Guide To Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy's Mystical Island
Here's my guide to visiting Mont Saint-Michel, with key tips and do's and don'ts for visiting this bravura medieval creation in France.
Mont Saint-Michel is the crown jewel of Normandy. It's one of France's most recognizable silhouettes, a veritable castle in the clouds.
The famous landmark is a pretty-as-a mirage island sanctuary. Its steeply built architecture seems almost impossible. A surreal medieval stage set, the Mont's sky-high spires, stout ramparts, and rocky outcrops rise dramatically from the sea.
The immense stone pile stands guard over gleaming sands laid bare by a receding (and unpredictable) tide. At high tide, Mont Saint-Michel seems to float in the sea.
The hulking abbey is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Christendom. In medieval times, devotees flocked to venerate the Archangel Michael. The Mont’s star attraction is the ancient abbey crowning its top.
Brief History of Mont Saint-Michel
Mont Saint-Michel was originally called Mont Tombe. Before the strong presence of Christianity, other Gallo-Roman religious groups frequented the area. In the 8th century, the island was renamed Mont Saint-Michel after the Christian religious figure of Saint Michael.
By legend, Mont Saint-Michel was conceived in a dream. The chief of the celestial militia, Archangel Micheal, came down and instructed Bishop Aubert to build an abbey in this improbably rocky spot. He whispered "build here and build high."
Building on this treacherous ground was the ultimate act of faith. The main construction of the abbey spanned the 10th to 15th centuries. The abbey went through several major transformations.
The sanctuary was initially built (and rebuilt) in a pre-Romanesque and Romanesque styles. In the 13th century, a fire burned down most of the abbey. It was reconstructed again in its current Gothic iteration. The abbey church was heightened in dramatic fashion.
As its name suggests, Mont Saint-Michel was primarily used as a Benedictine abbey. However, over time, it became a strategic stronghold, defying capture by military force. The abbey was a holdout against the English in the Hundred Years War.
During the French Revolution, when monasticism was banished. With conscious irony, Mont Saint-Michel was converted to a prison. It was dubbed the "Bastille of the Sea," a reference to the prison in Paris. In the 19th century, influential French figures like the novelist Victor Hugo called for the prison's closure. They wanted to reclaim the national architectural treasure.
In 1863, the prison shut down and restorations commenced. In 1966, the Abbey's 1000th year anniversary, a religious community moved back in. In 1979, Mont Saint-Michel and its surrounding bay became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Mont is incredibly popular, a tourist-fly attraction drawing millions of tourists annually. Yet, even the desecrations of over-tourism can't destroy its magic and mysticism.
Key Tips For Visiting Mont Saint-Michel & What To See On the Island Abbey
As an uber-popular and isolated island with mercurial tides, the Mont can be tricky to visit. This isn't a destination in France that you should visit, slap dash, on the spur of the moment. You need to be savvy with your trip planning.
Here are my 11 tips and tricks for having a smooth visit, to make the most out of your time at Mont Saint-Michel. I also give you an overview of the highlights of the island abbey.
1. The Logistics of Getting To Mont Saint-Michel
By far the easiest way to get to Mont Saint-Michel is by car. If you're coming from Paris, take the A11 highway toward Chartes-Le-Mans. Exit at Fougeres and signs point you toward Mont Saint-Michel.
If you're taking public transportation from Paris, there will be a lot of moving parts in your itinerary (train + bus + shuttle/walk). There are no direct trains from Paris.
The nearest train station is 5 miles away in Pontorson, which is rather a cute town. But there are only a few trains a day. From Pontorson, you can hop on a shuttle bus or take a taxi to the island shuttle bus station.
Another way to get to Mont Saint-Michel is to take a TVG train from Montparnasse station to Rennes and then transfer to a bus. The bus from Rennes to Mont Saint-Michel takes about 1:15. Prices and timetables can be found here. The bus drops you off at the Mont Saint-Michel’s tourism office outpost.
2. Tickets for Mont Saint-Michel
The island of Mont Saint-Michel is free to visit. But you'll pay 10 euros to visit the beautiful abbey, which is a must do activity. If you want to avoid a long line at the abbey, purchase tickets online in advance. When you get there, look for the separate line for visitors with pre-paid tickets.
You should also purchase a ticket that comes with an audio guide to better explore the abbey. Click here for online tickets from the official website. You can also get tickets from Get Your Guide or Tiqets.
2. Weather at Mont Saint-Michel
Even in the summer, Mont Saint-Michel can be cold, chilly, and buffeted by winds. Bring layers, a coat, and a scarf. This is especially true if you're going to walk across the footbridge to get there.
2. Arrival: Parking at Mont Saint-Michel
If you are driving to Mont Saint-Michel, you aren't allowed to drive you car directly to the island. Park your car one of the massive designated lots on the mainland. There will be signs showing you where to go. Take your parking ticket with you and pre-pay at the tourist office on your way back to the car.
Parking isn't cheap. You pay for 24 hours no matter how long you're there. If you stay 10 minutes past 24 hours, you'll pay for 48 hours. Click here for parking prices, which depend on the size of your vehicle.
If you're staying overnight on the island, there's a separate parking lot. Follow signs for La Caserne and park in P3.
3. Shuttle Bus or Walk To the Island
From the parking lot, you can take a free "Passeur" shuttle bus to the base of the island or walk across the footbridge. The shuttle buses run from 7:30 am until midnight, so you can spend time on the island during the evening before leaving for the night. The buses arrive every 10-15 minutes.
The first stop on the shuttle bus is the visitor's center. If you need to lock up a bag or luggage, you can do it here.
The 1.5 mile walk across the steel footbridge takes about 30 minutes. The walk is easy and really stunning, albeit windy. If you don't have luggage, this is the way to go for epic views.
Once you get to the island, the terrain becomes very steep. It can be a grueling hike. Unfortunately, this isn't a place for wheelchairs or strollers.
4. Tides: Check the Tide Reports
The Mont can be reached during either high tide or low tide. During low tide, as I mentioned, the island can be reached by the modern footbridge or shuttle bus. When the high tide comes in, you can still use the bridge.
On extremely rare occasions, a few days a year, there may be a super flood. The bridge will become submerged, making the island inaccessible by foot or shuttle.
Many people come to Mont Saint-Michel just to see the landmark at high tide. It was my part of motivation. If you want to see and capture this image of the Mont, you need to check the tide report here and plan accordingly.
But be wary of Mont Saint-Michel's tides. They're among Europe's most dangerous. Tides can rise almost 50 feet.
6. Walking the Mudflat on the Bay
The mudflat bay is amazing and many people want to walk on it. Wear sensible shoes and be prepared to get dirty. The bay is a muddy mess.
You may want to walk it barefoot. And bring a small towel in a small backpack to clean up.
The sands can also be dangerous. When the high tide comes, it's quick and rushing like galloping horses. There are also pockets of quicksand and you may encounter disorienting fog.
If you want to walk on the gleaming sandy bay, don't stray far. Or, go with an experienced guide. The tourist office has a list that you can explore here.
6. Orientation of the Abbey
The entire island is a pedestrianized zone. Mont Saint-Michel presents in three parts: (1) the fortified abbey; (2) the tiny village with shops and restaurants; and (3) lower level medieval fortifications and walls. There are public WCs at the car park, the town entrance, and near the abbey church.
After crossing the footbridge, you'll be on the Grande Rue, the main drag through the town. Climb past 15th and 16th century stone houses, flattened amongst tiny narrow streets.
Above the houses, turn sharply left. Pass through a fortified gate, known as King's Gate, and an ascending staircase leads to the abbey. On the way, look for the parish church of Sainte-Pierre.
Unfortunately, you'll be inundated with tacky souvenir shops along your steep and grueling trek. Try to ignore them so they don't sap the medieval atmosphere.
7. Staying in Mont Saint-Michel
Should you stay on the island? To be frank, Mont Saint-Michel is a tourist town. Less than 50 people actually reside in the town and the main source of income are touristic endeavors.
The disadvantages of staying overnight are that the hotels (and everything else) is pricey. There's not much to do at night either.
The key advantage of staying overnight is you can stroll the island without being jostled by a killjoy flood of tourists and day trippers. Between 11:00 am and 6:00 pm, the streets are jam packed. There are only 4-5 hotels on the island, so just pick one if you're staying. None stand out.
At night and in the early morning, the island is eerie, serene even. You can more easily feel the magic of the place. If your schedule permits, the ideal plan is to arrive late, stay overnight, visit the abbey early, and then depart.
There are also places to stay on the mainland. But its largely unappealing. One cute place to stay is Hotel Rose, a quaint hotel with free parking.
The only advantage of the mainland is that it's slightly cheaper. But I'd either go all in and stay overnight on the Mont. Or, make it a day trip from a neighboring town like Rennes, St. Malo, or Bayeux.
8. What To Eat in Mont Saint-Michel
For the most part, the restaurants in Mont Saint-Michel are hideously overpriced and mostly mediocre. You can pay 30 euros for a bland meal. The local specialties are omelettes, salt-grazed lamb, and mussels. The most common wine is a Muscadet from the nearby Loire Valley.
All guides seem to suggest Cafe Mere Poulard. True, it does have a nice outside terrace, housed in a chic three store restaurant. But the food is utterly mediocre.
La Vieille Auberge also has outside seating with views. La Sirene has some decent crepes.
If you plan ahead and the weather is promising, your best bet is to buy some food at the Super Marche on the mainland and picnic on the ramparts or somewhere off Grande Rue. For dinner, you may want to eat off the island. Unless it's just too idyllic to leave, in which case mediocre food is a small price to pay for the sublime.
Highlights and What To See at Mont Saint Michel
Now, that we've covered the logistics, you may be wondering what to see at the famous abbey island. Inside the great walls is a complex series of chambers, which is a masterful assemblage of medieval architecture. You can be part of the living past.
Here are the top must see highlights of Mont Saint Michel:
1. Western Terrace: In 1776, a fire destroyed the west end of the abbey church. But it left a splendid viewing terrace where you'll get some fantastic landscape photos of the bay.
2. Monastery: The medieval monastery is divided into 3 parts: (1) the abbey church; (2) the monks' living area; and (3) the cloister. A stone staircase will take you to the abbey's security checkpoint, located in the original Guard's Room.
3. Abbey Church: The church has a severe and unadorned facade. But inside is an austerely beautiful space with a 15th century flamboyant Gothic chancel. In a chapel is a grim-looking statue of Saint Aubert, the man with the vision. Atop the church is a spire with a gilded statue of Saint Michael.
4. Monks' Living Area: This lofty part of the abbey is known as "La Merveille," or The Marvel. The bold Gothic architecture consists of 3 layered levels supported by 16 buttresses.
5. Cloister: The cloister is one of the most beautiful parts of the abbey, used for the monks' meditations. It has a double row of petit pillars with floral carvings at the top.
The cloister offers magnificent views from the open north side. Due to the nature of the Mont, the cloister sits on top, rather than at the center of the monastery (as was usual). While most of Mont Saint-Michel is made of granite, the cloister has plenty of creamy limestone.
6. Refectory: This is the abbey dining hall. It's so geometric and pristine that it seems almost modern.
7. Guests' Hall: St. Benedict believed in entertaining guests in luxury. Guests were wined and dined without a hint of monastic austerity. The room formerly had a starry ceiling. There are two massive fireplaces.
8. Hall of the Grand Pillars: Hike up the stairs through a chapel and you arrive at the Hall of the Grand Pillars. The hall was built to support the Gothic chancel of the church. The pillars are massive, 15 feet around.
9. Ossuary: This part of the abbey housed a hospital, ossuary, and morgue. Bones from the abbey graveyard were transferred here. There's a large wheel that was used for the heavy lifting on building projects.
10. Scriptorium Hall: This beautiful hall is also known as Knight's Hall. It was initially thought to be where the monks decorated their illuminated manuscripts. More likely, it was a room for studying and contemplation. It's decorated with many columns forming four aisles.
11. Ramparts: Nothing beats a romp on the Mont Saint-Michel ramparts in the moonlight, when the island is magically floodlit. It will awaken the romantic in even the most jaded traveler.
I hope you've enjoyed my travel guide and tips for visiting Mont Saint-Michel. You may enjoy these other travel guides and resources for France:
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