A must see in France, Mont Saint Michel will take your breath away, metaphorically and literally! This medieval walled city will impress you with its outstanding architecture, Gothic abbey, narrow streets, old houses, hotels, restaurants, shops and beautiful location. No wonder it is France’s third most visited attraction. This UNESCO world heritage site looks inviting but visiting it can be tricky. Consider these essential tips for visiting Mont Saint Michel to help you navigate the area. If it is on your itinerary, make sure to come prepared, especially if you plan to stay overnight.
This visit to Mont Saint Michel was a part of my trip to the north of France. I traveled with friends – two other women and one brave man! We were lured by the images of the island and the monastery rising up out of the sea.
History of Mount Saint Michel
Perched high on a rock the Normandy coast, Mont Saint Michel has a fascinating history going back to 709 AD. It starts with Bishop Aubert of Avranches.
According to the legend, the archangel Michel kept appearing in the bishop’s dreams and asked him to build a church on the barren rock known then as Mont Tombe. The bishop agreed to the request.
In around 966 a group of Benedictine monks settled on the island and began building a Romanesque styled church. The legend and the presence of the monks ensured that Mont Saint Michel became a pilgrimage site.
During the French Revolution the abbey became less popular and eventually uninhabited and so it was closed and used as a prison until 1864.
The pilgrimage never stopped completely, even when the abbey was in English hands during the Hundred Year’s War. In 1874, the abbey was handed over to the French government with the aim of preserving it for the ages.
Shortly after, the island was classified as a historical monument and subsequently, renovations on the buildings began.
Finally, in 1979 Mont Saint Michel was classified by UNESCO as one of their World Heritage Sites and is now one of the most visited monuments in France. Currently, Monks live and work here again, just as in medieval times.
How to get there
The easiest way of visiting Mont Saint Michel is by car. It is a short drive from the A84 Caen-Rennes highway. Try to arrive early in the morning or later at night during the summer months to avoid waiting in long line to park.
The lots are huge and do not fill up, but they are a far away from Mont. A free shuttle is available and runs frequently. You have to pay for parking. If it is your side trip from Paris, allow about for about 4-hour drive.
The closest train station for visiting Mont Saint Michel is Pontorson. A direct shuttle bus will take you from there to the island. The ride takes about 20 minutes. If arriving from Normandy, you can also easily access it from the town of Bayeux or Caen.
The simplest way to get to Mont Saint-Michel from Paris is to take a direct train to Rennes, worth visiting on its own. From there, you can then take a direct shuttle coach bus to Mont Saint Michel.
Excursions from Paris or Bayeux
Taking a bus tour from these cities may not be the most economical way to visit the Mont Saint Michel, but it is a convenient and stress-free way to do it.
Tips on what to do at Mont Saint Michael
Visit Mont Saint Michel Abbey
It requires a steep long climb to get to the abbey so make sure to wear comfortable shoes. If you make it to the top, you will be awarded great views.
Stop at Mont Saint Michel Cemetery and Eglise Saint Pierre Church
On your way up, stop at the cemetery to enjoy a panorama of the water leading up to Mont Saint-Michel. The cemetery and Catholic church in front of it are both worth a visit.
Enjoy little shops, restaurants, and the narrow streets of the village.
Take a steep walk to enjoy your surroundings. Then catch a breath at a small restaurant for a drink, coffee, or meal. It will not be cheap or extraordinary but you will be rewarded with an unparalleled charm of the village. Most restaurants close at 10 PM!
Make sure to stay for the sunset.
Beautiful at daytime, Mont Saint Michel becomes magical at sunset. Wait at the shuttle area to witness it and take photos.
Mont Saint Michel lodging – Essential Tips for First-time Visitors
Choosing your hotel
For us, staying at Mont Saint Michel was one of a kind experience that I do not recommend to repeat. It was a hot sunny evening when we arrived at the parking lot. Luckily at this time of day, there was no line to enter it.
Before making hotel reservations for our trip, we agreed to give up the charm of boutique hotels and instead go with modern conveniences like AC and large beds. We only made one exception, decided to go for a full medieval experience at the Mont. Wrong!
When we realized, we were 20 minutes away by a bus shuttle form our hotel we had to repack and take with us only what was needed for one night. As you may imagine, it was a slight difference in what each of us considered basic necessities.
The bus looked brand new but I guess it was not hot enough for the French to turn AC on. It was long 20 minutes to hold on to our suitcases and not to faint from the heat.
Finding your hotel in the village
For some unknown reason, the shuttle stops in quite a distance from the Mont. It was a long walk just to get to the bottom of it.
There were no signs leading us to our hotel, so we begin to question ourselves if we were at the right stop. Our male friend, a true gentleman, offered to check things out. He took his luggage and left. He was gone for at least an hour.
As it turned out, he had a hard time to find our hotel. When he finally got there, he was told that the check-in was at another hotel. That meant negotiating more steps and enduring the heat trapped between thick walls of the village.
When he returned, he looked exhausted but now his mission was to help three ladies and their luggage to reach the hotel. Again, a steep hill and cobblestoness!
What kind of accommodation you can expect
My hotel room had a small double bed and a tiny bathroom and it felt like an oven! Opening the window did not help much, as it was facing a wall just a feet away. The air was trapped.
With hope that it will cool down eventually, we quickly went out to find something to eat. It was around 10 PM and most restaurants were closing or had no food to serve. We all ended up having pizza, it was as good as it gets at that hour.
To top it all, when we returned to our hotel, it was locked and there no one around to open it up for us! How we got in, remains our little secret.
Essential tips on lodging
Do not stay at the Mont during hot summer months. They are modern hotels available along the but shuttle route. You will sleep in comfort, will not have to drag your bags up the steep hill, and hopefully will we be able to get in for the night.
During off season, when heat is not an issue, you would probably enjoy staying at the village. My advice, contact your hotel before your arrival and ask where to check in and what code to use to enter your hotel at night.
Make sure to pack lightly!
If you are planning on visiting the south of France, read My Dream of Provence and Eating Like a Local in the French Rivera and Provence.