7 of the Best World War I Sites You Can Visit

Manicured cemetery with uniform headstones and bright red flowers growing
Photo: Daniel Leppens/Shutterstock

One hundred years ago, the most powerful countries on Earth were in the middle of World War I. The combination of modern weapons and outdated tactics made this one of the bloodiest wars in history. About 17 million soldiers and civilians died as a result of the four-year conflict.

Though no one who fought in the Great War is still living today, you can visit many of the sites from this deadly period in history.

Since 2014, centennial events have been held at battlefields throughout Europe and at cemeteries and monuments. Tourists can visit some of these somber places, like the Tyne Cot Cemetery at Passchendaele (pictured), and see for themselves where the world's first modern war took place.

Here are the stories of seven of the most important sites from WWI that you can still visit today.

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Franz Ferdinand's assassination

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Though not a battleground, the place where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, now part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is an important place in World War I history. The killing of the Austro-Hungarian archduke and his wife by a Serbian nationalist is the event that caused simmering tensions in Europe to explode into full-blown war. Seeking to punish Serbia, which it thought had ordered the assassination, the Austro-Hungarian Empire planned to attack with the help of Germany, its ally. The two powerful countries knew that Russia would come to Serbia's aid, and once Russia was involved, its allies, including France and Great Britain, would join the conflict as well.

The Latin Bridge, where the assassination took place, still stands in Sarajevo. The house of the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was made into a museum, but it was destroyed during the Balkan Wars in the early 1990s. There's a plaque on the wall outside the Assassination of Franz Ferdinand Museum (pictured). The plaque is located at the place where Princip stood when he fired the fateful shots into the archduke's car. A statue of Princip, who died in prison in 1918, was erected in Sarajevo on the 100th anniversary of the assassination. He has become known as a symbol of independence for people throughout the Balkans, especially Bosnian Serbs.

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Vimy Ridge

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The Battle for Vimy Ridge was part of a larger Allied offensive known as the Battle of Arras. Arras marked a change in tactics that would eventually help the Allies gain the upper hand in France. Using skillfully targeted artillery to cover the troops' advance, and dividing into smaller units, each with a very specific task that they had trained specially for. Through this approach, the Canadians were able to take the strategically important ridge.

Despite being an important step for Allied forces, the Arras battlefields are not as well visited as those of other major battles of the war. Nonetheless, there's a lot to see here, particularly in the Vimy Ridge area. The Canadian Vimy Ridge Memorial, a towering monument, can be seen for miles around (pictured). Some of the trenches on the ridge have been reinforced with cement and are still standing today. The battlefield also has shell craters, which are clearly visible (although they are now covered with grass). Visitors can take guided tours of the Grange Tunnels, which were dug by the Allies and used during the battle.

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Passchendaele Battlefield

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The Battle of Passchendaele (now usually spelled Passendale) was also called the Third Battle of Ypres because it was the third time in three years that Germany had squared off against the Allies in this particular part of Flanders, Belgium. The battle, during which Allied forces tried — and ultimately succeeded — to remove the German army from the high ground near the city of Ypres, lasted for more than three months. Like most major battles of the war, this 1917 confrontation led to hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides.

Visitors to this and other battle sites around Ypres often stop at the Menin Gate to the Missing, a large memorial that commemorates the more than 50,000 soldiers from Commonwealth countries who went missing during the fighting and were never found. The gate includes a large open-air hall where the names of those missing are inscribed. Nearly 12,000 Commonwealth soldiers are buried at the Tyne Cot Cemetery (pictured), which is also near Passchendaele. The first burials took place in October 1917 while the battle was still raging nearby.

The village of Passchendaele itself was destroyed during the battle, but it has been rebuilt and is now a tourist site. Various memorials and markers are scattered throughout the fields in the area. The Passendale Memorial 1917 Museum has exhibits that puts these markers into historical context. The museum's highlight is a life-size replica of a dugout used by British soldiers during the battle.

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Photo: Oeuvre personnelle/Wikimedia Commons

The battle of Verdun lasted for almost the entirety of 1916. During the 303-day confrontation, German and French forces faced off in one what became one of the costliest battles of the war. Though no one is sure exactly how many people were killed or wounded at Verdun in 1916, scholars estimate that the total number of casualties was nearly 1 million. French forces were able to repel the German offensive, but the battle was, more or less, a stalemate because neither side was able to gain a significant advantage in the war as a whole.

Shell craters are still visible on the battlefield (pictured). Numerous memorials, including a building called the Ossuary that contains the remains of more than 100,000 soldiers, are scattered throughout the 39-square-mile patch of land where most of the fighting took place. Visitors can also explore fortresses such as Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux. These structures, built during a war with Prussia in the 19th century, were already old when the Germans attacked them in 1916.

The Verdun Memorial Museum features exhibits and artifacts that show what it was like in the trenches in 1916. Guests follow a "Visitors Trail" that leads through the exhibits and up to rooftop terraces that overlook the surrounding battlefield.

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Somme Battlefield

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Shorter, but more intense than the battle at Verdun, which was taking place at the same time, the Battle of the Somme was fought by a combined army of Allied forces, who were attempting to break the German line. The Allies gained a total of six miles of ground during the fighting, but they stopped short of their goals. One of Great Britain's most famous figures, Winston Churchill, was said to have criticized the way the battle was being fought in 1916. Even today, historians are not in agreement about the success of the battle, the effectiveness of the tactics or the necessity for such a great loss of life: The fighting resulted in well over 1 million casualties in all.

The battlefield, which saw fighting in the summer and autumn of 1916, has been the site of important centenary events this year. Visitors, including many whose ancestors fought in the battle, have chosen to come here to pay their respects during the anniversary. Because the British army played the biggest role for the Allied forces during this battle, a lot of information is available in English for visitors who want to see the Somme and the various cemeteries and monuments in the area. The Remembrance Trail leads visitors past some of the most important sites.

Tourism is well developed in this part of France, and there are even options for taking sightseeing flights over the battlefields. Like other sites along the Western Front, this one has memorials, including the recognizable arch of the Thiepval Memorial.

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Gallipoli Peninsula

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Not every major battle of World War I was fought in Western Europe. The Ottoman Empire (now known as Turkey), one of Germany’s most powerful allies, was attempting to gain territory in the Middle East during the conflict. In a move that they hoped would open a new front in the war, Great Britain decided to attack the Ottomans by invading the Gallipoli Peninsula, which is in modern day Turkey. Troops from Australia and New Zealand (known as ANZACs) saw most of the fighting during this battle. They were unable to dislodge Turkish troops from their fortifications and ended up being pulled from the line after months of heavy fighting.

Today, the battlefields of Gallipoli are part of a Turkish national park, an area that is quite easy to tour independently. Well-marked roads and trails lead past memorials and the five dozen cemeteries in the area where the battle's casualties are buried. The Gallipoli Simulation Center, opened in 2012, is a museum that takes visitors on an interactive trip through the campaign, giving them viewpoints from both sides of the battle.

Battle sites like Lone Pine, which ANZAC troops captured after suffering 50 percent casualties, are important for visitors from Australia and New Zealand. Lone Pine is part of the ANZAC Walk, a route that passes through 14 major battle sites that were a part of the campaign.

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Belleau Wood

Photo: American Battle Monuments Commission/Wikimedia Commons

Belleau Wood was the site of a 1918 battle where U.S. forces were able to repel an attack by German soldiers. The battle was part of a final attempt by Germany to push the allies back before U.S. troops — who had just come across the Atlantic to join the war effort — could be fully deployed on the Western Front. The battle became an important part of the history of the U.S. Marines. Ordered to hold the line in Belleau Wood, the Marines dug shallow trenches with nothing but their bayonets and waited until German troops advanced within about 100 yards before opening fire. U.S. forces were able to repel repeated attacks over the next few days, sometimes resorting to hand to hand combat. They eventually forced the Germans to retreat. There were heavy casualties on both sides.

Today, Belleau Wood still bears scars from the fighting that took place nearly a century ago. The battleground is located above the Aisne Marne American Cemetery (pictured). In addition to remnants of trenches, shell craters and relics recovered from the area, there is a monument to the troops who fought in Belleau. It was erected by the U.S. Marine Corps. Another similar monument can be found in nearby Chateau Thierry.