Mont Saint-Michel is a visually striking island located off the lower Normandy coast at the mouth of the Couesnon River in France. For many, it’s a must-see site in France. It was on my list too; however, during our two-month stay in France time quickly passed and suddenly, we only had two weeks left. We quickly booked a train and hotel and made our way to Mont Saint Michel at the end of last November. Our haphazard planning made for memorable misadventures and this post will detail some after-the-fact advice on planning a trip and experiencing Mont Saint Michel.
Mont Saint Michel was originally called Mont Tombe and before the strong presence of Christianity, other religious groups frequented the area. In the 8th century CE, the island was renamed Mont Saint Michel after the Christian religious figure Saint Michael. The most known human-built structure at Mont Saint-Michel is The Abbey. The main construction of The Abbey spanned from the 10th century CE to the 15th century CE. As the name suggests, the Abbey was primarily used for religious purposes; however, during the French Revolution it was turned into a prison. By the close of the 19th century the prison closed and restorations resumed. 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.
In addition to its architectural and occupational history, Mont Saint Michel has impressive environmental aspects, specifically its high tides. During low tide, the island can be reached by a modern walkway or shuttle. When the high tide comes in it floods the walkway making the island inaccessible by foot or shuttle. Tides can reach up to 14 meters high!
Mont Saint Michel is also a fascinating place for geology enthusiasts. My French geomorphology colleague often leads an excursion to Mont Saint Michel for his students. From understanding its leucogranite rock formation to the surrounding bay’s sedimentation, there is so much to discover.
DO Check the Tide Reports
The tides are the reason many people come to see Mont Saint Michel. It was my main motivation to go. Imagine my surprise, when the high tide never came. I remember we were super worried about some tourists who wandered around the bay close to sunset. When the tide didn’t come after we had dinner, I knew something was up. We checked the internet and found out that sometimes a high tide does not come. So please learn from our mistake and check the tide report here.
MAYBE Stay on Mont Saint Michel
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
- It’s pricey. Hotels, food, souvenirs, all of it.
- There isn’t a lot going on in terms of night life, especially during low season
To me, the only advantage to staying overnight is to walk around at night and in the early morning without a flood of tourists. It’s eerie, serene, and you feel like you have found a special place that many people don’t know about. Of course the last one is not true, but you definitely get that feeling when not so many people are around.
There are also places to stay on the mainland. I didn’t really explore this option because it didn’t seem to have great advantages aside from being slightly cheaper. For me, it was either go all in and stay the night or make it a day trip from a neighboring coastal city like St. Malo. In the end, we decided to stay in Mont Saint-Michel for the night and it was worth it.
DON’T be on a Tight Schedule
This don’t is mainly if you are taking public transportation to get to Mont Saint Michel from Paris because there will be a lot of moving parts to your itinerary (train+bus+shuttle/walk). There are no direct trains from Paris so your best bet is to take a train to the city of Rennes and then change onto to bus. The bus takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes and pricing and timetables can be found here. The bus drops you off at the Mont Saint Michel’s tourism office outpost and from there you can take a free shuttle or walk. The walk is about 30 minutes on flat ground and I highly recommend it. The walk is easy and stunning. Just do it.
What to See and Do
DO See the Abbey
The Abbey is the main architectural draw to town. It’s stunning and so are the views. Given the influx of tourists, the Abbey has charted out a one-way path to guide you along you visit. Since we went during low season it wasn’t crowded out at all. We were able to spend a couple of hours here and it was great to see it at our own pace and have time to take it in.
DON’T Wander the Bay Unsupervised
The bay is amazing and many people want to walk on it. I definitely did! However, it can be dangerous. When the high tide comes, it’s quick and rushing. There are also pockets of quicksand. If you want to walk the bay, go with an experienced guide. Given our time schedule and lack of planning, this wasn’t an option for us, so I can’t give you a personal recommendation. The tourism office does have a list that you can explore here.
MAYBE Eat at La Mère Poulard
La Mère Poulard has been around since the late 1800’s and their signature dish is a fluffy, soufflée omelette, which will cost around 30 euros.
If you choose to eat here, this will probably be the most expensive mediocre omelette you will have eaten in your life. Of course, there are other places that serve it for less, but it’s still pricey when you think about what you are paying for, i.e. 3 eggs. When we arrived at the restaurant, we wanted to try the omelette and another more substantial dish. We were informed that we had just missed lunch and that they were only serving omelettes. The only two choices were a plain omelette and an apple cinnamon omelette. We got one of each. They were okay. Even if they were three dollars, it would not be anything to write home about, except that it would then be a good deal.
The most memorable thing about the place was its sheer audacity. Sure, charging around 30 euros for an omelette is ridiculous, but it’s also a great way to make money, especially if you’ve built up so much hype around the dish for over one hundred years. The whole establishment reminds me of Mom and MomCorp from Futurama, but I digress.
So is it worth it? It depends. It’s not worth it for the price or taste. It’s maybe worth it if you want to say you ate the famous La Mère Poulard omelette, whatever that might mean to you. Do I regret it? Not completely, because I like doing ridiculous food things now and then if I can afford it. Would I do it again? No.
I wanted to see Mont Saint Michel since I was a high school freshman taking French. It was pretty amazing to finally see it. In terms of getting there, public transportation is definitely doable; however, if you can rent a car, you will be afforded far more flexibility. A road trip on the Normandy coast would be beautiful and this island is a must-see stop. There are companies that offer fully organized day trip options from Paris so that’s an option too. A day trip or overnight stay is definitely a sufficient amount of time to take in the site. I’m happy I went during low season and would highly recommend going at off-peak times. If you have any tips, questions, or experiences you would like to share about Mont Saint-Michel, comment below!