Europe's WWII Sites Draw Veterans' Families and History Buffs

More than 16 million Americans served in the U.S. military in World War II, but the decades move by quickly. Today, these veterans are now in their 90s and 100s. Many have passed, others aren't traveling anymore. But now another wave of visitors interested in World War II history is arriving on the European continent.

Increasingly, these veterans’ adult children, adult grandchildren and now great grandchildren (and even great, great grandchildren) desire to visit the World War II-era sites across Europe, particularly to see where their relative fought or served during the war. Or, it's a way to honor and remember soldiers who fought on both sides, as well as innocent civilians, often of Jewish descent, who were killed or executed during the conflict.

Throughout Europe, World War II history unfolds at sites that remember the events of the 1940s. Visitors have a range of options for touring—from an escorted World War II-themed tour to a customized small group or private family visit. Here are some examples of European destinations that entice visitors with a historic bent. 

Anzio and Montecassino, Italy

American tank in Montecasssino, Italy // Photo by Photo Italia LLC/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

For 2021 (now shifted to a 2022 departure), Insight Vacations tells Travel Agent that it’s customized a seven-night “World War II Italy” itinerary for one small group. This personalized trip will start in Rome before heading for Anzio, about an hour south of Rome.

Here, the Allies landed during the Italian Campaign. Insight’s itinerary for the small group includes a visit to the Anzio War Cemetery and Anzio BeachHead Museum, as well as the Sicily-Rome American War Cemetery and Visitors’ Center. Then, the tour heads off to Montecassino, Italy (or Monte Cassino as it's sometimes spelled) and for other World War II-related sites.

Separately, Andrea Grisdale, CEO and founder, IC Bellagio, designs customized vacations for private groups and individual travelers, too. She cites the World War II-era sites at Montecassino as popular with her American travelers. 

Montecassino, essentially, was the battle for Rome in the Italian Campaign. Participating were more than 240,000 Allied forces, 140,000 Axis soldiers, 1,900 tanks and 4,000 airplanes. Sadly, losses totaled 75,000 lives on both sides.

On Day 5 of its escorted “Rome and the Amalfi Coast” tour, Collette stops at that destination’s mountaintop Benedictine monastery, where tour guests learn about the World War II history and explore the monastery’s ornate chapel, courtyards, and museum. Tour prices start at $2,549 on two departure dates in August 2021, but multiple departures continue through 2021, 2022 and 2023.  

Another destination popular with history buffs is Salerno, Italy, where the Allied invasion of Italy began with "Operation Avalanche’s" amphibious movement of 200,000 naval troops, as well as two supporting missions at Calabria and Taranto, in September 1943.  

A Museum of the Landing and Salerno Capital was opened under Italian President Giorgio Napitano’s patronage on the landing’s 69th anniversary. Artifacts include an M4 Sherman tank, military uniforms worn by troops on both sides, unedited video of the landing, photographs and more.

Ardennes, Belgium

German military cemetery at Recogne-Bastogne, Belgium // Photo by Jules_Kitano/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

In December 1944, the Battle of the Bulge was an intense, cold-weather offensive by the Nazis within the Ardennes region of Belgium, and the Siege of Bastogne was a part of that.  

To see this region, one option is Globus’ Small Group Discovery" tour between Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Brussels, Belgium, starting at $2,539 per person, double occupancy. On day four of that escorted journey, the group will visit Bastogne.

Why was Bastogne so important? Axis forces were trying to quickly reach Antwerp’s harbor before the Allies and all roads in the Ardennes mountains met at the town of Bastogne. American troops within Bastogne “held out,” until U. S. General George Patton’s 3rd Army reached the town—ending the siege on December 27, 1944.

Globus’ tour guests will see the Mardasson Memorial dedicated to the American troops who liberated the city and learn more about the Battle of the Bulge at the Bastogne War Museum. This nine-day escorted tour is slated to operate in 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Amsterdam and Arnhem, The Netherlands

Anne Frank House, Amsterdam // Photo by Ceneri/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

At the top of any list of World War II-era sites in Europe is the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, On July 6, 1942, the family of Otto Frank, a Jewish businessman in Amsterdam, took his family, including his wife and two daughters, Anne and Margot, into hiding within an Amsterdam building that had previously housed Frank’s business.

It consisted of two parts—the main house and the annex. Eight people—including Frank’s family and others—hid for more than two years inside the top floors of the annex. Today’s visitors who self-isolated for much of 2020 can easily appreciate how truly difficult it was for the Franks and others hiding in that attic and not being able to venture outside, not to mention the “fear angle” for potential discovery.

Inside the Anne Frank House, visitors will see the original red-checked diary Anne received on her 13th birthday on June 12, 1942, just before the family went into hiding. Unfortunately, the Franks and others were discovered on August 4, 1944. Two of their helpers were also arrested, but two other helpers took away some of Anne’s writings prior to the secret annex being emptied by the Nazis.

The Franks and others from the annex were sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp. Later, Anne and Margot were deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where both girls died of typhus. Otto Frank was the only one to return from Auschwitz in June 1945 and he published Anne’s diary about the "Secret Annex" in 1947.

Today, visitors can pass the hinged bookcase that was the entrance to that annex, see the original map of Normandy on which Otto Frank kept track of the Allied invasion, as well as the penciled height marks on the wallpaper for daughters Anne and Margot, postcards and pictures of movie stars that Anne taped to the walls of her bedroom and Anne’s original diary papers.

It’s a poignant, emotional experience for most visitors. Travelers can do so on escorted tours that begin or end in Amsterdam, on customized travel arrangements or on a city stay/package that includes air tickets and a hotel stay. United Vacations is among those operators that package air tickets with a hotel stay at the Amsterdam Marriott Hotel, the Renaissance Amsterdam Hotel or another property.  

Another popular World War II stop is Arnhem in the Netherlands. On September 17, 1944, Allied troops, including the American 1st Airborne Division and 1st Polish Para Brigade, tried to take what’s now known as the John Frost Bridge in Arnhem. The goal was to capture this last bridge across the Rhine River, so the Allies could head into Germany.

The story of this war-time “Operation Market Garden” became known as “The Bridge Too Far,” (also made into a major movie) as the effort failed. But modern visitors can visit today to learn about how the operation unfolded. 

Trafalgar’s seven-day “Best of Holland” tour, starting at $2,145 per person, double occupancy, heads out on Day Five to visit Arnhem’s Airborne Museum and to give tour goers a chance to view the John Frost Bridge.

The Reichstag and Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, Germany

The Reichstag, Berlin, Germany // Photo by frankpeters/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

A fire broke out at the Neo-Renaissance-styled Reichstag, one month after Adolf Hitler assumed the German chancellorship—triggering events that led to his assumption of dictatorial powers. This impressive building also suffered more damage from Allied bombings in World War II.

Today, though, the Reichstag is beautifully restored, houses the German Parliament and is a bastion of German democracy. The building’s huge glass dome was rebuilt, and visitors can head up an interior ramp spiraling to the top of the dome for incredible city views.

The Reichstag is now one of Berlin’s most prominent tourist attractions, explored by those on escorted tours, customized vacations or city stay packages. For example, visitors staying on a Pleasant Holidays’Berlin Hotel Package” can stay at the Westin Grand Berlin and head out independently to explore the Reichstag.

Many other World War II sites beckon in Berlin, too. The Humboldthain Flak Tower, the last remaining anti-aircraft tower built to defend the city, is one.

No site, though, is more “emotionally moving” than the Holocaust Memorial, dedicated to the millions of innocent Jews murdered in the late 1930s and 1940s. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman, this 200,000-square-foot site consists of 2,711 stark concrete slabs or “stelae, arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field.

Norway's Resistance Museum, Oslo, Norway

Norway’s Resistance Museum, also called the Norwegian Home Front Museum, in Oslo, Norway, tells the story of the 1940 to 1945 wartime occupation; visitors venturing here will see a fascinating collection of photographs, memorabilia and historical war-time artifacts. Among them are the original radio transmitters used by “the Norwegian underground” to communicate with Allied forces in Great Britain. The museum is also located in Akershus Fortress, a castle where many resistance fighters were tortured and/or executed.

Cosmos offers numerous tours that visit Oslo, including a “Focus on Scandinavia,” which is a “Small-Group Discovery” escorted tour from Copenhagen, Denmark to Stockholm, Sweden, with sightseeing in Norway, as well; one day the tour does city sightseeing in Oslo that includes the Akershus Fortress. Pricing starts at $2,339 per person, double occupancy.

Another Cosmos 11-day “Norwegian Fjord” itinerary is roundtrip from Oslo, providing more options for in-depth exploring of the Norwegian Resistance Museum and other sites. Pricing starts at $2,419 per person, double occupancy.

Poland’s World War II Sites

Wroclaw, Poland // Photo by Vladimir Vinogradov/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Abercrombie & Kent fields an enticing World War II-focused tour, the nine-day “Poland: Witness to History” itinerary on multiple dates in 2021-22, priced from $4,395 per person, double occupancy. Traveling from Warsaw to Krakow, this “Connection Boutique Group Journey” is limited to 18 travelers.

Travelers will immerse themselves in Warsaw’s history from the early glory days to the Warsaw uprising of World War II. On one day they’ll see the remnants of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto and visit POLIN Museum, a profound cultural institution that celebrates a 1,000-year history of Polish Jews.

A&K's travelers will also explore the Bochnia Salt Mine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; reflect on a dark World War II chapter at Auschwitz; and join one of Europe's last city lamplighters as he illuminates the authentic gas lanterns in Wroclaw's medieval center. They’ll also learn to cook pierogi, and then enjoy dinner with a show of folk music and dance.

Athens and Crete Sites, Greece 

Souda Bay War Cemetery, Crete, Greece // Photo by asiafoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

The four-story Athens War Museum showcases Greece’s long military history from ancient times to the modern day. The museum also has several branch locations throughout the country, including ones in Nafplion, Chania, Tripoli and Thessaloniki. Many tour operators including Pleasant Holidays and Delta Vacations, to name a few, offer city-stay packages in Athens.

Another Greek draw for World War II history is the island of Crete. Its Souda Bay War Cemetery was designed by famed architect Louis de Soissons and remembers those who died during both world wars, including the World War II “Battle of Crete.” Buried here is John Pendlebury, an archaeologist who in war-time worked for British intelligence, was caught and executed.

Chora Sfakion, a pretty village on Crete, has a monument on shore that commemorates the daring evacuation of Allied troops (including British, Australian and New Zealander soldiers) in May 1941. A small museum in town also has World War II-era artifacts. At Maleme Airfield in Chania, German paratroopers invaded Crete on May 20, 1941; it’s considered the first airborne military invasion in history.

More WWII Sites in Europe

The list of European sites with a World War II tie is extensive and eclectic. The Wax Museum in San Marino displays 100 wax figures, including two reflecting Hitler and Mussolini, the two World War II Axis leaders.

Iceland’s Reydarfjordur served as an Allied base during World War II and has a war-time museum located near barracks that were a part of a big hospital camp. Located near the site of one of Finland’s most significant World War II battles, the Winter War Museum tells the story of the Battle of Suomussalmi and the area’s military history.

In Lithuania, visitors can head to the Battery “Memel – Nord,” fortifications hidden in the dunes. An exhibition in these World War II bunkers features grenades, mine and bomb fragments. In Zagreb, Croatia, visitors can enter what was once a World War II bomb shelter; this 1,148-foot-long Gric Tunnel runs between Radićeva and Mesnička streets.

Austria’s Museum of Military History in Vienna is another spot to delve into 1940s-era history. And many other countries from Romania to the Baltic and across the continent also draw in American visitors desiring to learn more about World War II history or a family connection to that. 

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