If you have been following me on my Instagram profile you surely have seen that I lived for 6 months in Normandy, in the beautiful city of Caen. During all this time I have visited this area but I preferred to wait for the end of the experience to tell you what to see in Caen, precisely because it was a continuous discovery.
This small Normandy town was like a second home for me, and I literally fell in love with it for two reasons.
The first concerns the people I met. In Caen, I found fantastic friends and work colleagues who really made me appreciate this region of northern France.
The other reason is that, despite being heavily damaged by the Second World War, Caen still retains all its medieval charm.
A castle, magnificent abbeys, museums, monuments, and great liveability make Caen a truly beautiful city where to live. Perhaps it is not among the best known in France, but the city of Caen has played a central role in French history on more than one occasion.
Want to know more about what to see in Caen?
Then you just have to keep reading.
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Caen ad William the conqueror
When you arrive in Caen, you immediately understand that Caen is a medieval city, with its ancient churches and its magnificent castle.
This city was in fact founded by William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, in the 11th century, to be the capital of the duchy together with Rouen. The role of Caen was indeed very important in the conquest of England and, after the battle of Hastings in 1066, Caen saw his role as a political and religious center greatly increase.
William the Conqueror was, in fact, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy and was named by his father as heir when he was 8 years old, but his position remained quite unstable. To legitimize his power, he decided to marry Matilde of Flanders, grandson of the king of France and his own cousin. You probably don’t know that the Pope forbade the union, but it was still celebrated in Rouen. Anyway, the marriage was long and stable, so much so that the pontiff granted them forgiveness and gave his blessing to the union, on condition that two abbeys were built.
This is why Guglielmo and Matilde founded the men’s abbey and the women’s abbey in Caen.
Here their story!
1 -The Men’s Abbey in Caen, a medieval jewel
The men’s abbey in Caen was consecrated in 1077 and, still today, you can find the tomb of William the Conqueror. Although the structure has been destroyed, looted and restored several times, it is very interesting because it still preserves the original medieval forms.
In particular, after the destruction due to the religious wars of the 16th century, the choir and lantern were only restored in 1626.
The beauty of this church built in light stone, also known as Caen stone, is in its simple and solemn forms but also in its story that followed that of the city.
Originally it was an ancient Benedictine abbey but, after the religious wars, it was not more used for a long time and people even discussed its destruction. In these difficult years, however, even William’s tomb was desecrated, but the memory of the great conqueror remained in the history of the city.
But the things to know about the abbey of Caen are certainly not finished here!
During the French Revolution, with the arrival of the Enlightenment, the church was transformed into a temple of the cult of reason and, subsequently, the other spaces of the abbey were transformed into an high school.
World War II was obviously one of the darkest episodes in the history of Normandy. Caen was, in fact, the protagonist of the famous battle, because the Normandy landing is just a few kilometers far away.
During the bombings, many citizens took refuge in the church, hoping for a miracle.
I don’t know if the prayers of the inhabitants of the city have been answered or if the allies spared the Men’s Abbey in Caen because of its historical importance, it is certain that it was not bombed.
That’s because today, the population of Caen is so tied to its abbey that it is impossible to visit the city without taking a tour inside.
And believe me, it’s really worth it!
2 – The churches of Caen
I’m sorry to disappoint you, but there is no cathedral in Caen. Despite its historical importance, in the two neighboring cities, Bayeux and Lisieux, there were already two important cathedrals and, for this reason, it was decided not to build another one.
Among other things, at the time of William I, his brother was bishop of Bayeux so there was no reason to weaken his position and elect a new bishop. Despite this, the Caen is full of very beautiful churches, so much so that it has been nicknamed “the city of the hundred bell towers”.
Even if I have already written about it, one of the first things you should see in Caen is the women’s abbey, where Matilde of Fiandra, wife of Guglielmo, was buried. This structure, unfortunately, is less interesting than the men’s abbey because it is almost entirely rebuilt and remodeled. The bombing of World War II hit the church and the abbey took serious damage.
Despite this, it is still worth a visit to see at least the exterior, still exquisitely medieval!
The church of San Pietro, which is located right in front of the castle of Caen, is instead very picturesque.
You may not know it, but in the past, the city was rich in canals and the apse of this beautiful building reflected on the water. For this reason, it was represented by hundreds of painters, especially from the UK. Since the last year, the external structure of this church was very dark due to smog, but the recent restorations have given it the beauty of the past.
Another very special church in Caen is Saint Jean, which perhaps will remind you of our Tower of Pisa. The façade and the bell tower are in fact hanging, due to the clayey soil and will also make you turn your head a little!
Finally, you should visit a truly unique church.
Its name is Notre-Dame de Froiderue and it is a very special church because it is the result of the merger of two different churches that were once separate. Inside you can still see the two different styles but, above all, it is one of the rare two-nave churches in the world!
3 – The sad story of Saint-Etienne le vieux
As you probably know, I have a sort of obsession with ruined churches.
I love them so much that I am trying to rebuild the ancient church of my village and I have even visited many of them during my travels, such as in Lisbon, Soisson and San Galgano.
But the story of the church of Saint-Etienne le Vieux in Caen is one of the saddest I’ve ever heard. This building was built by William the Conqueror and remodeled following the Hundred Years War in the 15th century. Already in the nineteenth century, the inhabitants stopped to use it due to poor maintenance but they decided not to demolish it because of its artistic value.
Unfortunately, the war was a terrible event for this church, so much so that it was hit by a bomb in 1944 and left in ruins. Since then, no one has taken charge of restoring it and today, the church is considered a warning against war, against what war can do to our heritage and our history… to destroy millennial pages of art and beauty.
Museums of Caen
Would you like to know what to see in Caen besides the churches?
You should know that there are at least three museums to see absolutely: the Fine Arts Museum, the Normandy Museum, and the Memorial.
The first two are located inside the castle walls: the Normandy museum of Caen is situated in the governor’s ancient housing while the temporary exhibitions are set up in a room near the walls. The Museum of Fine Arts is located, instead, right in front of the Normandy museum but inside a modern building, built between the 1960s and 1990s.
I suggest you visit both, perhaps with the combined ticket (6 euros).
4 – The Normandy museum
The Normandy Museum in Caen preserves the history of Normandy from prehistory to the present era. From the Bronze Era just to the Renaissance, you will find a lot of masterpieces. This land, in fact, was very rich in the past and Caen became very famous for the breeding of cows, precious lace and frequent exchanges with England.
The local factories, such as the vases and the tools of rural life will really amaze you. One of the most curious things you can find int the Normandy Museum of Caen are the elaborate hats that the Normans wore until the last century.
Also the frequent temporary exhibitions are usually focused on local history and are worth a visit for the hall where they are set up, built next to the castle walls.
5 – The Museum of Fine Arts
After having worked there for 6 months, I can confirm my first impression: the Fine Arts Museum of Caen is really a gem.
Inside, it preserves masterpieces of French, Italian and Flemish painting, including the “Marriage of the Virgin” by Perugino (inspired by his pupil Raphael that is at the Pinacoteca di Brera), Abraham and Melchiesedech by Rubens and the Madonna and Child by Van der Weyden.
There are also many other works by artists such as Cosmé Tura, Veronese, Philippe de Champaigne, Simon Vouet, Brughel the Younger, Monet, Bonnard, and many others.
The contemporary art section and the exhibitions change depending on the program, but I strongly suggest you visit this museum and include it among the things to see in Caen.
6 – The Memorial
Regarding the Caen Memorial, I have to make a separate speech. This building is located outside the city center and it is a museum completely dedicated to the Second World War, and in particular on the Normandy landings and the Battle of Caen.
To visit it all, you will need at least 3 hours and you probably won’t be able to see all the rooms.
As sad as this page of European history is, the Memorial of Caen must be visited, especially by the new generations who do not even imagine what war is.
7 – The Caen Castle
Visiting Caen without going inside its beautiful castle is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower.
This huge structure is closely linked to the city’s history, its social identity, and even its urban planning.
As I already said, the castle of Caen was founded by William the Conqueror and then enlarged and modified several times. The thing that will amaze you most is to discover that the city, at least at the beginning, was all inside the walls. So, the two abbeys of Caen were therefore far outside the city center and they were not part of its urban fabric.
The most beautiful part?
Surely you should climb the towers and go around the walls: the view is beautiful and you can finally understand why Caen is called “the city of the hundred bell towers”. Ah, from here, there is also a beautiful view of the church of San Pietro.
I advise you to take a walk on the walls at sunset when the Normandy sky is tinged with that fiery red that you will never forget.
Where to eat in Caen
After reading what to see in Caen, are you get hungry?
If you are looking for advice on where to eat in the city, here are some ideas.
Finding a place to eat in Caen is not difficult at all: in the beautiful district of Vaugueux, very close to the castle, there are plenty of restaurants and typical bars that serve the delicious biscuits and other dishes from the local cuisine. This is also the oldest district of Caen and is particularly beautiful because it has also preserved many old houses, dating back to the 15th century.
Likewise, along with the port of Plaisance, you can find bars, pubs, and restaurants that are excellent for all budgets.
If you want street food instead, I recommend a trip to rue Ecuyere. Otherwise, you can find a quick meal both at the Place Saint Sauveur market, on Friday mornings, and along with the port on Sunday mornings. In particular, on Sunday, there is a small food truck that sells exceptional Thai food, prepared by a really good lady.
What to eat in Caen
Ok, but what are the typical Caen dishes?
If you want to taste typical dishes in Caen, you should try the “andouille”, a sausage makes with entrails and tripe, famous almost everywhere in France. If you remember, I already talked about my trip to Troyes.
Obviously the fish is delicious, because we are very close to the sea, and the region is particularly famous for the oysters that you will find almost everywhere. Even the galettes, which are actually a typical Breton dish, are exquisite and I strongly suggest you try them.
Among the drinks, I point out calvados, a liqueur made from fermented apples that takes its name from the department in which Caen is located.
At last, if you are in the city center and you want a drink for an aperitif or after dinner, you should try the “embuscade”, a cocktail invented in Caen in the 90s. The translation is “ambushed” not surprisingly: it is an alcoholic drink based on beer, wine and calvados. From my experience, I tell you that you should never drink more than two glasses or you risk starting to sing the Marseillaise.
The equally tasty alternative is cider, also a regional product.
Need some help?
Are you planning to visit Caen and need some other advice?
If you are looking for a hotel in Caen, you want to book some activities or tickets, please write to me in the comments the budget you have available and the dates you are interested in.
I will help you to find the best solutions for your needs.