World War II was the most deadly military conflict in human history – resulting in the death of an estimated 70-85 million people.
The scars of the war can still be seen across much of the world today, as memorials have been built to commemorate those who died, and museums created to remind us of both the best and the worst of what we’re capable of.
And nearly 80 years on, many of us like to visit these places to connect with our past and learn more about the stories of people who lived through it.
With this in mind, here are 10 World War II sites you can visit in Europe.
1. Dunkirk, France
Dunkirk is the northernmost town in France, and the country’s largest port. It’s famous for the near-miraculous rescue mission, also known as Operation Dynamo, that took place in late May 1940, during World War II.
Organised by the Royal Navy, Operation Dynamo was a rescue mission of the Allied forces of British, French, and Belgium troops who were trapped by the advancing German army on the French coast, near Dunkirk. Just under 1,000 ships were involved in saving 338,226 men – including hundreds of civilian vessels, which had answered the Royal Navy’s call for help. It was the largest evacuation effort in military history.
Today, you can visit the Dunkirk War Museum, where you’ll find an extensive collection of weapons, models, uniforms, photos, and maps of the military operations. Dunkirk Town Cemetery, which contains nearly 800 World War II burials, is also an important visit.
2. Auschwitz, Poland
The Holocaust was a systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of European Jews by Nazi Germany and its allies.
Auschwitz, in southern Poland, was the largest Nazi concentration camp. Up to 6,000 people a day were killed in gas chambers here and, tragically, of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, an estimated 1.1 million died. While the large majority of victims were Jews, other minority groups including homosexuals, prisoners of war, Jehovah’s Witnesses, were also taken to Auschwitz.
Auschwitz concentration camp is actually a complex of several sites. The majority of tours cover two locations: the original camp, known as Auschwitz I, and the large extension at Birkenau – which is also known as Auschwitz II.
3. The Reichstag, Germany
The Reichstag is a parliamentary building in Berlin. It’s a powerful witness to the city’s troublesome history and, today, remains one of Berlin’s most significant historical buildings.
On 27th February, 1933, a large proportion of the Reichstag went up in flames following an arson attack. While it remains unknown who or what started the Reichstag fire, its importance in helping Hitler and the Nazi Party’s rise to absolute power in Germany is clear.
The Nazis used the atmosphere of panic caused by the Reichstag fire to their advantage by blaming the communists and turning the public against them.
Today, visitors can join guided tours, listen to a plenary session, and climb up the building’s dome and roof. Graffiti left by Soviet soldiers after their siege of the Reichstag in 1945 has also been carefully preserved.
4. Anne Frank’s House, Netherlands
Anne Frank is one of Amsterdam’s best-known former residents. Anne and her family lived in hiding for more than two years during World War II, and today you can visit the house where they lay undercover.
The entrance to the house, also known as the Secret Annex, was concealed behind a revolving cabinet in Anne’s father (Otto Frank)’s offices. Otto’s office staff helped the family by bringing food and outside news. However, on 4th August, 1944, the Frank’s hiding place was betrayed and everyone hiding there was taken to various concentration camps. Only Otto survived the war.
Converted into a museum, the Anne Frank House houses a sobering exhibition about the persecution of Jews and other groups during the war. Although the rooms in the house no longer contain any furniture, an atmosphere from the period that Anne lived there remains. Quotes from Anne’s diary, as well as photos, film images, and original objects help to bring the events that took place here to life.
5. Warsaw, Poland
On 1st September, 1939, German troops invaded Poland. This invasion triggered the beginning of World War II as, in response, Great Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany.
Poland’s capital, Warsaw, suffered significant losses during World War II, and officially surrendered to the Germans on 28th September, 1939 after heavy bombing and shelling. It’s estimated that nearly 85% of the city was destroyed.
Poland was occupied by German troops until 1944 and early 1945, when they were forced to retreat by the Soviet Red Arm. Many traces of the war can still be seen across Warsaw, including various memorials, monuments, and museums which commemorate those who lost their lives.
The Warsaw Rising Museum, which has interactive displays, photographs, and video footage of life under Nazi occupation, is well worth a visit. The museum’s five-minute film, City of Ruins, is an aerial depiction of the desolation of Warsaw after the war and shows how few buildings were left standing.
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews also offers an understanding of the Jewish population in Poland leading up to the Holocaust. And at Palmiry National Memorial and Museum, just a 30-minute drive from Warsaw, you’ll find information boards, photographs, and harrowing insights into some of the atrocities of the war. The museum and memorial was the site of 21 separate mass executions.
6. Churchill War Rooms, England
The Churchill War Rooms is a niche museum that walks guests through the entire life and legacy of British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Churchill was Prime Minister from 1940-45 (as well as from 1951-55) and is best remembered for successfully leading Britain to victory during World War II.
The Churchill War Rooms are set inside the exact bunker that sheltered Churchill and his staff during the Blitz of September 1940. Visitors can explore the underground headquarters and stand in the very rooms that Churchill and his cabinet met. Having been host to many war secrets, plotting, and the strategic planning that led the British to victory in the war, you can quite literally feel the history here.
The Churchill War Rooms are also home to a large collection of objects from the Prime Minister’s life – both political and personal. This includes Churchill’s baby rattle, the flag used to drape his coffin, and a drawing commemorating his 80th birthday.
7. Omaha Beach, France
Omaha beach is famous for being the site of the most victorious, but also most devastating, moment of the Normandy invasion: D-Day, on 6th June 1944.
D-Day marked the beginning of the end of World War II because it was when allied armies invaded – and a German surrender followed less than a year later. This long sandy beach stretches for miles and pays silent homage to D-Day and its victims.
Omaha beach also has an impressive war memorial monument and the Memorial Museum of Omaha Beach, which houses artillery equipment from the battle. This includes uniforms, vehicles, personal objects, and weapons like tanks and machine guns.
Nearby, there’s also the American cemetery of Colleville sur Mer, which sits directly behind Omaha beach; and the nearby town of Bayeux, which has an even larger Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy. Here, you’ll find more information about the history of D-Day, as well as other war exhibits.
8. Oskar Schindler Factory, Poland
If you’ve ever seen or heard of Schindler’s List (1993), then you might know about the amazing story of wealthy German businessman and member of the Nazi Party, Oskar Schindler.
The world-class Oskar Schindler Factory, in Krakow, Poland, is a tribute to Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of over 1,000 Jews during World War II by employing them in his factories. After his death, Schindler received the title of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ in 1993.
The Oskar Schindler Factory is part of the larger Krakow Historical Museum. Here you can walk through the original factory, which houses interactive, visual, and emotional exhibitions of the Nazi occupation of Krakow. This includes the stories of inhabitants of Krakow who were fed Nazi propaganda, Jews who were forced to live in a ghetto, and victims of war terrors.
9. Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Germany
In the middle of the city of Berlin stands the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Close to the Brandenburg Gate, the memorial was opened in 2003 and is a poignant and sobering place of remembrance.
The site covers 19,000 square metres and contains 2,711 stone slabs of varying heights. It’s open 24/7 and can be accessed from all four sides to allow visitors the space to confront the topic in their own personal way.
On site is also an underground information centre, where you can find out more about the victims through photographs, diaries, farewell letters, and film footage.
10. Liverpool War Museum, England
Liverpool was Britain’s main transatlantic convoy port during the war – and the city’s ships and merchant seamen played a crucial role in Britain’s survival during the Battle of the Atlantic.
At Western Approaches Museum, hidden under the streets of Liverpool, you can explore Britain’s top secret underground where British Armed Forces met and planned tactics during the battle.
Glimpse the tools and documents used by the British to monitor enemy movements and marvel at the equipment used to inform the British government of their findings. This includes one of only two surviving wartime phones, which had a direct connection to the London War Cabinet.
The museum’s Operation Room has been left almost exactly as it was when it closed in August 1945, and houses an original world map marked in white grid lines and the carefully plotted movements of different ships.
Plus, with the museum’s recently launched U-534 Project, you can look inside U-534, which is one of just four surviving German submarines.
World War II was the most deadly conflict in human history and, today, we’re lucky enough to be able to visit many of the sites that bore witness to it.
While the memorials, museums, and battlefield sites that stand today can be difficult and emotional to visit, they serve as an important reminder of the atrocities humans are capable of and how we should continue to strive towards a better future.
For further reading, head over to the history section of our website. Here, you can find everything from inspiring women throughout history to sites across the UK with Victorian, Tudor, or Viking connections.
Have you visited any of these sites before? Which periods of history do you find the most interesting? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.