The Port of Caen is dominated by its university, but during the summer, tourists come to remember World War II and visit the Memorial for Peace. With a thousand-year history, a few historic buildings remain after the massive destruction that took place in World War II.
The Caen Memorial (officially called Le Memorial de Caen, un musee pour la paix) is considered by many to be the best museum for World War II in France. It has received more than six million visitors since it opened in 1988, making it the second most popular site in Normandy. The museum describes events related to D-Day in a five-part presentation that includes how World War II originally developed, the Battle of Normandy, video presentations, the Cold War, and the peace movement (including the Gallery of Nobel Peace Prizes).
Not limited to the Second World War, the museum speaks to other events related to peace and war including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the September 11 attacks on the United States. The museum also offers daily guided tours for small groups of the D-Day beaches.
Two churches, Saint-Etienne (or the Abbaye-aux-Hommes) and La Trinite (Abbaye-aux-Dames), survived WWII destruction. Both were constructed in the 1060s. William the Conqueror’s tomb is located in front of Saint-Etienne’s high alter. Huguenots destroyed the tomb in 1562, leaving only a hipbone. The last remnants were discarded during the French Revolution. It was to Saint-Etienne that civilians came for safety during the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944.
His wife’s tomb is located in the La Trinite’s choir. The Abbaye-aux-Dames, built by Queen Mathilda in 1063, was once a hospital. In the 18th Century, it was rebuilt. It was restored again in the 1980s, when it started being used as office space. Today, visitors can tour the courtyard and ground floor rooms. Half-way between these two historic sites is the church of restored 14th Century Saint-Pierre church and a restored 16th Century Renaissance mansion called that now houses the Hotel le Valois d’Escoville.
The Chateau de Caen is a castle that William the Conqueror built in about 1060, and it is one of Western Europe’s biggest medieval fortresses. In 1182, Henry II celebrated Christmas here with his sons John Lackland and Richard the Lionheart as well as over one thousand knights of the realm. The castle went to France’s crown in 1204 with the rest of Normandy. In World War II the castle was used as barracks. Now in the middle of the city, it stands on 5.5 hectares of grounds and contains the Museum of Fine Arts of Caen and the Museum of Normandy. Excavations continue on the castle and surrounding grounds.