What to see in Caen

Today, I’m taking you to one of my favorite Norman cities: Caen

Caen is one of those Norman cities that suffered immense damage during the war but didn’t look back and now merges the modern and the historical. Before the Norman conquest of England, it was the hometown of William and Matilda, and both are buried here in noble Romanesque abbeys.

Caen is flooded with greenery, as you can see at the Castle of Caen, where William’s house stood until the French Revolution, now dotted with captivating historical fragments like the ancient gateways and walls. The city is also easily accessible from the D-Day beaches or Bayeux where the famous tapestry is displayed.

Let’s explore the best things to do in Caen:

1 Castle of Caen

chateau de caen normandie 2

If there’s one must-see place in Caen, it’s the castle.

Built in 1060 by William the Conqueror, it stands out in Caen not just for the structure itself but for its location on the hill, which is now the city center.

The Castle of Caen is not hard to find. With its five hectares and thirteen towers, it is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe, so you will see it even if you’re not looking for it. Palace of William the Conqueror, royal fortress, and infantry barracks: each century has left its mark.

There remain fascinating fragments, such as the foundations of William’s residence, as well as the walls and two formidable gateways, which are still standing.

Most of these defenses are from the Hundred Years War in the 1400s, and the ramparts offer a fantastic panorama over Caen.

It is now a place of relaxation for the people of Caen, with large lawns, two museums, and a café.

USEFUL INFORMATION

2. Caen Memorial

visiter musee memorial caen normandie

If you are passionate about history, I recommend a visit to the Caen Memorial.

Founded in 1988, the Caen Memorial is atop an underground bunker from which German General Wilhelm Richter coordinated the defense of the Normandy beaches on D-Day.

The Caen Memorial describes itself as a “museum of peace,” carrying a message of hope.

The galleries trace the rise of conflict, the French occupation, the Holocaust, and then the post-war period.

There is an exhibition on the Cold War, with items like an East German Trabant car and a piece of the Berlin Wall.

USEFUL INFORMATION

  • Address: Esplanade Eisenhower – Caen
  • Website: https://www.memorial-caen.fr/
  • Telephone: 02 31 06 06 45
  • Hours: Monday to Sunday from 9 am to 7 pm

Prices

  • €19.80 per adult
  • €17.50 per child

3. Men’s Abbey and Saint Stephen’s Church

abbaye aux hommes caen

One of my favorite monuments in Caen. Architecturally speaking, it’s a must-see.

It’s one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in all of Normandy and one of the most “pure” of this style. It was built in just 15 years in the second half of the 11th century, and since then, there have been almost no changes.

William the Conqueror established this abbey in 1063 to obtain absolution for marrying Matilda of Flanders, who happened to be a cousin.

The must-see inside is William’s tomb, which has been in the choir since 1087, while the wooden stalls and pulpit were made in the 1600s.

Nothing remains of the rest of William the Conqueror’s original abbey. The Benedictine convent buildings were rebuilt in the 18th century. In any case, you can visit part of the interior – another houses the city hall – with the cloister, the great hall of the monks, the chapter room, the sacristy, the refectory covered with 18th-century frescoes, the staircase that inspired the Opera Garnier in Paris…

Fun fact: During World War II, the abbey was turned into a hospital and welcomed many Caennais who took refuge during the siege.

There is now an exhibition that remembers this time. The red cross painted on the outside allowed the church and abbey to not suffer too much during the war: in the church, only the towers were damaged. Yet, shrapnel impacts can be seen in the cloister.

4. Saint Stephen the Old Church

eglise saint etienne caen

Opposite the Men’s Abbey are the ruins of Saint-Étienne-le-Vieux, a13th-16th century church. It was bombed during World War II and has not been deliberately rebuilt or restored to remind people of the barbarity of war.

5. Abbey of Sainte-Trinité or Ladies’ Abbey

abbaye aux dames caen

This Norman Romanesque abbey was founded in the mid-11th century by Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror.

Matilda’s tomb is located in the abbey church and is marked by an unassuming black stone with a Latin inscription laid at the time of her death, unlike William’s tomb at the Men’s Abbey of Caen which has been updated several times.

The church is the only part of the abbey open to the public as the rest houses offices. There are several guided tours a day.

In the apse and choir, try to get close to the carved capitals, one of which shows William the Conqueror holding two lions on a leash, taken as a prize during the First Crusade.

6. Hôtel d’Escoville

hotel lescoville caen

Next to the tourist office is one of Caen’s Renaissance jewels: the Hôtel d’Escoville. It was built in the 16th century by a wealthy local merchant in the Italian Renaissance style.

You can’t visit the inside, but I recommend you enter its courtyard: its decoration will fascinate you. The large Caen lanterns, pavilions, bas-reliefs, statues of classical taste… not a single detail is missing

7. Place Saint-Sauveur

place saint sauveur caen

At the end of rue Froide, you arrive at Place Saint-Sauveur, a large 18th-century square.

What was once the place of execution for the condemned to death is now one of the city’s liveliest squares. Every Friday, Caen’s oldest market is held here.

In winter, there’s a Christmas market, and there are also book markets and gastronomic events at other times.

There are two elements that attract a lot of attention in the square. One is the red door that looks like a palace and is actually a medieval church with an 18th-century facade and rebuilt after the bombings of World War II.

And another is the statue of Louis XIV depicted as a Roman emperor! Originally it was located in Place Royale, but when it became Place de la République, it didn’t fit in much anymore…

8. Vaugueux Quarter

quartier le vaugueux caen

The name Vaugueux derives from the contraction of “val des gueux,” the valley of the beggars. And it was one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city during the Middle Ages.

Now, this pedestrian area is one of the most lively and trendy in Caen, full of cafes and restaurants. Without the menu signs and deck chairs, it feels like a return to the Middle Ages: the small cobbled streets and half-timbered houses give it that medieval character.

9. Caen Fine Arts Museum

Musee Beaux Arts Caen 1

Within the Caen castle, the city’s Musée des Beaux-Arts displays 350 works that take you on a journey of discovery through French and European art from the 1300s to the present day.

The galleries focus on the Renaissance and Baroque, with pieces by Nicolas Poussin and Rubens, as well as Italian masters like Veronese and Tintoretto.

French movements of the 19th century are also well documented, such as the Romanticism of Delacroix, the landscape painting of Boudin, and the Realism of Courbet.

There is also a new contemporary wing and a sculpture garden with works by Antoine Bourdelle and Huang Yong Ping.

10. Normandy Museum

Musee de Normandie caen 2

The other museum in the Caen castle covers the thousands of years of history of Normandy and is located in what was once the governor’s residence.

In the prehistory section, you can see ceramics that are 7500 years old, as well as tools and arrowheads found at a site in Vierville and Neolithic funerary objects discovered at Ecajeul.

In the classical history section, the museum’s must-see exhibit, The Mother Goddess of Saint-Aubin-Sur Mer, a large Roman sculpture expertly carved and discovered in a well in 1943. You can also learn more about how the Vikings came to settle in Normandy in the 10th century, as well as traditional Norman costumes and crafts, with interesting exhibits on cider and cheese-making over the years.

11. Saint-Pierre Church

eglise saint pierre caen

The majestic Gothic and Renaissance church of Caen is identified by its 76-meter-high spire, restored after it was hit by a shell during World War II.

Saint-Pierre was constructed in several stages from the 1200s to the 1500s, with the oldest parts being the choir, the tower, and the facades.

On the north side is a rose window known for the lightness of its stonework. Inside, take the time to examine the beautiful Gothic vault of the choir and the ambulatory chapels in the late Gothic style.

Then, on the north side of the nave, there are sculpted capitals featuring characters from Arthurian epic poems.

If you know your stuff, you’ll recognize Lancelot here.

12. Half-Timbered Houses

ancienne Maison caen

One of the reasons there aren’t as many half-timbered houses in Caen as in other French medieval cities is that in 1524 this style of construction was abolished by the Norman Parliament because it was considered a fire hazard.

However, there are two examples remaining, and both are grandiose: near Saint-Pierre Church is the Maison des Quatrans, with wood and cob on a stone base.

It is the oldest house in the city and was built by a wealthy tanner.

Then, at 52 and 54 Saint-Pierre Street, there is a pair of four-story half-timbered houses from the 15th century, both anchored in street shops but with fabulous carvings in their woodwork.

My Opinion

Caen should undoubtedly be on your travel list. It’s one of the must-visit cities in Normandy, especially for its castle and memorial.

Located next to the castle, the Vaugueux district is one of the places in Caen with some of the best restaurants in town and should be your choice if you’re looking to dine out.

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