I independently toured Normandy in May 2016 a week before the anniversary that year. The advantage to going then is everything is gearing up for the anniversary, but without the crowds. Chances are you will also get to meet some veterans who have arrived early, which is obviously a real bonus. Also it gives you a feel for things weather wise at the time of the invasion.
I did all 5 beeches and the American and British landing zones in 7 days, not including travel in / out of country. That is a squeeze and I suppose it depends on whether you want to focus purely on the American aspect of the invasion.
Key stuff I did which I would most recommend:
- US Airborne museum at Sainte-Mere-Eglise - for me with lunch and checking out the church and shops, this was a full days experience; along with a visit in the evening to the 'Iron Mike' memorial next to the bridge the 82nd held. The museum is easily one of the best I have ever been to.
- Utah beach museum - the whole site, with the various memorials is just fantastic. The museum is really comprehensive and interesting.
- Pointe-du-Hoc - an American Battle Monuments Commission site which is free to enter. This was the highlight of the trip for me, just massively, massively interesting and well done in terms of information made available to the visitor and the access to explore the site. An absolute MUST DO for anyone interested in the American aspect of the invasion.
- Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha - an obvious destination, but what you might not know is there is a very comprehensive visitor centre / museum at the cemetery and film show. This should not be planned as a quick trip, which was the mistake I made going only for an afternoon. Between the visitor centre, the cemetery and the beach (which you can access from a purpose made path from the cemetery down to what I assume is Easy Red sector - unfortunately it was close the day I was there due to security issues at the time), you need a full day to do it justice.
- The Mulberry Harbour at Gold Beach, Arromanches-les-Bains - obviously the harbour at Omaha was lost during a storm, but so much of the man-made harbour at Arromanches remains and is a absolute wonder of man-made feat and technology of the time. Check the internet for when you are in-country for the correct time and make sure you arrive in good time for morning low-tide - then you can walk around the various remaining elements of the harbour located in front of the town before the crowds arrive. The little museum is very good for models and information of what the harbour was like and how it operated in 1944 - but is gets rammed by a coach party roughly every hour for half an hour, so be patient and let the crowd ebb and flow so you can enjoy the museum properly. The film show at the Arromanches 360 is also worth the hike to the top of the hill and there is a Free French Sherman to check out on the way - plus you get an fantastic panoramic view of the semi-circle of block ships that surrounded the harbour if the weather is good.
If you want to do British stuff then the Pegasus Museum and Bridge are a must see, and the Melville Battery site museum which was attacked by the British Parachute Regiment is also well worth a visit. Both will need a full day each to do them justice, plus there is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Ranville, where many of those paratroopers now eternally rest.
Other points of note:
The Juno Beach museum is good, but is all encompassing to the Canadian involvement in WWII and only a small aspect is specifically on the D-Day / Normandy campaign, with much of that covered by other museums; so its OK, but can be done in an afternoon easily.
The Overlord Museum behind Omaha beech is fine if you want to check out a lot of Allied and German heavy vehicles and armour / tanks - otherwise I was nonplussed by it.
Just be aware that finding places to eat around these beach areas of Normandy in the evenings can be difficult - there was not a big evening restaurant culture there and fast-food outlets are non-existent. I can recommend this place if you are in the area of Sainte-Mere-Eglise - http://www.aubergedelouve.com - wonderful fresh local French cooking and wine!
Obviously what I saw was only a snapshot of what the region has to offer and there are many many things to see and do. I will definitely be going back!
If you need a recommendation for somewhere good to stay try this place which is in the heart of the US Airborne landing zones - http://www.islemarie.fr - it even has some invasion bullet holes and history of its own + the family running it are very nice.
Final tip - take your laptop or tablet with Band of Brothers, The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan loaded up - really good mood movies for where you are and what your getting to see first hand.
Enjoy, it certainly is one of the best trips I have ever done.
Edited by Glidertrooper, 19 December 2017 - 11:40 AM.