guy de Maupassant has written stories about his beloved hometown. Étretat is a natural delight, perfect for hiking its cliffs or lounging at the beach on warmer days.
Getting to Étretat without a car is a bit challenging, but I managed to go three times via regional bus from Le Havre. It’s a 90-minute ride over, but once you arrive, you can spend a long afternoon there. You can opt to hike along its grassy trails above the cliffs (which can go as far as le Tréport, over 100 kilometres away), dip your toes in the ocean, or simply enjoy the views over a beer and galette along the boardwalk. It’s the rugged naturalness of the Normandy coast that draws people to Étretat, and it’s well-worth it.
Just across the bay from Le Havre is the port town of Honfleur. It’s an easy 30-minute bus ride over, where you can spend a slow, full day enjoying its colorful harbor. You can also expect a lot of holiday-goers, both French and foreigners (particularly the British), roaming the docks or otherwise enjoying a seafood lunch right along it.
I did a day trip to Honfleur with a colleague during my second year. We caught the bus from Le Havre and we spent the morning at the harbor, as well as peeking inside église Sainte-Catherine, made entirely of wood. There also happened to be the weekly outdoor market that day, so we browsed the fresh batches of fruits, vegetables, cheese, hard cider, and seafood. There’s also the maison Satie (birthplace of Erik Satie, an influential composer in the 20th century), but otherwise, it’s enough just to take in the colorful port and relax at the sight of it all.
5. Le Mont-Saint-Michel
Le Mont-Saint-Michel needs no introduction– its tidal island has been the site of pilgrimage for centuries before becoming one of the most surreal-looking and highly-visited sites in all of France. People from all over come in droves to the small landmass, overpopulating its vertical Old Town that takes you up to its iconic abbey. Because of its unique location and mysterious air, le Mont-Saint-Michel is a well-sought after destination to go.
Heading there can be a pain, especially if you don’t take a tour nor own a car. Even the nearest train station is 10 kilometres away. I visited le Mont-Saint-Michel twice, the first time by BlaBlaCar from Caen and the second time via carpool with colleagues. It’s incredibly isolated, but well-worth the journey over for an afternoon on its island. The abbey is mostly bare, but with a few lovely structures in its rooms and stunning views of the tides, whether you choose to go at high or low. Definitely go, and enjoy it!
Have you been to any of these places in Normandy? Where else would you recommend? Let me know!