Often called the ferry, Cherbourg-Octeville has more strings on its bow: the Cité de la Mer, for example, will take you back to the golden age of transatlantic travel, housed in a huge decorative Art ocean liner terminal.
Cherbourg also has the largest man-made seaport in the world, which took seven decades to build, and the entrance is still guarded by a sea fort. Combine that with the rugged Basil Hill, and the town takes on a tough military air, but also has a more peaceful side. The Cotentin Peninsula is a verdant chessboard of apple orchards, cider juicers and a castle with landscaped gardens.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Cherbourg-Octville:
1. City of the Sea
Cherbourg’s exhibit is this great science and history museum inside the harbour’s former transatlantic shipping terminal.
Completed in 1928, the 240-meter long Art Deco hall was fully furnished, including its own post office.
The museum opened in 2002 and capitalizes on its heritage.
The Titanic had a dedicated space, and it docked at Cherbourg five days before it sank.
On the military side, you can board Le Redoutable, France’s first nuclear submarine launched in 1967. Kids will also go crazy for the aquarium, which has 17 tanks (including the tallest in Europe) that can hold 4,000 sea creatures.
Anyone fascinated by sailing will want to see more of the world’s largest man-made seaport.
Inaugurated in 1853, after 70 years of work, its scale exceeds that of any other project except St. Petersburg buildings.
In July and August, the 82-seater Adèle makes four trips a day.
The boat departs from Pont Tournant, picks up passengers at La Cité de la Mer, and sails into the 1,500-hectare harbour.
You’ll see miles of seawall and three forts, all while getting amazing facts and figures about this record-breaking location.
3. Thomas Henry Museum
The Museum of Fine Arts in Cherbourg is housed in a purpose-built gallery and houses a diverse collection of paintings from the 15th to 19th centuries.
The museum’s patron in the 19th century was art patron Thomas Henri, who donated collections including Murillo, Jacob Jordans, Rigault, Poussin and Vouet.
A young Jean-François Millet (later Barbizon School) came to sketch these paintings.
Years later, the museum acquired the second largest collection of works by Miller after the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Also from the 19th century are fine works by Boudin, Théodore Rousseau and Impressionist Paul Signac.
4. Parc Emmanuel Liais
Emmanuel Liais served twice as mayor of Cherbourg at the end of his life, but before that he dabbled in everything from exploration to astronomy and botany.
During his travels through Brazil and the Far East, he collected specimens that he brought back to Cherbourg.
Many of the 400 species of plants in this botanical garden conservatory came from these expeditions.
The gardens are free and less than a 10-minute walk from Pont Tournable.
You can meet strange species like the African brainworm, which has an edible trunk and can live for 1,000 years.
There are rhododendrons, palm trees and stunning Monterey cypresses outside.
5. St. Trinite Cathedral
One of Cherbourg’s oldest buildings is this 15th-century church, which experienced a lot of conflict at the time.
The church’s predecessor was destroyed in the Hundred Years’ War, and the church required extensive reconstruction after being looted during the Revolution.
When it was restored in the early 19th century, it became one of the first neo-Gothic churches in France.
From Place Napoleon, you can admire the church’s impressive flying buttresses and carved spires.
Then there are very unusual reliefs above the arcades of the nave, carved in the 1400s, depicting a creepy dance in remembrance of the plague that has recently swept the region.
6. Liberation Museum
On top of the Montagne du Roule, the highest point in the town, there is a museum that tells the story of the liberation of Cherborug on June 25, 1944. The site, located 117 meters above the strait, adds a lot of charm to the attraction: the museum is housed in a fortress during the reign of Napoleon III, built during a period of heightened tensions between Britain and France, and later fortified by the Germans who dug tunnels in the mountain.
The galleries inside tell about life in Cherbourg during the war, and the events that became the first major French port liberated by the Allies in June 1944.
As you leave the museum, you will have a wonderful panoramic view of the historic harbour.
7. Batterie du Roule
The tunnel system dug by the Germans under the fortress is open to the public on guided tours arranged by the Cherbourg Tourist Office.
You’ll don a hard hat with headlights and enter a network of rooms served by heavy artillery dug up to defend the harbor.
The battery was declared a French Historic Monument in 1995, and the reinforced concrete opening still looks indestructible more than 70 years after it was built.
As you explore the tunnel, you will be able to see bats hanging from the ceiling.
8. Parc du Château des Ravalet
On the eastern outskirts of Cherbourg is a picturesque and delightful Renaissance hotel.
The castle was built between 1562 and 1575 with an attractive blue schist material.
The house is private but opens several times a year on French Heritage Days.
The rest of the time sets the scene for the garden, which is open year-round and is recognized as an “extraordinary garden”. The present garden was landscaped in 1872 and features winding paths, century-old trees, two ponds, a grotto and an exquisite 19th century conservatory.
9. Local Gardens
Considering the abundance of greenery on the Cotentin Peninsula, you can spend the day hopping from one display garden to another.
Not far from Cherbourg is the Renaissance Castle of Knackville, which has an English-style garden landscaped with azaleas, arum and distant sea views in a small open space.
Meanwhile, Wauville Castle has a botanical garden with 1,200 different species from the southern hemisphere.
These subtropical ferns, palms and colourful flowers are nourished by a mild microclimate that contrasts with the stately stone buildings of the castle.
Cherbourg is famous for its beaches, and many of the adjacent coasts are wild with strong winds.
But on hot days, there are several bays not far away.
Querqueville, west of the walls of Cherbourg’s huge harbour, is the closest family beach: a long sandy beach with a children’s playground, bar and restaurant.
You have to go further to get the best Plage de Sciotot in the area.
But the 20 minute drive is worth it as this is a blue flag beach in a cinematic natural setting.
In summer there are lifeguard-monitored low and rolling waves, and a wide golden sandy beach for relaxation and play.
One of France’s “most beautiful villages”, Beaufleur is a lovely old port founded by the Normans 1,000 years ago.
There are rows of sweet granite cottages with slate roofs, and the Norman-style St. Nicholas Church.
This has a square tower that looks like home in an English village.
In fact, several things connect Barfleur with England: one of them is that William the Conqueror’s ship Mora was piloted by a young man from the town.
There is a plaque by the water to commemorate this fact.
Barfleur is also an important location for shipping communications, and the nearby Gatteville Lighthouse is the third tallest lighthouse in the world at 75 meters.
12. The Hague Cape
Head west to this headland at the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula.
This is a verdant, hedge-marked field high on a granite cliff.
In some places they can be quite spectacular, for example in Joburg they can reach a height of 128 meters.
Amateur geologists may be happy to know that these Precambrian cliffs and outcrops are among the oldest rocks in France, dating back to the earliest times in Earth’s history.
You can also see what you can find in the countryside of La The Hague, with its idyllic hamlets and low stone houses that protect from the sea breeze.
In the 19th century, Jean-François Millet would set up his easel in these quaint old settlements.
13. War Spots
War lovers have plenty to do within minutes of Cherbourg-Octville.
Head south to Écausseville for the Hangar à Dirigeables, a 30-meter high concrete hangar built during the First World War for airships used to spot German submarines in the strait.
The Airborne Museum, near Sainte-Mère-Église, tells the story of the American paratroopers who landed in this part of Normandy on the night of June 5, 1944. There are vehicles and weapons, and you can walk into a C-47 and imagine what that night would be like.
Finally, another attraction in the parachute area, the Dead Man’s Corner Museum, located inside the German command post, is filled with weapons, equipment, machinery and other memorabilia.
14. Cidrerie Théo Capelle
The lush countryside of Colentin is just south, full of hedges and orchards growing cider and apple brandy.
One such farm is only 15 minutes from Saltville.
If you like French “cider”, Cidrerie Théo Capelle is a must.
There is a video explaining everything about a bottle of cider, and you can peruse the Calvados winery and the cellars where the cider is stored in oak barrels on a one-hour tour.
You will be able to taste cider, calvado or pommeau (brandy apple juice mixture). You can also spend some time in the garden, have a picnic and get to know the farm’s donkeys, Jasmine and Ficelle.
15. Food and drink
Cherbourg-Octeville is also a prolific fishing port, landing mackerel, plaice, rays, hake, as well as crustaceans and shellfish such as crabs, lobsters, scallops and mussels.
There are three main shellfish farms along the coast, so you can ensure your seafood is as fresh as possible.
The town is also part of Normandy’s Camembert and Pont-l’Évêque AOC cheese-producing regions, while another regional trademark apple grows up and down the Cotentin peninsula.
In addition to making cider, calvados and pommeau, they also make a plethora of pastries, cakes, pies and desserts like caramel apple crepes.
Where to stay: The best hotels in Cherbourg-Octeville, France
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