As quintessentially French as the Eiffel Tower and the lavender fields of Provence, Normandy’s Mont-Saint-Michel is a magnificent sight. About a 1-hour drive from St Malo, it’s the ideal destination for ferry passengers to explore on a day trip. Here’s how to plan the perfect trip.
Mont-Saint-Michel: a French icon
Normandy’s top attraction is both a place of pilgrimage and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with more than three million annual visitors. It’s an impressive sight with its Benedictine abbey perched atop a rocky island off the southwestern shore of Normandy and reached by a dramatic bridge from the mainland.
The Mont Saint-Michel is more than just a postcard icon, though. The island monastery also harbours a fascinating history, used as a centre of worship from the 8th to the 18th centuries, and passing through the hands of the dukes of Normandy and the French kings. Attacks from the English led to the monastery’s fortress-like appearance, and it even served briefly as a prison during the French Revolution before being resurrected as a National Monument in the 19th century.
Visiting the Mont-Saint-Michel on a day trip
Leave yourself at least three hours to visit the Mont-Saint-Michel. Start by admiring views of the island monastery from the mainland — the most memorable photos show the island in all its glory against a backdrop of Mont-Saint-Michel Bay. On arrival on the island, the only way to get around is on foot and it’s quite a climb with steep cobbled lanes and about 350 steps climbing up to the very top of the abbey.
The island is home to both Mont-Saint-Michel village and the hilltop abbey. It’s worth exploring both, leaving yourself plenty of time to explore the winding lanes and ramparts, stopping to take in the views along the way. Tours of the Abbey itself take you through the abbey church, chapels, cloister, and crypts, where you can learn about its rich history and unique architecture. Don’t miss the panoramic views from the west terrace of the abbey, which looks out across the bay.
After visiting the Abbey, take the time to browse the small shops and boutiques of the medieval town, where you can pick up some traditional souvenirs. Mont-Saint-Michel’s Breton influence (the island sits right on the border of Normandy and Brittany) is on show in the island’s restaurants, and it’s a local tradition to enjoy lunch a crêperie. Book a table with a view over the bay and opt for a lunchtime menu, including a savoury galette followed by a sweet crêpe – the perfect way to end your visit.
Walking the Mont-Saint-Michel Bay
Adventurous types can also reach the Mont-Saint-Michel by hiking across the bay to the island. There are a number of different tours that allow you to cross the bay on foot or walk around the island at low tide, affording some spectacular views as well as following in the footsteps of the early pilgrims. However, it’s essential to join a guided tour if you want to explore the bay – the changing tides create dangerous quicksands that aren’t visible to the untrained eye, and you’ll need a guide to safely cross.
How to visit Mont-Saint-Michel: planning your trip
It’s free to visit the island and village of Mont-Saint-Michel, and you can climb up to the lower parts of the ramparts for a view over the bay. However, there is an admission fee to visit the Abbey interiors and viewpoints.
Tours of the Abbey take between 45 minutes and 2 hours, and are available in English. Advance bookings are highly recommended. Tours cost from €13 for adults and are free for under-18s, and European residents between 18-25.
Accessibility is tricky at the Mont-Saint-Michel as there are no elevators, and access to the historic site is via steep streets and stairs (many without handrails). However, there are accessible shuttle buses, restrooms, and parking, and wheelchairs are available from the Tourist Information Centre.
Insider tips for visiting the Mont-Saint-Michel
- Wear comfortable shoes: The island’s medieval lanes are narrow, cobbled, and steep, so make sure you have sturdy footwear and bring plenty of water.
- Make an early start: The Mont-Saint-Michel can get very crowded, especially in summer and over holiday weekends. Opt for a weekday visit in low season if possible or get there in the early morning or late afternoon before/after the tour buses.
- Walk across the bridge: With time (and energy!) to spare, skip the shuttle bus and walk over the bridge yourself – it’s about a 1.5-mile walk in total from the parking area.
- Bring your dog: If four-legged family members are tagging along, they won’t be allowed in the abbey (except for assistance dogs and small dogs that can be carried in a bag) or on the shuttles. However, dogs are welcome at the village and lower viewpoints, provided they are kept on a leash.
- Celebrate the 2024 Olympics: The 2024 Paris Olympics take place this year, and the famous Olympic Torch relay will be passing through Mont-Saint-Michel on May 31st and Caen on May 30th.
How to get to the Mont-Saint-Michel from the UK
The Mont-Saint-Michel sits in a bay shared by Normandy and Brittany at the southwestern edge of Normandy. There is no direct vehicle access to the island, but there is ample paid parking available in the small village of La Caserne, about 1.5 miles from the abbey. From there, regular free shuttle buses (known as navettes or passeurs) run across the bridge to the island.
The easiest way to arrive in Normandy from the UK is by ferry, and Brittany Ferries offers regular routes between the UK and France. You can choose to travel as a foot passenger or bring your car, with no luggage restrictions, and their award-winning service includes cosy ensuite cabins, onboard restaurants, and a range of onboard entertainment, including bars, a cinema, and a spa. Travelling by ferry is not only a great option for families (you can also bring your pets with you), but for a limited time only, you can enjoy a FREE upgrade to a Flexible Ticket, allowing the freedom to amend your booking up to four hours before your outward trip.
Overnight ferries leave from Portsmouth to St Malo most days of the week, from where it’s about a 50-minute drive to the Mont-Saint-Michel.
Ferries leave from Portsmouth to Caen/Ouistreham most days of the week and take less than six hours. From Caen, it’s about a 1.5-hour drive to the Mont-Saint-Michel.
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