Visiting Omaha Beach in Normandy, one of the D-Day landing beaches in France, can be a profoundly moving experience. Here is how to do it and what to expect.
Few things can prepare you for the emotional impact of visiting the Omaha landing beach in northern France. When I visited on a sun-drenched August afternoon, it was difficult to reconcile this golden beach, and the happy holidaymakers frolicking in its gently rolling waves, with the horror of June 6th, 1944.
To fully appreciate the tragic events that took place on Normandy’s beaches, you should visit Omaha Beach at least once in your lifetime. To get the best out of your visit, here is a little background information, what to expect once you are there and how to plan your visit.
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The Normandy D-Day Landings
The D-Day landings were pivotal in the liberation of Nazi-occupied north-western Europe in WW2. Codenamed Operation Neptune, the Allied seaborne invasion, involving British, American and Canadian troops, was the largest in history.
The 60-mile stretch of the Normandy coast was split into five assault beaches: Utah & Omaha (USA), Gold, Juno and Sword (UK & Canada). Preceded by an airborne invasion of more than 18,000 paratroopers into northern France, over 132,000 ground troops landed on these beaches.
Although the Allies did not immediately achieve their aim of capturing major Normandy cities such as Caen and Bayeux, this assault paved the way for liberating north-western Europe.
However, the Allied victory came at a terrible human cost.
It is estimated that there were more than 10,000 Allied casualties with 4,414 confirmed dead; German casualties are estimated at between 4,000 and 9,000. Allied casualties were heaviest at Omaha Beach with the Americans coming close to defeat.
The defences around the beach’s exits were not knocked out and small groups of survivors penetrated the beach by scaling the cliffs at the least defended points.
Although there are no confirmed figures for casualties at Omaha Beach on D-Day, estimates place the number of those killed, wounded or missing at between 2,00 and over 5,000. The Omaha Beach landing is brutally depicted in the opening of Steven Speilberg’s 1998 epic Saving Private Ryan.
What to Expect When You Visit Omaha Beach, Normandy
Today, a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach is home to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Covering 172 acres, it contains the remains of over 9,000 American military dead and is the largest war cemetery in Normandy.
Set in a landscaped park, fringed by Corsican pine trees, the graves are marked by gleaming white marble Latin crosses with a sprinkling of Stars of David. Here and there, people have placed a flower to remember the fallen or, in the case of the Jewish dead, a simple stone.
At the eastern end of the cemetery is a semi-circular limestone colonnade with maps and narratives of the military operations displayed in the two loggias at each end. Taking centre stage is a 22-foot tall bronze statue entitled The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves, facing towards the graves.
There were 1,557 Americans who lost their lives in the invasion of Normandy, but whose remains were not located or identified. By way of remembrance, the Walls of the Missing behind the memorial are inscribed with their names.
Near the centre of the cemetery, a circular chapel, constructed from limestone and granite, points towards Omaha Beach. Above the chapel door is an engraved replica of the United States’ Medal of Honor, and its ceiling is adorned with a brightly coloured mosaic.
Near the car park is a small Visitor Center that houses uniform collections, weapons and vehicles from the D-Day invasions. As well as highlighting the significance of the Normandy offensive, it poignantly focuses on the daily lives of soldiers as individuals.
Other Places to Visit Near Omaha Beach, Normandy
As compelling as the Normandy American Cemetery is, there is a clutch of other places to visit near Omaha Beach if time permits. It’s impossible to visit every beach and museum in the area but here are a few to consider.
Located a short distance uphill from the Normandy American Cemetery, this superb museum houses a collection of restored WWII military equipment from both sides as well as displaying photos and letters. The human dimension is also recalled through audio and personal stories
Memorial Museum Of The Battle of Normandy in Bayeux
Near Omaha Beach, is the one must-see museum in the area. The Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy presents the military operations of the Battle of Normandy in chronological order, from the D-Day landings to the end of August 1944.
The Bayeux War Cemetery
Across the road from the museum, the Bayeux War Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 4,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in France in World War II.
Utah Beach D-Day Museum
Above Utah Beach, this museum focuses on the D-Day landings themselves, through a chronological collection of objects, vehicles, materials, and oral histories
German Bunkers at Pointe Du Hoc
Pointe du Hoc was the site of a series of German bunkers and gun battery. Thanks to the site remaining largely forgotten for two decades after the fighting stopped, the bunkers are very much as as they were left in June1944.
Planning Your Visit to Omaha Beach, Normandy
Where is the Normandy American Cemetery?
The Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach is at Colleville-sur-Mer.
How to get to Omaha Beach
There is limted public transport to Omaha Beach and it is best reached by car.
Follow the coastal road between Arromanches / Longues-sur-Mer / Bayeux and Vierville-sur-Mer / Pointe du Hoc. Turn off at the new large Overlord Museum (with tanks on display next to the main road). Ample free parking is available.
Alternatively, base yourself in Bayeux, and take a bus, taxi or tour of the D-Day landing sites from there.
Bus #70 takes 40 minutes to make the journey from Bayeux to Omaha Beach. Check the timetable here.
Can you visit Omaha Beach as a day trip from Paris?
It is possible to visit the Normandy D-Day landing beaches from Paris. The French capital is a three-hour drive from Omaha Beach; by train, it takes the same length of tine to reach Bayeux.
If you don’t have a car, the best option is to visit Omaha Beach as part of an organised day trip from Paris. This will be a long day excursion but will typically include other landing beaches, museums and lunch.
Here are a few day trips which offer free cancellation up to 24 hours before your planned departure:
Normandy American Cemetery opening hours
- The Normandy American Cemetery is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm (closing at 6 pm from April to September). Admission is free.
- I strongly recommend arriving either when the cemetery opens at 9 am or towards the end of the day to hear the playing of The Last Post as the flags are lowered.
Where to stay near Omaha Beach
I visited Omaha Beach whilst staying in Honfleur for the weekend, travelling between Portsmouth and Normandy on Brittany Ferries. Honfleur is a charming base from which to explore Normandy and we rented Mansion Victorine, a wonderful apartment right in the thick of things.
However, if you are focusing your activities in the area around the Normandy landing beaches, stay in the lovely town of Bayeux, about six miles inland from Omaha Beach. Home to the famous tapestry, it oozes charm.
Here are a few places to stay that look fabulous:
Planning your weekend in Normandy
Getting your hands on a good guidebook to help you to plan your weekend in Normandy and to explore the region whilst you are there, is a smart move. I recommend the Rough Guide to Brittany and Normandy, which was my constant companion I visited this corner of Northern France.
Why you should visit Omaha Beach
So why should you visit Omaha Beach? I found this visit to the Normandy American Cemetery to be a profoundly moving and humbling experience.
The endless sea of crosses are a visible reminder of the bravery of those who sacrificed their young lives for freedom from Fascism, and I couldn’t help but imagine how they might have felt as they landed on those beaches 74 years ago.
But I am going to leave the last word to General Eisenhower:
YOU ARE ABOUT TO EMBARK UPON THE GREAT CRUSADE TOWARD WHICH WE HAVE STRIVEN THESE MANY MONTHS. THE EYES OF THE WORLD ARE UPON YOU…I HAVE FULL CONFIDENCE IN YOUR COURAGE, DEVOTION TO DUTY AND SKILL IN BATTLE.
— GEN. DWIGHT EISENHOWER,
(Message to the troops sent just prior to the invasion of Normandy)