365 - Caen, William the Conqueror's City

Welcome to another post in our series of 365 things to see and do in Normandy where the focus is on Caen.

Caen is the second largest city in Normandy. It is the capital of the old region of Basse-Normandie before it amalgamated with Haute-Normandie in 2016 and is the biggest city in the department of Calvados. It is just 45 minutes from the gite and well worth a visit.

7 Reasons to Visit Caen, Normandy, France

7 reasons to visit Caen

1. Château de Caen

The château was built by William the Conqueror in 1060 and covers an area of 5.5ha making it one of the largest castles in Europe.  Inside the walls you will find 2 museums, a church, the Exchequer Hall, a garden and sculptures.  It often also hosts temporary exhibitions. The ramparts afford a great view over the city and the two remaining entrances show how extensive the fortified castle was.  Entry to the château is free although you do have to pay to go into the museums. 

Chateau de Caen

2. Musée de Normandie

This is one of the 2 museums within the castle grounds and it showcases the cultural history of Normandy from prehistoric times to the present day. You will discover archaeological artefacts and historical documents that guide you through Normandy's long history.  For example, did you know it is so called as it was conquered by the Vikings ie the Northmen which led to the name Normandy?

3. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen

This is the second museum in the castle grounds, a museum dedicated to fine arts. Inside is an extensive collection of paintings, sculptures and decorative arts covering the 15th to the 21st centuries. It includes works by artists such as Rubens, Delacroix, and Corot, as well as pieces from the French Impressionist movement which was particularly active in Normandy.

Sculptures in the garden of the Museum of Fine Art, Caen, Normandy

4. Memorial de Caen

This large museum focuses on World War II and its aftermath with detailed exhibitions divided into D-Day, the Cold War, the Holocaust and contemporary global issues related to peace and conflict.  Your entry ticket is valid for 24hrs and you do need plenty of time if you wish to see everything. A word of warning - the Holocaust section, in particular, contains some very graphic material and is not suitable for younger children.

5. Architecture and Buildings

Caen was heavily bombed between D-day and its liberation on July19th 1944 but much of the centre of the town has been rebuilt. It has 2 impressive abbeys, L'Abbaye aux Hommes and L'Abbaye aux Dames which I have covered in my blog on Normandy Abbeys as well as numerous churches, the Hôtel d’Escoville and nearby Hôtel de Than. A hôtel means a mansion house and these are very grand buildings. There are more examples of fine architecture in Place Saint-Sauveur and Rue Saint Sauveur and on Rue Saint Pierre you will find examples of half timbered buildings.

Timber fronted building in Caen, Normandy

6. Gardens

Caen has many open spaces from large areas such as the Prairie down to hidden corners such as no longer used cemeteries:

I. Colline aux Oiseaux - this 17ha garden is near the Memorial de Caen and includes a huge rose garden, several themed gardens, a small farm, a maze, a play area plus picnic areas and a café.
II. Caen Botanical Garden - this small garden near the heart of the town is packed full of thousands of sometimes rare species. There you will find a hot house, an orangery, many themed gardens including one for medicinal plants and also a Giant Sequoia tree that has to have a lightening conductor on it as it is so tall. There is a play area and picnic tables but no refreshments are available.
III. Parc Michel d'Ornano - this 5ha garden is located at the Abbaye aux Dames and is made up of wide lawns and avenues of lime trees. It gives excellent views over Caen from the cedar of Lebanon that was planted in 1849.
IV. La Prairie - This is the largest open space in Caen covering 90ha. It includes a horse racing track and a bird reserve.
V. Ifs Forest - this woodland to the south of Caen is the geographical centre of Calvados. It includes playgrounds, a fitness trail and a permanent orienteering trail.
VI. Bois de Lebisey - this 24ha woodland to the north of Caen at Hérouville Saint-Clair has areas of woodland as well as marked walks, a 2km fitness trails, a play area and picnic areas.
VII. Cemeteries - the city has various dormandt cemeteries that act as small havens of calm for man and wildlife alike:

  • Dormant Cemetery 4 nations, 9 Rue Desmoueux
  • Dormant Cemetery Saint Pierre, 26 Rue Doyen Moriere
  • Protestant Dormant Cemetery, Rue du Magasin a Poudre
  • Dormant Cemetery Saint Jean, 16 Rue Canchy

The Rose garden, Caen, Normandy

7. Shopping

Caen is an excellent location to undertake some retail therapy.  Much of the town centre is pedestrianised and there you will find both big name stores and independents. There is a small shopping centre near the station called Rives de L'Orne which also has a cinema complex where you can often find showing English speaking films in English subtitled in French.  Further out are 3 centres including Mondeville, Rots Shopping Centre near the airport and the Centre Commercial Herouville-Saint Clair.

Cheese sho[p in Caen, Normandy

Caen is easily accessible by car and once in the city there are plenty of car parks including one right in the centre, under the castle. At the time of writing it is not designated as a low emission city but it is expected to become one in 2025 so from then you will need to show a Crit'Air sticker in your car (both French drivers and those from abroad). Details can be found here of how to apply for the sticker (one off low payment per car).  Caen centre is small enough to walk and the Tourist Information Centre (opposite the castle) has leaflets with walking trails you can follow.  The city also has an excellent bus and tram network or you can hire bikes from Twisto Velolib.

Have you visited Caen before? What would you recommend?

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7 Reasons to visit Caen, Normandy, France