Caen is one of Normandy’s most important cities. The home town of William the Conqueror, hero of the Battle of Hastings of 1066, Caen was vital for D-Day and the Normandy Landings in World War II.
A Little History
It was Duke William of Normandy who transformed the fortunes of Caen. William had asked for the hand of his distant cousin, Matilda of Flanders, in marriage but the Catholic church objected to this rather dubious union. That is until William's two abbeys were built, L’Abbaye-aux-Hommes (the Men's Abbey) and L’Abbaye-aux-Dames (the Ladies Abbey).
Caen's second claim to international importance came during World War II. Like Bayeux, Caen is very near Arromanches and the Normandy Landing beaches. On June 6th 1944, a heavy Allied bombing raid set off fires which burnt the center of town. On July 9th, the Canadians, who had taken Carpiquet Airfield, entered the town. It was the start of a German counter-bombing campaign that lasted another two months.
1,500 of the town’s citizens camped out in the church of St. Etienne. A hospital was set up in the monastery buildings of the Men's Abbey while 4,000 lived in the hospice of the Good Saviour (Bon Saveur) nearby. The Allies, warned by the town, left the buildings intact. The majority of citizens left the town to live in the quarries and caves of Fleury, 2 kilometers (1 mile) south of Caen. But Caen suffered and much of what you see today is largely a reconstruction of the old town.Quick Facts about Caen
Capital of Calvados and the cultural heart of the Basse-Normandie region
A lively university town for centuries
Location: In Normandy where the rivers Orne and Odon meet
- By ferry
Brittany Ferries runs a regular service between Portsmouth and Ouistreham (15 kilometers, 10 miles) north of Caen
Getting to France by Ferry
- By train
Trains leave about every two hours from Paris St. Lazaire and take between two and two-and-a-half hours to Caen
Book on Rail Europe
- By car
Caen is 235 kilometers (146 miles) west of Paris on the A13 autoroute
Caen Tourist Office
12 place St-Pierre
Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 31 27 14 14
Tourist Office Website
Top Sights in Caen
- A Walk through Caen
Walk the William the Conqueror Trail around Caen which will take you around all the sights mentioned here and more. Get directions and a brochure from the Tourist Office.
Many of the major buildings were constructed from the famous Caen stone, a cream colored, beautiful limestone quarried in the nearby area. William the Conqueror used the stone extensively in Caen Castle and his two Abbeys here. After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, it became one of France’s most profitable exports and was used to build the Tower of London, the cathedrals of Canterbury, Durham and Norwich and Westminster Abbey. Later it was also used at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Cologne Cathedral and the Royal Palace in Brussels.
- Caen Castle
Begun by William the Conqueror in 1060 and fortified by his son, Henry Beauclerk in 1123, it looks exactly right: an impressive castle surrounded by huge walls. Two main gateways with barbicans guard the entrances. The views from the walls stretch out over Caen and beyond.Caen Castle Information
Esplanade du Chateau
Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 31 27 14 14
Website (in French)
- Musee des Beaux-Arts
Housed within the precincts of William the Conqueror’s castle, the collection covers large religious and historical paintings, Italian paintings from the 15th to 17th centuries, including two by Veronese and Dutch and Flemish masters like Virgin and Child by Roger van der Weyden and a Rubens. The 19th and early 20th works include the Romantics (like Gericault and Delacroix), the Realists (Courbet), Impressionists (Vuillard and Bonnard) and the Cubists.Musee des Beaux Arts Information
Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 31 30 47 70
Website (in French)
Open Wed.-Mon. 9:30am-6pm
Permanent collection free. Temporary exhibitions 5.20 euros but free on 1st Sunday of the month.
- Musee de Normandie
At the other end of the castle (which gives you an idea of how large this fortification was), the Museum of Normandy covers the history and traditions of Normandy. The most interesting section covers crafts and industry with jugs, marriage chests of wood, tools, costumes and bridalware in silk lace all vying for your attention as a local museum should do.Musee de Normandie Information
Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 31 30 47 60
Website in French
Open Daily 9:30am-6pm
Closed Mondays from November 1st to May 31st
Closed public holidays
Entrance 3 to 5 euro depending on the number of exhibitions on show
- Eating at the Castle
Go for lunch or a romantic evening meal with live music when the castle is floodlit. The Michelin-recommended Café Mancel, attached to the Musee des Beaux Arts but with lovely views over the castle, offers tempting set menus. Also on offer are snacks like sandwiches in fresh baguettes and more substantial dishes such as lemon sole, steaks or for the adventurous, the local tripe dish.Café Mancel
Musee des Beaux Arts
Tel.: 00 33 (02) 31 86 63 64
Open Tuesday to Saturday lunch and dinner and Sunday lunch
See more on top sights in Caen on the next page