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The American Cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer
The American Cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

9 Things You Need to Know About a D-Day River Cruise

The American Cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer
The American Cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)
U.K. Executive Editor
Adam Coulter

Last updated
Apr 19, 2024

Read time
6 min read

This year marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day, when the Allies landed on the Normandy Beaches on June 6, 1944, marking the start of the liberation of France – and the turning point of the Second World War.

Most river cruise lines include tours to the Normandy Beaches as part of a Seine River cruise, including Viking, Avalon Waterways, Uniworld, AmaWaterways and Scenic.

Although 2024 is significant given the D-Day milestone, these D-Day river cruise itineraries are the same every year and all include a visit to the Normandy Beaches as part of the cruise.

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1. Cruises Begin and End in Paris

D-Day river cruises all start and end in Paris
Eiffel Tower, Paris (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

All D-Day river cruises start and end in Paris and will include an overnight at the start and the end. However, if you want to spend more time in the City of Light, it’s worth considering adding a day or two at either end – particularly this year when the city plays host to the Olympics.

Also worth noting, in 2025, to mark the end of World War II, Viking is operating a number of “Paris & the Heart of Normandy” cruises, which include five nights at the start in London to coincide with the Victory in Europe Day anniversary. (VE Day, which marked the end of WWII in Europe, was May 8, 1945.)

This tour offers a chance to visit the key sites involved in the British war effort, including the Cabinet War Rooms in London and Bletchley Park, where the German Enigma code was deciphered.

2. …But Note Water Levels Can Affect Port Stops

Two Viking Longships side by side on the River Seine in Le Pecq
Two Viking Longships side by side on the River Seine in Le Pecq (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

High-water levels (usually at the start of the season) can affect where your ship is moored, i.e. it might not be in Paris itself. All river lines will have contingency plans should this arise, but note that if your ship starts in Paris, you should make the most of the city while you are there, as it might not end the cruise in Paris but in a suburb several miles from the center.

3. Cruises Operate from March to November

The river cruise season gets underway in late March and runs till early November. D-Day is, of course, June 6, so there is still time to book a cruise around this date (for the 80th anniversary in 2024). Note that at the start and end of the season, some attractions (like Monet’s Garden, pictured above) will be closed.

Unless you especially want to be at the beaches on the actual anniversary day (and you might well have good reason, being a relative or veteran), it makes little difference when you travel -- you will still get to see the museums, cemeteries and beaches.

4. Onboard Lectures and Port Talks Prepare You for the Tours

A map in the US Cemetery in Coleville-sur-Mer depicting the Normandy Landings
A map in the US Cemetery in Coleville-sur-Mer depicting the Normandy Landings (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

All the lines will have onboard enrichment, either in the form of lectures, movies or port talks about D-Day, so even if you are not an expert on the events of June 6, 1945, you will be after a few days.

5. Different Tours Are on Offer to the Normandy Beaches

Memorial at Coleville-sur-Mer
Memorial at Coleville-sur-Mer (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

U.S. citizens will visit Colville-sur-Mer, the American cemetery overlooking Omaha beach, where 9,386 U.S. servicemen are buried.

Brits, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and other Commonwealth citizens will likely opt for a tour to the beaches and cemeteries more relevant to their personal history, such as Gold and Sword (Brits) and Juno (Canadians), which also have cemeteries overlooking the beaches, as well as museums dedicated to the events of that day from the British and Canadian points of view.

The British and Canadian tour will also visit the Pegasus Memorial (the key bridge defended by the Brits) and the town of Arromanches.

It's worth noting that Rouen is as far along the Seine as you can travel by river ship, but it is still some two hours from the Normandy Beaches, so all tours are all-day and involve four hours on a bus.

6. Most Tours Will Include a Stop in Caen or Bayeux

Caen Memorial Museum
Caen Memorial Museum (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

To get a true understanding of the significance of the D-Day Landings, take time in the Caen Memorial Museum. Caen itself was key in the liberation of France; it took more than a month to capture as the Nazis held on stubbornly, despite Field Marshal Montgomery’s efforts.

The Caen Memorial Museum is significant in that it is built atop a bunker from which the Nazi’s coordinated the war effort. Lying deep below the museum itself, it provides a fascinating insight into the Nazi point of view of the events of June 6 and the following days and weeks.

Above, there is a café, shops, a restaurant and several exhibitions, one dedicated to the D-Day; and a second which looks at the horrors of the war in general, with a particularly harrowing section on the Shoah, as the French call the Holocaust.

Some tours also include a Stop in Bayeux for the Tapestry depicting the Norman Conquest.

7. Nothing Can Prepare You for the Cemeteries

The American Cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer
The American Cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

Even if you have seen the movie, Saving Private Ryan and you know what to expect visually when you reach the American cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer, nothing can prepare you emotionally.

Row upon row of identical white crosses and Stars of David as far as the eye can see, each with a name and a state from which the serviceman hailed, though curiously, no age. And then behind the graves, a memorial wall, with yet more names of the men whose bodies were never recovered. And Colville cemetery is just one of five; there are two British, one Canadian and one German cemetery along this stretch of coastline.

Memorial service organised by Viking at the American Cemetery in Coleville sur Mer
Memorial service organised by Viking at the American Cemetery in Coleville-sur-Mer (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

There is also a spot where ceremonies are held to honor those who gave their lives that day. Viking can organize a private ceremony if there are a number of relatives of veterans onboard. Note that if you are a relative, you can request to walk among the graves, if you are not, you can only walk around them.

Omaha Beach as seen from the American Cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer
Omaha Beach as seen from the American Cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer (Photo: Adam Coulter)

The cemeteries overlook the beaches upon which the men died, and all the crosses face west, to the countries where they were born.

It is a sobering and harrowing site, particularly when contrasted with the swaying pines, soft sea breezes and quiet beaches directly below.

The cruise lines leave time here for walking around and contemplation, before heading to the beaches themselves.

8. The Normandy Beaches

D-Day Memorial on Omaha Beach
D-Day Memorial on Omaha Beach (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

Below the cemeteries lie the beaches, the final part of the tour. Here, it’s hard to imagine the hellscape men had to endure to break through the Nazi lines, when busloads of tourists are jostling for selfies. But it’s not disrespectful; the locals, when asked, said they wanted the beaches to return to their original use and not become a permanent memorial to that day. It’s not unusual to see beachgoers sunning, swimming or surfing.

There are, however, two memorials on Omaha Beach, as well as a museum near Juno Beach.

9. It's Not All About D-Day

The Chateau and turret at La Roche Guyon
The Chateau and turret at La Roche Guyon (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

This small section of the Seine has so much history, dating back over 1,000 years, of which D-Day plays just the most modern part.

If we go back 1,000 years or so, you will see many monuments and chateaux that played a key role in defending France from the Normans, who occupied this part of modern-day France and southern England.

AmaLyra moored in Rouen
AmaLyra moored in Rouen (Photo: AmaWaterways)

Some 600 years ago, a young woman known variously as the Defender of the French nation and the Maid of Orleans, was burnt at the stake in the town of Rouen (pictured above). You can learn all about Joan of Arc and the role she played in France’s history when you visit this beautiful town.

Les Andelys was one of a number of villages along the Seine which inspired the Impressionists
Les Andelys a stop on a Seine River cruise (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

The Seine played a pivotal role in the birth of Impressionism, the art movement that began in the late 19th century. Most of the small towns and villages your ship stops in or passes at the start of the cruise (Vernon, Giverny, Les Andelys, Rouen), inspired artists such as Claude Monet, Edward Degas, Pierre Renoir and Camille Pissaro, with their bucolic river scenes, beautiful architecture, such as Rouen Cathedral, and of course Monet’s House and Garden (now a museum) in Giverny.

Calvados tasting a farm in Normandy
Calvados tasting a farm in Normandy (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

Many of the river lines also offer tours into the Normandy countryside, for an insight into rural life – most of which include tastings of the ever-present Calvados and cider.

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