Updated on 5 March 2023
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Ideally located in the heart of Normandy, two hours from Paris and just 10 minutes away from the beaches, Caen, William the Conqueror’s hometown, is a lively and dynamic city.
William the Conqueror’s city
Historically, it was largely due to William the Conqueror that Caen grew into a great city beside the River Orne. William’s wife, Matilda of Flanders, was also involved. Each commissioned a grand abbey, the Men’s Abbey for William and the Women’s Abbey for Matilda, both of which remain hugely impressive places to this day. Between them, the many-turreted Caen Castle was one of the most important in the duchy of Normandy; it now houses two museums.
Famously, the first crucial, successful action of the D-Day operations on 6 June 1944 was when the British 6th Airborne Division secured the bridges downstream of Caen, between the towns of Bénouville and Ranville. Bénouville Bridge over the Caen Canal was renamed Pegasus Bridge after the emblem of the mythological flying horse used by the British airborne forces.
Unfortunately, Caen would not be liberated rapidly. After bitter fighting and horrific destruction, Caen was liberated on 9 July 1944. Much of the town had been destroyed. That said, some of Caen’s greatest monuments survived and much of the town was rebuilt in fine Caen stone (incidentally, the Tower of London, commissioned by William the Conqueror in the 1070s, was also largely built from Caen stone). Everything considered, Caen’s city centre was well restored post-war and remains an attractive place to visit, with plenty of museums, shops, restaurants and public gardens, plus the lively nightlife you’d expect from a university town.
How to get to Caen
Caen is conveniently situated two hours from Paris by train and a mere 15 minutes from the cross-Channel port of Ouistreham, which operates regular sailings to Portsmouth in the UK. The city also has its own airport in the neighbouring town of Carpiquet. Caen is within driving distance of popular Normandy attractions including Bayeux and its famous tapestry, the D-Day Landing Beaches, and the picturesque Pays d’Auge, home of cider and cheese. Beaches and towns where you can enjoy traditional seaside fun are also just on the doorstep. Caen even boasts its own yachting marina, the Bassin Saint-Pierre, right in the heart of town.