Historical Vacations Series: World War II in Europe

If you’re constantly tuning in to the History Channel to watch the latest documentary on World War II, and you’ve read tons of books about how the Allies moved strategically through Europe, your historical education is ready for the next step: a vacation to Europe.

All the facts you’ve learned about the war will be given added significance when you physically stand in the places they occurred. You’ll also be able to learn new things first-hand, and get invaluable insight and perspective into what it was like in Europe during World War II.

To help you plan this vacation of a lifetime, we’ve listed some of the most significant sites in Europe and what tours are available.

Top WWII Places To Visit in Europe

Below you’ll find some of the must-see locations in Europe, including battlefields, memorials, concentration camps, museums, and more.

France

Normandy

On June 6, 1944, the D-Day Landings took place on the Normandy coastline, changing the war’s course in the Allies’ favor. Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword were the 5 beaches that the American, Canadian, British, and French armies successfully landed on to begin their operation to end WWII in Europe.

Today, you can visit the area to see the various memorials that have been erected on the beaches and in the military cemeteries in honor of the people who sacrificed their lives here. You can also find a number of information centers and museums that provide insight into the strategy and operation of D-Day.

Plan your trip – https://en.normandie-tourisme.fr/sites-and-attractions-48-2.html

Oradour-Sur-Glane

Oradour-Sur-Glane
Photo Credit: Verity Cridland

Located in western France, this small village was the site of one of the largest massacres conducted by the Nazis in France. On June 10, 1944, the village was stormed by SS officers who killed most of its residents. Over 600 men, women, and children died here, and the village was largely destroyed.

It was later rebuilt, but the French government ordered the original site left untouched as a testament to the horrific massacre committed there. You can now walk through this eerie village before paying your respects to the victims at the village’s memorial.

Plan your trip – https://www.oradour.info/

Vel D’Hiv Monument, Paris

Even though the original indoor cycling track (Velodrome d’Hiver) was destroyed, you can still visit the area and view the plaque commemorating Jews that were brought there in July 1942.

Jewish families living in France were herded into this building by French police until they were sent to various concentration camps. Over 13,000 people were held here during WWII without water, food, or anywhere to wash. The memorial was erected in 1993 before a public apology was issued by the French government at the site in 1995.

Musee de la Reddition, Reims

This historic site, which is located near Reims train station, is a red brick schoolhouse where officers of the Allied forces and high officers from the German army met on May 7, 1945, to sign a declaration of unconditional surrender. This is where World War II ended.

It is now known as the Lycee Roosevelt, and visitors can see the map room where the signature took place.

Plan your trip – https://www.reims-tourism.com/Discover/Heritage/Museums/(fiche)/127587

Poland

Auschwitz-Birkenau, near Krakow

Auschwitz
Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis

This chilling concentration camp became the largest death camp and the most gruesome legacy of the Nazis. Located near Krakow, the camp was originally built for political prisoners on a former military base, but it became an ideal location for the Nazis to kill prisoners. This was due to the ease with which they could be brought to the camp by train.

On January 27, 1945, the camp was liberated by the Soviet Army, and is thought to be responsible for the deaths of more than 1.1 million people. Today, this harrowing museum is not for the faint-hearted, but it is a crucial landmark for those wanting to delve into the history of WWII.

Plan your trip – https://auschwitz.org/en/visiting/

Oskar Schindler’s Factory, Krakow

Oskar Schindler was a member of the Nazi party who saved the lives of hundreds of Jews through Jewish employment at his enamel factory and political bribery. The factory’s administrative building is still standing today, and it’s where you’ll find the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, which tells the story of Schindler and “his Jews,” giving a great overview of WWII too. You’ll also find the Krakow Museum of Contemporary Art here.

Plan your trip – https://oskarschindlerfactory.com/

Warsaw Ghetto

Warsaw is a beautiful city, but within it you’ll find a testament to the largest and deadliest Ghetto created by the Nazis in Europe. On October 15, 1940, when the deadline was issued, the large Jewish population of the city was ordered to move into a walled area. At 18 square kilometers, this section contained 73 of the 1,800 streets of Warsaw and was divided into a large and small ghetto that were linked by a wooden bridge.

Nearly 400,000 people were housed in the Ghetto when it reached its highest capacity; this equated to 8 people per room. The site is now commemorated by “The Footbridge of Memory,” which has been constructed where the original bridge once stood along with a number of memorials and monuments. Within the area, you’ll also find residential buildings that have remained untouched since the war as well as original parts of the dividing wall.

Umschlagplatz, Warsaw

Umschlagplatz is translated from German as “reloading point,” and this was the Square in Warsaw where the deportation of Polish Jews to the Treblinka concentration camp was organized. For hours on end, people waited until the train cars were filled with detainees, and anyone who resisted was killed instantly.

The place where the former Square was situated is now home to a memorial in the shape of train cars, which has been erected to pay tribute to the thousands of people whose lives were changed or lost by the actions carried out there.

The Wolf’s Lair, Gierloz

Hidden in the Masurian forest was a major complex that played host to Hitler’s first Eastern Front headquarters. It became a favored hideout for him and he spent half of the war there. It was originally constructed for the Soviet Union’s impending invasion, but it eventually consisted of barracks, shelters, and 2 airfields. It also housed a rail and power station.

Although it was highly secure and heavily reinforced, it was also the place where Claus Von Stauffenberg famously tried to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. The place was later destroyed in January 1945 by German officials and remained untouched until the fall of Communism. The site is still in ruins today but is a popular attraction for tourists visiting the area, with some restaurants and hotels available nearby.

Plan your trip – https://wolfsschanze.pl/index.php/wolf-s-lair

The Netherlands

Arnhem Bridge

Arnhem Bridge
Photo credit: Rob Dammers

Known for its part in “Operation Market Garden,” a strategic operation that saw the Allied forces taking over certain key points, the Arnhem Bridge was the last of these to be secured. Although they’d been successful in the operation, the Allies weren’t able to take control of the bridge until the Battle of Arnhem took place in September 1944. This epic battle was later detailed in a number of books and the film A Bridge Too Far.

The bridge survived the battle, but in October 1944 the Allied troops destroyed it in a bid to cut down the number of German supplies that were being transported across. It was then rebuilt using the exact same style in 1949, and in 1977 was renamed after the British commander John Frostburg who defend it during the battle.

Anne Frank’s House, Amsterdam

The Diary of Anne Frank tells the tale of a young Jewish girl who hid with her family for 2 years while the Nazis occupied the Netherlands. Today, this diary has been published in over 60 different languages, which is why people flock to the house where she and her family were hidden during WWII.

The house has been turned into a biographical museum dedicated to Anne Frank, and it allows you to see where the family hid as well as an exhibition of the discrimination and persecution of Jews.

Plan your trip – https://www.annefrank.org/

Germany

Humboldthain Flak Tower, Germany

Humboldthain Flak Tower
Photo credit: Ian Weddell

German Flak Towers were constructed during the war to help reduce the Germans’ vulnerability to air strikes. These towers were large, concrete complexes that protected ammunition from bombs and sheltered anti-aircraft guns. Operating in pairs, there was a command tower (L tower or Leitturn) and a gun tower (G tower or Gefechsturm).

Because of their heavy reinforcements, these towers were also used by civilians as bomb shelters and became home to an incredibly effective defensive center. Within the towers were a variety of cannons, including 128mm ones that could fire 48 shells per minute and radar dishes that could detect incoming bombers from as far as 50 miles away. Although many of the towers have been converted or destroyed, this one is still open to visitors in Berlin.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Germany

Located on the edge of Berlin, this work camp is 3 kilometers from where Oranienburg was situated (the first concentration camp built by the Nazis that has since been destroyed).

Once the hub of Nazi operations, this camp is now a museum showcasing what life was like for its inhabitants, including both detainees and officers. You can also discover more about Oranienburg in the permanent exhibit held by the museum before walking around the camp to hear the about the Nazi aggression.

Plan your trip – https://www.stiftung-bg.de/gums/en/

Führerbunker, Berlin

Formerly located under the Reich Chancellery building, this largely destroyed bunker was where Hitler remained during the last few weeks of WWII, where he married Eva Braun, and where he eventually committed suicide in April 1945. Buried 11.5 feet below the ground, this bunker was made up of 30 small rooms and protected by concrete walls 13 feet thick.

To passersby, the site looks like a parking lot. It remains largely unpublicized except for an information board and small plaque that shows you where the site was and what the bunker looked like.

Reichstag, Berlin

The Reichstag was originally built in 1894 for parliament but was mysteriously damaged by a fire in 1933. Russian soldiers fought to claim the Reichstag during the Battle of Berlin, believing it to be a significant target due to its symbolic and cultural significance. During this time, the Reichstag was damaged even further and was in ruins by the time the war was over.

It was rebuilt for the German government after the war, and it only began being used regularly in the 1990s when the government moved from Bonn to Berlin. Visitors can book tours of this historical building while also seeing a great view of Berlin from the glass dome at the top.

Plan your trip – https://www.visitberlin.de/en/spot/reichstag

England

Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire

During the Second World War, Bletchley Park became home to Britain’s central code breaking site. Located in Buckinghamshire, it was where the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) was located, and it became the most successful and largest institution for deciphering Axis communications (including the German Lorenz and Enigma ciphers).

Experts now suggest that due to the efforts made by those located here, the war was shortened by as much as 2 years. The school is now a historical and educational attraction commemorating the institution’s accomplishments.

Plan your trip – https://www.bletchleypark.org.uk/

Cabinet War Rooms, London

Cabinet War Rooms
Photo credit: Jennifer Morrow

In 1985, the Cabinet War Rooms were opened to the public as a museum after being partially restored. Located beneath the Treasury’s basement, this secret complex was reinforced during the Blitz and became the War Cabinet’s strategic headquarters. The War Cabinet consisted of the Prime Minister (Winston Churchill) and ministers from the Labor and Conservative parties.

Today, visitors can go underground to discover several of the complex’s rooms, which have been made to look exactly like they would have during the war. The Map Room can also be found here, looking just as it did when the premises were vacated in August 1945.

Plan your trip – https://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/churchill-war-rooms

The Types of World War II Tours Available

If you’re thinking about going to Europe to visit some of the historic World War II landmarks, it may be a good idea to book a tour. Escorted tours will take you to all the must-see sites while also providing you with interesting facts and insights from experienced tour guides.

These types of tours can last from a few days to a couple of weeks and will take you from monuments and museums to sites where events of WWII took place. With a variety of tours available, we’ve included some of the available types to help you choose the right one for you:

Concentration Camp Tours

Many of the World War II tours throughout Europe will include visits to some concentration camps, which played a huge part in the Holocaust. Walking around these camps helps visitors understand the extremities of the war and why it was fought. Camps are located in Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, and other countries.

Battlefield and Memorial Tours

The majority of tours lasting several days will take in a number of memorials and battlefields along the way. The Band of Brothers TV series was responsible for creating a number of tours that walk in the footsteps of the 101st Airborne Division, Easy Company. These tours generally include Normandy and Bastogne; Holland; the U.S. Cemetery in Luxembourg (where you’ll see the graves of some of Easy Company’s men and General George S. Patton), and foxholes in the Bois Jacque Woods. Tours in Germany will see Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest and Berchtesgaden.

D-Day and Normandy Tours

Visiting Normandy is one of the most popular World War II tours, and visitors can take in the cemeteries, museums, war memorials, and physical site of the D-Day Landing. Many tours last a day and allow visitors to see things such as the landing beaches, the Airborne Museum at Sainte Mère Eglise, the military cemeteries, and the Pegasus Bridge. The Caen-Normandy Memorial Centre museum provides general war history and documents the events of D-Day.

Veteran Tours

Having served in combat in Europe during WWII, many veterans want to revisit these places. Some may choose to go on tours that cater to all types of tourists, while others may prefer to go on a tour that has been specially designed for veterans. The majority of these tours will visit cemeteries and major battle sites around Europe, though there are other more specialized ones that will stop at specific places meaningful to certain groups of veterans.

Some of the Top World War II Tours Available

Detailed below are some of the top tours available in Europe that visit various key sites from World War II:

Concentration Camp Tours

Concentration Camp Gate
Photo credit: Manolo Gómez

The below tours focus on the Holocaust and the death camps that were used throughout World War II:

The Holocaust Tour: This 8-day tour of Poland visits 3 of the concentration camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and Treblinka. You will also visit the former ghettos in Krakow, Lublin, and Warsaw, taking in the historic cities, their local culture, and their cuisine. You also get the opportunity to visit Schindler’s Factory and the famous salt mine at Wieliczka. The entire tour is guided by Professor Tim Cole, a historian.

Holocaust Memorial Tour: Over 14 nights, this tour sees you traveling from Germany to the Czech Republic and Poland before finally returning to Berlin. During the trip, you’ll explore Munich, the Dachau Concentration Camp, the city of Prague, Warsaw, the Reichstag, and much, much more. You’ll also get the chance to stay at a 13th century Polish Castle and Czech Chateau.

Battlefield and Memorial Tours

Memorial Tours
Photo credit: Archangel12

These trips pay homage to the battles that took place throughout World War II, taking you to cities, battlefields, and landmarks that played a huge part in the war:

Band of Brothers Tour: This epic tour takes place over 11 days where you’ll travel from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. You’ll walk across all 5 of the beaches that were part of D-Day, journey through Belgium, head to Munich, and visit the first concentration camp: Dachau. The journey ends at the Eagle’s Nest where you’ll discover the SS bunker complex that was part of the Nazis’ last stand.  

Central Europe Remembrance Tour: On this 11-day tour you’ll visit the cities of Budapest, Krakow, Vienna, and Munich, discovering the rich culture of each of these places and the heritage of their people. You’ll also journey to different types of camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Mauthausen, and Dachau, witnessing the power struggle and ideology of the Nazi state.

D-Day and Normandy Tours

D-Day changed the course of the war. These tours will take you back in time to this day during a journey across Normandy and its famous beaches:

Caen-Normandy Memorial Centre D-Day Tour: If you’ve arranged your own visit to Europe but want to tour around the D-Day beaches, the Caen-Normandy Memorial Centre offers a full day tour. This includes the American War Cemetery (Colleville-sur-Mer) as well as Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, and Arromanches (the artificial harbor).

D-Day Tours: A number of tours are on offer here and can be specifically tailored to American, British, or Canadian sectors. They last from 1 to 5 days, taking in all of the places of interest such as the Bayeux Commonwealth War Cemetery, Musee Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie, and Bayeux itself.  

Veteran Tours

The below tours have been specially designed for WWII veterans or the families of soldiers who fought in the war:

Normandy Veteran Tours: Run by the Royal British Legion, these fully-funded tours take World War II veterans to Normandy to revisit the landmarks and beaches they came across during the D-Day Landings.

WWII Battlefields: This tour takes in a number of WWII landmarks, including the famous battlefields and Normandy beaches. It also celebrates the anniversary of D-Day with veterans being the guests of honor. The tour then finishes with guided tours of Luxembourg and Belgium before visiting the sites of the Battle of the Bulge, Nuremberg, and the Eagle’s Nest.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Alan Wilson

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